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Italian Plague Stories and the Meaning of Pandemics

May 28, 2020
College of Arts & Sciences
Headshot of Maggie Fritz-Morkin

Maggie Fritz-Morkin.

Maggie Fritz-Morkin, assistant professor of Romance studies, discusses the themes of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which is set in Italy during the bubonic plague. Fritz-Morkin studies 13th-14th century Italian literature, with research interests in the history of rhetoric and authorship, visceral speech, medieval theories of debt, urban studies, and the rhetoric of medieval medicine.


Maggie Fritz-Morkin: Everything, all of the sort of old cultural practices that had accreted upon themselves and Florence all sort of fall away and people are left with this kind of instinct for self preservation, which takes them down a few different paths. You know, some want to eat, drink, and be merry because their days are numbered. Some want to kind of self isolate with a little pod of friends where they eat well and try to think pleasant thoughts and entertain each other and not ever venture out. And some become very pious, and spend their days in prayer, and some flee the city, and this is what the narrators of The Decameron end up doing.

Jonathan Weiler: Welcome back to “COVID Conversations”. This is Jonathan Weiler. I’m a professor of Global Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Matt Andrews: And I’m Matt Andrews. I’m a professor in the Department of History at UNC Chapel Hill.

JW: For today’s episode, we interviewed Maggie Fritz-Morkin. She is a professor of Romance languages at UNC Chapel Hill. She got her PhD in medieval Italian from the University of Chicago, and she’s been at UNC since 2016. And this year she was elected secretary of the American Boccaccio Association. And if you don’t know what that refers to, you certainly will by the end of the episode.

MA: And Maggie gave us a homework assignment, Jonathan. A summer reading assignment, she asked us to read the introduction to The Decameron. At first I bristled at being given assigned reading during the-

JW: I was not looking forward to it initially.

MA: [laughter] that’s right. It’s not supposed to work this way. But I found, I’m so glad that I read it. And it’s a work that I’m not sure I would have really appreciated had I read it 90 or 100 days ago, but reading it based on our COVID present, it just, I found the connections between what Boccaccio lived through in the 1300s and what we’re living through today to be astounding. And I was so interested in Maggie — in the connections that Maggie was making.

JW: Well and in particular, Matt, it was so interesting to hear her reflect that this isn’t — she’s an expert in medieval Italian literature. And Boccaccio’s Decameron is a classic. She has read it and taught it many times. And she told us that in light of COVID, she now reads it very differently than she ever has before.

MA: Jonathan, we talked about gender, we talked about ethics, we talked about anti-Semitism, we talked about the idea of trust both, back then and today. There’s a lot in here. I’m very excited for this episode of “COVID Conversations”.

[musical interlude] MA: Maggie, thank you so much for joining us.

MFM: Thanks for the invitation. Glad to be here.

MA: You know, the genesis of our conversation lies in an email that I received from a student that we both had in our courses that I mentioned this to you very briefly, I didn’t mention the student. His name is Nate Polo. And I teach big, big courses. So I don’t know if you remember Nate. But Nate listened to the first of the “COVID Conversations”. And he sent me an email and he said, Oh my gosh, you absolutely have to get in Dr. Maggie Fritz-Morkin to talk about Dante and Boccaccio, I took a course of hers called called Medieval Frauds. He said, the class made it clear how widespread disasters can affect collective and political behaviors. And he said, I would love to hear her ruminate about the COVID pandemic. So are you ready to to ruminate with us?

MFM: Yeah, I’m ready to ruminate, absolutely. That was such a great course. And you know, we read a lot of Boccaccio’s Decameron in that course. I think it’s the last time that I taught it or read it with undergrads, and I have to say that rereading it now (…) So the book itself is set in in the midst of the bubonic plague pandemic of 1348. Rereading it now I have such a different appreciation for it. I’m sure that we just glossed over the plague time setting in that course that Nate took with me a long time ago.

MA: So you were not teaching it this past semester, I guess.

MFM: It was, I think it was maybe (…) I taught the course a year ago, for the first time, it was a brand new course. It’s kind of a (…) starter approach to the research for my second book project will be, which will be on the culture of fraud in in the 14th century-

MA: Okay.

MFM: Italian peninsula.

MA: Yeah, I would imagine this book is on the reading list moving forward.

MFM: Yes, absolutely.

MA: Without a doubt.

