14th-century Italian advice on how to survive an epidemic

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1376), the Italian author of the Decameron.

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Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1376), the Italian author of the Decameron.


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.

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