“Florentines carried the bodies of the recently deceased out of their houses and put them down by the front doors, where anyone passing by, especially in the morning, could have seen them by the thousands. . . . When all the graves were full, enormous trenches were dug in the cemeteries of the churches, into which the new arrivals were put by the hundreds, stowed layer upon layer like merchandise in ships, each one covered with a little earth, until the top of the trench was reached.”
–Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron
Other plagues came from the East.
Italy was infected, the entire island of Sicily. Fleas with the pestilance rode rats invading just as Mongol armies swarm across the steppe, stowaways on merchants ships bound for Genoa. A Black Death a mere 20 generations ago. Perhaps half the population of Europe died, depending on the data used and the optimism of the analyst, perhaps only two-fifths, while Boccaccio wrote his hundred stories.
The scene opens in Florence. It is 1348. After solemn mass one morning, seven aristocratic young women decide it better to flee the infected city and withdraw to a country estate to shelter two weeks in hopes of escaping the pandemic. Three young men, distant kinsmen, are invited to withdraw with them in this scheme to cheat death.
In the fresh wholesome air of the Tuscan countryside, they agree to pass the time telling stories. Each day a theme is named and each day (excluding a day for worship and a day for personal matters) the young women and men share stories. This setting provides the narrative framework for the 100 stories of the Decameron upon which both Chaucer and Shakespeare borrowed and stole.
Is it all forgotten now? Ground as grist under that same mill that bore away the bones of a score of my mothers, who survived? My old university copy is here somewhere, still packed in a box probably.
I downloaded a PDF.
We have Costco, Chlorox, and Purell, if it can be found. We have polite terms for seclusion much as Boccaccio framed for his narratives: social distancing. Baseball games broadcast without a crowd in the stadium and interactive maps updated with infections and deaths every day at noon.
Will we have art such as this?
Herman Hesse set his 1930 novel of two friends in the time of the Plague. Narcissus remains in the cloister and becomes an abbot. Goldmund ventures into the world to discover life through the senses and, ultimately, strives to translate human passion into art. The two characters embody the tension between intellect and intuition, Sun and moon, the Appolonian and the Dionysian. Art is the union of the two, Hesse surmised, a new moon.
“O how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pond, the eye of a person or a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all, but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning . . . or wise . . . and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”
—Narcissus and Goldmund