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How did everyday life looked like for people living during the Plague?

I'm mostly interested in trying to understand things from the point of view of a regular person living in Europe. For example, I would like to know: How would they perceive what was going on at the time? How did news of what was going on spread around? Etc.

I'm leaving the question a bit broad on purpose, as my curiosity is not really restricted to a particular part of Europe or a specific period of the Plague.


So far, I've tried searching around the web and I've found a few interesting articles about the topic and one book, Daily Life during the Black Death by Joseph P. Byrne, that seems to be very much related to my question.

I would be particularly grateful for any other book recommendations about the topic and more specifically, I'm very interested on first-hand accounts, if any exist.

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  • 3
    Websearch found a couple of resources that might be helpful Futurity references Bocaccio. ABCClio has a publication that seems right up your alley. G. Carleton has a summary, but the sources might help. May also help to study the dearth of resources we have on everyday life prior to the era when Gutenberg made everyone literate. Location will matter.
    – MCW
    Mar 28 at 20:45
  • 7
    Dafoeʼs A Journal of the Plague Year, though nominally fictional, is often considered to be an authentic depiction of the plague in London. Mar 29 at 13:08
  • 1
    Can you Post more details than "I've tried searching around the web and I've found a few interesting articles"? Perhaps more usefully, have you yet finished reading all those articles? Mar 29 at 19:18
  • 3
    Samual Pepys' diary has some commentary from 1665.
    – Phil Sweet
    Mar 29 at 22:46
  • fascinating question (found in 'hot network questions') ...and great answers.
    – ashleedawg
    Apr 1 at 3:31
18

While the Joseph Byrne book you mentioned is certainly useful, many of its citations are actually from the the Early Modern period, and it usually summarizes a range of sources rather than quoting directly from specific primary sources. The widest selection of quoted primary sources can probably be found in The Black Death by Rosemary Horrox (1990), which can be viewed for free on the Internet Archive. It has excerpts from numerous chronicles and other documents from across Europe, most of which were written by people who survived the plague. In these can be found accounts of how the plague affected survivors economically, socially and emotionally.

One such chronicle, that of the Westminster monk John of Reading (died 1368/91), aptly summarizes what 'life' was like in those times:

And there was in those days death without sorrow, marriage without affection, self-imposed penance, want without poverty, and flight without escape. How many who fled from the face of the pestilence were already infected and did not escape the slaughter.

For more from this source, see Chronica Johannis de Reading et anonymi Cantuariensis, 1346-1367 (which can also be accessed for free on the Internet Archive).

Looking at the many medieval accounts, Horrox highlights some interesting observations on the extent of the gloom to be found. For example,

To the chroniclers of Padua the plague was a devastation more final than Noah’s Flood – when God had left some people alive to continue the human race.

and, even more pessimistically,

in Kilkenny, John Clynn left blank pages at the end of his chronicle ‘in case anyone should still be alive in the future’

A translation of Clynn's chronicle, The Annals of Ireland, can also be accessed for free on the internet archive. Clynn died in 1349, probably from the plague.

In an overview of how chroniclers across Europe recorded the Black Death, Horrox notes that:

The very enormity of the disaster drove chroniclers to take refuge in clichés: there were not enough living to bury the dead; whole families died together; the priest was buried with the penitent he had confessed a few hours earlier. The same comments appear in chronicle after chronicle, and the result can seem curiously perfunctory, with only the occasional vivid detail bringing the reality of the situation before the reader, such as William Dene’s remark that the stench from the mass graves was so appalling that people could hardly bear to go past a churchyard.

and

Alongside these verbal clichés are the numerical ones. The most common claim was that scarcely a tenth of the population survived the plague. Other writers opted for one in five. A few, more modestly, suggested that barely half or a third of mankind was left alive. It is easy to dismiss such claims as meaningless exaggeration....But if the figures are exaggerated, they are not meaningless. The chroniclers’ resort to them is a measure of their horror and disbelief at the number of deaths they saw around them.

There are many specific examples of how daily life was affected. For example, the monk Louis Heyligen (died 1361) on people’s daily diet in Avignon:

...sea fish are now not generally eaten, men holding that they have been infected by the infected air. Moreover no kinds of spices are eaten or handled, unless they have been in stock for a year...

Also mentioned are examples of food prices increasing but rents decreasing as the shortage of workers meant that the landlords had to bargain with labourers to get the work in the fields done, and even then much was left undone. There was even a shortage of priests in England, with many of the vacancies being filled as

a great crowd of men whose wives had died in the pestilence rushed into priestly orders. Many of them were illiterate, no better than laymen – for even if they could read, they did not understand what they read.

Source: Chronicon Henrici Knighton vel Cnitthon monachi Leycestrensis, cited (and translated) in Horrox.

From Letters on Familiar Matters by the poet Francesco Petrarch (died 1374), we have an example of the emotional and social impact on this individual’s daily life:

Where are our dear friends now? Where are the beloved faces? Where are the affectionate words, the relaxed and enjoyable conversations?.... We should make new friends – but how, when the human race is almost wiped out; and why, when it looks to me as if the end of the world is at hand?.... You see how our great band of friends has dwindled.


