The Aftermath of the Pandemic Lessons from the Past

By Gerald Trites, FCPA, FCA

Marchionne di Coppo Stefani lived in Florence during the great plague of 1348. He wrote about it in his Cronaca Fiorentina. 

The Black Death started in Florence in March, 1348, with the first wave continuing until September, a period of six months. There were successive waves until 1350. During that time, Florence's population was reduced from around 120,000 inhabitants to around 50,000. In Europe overall, some 30 – 50% of the population died. There were other outbreaks over the next few centuries.

Much has been written about the immediate impact of the plague, of the black sores appearing in a morning and the infected person dead by nightfall. Of the bodies piling up and being carried off in carts and thrown into mass graves, layer upon layer.

Stefani wrote of this experience, as well as the effect of the plague on the economy, such as the fact that the Florentine guilds, craft shops and taverns closed down during the plague. Wax for lighting was scarce and became so expensive that few could afford it. The city government finally resorted to placing a ceiling on the price so people could buy some for light. Other prices needed to be controlled; for example, burial items such as perfumed spices and caskets (for those who didn’t get thrown into the mass graves). And there was control over the “news” too: the government forbade the ringing of bells during a funeral for fear that people might realize how many funerals were taking place. 

But Stefani also wrote about the aftermath of the plague.

The plague's considerable population reduction led to cheaper land prices, more food for the average surviving peasant and a relatively large increase in per capita income among the peasantry. Since the plague left vast areas of farmland untended, it was made available for pasture, which led to additional production of meat and dairy. The consumption of meat and dairy products went up, as did the export of beef and butter.[i]

Because of the increased value of the peasants and their relative scarcity, historians credit the plague with precipitating the decline of the feudal system. Also, many historians credit the plague, particularly in Florence, with the birth of the Renaissance, because the massive death rate and suffering caused people to look at the world with a new lens, to think differently about humanity’s place in the universe and to produce a glorious wave of art, music, philosophy and literature.[ii]

Read the full article in the Fall 2020 issue.  




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