To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others.
—Boccacio, The Decameron (opening line)
The mention of any kind of illness affecting large numbers of people, be it a pandemic or an epidemic, brings with it subconscious images rooted in the Middle Ages. All one has do to is breathe the word “plague” and immediately images of plague doctors (often in their 17th century costume), rats, fleas, and fantastical forms of useless medieval superstition are conjured. The Black Death (1347-1351), which marked the beginning of the Second Pandemic of bubonic plague in Europe, is iconic and in many ways seared into the consciousness of contemporary society.
It is the event by which all subsequent epidemics and pandemics are judged. Indeed, how can anything compare to a disease that in four years is estimated to have killed around 40-60% of the European population? Armed with this tidbit of historical trivia, one might believe that a disease rises to the level of a true epidemic only after people begin constantly dropping dead. Without this level of catastrophe is it really any worse than influenza?
Giovanni Boccaccio recorded perhaps the best, or at least the most evocative, account of the outbreak and the effects of the Black Death in his Introduction to The Decameron. The set-up for the one hundred short stories that Boccaccio either composed or adapted is well-known: seven ladies escorted by three young men and all of their attendants flee the ravages of the plague in Florence for the peace and serenity of the country, where they can be socially distant while retaining some sense of dignity and luxury. Once gathered at their place of repose, Pampinea, their self-appointed leader, proposes that each day every person should tell one story as a way of entertaining themselves and passing the time during the hot hours of a warm Italian summer.
The Decameron is truly a remarkable work of literature. This collection of short stories which is claimed to have been told by the 10 participants over the course of 10 days, encompasses the whole of the human experience: from the ribald and profane to the saintly and sublime. There is humor and poignancy. Boccaccio exposes the hypocrisy and moral failings in all ranks of medieval society with acerbic satire, but also holds up models of virtue and moral courage.
He displays a tremendous erudition, drawing upon models and texts from both classical antiquity and contemporaneous forms of literature. Indeed, it has often been remarked that Boccaccio’s Decameron displays the “human comedy” in comparison to Dante’s Divine Comedy. But interestingly, both works in their own way chronicle the movement from hell to paradise. In the case of Boccaccio it begins with the figurative hell of the Black Death.
As a way to establish the necessity for such drastic action of his characters as he constructs his frame story, Boccaccio relates the horrors of the plague as it savaged the city of Florence. The description is truly horrid: the disease spread like fire and all affected perished quickly in a most terrible death. While it may be tempting to accuse him of exaggeration, and it does seem likely that he relied on some conventional sources to augment whatever first-hand experience he may have had, the most important part of Boccaccio’s report of the effects of plague are what those meant for Florentine society, daily living, and the preservation of custom. The plague disintegrated the social fabric of Florence as mercilessly as it attacked the health of its citizens.
Boccaccio lists various responses of Florentines to the onslaught of the pestilence. There were those who sequestered in place often in the outskirts of the city and seeking to ride the plague out in isolation or with perhaps a few friends, and who continued to enjoy good food, fine wine, and such casual and virtuous amusements as music and reading. A more extreme branch of this group were those who fled the city outright, seeking to outrun the spread of the disease.
By contrast there were those who felt the opposite, who believed that they only proper response to death and disease was to stare death in the face, to party, and to enjoy all of the vices they could, brazenly daring the disease to take them. There was also a middle-ground between these two extremes. There was also those who tried to maintain some sense of normality, but took such precautions as carrying herbs that they thought would either stop the pestilence from infecting them, or, would at least disguise the foul stench that assaulted the city’s senses with so many decaying corpses (interestingly, Boccaccio also mentions that the smell of medicine was particularly unpleasant). Lastly, there were the poor who could not afford any of the approaches of those listed above and consequently perished by the thousands according to Boccaccio.
Boccaccio’s report of the responses to an unknown and unstoppable disease by various groups in the city of Florence should not strike us as especially depraved, pitiful, or odd. Indeed, they should resonate with us in this current time of crisis as we recognize a similarity in the behavior of people in 14th century Florence and ourselves. Thucydides’s greatest insight as he sat down to write his history of the Peloponnesian War was that human nature is constant. It is not the case that history will repeat itself in the sense that certain events will recur but rather that human thoughts and actions tend to follow a remarkable, perhaps sickeningly so, pattern. The underlying characteristic of humanity that Boccaccio underscores in his description of behavior in a time of catastrophe is its inveterate selfishness.
The parallels between the actions of the Florentine citizenry with regard to the outbreak of plague to our own situation in the time of COVID-19 should be obvious. Pictures flood in of revelers celebrating St. Patrick’s Day (without a shred of irony), enjoying extra time at a beer garden, or lounging on a sunny southern beach while deluded into thinking that this is all just a fortuitous extra-long Spring Break. I myself would fall into the privileged category of those who can isolate themselves, while working from home, and still enjoy a fairly normal existence, enjoying good food and drink, in a necessary isolation from the general society.
Videos have emerged from Paris and Milan of people racing to the last trains departing in a desperate attempt to leave that infected metropolis, while perhaps unwittingly or callously transmitting the disease to wherever their travels may take them. And there are those who have no choice but to soldier on because economic conditions demand that they work, or who because of employment in the service industry, which cannot function in a time of quarantine, are left both in economic hardship in addition to being at risk for the disease.
