While the context of the Decameron is rather macabre, its story is rather uplifting and it revolves around the brigata made up of ten storytellers, predominantly women. We would like to bring to your attention the framing of this story: the contrast between the morbid plague and the peaceful garden, which brings to mind the question whether this was a form of escape or therapy for the brigata? The brigata secluded themselves in an almost utopian garden and embarked on several techniques to prevent bad humors from entering their body.
More importantly, we would like to ask what is the role of storytelling in Decameron? This question potentially links back to our last reading where Harrison argues that “the more important question, perhaps, is how these epidemics were understood by contemporaries” (58). Perhaps then the narrative framework provides us with a depiction of the public opinion at the time, which could really enhance our understanding of the plague as Harrison suggests.
Additionally, in class, we have discussed that at the time, many people believed that the plague was a form of punishment by God and hence appealed to religion to try to stop the plague. In the introduction to Decameron, the narrator mentions that “in the Face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken” (7). And we also learn that people abandoned their friends, neighbors or even refused to help their own children. In this setting where people died like animals, was the brigata spiritually blind? To answer this question we may want to consider the numerology and the belief system that the brigata agreed upon.
Building on the theme of religion, Decameron employs several themes, the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth) being some of which stand out. With a setting that is infested with disease and death, many have resorted to indulging in their urges and succumbing to worldly pleasures, almost as a way to avoid reality. It seems as though people have disregarded their religious beliefs and are unaware of the consequences of their actions in the afterlife.
Conversely, what would one make of the fact that the plague interrupted people’s religious rituals? Describing the decline in communal/familial burial rituals, the narrator says, “But as the ferocity of the plague began to mount, this practice all but disappeared entirely and was replaced by different customs” (10) (see header image in which people are buried in large numbers due to the amount of deaths). This example is one of many that illustrates the plague’s intrusion into people’s rituals. When people are robbed even of their rituals, are they to blame for abandoning everyone and everything and seeking happiness?
As we’ve seen in the various issues raised above, relevant themes to be raised include reality vs. escape, storytelling, religion, rituals, and spirituality, all of which link, somehow, to the socio-psychological effects of the plague on the people at the time.