Post-Decameron plague treatises and the Boccaccian innovation of narrative prophylaxis.
"Ma se in questo il mio parer si seguisse, non giucando, nel quale l'animo dell'una delle parti convien che si turbi senza troppo piacere dell'altra o di chi sta a vedere, ma novellando (il che puo porgere, dicendo uno, a tutta la compagnia che ascolta diletto) questa calda parte del giorno trapasseremo."
(Dec. 1, Introd. 111) (1)
Recreation and psychological distraction are a significant component of the preventive recommendations in medical treatises composed during the early years of the initial outbreak of the Black Death (1348-1350). In the treatises physicians propose that happiness lifts people's spirits and strengthens their mind and body so that they will not succumb to contagion. It is also significant to note that only a few years after the onset of the great epidemic a number of medical texts specifically advocate literary pursuits as a way of diverting the mind and maintaining spirits high. As in the earlier works, many of the treatises dated after 1351 advise that people avoid negative emotions such as fear, sadness, and anguish; they also recommend distractions such as game playing and listening to melodious music. However, the innovation of the treatises written after 1351 is that they additionally prescribe forms of what I would like to call narrative prophylaxis: reading, storytelling, and singing during periods of pestilence. Most obviously, this advice is strikingly similar to the recommendations offered by the brigata in the cornice of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron.
By providing parallels between the Decameron and fourteenth-century plague treatises, both Glending Olson and Marga Cottino-Jones sustain that popular medical attitudes influenced the cornice of Boccaccio's work. (2) However, neither critic entertains the possibility that Boccaccio could also have impacted contemporary medical literature. Given the Decameron's enthusiastic reception with the middle class and wide diffusion in the last few decades of the Trecento, just as Boccaccio was inspired by contemporary medical theories for his frame tale, it is also likely that Boccaccio influenced his contemporary society, in particular the medical community. Olson cites extensively from Tommaso del Garbo's work and acknowledges that this plague treatise postdates the Decameron (176); but he limits his scope to surveying the common hygienic theories that deal with recreation. Cottino-Jones notes a series of similarities between the advice offered in Tommaso's plague treatise and specific details in the stories and frame tale of the Decameron (366-70); however, she also does not consider relevant that Tommaso's work circulated some years after Boccaccio's story collection.
The order of the composition of the plague treatises in relation to the Decameron may be revealing. For it is only after the completion and wide diffusion of Boccaccio's collection of stories that physicians specifically advocate literary pleasure as part of their prophylactic regimens. It is believed that by 1351 Boccaccio had completed the Decameron. (3) Although members of the cultural and intellectual elite were not enthusiastic about his work, it was strongly embraced by the emerging bourgeoisie, in particular the mercantile class. The Decameron was especially popular among merchants, bankers, shop owners, and workers. (4) Furthermore, the work was written in the vernacular, which made Boccaccio's words highly accessible to all classes of people either directly, by being able to read the work, or indirectly, by being able to understand it when it was read aloud. Although a significant percentage of the Florentine population was illiterate in the late fourteenth century, the growing professional and mercantile classes gave birth to a new group of readers, ignorant of Latin, but literate in the vernacular. (5) Those who could not read the text themselves could certainly understand the Tuscan vernacular when it was read to them, a practice that would often take place in courts and private homes, as well as in public spaces such as squares and gardens. By the second half of the Trecento, in Florence, it was not uncommon for people to convene in the countryside (like the fictional characters of Boccaccio's Decameron) for storytelling and readings. Lucia Battaglia Ricci reports that in the fourteenth century, because of the numerous outbreaks of plague and fear of contagion, traditional literary spaces such as the studio, monasteries, and libraries were substituted by open-air spaces. Those who had the means fled from cities and retreated to the idyllic estates and gardens of the countryside (94-99). (6)
That the Decameron influenced fourteenth-century society, in particular the medical profession, is borne out by the fact that Boccaccio's story collection was the first Italian literary work to extensively treat the topic of the Black Death. If one can imagine the impact of a work that dared to discuss the greatest tragedy that had recently affected a society--a tragedy that decimated the population of Europe--then one can also understand the reception of Boccaccio's Decameron in post-pestilence society. Physicians might have been intrigued by a work famous not only for its entertaining stories, but also for its treatment of the greatest public health concern of the century. It is significant to note that several of the early manuscripts of the Decameron referred to the plague in their introductory descriptive statements and in the final explicit sections, reminding readers that the work was not only an anthology of stories, but that it also contained an account of the pestilence. (7) In the eighteenth century, some printed editions mentioned the plague in their lengthy subtitles, emphasizing the relationship between the Boccaccio's description of the pestilenza in the frame and the stories. (8) Although the manuscripts of the late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth centuries did not feature subtitles, it is plausible that the mere reputation of Boccaccio's account of the plague might have aroused the interest of physicians. Furthermore, it is also likely that, through their association within intellectual circles, physicians became familiar with the Decameron.
A fifteenth-century revision of Aldobrandino of Siena's thirteenth-century medical manual Regime du corps illustrates the shift towards adopting Boccaccio's formula of advocating literary pleasures in times of plague. Although Aldobrandino's manual does not deal directly with pestilence, it was widely circulated during times of epidemic outbreaks because it gave general advice that could also be applied to those desiring to keep their health and not succumb to the plague. (9) The first section of the manual consists of twenty-one chapters detailing a wide variety of hygienic recommendations. The advice in this part is practical: Aldobrandino comments on the importance of breathing fresh air, eating nutritious foods, drinking salubrious wines, and bathing regularly. In one chapter, "<Por Coi> on se doit garder de corechier" ("Why one should avoid becoming angry"), he discusses emotional health; and like most of his predecessors (and followers), Aldobrandino prescribes avoiding emotions like anger, fear, sadness, and anguish. (10) Warning that these feelings are harmful to a person's health, his theory follows the Hippocratic and Galenic notions that emotions alter the temperatures of a person's body and therefore may upset its humoral balance. (11)
Olson indicates that, in a fifteenth-century manuscript of Aldobrandino's Regime, the same chapter offers more specific recommendations for combating low spirits. According to Olson, this Quattrocento text not only recommends happiness; it specifies how happiness can be attained through pleasant company and literary pursuits: "[...] prendre ioye et leese et hanter gens ioyeux et lire ioyeuses choses et estranges" ("be joyful and happy and associate with cheerful people and read pleasant and unusual things"). (12) This textual amendment leads us to believe that the reviser of Aldobrandino's manual was familiar with the Decameron's formula of literary prophylaxis. The cheerful company (gens ioyeux) is reminiscent of Boccaccio's lieta brigata, while the advice of reading joyful and unusual things echoes the great variety of topics elicited in the stories of the Decameron.
