Giovanni Boccaccio was the writer of the book Decameron, in which he thoroughly describes the tragedies and horror the Black Death plague brought about. Black Death was a fatal sickness that was wide spread from the East to the West. The plague started in about the 1330s and continued into most of the 1400s; however there were instances still occurring in the 1600s until the end of the eighteenth century (Coffin 312). The plague was later said to have come from infected fleas that travel on the backs of rats.
Once it is in your blood stream it is almost instant death within a matter of hours (Coffin 316). This disease was rapidly killing everyone, while there were speculations as to how one would contract the disease; neither doctors nor medical specialist knew (Brophy 323). There was no cure and quite frankly no one was safe. The public, experiencing the rise of Black Death during that time period, had a reason to worry and be frightened. This fear thus caused the reactions that Boccaccio speaks of in his book, Decameron.
Boccaccio starts off his passage being particularly considerate of women’s feelings on the tragedies of the Black Death. He assures them that he does not want them to relive or think about the memories they are left with or “to pass all of [their] time sighing and weeping as [they] read” (Brophy 321) but he wanted to put an end to their misery. After reading that short introduction, you can sense that he is going to give his firsthand account of very graphic detail that he experienced in surviving the Black Death, in which he does exactly this.
Boccaccio discusses the public, acting in four very different ways, however he states “…almost all of them took a very cruel attitude in the matter” (Brophy 323). The first response of some was, to “completely avoid the sick and their possessions” (Brophy 323). This group felt that was the best way to protect themselves. They assembled together and lived in houses with no sick people. “Where one could live well by eating the most delicate of food and drinking the finest of wines, allowing no one to speak about or listen to anything said about the sick and dead outside” (Brophy 324).
The second set of people reacted by going to the extreme, which involved heavily drinking, celebrating, singing, making light of the entire situation going on. These same people would also gather in homes of which they pleased, mainly just for a continuation of the celebrating, living life to the fullest and having an excess of amusement. They were able to do this, because of the mass availability of vacant houses, which had been abandoned by people who were living in fear of dying (Brophy 324).
The third response was somewhat of a happy medium between the first two. They maintained a regular diet and lifestyle, however everywhere they went they carried fresh flowers, herbs, and/or spices. They felt that this would purify their brain as well as the air around them that was infected with the plague, medicines, and death (Brophy 324). The final reaction was the one that was most startling to Boccaccio, by this I know because he describes it using words such as “almost unbelievable” and a “crueler opinion” (Brophy 324).
This reaction struck me as the abandonment phase. The thought of these people was to flee; there was no better medicine than to get away from it (Brophy 324). Being that Boccaccio thought that the plague was God’s punishment to the people for their wicked deeds (Brophy 323), his response to these people fleeing the city was “…As if the wrath of God could not pursue them with this pestilence wherever they went but would only strike those it found in the walls of the city! ”(Brophy 324).
So you can see that this reaction was probably the most pointless to him. The paragraph talks not only about fleeing, but also about avoiding any and everybody; “brother abandoned brother, uncle abandoned nephew, sister left brother, wife abandoned husband– and even worse fathers and mothers neglected to tend and care for their children as if they were not their own” (Brophy 324). These reactions, while some were so farfetched, showed the severity of the fear in these people.
By this I do think it was an extremely accurate portrayal of how people would respond in these circumstances. I believe the one thing that truly affects each and every one of us in one way or another as humans is the unknown. When one doesn’t know something, we are always searching for some type of answer whether we honestly want to know it or not. Boccaccio did an excellent job of displaying the fear the public was faced with at this time.
To live in fear of not only dying from this unknown cause of sickness, but also be ignored, abandoned, or shunned, by the people who were once family and friends, would be an unimaginable and devastating feeling.
Brophy, James, Joshua Cole, John Robertson, Thomas Max Safley, and Carol Symes. Perspectives from the Past: Primary Sources in Western Civilizations. 5th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2012. Print. Coffin, Judith, Robert Stacey, Joshua Cole, and Carol Symes. Western Civilizations Their History & Their Culture. 17th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W W Norton & Co, 2011. Print.