A Abandonment Among the most heartrending passages in the Introduction to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decam- eron is his description of family members abandoning plague-struck parents, children, or siblings. Dying alone was not only a psy- chic horror, it also meant that one would not receive sacramental Last Rites, the highly desired Catholic spiritual aid for one’s final journey. Abandonment had figured in descrip- tions from early medieval epidemics (e.g., Paul the Deacon), and it became a standard topic in later medieval and early modern plague literature (e.g., among early Italian chroniclers Agnolo di Tura, Marchionne di Stefano, Matteo Villani). Some emphasized the terrible nature of the disease, using aban- donment as a measure of its effect even on kin. Others stressed the healthy person’s fear of the sick and dead. The era’s vague notions of contagion reasonably suggested that one could “catch” the disease from victims, living or dead. Though the theory was incorrect, car- rier fleas did abandon dying victims for fresh flesh, spreading disease to new victims. During early stages of epidemics, inns and households hid away plague victims, some- times abandoning them to die in the process (easier with a servant or apprentice than a child, presumably). This reduced the risk of having the otherwise healthy business or family “shut in”—imprisoned in its own resi- dence—by authorities. This form of isolation, itself a type of abandonment by the wider society, was employed increasingly frequently from the early 16th century. An even more brutal form of societal abandonment occurred when communities expelled the sick, literally parading them out the city gate to fend for themselves. Fear of being abandoned led many to join organizations, for example, urban brother- hoods or confraternities, that ensured that last rites and burial would be provided, even in plague time. Some of these pious organiza- tions,typicallyCatholic,werethemselvesdedi- cated to comforting the dying and burying the dead. During normal times, families generally saw that their deceased received proper burial, but when plague struck, these norms either broke down or were officially suspended. The need for efficient mass burial meant that families had to surrender their beloved dead to grotesque corpse carriers, who carted them off to the plague pits and anonymous graves. This severed familial traditions and connec- tions in cities as well as villages. Plague historians also recognize other applications of the concept of abandonment. When such professionals as doctors, pastors, notaries, and city officials followed medical advice and fled plague-struck areas, they were often criticized or even punished for unethi- cally abandoning their obligations. In addi- tion, economic and demographic historians note that plague losses created stocks of aban- doned urban housing and made many rural communities unviably small, leading survi- vors to abandon them altogether. See also: Causes of Plague: Historical Theories Children Confraternities Contagion Theory Corpses Expulsion of Victims Flight Shutting In. References Beresford, Maurice, and John Hulst. Deserted Medieval Villages. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1971. 1
Previous Page Next Page