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.

Imaginary friends in a time of social distance

This little girl, with her purse, her flower, and — barely visible — reins to make sure she doesn’t wander off, was painted by Gerard Terborch, born in Zwolle and after whom my street here was named.

When I first started blogging about life in Zwolle, I pointed out that, not only are many Americans unclear about the exact location of the Netherlands, they believe that Amsterdam is the only city in the tulip-filled country of “Holland.” Sure enough, the Netherlands has been largely absent from the corona virus story, as narrated, at least, by CNN, BBCTV, Euronews and the New York Times, our main sources of information here on Terborchstraat. A few days ago, a Times map, showing the spread of Covid-19 in Europe, failed even to identify the Netherlands, while all four of these major news outlets ignored the first live television address by a Dutch prime minister since the oil crisis of the 1970’s. In keeping with what I call the “second single story” about the Netherlands (sex, drugs, and tolerance), Euronews finally ran a story yesterday announcing that tourist sites, restaurants, and even sex and marijuana shops were closed in Amsterdam. I guess we in Zwolle, like the rest of the country, are just leverworst.

Here in Zwolle, life is calm and also confusing. The restaurants and cafes (as well as the marijuana coffee shop) are now closed; of course we miss Swolse Friets, with its spectacular fries and ingenious plating, but we are also worrying about the proprietor and his three daughters. Windesheim Honors College, along with all the other universities in the Netherlands and so many others world wide, has moved online.

Note both the dedicated spot for dipping sauce and the ingenious grated holder, so that no fry is left behind.

This morning, in fact, we had a meeting of our “value creators” class, in which students work in teams to learn about and address in a specific, and potentially systemic, way one of the UN’s 17 sustainability goals. After a discussion about how the course’s grading structure might change (kudos to my European students for being a lot more phlegmatic on this issue than their American counterparts) and how end-products (the value created) might look different this semester, the conversation shifted to how, beyond their group projects, students might create value NOW in their communities. Someone suggested creating videos and lessons that might be used by our own faculty with small children, as well as other families abruptly coping with home-schooling. A colleague sent a link about “caremongering” in Canada. Suddenly, the chat window was full of links and suggestions, including one to online volunteering through the United Nations and another, translated as “Corona-proof volunteerwork.”

If you know me, you know that I love my students, And if you have read the “about” page of this blog, you probably know that I am on a quest: How do we guide our students to be, in a formulation not just for Jesuits, for and with others? How do we teach our students to address the challenges of the 21st century?

Loyola Honors and friends in Amsterdam: Nicole Margavio, Mary Kate Andrepont, Anne Frank, me, and Michael Pashkevich (photo courtesy of Khadija Moses)

Well, one of the world’s greatest challenges now surrounds us. We are all striving to make sense of a new normal, at least (as my mother would say) for now, in an ever-changing landscape. And, as always, the “teacher” is learning from her students, both here in the Netherlands, and back at Loyola in New Orleans, where many of “my” seniors — their classes moved on line, their recitals and shows cancelled, their commencement activities in limbo — used the funds remaining in their meal plans to buy nonperishables for the university’s food pantry.

Like so many others right now, struggling to make sense of the crisis engulfing us all, I am trying to figure out the correct path forward for me and my family. I am worried about my children and older family members and friends; I am trying not to think too hard about the tumbling of the markets, the people losing their jobs, those struggling with — or even losing that struggle to — this terrible illness.

And, if I am honest, I have to admit that I have also lingered a few moments in personal disappointment: my great Fulbright adventure is not, to say the least, as I imagined it might be. Even if I shelter on Terborchstraat rather than Calhoun Street, there will be no keynote to deliver at Windesheim’s international week celebration, no dedication of seventeen new stumbling stones here, no face-to-face meetings or coffees with students and colleagues, no seder with my new community.

courtesy of wikicommons

Perhaps, if you are lucky enough that the changes in your life right now are not overwhelming or tragic, you have also had such moments of wistful regret. And, despite Casablanca‘s timely reminder that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” that’s ok, for now. There is no need to flog yourself for feeling sad about the commencement you worked so hard for, the wedding celebration you dreamed about, the performance you so carefully prepared, the many things — large and small — that you imagined and which will no longer materialize.

But imagination is a powerful tool, and a two-way street. Thanks to streaming platforms, Casablanca’s compelling war-time love story can offer us a moment of escapism, but it also can encourage us to feel empathy for the pain of those all around us, caught up — like Rick and Ilsa — in events beyond their control. We can spend our time envisioning “what might have been, longing for a world where “corona” was an arcane Latin term for “crown” most of us only used or heard in advance of a solar eclipse.

Or we can use our imaginations constructively: taking the time to imagine how we can be for and with others, helping our communities, great and small, to navigate this crisis.

The senior rabbi at my beloved Touro Synagogue sent the board a “Covid Action Plan” that opened with a beautiful midrash (an elaboration of a biblical narrative) about how Noah was transformed by his time in the ark. Drawing from Aviva Zornberg’s book, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, Rabbi Bauman explains that, before the flood, Noah was callous and materialistic, but that the raging water and confinement with the animals forced him “to focus on the essential. Every life on his ark becomes precious. He gains an awareness of his responsibility for the safety of others.”

For Noah, the flood is traumatic but also transformative. Rabbi Bauman writes that Noah “centers down in a way that would have been [previously] unthinkable.” Poignantly, she explains, the ark becomes “a ‘laboratory of kindness’ where Noah reclaims what is good in his soul and transforms himself into one who can emerge and merit God’s hope.”

Some (my husband included) may be put off by the reference to Noah, let alone God. But regardless of our faith orientations or personal tenets, our worldview constructions, I firmly believe in the power of “imaginary friends.” These “friends,” figures of the world’s great texts and traditions, can engage our imaginations, in essential ways, with issues regarding empathy and compassion. The “friends” can be compelling companions in our daily lives, but, for me at least, are indispensable in times of unfathomable challenge, offering companionship and guidance, along with intellectual and moral engagement.

Some of my “imaginary friends” in the Rijksmuseum. Note that “imaginary” does not mean, necessarily, that they are “made up” but rather that they engage the imagination.

In the weeks ahead, as I withdraw, like you all, into social distancing, I will be engaging — partying, even — with my imaginary friends, searching for new pathways forward. This term, “imaginary,” is not intended to be dismissive, or imply that they are “made up,” although some (like Harry Potter, or Homer’s Achilles, for example) emerge from some of the world’s most creative imaginations. Rather, “imaginary” implies that each of these figures, from a diverse spectrum of provenances — the Bible, children’s literature, history — engages my imagination, speaks to and with me, in many profound ways. At this unprecedented moment, we must find strength to imagine and then do what is best for our communities, transforming this strange moment of retreat and self-quarantine into an ark, a “laboratory of kindness,” where we all grow in ways we cannot even imagine.

Holding forth about my relationship with my imaginary friend, at the Shelter Cities kick-off on March 5

I look forward to sharing my friendships with you (starting with Anne Frank, as might be expected from a nice Jewish girl exploring the limits of tolerance in the Netherlands), and I hope you will share some of your friends with me, as well.

You may leave a comment or reach me at americaninzwolle@gmail.com; I answer every email.