From the introductory part of The Decameron, in Pampinea's speech that inspires the seven young women initially to decamp to the countryside, she speaks of the atmosphere in their city of Florence at the time of the Black Death:

And if we quit the church, we see dead or sick folk carried about, or we see those, who for their crimes were of late condemned to exile by the outraged majesty of the public laws, but who now, in contempt of those laws, well knowing that their ministers are a prey to death or disease, have returned, and traverse the city in packs, making it hideous with their riotous antics; or else we see the refuse of the people, fostered on our blood, becchini, as they call themselves, who for our torment go prancing about here and there and everywhere, making mock of our miseries in scurrilous songs. Nor hear we aught but: Such and such are dead; or, Such and such are dying; and should hear dolorous wailing on every hand, were there but any to wail.

-- Rigg translation (emphasis mine)

E se di quinci usciamo, o veggiamo corpi morti o infermi trasportarsi da torno, o veggiamo coloro li quali per li loro difetti l'autorità delle publiche leggi già condannò a essilio, quasi quelle schernendo per ciò che sentono gli essecutori di quelle o morti o malati, con dispiacevoli impeti per la terra discorrere, o la feccia della nostra città, del nostro sangue riscaldata, chiamarsi becchini e in istrazio di noi andar cavalcando e discorrendo per tutto, con disoneste canzoni rimproverandoci i nostri danni; né altra cosa alcuna ci udiamo, se non: 'I cotali son morti' e 'Gli altrettali sono per morire'; e se ci fosse chi fargli, per tutto dolorosi pianti udiremmo.

-- Italian original (I've guessed at the corresponding phrase in bold)

The word becchini (left untranslated presumably for its specific cultural connotations) is the plural of becchino, meaning a gravedigger or cemetery worker. During a time of plague, I'd have thought these people would be some of the most unfortunate and overworked people in the city, to be pitied rather than scorned, but Pampinea refers to them in tones of disgust. Is this a kind of snobbery of a pampered aristocratic girl towards menial workers, or was there some reason to revile the becchini who were presumably doing the thankless and disgusting work of getting rid of dead bodies in a time of plague?

Why are the becchini spoken of in such a negative way?

1 Answer 1


There are two reasons why the becchini might have been looked upon negatively.

  1. Some professions benefited financially from the plague. Bergdolt mentions, among others, pharmacists and gravediggers who sold shroud-cloth and other items for the burial of the dead for horrendous prices. Bergdolt cites the Cronaca fiorentina di Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, a 14th-centry chronicle, that discusses this (quoted from Decameron Web):

    The gravediggers who carried out these functions were so handsomely paid that many became rich and many died, some already rich and others having earned little, despite the high fees. (…) The shroud-cloth apparel which used to cost, for a woman, in terms of petticoat, outer garment, cloak and veils, three florins, rose in price to thirty florins, and would have risen to one hundred florins, except that they stopped using shroud-cloth, and whoever was rich was dressed with plain cloth, and those who weren't rich were sewn up in a sheet.

  2. The authorities could engage vagabonds and criminals to carry the dead out of their houses and bury them in mass graves. (They may have been required to wear small bells on their clothes, just like lepers.) (See Bergdolt, page 76.)

In either case, these grave diggers would have been looked upon with contempt.


  • Bergdolt, Klaus: Die Pest. Geschichte des Schwarzen Todes [The Plague: History of the Black Death] Third edition. C. H Beck, 2017.
  • Marchionne di Coppo di Stefano Buonaiuti, Decameron Web, Brown University.
  • I found another mention of becchini in the text (well, 2 mentions in the same passage): "Few also there were whose bodies were attended to the church by more than ten or twelve of their neighbours, and those not the honourable and respected citizens; but a sort of corpse-carriers drawn from the baser ranks, who called themselves becchini and performed such offices for hire, would shoulder the bier, and with hurried steps carry it, not to the church of the dead man's choice, but to that which was nearest at hand, with four or six priests in front and a candle or two, or, perhaps, none; [...]
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 14, 2021 at 6:25
  • [...] nor did the priests distress themselves with too long and solemn an office, but with the aid of the becchini hastily consigned the corpse to the first tomb which they found untenanted." This doesn't say anything negative about them, except the dismissive "drawn from the baser ranks", which might support the idea of plain old class snobbery. Does the phrase "making mock of our miseries in scurrilous songs" have any grounding in history?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 14, 2021 at 6:27

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