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.

Anne Frank, American Icon

When I told my sister, two years ago, that I had been invited to the Netherlands to speak about Anne Frank, her response was something of an eye-roll.

“Well, of course, you’re going to speak about Anne Frank,” she said, dismissively. “What else would you be talking about in the Netherlands?”

My sister’s comment was not intended as an affirmation of my status as a renowned scholar of either Anne Frank or the Holocaust. Rather, both the comment and, in fact, the invitation itself — to lead a workshop about Anne Frank at a summer institute focused on “Tolerance, Diversity, and Lessons from the Holocaust” — underscore Anne Frank’s role as iconic Jewish girl, and, despite her birth in Germany, Dutch exemplar. For most Americans, Anne Frank is not just a but the Dutch girl. For us, Anne Frank (pronounced American style, rather than “Ahnna Frahnk,” as she would have called herself), is the third single story about the Netherlands.

Anne’s story, and the supporting role of Miep Gies and the other helpers who enabled Anne’s family, the van Pels family, and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, to remain in hiding for over two years, fundamentally shape the American view of the Dutch experience of the Holocaust and of World War II in general.

Most Americans, for example, do not know that the Netherlands lost a higher percentage of its Jewish people than any other country in Western Europe. We do not know that the trains to and from Westerbork (the Dutch transit camp from which Jews, Sinti-Roma, and people from other targeted groups were sent to the extermination camps in the East) were never delayed, and that the people living in the surrounding community did not try to stop the trains they saw arrive and depart each week.

A memorial plaque, inscribed with a quote in Hebrew (and its translation, "my sorrow is continually before me," and dedicated Israeli president Chaim Herzog. is displayed surrounded by green foliage, with a background of trees, at Memorial Camp Westerbork
A memorial plaque at Camp Westerbork

Most of us know nothing of the travails of the Dutch under Nazi occupation, or the Hunger Winter of 1944-45, during which, in retaliation for a railroad strike, the Germans cut off almost all food supplies to the Netherlands. Pregnant women were particularly vulnerable, and the children they gave birth to have borne the effects of that famine throughout their lives, experiencing higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and schizophrenia, for example, than does the general Dutch population.

Anne’s voice, so poignantly and powerfully preserved for us in her diary, is for many Americans the single story about the Holocaust, at least in the Netherlands. And, like all single stories, it is incomplete, a radical simplification of multiple narratives about Anne Frank and the Dutch experience of the war for both Jewish and Gentile people.

For example, most of us are unaware that, in addition to the denizens of the “Secret Annex” (Het achterhuis, which is the name that Anne chose for the novel she hope to publish after the war), 25,000 other Jewish people in the Netherlands also went into hiding. Unlike Anne, her sister Margot, her mother Edith; Hermann, Auguste, and Peter Van Pels; and Fritz Pfeffer, approximately 16,000 of these onderduikers (pronounced OhnderDOWkers) survived.

A book with the title, "Ondergedoken als Anne Frank: tales of Jewish children in hiding."  The cover features black and white photos of several children.
Diving under like Anne Frank: Tales of Jewish Children in Hiding During World War II

The term onderduiker literally means someone who “dives under.” The Frank family was unusual, first, in that they “dove under” in the midst of a big city, Amsterdam, and second, that they remained together as a family. Hermann Pollack, a survivor who spoke to me and my students at Memorial Camp Westerbork last summer, described being hidden as a small child in as many as six different locations, including by himself (at age 6!) in a department store’s bedding section. Emuna Elon’s novel, The House on Endless Waters, provides a haunting account of the choreographed transition of hands pushing a baby stroller, as a mother passes her beloved toddler to a member of the resistance in the midst of a crowded market.

A number of Dutch friends have shared with me their families’ experience of the war. As a small child, one colleague’s sister was surprised to see a man suddenly emerge out of a trap door in the living room. Both grandmothers of Liesbeth, co-director of the Windesheim Honours College where I am teaching, sheltered onderduikers. One of these grandmothers was caught, and although her husband, a jeweler, was able to rescue his wife with the bribe of a gold watch, he could not save the Jewish man they had hidden.

Not all onderduikers were Jews. The term also refers to Dutch young men who went into hiding rather than be conscripted into the occupying German army. It includes many who were part of the resistance, secretly forging ration books and identity papers. Indeed, in addition to the 25,000 Jews, perhaps as many as 300,000 other Dutch people were hidden by illegal “landlords” who risked their own lives in this powerful act of verzet, resistance, .

