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.

Dancing Like She’s Never Danced Before

It’s prom season here in the great state of Missouri. Every Saturday night from now until early May, dinner out at any local chain restaurant in the area (McDonald’s included) will come with a red carpet-worthy display of colorful chiffon and smart waistcoats.

I kind of love it. Even though I’d rather muck out horse stalls with a pair of chopsticks than watch the Oscars, I do enjoy seeing people dressed up in their finest frills. Since my own children aren’t old enough to participate in that grand old tradition yet, I soak up the images of the overly fancy diners and photos of my friends’ teenage kids posted on social media, with the advantage that I don’t have to be the one up all night worried that they’re not making good choices.

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To be clear, I don’t know any of these people, but don’t they look nice? photo by Ilhabela, via Pixabay

I do hope they all have a wonderful time, that they make it home safe with their hearts and their dignities intact, and that they dance their socks off. Because they have a fair amount of pressure and angst in their lives and most of them could use a night of cutting loose on the dance floor to work some of that out of their systems.

Just maybe, on a larger and more tragic scale, that’s what it was all about on a steamy July day in 1518, when Frau Troffea of Strasbourg in Alsace began to dance. She did so in the middle of the street, to a tune that played only in her head, without explanation or regard for anyone who might be watching. She simply danced.

And she didn’t stop.

After a few days, people began to join her. Within a week, thirty-four dancers had danced into the danger zone on the streets of Strasbourg. A month later the crowd had swelled to four hundred, still without any logical explanation.

Absent any better ideas, the authorities directed the building of a stage and enlisted the services of local musicians to provide an environment suitable for those getting’ jiggy with it to work the jiggy out of their systems.

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If people around you start dancing for no apparent reason, I think you just have to go with it.

Eventually, and after a large number of the afflicted dropped dead from sheer exhaustion, the massive, spontaneous flash mob stopped.

We know of Frau Troffeau from the writings of Swiss physician and alchemist Theophrastus von Hohenheim (whose historical stage name is Paracelsus). He arrived in Strasbourg a few years after the event with an eye to establishing a medical practice there. Paracelsus believed that the epidemic most likely stemmed from the vengefulness of unhappy wives, citing Herr Troffea, who allegedly hated nothing more than his wife’s dancing.

And while Paracelsus’s explanation probably seems as strange as the dance epidemic itself, historians and physicians today don’t have much to offer as a better explanation. One prevalent theory is that the symptoms were caused by Claviceps purpurea, a fungus that infects rye and other grains, served as the basis for the development of LSD, and has been known to cause people to go a little loopy.

But another maybe plausible suggestion is that this was a social psychological disorder stemming from the trauma of living in a time of frequent plague, natural disaster, and generally poor living conditions. I guess I sort of get that. Like Meghan Trainor, I feel better when I’m dancin.’

The citizens of Strasbourg weren’t the only victims of this most unusual epidemic, either. From the eleventh century to the middle of the seventeenth, numerous accounts of similar incidents pop up throughout Europe. Most of these are well documented. This actually happened. A lot of people really did dance themselves to death. And then it just stopped.

But all things considered, maybe in the Middle Ages that wasn’t such a bad way to go. Dancing can definitely be therapeutic, as can getting dressed up in your fanciest duds and going out to dinner with your friends. So have fun, kids.

Just remember to stop before you drop.