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Teaching the Plague in Times of Worry: A Critical Look at Early Modern Literature in the COVID-19 Classroom

Alyssa Falcone
Youngstown State University

In the spring of 2020, the novel coronavirus manifested a global pandemic (COVID-19) large enough to require a complete shift in higher education. Students and educators had to adapt to digital classes; some universities faced complete restructuring and closures. Even before the switch to online lessons, difficulties persisted in the teaching of early modern studies, specifically the interplay between those centuries and ours, a productive link that is often hard to teach and hard for undergraduates to grasp. By relating my experience teaching Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (ca. 1351) and Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi (1840) concurrently at Youngstown State University at the onset of outbreak, this article will promote the possibility for facilitating the students’ understanding and processing delicate topics through compassionate, class-wide discussions of early modern literature. The pandemic has provided educators the opportunity to witness how students process a difficult event in their lives while reading about similarly difficult events in history. When students speak up about their fears and anxieties regarding sensitive issues, how best can we use literature, especially early modern literature, to navigate these topics?

Months before any news had broken about the virus, I had paired these two texts on the syllabus for a course I had titled “Literary Representations of Nineteenth-Century Italy.” The course is taught to fifth-semester Italian students, most of whom are Italian majors and minors but typically have not yet taken any literature courses as part of their undergraduate experience. My syllabus was broken into five modules, the second of which centered on Romanticism, and, with much to cover but not much time to penetrate any one part, I decided that when we approached Romanticism and Manzoni I would have the students read only chapter 31 of the Promessi sposi but, alongside it, also read the introduction to the first day of the Decameron, given that both works include historical accounts of outbreaks of the bubonic plague and detail the varied reactions of the Italian populace to its spread. The objective I envisioned for the students aimed to enable them, after reading both pieces, to compare the descriptions of the plague in both and, in so doing, gain a better understanding of historical representation of sickness across the centuries, in both a first-hand testimonial and a historical novel. The schedule happened to have the students meet Manzoni on 5 February and discuss chapter 31 of the Promessi sposi on 10 February, after which they were to read the excerpt from the Decameron which they would discuss following the historical lesson on the Black Death I would give on 12 February.

Even in the weeks preceding the module, students were voicing concerns at the beginning of each lesson about global health and the spread of the disease. Around the beginning of February, students began coming to class only wanting to talk about COVID-19 during our small-talk time. They wanted to know what I thought: Would it be something big? Would it affect our studies? Would they be able to attend summer study-abroad sessions? The situation was in its infancy then and much of what was being said was mere rumor. During one session of another course I was teaching on a topic far afield from the bubonic plague, we sat in a circle and talked openly about the situation. I invited the students to voice their opinions about the developing situation and express their feelings. The stress in the room was palpable and I started to wonder how talking about the plague affected the students in my Italian literature class.

When my literature students finally encountered the Promessi sposi and the Decameron, a few members of the class seemed to garner a sense of security from the words, while others reported feeling more anxiety. As an instructor strongly invested in my students’ mental health, I always consider the psychological effect that a text can have. So in early May I sent out a brief poll to my students asking the following questions, to which the possible answers were “strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree”:

  • ● Reading about the black death in Boccaccio and Manzoni this semester made me feel uncomfortable and/or stressed.
  • ● Learning about the black death made me think more about the developing COVID-19 situation.
  • ● I saw many parallels between the descriptions of the black death and COVID-19.
  • ● I wanted to skip class when we were talking about the black death.
  • ● Someone close to me was affected by COVID-19.


The short-answer questions were as follows:

  • ● Tell me more about your general experience this semester, in particular how you felt about COVID-19 and its consequences (i.e. its global outbreak, the shift to online classes, the stress it caused, etc.).
  • ● Did you feel more or less willingness to participate in classes after the outbreak of COVID-19?
  • ● Do you feel that your professors helped you during the outbreak of COVID-19?


The results were varied. While 60% of students in the class strongly disagreed that reading about the plague made them feel uncomfortable, 80% either agreed or strongly agreed that the same reading made them think more about the developing situation with COVID-19. Another 60% agreed or strongly agreed that they saw parallels between descriptions of the plague and the current virus. All indicated that they were very unlikely to skip class during these lessons. From these results, I concluded that, while the topic may have been difficult to cover, no students felt uncomfortable enough to want it excluded from class discussions entirely. In the short-answer responses, one student reported fear that they would be robbed after reading a description of looting and robbing that occurs in the Decameron. It should be noted that at this time many Ohioans were buying guns en masse to protect themselves from potential looters.1

After our switch to online classes, I decided not to change anything about my lesson plans or syllabus. I did not modify any parts of my schedule or readings, and I taught over Zoom as I regularly would in person. I felt that choosing to keep things simple would cause the least amount of stress for students. I kept the same lesson structure and, whenever possible, tried to integrate more introductory small talk (unstructured discussion at the beginning of each meeting) into my lesson plan so that students could articulate any anxieties they may have been feeling. As the course was conducted entirely in Italian, such articulation was not always easy. Some changes that did alleviate stress included more lenient departmental attendance policies and extensions to deadlines for assignments, which I implemented after a student called me to apologize profusely for being sick and for being late on an assignment. Another student disclosed that they were late on an assignment because their sister was an emergency room nurse, causing so much referred stress to the student that they could not concentrate on appointed tasks.

The very first line of the Decameron is an invitation to hold others, especially those most afflicted by illness, to the highest standards of compassion:

It is a matter of humanity to show compassion for those who suffer, and although it is fitting for everyone to do so, it is especially desirable in those who, having had need of comfort, have received it from others—and if anyone ever needed it or appreciated it or derived any pleasure from it, I am one of them.2

The author states that this compassion for others is a “human thing” and he has known the best of it himself. I have found that teaching compassionately, not only in times of uncertainty and tragedy, has led to more effective discussion and, overall, more productive lessons. Generally speaking, when students feel at ease (in this case, in the midst of disease), they will continue to learn. This is my greater objective in teaching: not simply explaining material on the syllabus but inviting students to think critically and learn about their own lives. By keeping in constant contact with my students and checking in on them at the beginning of each lesson, I was able to gauge their readiness for the texts that we would be facing each day and to adapt my future lessons to their sensitivities. Neither the Decameron nor the Promessi sposi comes with a trigger warning, but my students handled the assignment with grace and compassion toward others, and even toward themselves.

Alyssa Falcone is the Ives Visiting Professor of the Humanities at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, where she teaches Italian language, Italian literature and Italian-American culture. Her research focuses on spiritualized re-writings of famous works of Italian literature, as well as teaching literature and culture at the undergraduate level.

1 See, for example, Sabrina Eaton, “Gun sales soar in Ohio during coronavirus pandemic,” Cleveland.com, 15 May 2020, which links to FBI statistics for Ohio for March 2020. For a broader look at country-wide sales, see Keith Collins and David Yaffe Bellany, “About 2 Million Guns Were Sold in the U.S. as Virus Fears Spread,” New York Times, 1 April 2020.

2 Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. Wayne A. Rebhorn (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 1.

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