Religion and Deception in Boccaccio’s The Decameron
The word “faith” in reference to religion emphasizes the uncertain nature of religion. By definition, if one is religious, they must trust and take a leap of faith to come to a conclusion about their gods, spirits, or idols. Faith is predicated upon the notion that there may never be undeniable proof about a certain religious figure or idea. Rather, one must believe regardless of shaky or nonexistent evidence. One must trust their religious institutions, the word of those with religious authority, or the experiences of those deemed to be trustworthy. This an idea the Boccaccio explores, tests, and violates his book, The Decameron, influenced by literature’s movement towards secular realism. When it came to religion, people especially in the time which Boccaccio wrote, had the reflex to believe rather than refute. Through the secular lens of Boccaccio, it is clear to see that this reflex sets people up for deceit. This theme that religion causes susceptibility to delusion can be best seen in key stories of the Decameron: the story about Saint Ciappelletto and the story about Friar Alberto.
In The Decameron, after the group of travelers have gotten settled as they flee the plague that has infected Florence, they begin to tell stories. The queen of the day, Pampinea, elects Panfilo to begin with one of his stories, allowing him to speak on whichever topic he prefers. Before embarking on his story, Panfilo spends a considerable amount of time talking about God, saying “everything done by man should begin with the sacred and admirable name of Him that was the maker of all things” (Boccaccio 68). He goes on for another page or so, describing the grace and good deeds of his god, describing him as “He from whom nothing is hidden” (69). This phrase is crucial, as it sets up early on in the narrative of both the story and the book as a whole God’s inability to be tricked or deceived. This not only underscores the character’s trust in God, but also prepares the reader to expect a great deal of trickery to occur throughout the book to which humans are susceptible. Panfilo continues, emphasizing that God’s omniscience regardless of the motives of the supplicant or ignorance of intercessor. Leading into his story, Panfilo says that all of God’s virtues “can clearly be seen in the tale I propose to relate; and I say clearly because it is concerned not with the judgement of God but with that of men” (69). By emphasizing the purity of God and inevitable inaccuracy of mankind, Boccaccio preps the reader to pay attention to how one’s own humanity in a religious context can lead to deceit or wrongdoing.
Following this preface, Panfilo begins his story with a man called Ciappelletto, which means little chapel, although his name was really Cepparello which refers to a log (70). It is significant that the main character of the story’s name means chapel, because we are led to dislike this character. He is described as a “mighty blasphemer of god and his saints”, specifically “cheerfully assaulting or kill people with his own hands” and “losing his temper on the tiniest pretext” (71). The irony that he has a holy name and being a bad person, while also serves a comedic purpose, also serves to show Boccaccio’s dislike of the church. If one imagines reading the Decameron in Italian, and the reference to a little chapel is painfully clear every time Ciappelletto’s name is mentioned, especially when in a negative context. It seems as though Boccaccio is priming the reader to carry a negative sentiment towards the institutions of religion, like a little chapel.
When Ciappelletto became mortally ill, he requested the “holiest and ablest friar” for his final confession (73). This request in itself is counterintuitive. If Ciappelletto was truly a bad man, why should he request the presence of a friar in the first place? Or, why would he ask for the holiest friar who would condemn him for his wicked life? The answers to these questions soon become clear, when Ciappelletto begins a series of false confessions which lead the friar to believe that he was in fact a deeply pure and spiritual man which contrast with his true personality. Ciappelletto’s trick quickly becomes clear as the friar believes his every word, praising “how nobly you have lived!” (74). The false stories which Ciappelletto tells about his life are bold. His “sins” are so overwhelmingly perfect; he says he is a virgin (74), that he fasted regularly (74), that he only loses his temper when people commit blasphemy (76), that he has never lied in the entire duration of his life (77), and so on. As good of a liar that Ciappelletto might be, it is hard to believe that a holy and rational man that we assume the friar to be would believe claims so brazen as these. It is even harder to believe when we remember that the friar practices in Burgundy, whose people are described as “thoroughly bad and unprincipled set of people” (70).
In order to understand why the friar was so eager to believe Ciappelletto and preach his saintly reputation one must recall the aftermath of Ciappelletto’s death. People were so excited about Saint Ciappelletto that “everyone thronged round the body”(80) at the church of the friar. People even “began to make votive offerings and to decorate the chapel with figures made of wax” (81). The church at which Ciappelletto was buried, the church of the friar, gained a great deal of fame. With fame comes people, with people comes increased reputation, and when the reputation of a church increases, so does the amount of offerings and money the church receives. This is where Boccaccio’s theme about the susceptibility to deception that religion induces becomes clear. The friar may very well be the “holiest and ablest friar” that anybody could hope for (73). Regardless, he so desperately wanted Ciappelletto to be a saint, knowing the fame that a saint at his church might bring, that he tricked himself into believing Ciappelletto’s audacious lies. His faith made him gullible to Ciappelleto’s trick.
The gullible behavior of the friar is not forgotten on the fourth day, when Pampinea prefaces her story by stating that she aims to “illustrate the extraordinary and perverse hypocrisy of the members of religious orders” (343). Her accusation continues, saying that “they are pulling a passive confidence trick, of which they themselves, if they really believe what they say, are the earliest victims” (343). This sentence directly applies to the friar in in the story about Ciappelletto, who allowed himself to be tricked into thinking he was in the presence of a saint, and whose religious authority impressed this lie upon people far and wide. It is also important to note that Pampinea applies the blame to the friar and those in charge of religious institutions, not religion itself. In fact, she looks to God, without the interference of a human or institution, to “punish [the friar’s] lies” (343).
Pampinea’s story also deals with a friar, however her friar is more forward about his intention to deceive. She introduces a “crooked” (343) man named Berto della Massa, who changed his name and outward persona to “the most Catholic man who ever lived” (344), Friar Alberto. He tricks a beautiful and vain woman named Monna Lisetta into sleeping with him by saying that the Angel Gabriel has fallen in love with her, so he’d like to use the Friar’s earthly body to fulfil his desire (345-347). Whenever he wishes, the Friar Alberto visits her in his angel disguise, and Monna Lisetta happily obliges.
Though the audience is not meant to perceive the lady Lisetta in the most positive light, she is introduced as “frivolous and scatterbrained” (344), we also must remember that she is a religious woman. She went to be confessed by the Friar who was held to be a one of the best friars available to her. Not only that, but her confession was thorough, as evidenced when Boccaccio writes that “she had only gotten through a fraction of her business, kneeling all the time at his feet[…]” (345). She was also particularly devoted to the Angel Gabriel, “she never failed to light a fourpenny candle in his honour” (347). This religious trait of hers is crucial when it comes to the deception she fell for at the hands of Friar Alberto. She had no reason not to trust Friar Alberto, nor did she have any reason to doubt that the Angel Gabriel might be in love with her, as she was devoted to him in particular. In fact, her vanity and devotion provided her great motivation to believe the impossible idea that an angel had fallen for her. She greatly wanted to be special and holy, so she allowed herself, just like the friar in the previous story, to be tricked. The Friar used his religious authority, knowing the expectations of Catholicism to make judgements of faith without irrefutable evidence, to deceive an innocent albeit “half-wit” (345) woman.
The first half of this story echoes the previous story discussed. The distrust of religious institutions, like Ciappelletto “little chapel”, and understanding a friar’s humanity allow this new story, that is so outwardly judgemental towards Catholicism, to take place. Different from the story about Saint Ciappelletto, though, the conclusion of this story is much more violent. When it is revealed that somebody disguised as the Angel Gabriel had been sleeping with Monna Lisetta, Friar Alberto is forced to flee. After a series of events, a man described exclusively as “honest” (351) tricks the Friar into walking through the town square on a leash covered in honey and feathers (352). Friar Alberto is recognized and ridiculed, the townspeople “jeered at him in unison, calling him by the foulest names and shouting the filthiest abuse” (352). In this story, justice is served, and the Friar is punished for his deception. It is important to note, though, that his punishment, although administered by an “honest” man, was dependent upon deception. Friar Alberto believed him in his desperation. This small part of the story is an important example of deception because it proves that people are deceived not because the trick played upon them was impossible to refute, but because they need to believe. This notion parallels and supports that those who want to believe, like people do with religion, are likely to be deceived.
