The Week’s Not Over Yet

Between the years 1350 and 1353, Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of one hundred tales published as The Decameron. I’d never read them, and in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that other than a few translated excerpts while writing this post, I still haven’t. But I am intrigued by the premise.

Written in the common man’s Italian (at the time), the collection is set against the backdrop of a 1348 outbreak of the Black Death. The stories are presented as though they are shared among ten friends holed up in a villa outside of Florence, responsibly minding their social distance and avoiding the plague like . . . well, the plague.

Thanks to this guy and Project Gutenberg, you can spend your time stuck at home with nothing to do reading about a bunch of people stuck at home with nothing to do. Raffaello Sanzio Morghen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Seven women and three men during a fourteen-day period are tasked with entertaining the others with a story each night. Two days are reserved for chores and two for worship, leaving ten evenings of ten stories, one hundred stories in all.

If you’re familiar with the Canterbury Tales you may realize that Boccaccio’s work probably had a pretty big influence on Chaucer who pretty much did the same thing several decades later except in the common man’s English (at the time) and with more religious pilgrimaging and less plagueyness.

I have read the Canterbury Tales, both in modern translation and in Middle English, and discussed them pretentiously, and written academic papers about them. But I’ve never been on a religious pilgrimage.

I have, however, been in quarantine, holed up for two weeks at a time in my house during a plague. If the last time I read the Canterbury Tales, you’d asked me which of those I was more likely to experience, I’d have guessed wrong.

I can see why isolation and storytelling might have been a pretty good idea. Spread of the Black Death in Europe Flappiefh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about Boccaccio and The Decameron because I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. This has been quite a week here in the household of practical history. I know that by now most of us have had those weeks at one point or another since early this year when the world went sideways, but this has definitely been one of ours.

It actually began a little bit before this week when my husband who works in healthcare was informed that his hospital system plans to close the department in which he works. His job as he knows it will apparently be gone at an occasionally determined time in the near future. Except we recently learned that might not really be true, except that it definitely is sort of true. Probably. We’re confused, too.

And then there’s our fifteen-year-old who was told two weeks ago that he’d been potentially exposed to Covid-19 in school. That meant he had to remain home in quarantine for 14 days, or for 10 days after developing any symptoms if he tested positive and took a couple days off for chores and two for worship. Or something like that. It’s also kind of confusing.

It was bound to happen at some point. Tistip, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s some of the background. Then this past weekend, our 13-year-old, who had been doing his thing with mask and appropriate social distancing while more or less keeping away from his brother as much as possible, developed a fever and tested positive for Covid-19. Apparently, the wrong kid was quarantined.

Now he’s isolated and the rest of us are homebound, including the 15-year-old who proved negative for Covid-19 when tested after his brother’s positive result. Originally, he would have been released from quarantine yesterday, but since he has presumably been exposed to his brother, the 14 days begins again. From what point, we’re not entirely sure, as the answer to that questions seems to depend primarily on who you ask and what they had for breakfast that day.

Of course, that no longer matters anyway. On Tuesday of this week, after a painfully long publicly broadcasted meeting in which the elected members of our school board proved they don’t read emails or listen, it was decided that our district’s high schools and middle schools would move to virtual learning due to staffing difficulties caused by rolling quarantines.  

Virtual school isn’t ideal, but I think it’s much better than 45% percent attendance and constant staff shortages. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

So, we’re at home. And that’s fine. There are a lot of people all over the world in similar predicaments, and we’re fairly well set. Symptoms have so far fallen into the short-lived and mild range, and we have the supplies we need, or the ability to have delivered whatever we don’t. We just have to figure out how to fill our abundance of extra time.

I’m thinking we may start requiring family story time each evening. There are only four of us and I haven’t done the math, but as we might all be in quarantine for fourteen days after each of us develops any symptoms, I think we could make it to a hundred.

We probably have the material. Boccaccio’s narrator Dioneo offers some guidance to his tale-tellers on eight of the ten days, demanding examples of power and fortune, examples of the power of human will, tragic love stories, happy love stories, clever stories that save the storyteller, tricks women play on men, tricks any person plays on anyone else, and examples of virtue. I bet we have it all covered.

And the week’s not over yet.

Modern Day Plague Fashion

Sometime in the vicinity of 1630, a superstar physician by the name of Charles de l’Orme branched out into the realm of fashion design. By this time he’d enjoyed quite a few years of a brilliant medical career, serving as personal physician to several members of the famed House of Medici and a French king or two. If anyone in the medical field seemed to know what they were doing (and really, it’s only in hindsight that we know they definitely didn’t), this was the guy. He was kind of the Dr. Oz of his day.

Plague_doctor_drawing
Never fear, this overgrown omen of death is here to make sure you’re counted among the desperately ill. If you’re lucky, he might even bleed you or apply liquid mercury to your skin while he’s here.

And one, among many, of the medical challenges he and his fellow physicians faced was the frequent recurrence and constant threat of Bubonic plague. In 1630, there hadn’t been a full-on pandemic level outbreak of the plague in quite a while, the previous major one occurring nearly three hundred years earlier. But it still existed in pockets, and Charles de l’Orme had some ideas for how physicians could be ready if the worst should happen.

He designed the first personal protective equipment for the large numbers of plague doctors who would be on the front line of any impending pandemic. The design included a waxed leather coat covered in animal fat, leggings, boots, gloves, a wide brimmed black hat, and a mask that can only be described as the stuff of nightmares. In case that wasn’t enough there was also a cane, allegedly used for keeping sick patients at a safe social distance, or perhaps beating the disease-causing demons from out of them.

The freakish mask included glass eye coverings, a beak-like appendage containing herbs and spices for freshening the dangerous miasma out of the air, and openings wide enough to allow for easy breathing of plenty of contagion.

dr smurf
The less frightening garb of the modern, much more competent, plague doctor. Still a little scary, but much better.

By the time 1665 rolled around and brought with it the Great Plague of London and the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people in that city alone, huge numbers of plague doctors, most of whom didn’t actually have much in the way of medical knowledge even by 1665 standards, were suited up and ready to become a significant portion of that number.

Fortunately, our personal protective equipment has improved a great deal since then, as has our epidemiological understanding, and those medical professionals well trained to make good use of both. We also, thankfully, have given up on the terror-inducing, overgrown crow heads.

I’m very thankful for that each time I don a much friendlier-looking cloth mask and venture to the grocery store. It’s still an odd sensation to be there, and at least for me, not a very uplifting one. It’s difficult to communicate, or even offer a friendly smile, from behind a mask. That little covering adds an extra sense of gravity and an eerie sense loneliness to the experience.

homemade mask
I might be smiling. But you’ll never know.

I know the end of this, while not necessarily in sight, is coming. In my corner of world our number of cases are still climbing, but our projections suggest the curve has been flattened and that when we reach the worst, our medical community will be ready and able to manage it.

I also know that unlike the plague doctors of the seventeenth century whose primary role was one of data collection more than medical treatment, our epidemiologists are as on top of this thing as they can be. To borrow a slightly adapted line from The Martian, they are sciencing the spit out of this. And they’re doing it much more fashionably.