The Wealthy also Cushioned themselves at Expense of Poor in Era of Black Death, as Boccaccio’s Decameron Shows

By Kathryn McKinley, The Conversation, 17 April 2020. The coronavirus can
infect anyone, but recent reporting has shown your
socioeconomic status can play a big role, with a combination of job security,
access to health care and mobility widening the gap in infection and mortality
rates between rich and poor. The wealthy work remotely and flee to resorts or pastoral second homes,
while the urban poor are packed into small apartments and compelled to keep
showing up to work
As a medievalist, I’ve seen a version of
this story before.

Following the 1348 Black Death in Italy, the Italian writer Giovanni
Boccaccio wrote a collection of 100 novellas titled, “The Decameron.” These stories, though
fictional, give us a window into medieval life during the Black Death – and how
some of the same fissures opened up between the rich and the poor. Cultural
historians today see “The Decameron” as an invaluable source of information on
everyday life in 14th-century Italy.
Boccaccio was born in 1313 as the illegitimate
son of a Florentine banker. A product of the middle class, he wrote, in “The
Decameron,” stories about merchants and servants. This was unusual for his
time, as medieval literature tended to focus on the lives of the nobility.
“The Decameron” begins with a gripping, graphic description of the Black
Death, which was so virulent that a person who contracted it would die within four to seven days. Between 1347 and
1351, it killed between 40% and 50% of Europe’s
population. Some of Boccaccio’s own family members died.

Bruges Master of 1482, “Giovanni Boccaccio and Florentines who have fled
from the plague,” Koninklijke Bibliotheek Amsterdam.
In this opening section, Boccaccio describes the rich secluding themselves
at home, where they enjoy quality wines and provisions, music and other
entertainment. The very wealthiest – whom Boccaccio describes as “ruthless” –
deserted their neighborhoods altogether, retreating to comfortable estates in
the countryside, “as though the plague was meant to harry only those remaining
within their city walls.”
Meanwhile, the middle class or poor, forced to stay at home, “caught the
plague by the thousand right there in their own neighborhood, day after day”
and swiftly passed away. Servants dutifully attended to the sick in wealthy
households, often succumbing to the illness themselves. Many, unable to leave
Florence and convinced of their imminent death, decided to simply drink and
party away their final days in nihilistic revelries, while in rural areas,
laborers died “like brute beasts rather than human beings; night and day, with
never a doctor to attend them.”
After the bleak description of the plague, Boccaccio shifts to the 100
stories. They’re narrated by 10 nobles who have fled the pallor of death
hanging over Florence to luxuriate in amply stocked country mansions. From there,
they tell their tales.
One key issue in “The Decameron” is how wealth and advantage can impair
people’s abilities to empathize with the hardships of others. Boccaccio begins
the forward with the proverb, “It is inherently human to show pity to those who
are afflicted.” Yet in many of the tales he goes on to present characters who
are sharply indifferent to the pain of others, blinded by their own drives and
In one fantasy story, a dead man returns from hell every Friday and
ritually slaughters the same woman who had rejected him when he was alive. In
another, a widow fends off a leering priest by tricking him into sleeping with
her maid. In a third, the narrator praises a character for his undying loyalty
to his friend when, in fact, he has profoundly betrayed that friend over many
Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding
and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in
the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their
well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some
stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation.
Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their
responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the
rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value
of a life?
In our own pandemic – with some of the most well-off now clamoring for the
economy to re-open, despite the ongoing spread of
the disease – these issues are strikingly relevant.