By Jenny Farrell
August 14, 2020
The Black Plague was the most devastating pandemic ever recorded, resulting in the deaths of between 75-125 million people. It peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351, having come on Italian merchant ships from Asia via the Silk Road. In fact, the idea of quarantine originates in plague-stricken 14th-century Italy, when ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to wait offshore for 40 days before docking. The word quarantine derives from the Italian quaranta giorni, 40 days.
The Italian territories were the cradle of early capitalism. Alongside Venice, Lombardy (Milan) and Tuscany (Florence) were the most advanced regions. Trade and industry developed here in the 13th century, favored by their trade routes to the Orient. Venice had possessions in Greece, Crete, Cyprus and on the Dalmatian coast. Venetian ships called at European ports, and Venetian ducats became an international currency. With 200,000 inhabitants, the city had a surprisingly large population.
The social order of the Venetian state was determined by its economic interests and the nobility, so its constitution remained aristocratic. It was different in Florence, the second most powerful city in Italy. Florence had a constitution since 1293, which excluded the nobility from the government and transferred its administration exclusively to the patricians. Its council, however, excluded small craftsmen and the common people. At that time, Florence was unique in Europe for a constitution based on bourgeois democratic principles.
This newly developing society brought about great changes in the way people understood the world and their place in it. In the arts, the humanists of this early Renaissance began to rediscover the books and art of the ancients, their focus on this world, the world that the new class, the bourgeoisie, were about to take on. This new focus on the merchants, artisans and patricians brought with it the growing importance of their vernacular.
Dante (c. 1265-1321), who represents the transition from medieval to Renaissance writing, penned his Divine Comedy (1308-21) not in Latin, as might have been expected of a work of this scope at the time, but in Tuscan or Florentine Italian, which helped make that dialect the standard one for Italy. Francesco Petrarca (1304-74) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), following Dante, are firmly established Renaissance writers, both of them also writing in the Florentine dialect.
Boccaccio witnessed these momentous times and gave the world one of its best-known and widely read books, The Decameron. Written and set during the plague, its introduction and frame story bring it to life. Given the present circumstances, I’ll refrain from delving into the gruesome details of Boccaccio’s introduction, but leave this to the interested reader to do for themselves.
The idea of a great many stories collected within a frame story was not altogether new. Centuries earlier, the Middle East had produced One Thousand and One Nights (in Arabic alf layla wa layla), the earliest manuscripts of which date back to the 9th century. These reflect a different kind of society, a feudal society, and yet they do this with as much vividness and cheekiness as Boccaccio would use to describe his world. The Persian poet Hafez (1315-90), on the other hand, wrote satirical and love poetry that finds a parallel in Petrarch.
Boccaccio’s frame story goes like this: Ten wealthy young people leave Florence in order to escape the plague, moving to a country villa, not without with some servants. They decide that they shall each rule for a day and preside over a set time every afternoon, when each one tells a story on a different theme. What unfolds is a panorama of 14th-century Florentine life, with some of the stories told originating in different cultures. With Dante’s Divine Comedy in mind, Boccaccio’s has been called a “Human Comedy.” Many of the stories satirize clerical lust and greed, the adventures of traveling merchants (and their wives at home), tensions between the new wealthy commercial class and noble families. Quite a few of the stories are explicitly sexual. However, while this doubtlessly contributed to the book’s enormous popularity, it would be wrong to reduce the book to just its sexual theme.
In fact, it became a rich source for writers of world literature. One example is the third story of the first day, a story with origins preceding Boccaccio. The great German Enlightenment poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing discovered the story and based his famous play Nathan the Wise on it. This play about the equal value of all religions and cultures was the first play staged in many German theaters after World War II.
The fifth story on the fourth day is the source for Keats’s poem “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil,” a poem about which Shaw said that had Marx written a poem instead of Capital, it would have been this.
All this said, it does not do the work justice either to simply view it as a repository. In fact, the way in which it was most richly emulated was by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) in his Canterbury Tales. Chaucer had visited Italy on royal business and was very well read. His marvelous tales, written between 1387 and 1400, take from Boccaccio the idea of a frame story—the ride from London to Canterbury with thirty pilgrims telling stories to pass the time. Indeed, they are similar in their often bawdy content and satire of the clergy.
Yet there is a difference. Chaucer’s pilgrims come from three distinct classes of society—the nobility, the clergy and the common people—and all are more concerned with worldly things than spiritual concerns. Had Chaucer completed this project of thirty pilgrims telling two stories each on the way to Canterbury and two again on the way back, we would now have 120 stories. It was a very ambitious project, one Chaucer could not complete. He finished 24 of them, and others have come down in fragments. Nevertheless, the tales we do have paint a similarly vivid picture of 14th-century England as Boccaccio’s do of Florence. And while it took the plague to unite the young Florentines in their country refuge, here it is the pilgrimage that unites these diverse English men and women to be in the same place at the same time.
Chaucer’s plan differs from Boccaccio’s also in that the prologues to the tales characterize the teller of the story in detail, in particular linguistically. As pointed out, these come from the spectrum of classes in medieval England. For example, the Wife of Bath uses only Germanic adjectives, while the Prioress uses mainly adjectives with a French etymology, reflecting on the one hand a person from the ordinary people, on the other a woman from a noble background.
Like Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, Chaucer wrote his masterpiece in the vernacular. It is hard to imagine today just what a new departure this represented. For over 300 years, since the Norman, i.e., French, invasion of 1066, English had not been spoken by the nobility and upper classes in England. English, specifically Anglo-Saxon, was kept alive by the common people of England as their vernacular. Given that this was no longer a language of education, reading, etc, the English language developed like wildfire over the historically very short period of 300 years into Middle English, a form of the language that we can still understand, with some effort.
The Canterbury Tales is the first great work of English literature, establishing the artistic legitimacy of vernacular Middle English, as opposed to French or Latin. At around the same time, John Wycliffe, an early religious reformer, translated the Bible into vernacular English (1382). This challenge to Latin as the language of God was considered a revolutionary act at the time, and the Church banned the translation. Access to the Bible in the vernacular was key to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, where one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon: “When Adam delved and Eva span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.”
The vernacular was crucial for social change. Using it meant identifying with the people. It meant standing up to an elitist and exclusive ruling class and empowering the people to understand the injustice of their situation, thus giving them a prospect for change. This use of the language of the people, which the Renaissance brings us, is deeply connected with the struggle for a new era.
This article first appeared in the Socialist Voice, Dublin
Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin, and works as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. She is the author of Revolutionary Romanticism – Examining the Odes of John Keats, Nuascéalta, 2017, and editor of Children of the Nation, An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland.