The spread of the Covid-19 virus has triggered an epidemic of advice. This advice is important, but it seems destined to make our lives more miserable and isolated. However, there is an unusual source of counsel which offers another way to deal with an epidemic. That source is the Decameron.
The Italian Renaissance author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the wake of the plague outbreak in Florence in 1348. The disease ravaged the city, reducing the population by around 60 per cent. Boccaccio described how Florentines “dropped dead in open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbours’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses”.
Social bonds broke down as “this scourge had implanted so great a terror in the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers”, and “fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their children”.
Some people retreated into their houses, while others formed groups and staggered through the city on multi-day benders. The ten friends who the Decameron follows leave Florence for a deserted villa in the countryside. Upon arriving in their rural idyll, they spend their days telling amusing and often racy stories.
Today, we see the Decameron as a collection of entertaining stories to keep next to your bed. In the 14th century, it was a form of social prescribing. According to Pace University’s Martin Marafiot, Boccaccio’s prescription for an epidemic was a good dose of “narrative prophylaxis”. That meant protecting yourself with stories. Boccaccio suggested you could save yourself by fleeing towns, surrounding yourself with pleasant company and telling amusing stories to keep spirits up. Through a mixture of social isolation and pleasant activities, it was possible to survive the worst days of an epidemic.
Boccaccio’s prescription inspired a raft of medieval advice manuals. Tomasso del Garbo, one of the most prominent Florentine physicians at the time, suggested that when a plague hit, people should avoid contemplating death. He advised them to instead gather in a pleasant garden and “use songs and games and other pleasant stories that do not exhaust the body, and all those delightful things that bring comfort”.
In another plague advice book of the time, the Italian theologian Nicolas of Burgo recommended that people should “beware of fear, anger, sadness, excessive anguish, heavy thoughts and similar things. And equally one should take care to be able to be joyful, to be happy, to listen to lullabies, stories and melodies”.