Saturday 23 May 2020

Boccaccio's Plague

London, British Library, MS Harl. 5383, f. 7r

In the last post we looked at the way that the Decameron’s multiple narrative frames gave Boccaccio an enormous amount of authorial freedom, allowing him to move in and out of frames in a manner almost imperciptible to the reader.

In this short post I’d like to think further about one aspect of the metaliterary quality of the Decameron. In the Introduction to Day I the narrator assures readers that he has witnessed with his own eyes the terrible events that he is describing:

Maravigliosa cosa è a udire quello che io debbo dire: il che, se dagli occhi di molti e da’ miei non fosse stato veduto, appena che io ardissi di crederlo, non che di scriverlo, quantunque da fededegna udito l’avessi. (Dec. I Intro, 16)
(‘It is a remarkable story that I have to relate. And were it not for the fact that I am one of many people who saw it with their own eyes, I would scarcely dare to believe it, let alone commit it to paper, even though I had heard it from a person whose word I could trust.’ trans. McWilliam)

Vittore Branca published a short chapter, ‘Un modello medievale per l’Introduzione’ in Boccaccio medievale ([1946] 1996, pp. 381-387) in which he identified Boccaccio’s use of Paul the Deacon’s History of the Longobards, and in particular the description of the sixth-century plague in the time of Narses (II 4). So Boccaccio’s eye-witness account becomes also a piece of prose with a Latin source. It would be an error to think that this lessens the authority of Boccaccio’s account. Rather, it layers his personal experience with a further, historical, resonance. Dante defines an auctoritas as one worthy of faith, ‘degno di fede’ (Convivio IV vi 5), and here Boccaccio presents both Paul the Deacon and his Decameron as degni di fede.

Branca notes in the essay cited above, and in the notes to edition of the Decameron, that Boccaccio makes repeated use of Paul the Deacon throughout his other work. And we now know that Boccaccio actually copied this work out in his own hand. The manuscript has been divided up, and is currently: Firenze, Biblioteca Riccardiana 627 and 2795, and British Library, MS Harley 5383. Teresa De Robertis’s entry, nr. 62, in Boccaccio autore e copista (pp. 343-346), gives a full and utterly fascinating account of the reconstruction of the manuscript, due to the work of Emanuele Casamassima (and Salomone Morpurgo before him), Teresa De Robertis, and Laura Pani, all across several decades.

In the London fragment, only identified by Pani in 2012, we find the relevant section describing the plague (History of the Longobards, II 4). In the margins Boccaccio has written a note:

Anno Domini MCCCXLVIII simillima pestis Forentie et quasi per universum orbem

There is much to say here about Boccaccio’s obsession with books, with copying texts, and with how he writes things in the margins. In the present context I want to say one thing in particular. In reading an historical account of a plague by an Eighth-century auctor, Boccaccio has been struck by similarity, the similarity between events of the past and the present. Not only that, but in observing the sheer scale of the plague, he draws another connection between Florence and the rest of the world. Florence, that is, can be thought of as a microcosm, a distillation of all that happens in the world. The Decameron, then, can be thought of as a kind of declaration ‘urbi et orbi’, ‘to the city and to the world’.



Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, ed. by Vittore Branca (Torino: Einaudi, 1992); The Decameron, trans. G. H. McWilliam, Penguin Classics, 2nd edn (London: Penguin, 1995).

Vittore Branca, Boccaccio medievale e nuovi studi sul Decameron, Saggi Sansoni (Firenze: Sansoni, 1996).

Emanuele Casamassima, in Mostra di manoscritti, documenti e edizioni. VI Centenario della Morte di Giovanni Boccaccio, Firenze - Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, 22 maggio-31 agosto 1975, 2 vols (Certaldo: A cura del Comitato promotore, 1975), I, pp. 133-134, nr. 107.

Teresa De Robertis, ‘Restauro di un autografo di Boccaccio (con una nota su Pasquale Romano)’, Studi sul Boccaccio, XXIX (2001), 215-227.

Laura Pani, ‘«Propriis manibus ipse transcripsit». Il manoscritto London, British Library, Harley 5383’, Scrineum Rivista, 9 (2012), 305-325.

Teresa De Robertis, Carla Maria Monti, Marco Petoletti, Giuliano Tanturli, and Stefano Zamponi (eds), Boccaccio autore e copista (Firenze: Mandragora, 2013).

The Decameron and COVID-19

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Ital. 63, f. 9v

The rapid and alarming spread of COVID-19 around the world, and the  consequent lockdowns imposed in one country after another, have led to a good deal of commentary on how people have dealt with outbreaks of contagious diseases in the past. Perhaps it was inevitable that the fourteenth-century example of the Black Death would be raised, but it was less expected that copies of the Decameron would sell out on Indeed, it is becoming increasingly common to talk of the Decameron and COVID-19 - see here and here and here.

