Doctors and illness in Boccaccio’s Decameron

Maria Sgouridou
National & Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece (Winter 2013)

 

Introduction

Giovanni Boccaccio was born in Tuscany in 1313, the illegitimate son of a merchant of Certaldo, who launched him on a commercial career hoping he would follow in his steps. Sent to Naples for that reason, he soon abandoned commerce and the study of canon law, and began, instead, to write stories in verse and prose. He mingled in courtly society, and his house became a center of literary activity. During this period, he formed a lasting friendship with Francesco Petrarch, who introduced him to the world of classic authors. At the time, not only Petrarca, but many others of the intellectual establishment looked up to the Greeks & Roman writers, poets and thinkers. They thought that the Greeks (Aristotle in particular) had gone further in logic, philosophy and science than they had themselves. This kind of conversion was considered a beacon of renewal and progress, in contrast to the still dominant medieval spirit.

In the person of Boccaccio the humanism of Florence found its major representative. In 1358 he completed his great work, The Decameron, begun some ten years earlier. Considered the prelude to the new spirit that was to be manifested by the Renaissance,1 it was written in the spirit of a human-centered era, characterized by change and an intense anticlerical style. It also came at the time of the collapse of the rural feudal system and the rebirth of private activity, enhanced by a new social class of notaries, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals.2 Humanistic studies in this new era came to occupy a preeminent place, and the study of medicine became an inseparable part of them. In the tales of The Decameron, based on events occurring during the plague at Florence of 1348, Boccaccio provides a detailed outline of how medical events were viewed at a time of transition from the middle ages to the new age of change. Thus The Decameron is so structured as to provide us a lively description of how such events were perceived in that period.

 

The Black Death in Florence

The Decameron opens with a description of the bubonic plague (Black Death). Boccaccio knows that it started in the East, and attributes it either to the influence of heavenly bodies or to God’s anger over the wicked deeds of men. But the symptoms of the plague are not like those in the East, where he has heard that a sudden gush of blood from the nose is a sure sign of impending death. Instead, there are swellings, the buboes, in the groin and under the armpit, growing to the size of a small apple or an egg, then large purple or black spots on other parts of the body, and death soon afterwards.

This leads to the story of a group of seven young women and three young men who fled from plague-ridden Florence to a villa outside the city walls. To pass the time, they organized themselves so that each person at night has to amuse the others by telling a story. The stories, told over ten days, contain dramatic and or humorous, elements, and many refer in one way or another to the way illness was conceived and managed in those times.

Second day. There are two tales in which there is reference to medical events. At the end of the sixth tale, there is the story of Madam Beritola, who in a series of unfortunate events had lost her children as well as her husband. When she unexpectedly finds her long-lost son, she is so excited that she swoons away in his arms. We are told earlier in the story that she had swooned once before. For all we know she may have swooned on many other occasions. Because women were always swooning away—right up into the 19th century—these are not considered to be medical events. No physician is called. Everybody knows what to do. Boccaccio mentions the cold water—wet compresses on the patient’s forehead, and measures capable of reenergizing the senses such as scented salts, oils, massages, or slapping the face. The author doesn’t expand too much on that episode.

In the seventh tale of the second day we meet a young doctor. He was feeling the pulse of a young man who had a mysterious disease that nobody had been able to diagnose. The patient was losing weight and was very sad—one might call it failure to thrive. But the astute young doctor, who apparently had been examining the pulse for hours, notices that each time the certain woman walks into the room the pulse quickens. When she leaves the pulse slows down. When she returns the pulse quickens again. The diagnosis is clear. The young man is suffering from love sickness. He informs the parents of his diagnosis—and all ends well.

Fourth day. In the first tale Tancredi, Prince of Salerno and father of Ghismonda, slays his daughter’s lover, Guiscardo, by having two men strangle him in the middle of the night. He instructed them to remove his heart, which he then sends to his daughter in a golden cup. Despairing Ghismonda pours on it a poisonous distillation that she drinks and dies. In order to prepare the drink, she had taken some poisonous herbs and roots, distilled them, and converted them into a deadly potion. During this period the production and use of such drugs was in the hands of the general public who could make use of them for therapeutic or nefarious purposes, based on the empirical knowledge or scripts of their times.

The fifth tale follows a somewhat similar script. A young girl, Lisabetta, falls in love with Lorenzo, a friend of her brothers. The brothers find out about the relationship, slay her lover, and bury him in the court yard. The dead man appears to the girl in a dream, and tells her where he is buried. She secretly disinters the head, sets it in a pot of basil, and weeps over it over for a long time every day. At last the brothers discover her pining over this potted plant every day, her good looks declining, and losing so much weight her eyes appear sunken in their sockets. They cause the pot to be secretly removed from her room. Finding it missing, she keeps asking for it over and over again, and because they will not restore it to her, she sobs and cries until eventually she falls seriously ill. From her bed of sickness she calls for nothing else except her pot of basil. She kept on weeping and demanding her pot of basil, until eventually she cried herself to death. She has an emotional breakdown. The illness is psychological in origin; and throughout the whole tale, the presence of a doctor is not mentioned.

