In 1348, the rats aboard ship from some great Italian commercial city, whether Venice or Genoa or somewhere else (we cannot tell) came infested with disease-ridden fleas, and Europe was struck with the bubonic plague, the so-called Black Death. One third of the continent’s population was wiped out. That would be as if 110 million people in the United States were to die of the coronavirus in the next two years.
The plague’s virulence came in waves, with spikes in so-called plague years for the next five centuries. Sometimes it struck a people already compromised by hunger, as it did those of Lombardy in 1629-1630, when a couple of bad harvests were made worse by war between the occupying Spaniards and the French. Sixty thousand people in Milan alone, nearly half of the city, perished.
These two instances of epidemic have been memorialised in Italian literature. Giovanni Boccaccio, one of that great trio of Florentine poets who, with Dante and Petrarch, established Tuscan as the standard dialect for Italian letters, was an eyewitness of events in Florence, and used them as the backdrop for The Decameron. The later events in Milan provide the stage for Alessandro Manzoni, in his historical novel The Betrothed, to show the heroism of his saintly priest Father Cristoforo and the great cardinal archbishop Federigo Borromeo (the younger cousin of St Charles Borromeo), and to bring his young hero Renzo to a crisis of repentance, forgiveness, and resignation to the will of God.
People as late as when Manzoni wrote (1840) did not know about microbes, but even in ancient times they did know about contagion, so they would burn the clothing of those who had died of the disease, and they cleaned open sores with mild antiseptics such as wine. Good priests in every outbreak of plague tended the sick and so died in great numbers, and some say that the remainders among the clergy in the 14th and 15th centuries contributed in no small measure to the scandalous way of life that Luther saw when he visited Rome in 1511, six years before he posted up his 95 theses.
What did people do under such circumstances? If we look at what Boccaccio says, they were morally both better and worse than we are, more savage at the worst and more pious and courageous at the best. “Some people,” he says, “went about singing and making merry and satisfying every sort of appetite,” which they could do with ease “because many people had abandoned their properties”, so the new occupiers lived in them like beasts.
“Others were of a more cruel sentiment,” he writes, “and as it happens it was the surer course, saying that there was no other or better medicine against the plague than flight,” with parent abandoning child and child abandoning parent. The wonder is not that many people did such things, but that many did not; and those included many a priest, bearing a cross before a bier carrying not one person but perhaps “a wife and her husband, two or three brothers, or father and son”. What would we do today if we knew that the vicinity of a loved one meant that you would probably die a terrible death?
There are always going to be people who are either immune to a plague or who catch it and survive it. People did know that survivors had nothing to fear. Such could live the high life, and Manzoni, a careful historian, records that among the immune were men called monatti, who carted the half-dead and the dead about from house to infirmary to burying ground, stripping them of their goods and crying out, “Viva la moria!” – long live the plague.
But to meet the need, the cardinal Borromeo had built an enormous lazaretto on the outskirts of Milan, paying for it largely out of his own funds, where the sick could be given clean food and water, and comforted in body and soul. And who would care for them, but his own priests and consecrated women? When the leaders of the city had fled to their country villas, the cardinal stayed at his post, and wrote to his priests: “Be ready to abandon this mortal life . . . Go forth with love to meet the plague, as to a reward, to a life, when you have the chance to win one soul for Christ.”
He too visited the infirmaries, “to give consolation to the sick, to cheer their nurses; he traversed the city, carrying aid to the poor who were shut up in their houses, waiting at their doors, under their windows, to hear their weeping, and to give them in return words of consolation and courage.” He was astonished, along with everyone else, that after such constant exposure he remained untouched by the disease.
In The Decameron, seven beautiful young ladies and three handsome young men leave Florence, where they no longer have anyone close to them, and spend 10 days in a country house, telling stories, one from each for every day, making a neat 100; and thus echoing, in an ironic way, the hundred cantos of Dante’s Commedia.
The elder poet’s work purported to bring the reader into the presence of the Most High, and the beatific vision of the Trinity, and of the Incarnate Word. Boccaccio knew better than to compete with Dante at his own game. At the end of the 10 days of The Decameron, with its tales ranging from the brusquely bawdy to the nobly philosophical, the lads and lasses return to Florence and their homes. What love affairs may have burned the more ardently among them during those days in the country, Boccaccio does not say; but we do know that each of the young men is in love with one of the young women.
Manzoni, raised among the atheistic salons of Paris after the Revolution, became an ardent Catholic, and he did intend The Betrothed to be a Christian epic, one of the spiritually dead being brought to life again, of the humbling of the high and mighty, and the raising up of the lowly.
I do not dare to say for certain what, if any, spiritual strengthening Boccaccio intended to impart by The Decameron. He is a master of irony, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to take his narrative speaker at his word, and say that he wanted only to be a go-between, a mediator or, to use a harsher term, a pander of pleasure for young ladies living in the aftermath of the disaster. It would be easy, and probably wrong.
In any case, we could wish, in our far cleaner and safer time, that Christians would remember that, sooner or later, we must stand before God in judgment. I am implying nothing about what practical measures we might now take to contain this virus. But in the end, we will not be judged for antisepsis.