Washington State University
Boccaccio and the Decameron — Brown University’s Web Site is excellent.
Born in Paris as bastard son of Florentine businessman and Frenchwoman, Boccaccio was sent to Italy in his infancy. He later studied commerce and then church law. Commerce dealings exposed him to middle-class life. In 1336 he saw Maria d’Aquino in church at Naples and she became the character Fiammetta in several of his subsequent works. After a romantic affair, she deserted him and died of the plague in 1348. (She’s obviously the parallel to Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura).
After 1351 Boccaccio was influenced by Petrarch and turned from Italian poetry and prose fiction towards Latin scholarly works. Unlike Petrarch, he was devoted to Dante studies, wrote a biography, and was appointed chair or lectureship in Florence 1373. He died two years later.
Boccaccio’s Decameron (which means “Work of Ten Days”), was completed about 1353 and is the greatest prose fiction achievement in vernacular language of southern Europe during the late Middle Ages.
Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales some decades later, a dramatic framework is erected for the tales. Here it’s not assorted pilgrims, a set-up automatically dramatic (nor do we have here organic thematics, since here the structure is imposed), but rather the more static situation of three gentlemen and seven ladies (including Fiammetta) who are all cultivated, with no occupational biasses, and with polite rather than vital relationships among themselves. They retreat from Florence to a hillside and set up a court of pleasure and diversion to avoid the Black Death of 1348 (gruesomely described in opening; comparable to influenza in Europe, America and elsewhere in 1918-1919; but perhaps a fourth of population died in 1348 plague).
Each of ten members of the party is to tell a tale on each of ten days, sometimes in response to general topic, sometimes according to his or her own discretion (or lack of). This is established in the “frame narrative.”
The tales Boccaccio collects were possibly circulating as anecdotes or simple jokes before and after the Decameron. In this literary setting we experience social realism, a secular tone, and “lustful probing of human nature, its greed and sexuality,” as well as Renaissance resourcefulness and ingenuity. The work was enormously influential; but Boccaccio regretted its lack of gravitas later. (Perhaps the influence of Petrarch was responsible; but Boccaccio’s moral and religiously pious tone in his later years led even to his proposal to burn his earlier work, and it was Petrarch who persuaded him not to.)
The Decameron is notorious for the bawdy stories, and there’s a self-conscious addressing of the issue near the end (as Chaucer does also earlier in the Tales, as with Miller’s excuse).
THE FIRST DAY
The phenomena of the Black Plague and people’s reactions to it are described. So far, it sounds as if most of us are faring better and more sanely coping with the current plague in 2020, unless people truly are throwing Covid-19 parties together. Boccaccio lays out his narrative plan: all in the exclusive group will tell tales for ten days.
THIRD DAY, TENTH TALE
Young Alibech goes to the hermit Rustico and learns to “put the devil in hell.”
FOURTH DAY, SECOND TALE
Friar Alberto, to get to bed with the dumb Lisetta, disguises himself as the angel Gabriel.
FIFTH DAY, TENTH TALE
Pietro is gay; his wife’s lover hides under chicken coop, but an ass squishes his finger.
TENTH DAY, TENTH TALE
Patient Griselda takes Gualteri’s abuses. It’s a translation of a folktale into a sort of exemplum, rife with pathos. The hermeneutic difficulty is how to interpret this odd tale (as is the case in Chaucer’s version). (Patient Griselda shows up in the first act of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.)
Most interesting are the ways Boccaccio addresses issues of censorship.