Youth in Retreat: The Decameron in Quarantine

In which these most unprecedented times prove to have some precedent after all, and crisis invites us to re-imagine our conditions for living. 

By Jenny Lee 

So they gathered into groups and kept clear of everyone else, shutting themselves up in houses where no one was sick and where they could live comfortably … not speaking to anyone outside or hearing any news of the dead or sick, but enjoying music and what other pleasures they could muster. – Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (trans. J. G. Nichols)

1348: As the Black Death ravages Florence, ten wealthy young people flee the city for the countryside, where they spend ten days telling stories, singing songs, napping, and flirting. This is the set-up for Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a framing narrative surrounding one hundred short stories about love, sex, trickery, and the vicissitudes of fortune.

I opened my copy of the Decameron in mid-March, as public buildings in the city shut their doors indefinitely. Having flown home from Spain via the UK a few days earlier and subsequently developed a dry cough, I was instructed to stay home and monitor my temperature, and made a plague-themed reading list to work through during what I naively hoped would be two weeks of isolation. As two weeks stretched into four, it was this framing narrative, not the stories themselves, that I kept turning back to.

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Breugel’s Triumph of Death, painted two centuries after the publication of the Decameron, underscores the cataclysmic effects of the recurrent plague outbreaks on the European psyche. In the corner, a couple grimly clings to love and music-making, stalked by death. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

Boccaccio opens with a harrowing description of the bubonic plague’s trail of destruction in Florence, including not only gruesome details of the dead and dying, but profound changes in the social fabric of the city: family members deserting each other, the breakdown of law and order, the disappearance of the labour force in the form of the servant class. Florence is a city without boundaries, where distinctions between sibling and stranger, sick and well, and rich and poor blur and then give way to abject chaos.

Even as the narrators of the Decameron try to avoid the pestilence – it’s rarely mentioned after this passage – they’re marked, or changed, by the collapse of the structures they’ve always known. (Half of the population of the city would die from the plague.) In and around their bawdy stories, we glimpse a new social order which this lost generation might dream into being; the microcosmic society they establish in exile is peaceful, leisurely, and gender-equitable.

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In John William Waterhouse’s 1911 painting A Tale from the Decameron, the exiles pass self-isolation in dreamy, pastoral splendour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

The Decameron reads like a long-form negotiation of social and sexual mores, the kind of examination that we perform during a crisis. Boccaccio, writing in the early 1350s, muses that women were noticeably less chaste after the plague year, having dispensed with the taboo against showing their bodies to men. He explicitly critiques the customs which confined well-off women in their homes without recreation or socialization. His storytellers prize wit, quick thinking, and sexual freedom over rank and noble birth. The hypocrisy of priests (a recurring theme) is a worse moral crime for them than sleeping with a married woman.

Between chapters, on Instagram, I scrolled through the words rent strike and mutual aid networks and capitalism is the virus. The luckiest among us, in isolation at home, had time to watch the structures sold to us as natural and inevitable faltering in the face of immense – but predictable – upheaval. Like Boccaccio’s youth in retreat, we thought: there must be a better way we could do this.

On the tenth day, the youths return to Florence without much fanfare, go to church, and return to their homes. It is left for the reader to decide what they bring back with them, and what they have left behind.

Operation Neptune: Remembering D-Day

75 years after the Normandy landings in 1944, this D-Day commemoration may be the final milestone at which World War II veterans are alive to tell the tale. How does remembrance change when we no longer have firsthand witnesses to uphold our historic memory?

By Serena Ypelaar

Historians, especially those working in public history, know that we have a responsibility to remember and learn from the past, lest past mistakes be repeated. This responsibility will loom larger in the forefront of our duties when the original veterans of World War II, the firsthand memory-keepers, are no longer with us.

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy. On the 6th of June, 1944, British, French, Canadian, and American troops carried out an amphibious assault on the coast of German-occupied France. Codenamed “Operation Neptune”, the Normandy landings constituted the largest seaborne invasion in history. D-Day therefore laid the foundations for Europe’s liberation and the end of the Second World War. Though there are veterans still living to recount their memories, soon that will no longer be the case.

