One Hundred Tales, One Great Masterpiece. The Black Death is upon Europe and the beautiful city of Florence. How can you escape it one must wonder? The 14th-century Italian writer came up with a solution in his masterpiece, The Decameron - story-telling. He gathered seven young women and three young men in a remote villa outside the city with one sole purpose, to tell 100 unique stories about humanity's great fortunes and misfortunes.
As I completed the days through to the tenth I was impressed with the fecundity of the tales, the breadth of the characters covering multiple vocations and classes, and the author's stylish ability to reach the reader - even in translation. These are tales that have inspired many writers as well as readers since the fourteenth century with good reason. With each tale I found myself looking forward with more desire for the next and now that I am done I am sure I will return to this humane writer.
Such is the clever narrative frame of The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s celebrated masterpiece of morals and manners in pre-Renaissance Italy. Of course, the charm and lasting impact of this seven century-old novel is not in its overarching concept but rather the content of the 100 short stories themselves. Several of these vignettes are very entertaining and enlightening, although it is also fair to say that not all of them are successful and there is more than a little repetition in some of the themes that are presented. Still, taken as a whole, this collection of stories is remarkable for its ability to engage the modern reader as well as provide an important glimpse into the thoughts and motivations of people who lived so long ago. (For instance, it turns out that the pursuit of fame, wealth, and a lot of sex is not an invention of the present age!)
Another point worth mentioning is that there have been many translations of The Decameron over the years and the one you choose to read matters greatly. I read the English language translation by G. H. McWilliam, which was produced in the early 1970s and appears to preserve the playful, lyrical quality of Boccaccio’s prose while presenting a complete and faithful rendition of the original novel. As McWilliam points out in his own introduction, previous translators have not always been as scrupulous, either omitting entire stories deemed to be too offensive to readers of that era or changing material details of some other tales to avoid incurring the wrath of clergy or government officials.
Finally, other critics have noted that many of the stories in this volume present an overtly misogynistic portrait of women that attributes to them an inferior set of qualities and characteristics. Judged solely in modern terms, that may well be true. However, in the context of the mid-14th century mindset, my guess is that Boccaccio was likely considered a feminist who championed the intelligence, cleverness, and emotional fortitude of his myriad female protagonists. Wherever the truth actually lies, this is a historically significant text that has managed to retain its ability to delight and amuse so many over the past 700 years.
I intend to provide succour and diversion for the ladies,
but only for those who are in love, since the others can
make do with their needles, their reels and their spindles.
If Boccaccio is to be believed, romantic love was like an epidemic, a scourge upon the earth, not unlike the plague that The Decameron's storytellers were in the act of avoiding.
These storytellers — ten in number, of which seven were young ladies and three young men — had fled the city of Florence in 1348, due to the plague that eventually reduced the population by half, to a locus amoenus — literally "delightful locale" — where the young people were transformed into nymph-like maidens and sylvan swains who entertained themselves by telling stories, ten a day for ten days over a two-week period. But the young women also represent the seven virtues (Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, Faith, Hope and Charity) and the men, according to the introduction, reflect the "tripartite division of the soul" into Reason, Anger and Lust.
One could go on and on about the frame alone. But as to the stories themselves, they reflect many things that are common in medieval literature. Boccaccio's sources for the stories were fables, old French fabliaux and histories. All but a handful were mere sketches with stock figures and farcical situations. He embellished them and converted various elements to suit his own purposes. The major themes that appeared in the stories concerned Love, Intelligence and Fortune.
Most of the stories are eminently forgettable, not much more than inflated jokes. A Renaissance reader would have seen them in an entirely different way than we inevitably do. For instance, the names of Boccaccio's characters in many cases were those of real people or at least referenced well known families. Many of the episodes would have read like a gossip column to a contemporary reader. Adversaries often reflected the contemporary conflicts between Church and State, Guelphs and Ghibellines, the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, or their various representatives. A 14th century reader would have read much into each story based on familiarity with distinguished family names and colorful local characters, and locales from Florence to Naples, Palermo to Athens. The notes are very helpful in identifying much of the lore underlying each story, but the facts still seem remote and the individual episodes seem improbable.