The revised fifteenth-century manuscript of Aldobrandino's treatise may suggest that the Decameron influenced subsequent medical ideas, since two significantly Boccaccian recommendations on how to achieve psychological well-being have been added to the thirteenth-century treatise. Manuscripts of Aldobrandino's work that predate Boccaccio's story collection simply discuss the general importance of maintaining good spirits; after the Decameron, Aldobrandino's manuals include specific emotional recommendations that reflect Boccaccio's advice in the frame tale.
After the appearance of the Decameron, one of the earliest works that prescribes verbal and literary intervention as a way of avoiding contagion is Tommaso del Garbo's Consiglio contro a pistolenza. We know that Tommaso's Consiglio began to circulate in the middle to late Trecento. (13) As I have discussed previously, several scholars consider Tommaso's Consiglio influential to Boccaccio because various elements of the Decameron so closely resemble the advice offered in this medical treatise. Yet, the Decameron's estimated completion date of 1351 and its wide circulation shortly thereafter indicate that Boccaccio's work predates Tommaso's advice. (14) The similarities between the texts suggest that Boccaccio's story collection may have been influential to the fourteenth-century physician.
Tommaso's Consiglio is divided into numerous sections, each dealing with a particular question or issue regarding the plague. (15) Like other physicians, he emphasizes the importance of avoiding the "aria corrotta," since at the time it was commonly believed that the plague traveled through the air. This fundamental point also mirrors the premise of the Decameron's frame plot: the decision of the group of young men and women that their only chance of avoiding contagion is to flee the plague-infested city. However, Tommaso is aware that not everyone had the means to leave Florence, and writes for the well-being of those who must remain in the plague-infested city: "E perche non e possibile a ciascuno potersi asentare dalla citta e fugire la pistolenza, per que' tali diremo alla loro salute gl'infrascritti ammaestramenti" ("Since it is not possible for everyone to leave the city and flee from the pestilence, to their health we will now dedicate the prescribed teachings" 15). (16)
Tommaso's approach toward the endangered people's emotions was almost epicurean in its rejection of pain. He warns them not to contemplate death, sickness, or other depressing thoughts, even though little else was around them. He suggests that friends gather in beautiful gardens where the flowers are fragrant and the mood is uplifting. Diversion and entertainment, according to Tommaso, are beneficial so that the bitter reality of the plague can be forgotten: "E usare canzone e giullerie e altre novelle piacevole sanza fatica di corpo, e tutte cose dilettevoli che confortino altrui" ("Use songs and games and other pleasant novelle [novelties or stories] that do not exhaust the body, and all those delightful things that bring comfort" 41).
Tommaso's advice clearly parallels the strategy proposed by Boccaccio's brigata by prescribing songs, games and novelle. Of these three recommendations, Boccaccio specifically cites two (canzone and novelle), while the third (giullerie) is implied all throughout the work and alludes to the ludic aspect of the brigata's sojourn. Furthermore, the recommendation of "novelle" would seem a direct evocation of Boccaccio's text. From the initial declaration of intent by the narrator of the Proemio ("intendo di raccontare novelle, o favole o parabole o istorie che dire le vogliamo" Dec. Proemio 13), throughout the framework of the collection, Boccaccio refers to his stories as novelle, not only to define the literary genre of his tales, but also because this term suggests newness: something fresh, innovative, and noteworthy.
We know that Tommaso del Garbo held a prominent position in mid-Trecento Florence. According to Filippo Villani, the most powerful men of the time competed to have Tommaso del Garbo as their physician (33). Franco Sacchetti praises Tommaso's virtue in Canzone 181, written on the occasion of Boccaccio's death (256). Notwithstanding his own skeptical attitude towards the medical profession, Petrarch held Tommaso in very high esteem, referring to him affectionately in two of his letters as his compatriot (Seniles 12.1 and 12.2). In the first of these, addressed to the famous physician Giovanni Dondi da Padova, Petrarch praises Tommaso del Garbo to his colleague and mentions that Tommaso "shares first place with you." In Seniles 7.3, the only epistle addressed directly to Tommaso, Petrarch refers to him as a great intellectual, likening his knowledge with that of Christ as He examined the teachers of the law.
It is thus clear that Tommaso del Garbo was an important member of the mid-fourteenth century Florentine intellectual community. The general advice included in Tommaso's plague treatise reflects the medical cultural milieu of the time; however, his narrative recommendations are likely indebted to his familiarity with Boccaccio's Decameron. We cannot be certain whether or not Tommaso read Boccaccio's story collection directly; however, on the basis of his intellectual connections and professional interests, it would be difficult to imagine that he was not familiar with Boccaccio's work, especially the Decameron's cornice, with its account of the pestilence and the fictional brigata's reaction to the great epidemic. (17)
Another important medical treatise that recommends emotional distraction through verbal or literary activities in times of plague is the Regimen in pestilencia (1378), written by Cardo of Milan. (18) Unlike most of the medical writings on the epidemic, Cardo's does not speculate on the supernatural or metaphysical causes of the plague. The work is brief, and includes clear advice for people to follow during outbreaks of pestilence. His observations on the accidents of the soul are almost identical to those of other fourteenth-century doctors: Cardo advises people to remain in good spirits and to avoid negative affective states. He connects the emotional realm to the physical by proposing a causal relationship between grave sadness (tristitia) and physical ailments.
