14th-Century Plague Literature Inspires Book of COVID-19 Lockdown Poems

novel coronavirus poetry collection takes cue from boccaccio's "the decameron"

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Author of new book of pandemic poetry took inspiration from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Both books, written during major health crises, express hope and concern for their singular times. The Decameron is the most important work of its era.

Vintage book on dark background
The entire introduction of The Decameron gives a detailed description of the Black Plague of 1348. Photo By zef art / Shutterstock

Poet and author Leigh Stein has published a new collection of poetry, called What to Miss When, that expresses her thoughts during—and about—the novel coronavirus pandemic. Stein developed a keen interest in how we all have spent our time during lockdown; specifically, we’ve been doing more online and we’ve found shared interests like popular streaming shows. The author specifically mentioned Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron as an inspiration, which was written during the Black Death.

Literature during the 14th century revealed much about how society handled the Black Death. Some of the writing produced during the time period is often regarded among the best fiction of human history. In her video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague, Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, explained the impact of The Decameron.

Background on Boccaccio

Boccaccio was born in the early 14th century in Florence or just outside that great Italian city-state,” Dr. Armstrong said. “He came from a well-to-do Florentine family; his father was a banker and wanted young Giovanni to follow in his footsteps. Boccaccio preferred to study law and his father consented to this, but after six years, Boccaccio found he really didn’t like law.”

Instead, he preferred studying and learning about science, medicine, and literature. His mentor was Francesco Petrarca, also known simply as Petrarch. Petrarch is known as the father of the Italian Renaissance. He translated Homer’s works from Greek to Latin at Boccaccio’s request.

Boccaccio and his father moved to Naples for a time, then returned to Florence. Eventually, Boccaccio began work on Decameron there.

Decameron 101

“As you probably recall, the premise of The Decameron is that a group of noble youths have fled plague-ravaged Florence and headed to an estate in the country to wait until the Black Death has finished with the city,” Dr. Armstrong said. “In order to pass the time, the young nobles take turns telling stories.”

There are 10 young nobles—seven women, three men—who must each tell one story per night for two weeks, taking two nights off per week for housework and chores. At the end of the trip, 100 stories will have accumulated, hence the title. Decameron, Dr. Armstrong said, comes from the Greek words for “ten” and “day.” The stories are widely varied and are taken from a variety of literary sources, which was common practice in the day, but recast to contemporary Florentine language and setting.

Strikingly, Boccaccio wrote the entire text not in Latin, but in Italian. This made it more accessible to a wider audience than the well-educated and the clergy. He completed it in 1353, at the end of the first wave of the plague.

The Legacy

“Included in this collection are several stories that have no known literary source, and many scholars think that these might have been traditional stories that were circulating orally at the time,” Dr. Armstrong said. “Boccaccio was just the first to put them down in a manuscript. Inspiring Boccaccio to preserve these stories for posterity was yet another gift, we might say, that the plague gave to humanity, even as it was taking so much else away.”

However, the part of Decameron which endures the most strongly is Boccaccio’s introduction. According to Dr. Armstrong, it details the horrors that the Black Death had wrought upon Florence, lending a shocking glimpse into the ills of the day.

“Boccaccio describes accurately the the buboes that appeared on those afflicted with plague, the desertion of people by their family members once it became clear that they were infected, the mass burials that took place at the height of the epidemic, and the terrifying rapidity with which the disease could spread from one person to the other,” she said.

While What to Miss When is far less graphic, it also serves as a snapshot of disease-ridden times.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily