Body Collector During The Bubonic Plague

By RodneyHatfieldJr for Into The Mind

Buboes, black spots, and bloody froth: it was all in a day’s work for Black Death body collectors. The plague, which may have killed as many as 200 million people worldwide, changed everything; including body disposal. During the plague, millions of bodies piled up in Europe. Bubonic plague body collectors risked their lives to clear out the streets, all for a hefty paycheck, and naturally to extort people out of their money. As the bubonic plague body count skyrocketed, with as many as one thousand deaths a day in some cities, the body collectors carted victims to mass graves, layering bodies, and dirt. 


A dark plague swept across the globe in the mid-1300s, leaving millions of people dead around the world. Nothing like this has happened before or since in the recorded history of mankind. To those who lived through the Black Death's ravages, it seemed like the end of the world. An Irish monk recorded the devastation in 1349, ending with a pessimistic note: “in case anyone should still be alive in the future.”


But the world did survive the Black Death, which meant someone had to cart away all the bodies. That was the job of the body collectors. Giovanni Boccaccio, who witnessed the plague first-hand, said that Florence itself turned into a sepulcher because of the piles of bodies. “Many died daily or nightly in the public streets.” For thousands who died in their homes, “the departure was scarcely observed by their neighbors until the stench of their putrefying bodies bore the tidings.”

The epidemic itself represents a crisis, but it also created a severe problem for cities trying to get rid of all the bodies. The body collectors had to roam the streets, carting away corpses in what might be history’s most undesirable job. Body collectors had to remove plague victims from homes and from piles on the street so that they could be buried. But the bodies were not in good shape by the time the collectors came around.


As Boccaccio explained, plague victims had “certain tumors in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg.” After the bulging buboes appeared, “black spots” began to cover the body. Buboes might burst, leaking rancid pus. Flea bites that transmitted the deadly bacteria Yersinia pestis could become gangrenous. If the disease attacked the lungs, the victim might cough up a bloody froth before convulsing with death. This only made the job of the body collector more dangerous.


The plague was extremely devastating. Three different forms of the plague struck simultaneously: bubonic, septicemic (blood-borne), and pneumonic (air-borne). If you had to select one, you'd want to choose bubonic, which killed up to 75% of infected people. The septicemic and pneumonic plague had a 100% mortality rate. Plague body collectors knew first-hand just how dangerous their job was. As Boccaccio reported, merely touching the belongings of a plague victim could transfer the disease. Body collectors may have protected themselves from contracting the plague by employing a similar technique as doctors: smelling sweet flowers.

The famous plague doctor costume might look like an odd bird, but the mask was essentially designed to block out bad smells. According to the miasma theory of disease, illnesses like the plague were spread by foul smells(we know better now). By filling the “beak” of the mask with flowers and herbs, doctors believed they could fortify themselves from contagion. And body collectors might have adopted similar tactics to make their jobs less deadly.


In Florence, 60% of the population died in a matter of months. With corpses piling up on the streets, body collectors struggled to find burial grounds for the dead. One Florentine chronicler described the job. “At every church, they dug deep pits . . . those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit.”The next morning, the body collectors would throw earth on the corpses and toss in more bodies. “Others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth. ”There wasn't enough space to properly bury the victims of the bubonic plague, so across Europe, cities resorted to mass graves. One chronicler, Agnolo di Tura, wrote that “in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead.” 


If the graves became too shallow, another would be hastily dug. Agnolo reported with horror, “There were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city.” In Avignon, when they ran out of land to bury the corpses, the Pope consecrated the Rhone River, and the dead were thrown into the water.


Before the plague, Europe had elaborate funeral rites. Boccaccio wrote that a deceased body was supposed to be “borne on the shoulders of his peers to the church selected by him before his death." Of course, with so many dead and dying, and so many others afraid of falling ill, that didn’t happen during the Black Death. Instead, Boccaccio explains, bodies were transported by “a sort of corpse-carriers drawn from the baser ranks.” In one sense, body collectors were entrepreneurs who saw the chance to generate a huge amount of money during history's gravest crisis. 

No one wanted to see a body collector outside their house. In Florence, “gangs of shovel-wielding grave diggers known as the becchini stalked the streets.” Because the job was so undesirable, these body collectors collected enormous sums, which they reportedly spent on alcohol. They were constantly “stinking with the effluvia of death, and earning more than they had ever done before.”Somebody collectors exploited their position, demanding bribes before they would cart off a corpse. Others reportedly “showed off by laughing, drinking, and assaulting innocent people.” Even worse, some becchini gangs broke into houses, threatening to murder people and declare them victims of the plague if they didn’t pay up.


The Black Death struck Europe between 1347 and 1351, leaving a lot of bodies to collect. Body collectors were busy during the Black Death, collecting at least 25 million dead bodies. But that wasn’t the end of the road for body collectors, because the plague kept coming back. England alone was hit by the plague another SIX times in the 14th century alone. The plague continued to slaughter people around Europe until the 1700s—giving the body collectors a lot of job security. A devastating outbreak of plague struck London in 1665. By September, the city was drowning under 8,000 new corpses every week. There were so many bodies accumulating that the city ordered body collectors to only work at night because the sight of the cart after cart piled with corpses terrified those who hadn’t fled the city. Body collectors would pull dead-carts through the streets, ringing a bell and calling out “Bring out your dead!” Family members, who were quarantined with the sick, would lower their dead to the street, sometimes with a hook on a long pole. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that he stopped going out at night because of his “great fear of meeting dead corpses.”


During the Black Death, the world was falling apart. Priests dropped like flies until there was no one left to administer the last rites. In monasteries in Marseilles and Carcassonne, every single monk perished. Even worse, every family bond broke apart. Brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister and what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untented, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers. But through it all Europeans could count on one group during the plague: the body collectors were always there to cry, “Bring out your dead!”

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