During our own challenging times of illness, fear, and social distancing, a popular meme on facebook reminds us that “Anne Frank and seven other people hid in a 450 square foot attic for 761 days, quietly trying to stay undiscovered, to stay alive.” I have already been thinking a lot about Anne Frank these days (it’s part of my job), but I find this posting slightly puzzling: Is it meant to admonish us, just a little, to stop whining about social distancing? Or can we view it as a call to empathy and courage, in a challenging moment?

The Frank family hid, it is true, because they feared for their lives. But the Dutch term for them, onderduiker, reminds us that theirs was not an act of cowardice. Rather, “diving under” was a choice of tremendous courage at an unfathomably difficult time. The Franks chose to protect their daughters. They and their helpers chose to include a second family. And then, despite the cramped and uncomfortable conditions, the unbelievable difficulty of finding enough to eat, they chose to offer shelter to another man, one they did not know.

Remembering the experience of Anne or any of the other onderduikers can put in perspective our time of social distance and sheltering in place. The challenges of the healthy members of our community, compelled to remain in their own homes in the midst of the current pandemic, are not truly analogous to the travails of both those who went into hiding, and those others who protected them, at great danger to themselves. And yet we are living in a frightening moment: many have lost their livelihoods and even their lives. Healthcare workers, police officers, and grocery cashiers are placing their own health at risk for the sake of others.  In times of uncertainty and pain, it is inspiring to be reminded of our own power to make difficult choices, and of the powerful difference those choices can make.

Het achterhuis. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, taken by me in June, 2019.

If you want to learn more about Anne Frank and the other onderduikers from the secret annex, here is a video from the Anne Frank House https://www.annefrank.org/en/anne-frank/who-was-anne-frank/

Boodschapen: Making groceries in a time of uncertainty

Photo courtesy of Stanley Yavneh Klos

One of my favorite places in Zwolle is the Grote markt, which features an open-air market on Fridays and Saturdays. Each day has its own vendors, but there are always tasty cheese samples to nibble, fresh-baked bread still warm from the oven, bright orange peppers and little green brussels sprouts. I prefer the appelflappen sold on Fridays, seemingly familiar pastries that raise the simple apple turnover to an art form, but the Saturday bakery has the best croissants. Fortunately, the fish folks, Visschers, are there on both days, so the XL zak of freshly fried kibbeling is now a tradition in our house, although we forego another Dutch treat my mother would have loved, raw herring with chopped onions.

“Making groceries” is a fabulous New Orleans locution that means to go shopping. After six weeks in the Netherlands (along with 297 days of Duolingo), I can now make groceries (boodschapen) pretty much all in Dutch, augmented by lots of smiles, nods, and the occasional hand gesture. I have learned how to request my bread be sliced (“ja, dank je, sneden” is so much more civilized than tilting my parallel hands up and down very quickly, like a frenzied flight attendant ). I can ask to pay by debit card (“ik wil pinnen”), proclaim that something is very tasty (“Lekker!“), and offer an appropriate thank you and farewell (“Dank je wel. Tot ziens!”). I even managed to explain that I needed dark roast coffee (Veel donker en sterk voor de French Press).

Learning languages has always been both fun and important to me. I find great joy in deciphering the meaning of words that secretly make me giggle with their fluted vowels, rolled r’s, and aspirated g’s that sit slightly higher in the throat than the ch in Chanukah.

My struggles in expression and comprehension also serve to humble me, reminding of my own strange privilege: I teach at a Dutch university, in an international program conducted solely in English. I am continually in awe of the remarkable linguistic gifts of my students, completing university and professional work in a second or third language. When we break into small groups, the discussion may take place in Dutch, German, Spanish or something else, but when we come back together, it’s in my mother tongue.

I love the way language can open the door to another culture, creating a sense of connection and community. My Dutch students smile and laugh encouragingly when I greet them in Dutch or use a Dutch expression. And, in general, I have found the Dutch very patient (veel geduldig) in putting up with my toddling linguistic efforts — not only the vendors at the market, who take time to understand me, but the unfortunate patrons stuck behind me, waiting to be served. Speaking Dutch, however is still very challenging; although I can now navigate basic needs (for those of you dealing with hoarders, ik heb wc-papier nodig is “I need toilet paper”), I quickly reach a point where I am lost, where I can neither express myself nor understand what is being said.