The Decameron of course is a text that emerges out of lockdown conditions. The ‘story’ of the story-collection is that ten young Florentines, seven women and three men, gather in the church of Santa Maria Novella during the plague of 1348, and agree to flee the city together and repair to a country villa, safely away from the noxious air of Florence. When they arrive at this villa they decide to tell each other stories to pass the time. One member of the brigata (‘group’) is nominated monarch for the day, and this person chooses the order in which the stories will be told (each person tells one story per day), and selects the theme for the following day’s stories. Each day closes with a ballata sung amidst decorous dancing and merry-making. So the Decameron is a ‘framed’ narrative, deploying a literary technique of mise en abyme: first the author presents his book in a ‘Proem’, which in turn frames the ‘Introduction’ to the First Day, introducing the story of the brigata, members which in turn tell their individual stories. The frame has the effect of keeping the stories at a certain distance from the author, and allows for the author to offer further commentary on the stories. This happens, for example, in the ‘Introduction’ to the Fourth Day.

Let’s return to the beginning of the Decameron, since the technique of framing necessitates the reader to pass over several thresholds, namely, the Proem and the Introduction, and consequently to draw connections between them.

In the ‘Proem’ the author explains how he came to write the work. As a young man, such was the immoderate intensity of love that he experienced, that he frequently benefited from the sympathy of friends. Wishing to be grateful, the author proposes to offer these stories for the benefit of those who are currently in distress. Lovesick women suffer in particular because, unlike men who can go out hunting with their male friends for distraction, they must remain indoors to protect their honour. Women, that is, are subjected to a continuous lockdown because of their gender, and, under such conditions, are prone to noia, an anxious mental state that is not equivalent to what that word means in present-day Italian, ‘boredom’, but rather something much more akin to what we would call depression. Thus 
‘in soccorso e rifugio di quelle che amano, per ciò che all’altre è assai l’ago e ’l fuso e l’arcolaio, intendo di raccontare cento novelle, o favole o parabole o istorie che dire le vogliamo’ (Dec. Proemio 13)

(‘I intend to provide succour and diversion for the ladies, but only for those who are in love, since the others can make do with their needles, their reels and their spindles. I shall narrate a hundred stories or fables or parables or histories or whatever you choose to call them’, trans. McWilliam). 
A couple of things are very striking about this: the Decameron is directed at a restricted audience, those women who are suffering; and the kinds of stories that will be included cover a very wide range of genres. Indeed, the paratactic phrasing ‘novelle, o favole o parabole o istorie’ flattens out the distinction between them, perhaps suggesting that the genre of the stories in the Decameron won’t be easy to define with traditional terms.

The ‘fictional’ story of the frame then begins, set during the real plague of 1348. We know that Boccaccio was in Florence when the plague broke out (March-April, 1348), and his father had an official role in the city as one of the ‘Otto di Abbondanza’, whose duties included food rationing and public hygiene (Branca, Boccaccio: profilo biografico [1977], p. 78 n. 41). We would probably call such a role now a ‘front line service’. He appears to have been appointed to this role between June 1347 and August 1348, when he succumbed to the contagion. Boccaccio also lost his stepmother, and a host of friends and acquaintances.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Ital. 63, f. 6r – the ‘triumph’ of Death

The first half of the Introduction (§§1-48) is given over to a description of the plague in Florence. It details the first signs of the disease, the symptoms, the immediate response of the citizens of Florence, one is to ignore the problem, the other is to completely isolate, and others still chose a middle path between the too. It made little difference to the outcome, and those who showed symptoms were inevitably dead within three days. The social consequences of this destruction are then outlined, with people left in neglect through fear of becoming sick, the obsequies of the dead being too short, and many unscrupulous types taking advantage of people’s fear with quack remedies. What would have once been considered utterly inappropriate in terms of modesty has become normal. And the narrator then closes this account by observing that even those in the countryside, in less densely populated areas, fared no better.

This is the context in which seven young ladies find themselves in Santa Maria Novella, and begin to wonder if getting out of the city might not be a good idea. They are joined by three handsome young men, who at first think their invitation to join them in the countryside is a joke, and thus the second half of the Introduction Day I continues.

It should be already clear  that a parallel is being drawn between two different kinds of illness: lovesickness, and the plague. A remedy for one, amusing distraction and keeping oneself entertained, is also a remedy for the other. The multiple frames of the Decameron allow for these several perspectives to be in play at the same time.

So the many stories that are now in circulation on ‘heartbreak’ in lockdown, where those who have just broken up are stuck at home and cannot move on, might take some solace in the Decameron and in the knowledge that it is a book written more or less just for them.


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