The novelty of Cardo's recommendations is found in the section of his treatise in which he specifically explains how one should attain happiness: "Eligatur gaudium temperatum, habitudo cum dilectis audiendo sermones solaciosos et cantus jocosos et suaves excellente consonantione" ("One should choose moderate joy, and make it a habit of listening with loved ones to soothing speeches and joyful and soft songs in supreme harmony" Sudhoff 6. 322). He recommends listening to sermones solaciosos and cantus jocosus, both verbal activities. Sermones here evokes a narrative tradition, while cantus pertains to both the narrative and the musical realm. (19) In the Decameron Boccaccio uses a variety of connotations of the word sermone. (20) For example, in Dec. 2.5 sermone refers to conversation, while in 10.9 the sermone mentioned is a speech, and in 10.2 muto sermone evokes the colloquial expression "changing one's tune." However, at the core of all these terms is the concept of spoken language. If we assume that Cardo was referring to the employment of language and conversation, then it would appear that, similarly to Boccaccio's brigata, he recommends soothing words to relax and divert the mind from the hardships associated with the plague. Even if we attributed other possible semantic nuances to sermones, we would still find that Cardo recommends what I have proposed to call verbal prophylaxis; namely, listening to soothing speeches or also religious sermons, and thus to words that provide solace. It is significant that Cardo modifies the term sermones with the adjective solaciosos; namely, not just any kind of sermones, but only those with soothing, assuaging, consoling qualities, thereby suggesting that a healing effect can be attained through language.
Cardo also recommends that people listen to cantus jocosus, the musical complement of sermones. The word cantus also has a variety of connotations. Cantus may mean "song," as in a musical composition with lyrics. However, in other contexts, the term may also refer to chants, a concept related to prayer and rumination. Since Cardo describes the type of canto that should be pursued--namely, joyful songs--he could have been referring to the tradition of musical entertainment similar to that indulged in by the characters of Boccaccio's brigata primarily at the end of each day.
Cardo does not advocate reciting soothing words or singing happy songs; instead, he advises listening (audiendo) to these. This recommendation can be attributed to the low literacy rate in the late Trecento, to people's limited accessibility to texts, as well as to the nature of music itself, which provides pleasure to all, even those unable to sing. In the fourteenth century, in fact, it was common for people to gather for readings and recitals, at which time one person, or a small group of designated people, would read or sing to the audience. (21)
The Florentine physician Nicholas of Burgo also hypothesizes about the potency of language in times of pestilence in his lengthy Consilium illatum contra pestilentiam (1382). Nicholas bases his advice on his experiences treating the sick during the numerous outbreaks of plague in Florence at the end of the fourteenth century. He recommends that people maintain a positive outlook on life and that they avoid discussing the casualties of the plague. The section of the treatise that deals with the accidents of the soul begins with a reminder of the risks of recalling the plague. According to Nicholas, pestilence should only be mentioned in order to report a case in which someone has recovered from it:
[...] abstinendum est secundum possibilitatem a tristicia, angustiis, superfluis cogitationibus et superfluis occupationibus et ira, ab omnique timore cogitato et susectione et maxime pestilentiae et mortis ab omnique auditu, colloquio et mentione infirmorum et mortuorum ex epidemia, nisi forent eorum, qui sanati vel qui sanati forent.
(According to one's possibility, one should abstain from sadness, anguish, superfluous thoughts, superfluous duties, anger, and from contemplated fear and suspicion, especially from every report and conversation of the pestilence and death and from the mention of ill people and people who have died from the epidemic, unless they be of those who have recovered, or who are going to recover.)
This advice demonstrates that in the fourteenth century it was commonly believed that language had the power to generate illness. According to Nicholas, the plague should only be discussed in a positive light; namely, to report cases of recovery. This admonition is reminiscent of the directions given to the servants by Pampinea in the frame tale of the Decameron. She warns them to make certain not to corrupt the healthy environment they have entered with news of the plague, unless it is to report someone's recovery. (22) Following this logic, if bad news could somehow disturb their state of isolation, peace, and perhaps also cause illness, then positive reports could promote joy and arguably even good health and recovery.
Nicholas also advocates pleasure and recreation in times of sickness. He creates a list of suggestions on how to attain pleasure and he also discusses the positive effects of relaxing activities such as playing games, playing musical instruments, and singing softly:
Sed conetur unusquisque pro posse laetari et gaudere omni modo gaudii mediocris ex ludis et tripudiis sono instrumentorum musicalium et canentium in voce remissa omnique alio modo solatij ex his, in quibus solaciantis animus delectetur, adhaerendo sociis iucundis gaudentibus sanis, et mondis vestibus pulcherrimis et odorificatis inductis, et maxime eius, quorum delectabilis est familiaritas, quorum tamen non sunt nimia multitudo. et elligendi sunt pro posse tales in quibus continua spes et fiducia habetur.
(Let everyone try, insofar as possible, to be happy and to delight in every kind of moderate pleasure, from games and dancing, to the sound of musical instruments and of people singing in a relaxed voice and to delight in every kind of solace from the things in which the mind of one seeking solace is delighted, keeping close to companions who are pleasant, joyful, healthy, and clothed with clean, sweet-smelling garments of the utmost beauty, and especially those whose familiarity is delightful, and in a crowd that is not excessive. And insofar as possible, company should be chosen with those in whom continuous trust and confidence is held.)
Among his suggestions, we find one that is specifically narrative in nature. Nicholas suggests that people sing "in voce remissa": in a low, soft voice. This advice is reminiscent of several of the ballads that close the days of the Decameron. (23) Unlike Cardo, Nicholas does not recommend the passive act of listening to songs and stories; instead he specifies that the singing must be soft, so that the atmosphere of peace and harmony will not be disturbed. These songs prescribed by Nicholas act as a vehicle for the relaxation and pleasure necessary to maintain one's health in emotionally turbulent times. "In voce remissa" is also reminiscent of rumination and the religious tradition; however, since there are no other signs in this medical text that refer to prayer, the latter is not recommended as a means of psychological distraction.