The story ends when the other friars of the town came to save Friar Alberto by covering him with a cape and escorting him away (353). They then lock him in his room, and “there he is believed to have eked out the rest of his days in wretchedness and misery” (353). The friars did not publicly condemn him, nor did they kick him out of their church. Though he is not returned to his former glory, he is not convicted nor is he held as an example. The friar’s silence about the matter of his deception serves as an acceptance of his actions. Their responsibility for the outcome of the narrative is emphasized in the final line story, “[m]ay it please God that a similar fate should befall each and every one of his fellows” (353). It becomes clear that “his fellows” refers to the other friars in the story. By using the term “fellows” rather than something more specific, this condemnation can also be applied all other priests and friars who lie, deceive, and pretend to know the word of God. This is crucial because it solidifies the assertion that it is not just particular instances of trickery that happen to coincide with religion. Boccaccio clarifies that the institution of religion allows people to be tricked and makes believes susceptible to delusion.
That the word of God must pass through a human who is not immune to sin or mistakes makes instances like these inevitable. People are willing to believe because the very foundation of their religion is based on faith rather than proof. With this in mind, it becomes clear why it is easy and common to lie by preying on religious beliefs. This proven in the story about Saint Ciappelletto and the friar who wanted so badly for Ciappelletto to be a saint that he believed his outrageous lies. His point is further complicated in the story about Friar Alberto. By proving that not just supplicants can trick and intercessor’s believe, but a friar too can use his influence to deceive. This instance is, in some ways, more dangerous, as friars are supposed to be trusted. In each of these stories, Boccaccio refrains from criticizing spirituality as a whole. Rather, as emphasized by the condemnation of friars in the Friar Alberto story, Boccaccio’s criticism is directed towards the institutions, the friars, and chapel, (Ciappelletto). In showing his that religion and Catholic institutions make people susceptible to delusion, Boccaccio establishes the humanist theory secularism. This turn towards humanism, and therefore secularism, became crucial in the history of literature and academics. Through this secular lens, it is clear to see Boccaccio’s criticism of the reflex to believe in religious matters unquestionably, and how the practice of religion of the time and norms of religious institutions sets people up to be deceived
Dioneo: Narrator of Controversy in the Decameron
At the beginning of Boccaccio’s Decameron, both the male and female narrators hesitate to discuss the seemingly lewd topic of sexual relations. On Day I, the Florentines discuss various topics, yet only one narrator is brave enough to introduce sex as a theme: Dioneo. This male narrator quickly develops himself as the most daring of the Florentines, happy to push the invisible limits the group has set when it comes to sex. This gives him a particularly important role in the first half of the Decameron as he successfully encourages the other narrators to discuss illegitimate sexual relations. Having accomplished his goals as a narrator and mediator of discussion, Dioneo becomes less controversial and his stories less distinctive in Days VI, VII, and VIII of the Decameron in favor of a presence outside of his stories. Known now as the Decameron’s controversial narrator, it is Dioneo’s actions outside the stories that speak to us more on these days. Nonetheless, his role in the first three days of the Decameron are essential to developing the open discussion of sex and more taboo topics considered lewd in the first day, and to the fascination the ten Florentines have with various sexual illegitimacy. On Day I, Dioneo immediately stands out to the reader by discussing sexual relations with surprising openness. His story (I.4) introduces a monk and abbot, both guilty of having sex with a young peasant girl. The shock of this story comes first from our knowledge of both the monk’s and abbot’s supposed holiness. For monks, having sex is a grave sin, because it contradicts their complete devotion to God. The monk recognizes this “heavy penalty he had incurred”, which Dioneo also refers to as a “misdemeanour” (40). As holy men, both the monk and the abbot recognize the implications of their actions with the young woman, yet they appear to completely forget their devotion to God in favor of consistent sex.At this point, the narrators have only heard three stories previous to Dioneo’s, some of them potentially controversial. The first story, which speaks of Ser Cepparello’s defiance of Christianity, could certainly have offended the narrators. The female narrators, however, find Dioneo’s story more controversial than any of those previously heard because of its open discussion of not only sex, but forbidden sex. The three stories told before Dioneo’s received only praise and laughter. Dioneo’s story also receives laughter, but in addition to another reaction: it “at first caused the ladies some embarrassment, judging by the modest blushes which appeared on their cheeks” (42). The fact that the ladies’ first response is embarrassment shows the shock that this story gave them. We sense that sex is a sensitive subject for the women in the Decameron, which the primary narrator confirms when saying that “they had reproved him with a few gentle words, in order to make it clear that such stories should not be told when ladies were present” (42). After reading this, one would expect that stories of sex should stop completely, yet the effect is the complete opposite: sex becomes a subject of increasing interest for the narrators. By choosing to discuss illegitimate sex on the very first day, Dioneo has opened a vast new theme for the Florentines: a theme that perhaps overcomes all others. Already we can tell that he will play a major role in either initiating new discussions or discussing others.In the Day I Conclusion, Dioneo sets himself up as an essential character and storyteller when he requests to speak freely of whatever topic he chooses, and to speak last each day. He boldly defends this request to speak last by saying “so that no one may think that I ask this favour because I do not have many tales to tell, I am content from now on to be always the last to speak” (57). Dioneo takes pride in his storytelling, and is anxious to prove this to the others. He requests to tell his stories last to prove his aptitude as a storyteller. The Queen honors his request, “well aware that he only asked this favour so that he might divert the company with some funny story, if they should tire of the common theme” (57). By granting Dioneo this right, however, she essentially gives him a position of power that no one else, not even the King or Queen of the day, can have. Only Dioneo has the complete freedom to discuss whatever he wants, and he quickly takes advantage of this right. Interestingly, the Queen thinks that his request is simply to tell amusing and funny stories. While Dioneo certainly does this, he also has his own agenda: using his freedom to present stories that challenge the limits the group had seemingly set.Dioneo’s openness with sexuality on Day I encourages some of the narrators to do the same on Day II, but the majority of the female narrators still refrain from speaking of sexual encounters. Marilyn Migiel also recognizes this in her essay, “Beyond Seduction: A Reading of the Tale of Alibech and Rustico (Decameron III, 10)”, in which she says “on Day II, it is the three male narrators and Pampinea (never to be outdone by one of her male companions) who tell of sexual encounters” (161). Only the two other men and Pampinea—the oldest, most confident woman—feel daring enough to follow Dioneo’s example. Filostrato starts this with his scandalous tale of Rinaldo d’Asti (II.2), who has sex with an unknown woman already committed to someone else. Pampinea, after listening to Filostrato’s story, speaks of young Alessandro (II.3), who unknowingly has sex with the King of England’s daughter and then marries her. Panfilo speaks of Alatiel who hides her sexuality from her father and marries the King of Algarve (II.7). Looking back to the aftermath of Dioneo’s first story on Day I, we remember that he had been scolded only by the ladies. There was no mention of men, and thus we see the men (and Pampinea, who has challenged standard female gender roles from the very beginning) taking Dioneo’s side. They pursue a subject that the ladies see as taboo. Most of the women stay true to their Day I beliefs about sexuality in Day II by refraining from discussion of it. They tell funny stories that entertain the narrators, such as the day’s first story, and many encouraging stories that follow the theme of overcoming misfortunes, but speak nothing of sexuality. Nonetheless, the sexual stories that appear on Day II show that Dioneo has started to break down the foundations of modesty and what the Florentines consider appropriate for discussion.The tale of Alibech and Rustico on Day III is the peak of Dioneo’s importance as a narrator within the Decameron. By the third day, sex has become a common subject for the narrators, and almost all of them—both male and female—discuss it. The supposed modesty of the women on Day I has disappeared; there is no more scolding for stories of illegitimate sex, and the narrators consistently laugh in response to these stories. Migiel agrees, saying “by Day III, when the group moves to a lovely enclosed garden, the desire to tell stories about sex—but especially about illicit sexual relations—has spread like the plague” (161). Nonetheless, Dioneo still seeks to push the boundaries of their discussions, and he does so in his tale of Alibech and Rustico, which is perhaps the most controversial story yet in the Decameron. It overshadows any of the other stories of Day III in its blatant sexuality. The explicit metaphor of putting the Devil back into Hell as symbols for sexual genitalia, along with the subtle implications of rape and child molestation, pursues the notion of sexual fantasy and illegitimacy to a new extreme. It is not suprising that Dioneo has told this story, considering his position as the most daring of the narrators. Still, why has Dioneo decided to go so far in his sexual story? It seems almost as if at this point, it is a competition: who can create the most scandalous story? After the majority of the stories discuss illicit sex in Day III, only Dioneo is left, and since he was the one that began these sexual stories, he must take his one step further to show his leadership in the matter. As a result, the tale of Alibech and Rustico proves to be extremely lewd and unethical in nature, and we still consider Dioneo the most daring and controversial of the narrators.After Day III, however, Dioneo’s role as storyteller progressively becomes less important as others begin to tell more controversial stories in his place. On Day IV Dioneo tells the story of a doctor’s wife and her lover. Following his previous trend, he should have spoken openly about their sexual encounter, yet Dioneo barely mentions it. He says only that they “enjoyed themselves” (290), which is so quickly mentioned that one easily misses it (as I had done reading it the first time, thinking that he refrains entirely from sexual discussion). The subtlety of this sexual encounter is surprising, mostly because previously Dioneo would speak extensively of sex. Day IV’s sexual