Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Earliest known ancestors faced warfare, frozen seas and plagues

Moderate temperatures in the three centuries preceding the birth of my earliest known ancestor, Giunta Seghieri, had led to notable agricultural and technological development, and all of Europe was experiencing rapid population growth and an increase in intellectual and mathematical sophistication. The harnessing of water power and related mechanical discoveries resulted in an era that many historians call the Medieval Industrial Revolution.

But Giunta, born around 1275, along with his children and their descendants, survived tumultuous times in Italy. Giunta’s very name could be an indication that his parents experienced difficulties in continuing the family line. says Giunta comes “from a short form of the personal name Bonag(g)iunta, literally ‘good addition,’ a name commonly given in the late Middle Ages to a long-awaited or much-desired son.”

Once born, Giunta—like all infants of the time—faced high child mortality rates, estimated at anywhere from thirty to fifty percent. And the moderate temperatures of the previous centuries were not to last. One historian notes that the fourteenth century “was a time of turmoil, diminished expectations, loss of confidence in institutions, and feelings of helplessness at forces beyond human control. Even the extinction of the human race was faced by medieval Europeans, in fact, far more directly than we ever have.”

The Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder
Two great natural disasters struck Europe in the 1300s. One was climatic: a Little Ice Age, which started in the late 1200s and continued until around 1600. The Baltic Sea froze over in 1303, 1306 and 1307, something never before recorded. Alpine glaciers advanced. Crops failed after heavy rains in 1315, and French writers reported widespread famine, incidents of cannibalism and epidemics.

In 1328, Guinta found himself literally in the middle of a war between the Ghibelline forces of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca and those of Guelph Firenze in what is called the Battle of Altopascio. After Castracani conquered Pistoia, the Florentine troops responded to the threat and moved to confront him. But Castracani took shelter in the hilltop fortress of Cerruglio—now called Montecarlo—waiting for reinforcements.

A battle between Guelphs and Ghibellines in Northern Italy
Besieged by the Florentine commander, a small garrison of men from Altopascio resisted for twenty-six days before surrendering to the greatly superior Guelph forces, which outnumbered them 17,500 to 500. The winners put their camp at Altopascio, which is located but five miles from Cerruglio. Just a few miles from being directly in the middle of the battlefield lay the Seghieri farmland. Castracani’s allies arrived in time to defeat the Florentine forces, and Castracani was awarded the title Duke of Lucca as his reward. Giunta was about fifty years old at this time, and I have no evidence to indicate with which side he allied or even if he survived—only that his son Sighieri, probably born in the same decade as the battle, lived on to bear children of his own.

The worst, though, was yet to come. Young Sighieri had lived through a devastating war, but pestilence descended upon Italy in 1348 in the form of the Great Plague, the Black Death. Scholars have no doubt the sickness entered Europe through the west coast of Italy, and the peninsula was among the hardest hit of all areas. According to medieval historian Philip Daileader, “Recent research is pointing to a figure (of) . . . forty-five to fifty percent of the European population dying during a four-year period. In Mediterranean Europe, areas such as Italy, the south of France and Spain, where plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to seventy-five to eighty percent of the population.”

Troubadour Peire Lunel de Montech composed a sorrowful lyric during the height of the plague: “They died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in . . . ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I . . . buried my five children with my own hands . . . And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.” A chronicler in Siena wrote: “And no bells tolled, and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death.”

Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible, 1411
Genoese sailors brought the disease from the East, dropping it off first in Sicily on their way back home. In late January of 1348, they infected Pisa, where it is recorded that 500 people died each day, and that became the entry point for the plague in northern and central Italy. Seghieri lived only twenty-two miles west of Pisa, and he certainly would have seen the plague at its very worst. The nearby metropolitan centers of Pisa, Florence and Lucca were among the hardest hit in all of Europe. cites Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio, who described the plague as it ravaged his city in 1348:

The symptoms were not the same as in the East, where a gush of blood from the nose was the plain sign of inevitable death; but it began both in men and women with certain swellings in the groin or under the armpit. They grew to the size of a small apple or an egg, more or less, and were vulgarly called tumors. In a short space of time these tumors spread from the two parts named all over the body. Soon after this the symptoms changed and black or purple spots appeared on the arms or thighs or any other part of the body, sometimes a few large ones, sometimes many little ones. These spots were a certain sign of death, just as the original tumor had been and still remained . . . most people died within about three days of the appearance of the tumors described above, most of them without any fever or other symptoms.

The violence of this disease was such that the sick communicated it to the healthy who came near them, just as a fire catches anything dry or oily near it. And it even went further. To speak to or go near the sick brought infection and a common death to the living; and moreover, to touch the clothes or anything else the sick had touched or worn gave the disease to the person touching.

Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. By so doing, each one thought he would secure his own safety.

Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death and sickness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures. Others thought just the opposite. They thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, laughing and jesting at what happened. They put their words into practice, spent day and night going from tavern to tavern, drinking immoderately, or went into other people’s houses, doing only those things which pleased them. This they could easily do because everyone felt doomed and had abandoned his property, so that most houses became common property and any stranger who went in made use of them as if he had owned them. And with all this bestial behavior, they avoided the sick as much as possible.

In this suffering and misery of our city, the authority of human and divine laws almost disappeared, for, like other men, the ministers and the executors of the laws were all dead or sick or shut up with their families, so that no duties were carried out. Every man was therefore able to do as he pleased.

Many others adopted a course of life midway between the two just described. They did not restrict their victuals so much as the former, nor allow themselves to be drunken and dissolute like the latter, but satisfied their appetites moderately. They did not shut themselves up, but went about, carrying flowers or scented herbs or perfumes in their hands, in the belief that it was an excellent thing to comfort the brain with such odors; for the whole air was infected with the smell of dead bodies, of sick persons and medicines.

Others again held a still more cruel opinion, which they thought would keep them safe. They said that the only medicine against the plague-stricken was to go right away from them. Men and women, convinced of this and caring about nothing but themselves, abandoned their own city, their own houses, their dwellings, their relatives, their property, and went abroad or at least to the country round Florence, as if God’s wrath in punishing men’s wickedness with this plague would not follow them but strike only those who remained within the walls of the city, or as if they thought nobody in the city would remain alive and that its last hour had come.

One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbor troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother, and very often the wife her husband. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.

The plight of the lower and most of the middle classes was even more pitiful to behold. Most of them remained in their houses, either through poverty or in hopes of safety, and fell sick by thousands. Since they received no care and attention, almost all of them died. Many ended their lives in the streets both at night and during the day; and many others who died in their houses were only known to be dead because the neighbors smelled their decaying bodies. Dead bodies filled every corner. Most of them were treated in the same manner by the survivors, who were more concerned to get rid of their rotting bodies than moved by charity towards the dead.

Such was the multitude of corpses brought to the churches every day and almost every hour that 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 plague abated in 1352, though it recurred periodically with similar force during the next fifty years to devastate those who escaped the first attack. Sighieri Seghieri lived on the outskirts of a small village, and perhaps the lack of close contact with neighbors increased the chances for his family’s survival. Somehow Sighieri, about twenty-five years old during the first year of the plague, escaped unharmed, preserving the family line. The plague hit hard again in 1362, and after surviving this danger another time, Sighieri undoubtedly felt fortunate. Contemporary chronicler Giovanni Sercambi wrote that the land "was so contaminated that . . . all thought the end of the world was nigh. Those that remained alive became rich, because what had belonged to the many now came to the few." As one of a minority of the region’s survivors, Sighieri was able to expand the family’s land holdings, taking control of unclaimed land, and in the centuries that followed, the Seghieri family continued to grow.

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