The Social Standing of Women in The Decameron
Financial wealth is a major determinant of social class, but within a class, gender dynamics often govern social roles due to gender norms. During the medieval times, many women held little to no power. In The Decameron, most women held a lower social standing than men. Men were allowed to work and own any property, while “women were not allowed to have a significant role in society, other than that of a wife and mother,” author Sujay Kulshrestha mentions in her paper: “Giovanni Boccaccio’s ‘The Decameron’ and the Roles of Men and Women.” Though they may not hold a significant social status, the women in these stories hold greater power within gendered relationships between man and woman (Kulshrestha). In The Decameron, the female characters are portrayed as smarter and wittier than the men, such as the story of Monna Sismonda, from day seven, story eight. In this narrative, the main female lead, Monna Sismonda, outwits her husband and his scheme divulge her affair by primitively assigning her servant to pose as her in bed, which leads to her brother’s distrust the validity of her husband’s claims (Boccaccio 528-535). As a female, Sismonda was defined to be a mother and a caregiver.
Women were not seen as smart or cunning, so having Monna Sismonda being able to trick the men of her life, Boccaccio is able to emphasize that class standards cannot truly confine the individual. On a similar note, Boccaccio also uses Monna Sismond’s story to display the ingenuity and craftiness of women. Monna Sismond’s smarts allowed her to avoid being caught having an affair and to steer clear of any trouble thereafter (Boccaccio 528). Another example from The Decameron is the story of Madonna Agnesa and Brother Rinaldo. Rinaldo, a priest, aims to Liu 2 charm his neighbor’s wife through a convoluted plan of befriending several other characters in order to finally meet her (Boccaccio 561-562). The audience is led to believe that Madonna is not only oblivious to Rinaldo’s machinations, but also unwittingly playing into them as well. She reveals her cunning expertise when she explained to the friar and her husband; as she predicted and outmaneuvered him in his own ploy. As such, Boccaccio’s tales—proven by Madonna and Monna Sismonda’s stories—depict the amount of wit and intelligence that women have over the men of the book.
Marxian Class Theory, as mentioned earlier, explains how the class is predetermined by the amount of property and ownership one has. Women, given the time period, rarely held social or political power, and had their lives governed by the patriarch of their family. In turn, they were required to build resiliency and cunning in order to look out for their own best interests. Scene as lower than men, women would use their assets, such as their sexual prowess and their wit, in order to get what they need or want. Especially with men, the female characters would provoke a sense of coquetry in men to entice them. Take for example, the case of Monna Sismonda, from day seven story eight: she was able to use her beauty and charm to deceive not only her husband, but also her brothers that were incapable of committing acts of adultery, which in turn, allowed her to gain control of the situation, putting herself at or slightly above the status of the other male characters during that time.
Though confined to her social class, Monna Sismonda breaks her barriers and acts out of her class interest to get what she desires: love. There are many stories in The Decameron where the main characters plot schemes in order to achieve their happiness. Being stuck in either the “bourgeois” class or “proletariat” class, many characters must act out of their class interest in order to get what they Liu 3 desire—typically love and passion. Boccaccio truly shows that attraction and lust are not confined to one’s social class. The Marxian classes only contain society into two groups, leaving little to no room to move up in class. Many characters attempt to break from the standard they are restricted in, in order to fully get what they desire. The presence of Marx’s social hierarchy plays a large role in the behavior of characters in The Decameron. Whether it is through intelligence or cunning, the protagonists in each story manage to escape the thresholds of their social class, breaking multiple barriers.
Morality and Wealth During the Medieval Era (Everyman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Decameron)
How would it feel to know what wealth was like in the Medieval time? Everyman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, works from The Decameron and various pieces of Medieval art reflect ideas of morality and wealth from the Medieval period. The Medieval time was where all the wealthy people think about is money, where the Church is more powerful than kings and nobles. In Everyman, those who are wealthy goes to hell and where a man who only thinks about is money is trying to bribe Death not to take him to see God. Which, come to the point in Sir Gawain in the Green Knight, where giving something that is worth a fortune away and where the beds, curtains is made out of gold and walls that is designed so neat. As for The Decameron “The First Story” and “The Tenth Story,” many things people can buy with such a big amount of money and for poor peasants to marry these who are very wealthy. Money is what everyone thinks about, but it’s doesn’t make anybody happy because it’s not the answer and it doesn’t solve the problem.
