The Black Death in Barcelona
While Barcelona was going through a frenzied building boom, a series of cataclysms decimated its population (and the entire Principality), savaged the economy and transformed the mentality of its people.
Aside from physical phenomena like earthquakes, the imbalance between population growth and food production led to various famines – beginning in 1333, “the bad first year”- that weakened people who were soon to suffer epidemics and wars.
It was just as Pere the Ceremonious was embarking on the war against Genoa and struggling with the Sardinian revolt that the Black Death first appeared, in 1348. The plague may have helped him defeat the rebels who formed the Unions in Valencia and Aragon, but it brought massive mortality to his subjects (even his second wife, Elionor of Portugal, fell victim to the plague) and disorganised his kingdoms, due to the deaths of so many royal officials and municipal magistrates (Barcelona lost four of its five councillors).
The lack of documentation makes it hard to calculate the consequences of the epidemic on the city (death figures talk of a fifth of the population), but it is not unthinkable that the hospital system total collapsed before the creation of, or that funeral rites were made simpler during its most virulent periods.
Despite all this, the demographic collapse was compensated for by the arrival of people from the countryside, attracted by the lack of manpower and higher wages, which Pere the Ceremonious tried to regulate – as he did with price increases – unsuccessfully.
The Jews and the Black Death
Those who were doubly affected by the epidemic were Barcelona’s Jewish community, whose neighbourhood was stormed with the excuse that they were poisoning the water. Nevertheless, it was not as serious as the attacks of 1391: on August 5th, to cries of “the big shall destroy the small” and “death to all and long live the King and the people”, a riotous mass that had set off to burn the homes of the rich was diverted to the Jewish neighbourhood, the Call, which they duly sacked.
The situation became complicated when the ringing bell towers in the city brought the Sagramental militia and farm workers from the plain of Barcelona, who wanted to burn the trial documents with which the veguer and batlle were hoping to sentence the instigators of the first riot.
The Black death in Verges
130 kilometres up the road, the small town of Verges still “celebrates” every Maundy Thursday the medieval European tradition of the Dansa de La Mort or “Dance of Death”. In this macabre nocturnal display, five agile dancers dance around the crowds in luminescent skeleton costumes. This is the last vestige of a once common specacle throughout Europe.
Its origin lies in:
The deathly horrors of the 14th century—such as recurring famines; the Hundred Years’ War in France; and, most of all, the Black Death—were culturally assimilated throughout Europe. The omnipresent possibility of sudden and painful death increased the religious desire for penitence, but it also evoked a hysterical desire for amusement while still possible; a last dance as cold comfort. Wikipedia
The Black Death in Barcelona in Spanish
Corría el mes de mayo del año del señor 1348. Las callejuelas de Barcelona, sucias de bostas de caballo y paja podrida, bullían de actividad: tejedores, zapateros, encuadernadores, clérigos errantes. Una enfermedad hasta entonces desconocida, cuyo principal síntoma eran las bubas que se extendían por todo el cuerpo, comenzó a diezmar la población. Apotecarios y curanderos no daban abasto. En aquel primer brote pestilente, murieron el 84% de los miembros del Consell de Cent y 18 monjas del monasterio de Pedralbes (Jordi Günzberg Moll, La vida quotidiana a la ciutat de Barcelona durant la pesta negra, Rafael Dalmau Editor). Una atmósfera amenazadora se apoderó de la ciudad. El trasiego de ataúdes hacia los cementerios era la cruda evidencia de que la peste no hacía distingos entre estamentos sociales. Las gentes quemaban hojas de limón, laurel y enebro para ahuyentar la muerte negra de sus hogares. Médicos, como Jaume d’Agramunt y Lluís d’Alcanyís, editaron tratados con remedios: regar el suelo con vinagre, beber zumo de naranja, cubrirse con prendas de lino y mantener las ventanas abiertas a tramontana. Nadie acertaba a explicarse las causas de la epidemia. Se dijo que era obra del maligno, un castigo divino o bien el efecto de una extraña conjunción planetaria. Hasta que a alguien se le ocurrió señalar a los judíos: ellos habían envenenado el agua. Una turba enfurecida se encaminó hacia el barrio hebreo, donde algunos de sus habitantes fueron asesinados. Los disturbios antisemitas se sucedieron hasta la algarada de 1391: el call no se rehízo.