Historians expound many themes and often disagree, but none can deny that a plague devastated Christendom in the first half of the 1300s. It was just when literature in the language of the people – – the ‘vulgar tongue’ emerged at the same time as the new nation-states of Europe. After the disintegration of the Roman empire from the fifth century onwards, a rough sort of ‘silver’ Latin became a means of communication among the educated, presumably as opposed to the ‘gold’ Latin of the masters of the ancient world, and of Virgil in particular, in which it was difficult to converse about everyday matters (it was difficult to say or write ‘yes’ or ‘no’ we were told at school when learning Latin) and particularly, to gossip.
The centuries from 400 to the Italian Renaissance in the early 15th century, are sometimes, unfairly, referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’. Could a luminary such as Charlemagne in the late 700s be consigned to an ‘age of ignorance’? When the Roman Empire crumbled, the vital means of communication throughout the landmass from Spain to Italy in the south and reaching north through France to the British Isles was the network of Roman roads, trodden by merchants and pilgrims to the rhythm of tales of feats and trials of war and others of love and romance. The word ‘roman’ was coined on the way to Rome, and at last, they were written down, first by Boccaccio in the middle of the 14th century, and later in the same century by Chaucer on a pilgrimage to Canterbury where the archbishop Thomas Beckett had been murdered on the orders of Henry II. Both relished the rough readiness and colour of the language they heard around them, Boccaccio in the mountains outside Florence and Chaucer along the way to Canterbury. Many such delicate, romantic and bawdy tales must have been told on such journeys, but Chaucer and Boccaccio actually wrote them down.
Dante’s Florence at the end of the 13th century was one of the largest cities and most prosperous cities in Christendom. He was the first to write a major work of literature in the language understood by the people who walked in the streets of his city. He wrote an epic poem; a generation later another Tuscan, this time Petrarch who was born in Arezzo, wrote love sonnets in the Tuscan dialect that became modern Italian, and his contemporary, Boccaccio, also wrote stories in the language of the man in the street. They were the pioneers of literature in the European languages.
In the Town Hall of Siena, the city that rivalled Florence, is a fresco, one of the earliest depicting the countryside, showing a group of men on horseback going out of the city gates on a hunting expedition with dogs and a hawk in hand. The hillsides are clearly under the plough to provide food for the expanding rival cities of Siena and Florence. But are the fields extending too far, the manure from the horses, donkeys and mules pulling the ploughs scattered too widely? Is that why in the early to the middle of the 14th century there were a series of crop failures? Granaries were built to store wheat and oats for the years when the crops failed. And then came the plague. Boccaccio and his companions, three young men and seven young women, fled the city of Florence for the surrounding hills where they went into voluntary isolation – with the necessary servants one imagines – but with no radio or television and a limited number of books. The printing press had not been invented so books were a rare and valuable commodity.
With time on their hands, each would tell a story. So they did. What strikes me more than anything else is how like us they are, with their sense of humour, delight in narrative and in challenging convention through their mischievousness. As I write this, I feel like them, seeking safety through isolation. I wonder how many masterpieces are being started right now behind closed doors in isolation like the company created by Boccaccio nearly seven hundred years ago?