The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio

by Giovanni Boccaccio

Other authorsRichard Aldington (Translator), Jean de Boschère (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 1930





New York : Garden City Pub. Co., c1930.


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.

Media reviews

magnifico! il terzo autore più grande nella trittica: Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio...che dire è colui che ho evoluto le novelli, generato romanzi, analizzato e intuito i sucessivi 500/600 anni. Geoffrey Chaucer ha copiato da boccaccio! altro che letteratura inglese! Geoffrey Chaucer is a copy of the Great Boccaccio! the England is china?
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In many of the stories, and more strikingly in the poems/songs which conclude each day, a close reader can also detect an allegorical element in which the soul is depicted as a lost lover, seeking to return to paradise. Originally a concept from the mystery religions, this allegorical treatment became very popular in the Middle Ages, particularly as an important aspect of the courtly love tradition.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jwhenderson
The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio was published in 1353 and demonstrates that the popularity of gross humor did not begin with the puerile teen comedies of our own era, but can be traced back to the middle ages and before (cf. Plautus and Aristophanes). I am in the midst of a reading of The Decameron using the translation by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella. Selected stories from the first three days have introduced me to a polyglot of defrocked Friars, larcenous ladies, and virgins whose virginity remains in the imagination alone, although they can fool the King when necessary (the Kings and Priests and Aristocrats seem most likely candidates for the title "fool"). Even in translation the humorous style shines through and it seems all great fun, as long as you don't think of the Black Death that hovers in the background and provides the raison d'etre (pardon the French, I don't know the Italian equivalent) for the tale-telling.

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.
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LibraryThing member browner56
The year is 1348 and the Black Death is plaguing Europe. To escape almost certain demise, seven young noblewomen, attended by three well-bred young male friends, flee the city of Florence into safety of the surrounding hillside. There, over a period of two weeks, they live a life of leisure, amusing themselves by eating good food, drinking wine, singing and dancing, and telling each other stories to pass the time. In particular, taking turns serving as king or queen for a day whose task it is to select a common theme, each of the ten companions tells a related tale that vary widely in nature from the humorous to the tragic to the ribald to, some would say, the blasphemous and heretical.

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.
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LibraryThing member Poquette
Giovanni Boccaccio stated in his prologue to The Decameron that these hundred stories were meant for the entertainment of ladies due to the fact that they had nothing better to do than assuage their boredom by indulging in the sometimes lascivious narratives. After all, a woman's role in the Renaissance was exclusively domestic, unless she had either chosen or been relegated to a nunnery. Not only as an entertainment, it was offered as a solace to those who were pining away as a consequence of Love:

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.
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LibraryThing member gbill
Humorous. Tragic. Bawdy. Violent. One might think that 100 short stories written 660+ years would be pretty dry, but on the contrary, these are full of life, earthy, and engaging. They reveal shocking aspects of medieval times, while at the same time describing things between men and women true today. They expose the corruption of the clergy, and this combined with the overall licentiousness of the book led to it being burned in Italy and banned for centuries afterwards, yet happily it survived.

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.”
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LibraryThing member shanaqui
The Decameron is obviously a hugely influential piece of literature (actually, it's just plain huge), so it's no wonder I'd get around to it eventually. I'm not a huge fan of Chaucer, really, but I did recognise a couple of the source texts he used in this, and I imagine that the choice of frame narrative for the Canterbury Tales might've been suggested to Chaucer by The Decameron. Certainly The Decameron was an influence, anyway.

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.
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LibraryThing member weikelm
As entertaining now as it was 700 years ago.
LibraryThing member Poindextrix
10 stories a day, 10 days. Boccaccio's often bawdy tales deliver his characters from the sorrows of the plague and allow fair, gentle ladies (his supposed audience) a literary escape.
LibraryThing member emclem
This translation of The Decameron is particularly good. More than anything, the translator really conveys the sense of playfulness that is present in Boccaccio's work, which in the hands of a less capable scholar might seem rather cruel and lascivious. The introduction and endnotes to this edition are also excellent. It's a great edition for anyone studying the work in translation, and also a good companion for studying the work in its original language.… (more)
LibraryThing member grheault
The book the nuns wouldn't let you read in high school. A collection of riotous short stories of sex, friars, nuns, maiden ladies, married ladies, cuckolded husbands, and cheating spouses in and out of windows, doors, and situations. This is where the modern sitcom originated.
LibraryThing member hbergander
Ten young people, fleeing from the pest-ridden Florence to a country house in the hills, invent tales to kill time. As each one has to tell a story every day, ten days result in a hundred stories. It is said, that this collection is the most important step to the development of the Italian literature. Besides this, it encloses realistic descriptions about the impact of the pestilence in the late Middle Ages.… (more)
LibraryThing member yasmine_d
The Decameron is a collection of 100 stories about various themes. Although I like the concept of short stories and most of the themes, it was just too much. I like short stories and stories about love but if you're reading 2 weeks in a book from about 730 pages about mainly romance you just get burnt out from it. There were also things that bothered me, especially things in the stories or the book. Like the woman who were always saying that the men were better, and that woman are not so smart and all... Oke that was probably the time spirit by then, but to read it now so often it's just annoying me.