MFM: One of my, the sort of the genesis of the question is kind of thinking about the difference between the way, the ways that Dante and Boccaccio treat the problem of fraud. So Dante is such a pedant. In his Divine Comedy, he devotes half of the first section to a classification of fraud and he determined that there are 14 different kinds and they make up the last, the last two circles of hell. And I thought you know, when I had my first instinct was like, gosh, what a pendant. And now Boccaccio has a completely sort of agnostic approach, right? He’s really interested in what humans believe about each other. And, and so that, yeah, The Decameron will certainly be on the fraud syllabus. It’s kind of [laughter] stories of trickery of all sorts. But it also is, is we should never forget that it’s kind of the product of a big social crisis of the plague, just like Dante’s work is the product of a different sort of social crisis, which is more political and religious and cultural.

JW: Maggie, can you just start by just setting the scene for us? First of all, tell us who Boccaccio was and then tell us what The Decameron was and then we can talk a little bit more about its content.

MFM: So Giovanni Boccaccio is born in 1313, in Italy, central Italy. He’s born — he’s the illegitimate child of a father who was involved in the banking industry and traveled from Florence to Naples, where the young Boccaccio spent a lot of his youth. He had this really important cultural formation in Naples. His father wanted him to study canon law. He didn’t care for it so much and spend a lot of time haunting the libraries at the court of Naples and making friends with the librarians and getting this taste for sort of festival culture and storytelling and the fabliau traditions, kind of this tradition of telling tales in sort of courtly settings and adventures of knights and ladies. And so he, in his mid 20s, he was forced to go back to Florence. His father’s business took the family back there and that we have some evidence that he was just completely dismayed by the prospect of moving back to this city that was kind of known for being a bureaucratic nightmare. Without any sort of, sense of, of heart, of literature, of refined culture, it was much more a city of pencil pushers and bankers and bureaucrats who liked making one law after the next to kind of promote a sort of civic government that in theory should have served the common good but was always kind of directed by those in control of it to serve their own ends. And so Boccaccio thought that these would not be sort of, this would not be an interesting setting for, for his continued cultural and literary imagination. But I think with The Decameron, which was written, finalized maybe around 1353, so just five years after the plague had really devastated the city. I think that’s where we really see his kind of embrace of Florentine cultures and values that maybe we had seen little kernels of these values, kind of the the fixation on human wit and sort of street smarts, and fantasy, (…) and also Florentine mercantile culture. And, and all of the sort of the wit and street smarts that go along with its heroes, turned out to appeal to Boccaccio much more than he might have expected as a young person first making his move up to the city. And so The Decameron reflects this in a lot of different ways. But one of the most interesting ways is that many of the collection’s hundred stories are set in Florence. And they’re sent among, among the lower classes, the lower and middle, artisan classes. And so we have a good mix of witty rejoinders that come out of the noble classes, but also this kind of sense of ribald humor and sly kind of canniness on the parts of artists and painters and physicians, and this whole kind of population of lively, vibrant, Florentine artisans.

MA: Well can, Maggie, can you take us back a little bit and talk a little – and then we’ll get to the structure of the book in just a second and you gave us a homework assignment. You had us read the introduction, and I’m so glad we did. I was just so fascinated in the links between what’s going on in that book in our in our present situation. But we talk a little bit we’ve said the term the “plague” and “the Black Death.” What what do we know about this pandemic? How big was it? When did it start? What was the mortality rate in Europe and places? And I realize I’m asking you a lot of questions right now. But can you speak to sort of very generally about the Black Plague of this era?

MFM: Yeah, that is a great question. And I have to say that, you know, following on the work of historian Monica Green, who’s just who’s kind of an outstanding scholar of the history of medicine, especially in medieval medicine, and also the history of the plague. I know she’s currently working on a textbook for this pandemic and this particular, this the way that the medieval period dealt with pandemic. She is very kind of quick to articulate that this is a field that is full of new discoveries, and so it’s a history that’s constantly being updated. It’s also not my field of specialization. But of course, especially these days because we’re dealing with our own pandemic, I’ve been reading up quite a bit. And so I was really fascinated to find out that the latest and best evidence puts the beginning of this, of the bubonic plague more than a century earlier than previously expected. So there’s some there’s lots of good evidence connecting the Mongol population and takeover of China and Central Asia as one of the kind of important early spreaders of plague. So contact is between rodent reservoirs and human populations have been kind of the catalyst for plague as long as it’s been around, right? You can’t (…) the bacteria does not transmit between humans exclusively it kind of depends on this, this constant presence within a reservoir, they call it, of rodents. So this began with marmots in Asia and Central Asia and its sort of moved westward with the Mongol kind of takeover of the continent and that began in the early 13th century.  So that’s — archeologists have been able to identify plague bacteria within bodies that were that were found along the Mongol routes so-

MA: And then it comes to Europe in the middle of the 1300s.

