What do you do when a deadly disease is raging all around you? Pandemics aren’t new to mankind, one earth-shaking example being the Black Death that decimated medieval Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in the mid-14th Century. Now known as bubonic, septicemic, or pneumonic plague, depending on where it lands in the body, this nasty illness is believed to have killed off up to 200 million people in just a few years. (By contrast, the influenza pandemic of 1918 killed perhaps half that number.)
Accurate medical knowledge at the time was spectacularly lacking. Not only was there no understanding of what the plague was (a bacterial infection) or how it spread (fleas carried by rodents), there was no effective treatment for it (antibiotics). People randomly survived or died according to what they believed was God’s will. But one thing they did dimly understand was that being near people who had the plague made you more likely to get it.
So, if you lived in a city like Florence, and you had the means, what you did was flee to the countryside to escape the city’s “bad air.” And that was what gave the Florentine author and humanist Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) the framing device for his masterwork, The Decameron.
Written in the immediate aftermath of the plague that reduced Florence’s population by more than half in just two years, The Decameron is a collection of 100 stories, told by a group of young Florentines, three men and seven women, who have taken shelter in an empty villa in nearby Fiesole. Each is appointed to tell one story a night for 10 nights.
The stories range from the bawdy to the holy, the sweet to the horrific. The astonishing thing about them is that they are so modern and so universal. Boccaccio explored, with wit and wisdom, every aspect of humanity – vices, virtues, strengths, weaknesses – and he pulled no punches.
One of the most famous tragic stories concerns a young woman, Lisabetta, whose brothers have murdered her lover (Day 4, Tale 5). She finds his body and buries his head in a pot of basil, which she tends lovingly, watering it with her tears. The story inspired John Keats’s poem, “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil” (which can be found in Keats: Poems Published in 1820). That, in turn, inspired paintings by William Holman Hunt, John William Waterhouse, and Joseph Severn, among others, as well as a symphonic tone poem by Frank Bridge.
On the bright (and very naughty) side are tales like that of Caterina (Day 5, Tale 4), who dupes her parents into letting her sleep out on the terrace so she can hear the nightingale sing – a euphemism for something quite different involving her secret lover. Or the comic tale of the hapless Andreuccio (Day 2, Tale 5), whose slapstick accidents start in a latrine and go downhill from there.
Distributed Proofreaders volunteers worked on the e-text of John Payne’s 1886 English translation, which was originally published privately. It has the virtue of copious explanatory footnotes. It’s also considered to be the first complete English translation – but it’s not truly complete. Payne just couldn’t bring himself to translate part of the X-rated story of Rustico, a monk who teaches a heathen girl how the Devil is put into Hell (Day 3, Tale 10). Payne adds a footnote with the excuse that “The translators regret that the disuse into which magic has fallen, makes it impossible to render the technicalities of that mysterious art into tolerable English; they have therefore found it necessary to insert several passages in the original Italian.” But the Project Gutenberg e-book has a helpful transcriber’s note giving the passage in English from the 1903 translation by J.M. Rigg, who was apparently undaunted by that disused “magic.”
Project Gutenberg also has the very first English translation, by John Florio, published in 1620. It’s not complete; among other things, it replaces the Rustico tale with a rather cleaner story not written by Boccaccio. And Project Gutenberg has a Dutch version, De Decamerone, contributed by Distributed Proofreaders, as well as one in Finnish, Novelleja Decameronesta, but, oddly, no Italian version yet.
During this time of modern pestilence, Boccaccio’s wonderful tales may be just the antidote to cabin fever that you’re looking for.
This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.