Petrarch on the Plague

Petrarch endured the Black Death in Parma, and responded to it quite unlike Boccaccio. Petrarch addressed the effects of the plague in highly personal and emotional lamentations. One such lamentation discusses the death of Laura de Noves, whom Petrarch had met at Avignon in his youth. Laura died in Avignon, a victim of the plague that was raging there, and Petrarch learned of her death in a letter he received from a friend in May of 1348. Later he expressed the sadness he felt at her death in some lines he wrote on a manuscript of Virgil:

Laura, illustrious by her virtues, and long celebrated in my songs, first greeted my eyes in the days of my youth, the 6th of April, 1327, at Avignon; and in the same city, at the same hour of the same 6th of April, but in the year 1348, withdrew from life, while I was at Verona, unconscious of my loss.... Her chaste and lovely body was interred on the evening of the same day in the church of the Minorites: her soul, as I believe, returned to heaven, whence it came. To write these lines in bitter memory of this event, and in the place where they will most often meet my eyes, has in it something of a cruel sweetness, but I forget that nothing more ought in this life to please me.

As the plague raged in Parma, the poet wrote to his brother, who lived in a monastery in Monrieux. His brother was the only survivor out of thirty-five people there, and had remained, alone with his dog, to guard and tend the monastery. Petrarch's letter relies greatly on the classics, much as Boccaccio's account does on the influence of Thucydides. The genuine anguish of Petrarch's letter is as apparent as is the horror of Boccaccio's account:

My brother! My brother! My brother! A new beginning to a letter, though used by Marcus Tullius [Cicero] fourteen hundred years ago. Alas! my beloved brother, what shall I say? How shall I begin? Whither shall I turn? On all sides is sorrow; everywhere is fear. I would, my brother, that I had never been born, or, at least, had died before these times. How will posterity believe that there has been a time when without the lightnings of heaven or the fires of earth, without wars or other visible slaughter, not this or that part of the earth, but well-nigh the whole globe, has remained without inhabitants. When has any such thing been even heard or seen; in what annals has it ever been read that houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole earth?... Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables. We have, indeed, deserved these [punishments] and even greater; but our forefathers also have deserved them, and may our posterity not also merit the same...

(M.R., ed: D.S.) Adapted from: George Deaux, The Black Death 1347. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969. Chapter IV, pp. 92-94.

Other Pages in Plague: Contemporary Perspectives