Although Nicholas does not specifically recommend the narration of stories, he does prescribe verbal prophylaxis in the form of song, which was commonly related to storytelling in the Middle Ages. Often poets' verses were accompanied by music: especially canzoni, ballate, ritornelli and madrigali. Town criers, bards, and professional entertainers, for example, would frequently accompany their stories with harp or lyre music; in some cases, they would also engage in pantomime in order to animate their performances. For the wealthy, a common practice was to hire lectors, singers, and musicians to perform in their homes for private as well as public functions. Singing, music, and storytelling go hand in hand in the Middle Ages, as we are reminded by Boccaccio in the Decameron's frame tale when the characters agree not only to recount stories, but also to sing songs to avoid disturbing thoughts of the plague.
Another medical document that specifically advocates narrative prevention is a Bolognese plague consilium dated September 8, 1398. Its author was Giovanni da Noto, of whom we know very little. According to Sudhoff and Sarton, he was probably identical with the Sicilian humanist Giovanni Aurispa (1376?-1459). Sudhoff indicates that, prior to dedicating himself to his important career as a Hellenist and philologist, Giovanni occupied himself with astrology and medicine. (24) The structure of his work does not resemble the established tradition of his predecessors in that his consilium is significantly more succinct than those of other doctors, and he does not include a speculative, theoretical section on the etiology of the plague. He plunges directly into practical information by immediately proposing a hygienic regimen. In the section of his work dedicated to the accidents of the soul, he writes:
Sexto dico quod ab accidentibus animae, quibus se custodiat, ut sunt timor, ira, tristitia, nimia solicitudo, cogitationes et similia. Ex iuxta posse procuret gaudere, laetari audire cantilenas, ystorias et melodias. Amen.
(Sixth, I comment on the accidents of the soul, against which one should guard oneself. Beware of fear, anger, sadness, excessive anguish, heavy thoughts and similar things. And equally one should take care to be able to be joyful, to be happy, listen to cantilenas, stories and melodies.)
Like the other doctors dealing with the plague, he begins by warning his readers of the dangers associated with negative emotions. He encourages people to seek pleasure, and is very specific about the means for achieving this goal. He advises listening to (audire) cantilenas, stories and melodies; namely activities almost identical to those carried out by Boccaccio's brigata.
Giovanni makes a distinction between simply listening to melodies (music without lyrics) and cantilenas (words accompanied by a simple melody). Rather than advising singing in general, he specifies that people should listen to cantilenas. These are rhythmic and repetitive songs that people often knew by memory; in some contexts, they are associated with nursery rhymes, which can thus transport thoughts to simpler times (i.e., childhood). However, the final component of his prophylactic plan is strictly narrative. The recommendation of storytelling, along with singing cantilenas and melodies, leaves little room to doubt Giovanni's familiarity with Boccaccio's work. His medical training accounted for his recommendations for emotional balance and psychosomatic relations, but for the specific literary recommendations he is likely indebted to Boccaccio's Decameron.
Even after the fourteenth century, with which I have been dealing thus far, in the early fifteenth century, when humanist activity ruled the intellectual sphere, Boccaccio's Decameron remained popular among the middle class. As the following examples demonstrate, Boccaccio's work was still familiar to physicians and continued to impact their preventive advice.
Michele Savonarola (1385?-1466?), grandfather of the famous religious reformer Girolamo, wrote in the vernacular an influential treatise on the plague dedicated to the city of Ferrara. According to Luigi Belloni, the treatise was composed between the years 1444 and 1449, shortly after a strong bout of pestilence (1436-38) and the outbreak of another one in 1463. Savonarola's work is organized in a manner similar to many of the plague treatises written by his predecessors. Before proceeding to the main section of the work, he briefly considers the origins of the plague, which he attributes to divine wrath. The main part of the treatise is divided into three chapters: the first proposes a hygienic regimen, the second discusses how to recognize the signs of pestilence, and the third recommends therapeutic treatments.
Chapter one of the treatise concerns itself with prophylaxis. Like the other plague doctors I have examined above, Savonarola is concerned with his patients' emotions. For him, emotions are directly tied to the physical realm. He therefore prescribes avoiding heavy thoughts ("gran pensieri") and specifies that one should not think of the plague. For if pondering negative thoughts can psychologically and physically alter a person (as other physicians have suggested), then thinking of the plague could potentially act as a catalyst for infection.
Savonarola also recommends that people remain happy with delightful music and songs and "similar things" ("soni e canti e somigianti"). Although he does not specify what these similar things should be, his advice is nevertheless reminiscent of the musical and narrative entertainments in Boccaccio's frame tale. Certainly the term canto has narrative connotations; and in a similar vein of reasoning, we can infer that things similar to music and songs ("somigianti") might imply also storytelling.
The fifteenth-century philosopher and physician Marsilio Ficino, through his treatises Consiglio contro la pestilenza and De vita, greatly influenced his contemporary society as well as future generations by extensively theorizing on the mind-body relationship. Ficino composed his Consiglio as a reaction to the epidemic that ravaged Florence from 1478 to 1480. In this work, he follows the classical tradition of the plague consilia by beginning with a theoretical explanation and then proceeding to offer practical advice and remedies. Ficino's advice on psychological compartmentalization echoes Dioneo's desire to keep all bad news within the city walls and far from the brigata's idyllic retreat. (25) Like Boccaccio's fictional narrator, Ficino recommends not only distance from the disease, but also from news of the plague-infested city: "[...] sia in luogo dove non si oda ne suono, ne romore alcuno del luogo amorbato" ("[...] one should be in a place where neither sound nor mention can be heard about the contaminated place" 75). Although Ficino alludes to this need briefly in the Consiglio, he elaborates extensively on the importance of keeping the mind free from disturbing thoughts in the De vita.
