From Boccaccio to Chaucer: Storytelling during and after Plague Time
As the pandemic has progressed over the past few months, responses to social distancing and lockdowns have, unsurprisingly, varied widely. Some resist the constraints suggested or imposed, while others embrace (or at least voluntarily accept) them. Some seek solace in the outdoors, while others feel safer remaining in their homes as much as possible. And some people receive and tell stories.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has obviously been a trial and, in many cases, a tragedy. But in some instances, it has carved out time (however involuntarily) for people to sit down and read a good book. This is the case for me, but it isn’t universally true—the pandemic is not the introverts’ dream many expected, and the trauma of the experience has left plenty of people unable to leverage additional time into actual productive reading. Still, plagues have a longstanding history of being sites of great storytelling. My own reading at the time of the outbreak, quite serendipitously, included Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (about a pandemic that kills all but the title character) and Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond (set partially during Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak).Why do something so frivolous as telling stories when human lives may be at stake? Shouldn’t we be in the business of… well, surviving?
It thus should come as little surprise that sales of disease literature have skyrocketed over the past months. One of those benefiting from the new topical significance is the medieval Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s classic, The Decameron. This book demonstrates the ways in which humans endure the tragedy and isolation of plagues through suffering; yet in one of its descendants, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, we see a picture of the horizon toward which we as readers, listeners, and tellers of tales ought to be gazing.
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) was a native of Florence, Italy, and he lived through the Black Death, which ravaged Europe from about 1347 to 1350. Anywhere from a quarter to half of the continent’s population may have died from the plague, which caused painful swelling in the flesh, and cities like Florence were especially hard hit. Against this backdrop, Boccaccio created The Decameron—the “ten days”—now largely regarded as his masterpiece. In the book, his ten protagonists—seven women and three men—are anxious to avoid the encroaching plague and decide to quarantine themselves for two weeks (an action made possible by their class status). To pass the time, they agree to a storytelling venture. For ten days out of their fortnight of isolation, each member of the group will contribute a story per day on a given theme. The result—ten stories a day for ten days—results in one hundred tales told.
Boccaccio lived in an age of Christendom, when the church held significant secular as well as spiritual power, though those blurred distinctions had resulted in strife and hypocrisy. The western Catholic pope had been forcibly moved from Rome to France forty years prior, exacerbating tensions between a church that had been dominant for centuries and new rulers who were far less concerned about the effect clerical edicts might have on their eternal souls. These tensions are manifest in The Decameron, in which Boccaccio—who surely would have seen himself as “Christian”—allows his characters to narrate often bawdy tales that frequently interrogate or contradict established church doctrine.
Whatever one may think of the novellas’ actual content, however, the entire project demonstrates one of the fascinating aspects that seems almost inherent in plague literature—we are all homo narrans, beings who must, according to our own idioms, tell stories. This may seem strange in some sense; why do something so frivolous as telling stories when human lives may be at stake? Shouldn’t we be in the business of… well, surviving?
Yet focusing on “survival” alone is deeply antithetical to true humanity. Of course, survival is always the first order of business—we can’t do anything else in this world if we can’t actually keep breathing. But doing nothing but surviving isn’t living in the truest human sense: surviving is what animals do, marshaling all their instincts toward keeping themselves and their progeny alive for one more day. We (rightly) expect more from ourselves.
This is what the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper suggested when he identified “leisure” as the basis of culture. He didn’t mean that we should just be chilling out, wasting time; yet he sharply opposed the workaholic society of his day, in which the labor was the point. For Pieper, “leisure” (from the Greek skole of Aristotle) may be “useless” in pragmatic terms, but it is vital for cultural development, giving citizens time to reflect meaningfully on what is happening and what they are doing. Paradoxically, all the “useful” developments we associate with civilization—our learning, our technology, our ability to study viruses and develop vaccines—could not have come about without a foundation in the “uselessness” of leisure, of skole.
And among useless activities, Pieper championed the liberal arts, including literature—storytelling. C. S. Lewis (with whom Pieper often interacts) made a similar argument in a time of crisis. Preaching to Oxford students during World War II, Lewis contended in “Learning in War-Time”:
Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.
Lewis, who had fought in World War I, was no stranger to “crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.” But, he maintained “the search for knowledge and beauty” goes on.
The internet has allowed us a little more flexibility in this “search,” in our “leisure,” than either Lewis or Pieper got, let alone Boccaccio. While there is certainly no shortage of silly memes, bewildering information, and outlandish conspiracy theories, there have also been countless examples of humans doing what humans do—telling stories and sharing beauty. They’re just doing it from quarantine. Like the characters in The Decameron, or like the students listening to Lewis, we haven’t just been surviving; we’ve been seeking out beauty and telling stories.
