A Holiday from the Black Plague


In The Decameron, a group of 10 young people–three women and seven men–leave the city of Florence, where the black plague is running rampant, to vacation at a country villa.

The introduction to this 14th-century medieval Italian work of fiction, by Giovanni Boccaccio, tells how these young people pass their time–by flirting, keeping up the house, and telling stories. These stories are the substance for the rest of the book itself.

One of the first stories features a Jewish protagonist, Abraham, who wants to visit the Vatican to decide whether he should convert to Christianity. His Christian friend, knowing how corrupt and lascivious the Pope and his associates are, tries to talk Abraham out of it–to no avail. Upon Abraham’s return, however, he is ecstatic about converting. If Christianity can still thrive despite the debauchery of its leadership, he says, it must be the true faith.

Another story portrays Jews in a different light: A medieval emperor takes a loan from a Jew. He fully expects the Jew to charge a ridiculous sum, or to swindle him out of more money. In the end, not only is the Jew honest, but the emperor discovers a newfound respect for the Jewish people.

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