Associate Professor Jennifer Haraguchi (Italian) speaks about the role of the plague in Boccaccio’s Decameron and his unique prescription for a cure: storytelling.
Hi, I’m Jennifer Haraguchi, Associate Professor of Italian in the Department of French and Italian. And because we’re all isolating at home, I’d like to tell you a little about social distancing as it happened in Florence, Italy, almost 700 years ago.
The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio writes in the Decameron of how medieval Florence reacted to the spread of the Black Plague in 1348: the wealthy either shut themselves up in their houses with fine foods and wine or they left the city for their villas in the countryside; the middle class went about their regular activities holding flowers or spices up to their noses; and there were others who laughed in the face of contagion, drinking their way from one tavern to the next. Boccaccio’s realistic description of the plague resonates with us today in the time of COVID-19, as we try to grapple with the limits of science in treating widespread infection, death, and economic upheaval.
Boccaccio explains that the plague first appeared in the East where they bled at the nose, but in the West, they have swelling in the armpits or the groin the size of an egg or sometimes as big as an apple. And then black blotches appear all over the arms and thighs, which is a certain sign of death within three days.
Boccaccio writes that there is no doctor or medicine that can help; there are no measures to prevent it. It can be transmitted by merely touching the clothes of a sick person. One day, Boccaccio saw two pigs picking up the rags of a dead man with their snouts. Shortly after, these pigs turned around and around as if they had been poisoned and then fell over dead.
Whatever the situation, Boccaccio explains that disease and death touched all of them. There was widespread panic and fear; there were over 100,000 deaths in a little over a year’s time. Boccaccio’s own father died of the plague. Speaking of the rapid deaths in this period, President Hinckley cites Boccaccio in a 1999 general conference talk: “At noon, they dined with their relatives and friends, and at night, they supped with their ancestors in the next world.”
Certainly, the 1970s film Monty Python and the Holy Grail drew on Boccaccio’s description of the beccamorti, those hired at a high price to pick up and carry the dead, usually in carts piled high with bodies. These becchini were the dregs of society, who often threw the bodies in mass graves because there was no more room in the churches or cemeteries.
Boccaccio’s Decameron is not just about the plague, but the plague serves as the premise for the rest of the literary work, which is a collection of one hundred tales, or novelle as Boccaccio calls them, told as a way to pass the time by seven noble women and three noble men in a beautiful villa in the Tuscan countryside, where they have taken refuge from the plague. These tales, ranging from a G rating to one for more mature audiences, are about love, life lessons, clever tricks, and practical jokes. They had a great influence on subsequent authors: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, and Molière.
In the years after the circulation of the Decameron, physicians wrote a number of medical treatises on the effects of the plague. Recently, scholars have noted that the treatises place a great deal of emphasis on the emotional and psychological aspects of survival, and they propose that Boccaccio, a storyteller, must have had an influence on these writers. As early modern Europe faced more outbreaks of the plague in the centuries that followed, the medical advice continued to prescribe reading, storytelling, playing games, and music as a way to strengthen one’s mind, relieve pain, and maintain emotional balance.
In our own period of social isolation, full of economic hardship, worry, stress, and even boredom, we would do well to take this advice to heart. No matter our circumstance, each of us has the means and time to tell stories; and in the process, like Boccaccio, we are recording our own history.