Picture a world where disease-ridden people die every day, by the thousands and hundreds of thousands all around you. Imagine you and your family being exposed with no protection whatsoever from the pestilence, officials and officers fleeing cities, leaving crime to itself, so that it festers and swells. A world where not enough citizens are left to even tend the land. That is the world of the Bubonic Plague. The Black Death ravaged Europe, breaking down and dissolving rational society. Hierarchies were destroyed, families abandoned each other, civil law officials fled, leaving society in a state of anarchy. This anarchy was so complete that the saying “eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die” could well be applied as a description of the mindset of population’s majority. Wages, the price of labor, skyrocketed, because so many laborers died as well as many wealthy landowners. Anarchy reigned.
Boccaccio’s Decameron is set in the medieval period during the devastation of the Black Death. His story features seven noblewomen and three honorable men who traveled off, leaving the city of Florence to settle in a house on the countryside about two miles from the city. These men and women set up what we might call a utopia. They governed themselves democratically, with servants to tend their needs. They allowed no ill news to reach their ears and amused themselves with stories, ten a day, one by each of them; the topic of the stories was chosen democratically. Dioneo, one of the men, was the tenth teller, and was allowed to tell his tales on any subject he wished, for the others respected the merit of his wit.
The first story is told by a man who invokes God as the Creator, the Judge. His tale seems to be placed under God’s grace, but actually is blasphemous. It centers around a scumbag who deceives people to think he’s a saint. At the end of his life, he even lies to a friar, manipulating him to genuinely believe that he is a holy man. Religion, in the story, is made out to be only the intentions of the religious. A person doesn’t need to show his beliefs through his actions, but only in his intentions.
What can we take away from The Decameron?
To begin, the target audience of the book was aimed at men of the elite, the upper classes. The stories were specifically designed as a source of entertainment. Society, hierarchy, overall functions were eliminated by the Black Death. Religion and morals were nearly abandoned and mocked at. Laws were broken, people just didn’t care anymore, indulging in self-degenerating fashions. Families were ripped apart by such devastation. Each story in the book is a reflection of the dissolution of social, personal and economic standards.
The Decameron shows us what pandemics and chaos can do to affect us. It shows how weak we are, how susceptible to madness society is.