illustration Decameron, Day 8 by Giovanni Bocaccio.
First, a round of apologies. Boccaccio tells the ladies of his target audience that he has to start with the miserable stuff before he can get onto the entertainment he promised earlier.
How miserable? It’s the plague, people. It can’t get much worse.
The descriptions he gives of the disease are graphic: swelling and dark patches on the skin, bruising where the infection makes the skin rot.
Even worse: this disease was highly contagious, spreading like wildfire throughout the city.
Level of contagion: even pigs that nosed through the rags of a plague victim caught the disease and died within a day.
People are terrified of the sick. Instead of taking care of them, they abandon them.
Some say the best way to avoid illness is moderation in all things. Others want to party all the time.
The fact is, people knew their days were numbered. And they acted like it.
Laws and morality crumble. Mothers and fathers wouldn’t nurse their sick children. Women will (gasp!) show their plague-ravaged bodies to anyone who will help them.
Even dead bodies get no respect: no proper funerals anymore. Dead bodies are dumped in the streets to be picked up on boards and carted off to a mass grave.
The same horror is happening in the surrounding towns. Even peasants lived like there was no tomorrow and let their fields and animals go untended.
The plague takes entire families and empties great houses of owners.
But wait! Boccaccio focuses in on a little band of women surviving amid this misery.
The ladies are of prime marriageable age, between 18 and 27, and all know each other.
They meet at the church of Santa Maria Novella (get the play on “novella”?) to pray, and, let’s face it, gossip a bit.
If you remember from the Prologue, Boccaccio likes the ladies, and these girls are no exception: he doesn’t want to use their real names in case he embarrasses them by relating some of the naughty stories they’ll tell.
He gives the rundown of their “fictional” names: Pampinea, Fiammetta, Filomena, Emilia, Lauretta, Elissa and Neifile. That’s a fiction within a fiction.
Pampinea prods her friends: why don’t they high-tail it out of the city? They’re only hanging out to count the corpses.
Besides, they don’t even have servants at home anymore.
Pampinea describes what we would now call PTSD: she feels nothing but anxiety and sees the faces of the dead grimacing at her.
She recalls that many of their young friends have fallen victim to the epidemic and they’re no different. Why shouldn’t they take care of themselves and get out while they still can?
A road trip into the country might refresh their spirits. Bonus: they may have less of a chance to catch the Plague.
Not so fast, says Filomena. Did Pampinea forget that they were just silly women? They really ought to have someone to rein them in.
Elissa picks up on Elissa’s cue: Oh, yeah. We need a man.
But where does one find a man in plague-ridden Florence? All the good ones are…dead.
What do you think happens next? Three men walk into the church. They’re called Panfilo, Filostrato and Dioneo. No kidding.
They are just the right sorts of fellows: none younger than 25, and still deeply interested in love despite the death and destruction around them. They’ll be fun to have around.
Neifile’s worried about her reputation. She warns Pampinea that the men are in love with some of the women in their group.
Filomena really wants to get away with these guys, so she convinces them by saying that they’ll all behave super well, so that no one will have any reason to gossip.
Pampinea makes the offer to the men: did they want to go away with them for a couple of weeks?
The men can’t believe their luck. Are the girls mocking them?
Once they take Pampinea up on the offer, they’re off to a palazzo (or palace) barely two miles outside of Florence (some road trip).
Boccaccio describes the palace and it’s a real locus amoenus—a sweet, secluded place with gardens and fountains. Just the place to chill and forget all the death and misery.
Dioneo makes it clear that he’s there for pleasure. He’s left all cares behind in Florence.
Pampinea is down with that, but she knows that pleasure won’t last for long if it doesn’t take some kind of form. Also, they could get into trouble if things aren’t planned out.
She comes up with a solution: each of them will get to be king or queen for a day. The sovereign is responsible for figuring out how to entertain them during his or her reign.
Of course, Pampinea gets to be first. Filomena makes her a crown of laurel leaves.
Pampinea lays down the law for the servants, orders breakfast and dismisses her friends to occupy themselves happily for a while.
When they regroup, they make a discovery: it’s @*$! hot there in the afternoon. Pampinea has an idea.
They’ll tell stories in the hottest part of the day to amuse themselves while keeping cool.
And that’s the set-up for the next ten days.
Stories on the first day will be open topic, to keep things loose and light. And Panfilo will begin.
Source of summary: https://www.shmoop.com/decameron