Boccaccio’s Decameron

I’ve just finished read the Decameron, as part of my literary tour of the Florentine Renaissance, and I want to say a few words about my reactions to it in order to enlighten those poor, benighted illitates out there who haven’t experienced the joy of reading this book. I’m not going to say anything about Boccaccio himself or the book as a whole as you can look that up yourself.

The first thing the struck me was the lengthy description of how the Black Plague hit Florence only a couple of years before. Even across a gap of some 650 years, this is gut-wrenching stuff: people going to bed fearing they’ll wake in the morning to discover the first symptoms of their ugly and inevitable death sentence, bodies piled up outside doorways and on street corners, finding out the fate of one’s neighbours only when the stench of their rotting corpses overpowers the general stink of a city in arnarchy and social collapse. I thought the Lost Generation‘s poetry about the day-to-day experience of life the trenches in WWI was the pinnacle of horror until I read this.

This introduction on serves to make all the more artificial the escape of the young people from the city to estates where around in manicured gardens telling each other jolly tales of love and witty comebacks. I note is that the group doesn’t just stay in the one location during the ten days of story-telling. They move from a very comfortable country villa into the manicured garden of a neighbour and on into ever-increasingly artificial gardens. They move further away from the trappings of an admittedly idealised civil society represented by the villa to more and more imaginary landscapes. Contrast, for instance, the description of the idyllic pastoral fantasy landscape of the sixth day with the Black Death in the introduction. The group’s escape from the realities of the Plague is more than simply a physical relocation.

Each of the seven ladies and three gents has his or her own personality which colours the tales each of them tells. For example, Pampinea’s stories highlight the socially appropriate, Pamfilio can’t tell a tale without the conventional happy end, Dioneo just wants to mess with people’s mind and Lauretta can’t help point out the inferior legal position and the differential in structural power of the women in her tales . The songs that each character sings at the close of each day makes plain their agendas. I’m sure there’s a great deal of subtlety displayed in who chooses to sit next to whom each day but devining meaning there is going to require a second or third reading of the text and a whiteboard.

And then it ends. They all pack up and go back to the plague ridden city, say goodbye to each other and wend their separate ways. The Danny Boyle movie would have them confront the city abandonned and deserted (or full of plague-infested zombie – either way is good). The Edgar Allan Poe version would have the plague find them in their pastoral idyll making mockery of any attempt to escape. None of this happens. It just ends – and is followed a second essay in which Boccaccio justifies a) telling a whole bunch of bawdy stories, and b) writing a bunch of stories solely for the amusement of women trapped at home rather than for the edification and improvement of the (male) soul.

I was surprised how many of the stories centre on the hypocrisy of the clergy — not because I think they aren’t/weren’t hypocritical (afterall, the  Catholic church today quiet openly shelters paedophiles) but because the anti-clericism is so open. The two great reformers of the Church, St Francis of Assisi and St Dominic, had been dead more than 120 years at the time Boccaccio wrote but it seems their reform efforts had either been in vain or the Church had relapsed into it’s old ways. In this way (and in many others similar but too numerous to mention), you can gain a real understanding of how life at the time was actually lived in contrast to the shallow, one-dimensional view we’ve received late medieval life.

The other issue common to all stories the group tells is sex. All the characters in the stories are at it like knives. If they’re not avoiding someone’s advances, they’re making the advances or duping their wives and husbands so they can do it with their lovers. Priests cannot keep their cassocks on and wives bitterly complain of lack of bodily attention from their husbands. Although the strictures of the Church about sex and the medieval attitude of women as more susceptible to lust and other carnal desires are ever-present in the tales, they serve only to make the characters in the stories Boccaccio’s young people tell a little more discreet about their activities than they may have been otherwise. How closely the attitude to sex in the tales matches the social reality is a matter for debate.

This is a great book and repays many times over the effort to read it, especially if you can find the J.M Rigg’s literal translation of 1903.