subtlety shows a new Dioneo: a narrator that perhaps will not always speak openly and controversially about sexuality, which foreshadows his position as a figure outside the frametale more than a storyteller on Days VI, VII, and VIII. He has already pushed the group into speaking as freely as he does in regards to sex, so even though he continues his previous themes of illegitimate sex in his Day V story, we see from Day IV that Dioneo begins to refrain.On Day V, Dioneo reminds us of his earlier role in the Decameron when the Queen asks him to sing a song in the Conclusion. The other narrators, when asked, would simply begin singing with no question. Dioneo however, presents quite a challenge to the Queen (Fiammetta) when he refuses to take her seriously and chooses to make a joke out of the question. He offers the Queen only crude songs, to which she responds initially with laughter but then grows increasingly annoyed. Dioneo suggests songs such as “‘Monna Aldruda, come, lift up your tail, The news that I bring you will please you no end’” (361), a blatantly obscene song. He also offers many other songs of the same nature. In this section of the Decameron, we see Dioneo as we remember him in the first three days: one that is not afraid to push boundaries when it comes to the ladies’ sexual modesty. We also see that Dioneo loves the attention he receives, because the ladies’ laughter only encourages him to continue offering his bawdy songs. He ends up singing a more serious love song, however, because the Queen forbids him to continue with his silliness. This shows that while the ladies have become more accepting of sexual fantasies within the stories, they are not eager to continue such discussions outside of their tales. It seems that Dioneo has reached his limit with sexuality here, which perhaps explains why he finally settles with a serious love song. This love song marks Dioneo’s transition from controversial storyteller to a controversial figure within the frametale.Between Days VI and VIII, we see that Dioneo has left his previous role of narrating particularly controversial stories, and instead he now stands out to us outside of his stories, especially when becoming King on Day VII. His choice of theme immediately elicits a response from some of the ladies: “tricks which, either for love or for their own preservation, ladies have in the past played upon their husbands, with or without their husbands’ knowledge” (391). By choosing this theme, Dioneo almost asks for stories of illicit sex. These tricks include only husbands, not men in general, which means that the women of the stories will commit major sins against their husbands even for just playing tricks on theme. The reaction of the ladies reminds us of Dioneo’s familiarity with controversy. Several of them protest this choice so much that Dioneo feels the need to give a speech just to settle the matter. In his speech, Dioneo again challenges the modesty of the women. He says “if your modesty permits you a little freedom in your speech, not in order to encourage anything improper but merely to amuse yourselves and others” (391). Dioneo continuously wants the women to challenge their own modesty and to follow his own example in speaking freely simply for amusement. By picking such a controversial subject for Day VII, the female narrators can do so.Looking at Days IX and X, we find that Dioneo’s preoccupation with being a figure within the frametale has disappeared in favor of controversial storytelling again. We know that his stories on Days VI, VII, and VIII are not particularly controversial, yet on Day IX and X his stories pick up again on controversy. Dioneo’s story on Day IX harkens back to his story of Alibech and Rustico on Day III: a religious figure preys on an unsuspecting woman for sex, using a metaphor to mask the true nature of the situation. In this story, we find the metaphor to be turning Gemmata into a “fine mare’s head” (567) using a tail (an obvious metaphor for his sexual organs). The controversy again comes from the fact that Gemmata does not understand Don Gianni is taking advantage of her sexually, similar to Alibech with the Devil and Hell metaphors. Since we know that III.10 was very controversial in the beginning of the Decameron, Dioneo follows a similar theme and reminds us of his role as a storyteller. When Dioneo finally ends the storytelling of the Decameron and his role as storyteller with another controversial story (X.10, discussing the Marquis of Saluzzo and his cruelty), we see that he has returned as the Decameron’s iconic storyteller of controversy. By making these last two stories controversial, Dioneo wants to leave a legacy both for the narrators and for the readers. He wants us to perceive him as the most controversial narrator of the Decameron.We see from all of this that Dioneo’s goal is to motivate the women to speak as freely as he does. When the women finally do so, he changes his role into a figure within the frametale, but then returns to controversial storytelling to create his own image as the Decameron’s most dramatic narrator. Having started the tales of illegitimate sex, Dioneo pushes these boundaries not only because he enjoys pushing boundaries, but also because he wants the women to speak more freely. We see that Dioneo does not like modesty, both from his stories and from how he encourages the women to ignore their modest tendencies. In the second half of the Decameron, many of the controversial stories—both with illegitimate sex and without—come surprisingly from the women. Largely because of Dioneo, we see the female narrators of the Decameron speak more openly than they perhaps would not have otherwise. Despite this, Dioneo makes a comeback on the last two days with his scandalous stories, reminding us of his place in the Decameron. Throughout the work, he speaks of sexual illegitimacy and sexual crimes with such ease and frequency that in the end, we know that Dioneo is the Decameron’s token narrator of controversy.Works Cited Migiel, Marilyn. “Beyond Seduction: A Reading of the Tale of Alibech and Rustico (Decameron III, 10).” Italica 75.2 (1998): 161-77. JSTOR.org. American Association of Teachers of Italian. Web. 12 May 2013.
Female Liberation and Power in Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”
Introduction Giovanni Boccaccio’s medieval masterpiece “The Decameron” is a collection of stories, chronicled over ten days, which highlights the best and worst of human nature. Boccaccio’s tales deal with themes such as adultery, love, premarital sex, devotion, trickery, and manipulation, among others. Yet this work is historically significant as a result of its brutal and unprecedented courage to show what was occurring behind the closed doors of medieval society. As one scholar notes in Boccaccio’s epilogue, there is a “plea for freedom of expression, for a concept and acceptance of literature free of didactic and moralistic constraints and directed towards the amusement, pleasure, and consolation of the reader.” Boccaccio’s declared intent in writing “The Decameron” was to entertain the ladies of the era who had lost and suffered so much during the Black Death that swept the entire European continent. However, through his work Boccaccio also illustrated the sexual freedom women experienced during this time; a benefit of the social instability during and after the epidemic. Additionally, Boccaccio showed a side of the female gender, unseen before from the perspective of a man: woman using their intellectual prowess, wit, and sexuality as a means to achieve a desired outcome. Therefore, in his work Bocaccio captured a defining moment for women in The Middle Ages. “The Decameron” is a commentary and illustration of how the women of the time used their intelligence and sexuality as a means to ascertain power and break free from the societal norms and restrictions placed upon them by the Church and the patriarchal societies that had repressed them throughout history. Historical Context To understand why the characteristics displayed of women in “The Decameron” were so uncommon and never before seen, one must first understand the societal barriers they dealt with during their day to day lives. Before the era known as The Middle Ages (approximately beginning in 500 AD) there was the period known as Classical Antiquity (spanning from around eighth century BC to 400 AD). While this shift in time marked many changes, one notable difference can be identified in the societal gender structure of the European community. Much of the history recorded during antiquity revolves around the cultural and economic centers of Rome and Athens. The role of women in society, with respect to men, in both these cities often paralleled one another. In Rome, women were regarded as property of their fathers until they were married off to their husbands. Roman husbands generally did greatly appreciate the institution of marriage and their wives. This appreciation manifested in the influential counsel women provided their husbands. While it was not socially acceptable to advise your husband publicly, men were known to follow advice offered by their wives privately. Women were mostly limited to their homes. A respectable women was not known to wander around on her own; male supervision was required in public and when traveling. Socially their role was to rear the children and take care of the home while their husbands worked. It was not seen as socially acceptable for a woman above the lower class to work. Therefore women did not yield much power; at no point in the Roman Empire was a woman allowed to hold public office. Monetarily, even a wealthy, old widow was not allowed to independently manage her own finances. Therefore, women in Rome were extremely constrained by the roles society imposed upon them. Women were completely subservient to their male counterparts in all realms of life. Athenian women were equally as submissive. From an early age the social paradigm between girls and boys was heavily entrenched. Boys were separated from the girls and offered private educations which consisted of reading and writing. However, girls were only taught domestic skills such as weaving and child rearing. Girls were married off by their fathers through male-centric weddings based around the father and groom. Unlike Roman husbands, Athenians did not see their wives as respectable counterparts. Instead, they were seen as inconveniences best left and restricted to the home. Wives were not allowed to leave the home unless supervised, and only lower class women were allowed to work. A respectable woman’s work was considered tending to the needs of her husband and family. With the fall of the Roman Empire in the Fifth century began the period known as The Middle Ages. The societal gender hierarchy still remained intact, however, due to the Black, Plague moral codes which governed women loosened. While marriage was still seen by the Church as a religious institution in which the woman was bound to her husband, the chaos of the spreading sickness resulted in less moral accountability for women in regard to their habits with men. As Boccaccio explains in the introduction of “The Decameron,” “In this extremity of our city’s suffering and tribulation the venerable authority of laws, human and divine, was abased and all but totally dissolved for lack of those who should have administered and enforced them, most of whom, like the rest of the citizens, were either dead or sick or so hard bested for servants that they were unable to execute any office; whereby every man was free to do what was right in his own eyes.” Acknowledgment of female sexuality was now more widely accepted, as opposed to in Classical Antiquity. In fact, during The Middle Ages, public