The Medieval Book to Read While Under Quarantine - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Throughout history when faced with viral doom and gloom, people have turned to tales of lust and deceit.

By Nick Dall

“It started in the East,” where it “killed an innumerable quantity of people,” before gradually extending “its miserable length over the West. Against this plague all human wisdom and foresight were in vain.” Orders were given “to cleanse the city of filth, the entry of any sick person was forbidden, [and] much advice was given for keeping healthy.… And yet, in the beginning of the spring of the year mentioned, its horrible results began to appear.”

Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio.

Source Universal Images Group via Getty

This excerpt does not describe the westward spread of COVID-19, aka coronavirus, from China to Italy and beyond in recent weeks. It’s from the first few pages of The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio, in 1353. The Decameron, which is often compared to The Canterbury Tales, though the former was written decades earlier, is primarily remembered for its ribald tales of lust and deceit. Few recall that the book is set against the backdrop of the havoc caused by the bubonic plague that ravaged Florence in 1348. The stories that follow the morbid intro are “a way of bringing order to a chaotic situation,” says University of Texas at Austin professor Wayne Rebhorn. Unlike reality, “stories have a beginning, a middle and an end,” points out Rebhorn, whose 2013 translation of The Decameron won a PEN Literary Award.

The 100 stories, 10 per day for a period of 10 days — deca means “10” in Greek and hēmera means “day” — are told by seven noblewomen and three noblemen who have decamped to a country villa to escape the horrors of city life. If anyone tried the same trick in 2020, they would be slapped with a fine and ordered back to the city. Other measures taken by Italian authorities in 2020 include canceling Serie A soccer matches, shuttering Carnival, closing schools and hosting fashion shows in empty auditoriums (Armani, undaunted, livestreamed its show). 

The country escape of The Decameron’s protagonists shouldn’t be seen as an actual refuge, though — the plague was just as devastating in rural areas. But fiction has the power to suspend reality for characters in times of crisis. “Implicit in The Decameron is a very large claim to the value of literature,” says Rebhorn. 

Artifice aside, much of Boccaccio’s depiction of plague-stricken Florence is reminiscent of the coronavirus epidemic. Not much has changed since a disease so contagious that “the sick communicated it to the healthy … just as a fire catches anything dry or oily that comes near to it,” caused “brother to abandon brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother and very often the wife her husband.” Then as now, quarantine was a central pillar of response to a pandemic. Thankfully, Rebhorn notes, we are now blessed with international organizations like the World Health Organization, mechanisms of state (e.g., police, hospitals, immigration services) and medical knowledge that make a coherent response possible. 

Illuminated manuscript page from Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio, Italian, c1467. Artist: Taddeo Crivelli

Illuminated manuscript page from “The Decameron,” circa 1467.

Source Art Media/Print Collector/Getty

There are other similarities. Where people today don face masks (despite suggestions that they aren’t very effective), in the 14th century they “went about carrying flowers or scented herbs or perfumes in their hands, in the belief that it was an excellent thing to comfort the brain with such odors,” wrote Boccaccio. And, in February 2020, as stock markets tumble amid fears of the virus’ effects, we should remember that plagues have always caused economic destruction: “Wheat crops stood abandoned, unreaped and ungarnered,” wrote Boccaccio. 

Fortunately, those who make it through The Decameron’s “dreary opening pages” (Boccaccio’s words!) are richly rewarded. Navigating the intro, the author continues, is akin to “climbing a steep mountainside to a most beautiful and delightful valley, which appears more pleasant in proportion to the difficulty of the ascent.” Indeed, The Decameron’s first story features Cepparello, a man so wonderfully wicked that he is able to lie his way to sainthood. “Death was a really big deal back then,” says Rebhorn, explaining that the church emphasized the dangers of hell. “But Cepparello is having none of it.” Instead, the fear that stalks the city is “turned into a joke by this great character who is unafraid of dying.” 

Despite the plague’s devastation — the Black Death was far deadlier than even the grimmest predictions of the novel coronavirus’ potential impact, and 25 million people, a full third of Europe’s population, died — Italy did bounce back. The city of Florence went on to become the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance, yielding masterpieces like Michelangelo’s David and Brunelleschi’s Duomo and, of course, The Decameron.

Unlike Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was an attempt to reinforce religion, The Decameron is written for “regular human beings who live life in this world, not in the next,” says Rebhorn. Many of the stories are about getting as much pleasure out of life as you can. (“There’s nothing like a dirty story to take your mind off death,” he jokes.) The stories aren’t meant only to shock and amuse, though. They can also be read as a “meditation on the value of stories,” says Rebhorn, explaining that we use stories to fashion identities, to deal with powerful people and to get what we want.

“We need stories to live,” he stresses.

Which is why, when faced with impending catastrophe, whether it be from coronavirus, the climate apocalypse or the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, “you can always find something in The Decameron,” says Rebhorn.

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