The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade disembarking onto Juno Beach at Normandy. Photo: Wikimedia

At the commemoration ceremonies at Normandy this past Thursday, Prince Charles referenced this sobering reality in his speech. It left me to ponder how quickly time is receding (as always) from our grasp – these changes will transform the historical memory of the Second World War. After all, we no longer have veterans of World War I (or earlier conflicts) to consult about their experiences. Historical interpretation of WWII will likewise rely on physically preserved records, which is going to change how we remember and reinterpret the conflict.

Remembrance in itself is an act – or series of acts – of interpretation. And those interpretations may change depending on contemporary international contexts. For instance, national leaders including outgoing British prime minister Theresa May, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and French president Emmanuel Macron, came together at the D-Day ceremonies in France yesterday to memorialize those who fought the Nazis at Normandy. Notably absent was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s unclear whether she was not invited or simply didn’t attend; she was present at the British ceremony in Portsmouth the day before. Of course, Germany’s role in World War II is the obvious point of contention in this kind of commemoration, and how the country engages with commemorations today sets the tone for reconciliation and reparation.

Britain was prominent among the Allied forces during World War II, and they likewise had a robust presence in the D-Day commemorations. With the mess that is Brexit, Britain’s current political situation places them at an interesting perspective. D-Day was a mobilization of Allied forces which relied upon the unity of major European nations like Britain and France. Now, however, Britain is stepping back from their long-term trade ties with France (as well as Germany) to leave the European Union. In a similar way, the United States was heavily involved in D-Day, yet diplomacy between the U.S. and European countries is particularly strained thanks to President Donald Trump. Having seen tension between certain political leaders, such as between Trump and Merkel, these commemoration events are like a strange family reunion: they reveal how relationships have changed over time.

“Into the Jaws of Death” by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard.
Photo: Wikimedia

The main priority of preserving history is remembering and honouring the past. To this end, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, read out the exact words of his great grandfather George VI, from his D-Day Broadcast:

“At this historic moment, surely not one of us is too busy, too young, or too old to play a part in a nationwide, worldwide vigil …”

King George VI, in a D-Day Broadcast aired 6 June 1944
King George VI of England’s D-Day Broadcast,
originally aired on the morning of 6 June 1944.

This touch was particularly notable because it acknowledges the importance of taking the past into account (something the British notoriously excel at!). One day, not only will the veterans be gone, but so will their children, grandchildren, and everyone who knew them. So what does this tell us about commemoration? We need to preserve the stories of those who lived through the experience, and we need to uphold their legacies as if they were our own while paying our respects to the great sacrifices they made for freedom.

“Only those who threw themselves against the walls of the fortress of Europe in Normandy know the full extent of what unfolded here 75 years ago. But it is the responsibility of all Canadians to ensure that their story and their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

Justin Trudeau, in a speech at Juno Beach on 6 June 2019
Juno Beach is the site where Canadian forces landed during the D-Day invasion. Photo: Joe de Sousa

Nationalism of course comes into play at these commemorations, as it always does. But if we think of commemoration on a purely human level – irrespective of politics – we can preserve history with greater integrity. Sure, we can argue about international relations and the current state of affairs worldwide, but that’s not what commemoration is about. When loss of life is concerned, politicizing memorials trivializes and distracts from the sacrifices of human beings. As shown by the world’s diplomatic leaders, public memory is a collaborative form of historical interpretation. There are many things we may differ on as people and as countries, but the human cost of war is universally significant to us.

D-Day teaches us the importance of balancing past interpretations with present-day ones in order to remember responsibly. In the end, preserving historical memory isn’t the sole responsibility of those who lived through an event in history – it’s our responsibility, as the ones who will carry their stories forward in years to come.

To learn more about the 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations, click here.