opinion leaned toward the theory that women were actually more sexually lustful than men, with “insatiable appetites”. Historical Literary Context Giovanni Boccaccio wrote “The Decameron” following the Black Plague and essentially dedicated the book to women. Within the Fourth day introduction he defends his motives for writing this book. His main argument cites his masculine affinity for women, and declares that he wrote the book to delight the women who bring him happiness. Nevertheless, Boccaccio’s intentions are not as significant as the perspective provided by his gender. “The Decameron” was ground-breaking for The Middle Ages because never in history had a man authored a book, written for woman, which glorified the diversity and freedom of women. Most literature involving women came from the female community of writers. One could almost say that Boccaccio presents himself as a feminist, praising and delighting in women who are witty, intelligent, manipulative, aggressive, and even sexually liberated. In particular, Boccaccio highlights the sexuality of women during The Middle Ages with unprecedented honesty. As a result of the chaos of the Black Death, laws did loosen and society’s focus was muddled for some time. Therefore, the repressive social norms which had previously governed women were not as applicable or enforced through judgment. Thus Boccaccio, in “The Decameron”, highlighted the sexual liberation women experienced during the time. Other authors of the era also authored literature with these themes in mind; however, never with the honesty had Boccaccio exhibited or to the extent that he pushed social norms of what was socially acceptable to reveal. Most medieval authors cloaked their sexual references with euphemisms and double-entendres. Analysis “The Decameron” is significant in the study of the female gender in The Middle Ages for two primary reasons. First and foremost, within the literary community it broke from the mold and characterized women in a more honest, diverse light. However, more importantly, it chronicles cases of woman breaking from the social constraints placed upon them, and acting independently to form their own identities. One way the independent woman is identified in “The Decameron” is through the defiant wife. Socially, women were always submissive partners, tending to the home and never asserting themselves as individuals. However, Boccaccio’s compilation features many women breaking through this mold. In the Fourth tale of the Seventh day, Tofano, an extremely jealous husband locks his wife out of the house. His wife, realizing the perception this situation will garner from the neighbors, quickly devices a plan to turn the dynamic and come out in power. She threatens her husband by saying that she will jump down the well and commit suicide; leaving him to be judged as a murderer. She cleverly throws a rock down the well. Her husband, interpreting that his wife just jumped in, runs out to save her. However, in reality she runs into the house and locks out her husband; reversing the situation and gaining control over her jealous husband. With power now in her hands, the wife uses this advantage to gain more freedom from the constraints of her role as a wife. This tale thus perfectly confirms the case of a wife using her wit to gain freedom within her marriage. Furthermore, there are countless stories of woman asserting themselves by speaking out within their society. The Seventh tale of the Sixth day features Madonna Filippa, a wife who gets caught by her husband with a lover. Upon being brought to court, she cleverly argues against the statute on which she is being charged. Not only does is she acquitted of all charges, but the law she disputes also gets overturned. This tale is unique because it demonstrates the case of a woman asserting herself through her intelligence, not just against her husband, but also against the society and laws which govern her. The Third tale of the Sixth day also showcases a woman using rhetoric to defend herself. Monna Nonna is approached by two men of wealth who are haughty and abusive of women. After seemingly disrespecting her in public with a biting question, she does not subject to their status, but rather bites back. Shocked and ashamed, the two men ride away and do not bother her any further. Monna Nonna, therefore, displays the woman who is not afraid to speak out upon being wronged, and in doing so avoids further embarrassment or abuse. Most notable is the sexual demeanor of women in the tales. The nuns in the First tale of the Third day encapsulate the sentiment around all of the sexually aggressive women of the collection when they say, “whereas a single cock is quite sufficient for ten hens, ten men are hard put to satisfy ten women.” Women in “The Decameron” are not afraid to publicly and unconventionally avow their sexual identity, often against the structure of their marriage. Since the women of the time were interpreted to have stronger sexual lusts then men, this theme is not as surprising. The character Peronella, in the Second Tale of the Seventh day, out rightly commits adultery with her husband in the same room. When her husband returns home early, his wife is with her lover. Luckily he does not enter, and she’s able to fool him into thinking the other man is just there to buy a barrel the husband has made. While the husband is cleaning the barrel out, Peronella’s lover begins to perform sexual intercourse with her, behind her husband’s back, figuratively and literally. Neither is caught and the cheating wife gets away with the scandalous act. This tale is representative of a wife who has her own sexual identity outside of the confines of marriage, and her loyalty to her husband. She acts like an individual and in doing so undermines the power or control her husband has over her. Peronella, with her quick thinking mentality, is able to control the power in the marriage and ultimately avoid detection. The Fifth tale of the Seventh day has a similar theme. A jealous husband disguises himself as a priest in order to hear his wife’s confessions and confirm his suspicions of adultery. Figuring out his trick, the wife fools the husband into thinking her lover always comes in through the door. While the husband waits patiently every night by the door awaiting her lover, she sneaks in her lover through the roof and lies with him. While this act of adultery is committed more discretely, the underlying implications are the same. The cheating wife is undermining the power of the husband by using her wit to get achieve her desired outcome. The First tale from the Ninth day features a sexually lustful woman, who does not challenge a husband, but rather two lovers. Madonna Francesca, while having two lovers, but loving neither one, seeks to get rid of both. She devices a plan and tries to get the first to simulate a corpse in a tomb, and then attempts to convince the second to enter the tomb and fetch him out. Since both refuse, Madonna Francesca ends her love affairs. This tale hence serves as an instance of a woman not necessarily challenging the power of her husband, but just men in general. Madonna Francesca uses her intelligence to simply put herself above these two men and in doing so exemplifies the daring, socially defiant woman that Boccaccio tried to loyally to illustrate in “The Decameron.” The overt sexuality exhibited by certain women in “The Decameron” thus stems from their need to rebel against the social structures which constrained them. Often these restraints came in the form of marriage, their husbands, and the expectations society placed upon them. Boccaccio attributes characteristics within women such as wit, intelligence, and sexuality as means by which they attain power and control within society. Therefore, by doing this, women are able to turn the tide and act much in the same way that men were depicted in literature before “The Decameron.” Women are shown to be illustrious, aggressive, and empowered; their rebellious spirit stemming from the oppressive lives they previously lived or were expected to live. “The Decameron” ends up being a feminist critique of The Middle Ages, ironically written by a male, Giovanni Boccaccio. Not only do the stories serve as a social commentary on the changing nature of women at the time, but the book also ends up being a cautionary tale for women in a variety of ways. Many of the underlying themes and plot lines provide women with examples for how to carry out their lives and relationships. First and foremost, it promotes women revolting against certain social institutions such as marriage, especially if they are unhappy or are victims of overbearing husbands. Many of the tales cited, such as Tofano’s wife, demonstrate how women only rebelled after living under the control of jealous or controlling husbands. Additionally, the tales of women speaking out to assert their rights within their communities also serves as a model for women. Boccaccio wanted the women of the time to pursue happier lives following the melancholy overtones of the Black Plague. Therefore, he saw this point in history as an opportunity for women to battle against the status quo and publicly declare that the laws which governed them were commonly absurd and unjust. The lesson of Monna Nonna is one way Boccaccio pushes his agenda of cautionary tales. Monna Nonna, upon being disrespected by two men does not just submit to their will, she stands up for her rights as a human being. Her success in averting the abuse provides women with the confidence to emulate her strong will and stand up for their rights as well. However, it is the odd placement of the last tale of the Tenth day that potentially offers one of the most blatant commentaries by Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio might have included this story in a non-corresponding day to highlight its message, and bring more attention to it. Griselda, a lower class woman, is essentially abused continuously throughout her life by her husband. During the marriage she is unaware of that his intention is to test her patience and devotion to the marriage. Therefore, he continues on committing terrible acts against her; leaving her, sending her children away, among other cruel deeds. However, through it all Griselda remains loyal to her husband. Ultimately her husband explains to her why he did what he did and tries to make up for it by bringing her children back. Now sure of her devotion, he treats her kindly. However, Boccaccio’s tone throughout the tale is one of sarcasm. Potentially this story serves to show Boccaccio’s women that a steady will and devotion can be applied to the wrong things. Once again, the story of Griselda is a cautionary tale to women. Bocaccio’s intent might have been to instruct women to not accept unfair treatment from their male counterparts, and further his feminist agenda. Hence there exists the possibility that Boccaccio had a unique sympathy for women, and wanted to write a lengthy collection of stories that would incite in the female community a desire to fight to obtain greater respect within the patriarchal society of The Middle Ages.Conclusion Giovanni Boccaccio asserts in the Introduction of “The Decameron” and later on throughout the work that his intent is to entertain and enlighten women; for whom he has an incredible amount of respect and admiration. Following the Black Death, Boccaccio wanted to break through the sadness of the era and speak directly to the female population and inspire them to embrace their intelligence and freedom in order to achieve greater happiness. Consequently, his work ends up demonstrating the increased freedom women were exhibiting at the time, and serves as a model for how women should assert their rights.
