The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron

The Decameron, written in the mid-14th century, is a collection of stories by the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. I was not previously familiar with the work nor the author, so it was a significant help to my understanding that the Penguin Classics edition of the book I read includes a preface and introduction by the translator G.H. McWilliam of well over a hundred pages, with about seventy more pages of explanatory endnotes. (The work itself is about 800 pages, so this is a hefty book of over a thousand pages total.)

Boccaccio was born in or near Florence, and lived most of his life in Florence and Naples. Many of the stories are set in the Florence area, but there are many set in other parts of Italy, and a few set elsewhere. Most are set in the present (i.e., Boccaccio’s present) or recent past, or are timeless fairy tale-type stories where precise place and time are not really relevant, with a small number being set back in the classical era of ancient Greece and Rome.

Boccaccio routinely mixes in real names, real events, real places, etc., and makes some pretense that these are true stories, but typically what he writes bears no more than a minimal resemblance to anything that really happened, and there are anachronisms galore, not to mention occasional supernatural occurrences. I assume even his readers back then did not think this was nonfiction.

The framing story for the collection of stories is set in Florence during the recent black plague pandemic. Ten young people—seven women and three men—decide it would be prudent to leave the city, since it has descended into a chaos of death, crime, and civil unrest. (These are fictional characters obviously, but the plague and its effects on cities like Florence were very real.)

It’s not a panicky flight. These are clearly idle people of means, so leaving the city just means hanging around for a while at a few of their luxurious estates in the surrounding countryside, where they are waited on by servants and spend their time eating and drinking, roaming around admiring nature, singing and dancing, and telling their stories.

It’s maybe intended to be a sort of Garden of Eden, an idyllic and innocent land, with the plague-stricken Florence they escaped representing the worst of the “modern” civilized world.

The ten people tell one story each on ten different days, over the course of fourteen total days, with, then, four days they skip for reasons such as not wanting to engage in such activities as storytelling on the Sabbath. “Decameron” is a pseudo-Greek word Boccaccio made up by combining Greek words for “ten” and “days.”

There are only a few pages about Florence during the plague, as Boccaccio gets his characters out into the country quickly so the storytelling can begin. Some of what he writes about that time likely comes from his personal observations, but you can’t just treat it as a journalistic account of Florence, as there are parts of it that he lifted from earlier accounts of plague in other cities.

When I read about things like the Black Death, I think about how differently people then must have experienced it compared to what it would be like now. I mean, consider how much they would have been in the dark as far as what was going on and how events were likely to play out. It’s sometimes hard now to get good information during times of some natural disaster or whatever, but that’s nothing compared to Boccaccio’s time, centuries before television and the Internet and such.

Not only would they have struggled to know what was happening at present, but I would think their knowledge of relevant history would be almost nil. Almost everyone back then was illiterate and had little or no schooling after all. I suppose a certain amount of historical knowledge was passed along orally, but would the common people living through this have any awareness that this disease or something very like it had struck various places numerous times over the centuries, and had typically killed between such-and-such and such-and-such a percentage of the population? Or would they just see way more people dying around them than they’d ever seen in their life and have no idea what to expect next? Was it commonly believed that with so many people succumbing to the plague that it would eventually kill all of them and that this was the end of the world?

I really don’t know. I’m just trying to put myself in the shoes of people with no TV, no radio, no Internet, no phones, virtually no knowledge of anything beyond a few miles from where they were born, illiterate and uneducated, etc. I mean, a few people could read and knew something about history and such, including the history of epidemics, but to what extent did that knowledge filter down to the masses?

Boccaccio came up with some of the stories himself, and in some cases he repurposed and modified existing stories he was aware of. Then in turn the stories of The Decameron were adopted and reworked by numerous other writers, including such big names as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Keats. (And Monty Python perhaps? I was tickled when I came across a story early in the collection about a hapless fellow who falls into the clutches of the Inquisition after being heard making an appreciative remark about how the wine he was drinking was “good enough for Christ!” (Shades of Life of Brian: “Look, I had a lovely supper. And all I said to my wife was, ‘That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah!’”)

