Why Everyone Is Reading the Decameron Right Now
Have you heard? It’s trending.
How does a work written in the fourteenth century end up on people’s shelves today? Relevance. The Decameron, written in 1353 by Giovanni Boccaccio and most widely read among college students and scholars of pre-Renaissance Italy, is currently trending. The work is set during a devastating plague, the Black Death, that swept across Europe in 1348. In the Decameron, Boccaccio writes of the epidemic’s effect on Florence, Italy, and the stories a group of people tell each other to pass the time.
In the Decameron, seven noblewomen and three men leave Florence for the countryside and decide to tell stories for the duration of their sojourn. In a 2013 piece for The New Yorker, Joan Acocella describes their schedule, one that might appeal to today’s readers who are stuck indoors, writing, “They agree on a routine. In the morning and in the evening, they will take walks, sing songs, and eat exquisite meals, with fine wines, golden and red. In between, they will sit together and each will tell a story on a theme set for the day: generosity, magnanimity, cleverness, etc.” The ten people remain together for fourteen days, and ten of those days are filled with their stories. “Ten tales times ten days: at the end, they will have a hundred stories. That collection, with various introductions and commentaries, is the Decameron,” Acocella writes. It's a story about stories and features a big cast of people—merchants, nobles, princes, husbands, wives—getting into trouble and navigating morality. It’s also exceedingly bawdy. (You’ve been warned.)
In The New Statesman, André Spicer writes that “Giovanni Boccaccio’s work taught citizens how to maintain mental wellbeing in times of epidemics and isolation.” Spicer highlights how epidemics and outbreaks, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, cause social bonds to strain and “break down” as people isolate themselves indoors and away from others. He asserts that Decameron offers advice, prescriptions for wellbeing, because “[s]haring stories can help to keep dismal feelings at bay,” and writes, “The Decameron reminds us that we need the support of others to make it through a public health crisis. Rather than letting ourselves be seized by an epidemic of fear, we should try to occupy ourselves with common pleasures such as playing games, enjoying music and sharing stories. These activities not only improve our sense of wellbeing but also connect us with others.”
Why the Decameron, and why now? Books can provide entertainment, of course, but also historical context, parallels that help us understand what we’re going through today. Those who find themselves indoors, whether due to weather, illness, or epidemic (as with the characters in Boccaccio’s work), must find ways to mark their days, carving routines from borderless time, cooking meals, taking walks—even singing a song or two. They also provide opportunities for connection, and what better way to connect than through storytelling? A book can help us feel less alone, even if—and perhaps especially if—that text is hundreds of years old.
If you’re curious, pick up the Decameron and give it a read. You can find it available as a free eBook via Project Gutenberg. Then, for some medieval English storytelling, put The Canterbury Tales on your reading list. It’s also available via Project Gutenberg.
What classic novels have you read lately? What’s on your reading list?