By the winter of 1348, the Black Death had reached Florence, the most populous city in Italy. In that city lived Boccaccio, the author of Decameron. This famous work is the story of travelers in an inn telling their stories of the plague. In the preface, Boccaccio provides his readers with a graphic description:
Whether through the operation of the heavenly bodies or because of our own iniquities, which the just wrath of God sought to correct, the plague had arisen in the East some years before, causing the death of countless human beings. It spread without stop from one place to another until, unfortunately, it swept over the West. Neither knowledge nor human foresight availed against it, although the city was cleansed of much filth by chosen officers in charge and sick persons were forbidden to enter it, while advice was broadcast for the preservation of health. Nor did humble supplication serve. Not once but many times these were ordained in the form of processions and other ways for the propitiation of God by the faithful, but, in spite of everything, toward the spring of the year that plague began to show its ravages in a way just short of miraculous (Boccaccio, n. pg.).
Indeed the Black Death seemed almost miraculous to the people of Italy, simply because the sheer level of catastrophe could not be blamed on anything earthly. As they attempted to stop the dread disease through quarantine, their actions only seemed more and more futile. It seemed that the massive catacombs beneath Rome would need to be reopened to accommodate all of the newly deceased. Cities were filled constantly with the stench of the dead and dying. Because Italy had been the most civilized of the European countries devastated by the plague, the disorder to follow seemed even worse. With most of its population living in rat-filled, unclean urban areas, the disease could cling to cities for several months on end, killing in waves. Although the doors to deserted shops and homes stood open, no one dared to enter and rob. Criminals were released from jail to throw the dead in common pits, while ships at sea manned only by dead sailors drifted aimlessly. Government broke down as officials died and laws could no longer be enforced (Bishop, pg. 307).
The Black Death Part 6: France and the British Isles