Boccaccio’s Pre-Renaissance Implications on Morality and Censorship in The Decameron
Writing in Italy during the 14th century, Boccaccio is caught in the historical dichotomy between the blind adherence to the Church that permeated the Middle Ages and the emerging Humanism that characterized the Renaissance. It is clear that Boccaccio chooses to look forward, as he embraces frivolity and gives scathing portrayals of churchmen and women. He brings up the issue of obscenity in his epilogue anticipating a response of moral objection to his stories. While Boccaccio does acknowledge in his epilogue that his stories can be perceived as amoral, he ultimately argues that morality is not the purpose of his book, and that readers can avoid being offended. Nevertheless, Boccaccio does uphold certain values in his short stories, namely a personal morality of action and the significance of trifles and humor in life.Boccaccio’s epilogue is essentially a defense against the charge of obscenity in his work. He first claims the instances of obscenity are slight and do not make the work immoral. His occasional “trifling indiscretion of speech,” he argues, is similar to using words that can have amoral connotations such as “mortar” and “sausage,” a practice which he states is common in speech. He also attacks those who might have a problem with his work, calling them “precious prudes, who weigh words rather than deeds, and are more concerned to appear, than to be, good” (005).This is significant because he attacks those who say his stories have immoral values by claiming the attackers may be more immoral. He does this by saying that readers who are offended are superficial people who are more concerned with the appearance of morality than they are with true moral action. It is difficult not to consider that this may be an attack specifically on the church, given his numerous stories of religious people leading privately sinful lives. He also compares his work to wine, fire, arms, and even the bible, all of which are good for humans but also bad “being put to a bad purpose, may work manifold mischief. And so, I say, it is with my stories” (012).He then offers a few pragmatic and perhaps superficial ways to avoid the problem, noting that those stories that may be offensive to a particular reader can simply be skipped since the stories are independent and disconnected. And “none may be misled, each bears on its brow the epitome of that which it hides within its bosom” (019). Until this point it seems that Boccaccio mainly tells his audience that the obscenity is not important and can be avoided.Now he shifts to express the purpose of his work, contrasting it with more serious pursuits and claiming that his audience is comprised of ladies passing time. There is also evidence at this point that his defense is shallow in the sense that he does not actually believe simply skipping an offending story makes his work unoffending. In this way, the epilogue can be seen as formality for Boccaccio and a chance for him to subtly name those who he thinks are actually immoral. He says his work was not written seriously nor intended to be (ironically) part of scholarly study, rather “’twas to none but leisured ladies that I made proffer of my pains” (021). It is quite interesting that he states his work has no intellectual purpose and is only intended to be read by ladies to pass time. Boccaccio apparently does not mind having lowering his standards, as he does not consider a purpose of passing ladies’ time to be intellectually degrading or insulting. However the reader does get a sense that Boccaccio is providing a snide response when he takes his claimed lack of seriousness in the work to a comic extreme:”I affirm that I am not of gravity; on the contrary I am so light that I float on the surface of the water; and considering that the sermons which the friars make, when they would chide folk for their sins, are to-day, for the most part, full of jests and merry conceits, and drolleries, I deemed that the like stuff would not ill beseem my stories, written, as they were, to banish women’s dumps. However, if thereby they should laugh too much, they may be readily cured thereof by the Lament of Jeremiah, the Passion of the Saviour, or the Complaint of the Magdalen” (023-024).Moreover, this is the first instance in which Boccaccio portrays people in the Church as potentially immoral. His defense feels superficial through his exaggeration and comedy, and there may be a lack of sincerity implied by telling the reader to skip the obscene parts and not take his work seriously. And his reversal of these accusations can hint that he does take some issue with the idea of morality. We get the sense that while Boccaccio outwardly claims this is a frivolous work, he may attach a kind of value to his stories. This forces us to examine the specific stories for indications that Boccaccio did have a regard for not only morality but also had a purpose for his work other than a trivial pastime.First, there is evidence that Boccaccio does value a base kind of morality in terms of human action in a few of the tales. A number of stories have people who seem to either be rewarded for leading moral lives or punished in the end for leading amoral lives. These characters are rewarded or punished in their actual life, and not the afterlife. In the Second Tale of the Fourth Day, a brother by the name of Alberto receives public humiliation and is permanently confined after seducing a lady under the guise of being an angel.The Ninth Tale of the Fifth Day exemplifies this kind of morality based on action. In this tale, a gentleman named Federigo falls in love with a beautiful, wealthy lady named Monna Giovanna. He spends his savings unsuccessfully courting her, until after he has given up and is living in the country, she seeks as a favor his beloved falcon for her ailing son. Federigo, unaware of this request and having nothing else to serve her, has already served his falcon to Giovanna for breakfast. Eventually and as a result of his unwavering benevolence toward her, Giovanna marries Federigo to honor him. The morality that Federigo illustrates is unwavering despite his lowered circumstances, and he is in the end rewarded for this morality. It is clear that this morality is not a result of faith or piety, but rather simple ethical action. Similarly, Giovanna, as justification for marrying the poor Federigo, states “I had rather have a man without wealth than wealth without a man” (043). This stratification echoes Boccaccio’s statements attacking those “who weigh words rather than deeds, and are more concerned to appear, than to be, good” (005) discussed earlier, allowing us to assume that Boccaccio is indeed a proponent of this kind of morality.Moreover, Boccaccio tends to portray many of his characters that are part of the church as immoral by their exploitation of their status of the church. Brother Alberto, as previously mentioned, uses his status as a priest to seduce a woman. In addition, he makes his mistress believe that the Archangel Gabriel is in love with her and is coming to her through his body. In this sense he directly uses figures of the Church to help him sin. The First Tale of the First Day is another important example of a sinful character that exploits the church. Ser Ceperello is a scoundrel who leads a corrupt and sinful life, only to give his last confession as such a virtuous man that he is ironically revered and becomes a saint. Although Boccaccio does say that Ceperello “ought rather to be in the hands of the devil in hell than in Paradise” (090), it appears that Ceperello suffered no earthly consequences for his actions, and is moreover prayed to by humans who believe he can perform miracles. This manipulation of the Church system indicates that Boccaccio views the Church as superficial and more importantly that reverence in the Church does not necessarily mean actual morality. In this sense, morality for Boccaccio is not centered around the Church, but rather the individual.Yet Boccaccio’s morality does not come through in all of his tales. Most of the stories, in fact, do not end with a heavy moral retribution in terms of a reward or punishment for actions. Rather, they emphasize a trivial aspect of life or end in a comedic note. And perhaps the two morality and frivolity are not mutually exclusive for Boccaccio. We see this with the sainthood of Ceperello or the marriage of Giovanna and Federigo, ironic conclusions which can certainly be seen as entertaining. Other stories feature sexual impropriety with no moral qualms or ramifications, such as the Sixth Tale of the Ninth Day, where a fellow and his friend sleep with the wrong women and boast to the wrong man. This almost leads to disaster but rather comically resolves with a cover-up account. In stories like these, it seems that Boccaccio’s sole purpose is to entertain.In conclusion, Boccaccio addresses morality in The Decameron first by deflecting claims that his work is amoral in the epilogue, then by giving the reader a sense that he values human action as a kind of morality more than the corrupt veils of Church morality. But in the end, addressing morality is not the central issue of the work. Recognizing the importance of escapism and frivolity is the central issue. This not only matches his original description of the work as a pastime but also matches the nature of the framework that the stories are being told in: escapism.As a literal escape from the plague, the ten men and women flee the city and isolate themselves. They then figuratively escape the wait by telling fictitious stories that make up The Decameron. So these stories are not only intended to be entertaining and humorous to the audience, but also to the nine others listening to the tale within the context of the work. In this sense, the work lauds the frivolity of man as an important aspect of life, and Boccaccio promotes this value by writing stories that are for the most part purely entertaining. Both this value and the kind of morality apparent in the tales parallel the Humanism movement perfectly.
