Immunity (As Boccaccio Describes It)

Today’s class discussion on The Decameron touched on a range of topics including fate, fortune, religion, and social hierarchy. However, one topic that could potentially diversify the conversation is that of “immunity.”

As discussed last class, immunity can take on several different forms, and The Decameron proposes an entirely new, and rather contemporary view on the subject matter. Pampinea’s idea to escape to the countryside was an attempt to be rid of the plague and all of its collateral damage, but it was also a mechanism for immunity. After their arrival to the estate, and their role distribution, Pampinea insists that her servants are not to bring “tidings of the world outside these walls unless they are tidings of happiness” (Boccaccio, 21). In the subsequent quote, it is evident that being physically far from the plague is not enough to be immune to it. In broader terms, the effects of the plague are more far-reaching than illness, they bring a type of misery to the body that can consume one’s thoughts, and that too can be all-consuming. Therefore, the idea of immunity in the first introductory story of The Decameron is one that encompasses thoughts, and not just physicality. Furthermore, this illusion of immunity seems to completely isolate sick thoughts, people and behavior from ideas, people, and behavior that is well.

Nevertheless, If the sick are victim to their bodily troubles, then the well are burdened by their guilt and fear-often perpetuated by their immediate surroundings. There is no option for an external force of immunization, but rather the conscious decision to be immune by separation and choice. Such a realization begs to ask certain questions about our modern understanding of immunity. What does it mean to be fully immune? On a more meta level; if one practices positive thoughts, actions, and is separated from extraneous circumstances, can they truly be “sick”?

In this regard, Boccaccio’s description of the plague is far from mystical, yet his remedy for it is quite far-fetched. Hope this expands the conversation we had in class today and poses a new lens for future readings. Thanks!

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  1. A couple thoughts to add here: What would grant the Brigata immunity? They don’t quite have a sense of inoculation. In some ways they’ve quarantined themselves. (The question of quarantine — or shutting the sick in their homes — will be a big deal in Defoe too.) They seem to be operating on the kind of humoral model Justin talked about, which would suggest that the best way to stay healthy would be to keep your humors balanced.

    I went back to the Brown University site on the Decameron and took a look at their Plague page:

    (It’s been a few years since I’ve poked around in that site! It’s starting to look a little dated but still has tons of useful info.)

    Here’s some relevant passages, which speaks to Amal’s sense that the group was engaging in preventative measures of some sort:

    When Pampinea sets up the rules of the brigata as they do leave, she outlaws anything which might lead to bad humors entering the body: she forbids the servants from bringing any news except positive news, and even suggests that instead of playing games, which will “inevitably bring anxiety to one of the players, without offering very much pleasure either to his opponent or to the spectators” (180), the brigata tell stories to pass the time. Pampinea seems to go strictly by the regimen set up by the medieval medical tracts when she sets up the schedule of the brigata: “a certain amount of exercise before the two daily meals, usually in the form of walks; music, songs, and dancing after meals; and of course a great deal of congenial conversation throughout” (180).

    So, Olson argues, the link between pleasure and the plague is not simply escapism -pleasure as reaction to death at every doorstep, the danse macabre of the carnival. The pleasure to which the brigata escapes serves a medical purpose as well: it wards off the bad humors which make one susceptible to the plague. The actions of the brigata demonstrate “a shared response to the plague based on common assumptions about the role of mental attitude in hygiene.” Olson thinks that this demonstration is important in understanding the purpose of the frame of the Decameron because it gives “the dramatic movement from plague-ridden Florence to orderly gardens firm psychological and medical plausibility, making it not merely escapist but therapeutic” (182).

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