McWilliam notes that while Boccaccio was a big admirer of Dante and always lauded him (Dante is from roughly the same era but a little earlier; Boccaccio was born a few years before Dante died), he wasn’t the religious moralist offering lofty prose to the elite that Dante was. He wrote in the vernacular, and his stories are for the most part far from pious. Which is not to say he was a sacrilegious hedonist who rejected all that Dante stood for; McWilliam regards him as falling somewhere around the middle between the Dante extreme and the anti-Dante extreme.

Having now read the stories, I’d agree but be inclined to slide him over a little ways toward the anti-Dante end of the scale. He tosses in the occasional remark that assumes the truth of the conventional Christian account of the world and especially the Christian moral framework, but overall this book is considerably raunchier than I expected.

I’m struck by how modern it seems in that respect, with all the sex and such. More generally I’m struck by how similar human nature seems. I mean, certainly there are differences between the characters’ worldviews and values and those that are commonplace today, but not to the extent that I would have expected.

I think sometimes the archaic language is what makes works from the distant past seem so remote and perhaps forbidding, like they’re depicting some other species from a wholly different world. But this translation for the most part reads like it’s a book that could have been written five years ago—which I’m very glad of. These characters talk like people, not like the, to me, often inscrutable poetic declaiming of Shakespearean characters and the like.

I have mixed feelings, though, about this evidence that people in the late Middle Ages, pre-Renaissance Italy were not drastically different from people today. On the one hand I suppose it’s comforting, the notion that however distant in time and place, people are still people, and it’s really not very hard for us to understand each other if we try. On the other hand, I suppose I’d like to believe that some sort of progress is possible, that the human race collectively gets “better” over time. In that sense, recognizing that people in 1350 were quite similar to us in terms of most of their ideas, values, mental capacities, etc. is a little depressing.

I mean, obviously we’ve made enormous strides in terms of technology and the like. But have we really made little or no progress in terms of our moral characters, reasoning abilities, priorities, and so on?

If I set aside the historical importance of The Decameron and assess it just as a collection of stories, it’s a mixed bag at best. Some of them are entertaining and clever, and plenty are duds. The ones that were least likely to connect with me were probably the ones where the climax of the story is one of the characters delivering some bon mot that silences and humbles their adversary. Typically I either didn’t even understand the allegedly brilliant line, or just didn’t think it was particularly funny or cutting.

Example: The King of France wants to get with the wife of some nobleman, so he invites himself to their estate while the husband is away. The wife puts on a big banquet in his honor, but serves only chicken instead of the variety of game one would expect. At the end of the dinner, the King remarks, “Madam, is it only hens that flourish in these parts, and not a single cock?” She immediately puts him in his place with the retort, “No, my lord, but our women, whilst they may differ slightly from each other in their rank and the style of their dress, are made no differently here than they are elsewhere,” and he realizes that she is a woman of virtue and slinks away humbled without getting what he came for.

OK, I guess. But I don’t get that line at all. Is she saying, “We’re not just a bunch of sluts around here, but are no different from whatever women you respect where you come from”? I don’t know. And whatever it means I seriously doubt it would do much to impede a horny king.

You do pick up a few interesting tidbits reading Boccaccio, like what prejudices were prevalent among the Florentines of his time. (For example, that the Genoese were misers, and that women from Pisa were “ugly as sin.”)

Also there apparently was a saying in Italian back then that literally translates as “out of the frying pan into the fire.”

As I say, Boccaccio here and there makes his little pro-Christian remarks. But that’s kind of about the faith in the abstract. In contrast, he typically has little good to say about flesh-and-blood church officials. The priests and such in his stories are at least as morally flawed as anyone else, with the added flaw of being hypocritical about it:

The story I propose to relate, concerning the manner in which a sanctimonious friar was well and truly hoodwinked by a pretty woman, should prove all the more agreeable to a lay audience inasmuch as the priesthood consists for the most part of extremely stupid men, inscrutable in their ways, who consider themselves in all respects more worthy and knowledgeable than other people, whereas they are decidedly inferior. They resemble pigs, in fact, for they are too feeble-minded to earn an honest living like everybody else, and so they install themselves wherever they can fill their stomachs.

But the knocks on organized religion are far less frequent in this collection than the sex. I’d say well over half of the stories have something to do with adultery, marital sex problems, rape, premarital sex, etc., or at least attempts to get sex. To “fall in love” is consistently used as a euphemism for to “lust for.”

