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The Florentine Ceppo 21/12/2011

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c. 1910

At Florence, as elsewhere, [Christmas] is the season when presents are made by persons of means to their servants, tradesmen, and dependants of every kind. These ‘boxes’, as we call them, are known in Tuscanyas ceppi or ‘logs’, and the name shows that the Yule-log is a reality here, far deeper and more ancient than the show of seasonable holly and mistletoe laid out for the foreigner on the Lung’ Arno would lead one to suspect. These greens are a display unknown till recent years, but the Ceppo is an ancient local usage which deserves consideration. The name of the Ceppo is derived, almost without change, from the Latin cippus, the tree-trunk, and the log was great indeed which used to burn on every Tuscan hearth as each 24 December came round. Boccaccio, condescending for a moment from mythology to describe the habits of his own country and people, tells what was done at Christmas inFlorence: how the house-father laid the great log on the Lari, as the fire-dogs of the hearth were called in his day; how the family gathered about it, while their head called for wine, drank, and poured a libation from his cup on the glowing wood, after which the others drank in turn as the cup went round. Later authorities enable us to complete the scene, telling how the log was beaten to make the sparks fly up the chimney, and that the Florentines liked it large, so that when kindled it might burn long, even for days, without going out. Here then are all the signs which show the antiquity of a rite. The house itself, without further consecration than the presence there of the family, is the temple; the hearth the altar, and the father the priest. The Lari, or fire-dogs, are the Dii Lares of Roman household religion. The ceppo itself is a true and huge tree-trunk; it must be so if, as we shall presently see, it is to burn continuously for twelve days. One thinks of it as set on end, reaching high in the chimney and sinking gradually to the hearth day by day as it burns away from the root. Thus, behind Roman religion, we find what preceded it. The Ceppo is a yearly return to the original life of the woods, when the hunter’s fire smouldered from day to day in the root of the standing tree, and when that hearth, blown betimes to a leaping flame, gathered about it all the mystery and comfort that might belong to forest nights in winter: their encompassing fear and its sure, if narrow remedy. What we know of how this primitive religion developed in the definite worship of the Lares shows that the libation of wine at Ceppo, still used atFlorence in the fourteenth century if no later, represents an offering .to the spirits of darkness and of the underworld; perhaps to those of the dead.

Boccaccio on the Plague 20/12/2010

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The ‘plague’ introduction to Boccaccio’s Decameron, c. 1350

In the year then of our Lord 1348, there happened at Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible plague; which, whether owing to the influence of the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sins, had broken out some years before in the Levant, and after passing from place to place, and making incredible havoc all the way, had now reached the west. There, spite of all the means that art and human foresight could suggest, such as keeping the city clear from filth, the exclusion of all suspected persons, and the publication of copious instructions for the preservation of health; and notwithstanding manifold humble supplications offered to God in processions and otherwise; it began to show itself in the spring of the aforesaid year, in a sad and wonderful manner. Unlike what had been seen in the east, where bleeding from the nose is the fatal prognostic, here there appeared certain tumours in the groin or under the arm-pits, some as big as a small apple, others as an egg; and afterwards purple spots in most parts of the body; in some cases large and but few in number, in others smaller and more numerous, both sorts the usual messengers of death.

To the cure of this malady, neither medical knowledge nor the power of drugs was of any effect; whether because the disease was in its own nature mortal, or that the physicians (the number of whom, taking quacks and women pretenders into the account, was grown very great), could form no just idea of the cause, nor consequently devise a true method of cure; whichever was the reason, few escaped; but nearly all died the third day from the first appearance of the symptoms, some sooner, some later, without any fever or other accessory symptoms. What gave the more virulence to this plague was that, by being communicated from the sick to the hale, it spread daily, like fire when it comes in contact with large masses of combustibles. Nor was it caught only by conversing with, or coming near the sick, but even by touching their clothes, or anything that they had before touched.

