It seems that a subtle line has linked devastating epidemics and folk uprisings throughout the centuries. In Syracuse, Italy, in 1837, cholera lighted up the fuse of a revolt for the alleged diffusion of the disease by the Bourbon dynasty. In 1647 in Palermo, Italy, an insurrection was guided by the artisans associations, oppressed by too many taxes. Just about 20 years before, in 1624, the city had been devastated by an epidemic which lasted over a year and that ended, according to the Palermitan people, only thanks to the “Santuzza”, Saint Rosalia, later on nominated Saint patron of Palermo.
The picture of a country during an epidemic is always extraordinary similar to itself:
Death for contamination, quarantine, government intervention but never seen as appropriate to the situation
Because the isolation brings along with it economical and social consequences hard to swallow. The citizens feel downtrodden and sometimes, by downgrading the risks, they show their dissent which sometimes turns into an open revolt.
It could seem like a description of what happened in many parts of the world during the Covid-19 epidemic, in this ill-fated 2020. But instead it is an analysis made by doctor Mark Senn in an article dated 2003 named “English Life and Law in the time of the Black Death”, speaking about the farmers uprisings developed in the England of 1381.
The Priest John Ball encourage the rebel farmers
Above: public domain
How to connect the violent revolts from 1381 with the black death from 1348 which had slayed the English population and one third of the European one?
All those deaths had as a consequence a high drop on labour, through which the farmers had gained a “bargaining power”, said in modern terms, never known until that point.
It’s true, 30 years had passed since the epidemic had stopped, during which, according to Senn, it was increasingly more visible how life was getting more complicated: taxes increasing, wages going down, costs getting higher, and very little food to bring to the table because the noblemen, for not giving up to their profits, diminished the salaries and could legally fining who would refuse to work for a set wage. If that was not enough the Crown was continuously coming up with new taxes in order to support the war against France.
The event which triggered the revolt was an attempt of collection for some delayed taxes, the so called “poll tax”, one of the least fair, by the governmental official named John Bampton, in a village in Essex on the 30th May 1381. The population rose with violence and the protest spread all across England. The farmers asked for the end of their enslavement, the artisans claim a reduction of the taxes and even some officials joined in the uprising.
After the capture and killing of the archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury, many representatives of the Royal government opened up the prisons and set to fire the symbols of the legal authority. After some illusory concession like the abolition of slavery guaranteed by King Richard II but only to gain time, the uprising was stopped with the killing of the charismatic leader Wat Tyler, followed by the execution of the other rebel leaders. Almost everything went back to how it used to be: the sovereign took his word (said and signed) back, but the government avoided to add any new taxation, at least.
Below: the painting represent the end of the farmer revolt from 1381. The picture shows the mayor of London, Walworth, while killing Wat Tyler. There are two pictures of Richard II: one looking at the murderer and the other while speaking to the farmers
Serfs – illustration from 1310 circa
Above: public domain
In 1578 the plague made its comeback (in Milan it took the name of “San Carlo’s plague”) and hit London too, when Queen Elizabeth I decided to quarantine both the ill and sane people in order to avoid the contamination.
The measure was not appreciated: it was not a form of prevention but rather a punishment towards the single men. A similar scenario occurred again during the epidemic of the 1636 according to Kira Newman (Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England, 2012): “(…) there was a popular account that portrayed quarantine and isolation as personal punishment rather than prudent policy”.
Illustration for a leaflet about the plague from 1625
Above: public domain
The citizens of London struggled to accept the restrictions and many did not respect the health protocol to the point that the punishments got worsened for the transgressors: after 1604 all those people who were leaving home even with their body covered in wounds from the plague, were immediately hanged to death. Who did not observe the quarantine was instead whipped. All tremendous punishments set up to prevent a new possible epidemic, even though considered unfair for most of the population, especially by the middle class, since artisans and merchants could not survive without working.
The Great Plague of London in 1665
Above: public domain
The economical one though was not the only aspect which pushed the people towards the protest against quarantine and that first form of social distancing.
The health protocol wanted by Elizabeth I had as an objective a common good, even though they did not take into account the charity: the ill ones were left to themselves, something morally unacceptable which would have perhaps triggered the divine wrath. In conclusion not providing for the care of the needy people was seen as a worse evil than the plague itself.
On the other hand, it seems clear that the English government had employed the expected health protocols in order to avoid popular turmoil: the gatherings got forbidden and the theatres closed to prevent mass protests to take place, with the excuse of the illness. Despite this, in June 1595 in London the apprentice revolt blew up: around one thousand of apprentices protested for the condition of misery they were forced in, for the rising of the costs of food and, eventually, for the greediness of the ruling class.
The Ciompi revolt in Florence
Below: the Ciompi revolt by Giuseppe Lorenzo Gatteri
In Italy it is popular the Ciompi revolt that in 1378 inflamed the medieval city of Florence. In the country a disaster had recently affected without mercy the population of Florence:
The Black Plague from 1348
The epidemic hit with an unbelievable harshness the city of Florence, laying right in the middle of rich commercial exchanges especially withing the textile industry. The writer Boccaccio described the situation of the time:
“there was not enough consecrated ground to give them burial, especially since they wanted to bury each person in the family grave, according to the old custom. Although the cemeteries were full they were forced to dig huge trenches, where they buried the bodies by hundreds. Here they stowed them away like bales in the hold of a ship and covered them with a little earth, until the whole trench was full.”
The estimation of the victims goes from 2/3 of the total of the inhabitants to half the population of approximately 100,000 people.
This drastic reduction of the population fuelled the social revolt, which arrived on time just 30 years later, after the end of the epidemic. The “ciompi”, those assigned to beat the wool to prepare it for the carding, started to riot because they were the main victims of the economical and political operations of the ruling class, who were dropping the burden of the crisis following the epidemic all on their shoulders.
Along with another part of the Florentine population they occupied the square and demanded to have a political position in the government of the city. The “fat population”, unexpecting this reaction, accepted the request of the “people of God” and Michele di Lando, leader of the revolt, became Gonfalonier of Justice.
Below: statue of Michele di Lando in Florence. Picture by Sailko shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
In a short time though the political unpreparedness of Di Lando and the growing unsatisfied requests of the workers led to the restoration of the status-quo before the uprisings, the revolt of Ciompi ended up null.
This was another demonstration to the theory of Senn; the plague as a trigger of a fight against the social and economical injustice, worsened by the epidemic. Even the protests ended up in blood but nothing changed in the social and political layout of the time.
A bitter lesson for those people who believed in a change for a better world situation after Covid-19.
Sources: English Life and Law in the time of the Black Death, by Mark A. Senn:
Shutt up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England, by Kira L. S. Newman.