Everyman discuss how wealth was in the Medieval period. In the story the author says that a person who is healthy will go to hell, “except that alms be his good friend” (Everyman 3). Those who couldn’t afford alms has to give the church what they can afford. As for all the things Everyman did, he didn’t do what God wanted and for that he will go to hell. Everyman didn’t want to face judgment with God or go to hell, the only thing for him to not go to hell was to pay the church. Another thing is that Everyman tries to bribe Death not to take him, but Death refuses to accept wealth because “I set not by gold, silver nor, riches” (Everyman 4). Money can’t really bribe people because it’s not the answer and can’t really solve the problem. All Everyman can think of is money, but money can’t really buy Everyman out of trouble. Money isn’t always what a sin is about because money can’t always buy what anyone do bad. Noble by Richard II England contains ideas about wealthy (England). The coin contains how Everyman really loves money more than anything. All the belonging on the coin represent Everyman by portraying everything that he has. The crown represents the wealthy the Everyman has.
Beside Everyman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also discuss how wealth was in the Medieval period. As Gawain was on his way to find the Green Chample, he stops by a castle where, “the bedding was noble, with curtains of pure silk wrought with gold, and wondrous coverings of fair cloth all embroidered. The curtains ran on ropes with rings of red gold, and the walls were hung with carpets of Orient, and the same spread on the floor” (Weston 10). The bedding with pure silk wrought with gold describe how the wealthy would like it to be. The curtains not just drapes down, but it’s held with ropes of red gold explains how wealthy are because it’s neat design with gold. As for the texture and design on the walls shows that some wealthy, just don’t want it plain, but to have the design of their choices. The Queen gave Gawain a ring, but he refuse to take it, “With that she reached him a ring of red gold with a sprinkling stone therein, that shone even as the sun (wit ye well, it was worth many marks but the knight refused it” (Weston 20). The Queen gave Gawain a ring that is worth a fortune, but he refuses to take it because he didn’t have the same thing that is equal enough to give to her. Even though is a knight who has to obey the Queen’s order he would feel bad if he took the ring because he has nothing in return. Giving an item that is worth a fortune wouldn’t make him/her happy because they don’t have the same equaliness to give back. Armor contains ideas about wealthy (Armor). The armor contains the ideas that when Gawain went to go find the Green Chample he was wearing an armor like he was going to war. As knights are going into battle, they would wear this kind armor to protect them. Medieval Knight’s Suit of Armor was a complex series of garments, chain mail and iron plate.
Although Everyman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Decameron “The First Story” and “The Tenth Story” also discuss Medieval ideas about wealth. Before the Black Death was spreading around the city of Florence, money was able to buy anyone what they want, “how many great palaces, how many goodly houses, how many noble mansions, once full of families, of lords and ladies, abode empty even to the meanest servant! How many memorable families, how many ample heritages, how many famous fortunes were seen to remain without lawful heir” (Boccaccio “The First Story” 6). Money pays for servant and for many houses that nobles are living in even to abode ones. To them, money has the power to buy many goodly things that would make their lives happier. From generation to generation wealthy can be passed down. In “The Tenth Story” Griselda a poor peasant marries Gualtieri Marquess of Saluzzo because he was rich “he let and cut fashion store of rich and goodly apparel, after the measure of a damsel who seemed to him like of her person to the young women he was purposes to marry, and provided also rings and girdles and a ring and goodly crown and all that behoveth unto a bride” (Boccaccio “The Tenth Story” 2). For poor peasants they would want to marry those who are rich. To some people getting marr to someone who is rich makes him/her happy because to them money buys happiness. Wealthy marriage only think about is money because money is what they been living off from. The Entombment of Christ contains ideas about wealthy (The Entombment of Christ). A man who is wealthy that others admire him for his kindness because of his illness, people are grieving around him. As the man who is in everyone arm is known for his wealth, peoples cherish him for his good deeds.
All in all, money is an important matter in the Medieval time period because money is the only thing they cherish for and what they can live off from. In this time, it was where all the wealthy people think about is money, where the Church is more powerful than kings and nobles. Even those who are wealthy goes to hell and a man who only thinks about is money is bribing Death not to take him to see God, it shows how money plays a role in life. It also comes to the point in where the beds, curtains are made out of gold and walls that are designed so neatly giving something that is worth a fortune away. Also there many things that people can buy with such a big amount of money and peasants to marrying those who are very wealthy.
The Decameron. Relations and Connections between Characters
From a sly monk, to a sarcastic Marchioness, these stories in the Decameron tell different tales yes, but all of them have a thread to connect them all. Each of these stories contain characters who are in dire circumstances or trouble, and each of these characters each use their wits to help themselves out of any misfortune they may have encountered.