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.
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LibraryThing member AlCracka
Suck it Boccaccio, I totally read your shit. Well, around 65% of it. I used a couple of different lists of "the best of them," and skipped any stories that weren't on either list.

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.
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LibraryThing member jrcovey
It's unlikely that I could say anything about the Decameron that hasn't been said before, but I would like to add my voice to the many who have praised the McWilliam English translation. His prose is hilarious where the intent is humourous, formal where appropriate, and in general both idiomatic and clever. The Decameron is a long read but comes served in bite-size narrative chunks, and it is never not entertaining. This might be one of my favourite Penguins ever.

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.
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LibraryThing member grheault
The book the nuns wouldn't let you read in high school. A collection of riotous short stories of sex, friars, nuns, maiden ladies, married ladies, cuckolded husbands, and cheating spouses in and out of windows, doors, and situations. This must be where the modern sitcom originated.
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
These are 100 short stories and like the earlier Arabic 1001 Nights or Chaucer's later Canterbury Tales told within a frame: Ten Florentine nobles, seven women and three men, flee the city to the country to escape the Black Plague for ten days. Each in turn is established as Queen or King for the day and sets a theme, then all tell a tale. This is fabulous stuff. One of those classics that isn't like eating your veggies, but having a feast. The stories are not just entertaining in themselves, laden with wit and irreverent humor, but are great pictures of life in Medieval Europe. Not often pretty pictures to our eyes--as when they show us misogynist or anti-Semitic aspects--although in neither case is it one-sided, and there are positive depictions of Jews, Muslims and women. Taken altogether, it gives us the bad, the good, the ugly, and only once in a while does it bring a modern sensibility up short with a Huh???

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.
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LibraryThing member Peppuzzo
A collections of tales. Smartness wins against prejudice and religion, love against cupidity. Literature wins over death, joy and laughter win against ignorance and desperation. A positive message from a great book. A book that created a language.
LibraryThing member JVioland
When the Black Death hit Florence, six people fled to an aristocrat's abandoned villa and while enjoying everything available, pass the time telling tales to avoid thinking of the Plague. A wonderful book.
LibraryThing member Anansi_in_Texas
This is a collection of tales told within a frame story of a group of young people who have fled Florence to avoid the plague.The frame story is quite weak and uninteresting, but the tales are great!
LibraryThing member Zohrab
The best I have ever read. An amazing tale of times that have passed but how true they hold hundreds of years later. Amazing how Giovanni was allowed to live after the things he wrote about church, sex and etc.
LibraryThing member julsitos2
One of THE best collection of stories about the Medieval period. Very funny and satirical. There's none of those Arthurian chivalry and etiquette. Instead, it talks about the bawdy and horny lives of ordinary people living during the plague. You'll read nuns having sex with gardeners, monks fornicating with postulants, a usurer perverting the confession, and others whose fortunes lost are now regained. Highly recommeded.… (more)
LibraryThing member carsonandreas
Utterly compelling and beautiful classic.
LibraryThing member jpsnow
The 100 stories within the story are generally entertaining, and the whole work provides a window into the 1500's. Most of the stories involve the sexual exploits of nobility and clergy, pranks and tricks between spouses and friends, and adventures abroad.
LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
100 days: 100 stories. The Decameron is a trip to the past, where the ravages of the plague run wild and twenty male and female nobles seek refuse in a villa to lament and to dream. This work encompasses the plight of an entire generation of people and, I felt, tries to garnish meaning from the absurd. The plague itself, I found, was a metaphor of the darkness of the world-- ever looming and closing in. Meanwhile, the stories are hope for the future. The description between all of the darkness that the plague encompasses, and all the loss prevalent in the stories, is paralleled by the facets of love that come through the anecdotes of life. There is so much love in these country tales, of people trying to find themselves through their own strife in an effort to change the world that they live in and try to make it better. Additionally, the book follows from inception of creation myths all the way to the intricacies of moral life and society. This was a different time, but the meaning still applies and remains the same. I believe that this is why the novel still holds up as a great literary achievement for the stamp of Boccaccio.

A fine read. I recommend it for those interested in deep, literary fiction of the past.
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LibraryThing member auntieknickers
I read most of these stories waiting in Logan Airport for a student standby flight many many years ago. They kept me awake all night and I'm sure they would be just as entertaining today in more pleasant conditions.
LibraryThing member shawnd
This seemed surprisingly contemporary to me for a book written in the Middle Ages. The stories were short and peppy and reminded me a lot of 1001 Nights, however the story recursion in Nights is missing here, which I think is better. Crisp, telling, with lots of life lessons and morals, it's very good. However the story topics are so similar that it's a little too tight and becomes redundant...I never made it past halfway through the book because I felt I was reading the same story over and over again with different city, character names, but same protagonist and plot.… (more)


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