MFM: That’s right. So there we have this, this kind of wild account, secondhand account by Gabriele de’ Mussi, who describes the siege of Caffa. And in this he describes the bodies of plague corpses, or the (…) sorry, he describes the plague ridden-corpses being thrown over the city walls and sometimes described as the kind of the first, the first moment of biological warfare, the first instance of biological warfare. So this understanding that contact with a diseased body would spread the disease. And so once these bodies are over the city walls, then everybody is in a rush to escape the city. So ships full of Italians — there’s good evidence to suggest that Italians who brought this disease back to Europe. Merchants, Venetian merchants in Caffa were in a rush to leave the city and so they came back to ports in Sicily, Genoa, Venice, and it quickly came to Florence, which was a central hub for merchants at the time. So right 1348 is when it first arrived in Florence and the, Italy was much more densely populated than most other countries in Europe. I think the the Netherlands had a similar kind of population, and maybe about 40 to 50 people per square kilometer. And everywhere else, it was about half that or less. Italy suffered the kind of the greatest devastation losing from 40-70% of the population in various places. But I think maybe 40% of the entire peninsula.

JW: And Maggie, that was just over a few year period, what’s the what’s the time span for that loss?

MFM: That’s a great question. I believe that that outbreak lasted, you know, just a year or two, off the top of my head. I’m not actually certain but I can tell you, you know, one of the sort of the (…) Well, a little anecdote is that the historian Giovanni Villani of Florence who was keeping a chronicle of Florence, he began writing in 1348 when the plague hit. He wrote in his chronicle, “and the plague lasted” — and then he left a space — “years.” And he never came back and finished it because he succumbed to the plague in 1348. And so it was his brother who came back in and had to finish his work where he left off. I can’t remember what year the the brother wrote in. The major wave of the plague was was done in in a year or two but it you know, it does have a bit of resurgence, you’ll find like smaller outbreaks that come and go throughout time so it never is completely eradicated. As long as you have those rodent reservoirs where it continues to spread among, you know, rodents that may have more or less contact with human population, it can pop up again.

MA: I think this is a bad question. And I want to get to The Decameron. But is there any reason to think that the high death rate in — so you’re talking about the high death rate in Italy is a function of the population density. And obviously, when I’m thinking of the flashpoints of COVID, I think of Wuhan, I think of northern Italy and I think of New York City actually, kind of as the three places. Is there any link between the effect of COVID on northern Italy today and what happened with the Black Plague back in the 1340s and 1350s? Or am I looking for something that just doesn’t exist?

MFM: You know, that is such a great question. And, of course, I don’t have any training as an epidemiologist. And so I can, you know, from what I’ve read, I understand that, that the plague was not transmitted, or it was not believed to be transmitted person to person. You know, we still don’t know everything about plague transmission The virus that we’ve isolated now — sorry, the bacteria that we’ve isolated now is very, very close. And so scientists actually have a pretty good understanding of how it works. And the transmission really seems to be through contact with rodents. Maybe the fleas that live on rodents and pass back and forth through textiles, but human to human contact seems to be much less important. And we know that that’s not the case with COVID, right? One of the sort of bizarre things about COVID is that you can transmit it asymptomatically, which was certainly not the case with the plague. If you got the sort of the buboes, these these large kind of egg- or apple-sized swellings, it was only a matter of hours before you were stricken, and you know, within a day or two or three, you were dead. And so the the transmission of COVID of course, happens stealthily and quietly. And so as you can imagine in a very populated city, the opportunities for transmitting between people are just much higher. Whereas, you know, and this — I can’t say for certain but the the kind of the outbreak in Florence suggests that, you know, rodents just got around a lot more, or people had more contact with rodents or fleas, or perhaps lice.

JW: Maggie, one more question about plague generally before we talk more about Boccaccio and The Decameron. When I was younger, all I knew about the plague was that it ravaged much of Europe and wiped out a huge proportion of the population. It was spread by rats, and that Jews were typically blamed for its spread by poisoned wells, or whatever means they were said to be responsible for the spread of the disease. And I’m just interested to hear you talk a little bit about the role of anti-Semitism specifically but maybe just sort of othering more generally as part of the narrative of plague accounts, whether historical accounts or literary accounts during this period.