Somehow, my labors with Dutch seems a fit metaphor for this moment of incomprehension, when we are all struggling to make sense of what is going on. No matter what language we speak, this is a time of confusion, uncertainty, fear, for all of us.

Boring pantry staples just in case, slightly redeemed by excellent chocolate

Thursday, instead of the market, we went to the Jumbo, the big supermarket located outside of the original city walls, to stock up, just in case. We bought pasta, canned vegetables, boring but practical nonperishables, despite the fact that, Thursday, although meetings of more than one hundred people had been cancelled, the university and all the town’s amenities – cafes, museums, churches, the synagogue – were still open for business as usual. Friday, however, we woke to the news that all classes were canceled (we will go to online learning until April 1st), that museums were closed, and that Belgium, our neighbor to the south, had declared a state of emergency. Today, so had Spain, while Denmark, Poland, and other countries had closed their borders. Windesheim is calling home all our seniors doing capstone research abroad. Like so many others at this challenging time, I am confused and sad, feeling grateful for what I have but gently mourning the experiences I had anticipated in the months ahead.

I was back at the market today with my winkelwagen, the little covered shopping cart that has quickly become one of my most prized possessions here in Zwolle. On an unusual sunny day, it was more crowded than usual in the market, and the cheesemonger (ill-advisedly, I’m sure) was still offering tastes of a variety of cheeses.

In the center of the square, the statue of the Archangel Michael was still keeping watch over the community. Michael, described as leading God’s army in Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, is the patron saint of Zwolle and frequently depicted in Dutch art struggling with a dragon or serpent.


“The Archangel Michael kills the devil.” Lucas Kilian, after Peter de Witte, after Hubert Gerhards, 1589 – 1615. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The green glass sculpture in the marketplace, however, depicts Michael in a more gentle guise, keeping watch over the citizens of Zwolle. This archangel Michael is familiar to me from the Jewish tradition, where he is described as protector of both the community and its individual members. In the Hebrew Bible, Michael appears to Daniel as the protector of Israel, while the prayer recited at bedtime calls on Michael and three other archangels to surround us in protection: we invite Michael to be at our right hand, Gabriel our left, Raphael (my personal favorite) behind us, and Uriel, before us, lighting the way.

It is a comforting thought, in these confusing times, to envision ourselves surrounded by Michael and his companions. But, in Hebrew, the word malach, angel, also means “messenger.” In a passage quoted in the Reform Jewish prayer book, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us that, not only may we not recognize the messengers, the angels, all around us, we, too, have the capacity to choose to be angels:

“And so we understand that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity. Often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said, it would not be the way it is now. We would not be the way we are now. Never forget that you too yourself may be a messenger.”

In this time of uncertainty and confusion, when borders are closing and our institutions are going dark, we must choose to remember that the universal language is shared in acts of compassion, kindness, and love.

A modern statue of St. Michael gazes at the market

Lice happens

Gerard ter Borch, Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair, known as ‘Hunting for Lice’, c. 1652 – 1653. Image courtesy of Mauritshuis, The Hague.

At the Mauritshuis in the Hague, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is everywhere. She is outlined in sequins on the uniforms of the coat check attendants and guards, reproduced on myriad items in the gift shop (umbrellas, notebooks, keychains), morphed into a rubber duck or embroidered as a cat (each with the requisite earring and scarf) on bags that sell for over thirty dollars each.

Standing in Gallery 15 of this exquisite dollhouse of a museum, I was book-ended by the actual painting on my right, and, out the window, her face — with its sweet, perhaps melancholic glance, its open mouth with light-glossed lips — waving in the heavy wind.

The view from Gallery 15 (photo courtesy of Stanley Yavneh Klos)

But The Girl with the Pearl Earring is not the only painting in the Mauritshuis, or even in the gallery. Not for the first time, I was struck by how, for so many, the museum experience has become the selfie by the masterpiece (Girl with the girl with the pearl). I am not criticizing that impulse per se; anyone who follows my husband’s facebook page has seen me posed, like Let’s make a deal‘s Carol Merrill, next to whatever of the world’s masterworks we might be viewing. What surprises and, frankly, disappoints me is the way in which folks so frequently ignore what else is in the room.

Right next to The Girl, and pretty much unnoticed, hangs a much smaller work. Painted by Gerard Ter Borch (originally from Zwolle!), Woman combing her son’s hair depicts a simply but well-dressed woman, her hair neatly pulled back in a bun with a cap, her brown velvet coat edged with white fur, carefully searching her son’s blond hair for lice. He, too, is clean and composed, holding an apple in his hands, with his brown eyes gazing at what seems to be a window just outside the frame of the painting.

What is going on here? The Girl with a Pearl Earring is celebrated for its mystery: no one knows who the Girl is (Vermeer’s daughter? His maid, as Tracy Chevalier and Scarlett Johansson would assert?). In contrast, Woman combing her son’s hair (or Lice hunting, as it is also known) comes out of a tradition of genre painting that had a great deal of significance in seventeenth century Dutch culture, but whose meaning has been largely lost to those who haven’t learned about the period.

Before this time, known as the Dutch “Golden Age” (the gold, my students remind me, coming from the slave trade), the Netherlands had a long tradition of beautiful religious art; oil painting, in fact, was developed in the low countries before spreading to Italy. After the country became Protestant, however, art changed. The Calvinists were iconoclasts, who white-washed their church walls and destroyed many Catholic images, viewing them as idolatrous rather than sacred. But although art was no longer a part of worship, it did not disappear. Rather, it became part of the secular economy, a symbol of wealth and prosperity in upper- and middle-class homes.

And artists, instead of focusing on sacred images, became specialists: some painted the exquisite flower paintings I love, or the still lives that I can appreciate at an intellectual level, but, frankly, do not find appealing. Others depicted stories from the Bible, not as objects of veneration but as moralistic fables. And some created what are known as genre paintings, images of every day life and values.

Woman combing her son’s hair is such a work, giving us a glimpse into 17th-century life and hygiene. This is clearly not a scene of squalor or moral depredation, a “Jan Steen” family, where life and values are topsy-turvy.

Jan Steen, The Merry Family (image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

Rather, then, as now, lice happens, even in the “nicest” households. If you have ever had the experience of receiving a letter from your child’s school, announcing that lice has been detected, you know such missives generally emphasize that lice should not be considered a sign of uncleanliness or a source of shame. (“Lice prefer clean hair” is a frequent assertion to signify that you are not a bad mother, even if your child has bugs in her braids.)

Perhaps such letters should include a copy of Ter Borch’s image, which underscores that lice hunting is not a sign of bad but good housekeeping, a “maternal duty,” as a similar work in the Rijksmuseum, by Pieter de Hooch, is known.

Pieter de Hooch, The Maternal Duty (courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

Unlike the close-up of the image by Ter Borch, de Hooch draws back to show us the tidy and well-appointed household, light flowing in through clean panes and an open window, to shine on the spotless floor as, before the tidily made box bed with its white pillows, a mother carefully explores her child’s head. Like the images of the Madonna lactans of the 14th and 15th centuries, this is a moment of supreme maternal care and intimacy: Just as the Virgin Mary nurses her own child in a sign of the humility that paradoxically exalts her, so the housewife — not a maid or a servant — conducts this humble task of lice hunting, demonstrating that no detail is beneath her notice or attention in the most important work of caring for her family.

Madonna of the Firescreen (courtesy of the National Gallery via Wikicommons)

As a mom, I am drawn to these images of quotidian child care, which speak to me of my own experience. Just as I, now long ago, spent countless hours suckling my own babies, I have also (fortunately, also now long ago), invested considerable time in patiently combing through long, curly hair, with a tiny comb and lots and lots of conditioner, in the curious intimacy of hunting for lice.

That time spent is a reminder, paradoxically, of privilege. Cutting off the hair might be expedient, but drastic, cruel — historically, a sign of shame. As a mother, I was fortunate to have a job and a life that allowed me time to nurse my babies, and later, as necessary, to take time to attend to their other needs, when they were sick, or scared, or, perhaps, vermin-infested. Ter Borch’s painting, like De Hooch’s, celebrates that privilege in the context of the 17th-century Protestant work ethic, which allies fiscal prosperity, along with cleanliness, with Godliness. The good mother has time to invest in this time-consuming, intimate responsibility that is a synecdoche for the housekeeping that is her maternal duty.

And what about the lice? There are some who like to say, “Everything happens for a reason,” but I don’t agree with that. I believe that “everything happens” — including lice — whether we expect it or not, and it is our job to make sense of it, and, even, to find the good in it. We may or may not agree with the vision of motherhood, or all of the values, of these paintings by Ter Borch and De Hooch; we may prefer the mystery and luminous beauty of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. But Lice hunting also reminds me of the unanticipated moments of intimacy and grace we may sometimes find in doing the humble tasks that are our duty to others.

Image courtesy of Mary Kate Andrepont