How Can Boccaccio’s 14th Century Decameron Help Us Live Through COVID-19?

I remem­ber read­ing selec­tions of Gio­van­ni Boccaccio’s Decameron in my ear­ly high school years—and I remem­ber read­ing them as light, bawdy tales about aris­to­crats in gar­dens. We were briefly intro­duced to the frame nar­ra­tive, set amidst the 1348 out­break of plague in Flo­rence, which killed off half the city’s pop­u­la­tion. But the Black Death seemed almost mytho­log­i­cal in scope—a phan­tom on the periph­ery. As Albert Camus writes in The Plague, a book also appear­ing on best­seller and rec­om­mend­ed read­ing lists every­where: “a dead man has no sub­stance unless one has actu­al­ly seen him dead, a hun­dred mil­lion corpses broad­cast through his­to­ry are no more than a puff of smoke.”

I don’t recall read­ing how Flo­ren­tines “dropped dead in open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many oth­ers, though dying in their own hous­es, drew their neigh­bors’ atten­tion to the fact more by the smell of their rot­ting corpses.” The pic­ture Boc­cac­cio paints is so incred­i­bly bleak, one is amazed we’ve come to “see the Decameron as a col­lec­tion of enter­tain­ing sto­ries to keep next to your bed,” as Andre Spicer writes at New States­man. “This scourge had implant­ed so great a ter­ror in the hearts of men and women that broth­ers aban­doned broth­ers,” Boc­cac­cio writes, “uncles their nephews, sis­ters their broth­ers… fathers and moth­ers refused to nurse and assist their chil­dren.”

This is unimag­in­able, or so we thought, hav­ing nev­er lived through any kind of plague our­selves. Made up of tales swapped by ten friends who escape Flo­rence for a coun­try vil­la to wait out the epi­dem­ic, telling 100 sto­ries between them to pass the time in quar­an­tine, the Decameron, if it has left schools since my time, will sure­ly return with sig­nif­i­cant empha­sis on what was pre­vi­ous­ly giv­en as back­ground. Of course, Ital­ians are revis­it­ing with much renewed inter­est these tales “of life lessons and fol­ly, of tragedy and hap­pi­ness, of virtue and vice,” as the blog Tus­can Trends notes.

Read by actors from the Ora­nona The­atre, with musi­cal accom­pa­ni­ment, a live pro­duc­tion of the sto­ries has been going on for a decade. But only now does it con­sti­tute a trend, offered as “enter­tain­ment for Ital­ians who are con­fined to their homes escap­ing a plague sev­en cen­turies after Boc­cac­cio wrote his mas­ter­piece of ear­ly Ital­ian prose.” (Hear these per­for­mances in Ital­ian at the Ora­nona Face­book page here.) What does this sto­ry cycle com­mu­ni­cate across 700 years?

“Over the cen­turies, dur­ing oth­er out­breaks of epi­dem­ic ill­ness,” says Pro­fes­sor Mar­tin Marafi­oti in the video above, “the work has become rel­e­vant, over and over and over again.” The book offers what Marafi­oti calls “nar­ra­tive pro­phy­lax­is,” a med­i­cine pre­scribed by Ital­ian the­olo­gian Nico­las of Bur­go, anoth­er of the many lit­er­ary voic­es in Italy’s “canon of con­ta­gion.” In a plague advice book, Bur­go warns against “fear, anger, sad­ness, exces­sive anguish, heavy thoughts and sim­i­lar things. And equal­ly one should take care to be joy­ful, to be hap­py, to lis­ten to lul­la­bies, sto­ries and melodies.”

This advice may be well and good for those who can decamp to well-pro­vi­sioned hous­es for two weeks (or months). As Mas­si­mo Riva, chair of Brown University’s Ital­ian Stud­ies Depart­ment, says in a recent inter­view, in answer to a ques­tion about Boccaccio’s rel­e­vance:

I would point to the eth­i­cal dilem­ma the ten young pro­tag­o­nists face in their deci­sion to (tem­porar­i­ly) aban­don the city. This deci­sion can be inter­pret­ed in two dif­fer­ent and some­what oppo­site ways: as an escape from the com­mon des­tiny of those who can afford a lux­u­ri­ous shel­ter (sim­i­lar to the dooms­day bunkers that very rich peo­ple build for them­selves today); and as the utopi­an desire to rebuild togeth­er a bet­ter, more eth­i­cal and har­mo­nious­ly nat­ur­al way of life, out of the ruins of the old world.

These two options need not be mutu­al­ly exclu­sive, but they might very well rebuild the old exclu­sions in the new world. More pos­i­tive­ly, Spicer writes, in some TED-like lan­guage that might seem anachro­nis­tic in dis­cus­sions of a 14th cen­tu­ry text: Boc­cac­cio “under­stood the impor­tance of what we now call ‘well­be­ing’”; he had “faith in the cura­tive pow­er of sto­ries,” a fact “sup­port­ed by dozens of stud­ies”; and he “under­stood the cru­cial role of what we now call social net­works in pub­lic health crises.”

I don’t remem­ber any of that in the Boc­cac­cio I read in high school. But I’m start­ing to see some of it now as I revis­it these 700-year-old sto­ries, dip­ping in and out as time allows and find­ing in them what Spicer calls the crit­i­cal “impor­tance of con­nec­tion when we are social­ly iso­lat­ed,” whether in com­fort­able vaca­tion homes, cramped city apart­ments, or even more con­fin­ing cir­cum­stances. We need sto­ries to help us fig­ure who we are when every­thing comes apart. And we need peo­ple who will lis­ten to us tell ours. Read and down­load the full text of the Decameron here.

via New States­man

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load Clas­sic Works of Plague Fic­tion: From Daniel Defoe & Mary Shel­ley, to Edgar Allan Poe

Pan­dem­ic Lit­er­a­ture: A Meta-List of the Books You Should Read in Coro­n­avirus Quar­an­tine

Why You Should Read The Plague, the Albert Camus Nov­el the Coro­n­avirus Has Made a Best­seller Again

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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