The response of the rich to the bubonic plague bears eerie similarities to today’s pandemic
The Decameron by Franz Xavier Winterhalter (1837). Heritage Images via Getty Images The coronavirus can infect anyone, but during the pandemic, socioeconomic status played an important role, with a combination of job security, access to health care and mobility widening the gap in infection and death rates between rich and poor. The rich work remotely and flee to resorts or pastoral second homes, while the urban poor are crammed into small apartments and forced to keep showing up for work. As a medievalist, I have seen a version of this story before. Following the Black Death of 1348 in Italy, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of 100 novels entitled “The Decameron”. These stories, while fictional, give us a window into medieval life during the Black Death – and how some of the same rifts opened between the rich and the poor. Cultural historians today consider “The Decameron” to be an invaluable source of information on daily life in 14th century Italy. Giovanni Boccaccio. Leemage via Getty Images Boccaccio was born in 1313 as the illegitimate son of a Florentine banker. A product of the middle class, he wrote stories about merchants and servants in “Le Décaméron”. This was unusual for its time, as medieval literature tended to focus on the life of the nobility. “The Decameron” begins with a captivating graphic description of the Black Death, which was so virulent that a person who contracted it would die within four to seven days. Between 1347 and 1351, he killed between 40% and 50% of the European population. Some members of Boccaccio’s family have died. In this opening section, Boccaccio describes the wealthy secluded at home, where they sample quality wines and groceries, music, and other entertainment. The richest – whom Boccaccio describes as “ruthless” – have completely deserted their quarters, retreating to comfortable estates in the countryside, “as if the plague was supposed to harass only those who remained within the walls of their city”. Meanwhile, the middle or poor class, forced to stay at home, “caught the plague by the thousands over there in their own neighborhood day after day” and died quickly. Servants conscientiously cared for the sick in wealthy households, often succumbing to the disease themselves. Many, unable to leave Florence and convinced of their imminent death, decided to simply drink and party away from their last days in nihilistic revelry, while in rural areas workers died “like brute beasts rather than human being; night and day, with no doctor to treat them. “Saint Sebastian interceding for the victims of the plague” by Josse Lieferinxe (c. 1498). Wikimedia Commons After the grim description of the plague, Boccaccio moves on to 100 stories. They are told by 10 nobles who fled the pallor of death that hangs over Florence to bask in well-stocked mansions. From there they tell their stories. A key issue in “The Decameron” is how wealth and benefits can hinder people’s ability to understand the difficulties of others. Boccaccio begins with the saying: “It is inherently human to show mercy on those who are grieving.” Yet in many tales he features characters totally indifferent to the pain of others, blinded by their own impulses and ambitions. In a fantasy story, a dead man returns from hell every Friday and ritually murders the same woman who had rejected him during her lifetime. In another, a widow pushes a peeping priest away by pushing him to sleep with his maid. In a third, the narrator praises a character for his unwavering loyalty to his friend when in fact he has deeply betrayed that friend for many years. Humans, Boccaccio seems to say, can see themselves as honest and moral – but without realizing it, they can show indifference to others. We see it in the 10 storytellers themselves: they make a pact to live righteously in their well-appointed pensions. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the following questions: How do the rich relate to the poor in times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions of people left unemployed because of a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands, these issues are of striking relevance. This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 16, 2020. [Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Kathryn McKinley, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Read more: COVID-19 hits black and poor communities hardest, highlighting gaps in access and care for the marginalized The buzzword of social distancing Who cares for those most vulnerable to COVID -19? Home Helpers Questions Answered Kathryn McKinley does not work, consult, own stock or receive funding from any business or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond his academic appointment.