Storytelling during the 1348 Black Death: Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron
Into the notable city of Florence, fairer than every other in Italy, there came the death-dealing pestilence — Giovanni Boccaccio
Written after the Black Death of 1348, Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313-75) Decameron responds to the suffering he witnessed first-hand in the streets of Florence, as the plague killed over sixty percent of the town’s populace. Despite its gruesome origins, the book is nevertheless replete with entertaining tales of sex, ribaldry and wit of various types. Indeed, Boccaccio intended his book as a textual salve that might remedy any sadness or pain in his reader’s lives. The book’s hilarious content clearly demonstrates that laughter really is the best medicine!
Set in plague ridden Florence, the book describes how ten noble people flee the city for a countryside palazzo. Over the course of ten days, they tell stories to pass the time—one hundred in total. There is the story of the mute gardener who seduces an entire nunnery (Day 3, Story 1), the story of a wife who exorcises a werewolf (Day 7, Story 1) and the tale of the crook Ser Ceperello, who convinces the town that he is in fact a saint (Day 1, Story 1). The stories are compelling and afford a fascinating insight into medieval life. They also reveal surprising parallels between medieval and modern responses to pandemics.
As part of their medieval studies, undergraduate English students at Queen’s University Belfast have compiled a series of collaborative digital projects that explore Boccaccio’s stories. They engage with a wide range of topics, including astrology, sex, purgatory and magic, among others.