Survivors and Connivers

Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, the paradigm Chaucer followed for the Canterbury Tales,  Canterbury_TalesB some years after the Italian’s opus, during the darkest days of the Black Plague in Europe.

The Black Plague decimated Europe while it raged. It was spread by a virus carried by rats (yuk, yes). The nobility and anyone with two cents worth of sense fled to the countryside to ride it out for it seemed to be most virulent in the cities, Rome, Venice, Florence and so on.
In the idyll of the beautiful Italian countryside these favored few gathered in small communities, idealized the pastoral life, indulged and amused themselves while the poor and less fortunate (generally “dirtier”) perished by the millions, and– according to the mighty story teller Boccaccio– entertained one another endlessly by telling stories and tales.


As it comes down to us the Decameron is obviously no extemporaneous half-baked amateurish series of tales for Boccaccio was one of the first major popular Italian stem-winders who actually wrote in the language of the common man (e.g., not Latin).

“The Decameron (Italian: Decamerone), subtitled Prince Galehaut (Italian: Prencipe Galeotto), is a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived the Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353. The various tales of love in The Decameron range from the erotic to the tragic. Tales of wit, practical jokes, and life lessons contribute to the mosaic. In addition to its literary value and widespread influence (for example on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), it provides a document of life at the time. Written in the vernacular of the Florentine language, it is considered a masterpiece of classical early Italian prose.” (Wikipedia)

“The Black Death arrived in Europe by sea in October 1347 when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina after a long journey through the Black Sea. The people who gathered on the docks to greet the ships were met with a horrifying surprise: Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those who were still alive were gravely ill. They were overcome with fever, unable to keep food down and delirious from pain. Strangest of all, they were covered in mysterious black boils that oozed blood and pus and gave their illness its name: the “Black Death.” The Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late: Over the next five years, the mysterious Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe–almost one-third of the continent’s population.” black death

Recent events have reminded me of the origin of these masterpieces: when unaccountable plague ravaged Europe, still the human impetus toward creativity in the darkest times persists and produces lasting beauty and inspiration.

My fav in the Canterbury Tales? “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” but they are all worthy.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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8 Responses to Survivors and Connivers

  1. jef says:

    Another great literary capsule. Invaluable, now more than ever (and I’m not referring to the ‘Plague’ happenstance). Margaret, you are an official ‘affirming flame’ in this age of mild-but-downhill-rolling intellectual decline. Thanks a million for the gems.

    Liked by 2 people

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