We’ve Been Here Before:
Stories in a Time of Plague

The world’s first plague pandemic, which began in 541–542 CE, with recurrences until 750, killed up to half of Europe’s population. A second plague pandemic began in 1348 and killed half the population of Eurasia in the next four years. At the time of the second pandemic, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote his Decameron, a collection of a hundred tales told by a fictional group of young Florentines who left their city to shelter in the country and beguiled themselves by telling stories.

We’ve assembled an abridged version of the opening of the Decameron, describing the plague and the attendant human circumstances and terrors, much of which will strike today’s readers as not entirely dissimilar to the effect of the coronavirus on our civilization.

I say, then, that the years of the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God had attained to the number of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, when into the notable city of Florence, there came the death-dealing pestilence, which had some years before appeared in the parts of the East and after having bereft these latter of an innumerable number of inhabitants, extending without cease from one place to another, had now unhappily spread towards the West. And there against no wisdom availing nor human foresight nor yet humble supplications, about the coming in of the Spring of the aforesaid year, the plague began to show forth its dolorous effects. In men and women alike there appeared certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits, whereof some waxed of the bigness of a common apple, others like unto an egg, and these plague-boils proceeded to appear in every part of the body and were a very certain token of coming death for everyone to whom they came.

To the cure these maladies no physician nor any medicine appeared to avail; on the contrary, whether by the nature of the infection or the ignorance of the physicians, well-nigh all died within the third day from the appearance of the boils, for the most part without fever or other accident. And the pestilence was so virulent that not only did converse and consortion with the sick but also the mere touching of the clothes or of whatsoever had been touched by the sick appeared communicated the malady to others.

Well-nigh all tended to a very barbarous conclusion, namely, to shun and flee from the sick and all that pertained to them, and thus each sought immunity for himself. Some conceived to live moderately and keep from all excess; they shut themselves up in those houses where none had been sick; and there, using very temperately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines and eschewing all incontinence, they abode with music and such other diversions as they might have, never suffering themselves to speak with any nor choosing to hear any news from without of death or sick folk. Others, inclining to the contrary opinion, maintained that to carouse and make merry and go about singing and frolicking and satisfy the appetite in everything possible and laugh and scoff at whatsoever befell was a very certain remedy for such an ill. Many others held a middle course between the two aforesaid, not straitening themselves so exactly in the matter of diet as the first neither allowing themselves such license in drinking and other debauchery as the second, but using things in sufficiency, according to their appetites; nor did they seclude themselves, but went about, carrying in their hands, some flowers, some odoriferous herbs and spiceries, which they set often to their noses, accounting it an excellent thing to fortify the brain with such odours, the air seemed all heavy with the stench of the dead bodies and the sick. Many abandoned their city, their houses and homes, their kinsfolk and possessions, and sought the country. All, who opined thus variously, died not all, yet neither did they all escape; nay, many of each way of thinking and in every place.

Indeed, this tribulation struck such terror to the hearts of all, that brother forsook brother, uncle nephew and sister brother and oftentimes wife husband; nay (what is yet more extraordinary and well-nigh incredible) fathers and mothers refused to visit or tend their very children, as if they had not been theirs. Thus there remained unto those who fell sick, no succour other than that owed either to the charity of friends (of which there were few) or the greed of servants, allured by high and extravagant wage, many of whom perished with their gain.

Few were the bodies accompanied to the church by more than half a score or a dozen of their neighbours, and of these no worshipful and illustrious citizens, but a sort of blood-suckers, sprung from the dregs of the people, who styled themselves pickmen and did such offices for hire, shouldered the bier and bore it with hurried steps, not to a church but most times to whatsoever grave they first found unoccupied. Throughout the churchyards, after every other part was full, vast trenches were dug, wherein the dead were laid by the hundred, heaped up in layers, as goods are stowed aboard ship, and covered with a little earth, till the bodies reached the top of the trench.

Between March and the following July, upward of a hundred thousand human beings perished within the city of Florence. How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, how many sprightly youths, whom Galen, Hippocrates, or Æsculapius would have judged most hale, breakfasted in the morning with their kinsfolk, comrades, and friends, and that same night supped with their ancestors in the other world!

Toward the end of his account of the pestilence, Boccaccio admitted, “I am myself weary of going wandering so long among such miseries,” and he turned his attention to his young sheltering characters and the stories they told to pass the time.

What follows are some newer stories selected from our Library to lend comfort, cheer, and hope to us all.

No One Knows the Way to Heven
a poem by Ocean Vuong

a story by Grace Paley

My Dear Friend and Yours
a speech by George Saunders

My Daughter and God
an essay by Justin Cronin

Four Poems
by Chris Abani

a memoir by Lynn Freed

Best Advice
from Amy Bloom

A Day in the Life of Woman Cartoonist
a graphic story by Liza Donnelly