Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Plague Literatures

A dossier assembled by Geophrey Darrow and F. S. Ciccone.

This publication is part of a collaborative project devoted to analyzing the Italian philosophical response to the COVID-19 pandemic, developed in the Spring 2020 graduate seminar “Italian Thought: Inside and Out” taught by Laura Odello and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.

The response to crisis and disease is not only thought in philosophy but also, and just as importantly, in literature. Giovanni Boccaccio, Isabella Whitney, John Donne, Daniel Defoe, Albert Camus, and Don DeLillo are poets and novelists whose words are useful for thinking about epidemics, the relationship between epidemic and media portrayal, compassion for the sick, the difficulty of social distancing, and coping with illness and death.

From The Decameron of Boccaccio [1353], translated by John Payne (London, 1886)

A kindly thing it is to have compassion of the afflicted and albeit it well beseemeth every one, yet of those is it more particularly required who have erst had need of comfort and have found it in any, amongst whom, if ever any had need thereof or held it dear or took pleasure therein aforetimes, certes, I am one of these. For that, having from my first youth unto this present been beyond measure inflamed with a very high and noble passion (higher and nobler, perchance, than might appear, were I to relate it, to sort with my low estate) albeit by persons of discretion who had intelligence thereof I was commended therefor and accounted so much the more worth, natheless a passing sore travail it was to me to bear it, not, certes, by reason of the cruelty of the beloved lady, but because of the exceeding ardour begotten in my breast of an ill-ordered appetite, for which, for that it suffered me not to stand content at any reasonable bounds, caused me ofttimes feel more chagrin than I had occasion for. In this my affliction the pleasant discourse of a certain friend of mine and his admirable consolations afforded me such refreshment that I firmly believe of these it came that I died not.


Wherefore, to the end that the unright of Fortune may by me in part be amended, which, where there is the less strength to endure, as we see it in delicate ladies, hath there been the more niggard of support, I purpose, for the succour and solace of ladies in love (unto others the needle and the spindle and the reel suffice) to recount an hundred stories or fables or parables or histories or whatever you like to style them, in ten days’ time related by an honourable company of seven ladies and three young men made in the days of the late deadly pestilence, together with sundry canzonets sung by the aforesaid ladies for their diversion. In these stories will be found love-chances, both gladsome and grievous, and other accidents of fortune befallen as well in times present as in days of old, whereof the ladies aforesaid, who shall read them, may at once take solace from the delectable things therein shown forth and useful counsel, inasmuch as they may learn thereby what is to be eschewed and what is on like wise to be ensued, — the which methinketh cannot betide without cease of chagrin. If it happen thus (as God grant it may) let them render thanks therefor to Love, who, by loosing me from his bonds, hath vouchsafed me the power of applying myself to the service of their pleasures.

From Isabella Whitney ‘s “The Auctor to the Reader” [1573], in Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney, and Amelia Lanyer: Renaissance Women Poets (London, 2000)

This Harvest tyme, I Harvestlesse, and serviceless also:
And subject unto sicknesse, that abrode I could not go.
Had leasure good, (though learning lackt) some study to apply:
To reade such Bookes, whereby I thought my selfe to edifye.
Somtime the Scriptures I perusd, but wanting a Devine:
For to resolve mee in such doubts, as past this head of mine
To understand: I layd them by, and Histories gan read:
Wherein I found that follyes earst, in people did exceede.


And for to trye if that my limmes had got their strength agayne
I walked out: but sodenly a friend of mine mee met:
And sayd, yf you regard your health: out of this Lane you get.
And shift you to some better aire, for fear to be infect:
With noysome smell and savours yll, I wish you that respect.


And I went home all sole alone, good Fortune was my guyde.
And though she ever hath denyde, to hoyce me on her Wheele:
Yet now she stood me in some steede, and made mee pleasures feele.
For she to Plat his Plot mee brought, where fragrant Flowers abound:
The smell whereof prevents ech harme, if yet your selfe be sound.
Amongst those Beds so bravely deckt, with every goodly Flower:
And Bankes and Borders finely framde, I mee reposde one howre.
And longer wolde, but leasure lackt, and businesse bad mee hye:
And come agayne some other time, to stil my gasing eye.
Though loth: yet at the last I went, but ere I parted thence:
A slip I tooke to smell unto, which might be my defence.
In stinking streetes, or lothsome Lanes which els might mee infect:
And sence that time, I ech day have viewed that brave prospect.