Some of these stories are pretty randy. One of their recurring themes is that you really can’t blame people for following their (sexual) passions, regardless of if they’re married to someone else, etc., and that for them not to follow them would be contrary to nature. Here’s the conclusion of a story one of the women tells, about an adulterous relationship:

Then, each enjoying the other…, they gambolled and frolicked until they very nearly died of bliss…. After this first encounter,…they slept together no less pleasurably on many later occasions. And I pray to God that in the bountifulness of His mercy He may very soon conduct me, along with all other like-minded Christian souls, to a similar fate.

It seems like there would be much sexual tension in the air amongst these ten young people, and that they would probably act on it, given that doing so is sort of endorsed by the storytellers in their frequent remarks about how understandable it is that people give in to their lust. These are a bunch of young, healthy, single, attractive people of means in a jovial mood in luxurious surroundings with ready access to privacy and such; you’d think they’d be readily coupling up and enjoying themselves.

But they don’t. They enthusiastically endorse the sexual behavior of the characters in their stories, but only verbally, not by emulating it.

Is that symbolic in some way? Has their going off to this Edenic environment meant that while they can still recall and recognize what appealed to them as corporeal creatures of the world, they now exist on some higher, more innocent plane, where they are drawn to only less coarse pleasures?

For me it even got to the point that the casual acceptance of adultery became a little disturbing, even though I’m generally a very pro-sex guy.

But just as it frequently happens that people grow tired of always eating the same food, and desire a change of diet, so this lady, being somewhat dissatisfied with her husband, fell in love with a young man called Leonetto, who, albeit his origins were humble, was extremely agreeable and accomplished. He too fell in love with her, and since it is unusual, as you know, for nothing to ensue when both of the parties are agreed, not much time elapsed before they consummated their love.

It’s not that I’d prefer the finger-wagging about sex of some Religious Right buffoon, or even a puritanical Tolstoy, because my reaction wasn’t really that this is more pro-sex than I’m comfortable with. I’m more bothered by the violations of vows and commitments than by the sex itself. If two people had come together and made a solemn vow to share all their material wealth, or never go skiing except with each other, or adopt a goat together, and story after story celebrated how deliciously taboo it was when they violated these commitments, I’d be a little put off by that as well, not because there’s anything inherently objectionable about the actions themselves, but because they made certain serious vows and failed to abide by them.

At least one can say in Boccaccio’s favor that he typically takes a sort of feminist line as far as allowing at least as much sexual freedom to women as men instead of adopting the conventional double standards. (He’s certainly not consistently feminist though. His stories reflect and implicitly accept plenty of norms of his time that are grossly unequal in terms of gender, and there are some stories that especially manifest an ugly misogyny. More on that below.) In one story, for example, a wife is charged with adultery and openly admits it in court. Her defense is that women are hornier than men and have greater sexual needs. “[Women] are much better able than men to bestow our favours liberally.” The court not only rules in her favor, but the adultery law is changed so that it only applies when a wife is paid for sex.

By the way, speaking of sex stories, a frequent but highly unrealistic device Boccaccio uses is that of people being deceived when sex happens in the dark. In multiple stories, some guy, say, decides he wants to have sex with some married woman who doesn’t want him, so he waits until she goes to bed and turns off the light, and then he simply slips into bed with her and does whatever he pleases with her sexually, knowing she will assume it’s her husband there with her.

Think about that. What are the chances some stranger could get in bed with you and have sex with you, and just because the lights were off you’d have no clue it wasn’t your spouse or your boyfriend/girlfriend?