In his three-part treatise dedicated to the health and well-being of the intellectual, Ficino discusses at length the potency of words and song. He suggests that song, which is "the most powerful imitator of all things," has the ability to relieve pain and cure illness. His theory is based on the idea that words and song can alter a person's well-being, especially when the content is inspired by one's heart and imagination. Particularly Boccaccian is Ficino's recommendation of how to avoid the humor called black bile, the substance Ficino attributes to melancholy:
Laudamus frequentem aspectum aquae nitidae, viridis rubeive coloris, hortorum nemorumque usum, deambulationem secus flumina perque amoena prata suavem; equitationem quoque, gestionem navigationemque lenem valde probamus, sed varietatem imprimis facilesque occupationes diversaque negotia non molesta, assiduam hominum gratiosorum consuetudinem. (10.55-59)
I advocate the frequent viewing of shining water and of green or red color, the haunting of gardens and groves and pleasant walks along rivers and through lovely meadows; and I also strongly approve of horseback riding, driving, and smooth sailing, but above all, of variety, easy occupations, diversified unburdensome business, and the constant company of agreeable people. (135-37) (26)
Like Boccaccio, Ficino advocates a retreat to a locus amoenus, moderate physical exercise, and surrounding oneself with friends and pleasant company. Although he does not prescribe the narration of stories in this particular chapter of his treatise, his frequent evocation of song and word as a powerful cure for the ailments of the soul suggest that Ficino, like the other thinkers cited in this study, either was influenced by or certainly agreed with Boccaccio's strategy of narrative prevention. Throughout the text, Ficino repeatedly alludes to the biblical tale of Saul and David (I Samuel 16), in which the tortured psyche of Saul is cured by the pleasing melody of David's harp. This story was commonly recounted in the medieval and early modern periods to emphasize the transformative powers of music and the word.
For final consideration, it is important to discuss the work of Castore Durante (1529-1590). The advice offered in Durante's Tesoro della sanita is noteworthy because it synthesizes the prescriptions offered by plague doctors from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century and closely parallels the Boccaccian tradition of narration as prophylaxis.
Durante, a physician and man of letters, is famous for his treatise first published in Rome in 1586. (27) The Tesoro was not written specifically on the occasion of a plague; rather, it was a classic regimen sanitatis: a handbook for maintaining good health. However, during subsequent outbreaks of pestilence, smallpox, and measles in numerous cities throughout northern Italy, the Tesoro was reprinted and Durante's advice became relevant in these epidemic contexts. (28) From the beginning of his work, Durante shows that he holds a holistic view of medicine. He links the mind and body in his general medical philosophy, even in chapters not dealing with the accidents of the soul. For example, in a section dedicated to the benefits of rest, "Della quiete," Durante proposes moderation of physical exercise and rest. He reminds his reader that just as excessive physical activity weakens the body, so does also excessive rest, since, according to Durante, leisure may induce bad thoughts. He demonstrates that ozio is potentially dangerous in large doses, not only to the body, but also to the mind, because it has the power to generate diseases:
L'ozio poi del corpo fa gli uomini grossi, pigri, poltroni, malsani, da poco, scoloriti, rifredda, ed estingue il calor naturale, accresce la flemma, ed empie il corpo di superfluita, generando infermita frigide come goccia, catarri, opilazioni delle viscere, epilepsia, podagra, chiragra e dolori arterici. (13)
(Leisure of the body makes man fat, lazy, idle, unhealthy, worth little, pale; it also chills and extinguishes natural heat, increases phlegm, and fills the body with superfluous things, generating cold illnesses such as apoplexy, catarrhs, obstruction of the intestines, epilepsy, gout, chiragra, and arterial pains.)
Certainly, nowhere is Durante's holistic medical approach as clearly articulated as in the section of his manual dealing with the accidents of the soul. In chapter V of the Tesoro, which is dedicated to emotional well-being, he makes a strong affirmation regarding the great powers of the mind on the body: "Le passioni dell'animo hanno gran potenza d'alterare i corpi nostri, imperocche fanno movimento negli umori e nelli spiriti [...]" ("The passions of the soul have great powers to alter our bodies; for they cause movement among the humors and spirits" 22). Durante proclaims that negative passions or emotions, because of this cause-effect relationship, are extremely dangerous to a person's physical health, and should therefore be avoided. In explicit details, he declares that certain emotions are particularly harmful and relates their physiological effects: "[...] l'ira eccita e accresce il calor naturale [...] come la melanconia indebolisce la digestione, come l'allegrezza fortifica" ("rage excites and increases natural heat [...] just as melancholy weakens digestion, and happiness fortifies" 23).
More than anything else, Durante recommends equilibrium. He warns against the dangers of excess, even in cases that deal with an emotion that would normally be classified as benevolent, such as happiness. He explains that in some cases happiness is more dangerous than pain or fear, because it affects the body in such a way that it leaves it defenseless and therefore vulnerable to death. Towards the end of this chapter, he offers specific and practical recommendations on how to attain the emotional balance he so passionately advocates for psychosomatic health:
[...] l'uomo adunque che vuole esser sano, pratichi per i giardini, guardi le verdure e luoghi ameni, e conversi con amici giocondi e facondi, con suoni e canti, che per queste cose si ristora la virtu; e siccome la virtu e la forza s'accrescon col cibo, col vino, con buoni odori, con tranquillita e allegrezza, e col lasciare le cose, che attristano, e col conversar con gli amici; cose parimente conferisce ascoltare istorie grate, favole e ragionamenti piacevoli, con suoni e canti, e con dilettevol lezione; ma il leggere non si faccia col capo basso, ma elevato, e con occhiali verdi, per corrobar piu la vista. (25)
([...] a man who wishes to be healthy should stroll through gardens, contemplate the greenery and peaceful atmosphere and converse with jovial and eloquent friends, with music and songs, because with these things, virtue is restored; and since virtue and strength increase with food, wine and pleasant odors, with peace and happiness, and by leaving behind things that depress, and by conversing with friends, it is therefore worthwhile to listen to agreeable stories, fables and pleasant discussions, with music and songs, and with entertaining lessons; however, reading should not be done with the head in a low position, but elevated, and with green-tinted spectacles, to strengthen the eyesight.)
