Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

As much as I love to read there are huge gaps in my literary education.  For example I rarely read books written prior to the 19th century.  Maybe I'm afraid that works written centuries ago will be written in a kind of old English that I won't be able to decipher.  But the great thing about the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) is that it is pushing me out of my comfort zone and so book seven on my classics list (choose a classic in translation) is one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated into modern readable English by G. H. McWilliam.

Literary scholars say that Giovanni Boccaccio probably conceived the idea for The Decameron in 1348 and completed the book in 1353.  The setting for The Decameron is Florence 1348 during the time of the Black Death, a terrible plague that Boccaccio lived through and which by some conservative estimates wiped out tens of millions across Europe and Asia.  Boccaccio paints a vivid picture in his introduction to The Decameron about the societal breakdown that occured in the midst of this pandemic.  He then introduces us to ten fictional young people (seven women and three men) who meet in an abandoned church.   Pampinea, one of the young women in the group, gives a rousing speech to the others as she suggests they leave the city of Florence with so much death and panic around them and head to the countryside:

"What are we doing here?  What are we waiting for?  What are we dreaming about?  Why do we lag so far behind the rest of our citizens in providing for our safety? ...I would think it an excellent idea for us all to get away from this city ... we could go and stay together on one of our various country estates, shunning at all costs the lewd practices of our fellow citizens and feasting and merrymaking as best we may"

Her friends think its an excellent idea as well and they decide that in addition to the food, the merrymaking, the dancing and the fresh air, they will spend their time telling each other stories centering around the subject of love and specifically the tricks lovers play so that they can be together.  These stories are also about fortune and how it smiles on some and not on others.  The ten young people will spend ten days in the country and each day they each tell a story, totalling one hundred stories that make up the Decameron.   To give you a taste of how ahead of his time Boccaccio was here is one story told by one of the young men in the group, Filostrato, about a woman charged with adultery standing before a judge:

"Sir, it is true that Rinaldo is my husband, and that he found me last night in Lazzarino's arms, wherein, on account of the deep and perfect love I bear towards him, I have lain many times before; nor shall I ever deny it  ... But before you proceed to pass any judgement, I beseech you to grant me a small favor, this being that you should ask my husband whether or not I have refused to concede my entire body to him, whenever and as often as he pleased ... Well then, the lady promptly continued, if he has always taken as much of me as he needed and as much as he chose to take, I ask you, Messer Podesta, what am I to do with the surplus?  Throw it to the dogs?  Is it not far better that I should present it to a gentleman who loves me more dearly than himself, rather than allow it to turn bad or go to waste".

And here is Pampinea introducing one of her stories and getting a few things off her chest with regard to the clergy:

"They go about in those long flowing robes of theirs, and when they are asking for alms, they deliberately put on a forlorn expression and are all humility and sweetness; but when they are reproaching you with their own vices, or showing how the layity achieve salvation by almsgiving and the clerics by almsgrabbing, they positively deafen you with their loud arrogant voices ... if only I were allowed to go into the necessary details, I would soon open many a simpleton's eyes to the sort of thing these fellows conceal beneath the ample folds of their habits".

Where Boccaccio is concerned no subject is off limits and the women in these stories are not shrinking violets.  They want sex and love as much as their partners do and very rarely is anyone punished in these tales for finding inventive ways to be together outside the bonds of matrimony.   Boccaccio has been called an early feminist and I think tnat is true.  He dedicated The Decameron to the ladies who "are forced to follow the whims, fancies, 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 ... wishing one thing and at the same time wishing its opposite".  But it's also true that in some of these stories Boccaccio proves himself to be a man of the 14th century.

I recommemd The Decameron and there are abridged versions out there which include only Giovanni Boccaccio's most famous stories.  You will find when you read these tales that in some ways people from the fourteenth century were not that different from you and me but then you will encounter stories that demonstrate that it truly was a different time.