Stories in the Time of Pandemic

In 2006, I participated in an off-beat storytelling project. A group of Pittsburgh storytellers gathered to go through The Decameron, a collection of short stories written by Giovanni Boccaccio. Our director, the Canadian storyteller Dan Yashinky, guided us through the book, suggesting tales for each of us to look at based upon the types of stories each of us preferred to tell. Each of us chose one of the stories to work up and tell (or, if we did not like any of Dan’s suggested tales, read through the book for another tale to tell.) As we developed the final versions of the stories, some of us kept close to the original version, while others freely spun out a modern re-envisioning of it. On the night of the performance, we entered the theater clad in cloaks and masks, accompanied by ethereal music. We took our seats on the dark stage, and Dan began to tell the story of the great plague and the flight into isolation and the refuge of stories…

For our modern circumstance of pandemic and social isolation are neither new nor modern. Boccaccio wrote The Decameron in response to one of the greatest pandemics of history: the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century, ultimately killing between 30% – 60% of the population. In Boccaccio’s book, set during the Italian outbreak of the Plague, 10 friends flee from the pestilent-ridden city to the country villa of one of the group. There they settle in for a bout of social isolation until the outbreak has faded. They have plenty of food and wine. They also have plenty of time to fill, so the host proposes the medieval equivalent of binge-watching Netflix. On each of the ten days of their isolation, every member of the group must entertain the others with a story. (10 stories a day over 10 days equals 100 stories, hence the title of the book.) And so the stories begin.

The 100 tales run the gamut from farce to tragedy, with romance and adventure and fable and every type of medieval tale. The collection lends itself both to binge reading from first story to last with stopping, or for browsing from tale to tale as they catch your fancy.

Be warned, however. This is, after all, a collection of tales written in 14th century Italy. And despite how it appears in our modern fantasy books, the medieval world is not just an older version of the modern west filled with people just like us except wearing funny clothes. The medieval world differed from ours in many key ways, and this shows up in the stories: different assumptions, different ideas of how a story should unfold, different cultural prejudices, and often even different ideas about what constitutes a funny joke. Many of the tales will not be to your fancy. Some may not even make sense. But while that can make some of the stories difficult to get through, it is also the appeal of the book. It offers a glimpse of a world both like and unlike ours. And a world caught in the same cultural moment as we are…

Our evening of Decameron Tales proved an evening as varied in tone and style as our source, filled with laughter and tears, tragedy and sorrow and adventure. Several of the stories live on. Storyteller Ed LoPresti took his string of comic tales of two irrepressible tricksters, transported them to modern-day Pittsburgh, and continues to tell of their adventures to this day. I included my telling of the dark and tragic tale of Tancredi on my CD Lost Loves. Every October I rehearse the tale, thinking that I might find a place to include it amongst the stories of ghosts and horrors. I haven’t yet, but this might be the year. The year that we all revisit the circumstances of The Decameron.

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