In 1348, the Black Death, the most devastating epidemic in European history, swept across the continent. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), at the beginning of his famous Decameron, describes its effects on his city, Florence. Many people just dropped dead in the street. Others died in their houses, often unattended by their families. Husbands and wives, fearing infection, sat and prayed in separate rooms. Mothers walked away from their children and closed the door.