Some of the primary sources cited, often at length, by Horrox include:

  • Gabriele de’ Mussis of Piacenza, Historia de Morbo, "the main source for the arrival of the plague in Europe".
  • Michele da Piazza's (attributed) Cronaca covers Sicily.
  • Louis Heyligen's (aka Lodewijk Heyligen) letters from the Papal court at Avignon give an account for that region, and also refers to a report from Bruges.
  • Gilles li Muisis, who was 78 in 1349, wrote a chronicle which reports on the spread of the plague from India and 'pagan countries' and notes a rise in anti-semitism in regions such as Germany as Jews were blamed, for example, for poisening wells.. There are also more localized accounts of untended vineyards etc. He also notes the the very uneven death rates, ranging from 90% in some areas to 30% in others.
  • Les Grandes Chroniques de France includes accounts of the plague in Paris and other regions.

and many more...


1 Not to be confused with another John of Reading who died in 1346 in Avignon.

44

Chronicle of the Black Death

There is a chronicle from the British Library which I will link to. It was written at the cathedral priory of Rochester between 1314 and 1350, and deals with everyday life during the Black Death.

Chronicle of the Black Death

This chronicle, written at the cathedral priory of Rochester between 1314 and 1350, includes a firsthand account of the Black Death, describing the changes in the everyday lives of people across the social scale: 'there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers...[that] churchmen, knights and other worthies have been forced to thresh their corn, plough the land and perform every other unskilled task if they are to make their own bread.'

A great mortality ... destroyed more than a third of the men, women and children. As a result, there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers, that a great many lords and people, although well-endowed with goods and possessions, were yet without service and attendance. Alas, this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves, from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard.

Photo from chronicle of the Black Death

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    A wonderful and horrorful answer.
    – AllInOne
    Mar 28 at 21:45
  • Thresh their corn? How did they manage that in 14th century England? Is it supposed to be a generalized archaic term for grain or something? Seems like a weird thing to leave there if you're trying to get even a marginally usable translation.
    – Teleka
    Mar 29 at 9:38
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    @Teleka Corn has only very recently (if at all) come to mean maize specifically in most parts of the English speaking world. It has, until recently, referred to whatever cereal predominated. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maize#Names
    – David
    Mar 29 at 9:55
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    @Teleka Growing up in Britain in the 1960s, the big yellow thing that you eat with butter was just something we saw on Tom & Jerry cartoons. Historically, any agricultural grain in British English was known as corn - see also Corn Laws, Corn Exchange, etc. Mar 29 at 10:20
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    @Teleka "corn" in an agricultural context still means wheat and barley in British English. The climate isn't suitable for growing maize commercially for grain, though it is now being grown for biofuel.
    – alephzero
    Mar 30 at 22:59
15

Giovanni Boccaccio lived through the Plague and his Decameron is set in that period.

While most of the book does not speak of the Plague (it is a group of young people who have fled Florence to escape the Plague and who entertain themselves telling stories), the introduction to the first day explains the situation that prompted them to move:

How many grand palaces, how many stately homes, how many splendid residences, once full of retainers, of lords, of ladies, were now left desolate of all, even to the meanest servant! How many families of historic fame, of vast ancestral domains, and wealth proverbial, found now no scion to continue the succession! How many brave men, how many fair ladies, how many gallant youths, whom any physician, were he Galen, Hippocrates, or Æsculapius himself, would have pronounced in the soundest of health, broke fast with their kinsfolk, comrades and friends in the morning, and when evening came, supped with their forefathers in the other world!

There are many public domain translations, like this one

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You can find first-hand accounts in The Black Death: natural and human disaster, by Robert S. Gottfried (Free Press, 1983). For instance, it contains this passage (p. 45):

The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing: and I do not know where to begin to tell of the cruelty and the pitiless ways. It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. And it is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura… buried my five children with my own hands… And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.

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    "Shall" is a bit bossy here. (I'm guessing English isn't your first language, although frankly this is my only hint. You do it quite well). "Can" would probably be more normal here, or perhaps "will" if you want to retain a little bit of the original assertiveness.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 31 at 18:53
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    @T.E.D. Thank you. Actually, English isn't even my second language. I should have used “will” (but I will not edit my answer now). Mar 31 at 19:02
5

The noted diarist Samuel Pepys kept his London Diary from 1660 to 1669, a period which includes the Great Plague of London (1665-1666). While this is not the famed Black Death epidemic of 1346-1353 and no-where near as early, this was still a major outbreak of bubonic plague and a very detailed account of life in a plague environment.

His diaries are detailed and contain extensive notes on his daily life. The diary mentions fears of the plaque reaching the UK, particularly from Amsterdam as early as October 1663:

where much talk about the Turk’s proceedings, and that the plague is got to Amsterdam, brought by a ship from Argier; and it is also carried to Hambrough.

The plague reached London in 1665 and is first mentioned by Pepys as having reached the city on January 24th:

24th. Up, and by 4 o’clock in the morning, and with W. Hewer, there till 12 without intermission putting some papers in order. Thence to the Coffee-house with Creed, where I have not been a great while, where all the newes is of the Dutch being gone out, and of the plague growing upon us in this towne;

There are some 200-odd mentions of the plaque in the diaries, though some mentions are things like I brought a plague upon myself, referring to troubles he was having personally rather than the disease.

2

The Black Death: An Intimate History by John Hatcher

If everyday life is of interest, this one seems to fit the bill:

How the people of a typical English village lived and died in the worst epidemic in history.

...

With scrupulous attention to historical accuracy, John Hatcher describes what the parishioners experienced, what they knew and what they believed. His narrative is peopled with characters developed from the villagers named in the actual town records and a series of dramatic scenes portray how contemporaries must have experienced the momentous events.

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