In Boccaccio’s Decameron, he offered an account of the Black Death in 1348 and described how it affected Florence. Boccaccio said that the origin of the plague was in the east, and that it arrived in Florence even though numerous precautions had been taken by the people. The people of Florence tried to prevent the plague from spreading by cleansing the city, refusing sick people entrance into the city, and took many health precautions against the plague.
He said that certain black sores were among the prominent symptoms of the Black Death, and that doctors could do very little to save people with the disease. He said that most people didn’t survive the plague, dying around three days after the appearance of the sores. He said that it was contagious, and that it could spread from one person to another. In fact, anyone who even touched the clothes of an infected person was in great danger of contracting the disease. He gave an example of some hogs who died almost instantly after digging their noses into the clothes of a man who had died of the plague.
Boccaccio described the resulting breakdown of society caused by the plague as well. He said that most people forsook the sick, caring only for their own safety. He said that many people who were not sick banded together in common dwellings and isolated themselves from the world. These people would amuse themselves with music and conversation and would not talk to anyone else or get any news from the outside world, so that they could forget about what was happening outside.
Others, he said, took the opposite route. They would party and drink at taverns and try to have as much pleasure as they could before they died. He said that the laws were not enforced because so many people in the government were either dead or sick, and that people did whatever they wanted to do without regard to the law.
He also said that many people took a middle approach, deciding not to isolate themselves and not to drink and party uncontrollably. These people would try to take care of their health and walked in the streets with flowers, herbs or spices so that they wouldn’t smell the odors coming from the dead people around them. Many people fled the city so that they could escape the plague, but many died despite leaving the city anyway. The plague killed people of all classes, poor, rich, nobles, and peasants alike. So many people died that they did not have tombs for for some of the deceased.
Boccaccio set his story in this time, and in his story there were seven young women and seven young men who went out of the city and lived on an abandoned estate outside the walls. They amused themselves by telling stories, ten each day for ten days. Some of his stories ridiculed the clergy, and others had characters who encountered immense amounts of luck. His stories had a lower standard of morality than most Medieval literature prior to the Black Death, and the established religion was challenged indirectly by his stories.
An example of one of his stories was about a rich Jew who was summoned by the Sultan of Egypt to his court. The Sultan wanted to trap him in his words so that he would have an excuse for taking the Jew’s riches. The Sultan asked him a question: “Which of the three laws is the true law, the law of the Jews, the law of the Christians, or the law of the Saracens (Muslims). The Jew could tell that he was trying to trap him in his words, and to get out of his trap he told the Sultan a story. He said that a certain man had three sons, and that in their family there was a ring that would be passed down from generation to generation. A man was to give it to one of his sons when he died, and the owner of that ring would have authority of his siblings. The man loved all of his sons equally, and each of his sons begged their father to give it to him. The man did not want to favor one over the others, so he had skilled artisans make two more rings which looked identical to the original one. When he died, each of them received a ring, and no one could tell which ring was the original. After hearing his story, the Sultan was amazed at his wisdom and rewarded him for his answer.
He attacked the Christian religion indirectly by sending a message of relativism. He used his stories to weaken belief in the Church’s teachings and replace them with a lower standard of morality. In this story, he said that the Jew was wise. Boccaccio put these words in the mouth of the Jew to make them look like wise words, and tried to spread an idea of relativism and that we can’t know which one is true or that it is true for specific people only. In my opinion, his account of the plague was more gripping than his stories. His account of the plague was an eyewitness account of what really happened, while many of his stories can become tedious to read. Some of them were somewhat interesting, but I found most of them a chore to read.