It is wonderful what I am going to mention, and had I not seen it with my own eyes, and were there not many witnesses to attest it besides myself, I should never venture to relate it, however worthy it were of belief. Such, I say, was the quality of the pestilential matter, as to pass not only from man to man, but, what is more strange, it has been often known, that anything belonging to the infected, temper itself and partly from the fermenting of medicines within them. Others, with less humanity, but perchance, as they supposed, with more security from danger, decided that the only remedy for the pestilence was to avoid it; persuaded, therefore, of this, and taking care for themselves only, men and women in great numbers left the city, their houses, relations and effects, and fled to the country, as if the wrath of God had been restrained to visit those only within the walls of the city, or else concluding that none ought to stay in a place thus doomed to destruction. Thus divided as they were in their views, neither did all die, nor all escape; but falling sick indifferently, as well those of one as of another opinion, they who first set the example by forsaking others now languished themselves without pity. I pass over the little regard that citizens and relations showed to each other, for their terror was such that a brother even fled from his brother, a wife from her husband, and, what is more uncommon, a parent from his own child. Hence, numbers that fell sick could have no help but what the charity of friends, who were very few, or the avarice of servants supplied; and even these were scarce and at extravagant wages, and so little used to the business that they were fit only to reach what was called for, and observe when their employers died, and this desire of getting money often cost them their lives if touched by any other creature, would certainly infect, and even kill that creature in a short space of time.

One instance of the kind I took particular notice of: the rags of a poor man, just dead, had been thrown into the street; two hogs came up, and after rooting amongst the rags and shaking them about in their mouths, in less than an hour they both turned round and died on the spot.

These facts, and others of the like sort, occasioned various fears and devices amongst those who survived, all tending to the same uncharitable and cruel end, which was, to avoid the sick and everything that had been near them, expecting by that means to save themselves. And some holding it best to live temperately, and to avoid excesses of all kinds, made parties and shut themselves up from the rest of the world, eating and drinking moderately of the best, and diverting themselves with music, and such other entertainments as they might have within doors, never listening to anything from without to make them uneasy.

Others maintained free living to be a better preservative, and would baulk no passion or appetite they wished to gratify, drinking and revelling incessantly from tavern to tavern, or in private houses (which were frequently found deserted by the owners, and, therefore, common to every one), yet strenuously avoiding, with all this brutal indulgence, to come near the infected. And such, at that time, was the public distress, that the laws, human and divine, were no more regarded; for the officers to put them in force being either dead, sick, or in want of persons to assist them, every one did just as he pleased.

A third sort of people chose a method between these two, not confining themselves to rules of diet like the former, and yet avoiding the intemperance of the latter; but eating and drinking what their appetites required, they walked everywhere with odours and nosegays to smell to, as holding it best to corroborate the brain, for the whole atmosphere seemed to them tainted with the stench of dead bodies, arising partly from the distemper itself and partly from the fermenting of medicines within them.

Others, with less humanity, but perchance, as they supposed, with more security from danger, decided that the only remedy for the pestilence was to avoid it; persuaded, therefore, of this, and taking care for themselves only, men and women in great numbers left the city, their houses, relations and effects, and fled to the country, as if the wrath of God had been restrained to visit those only within the walls of the city, or else concluding that none ought to stay in a place thus doomed to destruction. Thus divided as they were in their views, neither did all die, nor all escape; but falling sick indifferently, as well those of one as of another opinion, they who first set the example by forsaking others now languished themselves without pity.

I pass over the little regard that citizens and relations showed to each other, for their terror was such that a brother even fled from his brother, a wife from her husband, and, what is more uncommon, a parent from his own child. Hence, numbers that fell sick could have no help but what the charity of friends, who were very few, or the avarice of servants supplied; and even these were scarce and at extravagant wages, and so little used to the business that they were fit only to reach what was called for, and observe when their employers died, and this desire of getting money often cost them their lives.