MFM:  Yeah, that is a really, that’s a great question. And you know, it’s one of the most troubling aspects of pandemic history, of plague time history. And of course, anti-Semitism in medieval Europe is certainly not limited to responses taken to kind of mysterious illnesses, right. But I think that there is and you know, we’ve seen this in our current pandemic, right? When there’s a contagion and nobody understands exactly its origin, it’s spread, there’s some desire to pinpoint blame on somebody and so where does the blame go? It tends to go, it tends to follow groups that are already ostracized or the groups that are already marginalized in societies. And so you know, there’s evidence of a brutal attack against the Jewish community in Savoy and then elsewhere in Europe. And so that is certainly one of the kind of, you know, it’s symptomatic, not of anything to do with the plague, not of its transmission, but it kind of shows, it reveals this sort of (…) an attitude on the part of medieval Christian communities toward medieval Jewish communities. There are certainly other, kind of, other examples from medieval history, legends, that Christian — or rumors maybe that that would be circulated about religious practices of Jews and the kind of issuing of blood libel, right? Claiming that the Jews consumed the blood of Christian children during religious rituals. And these stories would be invented and created and then used to stir up the sort of religious fervor that would then manifest in violence and kind of attacks against entire towns and entire communities.

JW: And Maggie, you wrote this, I believe, that the some of the expulsions of Jews from places like Great Britain, and other places themselves, were preceded by the plague and that this was a response to — one response to the plague or these mass expulsion of Jews during this period of European history.

MFM: Yes, I – It’s not my own research, but I’ve certainly I’ve certainly read these accounts also by historians who have kind of noted this correspondence and some of the you know, sometimes with kind of direct causal evidence that these kind of acts of exile or violence against Jewish communities were unfortunately, frequent in these post-pandemic periods.

MA: So Maggie, to get to the book, Boccaccio is living in Florence during the plague outbreak. Is that right?

MFM: Oh, you know what we — that’s actually, we’re not we’re not entirely sure if Boccaccio witnessed the plague ravaging Florence himself. But there’s good evidence, I think that his mother and maybe stepmother died of it. And so, you know, he was quickly back in Florence and had the opportunity to hear sort of the the testimonials of many people. Either that, or he saw it for himself. But certainly nowhere in Italy was spared the sort of the drama of this kind of total crumbling of society under the pressures of the pandemic.

MA: Well in the introduction, I think that’s a good way of putting it: the total crumbling of society. The introduction that you gave us is detailing the total crumbling of society in Florence. And then a group of of Florentines who decide to get out of the city. Could you just kind of very briefly for our listeners, set the stage? You know, take us up to the point where they flee the city. And then storytelling begins.

MFM: Yeah, absolutely. So this book is a – it works within a frame narrative. And so we have, we have the voice of this author Boccaccio, who is recalling a true story of some young nobles who escaped the plague-ridden city. And so the introduction to the first day of storytelling presents these 10 narrators who are about to leave the city and it also gives us this portrait of Florence, which is falling apart.

MA: It’s bleak.

MFM: It’s bleak, right? And this is still I think on every syllabus dedicated to plague studies. You will find this introduction because it gives such a comprehensive account of the social life of the city in times of plague. So Boccaccio is not only interested in the sort of the manifestation of the disease on the body. He gives a very acute description of how the disease begins and progresses, he even notes a change in the manifestation of the disease. But then he goes on to talk about what happens to the body politic also. And so he, I think his his main observation is that this is a moment where positive law — law created by humans — just falls apart because there’s nobody left to enforce it. And there’s this idea that some aspects of natural law this kind of instinct for self-preservation that all creatures have within them. Animals have it, humans have it. It coexists alongside positive law, when the one falls away; when the city’s laws can no longer be enforced, because everybody’s overwhelmed with fear and emotion and anxiety and panic and also there’s nobody to prosecute crimes or put a stop to them. There’s nobody stopping frauds from happening. There’s nobody controlling, you know what goes on in the life of the city. Religious life sort of stops because you can’t have the same services or the same mourning rituals. Everything, all of the sort of old, you know, kind of cultural practices that had accreted upon themselves in Florence all sort of fall away and people are left with this kind of this instinct for self-preservation, which takes them down a few different paths. Some want to eat, drink, and be merry because their days are numbered. Some want to kind of self-isolate with a little pod of friends where they eat well and try to think pleasant thoughts and entertain each other and not ever venture out and some become excessively — not excessively religious I suppose if you’re religious, you don’t feel it’s excessive — but some become very pious, and spend their days in prayer and some sort of flee the city. And this is what the the narrators of The Decameron end up doing.

MA: Maggie, I mean, were you just describing Florence in the 1350s or were you describing the United States right now? [laughter] It’s unbelievable the parallels-

MFM: It really is.

MA: -these these social types that he outlines, I’m just thinking to myself, Oh, that’s me. And that’s my neighbor. And that those are my parents.

