The Decameron

This is the review I originally wrote for the book reviews section of my old Angelfire site, sometime in late 2003 or early 2004. Little did I know my belovèd site which I put so much time and effort into would one day be taken away from me without any warning just because some overreactive, obsessive, pathological pre-Vatican II wingnut happened upon something I wrote which was very critical of her own site and then proceeded, as she always does when she runs into criticism of her site on other blogs, message boards, websites, etc., to get her sycophantic friends all worked up about it. But I digress.

***

Adultery, deception, cheating, corrupt clergy, unchaste monks and nuns, domestic violence, rape, mistaken identity, palace intrigue, forbidden romance, premarital sex, practical jokes, bed-hopping, heartbreak, happy endings, tragic endings, transvestisism, sexual jokes and innuendo, murder. The stuff of soap operas, but also of an Italian version of The Canterbury Tales, written by Giovanni Boccaccio, a native Florentine who survived the Plague. The narrators in this collection of stories aren’t telling the stories as they’re on a pilgrimage, they’re telling them over ten days spent away from the disease, death, and insanity of their beautiful native city.

Seven young unmarried girls, Pampinea, Emilia, Lauretta, Neifile, Filomena, Elisa, and Fiammetta have decided to leave Florence for awhile to get away from the death-clouded atmosphere, and while gathered in a church find three young men, Dioneo, Panfilo, and Filostrato, who are willing to go along with them on their vacation and to serve as male protection. They spend their days telling stories, though while they’re away longer than ten days, they only tell their tales over that many days because some days are taken off for religious purposes. And what tales they tell.

The first chapter of The Decameron is truly gripping, as Boccaccio describes the havok, terror, and fear the Black Death has brought upon Florence and indeed all of Europe as well. Entire villages, cities, families, convents, monasteries have been wiped out. The dead are left lying in the streets for lack of people to bury the massive corpses; people are contaminated just by walking by a dead person; those who can get away have done so, sometimes leaving their families behind; it has turned husband against wife, brother against sister, parent against child, priest against congregant; there is no one left to confess to; women have to perform Last Rites if there are no proper men left to do it; drunken debauchery reigns among survivors at one extreme, people who think they’re all going to die anyway and should enjoy what’s left of life, and at the other extreme are the flaggelants, people walking the streets whipping themselves and proclaiming the end of the world is near.

People have no idea how the Plague came to Europe, no idea what’s causing it, how it’s spread, or how to even stop it. Everyone you might think of is blamed, and given the average European’s terrible hygiene at this point in history, it continued to thrive. Though in spite of this sheer terror, chaos, and fear, it’s actually kind of inspiring to think, as I read some time ago, that everyone alive today who’s descended from Europeans is here because our ancestors were strong enough to survive the Black Death.

These tales are really saucy and risqué, totally not what you’d think people were doing in 1348 or even earlier, for the historical and mythological tales. In these stories, practically everyone commits adultery, has premarital sex, commits crimes, deceives people, you name it. And the clergy come in for particular contempt, just like they do in many stories of the past several hundred years. And in this case it’s not done as anti-Catholic propaganda, but mainly because the clergy at that time really were corrupt!

Priests attempt to rob graves (only to get a huge shock when one of the men inside is very much alive!), nuns sleep with priests, monks and abbots sleep with local girls, a priest makes a vain woman believe the Angel Gabriel is in love with her so he can sleep with her, priests sleep with other men’s wives, friars and priests are deceived by false confessions, a priest makes a man believe he’s dead so he can enjoy his wife, and impregnates his wife while doing so, the list goes on and on. Some of the most risqué stories are the one where a priest tells his friend he can turn his wife into a donkey and the one about “putting the Devil in Hell.”

Though told at a time when women were second-class citizens, the stories contain plenty of strong female characters who know how to get what they want, get away with deceiving their husbands and fathers, enjoy sex both in and out of marriage, choose their own mates, get rid of unwanted suitors, and make fools of male characters. One of my favourites of this nature is the wife who attaches a string to her toe so her lover can pull on it at night to see if she’s available. The husband discovers this string while the wife is sleeping and is enfuriated, going off to chase her lover in the hopes of catching him and giving him a beating. His wife finds out he knows, and prevails upon her maid to take her place in the bed and get beaten and have her hair cut off by her husband.

After this brutal beating, the husband runs off to his mother-in-law and her sons, angrily telling them all about what’s happened. The mother stands up for her daughter, but her sons believe his story and they all run off to the house to find the wife calmly sitting on the steps sewing. There’s not a bruise on her, and when she pretends to check to see if her hair’s been cut while she was sleeping, she reveals that she also still has all of her hair. She tells them that often her husband’s out late drinking and she’s sitting up waiting for him like this, which really makes her family mad at the husband. She says she believes he did get in bed with a woman, beat her, and cut off her hair, but that since he was drunk, and probably still is, he believes it was her.

