In 1348, the rats aboard ship from some great Italian commercial city, whether Venice or Genoa or somewhere else (we cannot tell) came infested with disease-ridden fleas, and Europe was struck with the bubonic plague, the so-called Black Death. One third of the continent’s population was wiped out. That would be as if 110 million people in the United States were to die of the coronavirus in the next two years.

The plague’s virulence came in waves, with spikes in so-called plague years for the next five centuries. Sometimes it struck a people already compromised by hunger, as it did those of Lombardy in 1629-1630, when a couple of bad harvests were made worse by war between the occupying Spaniards and the French. Sixty thousand people in Milan alone, nearly half of the city, perished.

These two instances of epidemic have been memorialised in Italian literature. Giovanni Boccaccio, one of that great trio of Florentine poets who, with Dante and Petrarch, established Tuscan as the standard dialect for Italian letters, was an eyewitness of events in Florence, and used them as the backdrop for The Decameron. The later events in Milan provide the stage for Alessandro Manzoni, in his historical novel The Betrothed, to show the heroism of his saintly priest Father Cristoforo and the great cardinal archbishop Federigo Borromeo (the younger cousin of St Charles Borromeo), and to bring his young hero Renzo to a crisis of repentance, forgiveness, and resignation to the will of God.

Praise the Lord

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