JW: And then they’re resistors over there.

MFM: Absolutely. I mean, I think we all remember in the early days, the St. Patrick’s Day festivities that we saw, or we saw young people out, celebrating on the eve of the kind of total lockdown of the country. And there was a lot of discussion, a lot of anger and grief about the sort of this carelessness that we can see in our fellow citizens. And Boccaccio even described some of these young people. It’s not enough just to drink too much, but he describes them going from tavern to tavern and moving about the city and kind of experiencing the urban space in this new way that was against the laws but served the pleasures that they were kind of keen to feel in this strange exceptional state.

JW: Just so folks appreciate, to Matt’s point a minute ago about how familiar this all felt and the introduction where Boccaccio is describing the plague. I just wrote down a list for myself. Maggie, you mentioned people grouping themselves into pods. And Boccaccio talks about the fact that the poor were particularly screwed by this pandemic. And the fact that the health system was quickly overwhelmed so that people who had never practiced medicine before were now practicing, because there weren’t enough doctors to attend to all the sick as we’re going to talk about more of the wealthy fled to the countryside. That there were funerals with no witnesses because it was too dangerous. I mean, it’s just like one element after another, did feel like we’re in, we are reading an account of a hotspot in 2020.

MA: There was no toilet paper shortage, though in the Introduction [laughter].

JW: That was the big difference.

MA: I was waiting for that. A serious question: did they have toilet paper in the 1350s in Florence?

MFM: No, they did not.

MA: They did not. Okay.

MFM: I should double check this, but I don’t think there was much in terms of paper, they used parchment instead, which was much more precious. and so you would never use it for that.

MA: Right, right. Yeah. Okay, so we didn’t mean to interrupt. So you’re taking us to these 10 Florentines who decide they’re going to get out of the city. Can you just sort of walk us through the next few pages of the book when we get to the part where the decision is made to start telling stories?

MFM: Right. So these these 10 beautiful, noble, wealthy young folks, they decide to kind of abscond to a country Villa of one of theirs and they each take a servant or two, so that they’re well provided for. And as they kind of head out of town, you know, there’s the one guy who says: I don’t know about you, but I’ve checked my cares at the gates of Florence. And so there’s, they’re sort of committed to the exercise of pleasure. And they, as they’re kind of sitting around thinking about how they’re going to spend their time, the newly elected Queen of the day — so there’s 10 of them, and they they have 10 days of storytelling spread out over two weeks. They each get a turn to sort of choose the theme and, and, and direct the day’s activities. So the first elected Queen Pampinea suggests that, that they instead of playing board games, or something, these kind of agonistic games that pit people one against the other, that they do something that’s mutually beneficial that entertains the whole group, and it’s still a competition of sorts. She doesn’t quite frame it that way, but that’s how it turns out. We have these 10 people who each get to present a story and every day is a story slam. And then there’s always the one guy who gets to tell the last tale and that’s Dioneo, and he’s always kind of trying to sum up the day and also outdo every other storyteller. So that is how we get the hundred stories that are contained within the volume.

MA: Okay, and so I was so struck by the fact — you’re talking about game playing and agonistic activities, the idea there’s a chessboard there, and there’s a backgammon board there. But the main character, I’m sorry, whose name I’m not sure I know how to pronounce says no, we’re not going to be playing these because there are winners and losers, and I sense — there were seven women and three men, which surprised me a little bit. I mean, so my, my sense is if it was seven men and three women the decision would have been made to have competitions, right, [laughter] they’d be playing backgammon. They’d been having wrestling contests or something along those lines. Did — but why did Boccaccio make, divide the main characters’ gender-wise that way. Any thoughts on that? Why it was seven women and three men?

MFM: Oh, that’s a great question. Um, so sort of numerology and allegory are kind of par for the course in medieval literature. And I think, you know, seven is an interesting number. It might be the number of the liberal arts, it might be the number of moral virtues, it might be, you know, it might have something to do with the, you know, the seven-day week. It might have something to do with — I think there are some, I would look to the scholarship of Victoria Kirkham and also Teodolinda Barolini. They have, they both I think, have great kind of allegorical readings of what the significance of the gender split between the narrators is. I think it’s also interesting to think about The Decameron as a book for women which is another thing that the, that the author, even before introducing the plague time setting of Florence, he sort of, he begins the work by saying: it is a humane thing to have compassion for one another. And he’s, he’s attending not to — he’s directing his compassion not to the suffering of those who have just survived the plague or lost their loved ones, but rather to the women who are who, shut up in their kind of fancy palaces all day have nothing to do. And that, you know, these women may fall in love and just kind of go stir crazy in their houses. They may become melancholic, which is sort of an imbalance of the humors. And so Boccaccio says that he’s writing for women so that they have something to do, so that they have some educational tales, or at least some entertaining ones because when men fall in love, they can distract themselves by going out. They can go hunting and fishing and attend to their businesses and participate in government. They have any number of diversions, but women are left alone with their feelings. And so I think, you know, giving more words to women in The Decameron by having seven narrators that are women rather than the other three that are men, is another way that he is kind of interested in what women might think and what women might say.