Durante's instructions in this section are essentially a summary of those offered by Boccaccio, by means of Pampinea, to the Decameronian brigata. Like Boccaccio, he recommends strolling through pleasant gardens, conversing with good friends and listening to music so that a person will maintain positive spirits, which indirectly lead to strong physical health and prevention of illness. Durante also advocates reading as prophylaxis, recommending that people both read and listen to stories featuring light and pleasant content. (29) Reaching extremes, he even specifies the position of the head while reading, and prescribes the use of green-tinted spectacles for the protection of the eyes. (30) By analyzing Castore Durante's medical manual and considering its multiple editions, we can see that Boccaccio's narrative recommendations continued throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Boccaccio's influence on the medical culture is evidenced by physicians' written advice for communities stricken by pestilence and other epidemic illnesses. For centuries, doctors continued to prescribe emotional balance as key to overall health, especially in times of epidemic outbreaks, and, as this study illustrates, numerous healers have specifically advocated a form of narrative or literary prevention. It is difficult to be certain whether or not this advice originates from a direct knowledge of Boccaccio's text or a general, cultural familiarity with the Decameron and the strategies proposed in its frame tale. It is evident nevertheless that through his Decameron Boccaccio left an important imprint not only on many aspects of European literature and culture, as all scholars know, but also--almost surprisingly--on medical culture, which subsequently continued to embrace the author's ideas throughout the centuries.
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Aurispa, Giovanni. Carteggio di Giovanni Aurispa. Ed. Remigio Sabbadini. Roma: Istituto Storico Italiano, 1931.
Battaglia Ricci, Lucia. Ragionare nel giardino: Boccaccio e i cicli pittorici del Trionfo della Morte. Roma: Salerno, 2000.
Bevilacqua, Mirko. Il giardino del piacere: saggi sul Decameron. Roma: Semar, 1995.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. Decameron. Ed. Vittore Branca. Torino: Einaudi, 1992.
--. Novelle scelte e descrizione della pestilenza stata in Firenze nel 1348. Firenze: Seguin, 1820.
--. Novelle ventotto di messer Giovanni Boccaccio [...] con la descrizione della pestilenza stata in Firenze nel 1348. Padova: Giuseppe Comino, 1739.
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--. "Per il testo del Decameron." Studi di filologia italiana 8 (1950): 29-143.
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Castiglioni, Arturo. Il volto di Ippocrate: istorie di medici e medicine d'altri tempi. Milano: Unitas, 1925.
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--. "Lectures et lecteurs 'populaires' de la Renaissance a l'age classique." Histoire de la lecture dans le monde occidental. Ed. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier. Paris : Seuil, 1997. 315-30.
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Del Garbo, Tommaso. Consiglio contro a pistolenza. Ed. Pietro Ferrato. Bologna: Romagnoli, 1866.
Di Capua, Francesco. "Osservazioni sulla lettura e sulla preghiera ad alta voce presso gli antichi." Rendiconti della Accademia di Archeologia Lettere e Belle Arti 28 (1953): 59-99.
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Durante, Castore. Del parto della Vergine, libri tre. Viterbo. Agostino Colaldi, 1573.
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Ficino, Marsilio. Marsilio Ficino contro alla peste. Firenze: Giunti, 1576.
--. Three Books on Life. Ed. Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark. Tempe: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1998.
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Petrarca, Francesco. Lettere senili 1-2. Trans. Giuseppe Fracassetti. Firenze: Le Monnier, 1892.
Petrucci, Armando. Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy. Trans. and ed. Charles M. Radding. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.
Sacchetti, Franco. Il libro delle rime. Ed. Franca Brambilla Ageno. Firenze: Olschki, 1990.
Sarton, George. Introduction to the History of Medicine. Volume III. Science and Learning in the Fourteenth Century. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1948.
Savonarola, Michele. I trattati in volgare della peste e dell'acqua ardente. Ed. Luigi Belloni. Milano, 1953.
Siraisi, Nancy. Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.
Sorbelli, Albano. Dizionario bio-bibliografico dei bibliotecari e bibliofili italiani dal sec. XIV al XIX. Firenze: Olschki, 1934.
Sudhoff, Karl. Archiv fur Geschichte der Medizin. 16. Leipzig: Puschmann-Stiftung an der Universitat Leipzig, 1924.
Temkin, Owsei. Galenism: Rise and Decline of a Medical Philosophy. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973.
Villani, Filippo. Le vite d'uomini illustri fiorentini. Firenze: Sansone Coen, 1847.
(1) All citations from Decameron are from Branca edition (1992).
(2) In Chapter 5 of Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages Olson argues that many of the prescriptive ideas from plague treatises are also present in Boccaccio's Decameron: "[...] the best sources for understanding the rationale of the Decameron's frame narrative are the plague tracts, those manuals of advice on how to cope with the pestilence which appeared concurrent with its arrival and which judging from their numbers, enjoyed widespread popularity throughout the later Middle Ages and Renaissance [...]" (166). In her essay titled "Boccaccio e la scienza," Cottino-Jones indicates similarities between medical theories proposed by fourteenth-century physicians and the actions taken and attitudes assumed by characters in Boccaccio's works. Regarding the Decameron, she sustains that there are noteworthy parallels between Tommaso del Garbo's Consiglio contro a pistolenza and the strategy undertaken by the brigata to avoid the plague: "[...] ritroviamo affinita notevoli fra la pratica dei narratori e personaggi decameroniani e i suggerimenti offerti da un'operetta che pare sia stata scritta appunto in occasione della peste del 1348 e che ha parecchi punti di contatto con l'opera decameroniana, il Consiglio contro a pistolenza di Tommaso del Garbo [...]" (366).
(3) Branca espouses the theory that by the middle of the fourteenth century, the Decameron was available to readers. He writes: "[...] il Boccaccio diede forma, probabilmente fra il 1349 e il 1351, al Decameron, raccogliendo e sistemando elementi e racconti abbozzati da tempo lungo la sua ormai ricca carriera di scrittore" (Giovanni Boccaccio: profilo Biografico 80). For a detailed tracing of the Decameron's diffusion in the late Trecento, see "Per il testo del Decameron: la prima diffusione del Decameron" in Studi di Filologia Italiana 8 (1950).
(4) In support of his hypothesis that the Decameron was the merchant's epic (epopea dei mercatanti), Branca notes that over two-thirds of the Trecento manuscripts of the Decameron he examined belonged to bourgeois, mercantile families and none seems to have been part of an illustrious collection or august library (Boccaccio Medievale 5). It was not until the middle of the fifteenth century that we find elegant and richly decorated copies of the Decameron preserved in important collections. See also Chapter 5 of Branca's Boccaccio Medievale (134-64).
