Same as It Ever Was-Lessons From 14th Century Italy

As a way to kill time, I’ve been reading Boccaccio’s The Decameron. It was written in the middle of the 14th century as Italy was dealing with the plague. Boccaccio lived in the north, in Florence, which was hit especially hard, losing between one-third to half of its population. His prologue is quite prescient given our particular pandemic. He writes that, as expected, people were people, just as we are, in how they approached the catastrophe–the plague was much more lethal than Covid-19–and it echoes in our approach.

Some blew it off and partied. Some locked their doors and tried to wait it out in isolation. Others tried to find a middle ground. There were doctors and priests that put their lives on the line and those that ran away, as it was for the general population.

Didn’t matter. The plague killed no matter what they did.

So in that respect, our pandemic isn’t so bad.

But that’s not why I’m reading it.

The book is a series of stories told by 10 people over 10 days. They are sheltering from the storm all around them. Each tells one story a day; 100 in total. It’s a long book, but not when broken into its individual days and stories.

You might think because it’s over 600 years old that it’s irrelevant to our times. Not at all. Technology may have changed; our medical knowhow has changed, but people? Heck no!

The beauty of the book is how quickly you see the same virtues and vices, the same hubris and vanity, as well as kindness and sacrifice in people of the 14th century and those in the 21st century. And it’s funny, sometime laugh out loud funny. Boccaccio nails the human condition with good humor and a keen eye. He sees the corruption and avarice of the church, the prevarications of faith, yet is not anti-God in any way.

And if you think there was no love or sex in those days, you will be shocked. The book is filled with desire, longing, duplicity, culpability, deceit, as well as honor, fealty, and love.

Best of all, there are fools aplenty.

I do a story a day; the idea being that either the book or our own sheltering-in-place will end first. At this rate, the book will finish second, but quite frankly, given the mood of these days, it’s been a nice retreat and gives me hope.

After all, as the book shows, we as a people have gotten through worse and are no worse because of it.

©2020 David William Pearce

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