‘Beginneth here the book called Decameron … wherein are contained one hundred novels told in ten days by seven ladies and three young men.’
Written between 1349 and 1351, Decameron is a collection of, not novels per se, but short stories, which taken together form a complete tale. Translated from the volgare – the vernacular dialect spoken in Florence at the time – Boccaccio was aiming his story at as broad an audience as possible, not just the wealthy elite, which was customary at the time. He also dedicates the book to women, which was extremely progressive for the time period. Through Boccaccio, for the first time, women are given recognition as creatures who are not merely vessels of lust, or ethereal beings akin to Petrarch’s Laura, but the same as men, capable of great sensuality, and more importantly, able to achieve nobility through love.
The ladies and gentlemen spoken of in the book’s opening line all fled Florence in an attempt to avoid the plague that wiped out a large percentage of the city’s population. Over the course of 10 days, a system of entertainment is devised to help them wile away the hours. Each must tell a story per day, each day having a different theme – a total of 100 stories in all.
One big lesson from this book is that absolutely nothing is new under the sun. Considered racy in its day, the stories cover a broad range of topics with three overarching major themes: amore, fortuna, ingegno – love, fortune and reason – and how these work together. Although padded with niceties and flowery language, and constrained by the acceptable writing practices of the time, the stories indulge us in early feminism, open marriage and some fairly sordid anecdotes.
The titles of the tales are as entertaining as the tales themselves. Filostrato’s story on day three, for example is: Masetto da Lamporecchio feigns to be dumb, and obtains a gardener’s place at a convent of women, who with one accord make haste to lie with him. Elissa’s story on the seventh day is called: Fra Rinaldo lies with his gossip: her husband finds him in the room with her; and they make him believe that he was curing his god son of worms by a charm. Priceless!
Boccaccio shows great imagination and skill in pulling this complex story together. Along the way we read about a jealous, incestuous father who cuts out the heart of his daughter’s lover; another is tricked into actually eating the heart of her lover; while another is murdered and stuffed into a chest. All is fair in love, according to Boccaccio, and if a young lady has an affair because her husband is old and stupid, then the affair is fully justified.
This is quite a massive book, but well worth the effort.