(5) Petrucci informs us that "The great mass of those who read works in vernacular languages were essentially monolingual literates who did not know Latin but had nevertheless learned to read and write: they were merchants, artisans, shopkeepers, artists, accountants, shop or banking employees, as well as workers and some women" (140). See Chapter 7 of Petrucci's study, "Reading in the Middle Ages," in Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy: Studies in the History of Written Culture (132-44).
(6) It is also relevant to note that in Florence, country estates were not exclusively reserved for the nobility. Since Florence had a strongly developed mercantile economy, merchants and bankers owned large homes in the outskirts of the city along with the nobility. Bevilaqua observes: "Si ritroveranno vicini di campo (di villeggiatura e di status) il vecchio nobile, simbolo del potere feudale, e il nuovo mercante padrone di terreni e fattorie, entrambi aggiuntivi all'attivita commerciale cittadina" (27). See chapter 2 of Bevilacqua's Il giardino del piacere: saggi sul Decameron: "L'attualizzazione della scrittura: dalla narrazione orale del giullare a quella scritta dello scrittore/raccoglitore di novelle."
(7) A fifteenth-century manuscript from the collection of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana announces to readers that the work was written in the year of the great pestilence: "Comincia la prima giornata del decameron ne la quale doppo la dimostratione na fatto dello autore per cagione avenirsi quelle persone che appresso si mostreranno ragionare e ragionare insieme sotto il reggimento discreto di Pampinea si ragiona di quello che e piu a grado a ciascuno. Scripto per lo poeta messer Giovanni Boccaccio da Certaldo fiorentino scripto nel CCCXLVIII, l'anno della mortalita." Also, a 1409 manuscript, from the Biblioteca Ginori Conti in Florence, includes an explicit in which the copyist reminds readers of the plague: "Finito il dilectevole libro de le ciento novelle nominato dechameron Chonpilato e fatto per lo ecciellente poeta Misser giovanni bocchacci da ciertaldo fiorentino nel 1348 per la grande mortalita." Cited in Branca's extensive bibliography of early Decameron manuscripts housed in libraries throughout Europe: "Per il testo del Decameron" (89-114).
(8) Several eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editions of the Decameron have a long subtitle on the cover page, at times including the name of the author, editor, and often announcing that the work contained a description of the great plague. These works were usually a selection of Boccaccio's novelle for students of the Italian language. Two examples: Novelle ventotto di messer Giovanni Boccacci scelte ora per la prima volta da suo Decamerone ad uso principalmente de' modesti giovani e studiosi della Toscana favella, con la descrizione della pestilenza stata in Firenze nel 1348. Padova: Giuseppe Comino, 1739; Novelle scelte e descrizione della pestilenza stata in Firenze nel 1348. Firenze: Seguin, 1820. These titles demonstrate that even several centuries after the Black Death, there was still interest in Boccaccio's vivid portrait of the epidemic.
(9) There are numerous manuscripts and printed editions of this work. The most common title is Regime du corps, but in some cases it is known as the Regime de Sante. Composed in French in the middle decades of the thirteenth century, when Latin was still the language of science, Aldobrandino's work was more accessible to the public than most medical treatises.
(10) See Le Regime du corps, ed. Landouzy and Pepin (31-32)
(11) For a comprehensive discussion on Hippocrates' and Galen's influence on medieval and early modern medicine, see Siraisi; Temkin.
(12) Text and translation cited by Olson, who notes, "Clearly some reviser of Aldobrandino in the fifteenth century felt that the recommendation to be cheerful needed supplementing, and he added two means of removing melancholy: associating with cheerful people [...], and reading delightful and unusual works" (57).
(13) Tommaso, son of the famous physician Dino del Garbo and grandson of the well-known surgeon Bono del Garbo, was born in Florence at the beginning of the fourteenth century (1305?) and died in 1360 (Castiglioni 154). Although he began his medical studies with Gentile da Foligno, and was strongly influenced by Taddeo Alderotti, he received most of his professional and practical training from his father. He later taught medicine in Perugia (1343-45), where he gained wide acclaim for his medical skills. For a biographical summary and bibliography on Tommaso del Garbo, see De Ferrari. For details about the medical tradition in the Del Garbo family, see Corsini.
(14) Olson notes: "Tommaso's tract undoubtedly postdates the Decameron, but if we take its recommendations as representative of a detailed regimen in regard to the accidentia animae and apply this medical perspective to the Decameron frame, the parallels are self-evident" (176).
(15) Citations are from Ferrato's edition of Del Garbo's Consiglio contro a pistolenza. Ferrato has consulted two manuscripts, the Codice Farsetti, CXXI housed in the Marciana Library, and Codice Riccardiano. Ferrato includes glosses of the variances in the two manuscripts. Also, Ferrato adds the numbering of the chapters for the convenience of the modern reader. The numbers following quotes correspond to the page numbers of Ferrato's edition, not his chapters.
(16) Unless otherwise noted, translations are my own.
(17) In her study Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Florence, Park examines data from the catasto declarations of physicians and concludes that "doctors in fact had a high rate of book ownership relative to the rest of the city's population" (192). She also notes that the practice of borrowing and lending texts was widespread among physicians (194), suggesting that doctors had access to a great variety of books.
(18) Nothing is known about Cardo. George Sarton wonders if Cardo is not identical with Cordone of Pavia, who wrote the Pratticola, of which he notes there is a Hebrew translation. Sudhoff cites from a manuscript in the National Library of Vienna, in which Cardo is referred to as "magistrum Cardoniem de Sponsotis de Mediolano phisicum," but he adds no information about the identity or career of the mysterious doctor (Sudhoff 16.117). Castiglioni refers to a "Carlo di Milano," composer of a medical treatise entitled Regimen in Pestilentia, written around the year 1377. He is most likely referring to the same doctor (159).