Poetic Justice in Boccaccio’s Decameron VIII:7 with References to Dante’s Inferno
Poetic Justice, with her lifted scale,Where in nice balance, truth with gold she weighs,And solid pudding against empty praise.-Alexander PopeIn the Seventh Story of the Eighth Day in Boccaccio’s Decameron, the storyteller states “Many of the stories already narrated have caused us to laugh a great deal over tricks that people have played on each other, but in no case have we seen the victim avenging himself”. The poetic justice of Boccaccio’s version of hell lies in the fact that the tortured becomes the torturer and vice-versa. The poetic justice is enhanced by the fact that throughout the story the characters of Rinieri and Elena switch from God-like to Satan-like roles. This essay will also highlight some points in the story which are very similar to ideas in Dante’s Inferno.Boccaccio immediately sets up a comparison between Elena and Lucifer with his portrayal of her as “dressed (as our widows usually are) in black” and his description of Rinieri’s immediate infatuation with her at precisely the moment when he was “in need of a little diversion” (i.e. idle hands do the devils work). It should also be noted that Rinieri found Elena, like sin, very tempting and intriguing: “[She] seemed to him the loveliest and most fascinating woman he had ever seen.” Rinieri’s perception of Elena as beautiful in the beginning of the story is sharply contrasted by Boccaccio’s image of her charred bloody body later on in the story, when Elena is described to be “the ugliest thing in the world”. This transformation of Elena, from Rinieri’s point of view, from a beautiful goddess to an ugly devil is symbolic of mankind’s tendency to find certain sinful deeds beautiful and tempting at first, and later to be repulsed by the ugliness of the same actions. Boccaccio further shows the error in Rinieri’s lust after Elena by writing that Rinieri thought that if he could hold Elena “naked in his arms” he would truly be able to claim “he was in Paradise”, when actually his pursuit of this devilish woman leads him to a hellish night. The comparison of Elena to the devil continues when Boccaccio describes her as not “keeping her eyes fixed upon the ground…[she] swiftly singled out those men who were showing an interest in her.” This passage calls to the readers mind the image of the devil in hell looking upward to the earth, constantly looking for prospective sinners.In contrast, Rinieri is portrayed as an honest, somewhat faithful figure at the beginning of the story. Boccaccio’s use of Christmastide as the time of Rinieri’s hellful night and his reference of the scholar as “the happiest man in Christendom” are subtle clues that the scholar is an innocent, almost God-like figure whom is about to be tricked by the antichrist, or Lucifer. But Boccaccio lets the reader know that God (as represented by the scholar) will certainly prevail in the end when he writes in reference to Elena “Ah, what a poor, misguided wretch she must have been, dear ladies, to suppose that she could get the better of a scholar!” This passage also implies that God favors the intelligent, and that evil is inherent in the ignorant, as represented by the unintelligent, devilish Elena.On the other hand, it is possible to think of Elena as the God-like figure at the beginning of the story; her lover addresses her in a very Augustine-like fashion as “the true source of my well-being, my repose and my delight, and the haven of all my desires”. When she observes her lover dancing in a ridiculous fashion to ward off the cold Elena remarks “Don’t you think it clever of me to make men dance without the aid of trumpets or bagpipes?” This is similar to the way in which God punishes the sinners in Dante’s Inferno; they are freezing to death, and they are suffering in hell without the use of fire. Elena also questions her lover in this style that Dante questions the sinners in hell while her companion (in Dante’s case, Virgil) keeps watch: “You keep quiet while I talk to him, and we’ll hear what he has to say. Perhaps it will be just as funny as it is to stand here and watch him.”The scholar’s punishment for his lust for Elena is poetic justice as exemplified in Elena’s pitiless remark to him, “You always claim in your letters that you are burning all over because of your lust for me.” The scholar, like Dante, eventually emerges from hell with the coming of the dawn. At this point in Boccaccio’s story, the transformation begins between Elena’s role as a torturer, to her role as one who is tortured. Rinieri’s lust for revenge overpowers his lust for Elena, and like the souls in the Inferno with the frozen tears, he “turns inward” and thus “increases [his] agony” (33.96). From then on, Rinieri seeks out his revenge methodically, poetically and with a “devilish cunning”.The punishment which Elena receives is poetic justice on several different levels. First of all, Rinieri promises her that her lover will come to her in tears “asking you to forgive and take pity on him” when the reader knows that it is Elena who will be doing the weeping and pleading. It is also poetic that the scholar, who was frozen for his lust, seeks revenge by burning Elena for her cold cruelty.There is a clear invocation of Dante in the way that Rinieri is pitiless towards the suffering Elena. Like Dante, he taunts the “hapless woman” by reminding her of what her “brothers, kinsfolk, neighbors and Florentine people in general [will] have to say, when it is known that [she] was found in this spot completely naked”. Rinieri also reminds Elena that he could ruin her by the power of his pen and tells her “you yourself, to say nothing of others, would have been mortified by the things I had written that you would have put your eyes out rather than look upon yourself ever again”.In the end, both Elena and Rinieri escape from their respective hells and learn something from the torment they have received. Boccaccio, like Dante, has used hell as a didactic tool; at the end of the story he writes that Elena “wisely refrained from playing any more tricks or falling deeply in love with anyone”. But it would be shallow to assume that the only moral of this story is that one should refrain from trickery. This story can be interpreted to give a countless number of lessons, and perhaps the true poetic justice for Boccaccio is that scholarly readers will spend hours trying to find them all.
Gender Roles in The Decameron
Giovanni Boccaccio’s medieval work of art The Decameron highlights both the righteous and sinful ways of humans, through the telling of short stories. Boccaccio’s tales cover a wide array of topics, including adultery, love, devotion, trickery, and attributes of selfish and selfless people. Many commend Boccaccio because of his courage to shine a spotlight upon the distasteful aspects of medieval life, specifically the impartialness to extramarital affairs. Boccaccio’s Decameron provides a lens into medieval life which was greatly separated by gender disparities, economic divides, and contrasts in social status.
Gender disparities are a very significant portion of Boccaccio’s writing, and the different portrayals of men and women are obvious. In the society that The Decameron takes place in, women have been trapped in a lower social standing than men. Yet, Boccaccio demonstrates that a woman’s lack of social standing does not influence her levels of control in any sort of relationship. In fact, women seem to have an upper hand in many aspects of male-female relationships. For example, Ghismonda’s relationship with her father Tancrede in Day IV portrays a bond which the female holds power over the male. Ghismonda, disheartened by her father’s stern threats against Guiscardo, held her own life above her father’s head as a threat saying, “I certify thee, that whatsoever thou hast done or shalt do with Guiscardo, a thou do not the like with me, mine own hands shall do it” (P. 199). Ghismonda’s threats are not those posed without meaning, and they are out of her love for a man. Ghismonda threatened to end her own life to reiterate how important Guiscardo was to her. Ghismonda eventually took her own life to spite her father, showing her blatant disregard for gender disparities.
Boccaccio demonstrated a woman’s seemingly unlikely social advantages again when telling the story of the Day VI. The story of a woman accused of murdering her husband, only to be forgiven by her father yet tormented by the judge, testaments to their social upper hand. The young lady, much like Ghismonda, explained that she would rather slay herself than be accused improperly, thus keeping her dignity. She said, “I purpose to abide no longer on life; but, ere I go about to slay myself, I would fain take fitting means to preserve my honor and the secret of the love that hath been between us twain and that the body..” (P. 223). Andre Viola, whom insisted on preserving her dignity, could achieve being viewed as innocent if allowed to take her life. Selfless acts like these are usually performed by women in most of Boccaccio’s stories. Ghismonda taking her life to both spite her father and reunite with Guiscardo proved that she had little fear of repercussions, especially by Tancrede. Similarly, Andre Viola, who wanted to preserve his self-image, had little influence on the motivations of men. Andre Viola was influenced by everyone’s accusations of her, male or female. Gender disparities are very common in Boccaccio’s writing, but often times women are portrayed as selfless and fearless, caring not about consequence they may face from a man.