But it still isn’t enough. Why do so many people chafe at wearing masks, despite their efficacy? Why do thousands march side-by-side in protest in the midst of a plague? Why do millions find decisions about whether or not to reopen on-site churches, schools, and businesses agonizing rather than no-brainers?
Because storytelling and art and community can never, in human terms, be fully satisfying as abstractions. Whether or not it might be in their own best survival interest, people will seek out the physical presence of other people. Even in quarantine, Boccaccio’s ten were together (indeed, in quite close contact), and the off-color sexual nature of so many of their stories demonstrates (among other things) the intense human desire for contact. This is even more evident, however, in The Decameron’s English-language successor, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales follows a series of travelers who one April stop by the Tabard Inn in the London district of Southwark while en route to Canterbury Cathedral, among medieval England’s holiest shrines. As in Boccaccio’s version, they decide upon a storytelling competition, the winner to receive a free meal on the way back. Also like The Decameron, the stories range in content but are frequently vulgar and comical, often taking potshots at the fourteenth-century church.
Yet The Canterbury Tales differs from The Decameron in several key respects. Unlike Boccaccio, Chaucer was unable to finish his magnum opus, so we may never know exactly how he planned to tie his tales together (we’re not even sure of the natural sequence for many of them). But other differences are more significant. While Boccaccio’s ten represent men and women, they all come from similar strata of society. Chaucer’s pilgrims, on the other hand, run a gamut of life stations, male and female, gentry and laborer, lay and clerical. Just as important, they are on the move, travelers to a religious site rather than their static Italian predecessors.
What could bring such a hodgepodge of people together into the same place? Chaucer’s implication is clear: the church. To be sure, his pilgrims are anything but model Christians in the modern evangelical (or medieval) sense; indeed, Chaucer gleefully skewers his ecclesiastical figures as much as (if not more than) his secular ones. Many of his pilgrims are foul-mouthed, intemperate, and hypocritical. But one way or another, whatever their motivations or their characters, they are united by a common goal: an important religious site. Given the intensely hierarchical mind of the Middle Ages, what could bring such a diverse array of people together? The great catholic umbrella of the Christian faith and the universal instinct to tell stories.
During the second month of the pandemic, my literary friends could often be spotted posting the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s twentieth-century poem The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month.” Here, Eliot is deliberately inverting the first lines of The Canterbury Tales, which celebrate the thawing of winter snows and the opportunity for people to leave their homes and congregate:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . .
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages . . .
To Eliot, the solipsism of the twentieth century led people to seek isolation; to emerge from seclusion and encounter others suggested vulnerability, while “Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow.”
The sterile environment of Eliot’s waste land was largely self-inflicted, and also deeply unnatural. Chaucer’s “Aprille,” in which flowers bloom, birds chirp, and people leave seclusion for society in the spring, represents the natural inclination—one that I think is as natural now as it was six centuries ago. For while debates may continue to rage about when and how reopening and reintegration should occur, at least it seems that almost everybody involved desires such an end.
There’s a lot of talk about the post-COVID “new normal.” Will people shake hands? Will movie theaters or in-person educational sites survive the plague? Will we ever see singing or sacraments in churches? Unless the very nature of humanity has undergone a radical transformation in the past generation, the answer to these questions will be, “Yes.”
The Black Death certainly changed society in key ways—perhaps paving the way for the rise of the middle class and the origins of the Renaissance. But in other ways, daily life eventually resumed. Chaucer, who would have experienced the Black Death as a child, depicts people interacting raucously in close quarters. Plagues were always a possibility, then as now, but this threat didn’t outweigh the need for proximity. The push away from our private haunts and toward other people—physically as well as virtually—cannot be lightly or permanently sacrificed. To be sure, our world will be changed by the coronavirus, likely in ways we can’t predict; yet in many other regards, the new normal will look more like the old normal than we may expect.
We’ve been living in a Boccaccio world, trying our best to tell stories and stay “human” in the midst of hardship and isolation. It is good and right to do this; the alternative would be Eliot’s Waste Land, desperately seeking the half-life of isolation. The uncertainty continues. We don’t know the timing of when we can finally emerge. But what can be predicted with some confidence is that we will emerge—the world at large, and the church specifically. Notwithstanding the fears of disease and the anodynes of technology, in the end, sooner or later, the very humanity that makes social distancing bearable is the same humanity that will call us back to Chaucer’s world: the boisterous, messy world of the church and its hodgepodge of folk, who long to tell stories and go on pilgrimages.