By Quinn Wilson
Vexillum: The Undergraduate Journal of Classical and Medieval Studies, Vol.1 (2011)
Introduction: Italy was the first part of Europe to witness the Black Death firsthand after Genoese sailors brought it to Messina in October of 1347. From there the plague spread to the remainder of the country within a series of months. By the time England had even received word of its existence, one third to half of the residents of Italy had already succumbed to its lethal effects. Italians were known and prized throughout the continent for their medical knowledge (Credited for their introduction of Arabic texts to the Latin West.) and their pioneering of surgery and anatomy. By the fourteenth century the University of Bologna was the most prestigious medical school in all Christendom, and the first recorded human autopsy was performed there by Bartolommeo da Varignana in 1302. However, in spite of housing Europe’s premier physicians, Italy was hit every bit as hard as its neighbors, if not worse, and by its height the doctors themselves often proclaimed that the pestilence was simply God’s wrath and could be neither cured nor avoided. Chronicler and Piacenzan lawyer Gabriele de’ Mussis (d. 1356) lamented in his Historia de morbo: “many physicians began to realize the futility of their medicine and refused to visit the sick, hiding away to preserve their own health rather than add themselves to the list of those who they could not heal.”6 However, the profession on a whole never gave up on fighting the plague completely. The proposed cures, remedies, guards theories and, if nothing else, documentation, were both detailed and varied.