A Boccaccian response to Covid-19

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron in a facsimile of manuscript 5070 from the  Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris (15th century)).

We’re experiencing unprecedented times. Except that they are not. Plagues, wars, epidemics, the continent has seen them all. And it has sung them all. Will we know how to sing before it’s all behind us?

 

Boccaccio knew how to sing. He sang in the midst of wars, pestilences and epidemics which periodically struck Western Europe before the first modernity. He strolled the walkways of European agony and kept his head high. Without vaccine, government protection packages or coordinated health services, he knew where to look among the garbage and the flowers.

We remember Boccaccio for his stories. But we forget the context in which they were written, the heavy clouds pushing down on his parchment, the pestilential air engulfing his desk, the death knocking at his door and windows, the infected blood pouring in the streets.

We’ve made great progress since the 14th century, but we still have a lot to learn from the great master of tale:

  • Look after your neighbours: there’s more at stake than your own life. Boccaccio lamented that the people of Florence forgot their humanity and forsook compassion and charity by neglecting the more vulnerable.
  • There’s no excuse for despondency. No amount of distress should prevent one from poking fun and advancing the cause of self-derision. It may never be a better time to tell a good story than when everything is crumbling around you.
  • Keep isolated but keep working. The ten storytellers of the Decameron fled the plague into the countryside, but they spent the days in routine work, not mindless idling. The stories they told were meant to bookend each productive day, not to fill the void.

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