From John Donne, “Hymn to God My God in Sickness” , in John Donne: The Complete English Poems (London, 1996)

Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

I joy, that in these straits, I see my west;
For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s Cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapped receive me Lord,
By these his thorns give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preached thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.

From Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (London, 1722)

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour died off again, and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true; till the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664 when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane. The family they were in endeavoured to conceal it as much as possible, but as it had gotten some vent in the discourse of the neighbourhood, the Secretaries of State got knowledge of it; and concerning themselves to inquire about it, in order to be certain of the truth, two physicians and a surgeon were ordered to go to the house and make inspection. This they did; and finding evident tokens of the sickness upon both the bodies that were dead, they gave their opinions publicly that they died of the plague.

From Albert Camus’s The Plague [1947], translated by Stuart Gilbert (New York, 1991)

The congregation, it must be admitted, was sparser than on the first occasion, partly because this kind of performance had lost its novelty for our townsfolk. Indeed, considering the abnormal conditions they were up against, the very word “novelty” had lost all meaning. Moreover, most people, assuming they had not altogether abandoned religious observances, or did not combine them naively with a thoroughly immoral way of living, had replaced normal religious practice by more or less extravagant superstitions. Thus they were readier to wear prophylactic medals of St. Roch than to go to Mass. An illustration may be found in the remarkable interest shown in prophecies of all descriptions. True, in the spring, when the epidemic was expected to end abruptly at any moment, no one troubled to take another’s opinion as to its probable duration, since everyone had persuaded himself that it would have none. But as the days went by, a fear grew up that the calamity might last indefinitely, and then the ending of the plague became the target of all hopes. As a result copies of predictions attributed to soothsayers or saints of the Catholic Church circulated freely from hand to hand. The local printing firms were quick to realize the profit to be made by pandering to this new craze and printed large numbers of the prophecies that had been going round in manuscript. Finding that the public appetite for this type of literature was still unsated, they had researches made in the municipal libraries for all the mental pabulum of the kind available in old chronicles, memoirs, and the like. And when this source ran dry, they commissioned journalists to write up forecasts, and, in this respect at least, the journalists proved themselves equal to their prototypes of earlier ages. Some of these prophetic writings were actually serialized in our newspapers and read with as much avidity as the love-stories that had occupied these columns in the piping times of health.

From Don DeLillo’s White Noise (New York, 1985)

There was someone sitting in the backyard. A white-haired man sitting erect in the old wicker chair, a figure of eerie stillness and composure. At first, dazed and sleepy, I didn’t know what to make of the sight. It seemed to need a more careful interpretation than I was able to provide at the moment. I thought one thing, that he’d been inserted there for some purpose. Then fear began to enter, palpable and overwhelming, a fist clenching repeatedly in my chest. Who was he, what was happening here? ... I didn’t know what to do. I felt cold, white. I worked my way back to the window, gripping a doorknob, a handrail, as if to remind myself of the nature and being of real things. He was still out there, gazing into the hedges. I saw him in profile in the uncertain light, motionless and knowing. Was he as old as I’d first thought — or was the white hair purely emblematic, part of his allegorical force? That was it, of course. He would be Death, or Death’s errand-runner, a hollow-eyed technician from the plague era, from the era of inquisitions, endless wars, of bedlams and leprosariums. He would be an aphorist of last things, giving me the barest glance — civilized, ironic — as he spoke his deft and stylish line about my journey out. I watched for a long time, waiting for him to move a hand. His stillness was commanding. I felt myself getting whiter by the second. What does it mean to become white? How does it feel to see Death in the flesh, come to gather you in? I was scared to the marrow. I was cold and hot, dry and wet, myself and someone else. The fist clenched in my chest. I went to the staircase and sat on the top step, looking into my hands. So much remained. Every word and thing a bead-work of bright creation. My own plain hand, crosshatched and whorled in a mesh of expressive lines, a life terrain, might itself be the object of a person’s study and wonder for years. A cosmology against the void.