The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron
Giovanni Boccaccio
Italy, 1350-53
Translator, Wayne A. Rebhorn, 2013

Several things spring to mind at the mention of The Decameron: plague, sex, and corrupt priests. While the latter two items are abundant in the 100 stories that make up the pages of The Decameron, there is less of the Black Death than its reputation might suggest.

Written in the mid-1300s, Boccaccio’s collection of tales has a strong framing organization that divides the tales into sets of ten, told over a series of ten days. Each day also has a introduction and a conclusion and an Author’s Preface and Conclusion round out the book. It is in the Day 1 Introduction that one of the most famous passages, that describing the effects of the plague–which devastated Florence, Italy in 1348–is found. Interestingly, according to the Introduction of the edition I read, many of Boccaccio’s details come from an 8th century work, Historia Longobardorum by Paulus Diaconus, although Boccaccio’s father was also involved in organizing relief for the Florentines and may have shared what he witnessed with his son, who is believed to have been outside the city at the time. (It is also interesting to me to learn that the plague still exists, but is readily treated by antibiotics.)  Regardless of the exact sourcing, Boccaccio’s description of the devastation caused by the plague and the subsequent civic and moral decay is harrowing. The gruesome infection, mass burials, abandonment of friends and family, abandonment of all social, moral and ethical principles–such was the state of 1348 Florence.

Moreover, since they themselves, when they were well, had set the example for those who were not yet infected, they, too, were almost completely abandoned by everyone as they languished away. And leaving aside the fact that the citizens avoided one another, that almost no one took care of his neighbors, and that relatives visited one another infrequently, if ever, and always kept their distance, the tribulation of the plague had put such fear into the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned their brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and very often wives their husbands. In fact, what is even worse, and almost unbelievable, is that fathers and mothers refused to tend to their children and take care of them, treating them as if they belonged to someone else.

Day 1, Introduction

Against this backdrop, Boccaccio sets his collection. A group of young Florentines, seven women and three men, feeling abandoned by family and friend, though yet healthy themselves, gather at Santa Maria Novella in the heart of Florence and decide to leave the city, embarking a few miles away to the countryside, to “hav[e] as much fun as possible, feasting and making merry, without ever overstepping the bounds of reason in any way” (Day 1, Introduction). This is the last the plague is mentioned, as we enter into a world of feasting, dancing, nature and storytelling.

Painting by John William Waterhoues of a group of young women and men  women in late Medieval/early Italian Renaissance clothing sitting in a garden and conversing.
A Tale from the Decameron (1916) by John William Waterhouse

It is quickly established by the young people that they will select a “queen” or “king” to order their existence on each day, with the first queen, Pampinea, setting the rhythm for the days that follow: they spend the mornings in gardens or meadows, a midday luncheon followed by music, dance and rest before finally gathering in a shaded spot during the hottest part of the day to tell their stories, one each. They deviate from the schedule only on Fridays and Saturdays for religious observance and personal hygiene. It is an idealized world they find themselves in, without intrusion of the outer world or its concerns. On one day, they visit a garden of such pristine beauty and isolation, that it seems as if it is meant to represent Eden. They are separate from–and we as readers in turn are separate from–all outside consideration or care.

Although on Days 1 and 9 the storytellers are allowed to give free reign to share whatever they wish, the remaining eight days are each themed, on stories ranging from tragic love to love overcoming all, from tricks played on others or wit employed against other to get something the trickster or wit desires to stories of liberality or magnificence of wealth and deed. Some are humorous while some are tragic. Intelligence and wit are roundly celebrated while foolishness and ignorance are punished or denounced. And yes, there is plenty of sex–and while early English translations altered or omitted some of the most scandalous tales, in general Boccaccio sticks with tame statements (embracing, sleeping with) or euphemism. I was put in mind of the bawdy humor of Shakespeare.

I was also reminded of Shakespeare by the style or themes of some of the tales, especially those dealing with lovers and confused identities. This isn’t perhaps surprising; although there were about 250 years between them, they had some of the same, or similar sources to reference, and it is believed that Shakespeare took a portion of the plot of Cymbeline from Day 2, Story 9 and As You Like it from Day 3, Story 9 (likely by way of a French translation).

What is perhaps more surprising–although not unprecedented, as Dante’s Inferno places not a few clergymen in the torments of Hell–is the number of stories featuring a corrupt or immoral priest, nun, or other religious figure. Clearly, even well before Martin Luther’s famous 16th century critique of the Catholic church, those outside of it–but still of the Catholic faith–saw hypocrisy, avarice, and lust within. (Which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising in an era in which the Church might be chosen as an occupation, not out of faith, but due to poverty or lack of other opportunity, or that might be chosen for a child by their parent.) However, the context of the stories–and especially within the framing introductions and conclusions–makes clear that the humor at the expense of the clergy is not reflective of any disbelief in the Christian faith, even if perhaps it expresses a cynicism at the honesty and integrity of the faith leaders.

At times the stories can feel a bit tedious or a bit repetitive. Although there is a wide variety of stories,  a group of 9 or 10 stories on a topic (the tenth storyteller, Dioneo, doesn’t always stick with the program) can sometimes make it feel as if one story is blending into the next. And even between the different topics, many of the stories somehow still end up about love (or lust). With 100 total stories, it is also easy to forget many of them by the time the book is completed. That is not to say there aren’t memorable stories. I especially found amusing the handful of stories from Day 8 and 9 that featured the (real) Florentine Calandrino. Portrayed in this context as a gullible dupe, his friends were constantly playing practical jokes on him. In general, in fact, the stories of Day 8 were some of my favorites, as many were amusing tales of tricks people play on one another, although there are other stories throughout that are laugh-out-loud as well. There are also some rather sweet stories in Day 2, of people who have suffered great misfortunes only to wind up with a happy ending.

However, we are also reminded that these stories are very much of their time–women as property, the nobility as far superior to those low-born (and therefore subject to different rules). Additionally, while most of the stories are grounded in the real world (if occasionally a bit far fetched), at times moments arrive that remind us that The Decameron was still a Medieval work, although one tiptoeing on the edges of the Italian Renaissance. We are starting to see the influence of learning and intellect, but there also remains the evidence of courtly love, chivalric behavior, and even on occasion a bit of magic.

There is another way The Decameron took me back in time. Many of the stories, especially in the second half of the book, are set in Florence, a city I know well, having spent four months there as part of my university course. The Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, near where our storytellers gather at the beginning and disperse in the end, is very familiar, as we passed through almost daily on our way to classes. An endnote for the third story of Day Eight sent me down a Google maps rabbit hole: it identified the location of Calandrino’s house as being near the corner of present day Via Ginori and Via Guelfa–which is where our apartment was (although in a 19th century building). Another story has the protagonist walking along Via della Scala, another familiar street: it was where our classes were located at the time. It was an unexpected jaunt down memory lane, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I picked up The Decameron as part of my libri Italiani project list, but also greatly inspired by Cleo’s (Classical Carousel) plans to read it this fall/winter. I’d previously read several of the stories for a college course, and it was fun to return to them. The edition I read was translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, and while I generally found it very readable, I did find his decision to use words such as “guy” and “buddy” to represent common speech a bit jarring. On the other hand, Rebhorn provided a contextualizing introduction and copious endnotes providing information on Boccaccio’s sources, translation decisions or explanations (such as puns that don’t translate), and historical background, all of which can be useful to the reader. (Depending on your reading preferences–I found reading each note as I came to it too interrupting, so I took to reading all of the notes for a story before starting it.) Generally speaking, regardless of whether the reader wants all that sort of extra material, this is a book where it’s perhaps best to use one of the newer translations (there are a couple to choose from), as the older editions are often incomplete or bowdlerized.