One might suppose that in addition to those reactions that Boccaccio chronicles, we might add one that is more appropriate to our own times: those who seek to make economic profit, thanks to the glories of a decadent capitalist economy, from the suffering of others. But even here Boccaccio can provide a parallel case. As the cohesion of Florentine society disintegrated, it affected both the macro level of the city itself in both its civil and religious dimensions (particularly concerning the care and burial of the dead), but also at the micro level: the family itself. Wives and husbands abandoned their spouses on account of fear of the disease, and even parents refused to care for children. There were those, however, who sought to capitalize from such a situation. With the collapse of households, people were forced to rely on servants and attendants who charged exorbitant fees for minimal work, enticed by the lure of cash rather than the love of neighbor.
Boccaccio is quick to point out that not one of these groups proved to be immune from the ravages of the disease. While the poor and the bourgeois were perhaps affected the most significantly, all levels of society suffered equally. It is here that Boccaccio reflects implicitly a view of death that was inherent in medieval Christian society. The obsession with death may strike us as odd and off-putting. Indeed, Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), a famous 20th century historian of the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period, was critical of this attitude, particularly when compared to the artistic and intellectual movements of humanism and the Italian Renaissance.
Yet, it was precisely in its thinking about death that Western Christianity attempted to curb the inequalities of society. It is true that Europe in the Middle Ages was much more explicitly hierarchical and aristocratic than society likes to think of itself today, but this does not mean that people were content with an unequal and unjust system. In The Decameron Boccaccio attempted to remind those in the Church of what they were called to be by means of humor and satire. The Church tried, with varying degrees of success, to emphasize the principle that “much will be required of the person entrusted with much” (Luke 12:48).
One means for reminding the faithful of the innate dignity and common humanity of all members of society was the liturgical feast of All Souls and the tradition of praying for the dead, especially the souls in Purgatory. The feast of All Souls appears on the Western calendar in the 11th century, emerging from the powerful Benedicine monastery of Cluny. This places its development squarely in the period of the so-called Gregorian Reforms. Seen in its wider political and societal context, the monks’ emphasis in the feast of All Souls was to show the common humanity shared by all people. During that time of decentralized authority, armed men on horseback pillaged and terrorized the countryside. The liturgical celebration, a set time each year for a Requiem Mass, and its accompanying injunction to pray for the souls in Purgatory spoke loudly to those thugs and warlords that they might be the strongest and most powerful now but there will come a day when they will be stripped of their temporal glory and rely upon the prayers of people who do not even know their name. There is no greater locus of equality than in death.
Amazingly, this approach was remarkably successful. It does not seem an exaggeration to say that the feast of All Souls played a formative role in the transformation of those armed brigades into celebrated, perhaps romanticized, chivalrous knights. It had an effect on the wider culture as well. For example, the tradition of the wealthy of a medieval city or town founding poor houses and being generous with alms was reinforced by this care for the dearly departed.
Examples of this are clearly seen in the many poor houses in the Flemish city of Bruges and the “Fuggerei” in Augsburg, Germany—a housing enclave for the poor that was founded by Jacob Fugger the Younger in 1516, the scion of an important banking family. In reparation for his sins, he founded this housing for the poor with the condition that the minimal rent would include prayers for his soul. This practice of commemorating and praying for the dead is one of the great treasures in the Catholic tradition. It is but one piece of the many ways that the Christian tradition reminds the faithful of the divine command to love God and neighbor.
As Boccacci’s text witnesses, times of crisis test and reveal one’s priorities. It makes plain the truth of Christ’s statement that “for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matt 6:21). The instinct for self-preservation is strong. Naturally, the Christian does not run heedlessly into danger, but adheres to the standard of being “shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Matt 10:16). And yet, the Gospel calls the faithful to be mindful of the needs of those around them. In these days of the suspension of public Masses, the faithful are encouraged to practice spiritual communion, to unite ourselves with Christ and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass from a distance. It is clear too the necessity of standing in solidarity with the sick, those who care for them, and the poor who are dearly affected in times like these. These are not mutually exclusive actions but required to fulfill the greatest commandment of loving God and neighbor.
The temptation for despair in times like this is understandable. It is particularly acute for many because of the suspension of public Masses. But God is always with us. Indeed, he is Emmanuel. In this confidence, we can rise to our true nature: to the people we are called to be.
 My summary of the text is taken from Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. G.H. McWilliam, London-New York: Penguin Books, 1995, reprinted 2003, 4-23; I have also benefited from the insights and observations of the translator in his Introduction, pp. xxxi-cxliv.
 Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War Book 1, trans. R. Warner with intro. by M.I. Finley, Harmondsworth, UK-Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books 1972, 48.
 J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the Dawn of the Renaissance, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954, see especially pp. 138-151.
 This point is touched upon in Jacques Le Goff, La naissance du Purgatoire (Collection Folio/Histoire), Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1981, pp. 170-173; I will present a fuller study of this in the voluming arising from the “Cultures of Formation Conference,” that took place at the University of Notre Dame, 5-7 March 2018.