JW: Maggie, is there any element of this sort of structure of storytelling as he put it, a story slam, that speaks to the fact that we’re in a plague, society is broken down, people’s normal activities are no longer available to them. I’m just thinking now we’re all spending 25 hours a day watching Netflix. Was there any-

MFM: [laughter] Unless you have children.

JW: Unless you have children and (…) then you’re worrying about their screen time right. Is there any element here just of that? Of this is just a way of getting through a plague by diverting oneself?

MFM: Yeah, Jonathan, I will say that I had never thought of that interpretation. And that is exactly how I reread it in rereading kind of, in preparation for our discussion today was that I thought, Oh, these women are quarantined. And these days are long. Now we all know how long the days are. Even if you’re trying to get a million things done, they all sort of feel like treading water. And there’s, there’s probably some other people in your house, if you’re lucky, who are also going about their water treading in a way that may or may not disrupt yours. And these activities that bring together all of the people in one space and please everybody and entertain everybody and possibly have something to teach everybody. Those are — those are valuable, right. Yeah, I think that’s a great reading and I think that’s a new reading that I hadn’t really experienced before experiencing quarantine myself.

JW: Maggie, just to follow up on that, were there — can you think of another element of one of the stories of The Decameron that you read differently now than you did pre-coronavirus?

MFM: Yeah, absolutely. I will say I mean — this might be a little bit flippant. But I will say the most unrealistic thing about The Decameron is the fact that none of these young people are monitoring themselves for symptoms of the plague. They really do manage to kind of push it out of their minds completely. Whereas, you know, talking with friends and family now, I think everybody is anxious for their own health. They’re, you know, like you get a little sniffle and it’s related to allergies, but you can’t be sure and so you don’t know if you should initiate your 14 days of self-isolation. And you, there’s this kind of anxiety that like I might be carrying it right now. I think the the longer lag time of COVID certainly contributes to that. And the immediacy of plague infections manifesting, I guess, means that if you don’t see any signs of it, you probably don’t have it. Then again, if you don’t know where it’s going to come from, you can never be too sure either. But yeah, I was especially kind of struck by the fact that these, these young people can just, they really can just kind of forget about the troubles of the pandemic for a stretch.

[musical interlude]

MA: This is “COVID Conversations”. Today, Jonathan and I are talking with Maggie Fritz-Morkin about Boccaccio’s book The Decameron. And now back to that conversation.

[musical interlude]

MA: Maggie, when doing a little bit of internet research for our conversation, you know, I just googled Decameron and COVID. And I was struck by there are so many essays out there about what Boccaccio can tell us, you know, what he would be telling us if he were here, right now. Do you have your thoughts on that, your interpretation of what the, you know, what are the major messages of this work of literature that we can apply it in our own lives, or hopefully we will, as a society, apply in our own lives?

MFM: That’s a really great question. And I’ve, you know, I’ve sort of browsed a lot of those discussions online too. I think, you know, the thing that really stands out more than ever for me now in reading Boccaccio is thinking about, sort of, when society falls apart. When there’s this — when institutional medicine suddenly doesn’t have answers that we expect from it, when our laws are kind of slow to keep up with the exigencies of a crisis, we really have to rely on our own kind of instincts, not only instincts, but also kind of an intellectual approach to the problem at hand. And it really is incumbent on every single person to behave ethically, morally, in a way that they believe is right. And I think that then, more than any other kind of problem, I think that’s the thing that jumps out for me out of The Decameron is this insistence on the high stakes of kind of personal wrestling with questions of ethics and morality. Boccaccio sort of (…) Boccaccio is quick to displace all, kind of, moral and ethical blame that arise from his texts and there’s quite a bit. He’s got lots of salacious stories, stories about infidelity, stories about cheating in contracts, stories about kind of unpunished victories in economic and sexual and personal and family entanglements. All of these kind of these tempting, tantalizing inducements to fraud really rise to the surface in his texts. And I think, you know, he’s very, you know, he defends the, he defends the moral uprightness of the work by saying at the very end, he said, you know, if you are of a mindset where you are already inclined to cheat and steal and sleep around with everybody, you’re going to read my text as permission to do that. But you would also find those permissions in Holy Scripture. And if you are a moral person, if you are upright, you could read pornography and derive some kind of moral lesson from it. And so I think this insistence that we all need to kind of think and act, we can’t coast on the, on the morals or on the laurels of anybody, we have to, we have to address these things ourselves. And we have to kind of govern our own behavior by what we think is right. That rises to the surface every single time for me.