The sixth tale of the fourth day is another tragic love story. Andreuola and Gabriotto are lovers. She tells him about a dream she has had; he tells her his, and suddenly dies in her arms. He had dreamed that while he was asleep, a coal-black greyhound appeared as if from nowhere, starving with hunger and terrifying to look upon. It advanced towards him, and he seemed powerless to resist, for it sank its teeth into his left side and gnawed away until it reached his heart, which it appeared to tear out and carry off in its jaws. The pain of it was so excruciating that the first thing he did on awakening was to run his hand over his left side to make sure that it was still intact; but on discovering that he had come to no harm, he laughed at himself for being so credulous. But as they lingered there together, Gabriotto suddenly heaved a tremendous sigh and he fell back on the ground motionless. Taken at its face value, the nightmare could be seen as a presentiment of the upcoming death. More clinically, one could postulate that, according to the description, the acute pain that woke our hero up could have been due to angina or myocardial infarction, followed a little later by sudden death.3 Though such episodes appear around 40, it’s most probable that the young man suffered from a certain congenital cardiac disease without knowing it.

In the seventh tale, two lovers, Simona and Pasquino are together in a garden, where their pleasant excursion ends up in a tragedy. Pasquino rubs a leaf of sage against his teeth, and dies suddenly. Simona is suspected of murdering him and is arrested. In order to demonstrate to show the judge how Pasquino died, she rubs one of the leaves of the same plant against her teeth, and also dies suddenly, to the small amazement of all present. They then discover, crouching beneath the clump of sage, a toad whose venomous breath had poisoned the leaves of the bush.

In the eighth tale of the fourth day Girolamo, who had always loved Salvestra, returns from a trip to Paris only to find her married. He enters her house by stealth, lies down by her side, and tells her that he is her old flame who has come back. Upon her entreating him to depart, because now she is a married woman, he is extremely upset. Resolved to die and without uttering a word, he clenches his fists and holds his breath until finally he expires at her side. This seemingly rekindles flames of her former love, with the result that when the corpse was taken to the church, she flung herself upon it with a piercing scream and also died—like her lover, from a surfeit of grief and without using any poison or instrument.

Fifth day. The fifth day contains the tragic story of Federico degli Alberighi, who loves Donna Giovanna but is not loved in return. Having spent all the money he has in courtship, he is left with only a falcon and retires to a small farm. Later the lady’s young child happens to take ill. Being her only child, she sits beside his bed all day long, never ceasing to comfort him. Every so often she asks him whether there is anything he wants, prepared to move heaven and earth to obtain it for him. The little boy requests Federico’s falcon, and Giovanna goes to ask for it. Federico, being poor and having nothing else to impress her, kills the bird and makes a stew for the lady to eat before she has a chance to ask for it. The child dies, from what illness we know not, and there is no mention of doctors being called, but the mother, recognizing the sacrifice of this magnanimous man, ends up marrying him.

Tenth day. The fourth tale somewhat related to medicine has a happy ending. The heroine is married and in the first months of her pregnancy. While her husband is on a trip, she contracts a sudden illness, so that all her signs of life were extinguished, and she was consequently deemed dead. She was buried, but it so happened that a man who had most admired her wanted to give her a last kiss. He opens her grave to find her still alive. She is resuscitated, restored to her husband, and gives birth to a male child that, rather miraculously, also survived.

 

Comments

These nine episodes lead one to conclude that most of the tales described by Boccaccio relate to a patient’s mental state, often worsened by a desire (sexual or not) that is not fully gratified. Several cases of suicide are due to an emotional breakdown. Poison often plays a role, such is the case of Ghismonda and Simona. Both cases indicate that in the medieval world some knowledge about harmful drugs was quite common. That explains the logic of Ghismonda who knows enough about poisons to prepare one herself. The case of Girolamo’s suicide is quite spectacular but also strange, as he manages to kill himself by not breathing, perhaps suggesting (if such a result can be achieved) that the power of self destruction due to emotional desperation may trump the self-preservation instinct. In the same tale, Salvestra dies suddenly, presumably from cardiac arrest.

In general, doctors do not play an important role in The Decameron. This absence of doctors could be explained by the fact that the author feels the need to point out the tragic character of the stories, as well as the inevitability of fate. Through these stories, Boccaccio presents the medieval beliefs regarding the disease and the role of the medicine in the medieval society: The protagonists were destined to die; so the presence of a doctor would not have made any difference at all, as was the case of Donna Giovanna’s little boy. Moreover, as the lower social classes did not have access to a doctor’s help, this was considered to be a privilege of noble families who could afford the expense. In contrast, a young doctor makes a difference in the case of the love-sick young man with the bouncing pulse. This is indeed the only picture we have of a doctor actually playing an essential role. His perseverance and astuteness serve to define his identity as a scientist and clearly distinguish him from the prevailing medieval standards. It is exactly this story that illustrates the transition from medieval spirit to a spirit of renewal and progress.

 

References

  1. W Durant and A Durant, The Age of Reason Begins: A History of European Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558–1648, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961).
  2. Wallace Klippert Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought, (New York: AMS Press, 1981).
  3. Robert Berkow, Mark H. Beers, and Andrew J. Fletcher, The Merck manual of medical information, (Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1997).

 


 

MARIA SGOURIDOU, PhD was born in Constantinople in 1967. She studied Italian language and literature at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, Greece. Her thesis (“The influence of Dante in Modern Greek Literature”) was presented, rated as “Excellent” and awarded. She is a professor at the School of Italian Language and Literature of the National & Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. She has published three books and over twenty articles in Greek and Italian journals of the field.

 

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