The Representation of Collective Death in the Decameron

Although it is by no means the only remaining description of the Black Plague of 1348, Boccaccio's account in the Decameron is probably the most well known portrayal among medieval historians and literary critics. Alberto Tenenti's article "La rappresentazione della morte collettiva nel Decameron" discusses the lack of Boccaccio's attachment of a moral or religious significance to the devastating event. Tenenti notes that the author takes care not to allow a Christian interpretation of the plague to prevail, indifferently attributing it either to the influence of the celestial bodies or to God's divine justice. Boccaccio refuses to take a position, but there is without a doubt sympathy on his part toward the tragic situation of the Florentines.

After speaking of the plague in detail in the Introduction, Boccaccio does not speak of it similarly for the remainder of the work. The author does not present a catalogue of medical accounts of the plagues effects, although descriptions of the victim's black bruises and swollen glands are given in some detail. The most interesting anecdote in Boccaccio's introduction is that in which the two pigs die on the spot after shaking abandoned, plague-infested rags. Tenenti points out that many of the general elements of Boccaccio's account conflict with other late medieval representations of the epidemic. In contrast with Petrarca, Boccaccio also does not provide the reader with any information particular to himself or his family or friends. Instead, the author focuses on the plague's dehumanizing effects on Florentine society.

The author of the Decameron traces the behavior and attitudes of the Florentines, discreetly accompanied by a series of personal and moral notations. He does not speak of a return to barbarism in the Tuscan city nor does he suggest this, even if the Florentines' systematic flight from the infirm qualifies as somewhat barbarous. He describes how the connective tissue of the plague-ridden society had come undone and in its place a cruel, surreal rapport between Florentine citizens was instated: "...l'un fratello l'altro abbandonava e il zio il nipote e la sorella il fratello e spesse volte la donna il suo marito e - che maggior cosa è e quasi non credibile - li padri e le madri i figlioli, quasi loro non fossero, di visitare e di servire schifavano." The plague conditions even caused the surviving women to loosen their morals when, on becoming ill, they allowed their nudity to be observed by manservants if maidservants were not available. For Boccaccio, how long one lived was not as important as how one lived. Boccaccio's descriptive masterpiece represents how the Florentines arrived at the limits of inhumanity but, according to Tenenti, it cannot be viewed as a complete picture of Florentine reality as other interpretations of the plague exist. The Florence to which the author refers could very well be another city, but no one else has been able to render an analogous description with greater precision of the Black Plague of 1348 than Boccaccio.

Boccaccio utilizes the situation of the plague of 1348 as a backdrop to create the conditions essential for a group of young men and women such as the brigata, who are wealthy enough to provide for themselves in difficult times, to come together, enjoy each others company, and go against societal convention in the types of subject matter treated in their narratives. Ordinarily since young men were separated socially from their female counterparts, the plague serves as a justification of the formation of the mixed-sex brigata at a time of strife and for the group's decision to abandon the urban environs of Florence for the surrounding countryside, thereby finding themselves in gardens which recall the culture of courtly love. In demonstrating how the moral climate of the city had been altered due to the dehumanizing effects of the plague, Boccaccio allows the narrators, and indeed himself as author, the freedom to express ideas not commonly discussed or accepted in the society of his time.

(C.H.) Tenenti, Alberto. "La rappresentazione della morte collettiva nel «Decameron»" in Intersezioni, 12 (1992): 235-246.

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