Literature and Pandemic: Boccaccio’s Decameron in today’s context

Arts & Culture

10 juni 2020
Auteur(s): Francesco Ciannamea
There is much we can still take from Giovanni Boccacio's stories in times of The Black Death in The Decameron which may be surprisingly relevant now.

By Francesco Ciannamea

Contributing Writer

The COVID-19 crisis has reshaped our way of life: most of our everyday activities have been forbidden and even now we have to face a “new normality” where, for example, most of our social life takes place online.

What has not changed is literature: even during the the lockdown it is still possible to read our books as well as to purchase new ones in electronic format. Now, as it has always been, reading is a way of escapism from reality, to look for new ideas, to learn how people behave in other, real or fictional, worlds; or simply just to have some fun. So it’s natural to ask ourselves: can literature teach us something about a unique and unprecedented situation like this pandemic? Luckily, from italian middle age there’s a book which is set in the same scenario and still sounds modern: it’s Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Painting by English painter John William Waterhouse entitled "A Tale from the Decameron" (1916).

It’s 1348 and a commercial ship from the Black Sea brought a new disease to Europe. In just 5 years the Black Death spread across all of Europe, killing around ⅓ of the population from the Byzantine Empire to Scandinavia. It’s in this context that Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio sets his work: in the Florence basilica ten people, seven girls and three boys, decide to run away from the city and look for salvation in the countryside (so similar to our Social Distancing!), where they would spend 14 days. During 4 of these days, they will rest, while for the remaining 10 each one will tell a story to pass the time. Every day a king is elected, who will decide the theme for the tales of the day. This is the so-called "frame" of the Decameron, within which there is the "picture" of the 100 stories.

Although today we have many other ways to spend our time, we cannot help but feel sympathy for these girls and boys, who today would probably be university students, as they are all between 18 and 28 years old, and that in order to escape, even psychologically, from a great tragedy of their time, decide to spend time together telling stories. Here we immediately find the first lesson that a book like The Decameron can give us: the importance of human relationships even in moments of isolation, and the need to communicate is inherent in every human being.

The book, both in the author's intentions and in the content, is an antidote against the feeling of death and the disruption of civil life brought on by the plague: literature can be the antidote, reconstructing values, and at the same time the demonstration that life is a force that always prevails over adversities.

The Decameron talks metaphorically to anyone who fears that society is losing itself, to remind us that it lies within the nature of men and women.

Painting depicting the events from the Eight Story of the Fifth Day in The Decameron by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli entitled "The Banquet in the Pine Forest" (1482/3). 

This also explains why the book was written in the format of a scientific and philosophical treaty: the short stories tell the whole spectrum of human life, which Boccaccio wants to represent in all its aspects. So here we have money, vices, scams, jokes and, of course, love.

There is the merchant who hides his misdeeds from the priest who came to bless him on his deathbed to save the reputation of his companions, to the chef who must find the balance between loyalty to his lord and that to his lover. But also the noble knight who squanders all his possessions to conquer his beloved, and the young woman who cries herself to death when she finds out that her brothers killed her lover to avoid her being “dishonored”.

Love itself is a central theme, treated with freedom: falling in love, faithfulness, adultery and eroticism are touched upon. Love is an antidote against the sentiment of death brought by the Plague and for this reason it is a vital force, described without shame and without moral judgments as a natural fact, and the author lets himself "rejoice in its blossoming": there are the young lovers who try to escape from their parents to spend a night of passion, in a scenario prior to Romeo and Juliet (but the romantics need not worry: it ends way differently!); the farmer who sneaks into a nunnery, which is suddenly happy to have a man "available"; the widowed father who becomes a monk with his son to save him from the pain of losing a woman, but the son is completely fascinated by them as soon as he sees them for the first time.

Boccaccio provides us with a message that still resonates in the XXI century: that no one is immune to the temptations of love because it is part of human nature.

The whole book is full of eroticism, and although it often gets explicit it is never obscene. And by going through all the narratives anyone can see the modernity of the tale, which is maybe its final heritage: as each great piece of literature, it shows that people are the same throughout history; that feelings and passions are the same in humans across all centuries. Whenever a book is able to deeply describe human mind, it will always be able to stay relevant and teach us something about the world and ourselves as well.

The full text of The Decameron translated to English can be found online here for free thanks to Project Gutenberg