Readers who are caught up in medieval and Renaissance literature will find much to enjoy in The Decameron. Others may find it a bit bewildering and may not want to invest the time to read the 140-page introduction and the copious notes. Doors are open to a lifetime of study in this comprehensive Penguin Classics edition, if one so desires. A thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read for those who are intrigued by this sort of historical literary artifact.
The premise is that ten young Florentines have taken refuge in the country in 1348 as the plague ravages their city. Over the course of ten days, each tells us a short story, so that the collection includes a total of 100 stories in all. The plague was of course real and repeated over generations spanning hundreds of years in the medieval age; Boccaccio was 35 when it took the lives of 60,000 to 75,000 of Florence’s 100,000 inhabitants. It’s interesting to read his account of its effects, and how the Florentines carry a “a posy of flowers, or fragrant herbs, or one of a wider range of spices, which they applied at frequent intervals to their nostrils…” in the primitive attempt to safeguard themselves (recall the nursery rhyme ‘ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posy…’).
The book is historically relevant because of its age and its influence on others. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Chaucer was influenced by the Decameron (and possibly met Boccaccio) prior to writing Canterbury Tales 40-50 years later.
At the same time, it’s highly entertaining. I marked 41 of the 100 stories as being particularly good, a pretty high number in such a collection, and liked reading it to the end. If you think the modern age is the first to enjoy sex and violence, think again. The 10th story on the 3rd day, involving a hermit seducing a girl and teaching her about sex by likening it to putting the “devil” into “hell”, only to find her insatiable and having her wear him out was particularly eye-goggling, and there’s plenty of other ribald sporting about as well.
Boccaccio revered Dante and some have likened The Decameron as a “Human Comedy” to Dante’s “Divine Comedy”; that may be true, but all I can say is that The Decameron was far more enjoyable to me than The Inferno, which featured eternal suffering and torment. It’s quite an investment at 800 pages, but highly readable, and well worth it.
On art, from Author's Epilogue:
“Like all other things in this world, stories, whatever their nature, may be harmful or useful, depending upon the listener.
What other books, what other words, what other letters, are more sacred, more reputable, more worthy of reverence, than those of the Holy Scriptures? And yet there have been many who, by perversely construing them, have led themselves and others to perdition.
And the fact remains that anyone perusing these tales is free to ignore the ones that give offense, and read only those that are pleasing.”
On God, from Sixth Day, Ninth Story:
“However, Messer Betto had never succeeded in winning him over, and he and his companions thought this was because of his passion for speculative reasoning, which occasionally made him appear somewhat remote from his fellow beings. And since he tended to subscribe to the opinions of the Epicureans, it was said among the common herd that these speculations of his were exclusively concerned with whether it could be shown that God did not exist.”
On parenting, from Second Day, Eight Story:
“It was really quite unnecessary for you to feel ashamed about revealing it [the son's love for a girl], for this sort of thing is perfectly natural in someone of your age. Indeed, if you were not in love, I would think very poorly of you. Do not hide things from me, my son, but acquaint me freely with all your wishes. Get rid of all the sadness and anxiety that are causing your illness, and look on the bright side of things. You can be quite certain that I will move Heaven and earth to see that you have whatever you need to make you happy, for your happiness means more to me than anything else in the world.”
On religion, from Third Day, Third Story:
“...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.”
On sex, from Fifth Day, Tenth Story:
“I grant that you keep me well supplied with clothes and shoes, but you know very well how I fare for anything else, and how long it is since you last slept with me. And I'd rather go barefoot and dressed in rags, and have you treat me properly in bed, than have all those things to wear and a husband who never comes near me. For the plain truth is, Pietro, that I'm no different from other women, and I want the same that they are having. And if you won't let me have it, you can hardly blame me if I go and get it elsewhere.”
And this one which I thought was cute, from Ninth Day, Third Story:
“"Look here, Calandrino [a man], speaking now as your friend, I'd say that the only thing wrong with you is that you are pregnant."
When Calandrino heard this, he began to howl with dismay, and turning to his wife, he exclaimed:
"Ah, Tessa, this is your doing! You will insist on lying on top. I told you all along what would happen."
Lastly, on the “younger generation”, from First Day, Eight Story:
“And the man who is held in the greatest esteem, who is most highly honored and richly rewarded by our base and wretched nobles, is the one whose speech and actions are the most reprehensible. All of which is greatly and culpably to the shame of the modern world, and proves very clearly that the present generation has been stripped of all the virtues, and left to wallow abjectly in a cesspit of vices.”
