Anybody who needs a reminder of how long a pandemic can last should look at the life of Giovanni Boccaccio, who survived years of bubonic plague outbreaks in medieval Italy. Boccaccio’s writings about staying alive during plague times, which describe mass graves in Florence like the ones dug for victims of coronavirus in present day New York City, have been a nightly pastime during months of quarantine for a group of my friends from around the country.
Days after the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic on March 11, I was camping on a beach in Jamaica with 20 friends, including many from Virginia and Washington, D.C. Each of us wondered if we should stay on the island to avoid the U.S. quarantine we all knew was coming.
There were so far only two cases of coronavirus in Jamaica while the virus was spreading rapidly in U.S., so going home was more dangerous than staying on vacation. We knew travel could be difficult for months. My wife, who spent a year in college in Italy, said our situation was “positively Decameronian,” and told us about Boccaccio’s 14th century masterpiece, “The Decameron.”
The collection of 100 short stories is framed by a tale about 10 young nobles in 1348 who flee the outbreak of bubonic plague in Florence, known as the Black Death, by partying and telling bawdy stories in a secluded countryside villa. Like those young Florentines, we passed the time telling stories by day and dancing to music at night with the barely suppressed thoughts of the pandemic at home lurking in every shadow.
By the time our campsite rental had ended, all but one of us decided to return to the U.S., despite the risks. He’s still in northwest Jamaica, and most of the businesses there are closed, just like here. Everyone at airports recognized that we risked exposure just by being there. Two in our group tested positive for coronavirus after returning home, but they both recovered after minor symptoms. They were luckier than the 135,000 U.S. victims who have died from the disease as of July 9.
We all self-isolated for two weeks after returning home, as the State Department recommended for people who traveled internationally during the outbreak. Many states and the District of Columbia issued shelter-in-place orders that banned public gatherings. Inspired by my wife’s impassioned description of the bawdy, yet enlightening, collection, one of our compatriots set up a virtual book club called “The Decameronathon.”
We spend around an hour each night reading stories from Boccaccio’s epic, passing our quarantine days just like the Florentines in the book. Like millions of others, our group across the U.S. connected on video chat through Zoom or Jitsi. Reading the 800-page translation from the 14th century text in Tuscan dialect seemed like a daunting task, yet we joked that we’d have time to get finish it all during quarantine.
Born in 1313, Boccaccio carefully avoided several outbreaks of the bubonic plague throughout his life in Italy. That periodic resurgence of disease should be a cautionary tale to anybody who thinks coronavirus will simply disappear, human movement being a formidable opponent to even 21st century medicine.
On the first day of reading “The Decameron,” we were struck by how Boccaccio’s retelling of the 1348 plague outbreak resembled the way people responded to coronavirus worldwide.
As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat — it rhymes. Bubonic plague, Boccaccio recalled in his introduction, spread to Italy from Asia through the growing international trade routes of the Silk Road. Coronavirus was likewise first diagnosed in Wuhan, China, and spread through our even more connected global travel network (please repeat after me: you must not call COVID-19 “the China virus”).
“The sick were barred from entering the city, and many instructions were given to preserve health,” Boccaccio wrote about Florence struggling and failing to contain the plague. “Touching bread or any other object which had been handled or worn by the sick would transport the sickness from the victim to the one touching the object. It is a wondrous tale that I have to tell: if I were not one of many people who saw it with their own eyes, I would scarcely have dared to believe it, let alone to write it down, even if I had heard it from a completely trustworthy person.”
Up until the start of March, I attended conferences and embassy parties in Washington, D.C. People were wary of contracting the virus but had no idea that its rapid spread would force states to close businesses, ban public gatherings and effectively confine people to their homes. By April my wife and I were scrubbing our groceries to avoid spreading traces of the virus into our home.
Humans have responded to terror in very similar ways throughout the centuries. Boccaccio wrote that some living during outbreaks of the Black Death in the 1300s decided that “satisfying all one’s appetites whenever possible and laughing at the whole bloody thing was the best medicine.” That brings to mind accounts of Americans indulging in drugs, alcohol, and pornography during quarantine. Others, during both pandemics, maintained the strictest isolation or prayed with extreme devotion.
Then as now, avoiding infection remains the top priority, whether people turn to hedonism or faith during this crisis. Even with advanced medical technology, doctors with scarce supplies of ventilators have been forced to make difficult choices to halt the spread of the respiratory disease. Thousands of victims in New York City and in Sao Paolo, Brazil, have been buried in mass graves reminiscent of those Boccaccio described during the bubonic plague in Florence.
“One citizen avoided another, everybody neglected their neighbors and rarely or never visited their parents and relatives unless from a distance,” Boccaccio said of the plague times. “Many people died by chance who would have survived had they been helped. And so, because of the shortage of people to care for the sick, and the violence of the disease, day and night such a multitude died that it would dumbfound any to hear of it who did not see it themselves.”
It’s no wonder the youths hiding from the plague in Boccaccio’s book tell stories about sex, adventure, revenge, greed, and especially redemption. All the craziness of life in medieval Italy from the castle to the convent. My wife also convinced our book club to watch “The Little Hours” on Netflix, adapted from some of the bawdy stories told in Boccaccio’s epic, especially the ones about clergy behaving badly.
The book is obviously centuries old and sometimes caused us to cringe at the lot women faced in medieval times. In spite of this many of the stories portray women as independent and strong-willed, going after and getting what they want in a feudal society that rarely cares about their opinions.
Plague times expose the hypocrisy and weak spots of a society. In the 1300s, Boccaccio poked holes in the images of perfectly chaste clerics propped up by the Italian nobility and the decadent Vatican that demanded blind obedience. Today, the flaws in our healthcare system and social safety net are laid bare during this pandemic that disproportionately claims the lives of low-income minorities.
Like the characters in the book, every night we appointed a king or queen to declare a theme for the next day of storytelling. On one of the days when I wore the crown, for instance, I decreed “cat day,” and I wore my Northwestern University Wildcats jersey while everyone else took turns reading the stories wearing cat face paint or cat ear hoodies. Other days we had regent-mandated musical interludes, ate noodles, and coiffured ourselves for “hair day.”
In the end, the Florentine youths decide to return to their city rather than remain on holiday in a Tuscan villa, as my friends and I did when we returned from Jamaica. Some of us had kids to care for, everyone had to work remotely somehow, and, even though we loved the beach, we hated the thought of being banned from returning to our homes. On our way to Montego Bay’s Sangster Airport, we passed a military checkpoint, ushering us back to a new reality as we took off just before Jamaica began to restrict travel like the rest of the world.
Boccaccio’s various tales are above all about the celebration of life, the good and the bad, which must be experienced by living, not hiding. Part of living means staying alive, so we should shelter in place to give doctors the chance to combat the virus so we don’t face the same fatal risks as those Florentine youths. Statistically speaking, at least three of Boccaccio’s youths would die upon returning to Florence in 1348. Our technology helps us stay connected in quarantine through groups like our Decameronathon.
We should carry Boccaccio’s zest for life with us, even before the U.S. and other countries begin returning to the daylight of the streets. When we return to our offices and theaters, let this desire to live life to the fullest also drive us to be kind to one another, appreciate every moment we have together, and rebuild our world better than before this crisis began.