What We’re Reading Now: Boccaccio’s Decameron
It’s Friday, and here’s the latest in our weekly series, “What We’re Reading Now.” Enjoy this look a Boccaccio’s Decameron by Jim Calder.
Great literature has a certain timeless quality that allows a text to obtain new significance over countless generations and historical events. With this in mind, and given the events of the past days and weeks, I recently returned to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was published in Florence, Italy in 1353. The Decameron consists of 100 stories, taken and adapted from the literature, folklore, and oral tradition of the time period, covering everything from tragedy, intrigue, love, and the hypocrisy of authority—often in satirical or even licentious style. I first encountered the Decameron when it was assigned reading in an undergraduate history course on the bubonic plague (more on that later), and my first reaction was how funny it was! While Boccaccio’s depictions of sex and trickery shocked his critics by challenging contemporary moral conventions, I was simply shocked that someone so many years in the past could actually make me laugh. This is certainly less surprising to me now, as I have become more well read in both old and new literature, but at the time Boccaccio’s visceral humor created a tangible connection to the humanity of the past in ways other primary sources like religious treatises or medieval tax records could never hope to accomplish.
Unfortunately, my recent turn to the Decameron has less do with humor than with the emerging crisis presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is likely that Boccaccio conceived of the Decameron in 1348 during an outbreak of plague in his home city of Florence. This is reflected in the book’s overarching plot structure. The 100 stories are not simply presented without context, but instead are told by ten well-to-do young Florentines, both men and women, who escape to a countryside villa during an outbreak of the Black Death occurring in the city. Safely distanced from the misery of the city, they amuse themselves by telling tales and enjoying each other’s company in relative peace. Until recently the sections regarding these storytellers were of little interest to me, especially compared with the excitement and humor of the tales themselves. While I recognized the 100 tales’ literary value, it was hard to relate to these young, quarantined Florentines. Of course, all of that has changed now. In fact, focusing on this aspect of the Decameron has significantly changed my feeling about the work as a whole.
The first connection, if obvious in one sense, is that I now intuitively understand the need to return to stories particularly in times of distress and isolation. If one attempted to recreate ‘Netflix and chill’ in book form, what better way than to include 100 entertaining stories of intrigue, sex, and humor to pass the time? As Matthew Wills notes in a recent article published by JSTOR, it was not lost on medical professionals at the time that keeping yourself entertained, rather than being a simple diversion, is actually beneficial to improving mental and overall health among people during this kind of crisis. Boccaccio’s work certainly functioned in such a manner, and while accessible in a different way than our current streaming services, the fact that it was written in vernacular Tuscan dialect allowed it to serve a far larger and diverse audience than its predecessors.
The content of the Decameron itself also takes on a new, eerily familiar tone. When describing reactions to the outbreak of bubonic plague, Boccaccio explains that many Florentines
. . . shun and flee from the sick and all that pertained to them, and thus doing . . . they lived removed from every other and shut themselves up in those houses where none had been sick and where living was best . . .
Given what we now know about germs and the spread of disease, this is of course a good idea and probably in itself helped to mitigate the Black Death’s effect in the city to certain extent. However, just like today, not everyone took this approach. Boccaccio also notes that
Others, inclining to the contrary opinion, maintained that to carouse and make merry and go about singing and frolicking and satisfy the appetite in everything possible and laugh and scoff at whatsoever befell was a very certain remedy for such an ill.
What is interesting here is that despite the great advances of medical knowledge that have taken place since the 14th century—consider that germ theory didn’t take off until the late 1800s—one can still see these two basic human reactions to disease play out today. This is not to say that the actions of those who defy quarantine do not pose a significant health risk. Ignoring science and medical advice has consequences. However, the fact that many braved the ravages of the Black Death, one of the most deadly and catastrophic diseases ever to confront Western civilization, does show how ingrained the urge to celebrate in the face of extreme adversity is within the human psyche.
Of course, we also know that many in Boccaccio’s Florence simply wouldn’t have had the choice to lock themselves away. Most workers would not have had the opportunity to simply stop working, let alone escape to a country villa like the protagonists in the Decameron. This represents another parallel to today’s world, where many of our lowest paid grocery and service workers find themselves on the front lines of the Coronavirus pandemic. Boccaccio himself noted this writing that
. . . throughout the scattered villages and in the fields, the poor and miserable husbandmen and their families, without succour of physician or aid of servitor, died, not like men, but well nigh like beasts, by the ways or in their tillages or about the houses, indifferently by day and night.
Thankfully we are not yet in such a dire situation. Nonetheless, it is worth keeping in mind those that put themselves in harm’s way keeping our basic needs met in this crisis.
Reading the Decameron during the current moment is an experience I will not forget, and something I recommend to anyone else looking for great literature while obeying stay-at-home orders. When we experience a real connection to the past, as I have through this book, we not only experience the trials of our ancestors but also their triumphs and resilience. In these difficult times, it is good to know we have come back from worse, and even ended up with some great books to show for it.