JW: Right, in a way, the way I’m thinking about that lesson, Maggie, is that we become, in a sense, moral agents at times like this, that we aren’t normally. Because normally we can just sort of default to the norms of a society, most of us, to kind of govern our behavior, and now we have to affirm our own sense of right and wrong in ways that aren’t typical.

MFM: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. I think, every time I have any sort of minimal interaction out in the world, you know — is it right to buy groceries in this particular way? Is it right to get takeout? Is it right to go and sit in the front lawn of a friend’s and have a conversation, face to face, with some distance? Is it right to-

JW: Right, wearing a mask? Right?

MFM: Mm hmm. Wearing a mask. Making a pod, right? Is it right to quarantine, to isolate yourself? Mostly, but not entirely. Because it’s true that, you know, and I think Boccaccio realizes this too, that, you know, we’re humans and we have these human needs that the sort of, you know, our religious culture, our social culture, the care between parent and child, between friends, between family members, these are the things that make us human. And he’s very insistent on (…) the idea that those who are only acting in the instinct of self preservation lose their humanity, he calls them – they’ve just kind of regressed to sort of like an animal state and that there is something important about our humanity. I think that lots of scholarship along over the years has kind of described The Decameron as a kind of, doing the important work of recovering social and civic values. Right? The stories never have a clear moral, you can always read them slant. You can always read them from the point of view of another character. And yet they all seem to be kind of working around shared values and communal values. How are we supposed to behave with each other? How are we supposed to negotiate with each other when we can’t trust you know, are our fellow human beings? How does that shape the way that we interact? And I think that those things are now rising kind of to a level of consciousness now too like, you know, a friend will say, why don’t you come over and sit in my front yard and we’ll have a discussion. I trust you. I know you’ve been safe. But where does that trust come from, right? Do they, do they really know like, what sort of conclusions I’ve come to about what’s safe for my child? What — you know if whether or not he can see other children? Do they know that I go grocery shopping and I don’t, I don’t have use Instacart? There’s this sort of this language of trust that seems to be popping up into lots of conversations that I have that doesn’t make a lot of sense, like the COVID virus doesn’t know about trust, it’s just going to jump around where it does.

JW:  Yeah, and and I feel like a companion of trust in this context is shame actually, because if you’re in a small community, where people are mostly trying to be careful and not go out except when absolutely necessary, but if somebody slips up once and it’s just a shame to share that. You know, that can also puncture the pod or this bubble of trust that people are — want to believe in so that they can maintain even the barest semblance of a normal life.

MFM: Absolutely, I think, you know, anthropologically speaking, shame and humiliation, have this kind of extra juridical function of keeping societies running the way that they should, right? These are tools that every single person has to correct the behavior of those around them. And, you know, it’s really interesting to think about how so many of Boccaccio’s stories, especially those set in Florence, especially those that really have this kind of Florentine flavor, are prank tales. And there really is a kind of, a sense of justice being performed by these pranksters. We’ve got the the painters, Bruno and Buffalmacco who are based on real kind of early Renaissance painters, who are always playing pranks on people who are kind of not thinking about the common good, who are selfish, who are trying to appropriate goods and money and honors that don’t rightly belong to them. And so I think this is another really great connection to our present moment. Like we, we’ve seen these tools kind of shaming people who aren’t acting in the kind of shared best interests, right. Sort of things going viral online, as a way of kind of making people realize that they should not act in a certain way that benefits them and harms others. That’s absolutely a way of kind of creating a just society that really kind of emerges in Boccaccio’s texts that kind of the whole text, the whole Decameron and also at the individual story level.

MA: Maggie, as we start to wind down a little bit, I’m thinking about, you know, obviously what comes next for us. In a year or so, hopefully, when we emerge from this pandemic, you know, whether it’s gonna [sic] be business as usual. Whether we’re just gonna [sic] have our same old prejudices and hatreds and problems or whether this moment is going to profoundly change us. Do you have any sense of what happened in Florence after the plague? I mean, the extent to which things did or did not change? Did Boccaccio right about that? Any thoughts there?

