From the Series: Decameron Relived
To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others.
—Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
It is a remarkable story that I have to relate. In early 2020, a novel coronavirus, Covid-19, spread across borders. As cases quickly multiplied—leading the World Health Organization to designate it a pandemic—the citizens of countries around the world were asked to stay home. This was deemed essential to slow the spread of the sickness, so as not to overwhelm yet further the healthcare systems. Many people across the world could not work, or lost their jobs, while some governments offered aid in different forms. As the pandemic was gradually brought under control in some parts of the world, other places became even worse affected. People reacted differently to the restrictions placed on them—some protesting in large groups, others redoubling their community support efforts and self-organizing. Without a vaccine or a cure, the future felt uncertain. The various forms of lockdown and self-isolation within households were and are in some ways not unlike the quarantines of the past.
“It is a remarkable story that I have to relate,” wrote Giovanni Boccaccio in the opening chapter of The Decameron, set at the time of the outbreak of the Black Death. Having escaped the plague in Florence, ten young people sheltered on a rural property, removed from the sickness and the imminent danger, telling each other stories over the course of ten days to pass the time. The stories Boccaccio included in The Decameron were not about misery and plague, but covered themes such as relationships, love, death, or greed, often with plots that were borrowed or which originated elsewhere. Decameron Relived is a collection of stories by anthropologists, with plots inspired by their ethnographic fieldwork, perhaps involving a reworking of the stories familiar in the field or their own personal experiences.
Living under lockdown in 2020 is of course very different, in some ways, from living through the Black Death in a state of isolation. The so-called “social distancing” measures across the world mean that we are often physically separate but able to keep social connections alive in other ways. This is not a collection of stories that ten anthropologists exchanged in the long days of lockdown, whiling away the time in the courtyard of a small palazzo, surrounded by fragrant flowers. Nor have most of us witnessed the confronting presence of dead bodies or the abandonment that Boccaccio describes. We are, for the most part, at some remove from the most distressing scenes, some of which might still reach us, mediated, via social media or the news. Our interlocutors and friends in the field, on the other hand, have in many cases been differently and perhaps more acutely affected, a sharp reminder of the challenging and asymmetrical dynamics upon which our discipline rests. Fortunate to be out of harm’s way, we wrote these stories in the safety of our homes. And while we did not have the chance to spend this time with each other or with our closest friends, and while the experience may have at times felt quite isolating, the stories offer companionship and open up a space in which we can come together.
As anthropologists, we often tell stories in our work: to introduce a setting, to illustrate a point, to “try to grasp the fragments of the real world” (Fassin 2014, 41), or to give readers a sense of what it feels to live a life in a particular kind of way. Often, our stories take the form of ethnographic anecdotes, or aim to capture the truth with fidelity (Byler and Iversen 2012; Jackson 2017, 46, 48). As I envisage it here, however, Decameron Relived is a release: both in the sense that the stories might offer some relief from the world of worry, even while enfolded and encased in it, but also in the sense of allowing ourselves to not be driven primarily by the imperative to “capture reality” or “do justice” to what we have learned or to the people who let us into their worlds, and instead to craft a different one, just for now.
Byler, Darren, and Shannon Dugan Iverson. 2012. "Literature, Writing, and Anthropology." Curated Collection, Cultural Anthropology.
Fassin, Didier. 2014. "True Life, Real Lives: Revisiting the Boundaries between Ethnography and Fiction." American Ethnologist 41, no. 1: 40–55.
Jackson, Michael. 2017. "Writing with Care." In Crumpled Paper Boat: Experiments in Ethnography, edited by Anand Pandian and Stuart McLean, 45–47. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.