The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read this book—The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s mid-14th-century compendium of 100 tales told over 10 days by 10 refugees from the Black Plague in a villa near stricken Florence—in the spring and early summer of 2020 for the same reason everyone else did: its relevance to the illness of our time. I can’t, however, pronounce expertly on its time: I’m not a historian, not a medievalist. Still, the late Middle Ages, insofar as I can understand them, present a fascinating panorama, at once impossibly distant and uncannily close to postmodern times.
In Boccaccio’s presentation—and he was a merchant’s son—the 14th century, like the 21st, is a chaotic, non-national (pre- in his case, post- in ours), globalized world linked by commerce and cosmopolitanism, though divided by religion, language, wars, and, yes, plagues. The late medieval personae and settings are different from the postmodern ones: clergy in place of technocrats, princes in place of corporations, and a network of land and sea routes where fiberoptic cables now run. But Boccaccio himself, in writing a comic prose work that has, according to the scholar Robert Harrison, been called “a mercantile epic,” did much to prepare the way for our world. This is why periodizers hesitate over whether or not The Decameron is in fact a medieval work. Does it not rather herald the Renaissance—or, to use the exsanguinated but in this case more precise jargon of contemporary academe, the early modern?
Consider Boccaccio’s modernity as a fiction writer. Granted, his tales are borrowed from disparate sources—his era knew nothing of originality—and his structure is typically pre-modern in its perfect symmetries (10 stories each told over 10 days for a book of 100 parts) meant to emblematize, no doubt, the divine order of the cosmos, as in his master, Dante. But he addresses his prose fictions (“stories or fables or parables or histories or whatever you choose to call them”) focused on love and often on common life to an audience of women. As he writes in his Preface to the work as a whole,
For the ladies, out of fear or shame, conceal the flames of passion within their fragile breasts, and a hidden love is far more potent than one which is worn on the sleeve, as everyone knows who has experience of these matters. Moreover they are forced to follow the whims, fancies and dictates of their fathers, mothers, brothers and husbands, so that they spend most of their time cooped up within the narrow confines of their rooms, where they sit in apparent idleness, wishing one thing and at the same time wishing its opposite, and reflecting on various matters, which cannot possibly always be pleasant to contemplate.
Does this not, with apologies to those devoted to medieval alterity and singularity, anticipate the whole future course of western fiction from Richardson and Rousseau forward, to say nothing of Jane Austen, except that the later writers were not so ribald as to justify, the way Boccaccio does, female adultery as the necessary accompaniment of unfree marriage?
Then there is Boccaccio’s constant anti-clericalism. Story after story gives us hypocritical friars devoted not to God but to gluttony and lust. A tale-teller sums up the case against the clergy in one of several discursive imprecations that would have had Voltaire laughing along:
[T]he 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.
Similarly, the book’s persistent argument, shared among our 10 tale-tellers, that Fortune and Love are forces that rule earthly life, that overmaster the individual, and that deserve social accommodation, look forward to a world consecrated not to divinely ordained hierarchies but to individual choice and desire. For instance, the 10th story told on the Fifth Day: a wife is dissatisfied with her marriage—a motif of these tales, in which women’s sexual appetites are going forever unsatisfied by inadequate and impotent men. In this case, it’s because her husband is—again, mea culpa to the historicists—gay. He’s married her to serve as his beard while he spends all his time with his (also married) best friend. Bereft of sex, she decides she has every right to take a lover. At the story’s climax, her husband returns from dinner early—his male lover’s own sex-starved wife was discovered in adultery, interrupting the meal—and surprises her and her paramour. We know how Dante would handle this scenario: he would consign the adulterers to the second circle of Hell and the sodomites to the seventh. Boccaccio, by contrast, contrives a pleasanter solution here on earth:
[S]he and the youth and her degenerate husband made a merry meal of it together.
How exactly Pietro arranged matters, after supper, I no longer remember. But I do know that the young man was found next morning wandering about the piazza, not exactly certain with which of the pair he had spent the greater part of the night, the wife or the husband.
The biographical sketches of Boccaccio I’ve read recount his dissatisfaction with his father’s profession and his preference for courtly and aristocratic circles, but The Decameron very much suggests the latitudinarian and cosmopolitan worldview of the well-traveled merchant—the man who’s seen it all and is prepared not to judge any of it if there’s profit involved, a type opposite the cleric, who preaches the interdiction of desire while hypocritically monopolizing it for himself.
This analysis makes the work sound more cynical than it is, though. Many of the stories are admittedly crass and vulgar, though always written, if G. H. McWilliam’s 1972 translation for Penguin Classics can be trusted, in formal, elevated, and elegant language, with clever wordplay substituting for coarse anatomical description in matters sexual (as in the story about a monk who instructs a naïvely devout young woman how “to put the devil back in Hell”; the fasting monk eventually finds the woman’s appetite so difficult to keep up with that “it was rather like chucking a bean into the mouth of a lion”). Some of the stories, as in the cycle of tales about the buffoon Calandrino and the brutal tricks played on him by his “friends,” do make me want to exclaim with Nabokov, in his Lectures on Don Quixote, over the casual cruelty of pre-modern and early modern literature. Likewise, the contemporary reader may blanch at the perfectly offhanded portrayals of vicious wife-beating and rape (including the several-times deployed “bed trick,” which Anglophone readers will know from Shakespeare’s problem plays, likely inspired by Boccaccio himself).
