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My hands smell like strawberries and chicken liver, and I’m drinking a Vernaccia, the “good white wine” of The Decameron. In the middle of cooking, I flip through my phone, scrolling through the orange banners announcing death tolls. It’s incongruous and heartbreaking. As a schoolchild, I used to thrill myself with the horror of the World Wars and spent hours in the library daydreaming over what epoch-defining disaster would happen to me. Vietnam was over. Nuclear fears were easing. It was the Reagan eighties and then the Clinton nineties, and it seemed impossible anything could change. But now the epoch-defining disaster is here, and I’m worrying about the health of my friends and family members, and worrying, too, about all the people grieving or suffering, and I feel uneasy about cooking and eating well under the circumstances. It’s possible that the relative abundance of Vernaccia and tasty giblets could soon dwindle in my household as well. Like everyone else, I’m wondering what changes will come next.
The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), is a book that sits squarely on one of history’s great pivots. It was completed in 1353, four years after the black death wiped out an estimated 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population, an event that scholars in the book The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? argue was catalyst for massive change, though they note that the plague also served as a crucible for shifts that were already underway but as yet unseen. Boccaccio, who lived in Florence, probably wasn’t an eyewitness to the plague, but his father was the city’s minister of supply, and The Decameron contains one of history’s best accounts by a contemporary of “the late mortal pestilence,” an occasion of “not merely sickening, but of an almost instantaneous death,” which mysteriously seemed to spread not just by contact with the sick but by touching their things or even looking at them. (Does that sound familiar?)
Boccaccio chronicles how “divers apprehensions and imaginations were engendered in the minds of such as were left alive,” with some deciding to “shun and abhor all contact with the sick and all that belonged to them” and wait in temperate isolation, while others maintained “that to drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel” was the way to go. Nonetheless, “in this extremity of our city’s suffering and tribulation the venerable authority of laws, human and divine, was abased and all but totally dissolved.”
This horror, though, is only the book’s frame. A group of wealthy young nobles, seven women and three men, flee the plague-ridden city for a country estate, where they occupy themselves at “tables covered with the whitest of cloths” and picnic in idyllic glades. The aristocrats eat “dishes, daintily prepared,” drink “the finest wines,” and tell raunchy stories, ten per day for ten days, which are the main contents of the book. Read More