Many of us have not seen an outbreak of infectious disease on the global scale of the novel coronavirus during our lifetimes. While the closest comparison in recent history is the HIV/AIDS pandemic, a seasonal respiratory illness causing these levels of mortality, government response, and panic is practically unheard of in our time.
Historically however, epidemics and pandemics of this scale were commonplace. We have modern medicine and the swift action of (some) governments around the world to thank for the ways in which this one has been mitigated, but major outbreaks like this one were nearly yearly events until the early 20th century. All those vaccines you get as a kid — MMR, smallpox, polio — prevent diseases that once ran rampant around the world on a regular basis.
The historical anomaly is not so much the coronavirus itself, but the century of calm since the last significant respiratory pandemic (the 1918 influenza). And diseases like malaria and cholera continue to devastate parts of the world we tend to forget about when we use terms like “unprecedented” to describe COVID-19.
This means that in order for a disease to really distinguish itself a century ago, it had to be pretty bad. Smallpox, syphilis, and the other heavy historical hitters all had death rates in the millions per year, but none reached the notoriety — at least in Europe and Asia — of the Black Death.
Up to 200 million people died between 1346 and 1351 as the bubonic plague spread rapidly across central Asia, Europe, and North Africa. Whatever its source — probably rats on merchant ships, but it could have been spread by moving armies, or both — it resulted in the deaths of an estimated third of Europe’s population, and a near-complete social restructuring of the late medieval way of life.
There to pick up the pieces and figure out how to move forward was Giovanni Boccaccio. The Italian humanist writer published “The Decameron” in the immediate wake of the plague — 1353, to be exact — and it immediately became a literary classic.
The collection depicts 10 Florentine socialites sheltering in a hidden garden outside the city, waiting out the plague’s aftermath and sharing stories, one each day for each friend, over 10 days. This makes 100 stories — often poignant, sometimes erotic, and universally hilarious — but what I’m more interested in at a time like this one is that frame.
Scholars have spent centuries debating the significance of “The Decameron.” Is it a call for more whimsy in literature? A proto-feminist text written with a primary audience of women in mind? A complicated numerological Catholic mystery? Right now it seems to me that it’s a lesson on how to weather a pandemic left on our doorstep by someone who lived through one far worse than this one will ever be.
Boccaccio’s playful attitude in the face of the most desolate his world had ever been seems out of place until you consider that it’s a method for coming to terms with that desolation. He recognizes that in order to survive extraordinary circumstances when it feels like the systems you relied on are crumbling around you, you sometimes need to step back, take a break, and have a laugh with friends. Get your mind off things. Lighten up a little.
The circumstances anyone reading this article is facing today are nothing compared to those of Boccaccio’s Florence, but I still feel that he has a great deal to teach us about making sense of difficult circumstances. We are beyond lucky in this time to be able to reach our friends and loved ones over phones and the internet, and even though it’s not quite as sweet as the in-person reunions will be (and we’ll have to continue to be vigilant even long after we can be together again), it is a gift that we can continue to see each other, even in a limited capacity.
Boccaccio’s message — at least, for us, right now — is to treasure those connections. Don’t let physical distance keep you from sharing stories and laughs and tears and fears with your friends. Take a moment to catch up with the ones you care about. Make sure they know you’ve got their backs. It’s a lesson from more than 650 years ago, and maybe it’s a little obvious, but this is a time to remember. We’ve gotten through worse than this before, and there will be challenges ahead we can’t even fathom right now. Keep your chin up and your friends close, and keep Boccaccio in mind.