But the more serious stories that linger in the memory, the ones that forerun the modern novel’s acute social critiques and psychological perceptions, dwell on the cruelty, especially to women, of a world where one’s choice of lover and spouse is dictated by familial authority. In perhaps the most powerful of these stories, the first of the Fourth Day, Tancredi, the Prince of Salerno, discovers that his daughter, Ghismonda, is having an affair with his valet Guiscardo (“a man of exceedingly humble birth but noble in character and bearing”). Tancredi imprisons and eventually executes Guiscardo, but not before Ghismonda delivers a remarkable speech, almost three pages long, pleading for the rights of youth, merit, individualism, and love as against caste and patriarchy:
“You are made of flesh and blood, Tancredi, and it should have been obvious to you that the daughter you fathered was also made of flesh and blood, and not of stone or iron. Although you are now an old man, you should have remembered, indeed, you should still remember, the nature and power of the laws of youth. […] I did not take a lover at random, as many women do, but deliberately chose Guiscardo in preference to any other, only conceding my love to him after careful reflection; and through the patience and good judgement of us both, I have been long enjoying the gratification of my desires. […] We were all born equal, and still are, but merit first set us apart, and those who had more of it, and used it the most, acquired the name of nobles to distinguish them from the rest. Since then, this law has been obscured by a contrary practice, but nature and good manners ensure that its force still remains unimpaired; hence any man whose conduct is virtuous proclaims himself a noble, and those who call him by any other name are in error.”
Even one of the most cruel stories, the seventh story of the Eighth Day, doesn’t so much revel in its inhumanity as invite us to query and examine it; its hero-villain, a scholar who elaborately and excessively revenges himself, unto outright torture and near-murder, on a haughty women who’d trifled with his affections, is a chilling portrait of the offended abstract intellect wed to resentment of life:
“So whilst I am not an eagle, yet, knowing that you are not a dove, but a poisonous snake, I intend to harry you with all the hatred and all the strength of a man who is fighting his oldest enemy.”
The overt moral of the story is “scholars—not all of them, mind you, but the majority at any rate—know where the devil keeps his tail.” English-language readers will be thinking of Iago and Milton’s Satan, of Poe’s and Hawthorne’s obsessives.
But we read Boccaccio in 2020 not for the psychological fictions at the heart of his book but for his opening exercise in social realism: for his depiction of the plague. “I am one of many people,” he writes, “who saw it with their own eyes.” He offers vistas of devastation. He observes how the illness invades the body in its most private places: “its earliest symptom,” he notes, “in men and women alike, was the appearance of a certain swelling in the groin or the armpit,” a grim fact that symbolically justifies the antic ribaldry to follow. He shows society crumble under the pressure of death, distrust, panic, and euphoria:
It was not merely a question of one citizen avoiding another, and of people invariably neglecting their neighbours and rarely or never visiting their relatives, addressing them only from a distance; this scourge had implanted so great a terror in the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and in many cases wives deserted their husbands. But even worse, and almost incredible, was the fact that fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, as though they did not belong to them.
Scholars say that these passages, too, may have been borrowed from other sources. In the days before originality was prized by writers and critics, due to the very individualism that Boccaccio portends, the author did not have to invent his own stories, images, or even words; he only had to arrange them in meaningful and beautiful patterns. This is the point of The Decameron: to combat the febrile, chaotic eruption of death in the natural and social body with images of the garden—nature tamed and ordered by human cultivation—where the tale-tellers repair to recreate in microcosm a lively civilization devoted to art and love.
As always, the critics weren’t satisfied. The book is too lewd, they said, and the book is too long. Or at least these are some of the charges Boccaccio rebuts in the excellent passages (the Introduction to the Fourth Day and the Epilogue to the work as a whole) where he replies to his detractors. These little essays defending literature against the censors—the pious hypocrites who don’t understand the delicate relationship between art and life, who live only to control and dominate others—do not so much anticipate our time as suggest how little has really changed. This, from the Epilogue, could be any of the handful of brave authors today standing against today’s plague of moralistic censoriousness:
[I]f any of the stories is lacking in restraint, this is because of the nature of the story itself, which, as any well-informed and dispassionate observer will readily acknowledge, I could not have related in any other way without distorting it out of all recognition. And even if the stories do, perhaps, contain one or two trifling expressions that are too unbridled for the liking of those prudish ladies who attach more weight to words than to deeds, and are more anxious to seem virtuous than to be virtuous, I assert that it is no more improper for me to have written them than for men and women at large, in their everyday speech, to use such words as hole, and rod, and mortar, and pestle, and crumpet, and stuffing, and any number of others. […] No word, however pure, was ever wholesomely construed by a mind that was corrupt.
I’ll end here, with Boccaccio standing his ground against the immemorial legion of moralizers and censors that all the years from 1348 until now have not slowed or stopped. I could say more about The Decameron, but no matter how much I say, I couldn’t possibly do justice to a 900-page book of 100 stories. Not all of them are as strong and memorable as the few I discussed above, but, as with all the best exceedingly long books, the length is the artistic statement. Here is the whole world gathered between covers, the author says—a life-affirming gesture in any age, timeless in any plague-ridden century.