Reading the Decameron through the Lens of COVID-19

The fallacy of “literary distancing”

Millicent Marcus
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron is best known in the English-speaking world as a precursor to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But of late, it’s gained an unexpected prominence—and relevance—thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Written in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death that struck Florence in 1348, the book tells the story of a group of ten young people who flee the plague-ravaged city for the Tuscan countryside, where they bide the time telling 100 short tales over the course of their pastoral retreat. I’ve been reading, teaching, and writing about the Decameron ever since graduate school. But it had never held up a mirror to my own life experience until now. Indeed, while I had always been able to balance readerly pleasure with the demands of disinterested scholarship when I read Boccaccio, I had kept the book’s introductory chronicle of the pandemic at a “safe” critical distance, as a relic of the archival past.

All that changed in March. I was teaching a seminar on the Decameron when the coronavirus hit, and the impact of the pandemic forced me to rethink my entire relationship to the text. Where the plague had once seemed like a remote historical event, far from the medically advanced and technologically sophisticated reaches of today’s world, it now became frighteningly real. Rereading the book in the light of what was happening all around me, I came to understand that I had been engaging in a practice of “literary distancing,” resisting the workings of identification and empathy that bind readers to characters in fictional works.

This kind of distancing can, of course, be useful—and even necessary—for a scholar. But in the case of the Decameron, the critical distancing I was engaged in was, I now think, a defensive move, one that cordoned off the physical and social collapse besetting Boccaccio’s characters. My detachment from the sufferings of the people of Florence suddenly seemed like smugness and complacency.

Although the Black Death was much more deadly than the coronavirus has so far been, I began to see uncanny parallels between our time and Boccaccio’s—rhetorical and thematic emphases in our time that contained unmistakable echoes of Boccaccio’s work. When, in April, Governor Andrew Cuomo compared his mitigation measures to a difficult ascent, followed by the arrival in a beautiful place on the “other side of the mountain,” I could not help thinking of Boccaccio’s assurance that his frame-story’s climb up a “steep and rugged mountain” would lead to a “beautiful and delightful plain.” In a similar vein, as Boccaccio described the grisly spectacle of cadavers awaiting collection (family members “carried the bodies of the recently deceased out of their houses and put them down by the door fronts”), so the New York Times reported, on April 9, that “Normally, workers from the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner arrive within a few hours to collect a body. Now the wait can be as long as 24 hours.” Even Boccaccio’s grim account of the lax observance of funeral rites and burial practices has found its contemporary analogue in stories of people unable to be at their relatives’ bedside to hear their final words.

In the Decameron, the breakdown of mourning rites is but one example of the generalized social collapse which beset the disease-ridden city. “In the midst of so much affliction and misery,” Boccaccio wrote, “respect for the reverend authority of the laws, both divine and human, had declined just about to the vanishing point.” The coronavirus may not have wreaked similar havoc on our communities, yet Boccaccio’s description of the way “citizens avoided one another … almost no one took care of his neighbors, and … relatives visited one another infrequently” captures something important about the way most of us have been forced to live. Boccaccio described people using three adaptive modes many of us may recognize—to deal with the virus: lock-down into isolated communities, well-stocked with “delicate foods and the best wines” to be consumed in moderation; untrammeled pursuit of pleasure—heavy drinking, merry-making, and promiscuous consorting with fellow revelers; and a middle course “neither restricting their diet so much as the first, nor letting themselves on in drinking and other forms of dissipation so much as the second, but doing just enough to satisfy their appetites.”

The definitive blow to my “literary distancing” impulse came not from today’s journalistic echoes of Boccaccio’s account, but from my students’ personal reactions to reading the Decameron in the time of COVID-19. Once we resumed our seminars via Zoom, what became clear was the pain my students were feeling at being isolated from the community they had been a part of, and their yearning for connection and solidarity. This made me see the Decameron’s frame story—ten young aristocrats (members of Boccaccio’s brigata) amusing themselves by telling stories as they hid from the plague—in a whole new light.

I had always felt alienated from these characters, who display the most elegant manners and enjoy the luxurious ease of their pastoral retreat with an army of servants in tow. So that no practical matters would impinge on the young people’s leisure, each brigata member is asked to donate his or her own personal servant to oversee some particular aspect of the group’s material needs. With the assignment of those tasks complete, the brigata members are free to engage in the activities for which they are best suited—entertaining one another through song and dance (music courtesy of Dioneo on the lute and Fiammetta on the viol), game-playing (backgammon and chess), pleasant conversation, strolls along garden and woodland paths, and storytelling.

In my previous reading, I had historicized these young people’s behaviors, seeing them as emblems of medieval social-class stratification, and I considered their need for story-telling as yet one more example of their escapist desires. But listening to my students as they dealt with the loss of the community that had bound their lives together on campus, I came to think about the brigata’s role within the overall plan of the Decameron differently. It now seems to me that the young storytellers’ deep communal ties and the rigorous order of their daily routines—governed by a rotating monarchy they set up to preside over their daily activities—serve a vital function, forming a fire-wall against the social ruin brought on by the plague. It’s especially telling that Boccaccio ushered the brigata members onto the Decameron stage by highlighting their interpersonal bonds—those of friendship, neighborliness, kinship, and romantic love—affirming the very social ties that had been undone by the ravages of the plague. And the reason they devote so much time to spinning tales is because, more than other activities, it promotes group concord, as Pampinea explains: “We should not spend the hot part of the day playing games, for they necessarily leave one of the players feeling miffed, without giving that much pleasure either to his opponent or to those who are watching. Rather, we should tell stories, for even though just one person is doing the talking, all the others will still have the pleasure of listening.”

In this mild affirmation of the social harmony that her storytelling promotes, Pampinea understates the cultural significance of what the brigata is doing. Far from a way of merely whiling away the time in a sedentary activity that wouldn’t involve competition, this epic weaving of 100 tales, set in locations throughout the Mediterranean world, spanning eras from classical and biblical times to the present, embracing the humblest and the loftiest of characters, and including every genre available within the repertory of medieval fiction-making—can be seen as a feat of heroism in in its own right: a rescue operation for a civilization under threat of collapse.

There may be something self-congratulatory in this reading, of course, given my own privileged position as a professor at an elite university, finding refuge from the present-day scourge by reading and analyzing the brigata’s stories, together with my intellectually gifted seminar students. Even so, in this case the impulse to forgo literary distancing—in the era of social distancing—has been critically fruitful, enabling me to acknowledge our shared human vulnerability to natural disaster across time. In the process, I have learned to set aside my distaste for the aristocratic airs of the brigata members in favor of a deep appreciation for the strength of the communal bonds that enabled them to survive, and the power embedded in the simple act of telling a story.

All translations are from Giovanni Boccaccio,
The Decameron, translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013).

Millicent Marcus is a professor of Italian and a member of the faculty in film and media studies at Yale University. She is the author of An Allegory of Form: Literary Self-Consciousness in the Decameron.
Originally published:
June 22, 2020


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