Boccaccio’s Lessons from the Black Death

As I struggle, like so many others, to make sense of the pandemic that has engulfed our lives, I find myself searching for texts that can speak to our time of tremendous upheaval and fear. Written sometime between 1348 and 1353, Boccaccio’s Decameron is set in pestilential Florence, at the height of the first European outbreak of the Black Death in at least six centuries.  The frame narrative describes in detail both the symptoms of the disease (including a graphic depiction of buboes, the signature swollen lymph nodes of  “bubonic plague”) and the concomitant breakdown of society: abandonment of the sick, the young, the very old; mass burials with little or no ritual; an “eat, drink, and be merry” attitude contrasted with the specter of the flagellants, whose public displays of physical penitence likely contributed to the spread of the mysterious and virulent disease.

Procession of Flagellants

Between 1346 and 1353, as much as sixty percent of Europe’s population was killed by the plague. But illness is not the main focus of Boccaccio’s work.  Rather, it is story-telling. The seven women and three men who gather in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, burnt out from grief and caring for the sick, make a decision to withdraw into the hills.  This is not a cure but a respite: In this retreat to beauty and tranquillity, their main activity is to sit and tell stories. Over the course of ten days, each of those gathered takes a turn as monarch, and sets a theme; the stories they tell (ranging from felicitous to tragic, depicting acts of nobility or bawdy slapstick) explore the full range of human experience and emotion, reminding us of the companionship, community, and compassion to be found in story-telling.

I have been thinking a lot about the Decameron these days.  In the years before my focus shifted to honors and administration, the Black Death (along with excerpts, at least, from The Decameron) were a frequent starting point for my seminars and surveys of “Renaissance humanities.”  Tell me, I would ask my students, when in your lifetime was the world turned upside down?

In my assistant professor days of the 1990’s, students would frequently evoke the AIDS epidemic, while older (or what we now call “nontraditional”) students would chime in with memories of the Kennedy assassination.  After 9/11, of course, we all shared that obvious touchstone. But in 2012, when I taught a new honors first year seminar, the response shifted. That class met for the first time on the first day of the semester, at 8:30 a.m. in a classroom on the honors floor of the residence hall.  (Showing up in pajamas was optional, toothbrushing was not.) By 9 a.m., however, with Hurricane Isaac fast approaching a campus that had been shut down by Katrina seven years earlier, the decision was made to cancel classes for a week.

When my students finally returned to class, the answer to my question, “When was the world turned upside down?” was unanimous: last week, when their brand new college career was abruptly interrupted after half an hour.  And, with little electricity or internet available, every student had read, pretty much, all one hundred stories in The Decameron. We had a great discussion. I wonder, have those students, now alumni, been thinking lately about The Decameron? What might their younger colleagues, sent home abruptly from Loyola and now confined to home, have to say?

Missing my students on an empty campus

“It’s human to have compassion on those who suffer,” proclaims The Decameron‘s author, in the volume’s very first sentence.  In other words, the focus, here, is not on the suffering, but on how we might respond to it.   In that sense, Boccaccio’s story of the Black Death has a lot to teach us about our own pandemic. There is a great deal of suffering in the world today, and also a lot of compassion. Owners are retrofitting their businesses to sew medical masks, or feed health care workers, or even, as in the case of two New Orleans restauranteurs, opening a new business that employs hospitality workers to help folks navigate the maze of online healthcare.  Other community members, too, are looking to be kind, whether by buying groceries for those shut-in, or clapping and cheering for healthcare workers, as is now New York City’s new 8 p.m. ritual.

Like most professors these days, I am working from home, stuck,  if not in the proverbial ivory tower, at least in an enclosed sunroom on the second story of my home. Gazing from the windows at the leafy green branches of massive live oaks and cypress trees, it’s hard to remember, sometimes, that the world is upside down. Boccaccio’s companions, however, call to me and all of us, reminding us not just to share stories, but to find community and commonality of purpose, even in moments of greatest affliction.

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