MFM: That’s a great question. You know, I think that, I’ve seen kind of circulating around this idea that you know, after the plague, after the Great Pestilence, the Mortality, that is sort of one of the things that gave us the Renaissance, right. After so many people died, the serve — the like the worker class, the servant class, was able to sell their services and labor for a higher price and therefore, you know, their sort of, their income went up, their standard of living went up. And on one hand, that’s (…) true, especially in Florence, in northern Italy. I’ve looked at some kind of demographic studies that show that in northern Italy, 40% of the people were — disappeared during the plague and that — and leaving behind, you know, the capital and the knowledge that used to be shared by a much larger number was now shared by you know, just barely more than half those people. And so yes, for each individual person, they had a little bit more, a little bit more with which to make their life. And so, (…) yeah, in you know, there there’s maybe something to this idea that, for at least for the first hundred years after the plague, people’s living conditions were better. If you survived, things were better for you. You had better material conditions in your life and certainly those are the years they get the Renaissance off running up until 1450. And yet the later sort of part of the Renaissance, which dating that is kind of a hot debate in Medieval and Renaissance studies, but I’d say by 1450, in Italy, we’re already well underway. And by 1550, we’re already well into the early modern period. And but so 1450 — by 1500, 1550 people are sort of living, their standard of living is back down to what it was at about, in about 1300. So it hasn’t, it’s not like the sustained improvement. And the Renaissance actually, I think historians of economics recognize it as a period of depression right? So, and that — those are the, especially in this in a second century after this first plague. I think we’re dealing with a completely different animal with COVID, because number one, because the mortality rate is just different and the way that we live now is just different. I think, you know, things that I’m watching right now and that are interesting to me right now, is this kind of interest in you know, what will we expect of our government institutions following the plague. I think that there’s, you know, new recognition that, wait a minute, I might not have thought that kind of federal government was all that useful, or a good kind of investment before this. But now I see that, you know, each community working at a local level, has a hard time, they have to reinvent the wheel. They have to kind of, you know, having to organize at so many different levels has some real problems and so people might might be rethinking how it is that we allocate healthcare, I mean. I’ve seen lots and lots of discussion about un-linking it from your work, because if so many people can lose work because of a healthcare crisis — I mean, I think I’m just repeating what everybody’s talking about, but we’re really thinking about the sort of class and labor and, what is it that a federal government should provide?

MA: Just as a very quick point of clarification — and I’m going to be once again displaying my ignorance here — do people think of the Renaissance, you know, this sort of literary and philosophical and humanist outpouring, do they see it as a result of the plague? People surviving the onslaught and reassessing the world around them.

MFM: You know, the argument certainly has been made that kind of after, yeah, after the, after this period of — after this great crisis, right, new kind of, new ways of being are suddenly more imaginable. In fact, I can’t imagine The Decameron being written without a plague. I can’t imagine The Decameron being written in the same decade as Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example. The problems are just different in this kind of fundamental shattering of the kind of the scholastic sort of — scholastic institutional medicine that was big in the Middle Ages suddenly falls apart because people realize that it’s not as powerful as they thought it was. And so yeah, there’s this really this, this upheaval that I think does give rise to some very specific conditions in Italy, where people are already living pretty densely and even post-plague, they’re living at a density that is greater than pre-plague densities elsewhere in Europe. Italy had already been sort of on the industrial avant-garde so in kind of, you know, textiles, even like banking, banking, textiles, technology, hydraulics, architecture. There were just so many areas that that even before the plague were already kind of experiencing lots of innovation. And so all of that kind of advanced knowledge and resources, those things, you know, the capital, that still remained when people who owned it disappeared. And so there was a lot to start building from in Italy. And so I think that there’s something to that. And that’s not to say that every pandemic, you know, take away half the people and suddenly the people remaining are going to make something wonderful. That of course, I think is irresponsible. And so and so I can’t remember who wrote this column. I think it was in the New York Times, maybe: don’t worry after the plague came the Renaissance — we’re going to be you know, something, — the arc of history is going to throw something great our way. That’s not a given and that’s something that everybody has to work for I think.

JW: Thanks again to Maggie Fritz-Morkin for joining us today on “COVID Conversations”. This is a production of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the College of Arts & Sciences. We want to thank Dean Terry Rhodes, the Dean of the College, and Senior Associate Dean Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld. We also want to thank Geneva Collins and Kristen Chavez in the Office of Communications in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Matthew Belskie and Klaus Mayr, our producer extraordinaire. And you can find “COVID Conversations” on our website at and wherever else you may find your podcasts, and we’ll look forward to talking to you next time.


Transcript edited by Kelsey Eaker

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