One of the few examples in which a woman does not seem completely advantageous in a situation is in Day V, the story of the knight whom endlessly chases his transgressor. Yet in this story, though the woman may seem like a victim due to her the consequence for her “actions”, both the male and female are being punished, simultaneously. Placing aside the main storyline of the man who moved to Ravenna to be relieved of his anguish, Boccaccio’s story of the knight and his prey contains more important, yet implicit, information. The knight, who feels he is pursuing “divine justice” by chasing after his transgressor says, “I, who once loved her so dear, should pursue her, not as a beloved mistress, but as a mortal enemy, and that, as often as I overtook her, I should slay her with this tuck”. (P. 280). The knight, though he used to be completely enamored by this woman, now must chase after her, never to find that his task his complete. Though the knight felt “wronged” by the woman he adored, he is truly the subject of punishment, because he must chase after her, while never feeling accomplished for her murder. Boccaccio’s inclusion of this story is very crucial to the portrayal of men, as opposed to women. He implies that chasing after women to no end is a waste of energy, especially when a woman is able to readjust herself and keep fleeing from her suitors. It is important to note that Boccaccio recognizes many women as time and energy consuming, with no reward upon their “capture”.
Second, to gender disparities, economic divides play a crucial role in Boccaccio’s tales. A noteworthy story to elaborate upon this is in Day V, the story of the Nightingale. Caterina and Ricciardo, who have been sleeping together on the balcony of Caterina’s home, were caught in a loving embrace. Yet, instead of driving Ricciardo from her father’s home, or murdering him, they were immediately wed. This is due to Ricciardo being of the acceptable social and economic class, suitable for Caterina. Unlike Guiscardo, who was strangled to death for premarital affairs, Ricciardo is described as “a young man of the Minardi of Bertinoro, comely and lusty of his person, by name Ricciardo, who much frequented Messer Lizzio house”. (P. 262). Later, after catching his daughter engaging in lewd acts, Messer Lizio asks Ricciardo, “Do thou, to save thyself from death and me from shame, take Caterina to thy lawful wife”. (P. 264). This exchange is extremely noteworthy when documenting the influence of social class in the perception of the transgressor. The relationship between Guiscardo and Ghismonda, and Caterina and Ricciardo are essentially the exact same amount of sin, lust, and secrecy. Yet, Guiscardo and Ghismonda are dead, yet Caterina and Ricciardo live, due to the difference in economic standards. While Boccaccio was unafraid to portray females as the leads of their own lives, he was apprehensive towards a relationship which was counterculture: one that crossed economic lines.
The only story which was accepting of a relationship with differing economic tiers, was that of the Falcon in Day V. The relationship, as described in the beginning, was one-sided, and the woman had little interest in her suitor. She, Madam Giovanna, was a widow with many riches left by her husband. Federigo had little to his name besides his farm and his bird, because he had spent many of his riches away attempting to attract Madam Giovanna. Yet somehow, Boccaccio yields to the yearnings of the reader, allowing the two to be united by their love, rather by their wealth or political premise. Madam Giovanna says to her suitor, “‘I know very well that it is as you say, but I would liefer have a man that lacketh of riches than riches that lack a man.’ Her brethren, hearing her mind and knowing Federigo for a man of great merit, poor though he was, gave her, with all her wealth, to him” (P 286). Boccaccio elaborated further, essentially explaining that their marriage was successful due to his positive personality traits and their shared wealth. With respect to the other tales explained, this story is particularly odd. Relating back to the tale of Ghismonda, Ghismonda and her lover eventually are laid to rest in the same tomb, because of their vastly differing economic stature. And although Guiscardo was in love with Ghismonda, and she with him, neither could create an outcome near to what Federigo and Madam Giovanna created. It seems as such that since Madam Giovanna had no authoritative male restraining her from pursuing this relationship (i.e. father, husband), she was free to do as she pleased with respect to her wealth and social image. On the contrary, Ghismonda was held back by her father from pursuing the relationship which she wanted, which led to her demise. Perhaps Boccaccio is inadvertently explaining that women are held back from choosing their true love by men, and if permitted, men of lower social status would be their suitor of choice.
In Boccaccio’s tales, intertwined between economic status and gender divides, is the significant issue of political contrasts. Usually, between a woman of higher stature and a man deemed unworthy, these stories do not prove a common ending, yet elaborate upon a woman’s true desires in a lover. Day IV tells the story of the young Lisabetta, described as a “right fair and well-mannered maiden, whom, whatever might have been the reason thereof, they had not yet married” (P. 217). The tale immediately describes Lisabetta as a woman who was not married off by her wealthy brothers, which indicates her social status. Lorenzo, her lover, was described as “agreeable”, but his wealth is not elaborated on. Boccaccio demonstrates women’s’ preference, yet again, for men of lower status. After Lorenzo is killed, and the basil plant Lisabetta finds solace in (including Lorenzo’s head), is robbed from her, she is inconsolable to the point which she sobs to death. The story, though short, proves that Boccaccio is not an advocate for marrying outside of a distinct social caste. In most of the stories provided, a woman eventually threatens to take her own life, or her life is stripped from her. Boccaccio created this story to be distinctively morbid from the rest of the “forbidden love situations”. When reading the story from a distance, the plot is seen as a wealthy young female who was not permitted to marry a socially downcast male, so she eventually died. Lastly, this story fulfills the criteria created regarding a wealthy or powerful woman seeking to court a young, socially downcast male. Because she has three older brothers who wish to keep their family rid of commoners, the solution found is to murder Lorenzo, and through this, murder Lisabetta. Boccaccio’s portrayal of the outcome of courting a man outside of a specific social realm is often times morbid and blatantly obnoxious.
Giovanni Boccaccio is very explicit when he describes the plight of pursuing a lover. Often times, if not all the time, women are inhibited from being united with a man due to an authoritative figure who exercises control over her life. Yet, in many stories, Boccaccio’s tales exhibit the idea that women are in control of their own fate, especially through their means of death. While women are usually prohibited from being united with a man outside political, social, or economic classes, they can exercise control of their lives by threatening to take their own life, which happens very often in The Decameron. The Decameron, though a masterpiece in emboldening humans’ sinful and righteous nature, provides an outlook on women which is very authoritative, and not progressive at all for its time.
Gutenberg.org, Project Gutenberg, Mar. 2007, www.gutenberg.org/files/23700/23700-h/23700-h.htm#THE_SIXTH_STORY4.
