"In the year then of our Lord 1348, there happened at Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible plague…"
Giovanni Boccaccio introduces his acclaimed collection of novellas, the Decameron, with a reference to the most terrifying existential crisis of his time: the decimating effects of the bubonic plague in the 1348 outbreak known as the Black Death.
Boccaccio’s book, written between 1348 and 1353, has been acclaimed as an exemplar of vernacular literary prose, and a commentary on the “peste” that swept through Europe that year.
A classic of medieval plague literature, it continues to be cited by physicians and epidemiologists to this day for its vivid depiction of a disease that held a city under siege.
In the introduction to his book, Boccaccio estimates that more than 100,000 people - over half of the city’s inhabitants - died within the walls of Florence between March 1348 and the following July.
He vividly describes physical, social and psychological sufferings, writing of people dying in the street, rotting corpses, plague boils, swollen glands known as “buboes” – some the size of eggs, others as large as apples – bruises and the blackening skin that foreshadowed death.
Boccaccio’s introduction is followed by ten sections containing short stories. Each of the book’s ten storytellers tells a story a day for ten days. Derived from Greek, the word decameron means ten days and is an allusion to Saint Ambrose’s Hexameron, a poetic account of the creation story, Genesis, told over six days.
The Decameron is a tale of renewal and recreation in defiance of a decimating pandemic. Boccaccio attributes the cause of this terrible plague to either malignant celestial influences or divine punishment for the iniquity of Florentine society.
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