Anyway, as I say, story after story has to do with some kind of sex, generally illicit. Here are a few more that struck me for one reason or another:

  • A princess who is eagerly sought after due to her beauty is bounced from lover to lover as they kill each other, kidnap her from each other, die in unlikely bizarre ways, etc. It’s sort of presented as if she is being traumatized by her ill fortune, but it is told in a semi-comic way that leaves open the possibility that in fact she is to be envied. (Actually this one’s unusual, in that most such stories in this collection aren’t ambiguous at all in declaring that someone like her would be considered fortunate.)
  • An older man marries a younger, beautiful woman. Physically he is no longer capable of having sex often if at all, but not wanting to admit this he instead attributes their lack of relations to pious reasons, claiming that it’s a sin to have sex on the Sabbath, on any days on the calendar assigned to some saint or other, etc., leaving virtually no days where sex is allowed. She is kidnapped and ravaged by a pirate. She decides she likes it, and not only opts to remain with the pirate when given the opportunity to return to her husband, but gives her husband a verbal dressing down explaining just why she’s not coming back.
  • A scheming, horny fellow gets himself hired as a caretaker at a convent with ten young attractive nuns by pretending to be retarded, deaf, and dumb. One of the nuns seduces him. She is about to get in trouble with the abbess about it, so the caretaker sneaks in and has sex with the abbess too so she won’t be in a position to complain about the nun. As word gets out, he ends up having sex with all ten nuns and the abbess. When the excess becomes too much for him he decides to leave, but they persuade him to stay by working out a system of rationing such that they’ll each have their time with him without wearing him out.
  • A friar convinces a young naïve member of the congregation that their religious duty is to symbolically put the Devil (his penis) back into Hell (her vagina). She is reluctant at first, but soon enough decides that the best thing is just to keep forcing that pesky Devil back in there as often as possible.
  • A guy observes his wife cheating with his best friend without their realizing it. He later confronts his wife and makes her agree to his scheme to bring the guy into their bedroom again, and to then hustle him into a big trunk to hide when her husband returns. With his cheating friend stuck in the trunk, the husband brings the friend’s wife into the bedroom and seduces her, having sex on the trunk and forcing her hiding husband to hear it all. He then triumphantly throws open the trunk. But in the end, the four of them decide that rather than letting this be a source of conflict and competing attempts at revenge, they should just become swingers and swap spouses back and forth whenever they want some sexual variety.
  • A couple of prankster painters (who are based on real people, and pop up in multiple of these stories) team up with a doctor to trick a particularly dim-witted friend of theirs into believing that he is pregnant. He is understandably distraught over the news, angrily denounces his wife for insisting on being on top when they have sex (which is the only explanation he can imagine for how this happened), and laments where in the world the baby is going to come out given how painful giving birth is for women even though they have a far more suitable opening.
  • In an especially weird story, a woman in a largely sexless marriage (her husband is a notorious homosexual) gets advice from a wise old woman to cheat on him, on the grounds that a woman should have all the sexual adventures she can in her youth or she’ll regret it, and that whereas men have countless outlets for their talents and passions and such, women have only sex and childbearing. She adds, “A woman’s always ready for a man, but not vice-versa. What’s more, one woman could exhaust many men, whereas many men can’t exhaust one woman.” The wife takes her advice, but subsequently her husband catches her in bed with a lover. He agrees to let it go in exchange for him getting to have sex with her lover too. Although it’s basically coerced homosexual sex (since the alternative is for the husband to take his revenge, whether by killing the guy, turning him over to the law, or whatever), the lover seems more puzzled than traumatized by it—“The young man was found next morning wandering about the piazza, not exactly certain with which of the pair he had spent the greater part of the night, the wife or the husband”—and there is no disapproval from the storyteller nor the nine people listening, nor Boccaccio presumably.

Aside from homosexual rape, as I say it feels like a lot of the heterosexual sex in these stories is coercive or semi-coercive. In some cases it’s a matter of straightforward physical force, but beyond that the societal circumstances render even seemingly consensual sex not all that consensual. (I know radical feminists would contend that the same is true in the United States today and in most or all other societies, but if so it’s to an enormously lesser degree.)

Consider even marital sex. Marriages in these stories are generally arranged by the families, and the wife—usually a child at the time of marriage—is then required to be sexually available to her husband that she never chose. Leaving aside the fact that as often as not in these stories it’s the wife who doesn’t get as much sex from her husband as she wants rather than vice versa, how meaningful is her “consent.”

In contrast to the present day dogma that rape isn’t even about sex but about the violent exercise of power, the guys in these stories more often play down the coercive element. In contexts where they’re likely going to be able to make sex happen regardless, they still make a big fuss with gifts, flattery, elaborate seductions, etc. It’s like they want to make whatever happens feel as consensual as possible, even if in fact the woman’s realistic choices are significantly constrained.

