I confess that I have only read about half of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. But yesterday, I saw a friend’s Facebook post that included a quote from the text, which inspired me to reread the Introduction, which is relevant to what we are dealing with in these times of Covid-19.
So to provide a little background about this book for those who do not know about it:
The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived of The Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353. The various tales of love in The Decameron range from the erotic to the tragic. Tales of wit, practical jokes, and life lessons contribute to the mosaic. In addition to its literary value and widespread influence (for example on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), it provides a document of life at the time. Written in the vernacular of the Florentine language, it is considered a masterpiece of classical early Italian prose.
Boccaccio describes how the plague originated in the East and then spread to the West, eventually infecting people in Florence, similar to the advent and spread of our current pandemic.
I say, then, that the years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, when in the illustrious city of Florence, the fairest of all the cities of Italy, there made its appearance that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities, had had its origin some years before in the East, whence, after destroying an innumerable multitude of living beings, it had propagated itself without respite from place to place, and so, calamitously, had spread into the West.
Boccaccio then details the initial response, how the city restricted entrance by individuals showing signs of infection. This is the same as the initial response by the US and many other countries as the virus began to spread.
In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous.
Next, he describes how the infection was not only passed from sick to healthy persons, but that the germs also survived on materials and could be contracted that way.
Moreover, the virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the evil went yet further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.
Finally, individuals are described as going into “voluntary exile,” essentially social distancing until the threat of contagion has passed.
Some again, the most sound, perhaps, in judgment, as they were also the most harsh in temper, of all, affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficacy to flight; following which prescription a multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estates, their kinsfolk, their goods, and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country parts, as if God in visiting men with this pestilence in requital of their iniquities would not pursue them with His wrath wherever they might be, but intended the destruction of such alone as remained within the circuit of the walls of the city; or deeming, perchance, that it was now time for all to flee from it, and that its last hour was come.
The social distancers of Boccaccio’s time passed the time by telling stories. Thankfully, we have tools of communicating which were not dreamed of in 14th century Italy. We can share our stories via phone calls, video conferences, social media, and numerous other platforms. In times like this, the stories we share matter. They allow us to stay connected to our humanity. This is why I continue to write here and share with everyone.
As you are staying home, I encourage you to talk with people you know, reach out to those who may be alone, and help each other through these difficult times. Stay safe!