One of the great literary works of the medieval period is The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) that describes a group of people fleeing the Black Death and telling each other stories to pass the time. The collection of gripping stories has exercised a profound influence on writers down the centuries including William Shakespeare.
Black Death and the theme of the Decameron
The book was written in the years after the Knights Templar were crushed. Seven women and three men flee to a villa outside plague-ridden Florence and tell ten stories each – 100 stories in total – as they wait for the plague to abate.
The Decameron was written by an Italian writer called Boccaccio who saw the Black Death with his own eyes – and like many of his class and standing, the pestilence made him question the authority of the church and Rome. There is a very disrespectful and sarcastic attitude towards priests and friars that might surprise a modern reader.
Black Death as a punishment from God
Boccaccio knew the plague had originated in the east but in his writings supposed it might be the result of God being hacked off with human behaviour or, more curiously, “disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies”. This was a common view that astronomical movements in the heavens had a direct influence on us down here – something that survives in astrology.
Despite refusing entry to sick folk and cleaning the city of “impurities”, Florence succumbed to the Black Death “where an issue of blood from the nose was a manifest sign of inevitable death”. Boccaccio goes on to describe “the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg.”
It then seemed to take a hold of the whole body and soon the victim was dead within three days. Boccaccio pointed to the emergence of men and women who claimed to be doctors but were complete charlatans taking advantage of the situation. Contagion seemed rampant and unavoidable.
The virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the devil went further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.
Boccaccio claimed he had seen inter-species infection with his own eyes. Two hogs wandering the streets had started chewing then fighting over the rags of a poor man who had died of the plague. They then went into an instant spasm and fell down dead.
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Facts about the Black Death
Here are some bizarre facts about the Black Death:
- Curious cures were developed including rubbing onions or a chopped up snake on to a victim
- Good health was essential to survival. If you were already a bit of a weakling, you were more likely to die
- The Black Death first arrived in England at Melcombe Regis in the county of Dorset in June 1348
- Remote mountainous areas were hit just as badly as cities. Inexplicably, the plague sometimes passed by certain villages without killing anybody
- Dubrovnik in modern Croatia was the first place to quarantine people
- There are still bitter arguments about how the Black Death originated and was carried so don’t believe at face value claims it had nothing to do with rats and fleas – these really are theories in the conventional sense
The recent movie ‘Black Death‘ came and went faster than the plague itself and some critics thought it stank just as bad. Hard to imagine how such a theme could lead to such a botched film but hey ho. It’s pretty dreadful but enjoy if you can.
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Here is the trailer.