The Decameron also inspired a song by one of my favourite singers, Heather Dale, 'Up Into The Pear Tree', about Pyrrhus and Lydia and their trick on Lydia's husband. It's a lovely song, playful and quite in keeping with the tone of The Decameron.
Despite its length, The Decameron is very easy to read. It's a collection of a hundred short stories -- or perhaps a hundred and one, if you count the frame story -- split into ten 'days' with the conceit that a group of ten young men and women meet outside Florence during the plague years, and to entertain themselves, they elect a king or queen from their number each day, who dictates a theme for the stories that they tell. The stories are quite similar at times, when they revolve around a specific theme, but overall there's a lot of different stories, often funny, and often to do with sex. You get the impression that no women in medieval Italy (with the exception of Griselda and Zinevra) were ever faithful to their husbands!
Being a medieval work, it's unsurprisingly not terribly good about subjects like rape or feminine strength. Sometimes it praises women to the skies and at other times blames them for what isn't their fault, or what certainly isn't a fault in all women. Still, it didn't make me uncomfortable most of the time, and there are plenty of clever and strong women in the tales as well.
The Penguin translation, by G.H. McWilliam, is extremely good, in the sense of always being very readable and entertaining, rather than dry, and this edition comes with a wealth of notes on context and on each specific story. There are maps and an index, too. Even if you're not reading this for study, it's worth getting -- perhaps especially so, because it explains things clearly no matter what your level of expertise on the subject.
Another thing was all the adultery that came in it. I almost began to think that true love doesn't exist anymore. And it was all written so excessively. The woman were the most beautiful of the world, and the men were the most bravest of the world. Sometimes it's nice to read that, but if in every story different men and woman are the best of the world.... Yeah..
What surprised me though was the critics in the book on monks and other religious persons. I thought they were very catholic in those days.
Over all it's not a bad book or so, I just think it's a book you should read once in a lifetime. And dosed, like 1 story a day or so. I rented the book from the library so I had to read it in a couple weeks and then it becomes just all too much if you have to read in it every day.
I've read a bunch of non-fiction books recently that at least touch on Italy in the 14th century, and I keep thinking, "Yeah, I understand this from Boccaccio." Corruption in the church, the role of women, the lives of the nobles and the common people... I get a better sense of these things from the Decameron than from the history books. So if Boccaccio's goal was to describe what life was like in his time, from every imaginable point of view, he has nailed it.
I thought about what it would be like if someone did a modern version of the Decameron - 100 stories from all kinds of perspectives on today's world. At its best, that would be pretty awesome, huh? Worthy of being a classic.
And that got me thinking more about all those stories about violence and rape. Because there are a lot of them, and they're often played as sorta funny and I haven't been sure how to deal with that, but it's true that Boccaccio's exposing the darker things that were happening in his time - along with all the other things. It's an unflinching tour, but it's misted by this irreverent tone that throws you off balance.
Apparently Boccaccio himself wasn't crazy about the Decameron, but I think it's pretty dope.
Not that I have anything to compare it to, but I found Michael Musa's translation easy to read and entertaining, modern without being over-modern. Thumbs up to that.
I've been reminded recently how grotesquely hateful the last story in this collection is, and I feel like it's a public service to warn potential future readers about it: it leaves a very bad taste in your mouth. Horrifically misogynist. Skip it - or at least read it out of order, somewhere around the middle, so it's not your last impression.
I started reading this after finishing the Penguin edition of Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend, with which it shares many plot structures and twists. But whereas the lives of the saints as told in the Legend are all within the framework of fraught religion, Boccaccio's basic framework is unfraught sex—definitely more fun to read.
My only slight regret is that I wish I'd read Dante prior to this, just to give me more of the source background. But I will for sure be adding The Divine Comedy to my reading agenda for the near future.
The book is nigh unkillable--although some translations can be rather dire. With Chaucer there might be good reason for reading if not the original Middle English, then something that hews close to it--but there's no excuse imo for "doth" and "verily" in a translation from the Italian, so you might want to scan some of the editions to make sure you find the prose amenable before purchase.
A fine read. I recommend it for those interested in deep, literary fiction of the past.