How this anthropologist found inspiration and quarantine comfort in a 700-year-old book

Inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron – a book of stories on fear, grief and humour amid the Black Death of the 14th century – anthropologist Iza Kavedžija’s story collection transports readers “into other worlds without leaving your own house.”

Writing project inspired by Boccaccio’s 14th century masterpiece on pandemic and resilience

Decameron painting Salvatore Postiglione (1861-1906) Scene of the Narration of the Decameron. ( Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this year, Iza Kavedžija was surprised at just how thoroughly the news was dominated by stories about COVID-19, even at the cost of other important international news.  

The London-based anthropologist learned her hometown of Zagreb, Croatia suffered a major earthquake in late March. But the story of that city's destruction - a capital city of a European nation - hardly received any coverage. 

Iza Kavedžija (Submitted by Iza Kavedžija)

 "I don't think it registered on anyone's radar," Kavedžija said. "The COVID news was so prominent, that no other news was getting through."  

Kavedžija decided to seek out other narratives -- and found respite in a book she'd first enjoyed as a teenager: Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron.

The 1348-era classic centres on a group of 10 young people who quarantine together outside of Florence to avoid the bubonic plague, telling stories to pass the time.

Reading it again, amid a global pandemic, Kavedžija felt a kinship with the group. 

And the sheer range of stories brought her relief. Boccaccio's Decameron is at times erotic, tragic, even "outlandish" and "absurd" in Kavedžija's words. For example, one of her favourite stories features a character Lisabetta, whose basil plant's rich soil is secretly fertilized by her former lover's buried head.  

Kavedžija was inspired by Boccaccio's idea and decided to create a new story collection.

"A new set of stories in this new isolation," she said.

She contacted 10 anthropologists whose work she admired, and invited them to write stories that draw on their research among communities in Mozambique, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Japan and others.

From their contributions, she created the online story collection: Decameron Relived

"Helpful thing for the soul"

For the project, Kavedžija asked the anthropologists to write a range of narratives, so readers could feel they were traveling or "going into other worlds," despite being stuck at home.

"I wanted something that was inspired by their own field work, but not necessarily fully faithful to the facts," she said. Kavedžija wanted to give her writers "a little bit of freedom" outside of their normal work. She invited them to write fiction that would still reveal truths they'd seen in their studies of cultures around the world. 

She hoped this would encourage readers to feel a greater sense of empathy for others – something she says is particularly important in a pandemic. 

"I think at times of difficulty and crisis, it's not at all helpful to focus on oneself and focus on one's own challenges," Kavedžija said. 

For her, being on the receiving end of the stories, the collection felt like a gift. 

"The stories kept me company in isolation," she said. "I think to look at other people's lives helps a lot in these circumstances. So being invited to empathize with someone else I think might be a helpful thing for the soul."



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.