A friend recently posted on social media that he had gone to the bookstore, and they were out of Boccaccio’s The Decameron. This admittedly English-major-type joke is that Boccaccio’s classic 14th-century Italian text is set in a pandemic. The Decameron, widely considered a classic of Italian literature in the same class as Dante’s Divine Comedy, was composed shortly after the onslaught of the black plague, which historians estimate killed a quarter of the population in Europe.
The book begins with the outbreak of the bubonic plague in Florence. Ten souls decide to flee the city and quarantine in the Italian countryside. To pass the time, they saunter about, partake of lavish meals, and sing courtly poetry. In the long, sweltering, summer afternoons, they take a siesta and afterwards reserve a time to tell stories. Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, all present have to tell a story, but in The Decameron each individual tells a story each day. Ten people, ten afternoons, ten stories per day. Hence the title The Decameron which, derived from Greek roots, means ten days.
Since the coronavirus outbreak there has been an exponential increase in interest of books about pandemics. A recent NPR broadcast featured a New York City Public Library librarian noting an uptick in digital downloads of dystopian fiction and non-fiction works about past epidemics like the 1918 Spanish Flu. Other readers have gravitated towards Albert Camus’ The Plague, which tells the story of an outbreak of the bubonic plague in a fictional 1950s French Algerian city. The novel is told primarily from the perspective of an atheist physician, who is driven to “alleviate human suffering” wherever he finds it. By contrast, The Decameron does not present any heroic deeds to save the sick or alleviate suffering. It makes one wonder whether The Decameron has anything to say about pandemics despite its setting.
The reader gets a brief glimpse of the pandemic in the introduction to The Decameron, which provides the setting with a grim description of the outbreak in Florence. All the stock characters and literary tropes are present: the benevolent philanthropists who engage in extraordinary works of mercy; the draconian opportunists who try to profit off the desperation and suffering of the afflicted; the masses of people who are driven by fear and anxiety to hunker down in their homes or retreat from the city altogether. But the story quickly shifts to the ten young people who decide to retreat from the city, and here the stories begin. Interestingly, the stories contain no references to the plague. Rather they tell of both happy and tragic love, and these are intermixed with tales of humor, ribaldry, and satire.
One might easily conclude that the plague setting is a mere vehicle for these short stories, a majority of which have their roots in folklore and in oral literary culture, predating the plague’s outbreak. The plague and stories about unrequited love or lecherous priests hardly seem concordant, suggesting that the plague is merely a literary frame for one hundred otherwise unrelated tales. A similar approach is sometimes taken by critical scholars of the biblical book of Job who see the prologue and epilogue as a folk story that doesn’t seamlessly fit with the lengthy poetic speeches of Job and his friends. I would submit that just as canonical criticism has suggested a way in which to read Job as a canonical whole, so there is a way of reading the Decameron as a literary whole.
One scene that is especially suggestive is in the opening prologue to the ninth day. It opens with this poetic description of the morning and of nature unmolested by human contact on account of the plague:
The light whose radiance dispels the shades of night had already softened into pale celestial hues the deep azure of the eighth heaven, and the flowerets in the meadows had begun to raise their drooping heads, when Emilia arose and caused the other young ladies to be called, and likewise the three young men. Answering her summons, they set off at a leisurely pace . . . and made way to a little wood, not very far from the palace. On entering the wood, they observed a number of roebucks, stags, and other wild creatures, which, as though sensing they were safe from the hunter on account of the plague, stood their ground as if they had been rendered tame and fearless. However, by approaching these creatures one after another as though intending to touch them, they caused them to run away and leap in the air; and in this way they amused themselves for some little time until, the sun being now in the ascendant, they thought it expedient to retrace their steps. They were all wreathed in fronds of oak, and their hands were full of fragrant herbs or flowers so that if anyone had encountered them, he would only have been able to say: “Either these people will not be vanquished by death, or they will welcome it with joy.” And so back they came, step by gradual step, singing, chattering, and jesting with one another.
The 10 young people saunter and dance about the woods like Bacchic revelers. One might even mistake them, the narrator implies, as people out of their right mind. Such ecstasy was part of the rites of Bacchus, and it is not difficult to picture the young people as devotees of Dionysius. The thought of the imagined hidden observer is profound: “Either these people will not be vanquished by death, or they will welcome it with joy.” The young possess a playfulness, joy, and lightness of step that makes them seem immune or indifferent to death. One could say that only the folly of youth could dance and play in the midst of plague, but the dour precaution of the elderly and more experienced can also be accused of lacking in vibrancy and vitality. Is living in fear truly living? Certainly, the young people would say no, and I would argue Boccaccio would agree.
In a way, Boccaccio’s stories are the narrative form of this Bacchic dance described at the opening of the ninth day. They are deliberately playful, not because of a callousness to disease and suffering, but because they assert life over death, joy over fear, or to put it in Christian theological terms, resurrection over crucifixion and death. It is an empirical but uncomfortable fact that you cannot wait until the threat of death has been nullified to be joyful. All humor and joy is a greater or lesser expression of indifference to death and suffering.
Sigmund Freud developed a theory of humor that helps explain the origin of The Decameron and its literary unity. Freud said essentially that humor is an activity of the ego as it tries to cope with external stresses and pressures. Humor is sort of like the ego saying to life, is that worst you can bring? In the felicitous phrase of the pastoral theologian Donald Capps, “humor saves in the expenditure of painful emotions, costly inhibitions, and difficult thinking.” The Decameron was a source of laughter to people who had experienced painful disease and widespread death. Freud liked to tell the joke about a condemned man who is led to the gallows on a winter’s day — he turns to the guards and pleads for a scarf so he won’t catch a cold! The one hundred stories of The Decameron are like the joke of this man under a death sentence.
Humor, according to Freud, is a way of warding off or making light of suffering and even death. It’s why it is such an underrated but useful tool in pastoral ministry. Camus’ The Plague is a fascinating and at times terrifying philosophical reflection on a fictional pandemic. The Decameron is, I would argue, a coping mechanism for an actual pandemic. Humor doesn’t negate the suffering and death of actual people, but it most certainly helps those who survive keep living and moving forward. Thankfully, humor is not a medicine that someone else can prescribe for you — only the ego that decides it is okay to keep living even in the face of mortality will self-prescribe such healthful remedies. Am I suggesting you pick a copy of Boccaccio for your next beach read or light summer fare? Probably not, but perhaps, in midst of our own pandemic, you could try something to make you laugh.
Fr. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey.