Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Decameron and Trauma

Books can be hard in two ways: they can be hard because they seem too difficult, and they can be hard because they seem to easy. When a student is confronted with a book that seems difficult, he'll often not read it, or read it with a sense of despair that "I'll never get this," and so the student won't grapple with the text as he should.

Boccaccio's Decameron, though, is one of the books that is so hard because it seems so easy. Sometimes a book seems so easy on its surface that the student won't take it seriously. He doesn't grapple with a text because it doesn't appear to reward hard work. Students see the frame story of The Decameron, about ten young people telling stories to while away their time hiding from the plague in Florence, as just a wafer-thin plot device to offer an excuse for cramming 100 short stories into a book. The stories themselves are often whimsical, leaving students with the impression that "this is literature because it's old" rather than "this is literature because it's good."

And so, the professor of The Decameron is left with a paradox. On the one hand, The Decameron will generally be one of the most read texts of the semester. When a student sees that the first story is only five pages or so long, she'll generally read it ... and then the next one, and then the next one, until finally all the excerpted stories are read. On the other hand, because the stories seem so easy, she'll put little thought into those readings. What's a professor to do?

In my case, I emphasize the idea of trauma in The Decameron. I generally start with this exercise:

"Pop quiz!" I announce. Groans all around. "Everyone number a sheet of paper one through ten." More groans. "OK, now, I want each of you to list the names of the ten people in your friends and family closest to you." Puzzled looks, a couple of people wanting clarification, then a creation of lists. "Now, I want each of you to pick three people from random from that list, and put checkmark next to that person's name." Again, the students look puzzled, but since they were expecting a nasty pop quiz, they are relieved that this is all they have to do. Once they are all finished, I announce, "Alright, now, put those away. You won't need them until later."

At this point, I start my usual lecture about the frame story of The Decameron. We talk about it as a device for assembling these hundred tales, but then I ask about the cause behind the retreat of these ten young people. I argue before the class that The Decameron is about how we use storytelling to construct our world ... an argument that is generally met with an attitude of skepticism. I discuss the Plague as a trauma that is both personal and cultural -- an idea that is met by a big yawn. Yeah, yeah, whatever. These were just a bunch of people who lived a long time ago far away. They don't mean anything to me.

Now I discuss the figures. I tell them that about a third of Europeans died in that plague, and I get no real response. These millions dead are just numbers, meaningless statistics. Since the students couldn't possibly care less about these people, they don't care about the numbers. Eight local high school students dead by tornado is a catastrophe, but hundreds of thousands dead in Darfur is just an abstraction. Now it's time to bring it home for them.

"Remember that list of names I made you create? I want you to consider what this kind of death toll would mean. Imagine that the three people you put check marks next to die this year." Stunned silence. I pause a few seconds, letting this sink in. "How would your life change? How would your perception of the world change? Now, also imagine that all the other people sitting next to you in class had lost their three people as well. Could you rely on others to support you emotionally?" Even the most jaded students become very, very sober.

I'm not done, yet. I go on to explain that the Plague didn't fall evenly throughout Europe, and that some places were barely touched while others were destroyed. Then we look at Florence, the setting for Boccaccio's story, and I tell them that some estimates put the death toll of that city at about 70%.

"Now, look at your list again. Imagine that the three people you put check marks next to don't die -- they live." Believe it or not, even though this is just a thought experiment, the students always get the same relieved look on their faces. I pause for a few seconds to let that sink in, then take the relief away from them. "Now imagine instead that we have a situation like Florence. The three with the check marks live ... but the other seven die, a 70% mortality rate." Occasionally I have students weep in class (though this year, no weepers).

By the time this exercise is finished, students have a tiny, thought-experiment taste of the trauma of the plague. Suddenly, the idea that you might need to tell stories to reconstruct your life doesn't seem all that absurd. The opening story of The Decameron, about Ser Cepperello, transforms from a story about esoteric questions about grace and faith into a more pointed story about the questions that must have confronted Europeans after these plagues -- Did my loved ones who were not especially faithful go to Heaven? Has God abandoned us? If we had just prayed for intercession to a different saint, would God have spared us?

You've got to be careful about these sorts of exercises. It would be easy for sadistic personalities to use them as an excuse to psychologically torment students. If every class is an emotional spectacle, the effect can be dulled by over-use. Still, I've found it is one way to help students connect with the book on a deeper level. It never seems frivolous to them again.


  1. That's a great exercise! I do something a little bit similar in my medieval history classes, to illustrate estimated demongraphics and infant mortality rates. I draw some headstones and a sign saying "cimiterium" on the blackboard. Then I get 20 students to volunteer, giving each an index card. That card will either give a thumbnail sketch of a person who "lived" -- roughly distributed by the appropriate demographics, so most are under 30 -- or be a "death card." After the cards are distributed, I send all the death cards -- 8 of the whole, or 40% -- to the cemetery, explaining that these are the individuals who died in childhood. Moving bodies around in this way makes it real for them, though your exercise of making them think about friends and family is even more visceral.

  2. I'm very impressed by both exercises.

  3. Great exercises. It makes me somewhat sad that they're needed to impress upon my fellow students how devstating the plauge was in Europe.

    The Decameron is one of those I picked up on my own to read after hearing some many references to it while studying Chaucer.

  4. I'll be stealing/appropriating these as needed.

  5. Are there better and worse translations? Do you have a favorite?

  6. Excellent. I'll use your thought experiment if I myself can handle it without breaking down.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  7. The truth is, I don't know all that much about Decameron translations. The ones I read are Musa & Bondanella's and G.H. William's (because the latter is in the Norton Anthology).

  8. I am not an educator as many here are (though I am an instructor), but this exercise seems fabulous to me. What a great way of making that connection.

    As a writer, I find it easy to empathize with historical figures, but that's not easy for many -- especially given our media-driven lives which make phrases such as "hundreds dead or injured" casual background noise. This exercise is flesh and blood, rather than abstraction.

    I would have loved to have taken this class!

  9. Anonymous1:06 AM

    You're a clever guy, Prof. Nokes. I too will steal this exercise one day. Brilliant job!

  10. You totally did this to us in our Fall '07 "Love, Sex, and Marriage in Medieval Lit" class. You killed my mother. I have not forgotten the trauma.