I’ll close by noting four of the stories that stood out to me as having particularly bizarre or appalling messages:

  • Most of the days the ten friends are tasked with coming up with a story fitting a particular theme. In a story told on a day when they are to “recount the adventures of lovers who survived calamities or misfortunes and attained a state of happiness,” a guy falls in love with a girl, but her family arranges for her to marry someone else instead. She is put on a boat to be taken to her soon-to-be husband. The protagonist puts together a gang, gets a ship, intercepts the ship she is on, massacres a bunch of people on her ship, and kidnaps her. But then weather causes his ship to run aground, and he and his gang are captured by the forces of the nation of her intended husband. The magistrate imprisons the protagonist and the wedding is set up after all. But the magistrate is a corrupt guy who is in love with the woman whom the groom’s brother is supposed to marry in a double ceremony. He sneaks the protagonist out of prison on the condition that they then work together to abduct the brides. They kill numerous more people at the wedding, and take away the terrified brides. For a time they have to go into hiding, but the families of the protagonist and the magistrate are rich and influential enough that soon they smooth things over (what’s the big deal about a few dozen murders and kidnapping two brides out from under the noses of their fiancés that a few florins can’t set right?), and the couples are able to return home and get married, having presumably thereby “attained a state of happiness.”
  • A young man falls in love with a woman who turns aside his attempts to seduce her. Walking through the woods one day he comes upon a wild scene of a knight with his hunting dogs chasing down a woman and viciously slaughtering her. He tries to intervene, but the knight tells him that any such attempt will be futile, as they are both ghosts, doomed to play out this scene once a week forever for eternity. He explains that he was madly in love with this woman and killed himself when she refused him, and now he is being punished for committing suicide by having to murder his beloved over and over, and she is being punished for being a tease and not putting out by being murdered over and over. This gives the young man an idea. He invites the woman he loves and a group of people to the country where he knows they will witness this ghostly scene. That happens, and the knight again recites the explanation he gave the young man. The ploy succeeds, as the woman the young man is after decides that, you know, maybe he’s not all that bad an option as a lover after all. “[This] was by no means the only good effect to be produced by this horrible apparition, for from that day forth the ladies of Ravenna in general were so frightened by it that they became much more tractable to men’s pleasures than they had ever been in the past.”
  • A “scholar” (said in the notes to possibly represent Boccaccio himself, who evidently experienced a painful bout of unrequited love in his life and may have fantasized about getting revenge) falls in love with a woman, who not only does not reciprocate his interest but decides for sport to trick him into waiting for her all night in her freezing cold courtyard while she and a lover secretly laugh about it. The insulted scholar figures out he has been made a fool of and embarks upon an elaborate scheme of revenge, which he takes to such a sadistic extreme that he nearly kills the terrified and humiliated woman.
  • One of the storytellers—a woman incidentally—introduces one of her stories with a bunch of rigmarole about how women are naturally weak and inferior to men and only fit to be followers of men, and should be beaten if they get out of line, and for that matter beaten if they don’t get out of line just so they don’t even think about doing so. She then proceeds with her story, wherein a guy travels to the wise King Solomon to ask for advice about the conflicts he’s having with his wife. Solomon cryptically tells him to go to a certain bridge. He does, and there he crosses paths with a peasant viciously beating his donkey. He raises an objection in defense of the poor animal, and the peasant angrily tells him to mind his own business, adding that different creatures require different treatment to behave. (By the way, evidently Solomon is not only wise but clairvoyant, unless this peasant for some reason hangs out at this bridge all day every day beating his donkey and explaining to strangers why.) A light goes on for the fellow, who realizes now what he needs to do. He returns home, and the first time his wife talks back to him, he grabs her by her hair, throws her to the ground, and thrashes her nearly to death as she screams and pleads for mercy. After a long and painful recovery from her injuries, she becomes a good, obedient wife from that point on. And so another Boccaccio story has a happy ending.

There are things to like about The Decameron and Boccaccio, some entertaining stories, some respects in which he’s surprisingly enlightened relative to his times. But there’s no denying that he’s also a sick and twisted son of a bitch.

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