While Chaucer wasn’t specifically responding to the Black Plague, Giovanni Boccaccio was. Chaucer took his inspiration for The Canterbury Tales – and some of the tales themselves – from Boccaccio’s Decameron, where ten young Florentines escape the plague to quarantine in a villa outside the city. To pass the time, the three men and seven women tell stories. While the stories aren’t about the plague, they do reveal a changing society, and changing roles for women. (The Decameron, however, does begin with a notoriously gruesome depiction of the suffering caused by Black Plague in Florence.)
To complete this unit, students will write personal stories from the 2020 pandemic that illustrate societal inequalities made visible when we all quarantined. Who were essential workers? Who did most of the shopping, cleaning, child care, and child tutoring? In what ways did the pandemic expose not only inequalities for women, but income inequalities, and racial inequalities – especially in light of the historic protests against the deaths of Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and the endemic racism that has sickened our country for over 400 years?
Melvin Konner points to research that shows that as women participate in politics, governments become more democratic and less authoritarian28. COVID-19 has also exposed lethal flaws in hyper-masculine leaders in America, Brazil, England, and Nicaragua, where their refusal to wear masks and model a righteous response to the virus resulted in skyrocketing cases and deaths, especially compared to actions of female leaders29.
As in the past, often progressive changes to our society come when wars and pandemics force us to confront societal corruption30. We can make changes to advance equality and justice in our world. My hope is that students will consider the power they hold to be the instrument of change that might come from this tragic moment in our history.