The Decameron – the 14th-century Italian book that shows us how to survive coronavirus

Giovanni Boccaccio’s work taught citizens how to maintain mental wellbeing in times of epidemics and isolation.

The spread of the Covid-19 virus has triggered an epidemic of advice. This advice is important, but it seems destined to make our lives more miserable and isolated. However, there is an unusual source of counsel which offers another way to deal with an epidemic. That source is the Decameron.

The Italian Renaissance author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the wake of the plague outbreak in Florence in 1348. The disease ravaged the city, reducing the population by around 60 per cent. Boccaccio described how Florentines “dropped dead in open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbours’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses”.

Social bonds broke down as “this scourge had implanted so great a terror in the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers”, and “fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their children”.

Some people retreated into their houses, while others formed groups and staggered through the city on multi-day benders. The ten friends who the Decameron follows leave Florence for a deserted villa in the countryside. Upon arriving in their rural idyll, they spend their days telling amusing and often racy stories.

Today, we see the Decameron as a collection of entertaining stories to keep next to your bed. In the 14th century, it was a form of social prescribing. According to Pace University’s Martin Marafiot, Boccaccio’s prescription for an epidemic was a good dose of “narrative prophylaxis”. That meant protecting yourself with stories. Boccaccio suggested you could save yourself by fleeing towns, surrounding yourself with pleasant company and telling amusing stories to keep spirits up. Through a mixture of social isolation and pleasant activities, it was possible to survive the worst days of an epidemic.

Boccaccio’s prescription inspired a raft of medieval advice manuals. Tomasso del Garbo, one of the most prominent Florentine physicians at the time, suggested that when a plague hit, people should avoid contemplating death. He advised them to instead gather in a pleasant garden and “use songs and games and other pleasant stories that do not exhaust the body, and all those delightful things that bring comfort”.

In another plague advice book of the time, the Italian theologian Nicolas of Burgo recommended that people should “beware of fear, anger, sadness, excessive anguish, heavy thoughts and similar things. And equally one should take care to be able to be joyful, to be happy, to listen to lullabies, stories and melodies”. 

Boccaccio’s prescription might seem out of date. He didn’t understand what we do now about how plagues spread. Nonetheless, recent work in social epidemiology suggests that Boccaccio might have grasped something important about epidemics. By recommending people avoid the city, Boccaccio was championing what public health experts now call social isolation.

Boccaccio also understood the importance of what we now call “wellbeing”. Quarantines can take a significant toll on mental health. One study found that around 30 per cent of people who were isolated during the 2003 Sars outbreak in Toronto subsequently suffered from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. This was due to feelings of isolation and stigma. Sharing stories can help to keep dismal feelings at bay.

Boccaccio’s faith in the curative power of stories has been supported by dozens of studies of the impact storytelling has on our health. Reviewing such studies, the University of Texas’s James Pennebaker concluded that “when people put their emotional upheavals into words, their physical and mental health improved markedly”. While stories might not protect you from a virus, they can protect you from the ill feelings which epidemics generate.

Boccaccio also understood the crucial role of what we now call social networks in public health crises. For instance, a 2010 study by Nicolas Christakis found that the most popular undergraduate students at Harvard University were also the most likely to catch the flu. Students with sparse social networks, by contrast, were often spared. This suggests well-developed social networks can put our health at risk.

But our social networks can also help us if we are affected. A study led by clinical psychologist Kitty Wu of people quarantined during the 2003 Sars outbreak in Hong Kong found that those with denser social networks were much less likely to become depressed and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a lesson Boccaccio grasped over 750 years ago: illness often leads us to draw away from others, but at the same time people endure misery when completely isolated.

The majority of us don’t have a countryside villa to retreat to, but there are ways in which Boccaccio’s advice remains relevant. The Decameron reminds us that we need the support of others to make it through a public health crisis. Rather than letting ourselves be seized by an epidemic of fear, we should try to occupy ourselves with common pleasures such as playing games, enjoying music and sharing stories. These activities not only improve our sense of wellbeing but also connect us with others.

Some of the lessons from 14th-century Tuscany seem to have been relearned in 21st-century China. During the long days and nights of enforced isolation when some Chinese cities were in lockdown due to the coronavirus, residents sought new ways of connecting with others. Online book clubs and cooking forums sprang up. DJs live-streamed sets and people turned their apartments into impromptu nightclubs. In the evening, residents of tower blocks would lean out their windows and chant, “Wuhan jianyou” (roughly: “keep up the fight”).

Such activities remind us of the importance of connection when we are socially isolated. They certainly make for a better experience than following the example of one man who was isolated during the Covid-19 outbreak in China. He passed his days running an ultra-marathon by circling his tiny apartment.

André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, City, University of London

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