(19) The word sermones derives from the classical Latin sermo, meaning language, although in this context this term seemingly refers to something more specific. In the Horatian corpus, for example, sermones applies to the familiar language of everyday life. In fact, the original title given by the author to his Satires appears to have been Sermones. Also, Cicero in his De officiis 1.132 and 2.48 used the term when referring to conversation, in contrast to official speeches. However, this word developed a variety of connotations over time. In Medieval Latin texts, sermones refers to public forms of discourse: sermones may be speeches, and in many cases they have a religious connotation similar to our modern understanding of "sermons." St Augustine's Sermones are didactic texts dealing with a variety of topics. Some are specifically catechistic, while others present biblical exegesis. Some authors of similar "sermons" include St. Peter Damian (Sermones) and St. Bonaventure (Sermones dominicales).
(20) Dec. 1, Conclusione 20: "[...] tanto soave a sentir, che sermone / dir nol poria ne prendere intenzione"; Dec. 2.5.6: "[...] senza quivi tenere troppo lungo sermone"; Dec. 2. 7.40: "E dopo lunghi sermoni, [...]"; Dec. 9.2.18: "[...] muto sermone" ; Dec. 10.8.66: "[...] senza piu lungo sermon farne"; Dec. 10.9.4: "[...] io seguiterei, con diffuso sermone le sue parole."
(21) Chartier challenges our contemporary notion of reading by reminding us that in the Middle Ages, when literacy rates were low, the literate read and interpreted texts, not only for themselves, but also for those who were not able to "decipher" the language and meaning of a work (The Order of Books 8). Although the practice of silent reading was becoming more prevalent in the Middle Ages, especially for sacred books, the performative act of recitation was still popular for lay texts. Francesco Di Capua presents fascinating references to the practice of oral reading from classical medical and literary sources and demonstrates how the ancients incorporated physical exercise into oral recitations. The sources he cites recommend the use of elaborate gestures, pantomiming, and dramatic inflection of the voice--all to add a physical component to reading and to bring the text to life (59-99). These practices were continued throughout the Middle Ages and evolved into the animated readings and lectures so common throughout the Renaissance. Also, on silent reading vs. oral recitation of text, see Chartier, "Lectures et lecteurs 'populaires' de la Renaissance a l'age classique" in Histoire de la lecture dans le monde occidental (323-25).
(22) "[...] vogliamo e comandiamo che si guardi, dove che egli vada, onde che egli torni, che che egli oda o vegga, niuna novella altra che lieta ci rechi di fuori" (Dec. 1, Introd. 101).
(23) Lauretta sings "con voce assai soave ma con maniera alquanto pietosa" (Dec. 3, Conclusione 11); Elissa begins her ballad "con soave voce incomincio" (Dec. 6, Conclusione 41); and Panfilo, in keeping with his sensitive character, sings a very emotional ballata at the end of Day 8.
(24) In the latter phase of his career, that in which he was known as Giovanni Aurispa, he dedicated himself to collecting, transcribing and translating Greek works, both sacred and profane. Aurispa made at least two trips to Constantinople to collect manuscripts and sent to Sicily religious works by Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Simeon, and Saint Gregory Nazianzus, and to Venice secular works, such as the book of history by Procopius of Caesarea, the treatise on horsemanship by Xenophon, poetry by Callimacus, Pindar, and Oppian, as well as the complete works of Plato, Proclus Diadochus, and Lucian. Not only was he a scholar and professor of Greek affiliated with several schools; he also sold his works for a profit. In Aurispa's letters, collected by Remigio Sabbadini, nothing refers to the early period of his life or his medical interests. For this reason historians of medicine like George Sarton do not seem certain about the identity of this/these writer/s. Sudhoff cites Albano Sorbelli as his source of information. See Sorbelli's entry for "Aurispa" in Dizionario bio-bibliografico dei bibliotecari e bibliofili italiani dal sec. XIV al XIX (38-40).
(25) Dioneo boldly states: "[...] io non so quello che de' vostri pensieri voi v'intendete di fare: li miei lasciai io dentro dalla porta della citta allora che io con voi poco fa me ne usci' fuori: e per cio o voi a sollazare e a ridere e a cantare con meco insieme vi disponete (tanto, dico, quanto alla vostra dignita s'appartiene), o voi mi licenziate che io per li miei pensier mi ritorni e steami nella citta tribolata" (Dec. 1, Introd. 93).
(26) Translation by Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark.
(27) Aside from his interest in medicine, Durante was also an accomplished poet. In 1566 he published Il sesto libro della Eneida di Vergilio ridotto da M. Castore Durante in ottava rima and, in 1573, a pastoral poem (also in ottava rima) entitled Del parto della Vergine (a work that received some praise and was compared to Sannazaro's Arcadia).
(28) Between 1586 and 1830, the Tesoro was printed 27 times in Venice, three times in Rome, and once in Bergamo, Turin, Mantua, Padua, and Treviso. See Pesenti, "Durante, Castore" in Dizionario biografico degli italiani.
(29) Another physician who recommended reading as prophylaxis was Ugo Benzi, in English referred to as Hugh of Siena. Olson documents the details of a consilium in which Ugo gives advice to a depressed young nobleman who fears that he does not have long to live. In this text, Ugo advises the young man to cheer his mood by reading, listening to, and narrating stories. He even goes as far as to recommend a specific type of text: "[...] reading something not too difficult, like a narrative or some other work he likes" (Olson 60). For a comprehensive study on Ugo Benzi, see Lockwook. Lorenzo Condio (d. 1586?), in his manual Medicina filosofica contra la peste, also provides detailed advice on the type of reading one should do to avoid the plague. He prescribes "libri dilettevoli, massimamente contenenti descrittioni di paesi, con belle, & amene viste" (f. 203 v.).
(30) Green-tinted spectacles are the ancestors of modern sunglasses. Pliny reports in his Historia Naturalis that Nero, when watching the gladiators combat would use a lens made from an emerald, a gem that ancients believed possessed soothing and protective powers. Although corrective eyeglasses became more common at the end of the thirteenth century, tinted glasses were not developed until the early fourteenth century. For a history of lenses and eyeglasses, see Enrico De Lotto.
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