By Jessica C. Hume, Ph.D., Spalding MFA Alumni 2007
In the late 1340s, the Black Plague swept through Italy, shutting down entire towns and decimating the population. At the height of the Plague, many people fled highly populated areas to the relative safety of the countryside, hoping to avoid the devastating (and often fatal) illness.
Almost eight hundred years later, Italy is again faced with the ravages of a cruel illness which keeps citizens isolated from one another, but the effects of which have stretched across the planet. Roughly one month ago, my university closed our campus in anticipation of the oncoming wave of the COVID 19 pandemic. As I drove home with my baby son from Louisville to our little homestead in Anderson County, I couldn’t help but think of those fourteenth-century plague refugees. I thought I felt a bit like they must have. I don’t intend here to analogize the 21st century COVID-19 pandemic with the medieval bubonic plague, but I think they must have wondered whether their flight to the country would protect them, what would happen to the friends and loved ones in the midst of the chaos, when they would see them again, what would be left when they returned, and how the world would be irrevocably changed. I felt that way a bit, too.
As I drove home that day, the grief and anxiety like a heavy stone in my chest, I thought of Giovanni Bocaccio’s plague-era masterpiece, the Decameron. Boccaccio’s 1353 book recounts the experience of a group of fictional characters—seven women and three men—whom Boccacio calls the “Brigata” (Italian for “brigade”) who fled Florence to escape the plague. Surely, my fears and anxieties would have been shared by these urban Italian refugees. Notably, the members of the Brigata found solace, and created community, through storytelling.
In the Decameron, the art of storytelling fosters the bond of community among the ten main characters. Five nights per week, the group gathers. One of them (the “king” or “queen” for the day) assigns a theme or prompt, and each of the ten is obligated to share a tale which addresses that theme; ten nights, ten stories each night. Thus, Boccaccio’s book becomes a collection of stories shared by the characters during their long stay in the country. Throughout the collection, the voices of various tellers express frustration with the government, criticism of the church, eagerness for the populace to embrace new values of intelligence and wit (as opposed to piety, a value of the fading medieval times). Some of the stories are raucous, bawdy, and blue. Some offer moral lessons. Some are tales of romance and derring-do. Most of all, the stories show the tellers’ effort to express themselves about the frightening reality they face, and the fragility of the human condition.
“Sketch of St. Sébastien” micron pen on paper, Andy Golden, 2020
In the many centuries since the storytelling of the Brigata, the impulse to build community through sharing stories remains unchanged. As humans, it is in our nature to create and share stories. All day long, and through various media, we share the stories of our lives, inscribing our identities on the world around us, comforting ourselves and our loved ones with the soothing structure of narrative, as Rita Charon notes: “In an age of specialization and fragmentation, how satisfying to discover the deep, nourishing bonds that hold us together—storytellers all, bearing witness to one another’s ordeals, celebrating our common heritage as listeners around the campfire, creating our identities in the stories we tell” (Narrative Medicine, 11).
The anxiety I carried with me that day last month, that grief for my community and need for nourishing bonds to hold us together, inspired me to begin a project called “The Decameron Challenge.” Each day of the workweek—the Decameron specifies two days per week when the storytellers break for self-care—social media announcements share a prompt inspired by the themes taken from the Brigata during their isolation. Participants are encouraged to create something, anything—poetry, fiction, recipes, photographs, art—in response to the prompt and submit it to a shared Google doc. This series of prompts serves as our virtual campfire, offering community in times of isolation.
Already we have cycled through the ten days of prompts twice. In that time, an old neighbor from my childhood has posted a story about friendship and a haiku about toilet paper. A co-worker who is a necessary employee posted a funny picture of her car at work. Louisville artist and friend Andy Golden posted a piece inspired by the challenge on his Instagram feed. Fellow Spalding MFA grad Mari Beth Stanley shared with me that the project has jumpstarted her poetry again (check out Mari Beth’s “Origin Poem,” here).
Like Mari Beth, I have also found that the project has helped me come back to writing for the first time in a long, long time. In the face of sadness, it has helped me return to the creativity that strengthens me. But more importantly, it has brought me closer to the community that sustains me, the stories that sustain all of us.
Jessica C. Hume, Ph.D., graduated from the Spalding MFA program in 2007. She is an Assistant Professor of English/Interdisciplinary Studies in the Health and Aging Leadership Services department at Bellarmine University, specializing in health humanities.