Limitations of Horizon: Ideologies and Love In the Decameron and Heptameron
At the time that Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron became popular there were numerous similar works in circulation. Readers mainly enjoyed the tales as facile entertainment rather than literature, and most served merely to unconsciously reinforce the dominant ideologies of the time rather than interrogate or challenge them in any way. In light of this, it is unsurprising that the Decameron and Heptameron have remained great while similar works faded to obscurity. Unlike their contemporaries, the authors of these works employ not only superior technical skill throughout but also bring to their works perspectives that differ from the commonly accepted ideologies of their societies and call such conventions into question. Boccaccio, for example, used many of his stories to deconstruct the traditionally accepted social structure. In his eyes, rigid class systems were a social construct that led humanity away from God’s original order, an order that remained apparent through attention to human biology. In the First Story of the Fourth Day, a princess defends herself for taking a lover of a lower class, saying to her father,…consider for a moment the principles of things, and you will see that we are all of one flesh and that our souls were created by a single Maker, who gave the same capacities and powers and faculties to each. We were 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. (Boccaccio 297).In this speech it becomes clear that Boccaccio views the contemporary structure of society as an imposition upon humanity that runs “contrary” to the natural order (Boccaccio 297). This view can be seen consistently throughout the Decameron. One way in which it is manifest is through Boccaccio’s relatively gentle treatment of corrupt clergymen. In “Texts, Naked and Thinly Veiled: Erotic Elements in Medieval Italian Literature,” Christopher Kleinhenz argues that, when compared with the depictions of clergymen in contemporary works, Boccaccio’s stories are remarkably non-judgemental. For example, in the Second Tale of the Fourth Day, a man becomes a friar and convinces a silly woman to sleep with him by telling her that his body is inhabited by the Angle Gabriel. He is of course found out, but there is at least as much emphasis on the stupidity of the woman as on his own vileness, and he is spared death at the hands of her brothers in favour of public humiliation. Therefore, “In the end…he got the punishment he deserved, and repented in vain for the crimes he had committed” (Boccaccio 312). Kleinhenz argues that this lenient treatment of clergy who give in to sexual desire is symptomatic of Boccaccio’s greater underlying ideology that “all human beings” should be able to “act naturally and follow their natural desires, inclinations, and instincts to fulfillment” (102). The clergy are not the only ones to whom Boccaccio is lenient in their amorous desires. He appears to levy almost no judgement on adulterers or those who love outside of marriage, seeing them as adhering to the higher moral code of Nature rather than bending to the false and constricting moral code of society. Nearly every story begins with a pair of lovers separated by class. In the comic stories the lovers are victorious through a series of humorous circumstances.For example, in Tale 10 on the Fourth Day, a married woman and her lover succeed in tricking her husband and preventing him and the rest of the town from discovering them. The speaker concludes, “Their love continued to flourish, affording them greater and greater pleasure – which is what I should like to happen to me, except that I would not want to be stuffed inside a trunk” (Boccaccio 362). Here is a clear affirmation of adultery as an acceptable alternative to the loveless marriages forced upon people for the benefit of their families. The tragic stories, too, stem from the same perspective. Though they often end with at least one lover’s death, those left behind who originally imposed the lovers’ separation are nearly always repentant and see the error of their ways in upholding a socially constructed code over God’s natural moral order. Also following logically from this ideology is greater freedom and power of speech for women. R. Hastings argues in Nature and Reason in the Decameron, that in the Tenth Story of the First Day the speaker shows that “Nature…intends women to speak, else, [the speaker] implies, they would not physically be able to. Since Nature is morality in the Decameron, if Nature intended that women should speak, speak they shall, and any rule to the contrary is wrong” (2). However, despite this early endorsement of female equality, as the novel moves forward it retreats from this view. A series of stories concerning female empowerment and vocal women in Days 7 and 8 are followed in the final Days by stories that “try to delimit the power that women might wield,” even resorting to graphic violence in order to reinstate the absolute power of male authority (Migiel 149). Marylin Migiel argues in her book, A rhetoric of the Decameron, “It seems hardly coincidental that violence against women emerges when the very possibility of women’s empowerment does. The stories of the Decameron imply that if women gain power their power must remain limited by violent means if need be” (149).This contradiction at the heart of Boccaccio’s work is perhaps due to an inability to visualize true gender equality from the perspective of the misogynistic society in which he was writing. Though Boccaccio appears to have made great strides in rejecting the dominant ideology and affirming transgressions of conventional love in favour of class equality, these affirmations ultimately serve only to benefit men. Therefore, the resulting vision becomes one of a society in which there is only one true lower class: women. Though Marguerite’s Heptameron was written only a few years later, and though she too suffers from limitations of vision in a patriarchal society, she is able to partially succeed where Boccaccio failed in overturning oppressive male rhetoric. It is possible that this reflects subtle changes in society’s treatment of women; however, it is more likely a result of her more immediate understanding of the female position.One significant difference between the two works is that Marguerite is not so quick to affirm extramarital and premarital affairs, though she, like Boccaccio, locates the roots of adultery in patriarchal and class-oppressive systems. Boccaccio seems to write his stories as if society would be ultimately accepting of natural law if only enough lovers were brave enough to uphold it. He seems to believe that overt resistance is straightforward and always productive. Marguerite, however, writes with more attention to the complexity and reality of such situations. Unlike him, she pays more attention to the negative effects this has on women in particular. She recognizes the double standard men and women have for defining honour and the problems this poses for women who transgress conventional morality in favour of Nature’s moral code.The men throughout the Heptameron who attempt to seduce female lovers see honour as simply an appearance of chastity. The continually attempt to seduce women based on the argument that they are witty and capable of “protecting” her honour. So long as no one finds out, they consider her honour intact. There is a double standard, however, because these same men, were their own wives to subscribe to this view of honour, would consider her honour disgraced for committing the act of adultery. For example, in Day 1 of the Heptameron, Tale 6 shows how, in reality, for a woman to take a lover outside of marriage ends with her being scapegoated as the deceiving adulteress. Though men obviously recognize the difficulty of remaining chaste in arranged marriages and have no intention of doing so themselves, the women are punished far more harshly, and their adultery is attributed to their sinful female nature rather than to the oppressive system. Therefore this patriarchal double standard prevents the kind of uncomplicated rebellion present in the Decameron. It is not so simple to combat such a complex ideology when the punishment for the female lover is unequal to the punishment for the male.In an attempt to combat this difficulty, therefore, Marguerite does not simply write as if social censure is a minimal obstacle. Instead, as Patricia Francis Cholakian argues in her book, Rape and Writing in the Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre, Marguerite embraces the potential for female rhetoric, overturning traditional patriarchal stories in order to expose their oppressive nature and place women in the position of power. For example, Tale 8 of Day 1 is a retelling of a traditional story. In it a husband schemes to meet with his maid in a dark closet and after having her himself, unknown to her, exchange places with his friend so that he may enjoy her as well. The husband’s wife, however, discovers that the husband intends to meet with her maid, though not that he intends to trade places with his friend. Outraged, she determines to exchange places with the maid, but in doing so thereby unwittingly making her husband a cuckold. In the original version of the story the husband retains control. He does not tell his wife what has happened, dismissing the maid as the guilty one, and forcing his friend to remain silent. In this way he reinstates his authority, and the joke is at the expense of the unwitting wife.In Marguerite’s version, however, the husband is unable to maintain authority. His wife berates him until his is reduced to guilt and shame. He cannot keep control of the situation; the story gets out and it is he who is mocked for making himself a cuckold, while his wife’s honour remains intact. Therefore, in this version, the wife turns the tables of power against her husband, simultaneously revealing her “master’s” true nature and proving herself as still desirable (Cholakian 73). Therefore, through this female retelling of a male story, the subjective “place of women within marriage, the unquestioned potency of the husband, and the pact that unites men” are all undermined, “not to mention the [supposedly objective] signification of rape, honour and desire” (Cholakian 76). In this way, through appropriation of oppressive male rhetoric, Marguerite is able to not only challenge traditional ideologies but shift the position of power to the women in her stories.Despite this, however, ultimately, Marguerite also struggles to envision an equal gender society. In Tale 10, the longest and most complex story in the Heptameron, the narrator struggles to position the woman as the subject of what is traditionally and fundamentally a man’s story. Romance by definition situated the woman as the object, that of the male protagonist’s desires. The story is historical, a retelling of a famous warrior’s attempts to convince the married women of his affections to return his love, first through praise and later through physical force. Floride, the woman of his desires, manages to maintain her honour, though she is wounded both physically and emotionally, denying her own love for him in order to remain chaste. Cholakian contends, “Floride thus finds herself completely isolated in a system that simultaneously arouses and thwarts female desire” (95). She cannot give in to her love without losing her honour, but to maintain such honour requires her to fend off increasingly threatening advances and retreat from love altogether. Whereas the women of previous stories who rejected male advances did not love the men, Floride loves Amadour but still rejects him.The readers are left unsure, however, whether this means she is more virtuous than the women of the previous stories or whether “by portraying her heroine as subject to desire…Parlamente [confirms] the traditional construction of women’s rampant sexuality” (Cholakian 101). This is further confused by Parlamente’s inability to make the male listeners in the Heptameron recognize a female-centered Romance. Though the story is clearly meant to show Amadour’s lack of virtue in attempting to rape Floride on more than one occasion, nonetheless Geburon says that “in spite of” all Parlamente has said, the company may “rest assured” that this man, whom Geburon recognizes from her description, “was as noble and virtuous a knight as ever lived” (de Navarre 130).Cholakian argues, “To the men in the company, this is still a man’s story. Programmed to react to the masculine plot, they cannot assimilate the transposing of gender roles, represented symbolically by Amadour’s place in the bed” (Choakian 102). In light of this, the story ultimately, “like its heroine…fails to accomplish what it sets out to do. Although it demonstrates the split between the male and female honour, it does not solve the dilemma posed by female desire” (Cholakian 101). Therefore, love’s relationship with morality is highly complicated in the Heptameron by the seemingly inescapable trap into which women are placed by patriarchy. Their only options appear to be a nunnery or acceptance of whatever husband is chosen for them, despite his almost inevitable infidelity. To resist or take a lover, though it may be morally justified, means disgrace, heartbreak, and sometimes even death. The Decameron, therefore, seems to put forth a more positive ideology in which rebellious lovers are capable of overturning the oppressive systems of society. However, as has been discussed, this vision is not without its flaws, some of which are heavily interrogated in Marguerite’s Heptameron.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. London: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.Christopher Kleinhenz. “Texts, Naked and Thinly Veiled: Erotic Elements in MedievalItalian Literature.” Decameron Web. Web. 27 May 2011.Cholakian, Patricia Francis. Rape and Writing in the Heptameron of Marguerite deNavarre. United States: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. Questia. Web. 27 May 2011.Migiel, Marylin. A rhetoric of the Decameron. London: University of Toronto Press,2003. Google books. Web 27 May 2011.De Navarre, Marguerite. Heptameron. Digireads.com. Google books. Web. 27 May2011.