Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)’s book, The Decameron, was a series of short stories (100 in all) that were told through seven young women and three young men. These people were taking refuge from the plague in an abandoned villa, and told these stories to amuse themselves. It was written shortly after the Black Death. The Decameron began with an account of the Plague in Florence. This account is regarded as a very important primary source for studying the Plague, and is probably of more interest to modern readers than the main focus of the book, which are the tales it contained.
The stories in The Decameron marked a shift from the medieval world to the Renaissance. They exhibited many Renaissance ideas, which were at that time very new. The clergy was attacked numerous times, and the moral values of the Church itself were undermined. In the first story, the veneration of Saints was questioned. In the sixth the Friars Minor were attacked, and in many others the integrity of the Church was in some way called into question. There was an emphasis on the present throughout the stories, and secular practices were honored above spiritual ones. Even the sovereignty of God was de-emphasized, in that sanctions were often attributed to fortune and chance rather than to divine providence.
This new outlook sprung largely from the Plague, because it brought much social change with it. Morality fell into a state of degeneracy among the people, and the clergy was no exception (at least according to Boccaccio). Hierarchies broke up, leaders lost control, and family structure collapsed. The effects of the Plague had seemingly no pattern and no discrimination. People lost faith in God because these sanctions were so horrible and so erratic and could not be attributed to any system of ethics. People lived by the day and by the hour because they had no idea when they would die, but it would probably be soon. This event had a huge influence on Boccaccio’s stories, which personified Renaissance mentality.
The ideas presented in the stories are not highly unusual or revolutionary to us today, but if someone from the middle ages were to read them, that is most definitely the conclusion they would come to. Since these ideas are not unfamiliar to us, they are not as interesting to a popular audience. Far more interesting is the vivid account of the Black Death, which is an important primary source for historians. This account is valuable to us today, far more valuable than the actual stories of the book (and more exiting to read).
Boccaccio’s The Decameron was heavily influenced by the dramatic upheavals of the Black Death, and his account of it is of importance today. The ideas and themes of the actual stories, however, are not so alien to us, and consequently not as interesting. This book was not only an early example of Renaissance thought, but was also an extremely relevant and gripping account of the horrors of the Black Death.