The mother urges her sons to exact revenge on the man, saying she had several great marriage prospects, but instead “you would have her married to this pearl among men.” The wife refuses to divorce him, saying she’s okay with this drunken behaviour, and the husband is left wondering if maybe he is drunk or he just dreamt everything.

There are still plenty of stories which reflect the sexist spirit of the times, though, such as in particular the story told by Emilia, where the moral is to learn to beat your wife so she won’t step out of line and disobey anything her husband ever says, and that women who do assert themselves and act contrary to anything their husbands say are a shanda [disgrace] to all women. There are also other stories involving wife-beating, such as one of the Calandrino stories. It’s scary to think that at that time in history, it was legal and considered normal to beat one’s wife.

In another Calandrino story, two of his so-called friends trick him into thinking he’s pregnant, and he yells at his wife in front of them, saying he told her not to be on top. It’s also hard to believe people once held such superstitious views about how sexual positions could influence the baby-to-be, or even how the man probably wouldn’t even think of being the one on the bottom. Other stories that don’t sit right with my modern beliefs are the ones where a man is madly in love with a woman who doesn’t love him, and coerces her into loving and marrying him and falling in love with him through (to the modern eye) unromantic and even kind of brutal means, even though she didn’t love him before he starting throwing his weight around. (Cimone and Nastagio of the fifth day, I’m looking straight at you!)

There’s also, as is to be expected, some anti-Semitism in the few stories with Jewish characters. One of the very first stories, in fact, is about a Jewish man, Abraham, who’s pretty much forced into converting by a so-called friend. The other man is horrified when Abraham (typically just called “the Jew” all but thrice during the story, as though he doesn’t have a proper name) announces his intention to visit Rome to see if he really should convert. He knows full well the corruption of the clergy in the Vatican, and is beside himself with despair, thinking once he gets a taste of the corrupt priests, Pope, and monks over there he’ll never want to become a Christian.

Disgustingly enough, he comes back convinced he must convert because he saw how corrupt the clergy was and is impressed with how Christianity continues to survive and thrive in spite of it! Pure Christian fantasy; the overwhelming majority of Jews who converted in the Middle Ages did so to gain social acceptance or for better work opportunities, not out of sincere conviction. If you really loved your friends, you’d leave them alone and respect their religion, not paint them into a corner and hound them about becoming a Christian and telling them they’ll burn in Hell if they don’t accept your religion. However, the Muslim character Saladin, who appears in two stories, is treated very respectfully in the latter of the two tales, and is indeed one of the two heroes of the story.

Nearly all the days have a theme, like tragic love stories, happy love stories, witty vignettes, love stories that began sadly but ended happily ever after, or women who got away with tricking the men in their lives. The only exception is Dioneo, who from the second day onward is allowed to tell a story on whichever topic he feels (sometimes on the topic of the day), on the condition that he always speak last. On each day, one of the ten young people is elected king or queen and gets to wear a crown of laurels. Each day closes with a song sung by one of them.

The first story I ever heard from The Decameron was from the fifth day, about people who began unlucky in love but succeeded in winning the object of their affections in the end. One of the girls in my tenth grade English class read it to us as part of her oral report on The Decameron when we were doing presentations about some topic in Medieval literature. It’s the ninth story, and about a man named Federigo degli Alberighi, who’s spent all his money trying to win over the noble Monna Giovanna, who doesn’t love him but another man. He’s become reduced to abject poverty before long, while Monna Giovanna’s husband, a very rich man, dies and designates his widow as the heir to his estate in case their son should die before reaching majority age.

During the summer she takes a holiday near Federigo, and her son becomes very much attached to him, but especially to his pet falcon, the only thing in the world he has left after spending all his money. The boy gets very sick and tells his mother the thing he wants most in the world is Federigo’s falcon, and she decides to ask for it. But seeing Monna Giovanna at his door, he gets very excited and decides to make a banquet for her. Unfortunately, the only thing he has for good food is his pet falcon, whom he slaughters and has cooked for his beloved. Needless to say, they’re both much distressed when she reveals her true purpose in coming and finds out she’s just eaten the falcon her son wanted so badly.

Soon afterwards her boy dies, and her brothers begin hassling her about remarrying, since she’s still young and has a lot of money. She tells them that if they wished it, she’d remain a widow, but if they insist she remarry, it will be to none other than Federigo. They find this deliriously funny, reminding her of how he hasn’t a cent to his name, and she responds with a classic line:

“I would rather marry a man in need of money than money in need of a man.”

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