The Brigata: Pleasure and Plague

In the fifth chapter of Literature as Recreation in the Late Middle Ages, Glending Olson compares the actions of the brigata of the Decameron to the plague prevention regimens described in the plague tracts that were so popular during the time of the Decameron. Olson argues that not only does the gruesome frame of the Decameron act as a literary convention which provides a dramatic contrast between plague imagery and the utopian "garden" imagery to which the brigata flee, but that the frame also demonstrates the medieval belief in the "psychological and medical basis" of "the relationship between plague and pleasure" (166). The frame is not just escapist, but therapeutic as well.

The medical tracts written in response to the plague had three main goals: to address the causes of the plague, to prescribe treatments for those infected by the plague, and to prescribe regimens that would prevent the spread of the plague. Olson first investigates some of the tracts which addressed the last of these goals, and finds that they stress both physical and psychological techniques to keep yourself safe from the plague. To avoid plague, the tracts say, you must first "flee wikkyd heires" (174) which carry the plague. Then, keep your humors well-disposed by embracing "cheerfulness," by not occupying "your mind with death, passion, or anything likely to sadden or grieve you, but give your mind over to delightful and pleasing things." In addition, while avoiding "loose women, gluttons, and drunkards," you should spend "your leisure in gardens with fragrant plants, vines, and willows, when they are flowering" (175), preferably while singing, dancing, and engaging in entertaining and relaxing conversation.

Olson goes on to look at the parallels between the recommended regimen of these tracts and the actual regimen that the brigata follow, pointing out that not only does the brigata leave the city to escape the wicked air which causes Pampinea to "sembra star male," but also from that which the "physicians caution against: the depressing affects of seeing and hearing nothing except what betokens death" (178). Pampinea's plea to the brigata to leave the city revolves around the fact that death and the dying are everywhere.

When Pampinea sets up the rules of the brigata as they do leave, she outlaws anything which might lead to bad humors entering the body: she forbids the servants from bringing any news except positive news, and even suggests that instead of playing games, which will "inevitably bring anxiety to one of the players, without offering very much pleasure either to his opponent or to the spectators" (180), the brigata tell stories to pass the time. Pampinea seems to go strictly by the regimen set up by the medieval medical tracts when she sets up the schedule of the brigata: "a certain amount of exercise before the two daily meals, usually in the form of walks; music, songs, and dancing after meals; and of course a great deal of congenial conversation throughout" (180).

So, Olson argues, the link between pleasure and the plague is not simply escapism -pleasure as reaction to death at every doorstep, the danse macabre of the carnival. The pleasure to which the brigata escapes serves a medical purpose as well: it wards off the bad humors which make one susceptible to the plague. The actions of the brigata demonstrate "a shared response to the plague based on common assumptions about the role of mental attitude in hygiene." Olson thinks that this demonstration is important in understanding the purpose of the frame of the Decameron because it gives "the dramatic movement from plague-ridden Florence to orderly gardens firm psychological and medical plausibility, making it not merely escapist but therapeutic" (182).

(D. S.) Olson, Glending. Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986. 164-83.

Other Pages in Plague: Causes

Plague references in other Categories