On the first day, story five, the Marchioness of Montferrat was being pursued by King Philippe Le Borgne whilst her husband was away on a Crusade to the Holy Land. His actions were spurred by tales of a courtier who boasted about how beautiful the lady was and such simple words left an impression on the King. He decided to not go on a Crusade but instead go to visit the Marchioness. He sent a letter prior to his arrival and the Marchioness, being the smart woman she was, basically assumed the worst and decided to thwart the horny King before he had his chance at anything. She ordered all the chickens to be collected and prepared as dishes for a royal banquet for the Kings arrival. (pg. 48-51)
When the King arrived, he was welcomed and then escorted to the feast. Chicken and chicken dishes were all around so the King, being the intuitive man he was asked if they only had hens and no cocks. The Marchioness said “No, my lord, but our women, whilst they may differ slightly from each other in their rank and the style of their dress, are made no different here than they are elsewhere.” (pg. 51) The King realized his great seduction would not work on such a sophisticated woman and simply learned to dine and dash. The wit the Marchioness used to avoid shaming a King for his lust in public while also being able to entertain him in a decent fashion allowed her to avoid a sticky situation. She kept her head about her and used what she had to protect herself from any harm and or other situations. Her humor is remarkable in this story because the stomach is the way to a man’s heart but, who would have thought that it was also the way to his brain. The moral of this story seems to correlate throughout the book as we go on to the next story about another witty woman.
The next story that conveys a sneaky type of wit is the ninth story of the first day. A gentlewoman of Gascony was assaulted by a pack of ruffians as she was returning from her pilgrimage. She knows she cannot get revenge with her own strength but she hopes to bring the matter up to the King to get some sort of compensation. Others around her tell her it will be a ineffective effort because the King is weak and allows wrong doings to go unpunished by law. The woman decides getting revenge will not be possible but to use her wit to prick the King’s ego. (pg. 61-62)
She presented herself to him stating “My lord, I do not come before you in the expectation of any redress for the wrong inflicted upon me, but by way of reparation for my injury, I beg you to instruct me how you manage to endure the wrongs which, as I am led to understand, are inflicted upon you, so I might learn from you to bear my own patience…” (pg. 62). This little speech from the woman perks the Kings ears and woke his pride. The king then firstly deals with the ruffians who assaulted the woman and worked his way down from there, punishing those who had scoffed at his crown or dared to say anything against him as King.
This gentlewoman, who in no way had any power had twisted the will of a King to do her will with just her wit. There was no army behind her yet the power of her words changed the fate of the King, herself, and the bandits who dared to attack her as she returned from a pilgrimage. The entire story seems to come full around as this smart woman uses her words to simply change someone in higher powers decisions, in comparison to the previous story of how the Marchioness avoids being seduced by the King with a chicken dinner.
The fourth story on the first day of the Decameron takes place in Lunigiana where there was a monk and an Abbot. The monk was simply walking around when he saw a beautiful girl. He takes her back to his cell to have a bit of fun with her. The Abbot overhears them and waits for the monk to come out guiltily. The monk, hearing footsteps outside his door peeks around to see his Abbot waiting for him. Calmly, the monk tells the girl that he was sated and will find a way of letting her out without being seen. The monk goes straight to the Abbots room and hands him the key to his cell saying “Sir, this morning I was not able to bring in all the faggots that were cut or me, so with your permission I should like to go to the wood and have them brought in.” (pg.46) The Abbot complies and see no reason to publicly shame the woman, as she might be from a distinct family and he didn’t want to offend them, and so he decided to let the monk go out to the woods to collect any faggots he hadn’t brought in.
The Abbot then went to the room and unlocked it. The girl inside freaked out and started crying feeling shame for the deeds that she had just committed. The Abbot, seeing how beautiful she was, decided nobody was there to judge upon him so why not join in the fun? He comforted her and then explained what he had in mind.
The monk didn’t actually go to the wood, but instead sneakily hid himself in the corridor and saw the Abbot go into his cell. When he perceived that the door had indeed been locked from within, he went to a chink in the wall and heard and saw everything that the Abbot had said and done to the girl. When the abbot returned to his room he heard the monk had returned from the woods. He went to the monk ready to scold him for giving in to sin and lock him up so he could keep the girl to himself.
The monk turned the tables on the Abbot by stating, “Sir, I have not yet been long enough in the Order of Saint Benedict to have had a chance of acquainting myself with all its special features, and you had failed until now to show me that monks have women to support, as well as fasts and vigils….” And so forth. The Abbot realized soon enough that the monk had seen everything and not wanting to be a hypocrite and punish the monk for something that he had just done himself, he decided to swear the monk to secrecy and helped the monk slip the girl out without anyone else noticing. It is thought that maybe afterwards they slipped her in from time to time. The monk using simply wit to not only turn a situation into a benefit for himself whilst avoiding punishment is quite an anecdote but also, he gets to keep the girl around and share in a fun activity with his Abbot, so win-win I guess.
These stories demonstrate how someone with less power and less money, and basically less everything learned to turn a situation around in their favor. Whether it be avoiding seduction or simply getting revenge, these characters show this moral throughout each of the stories. These stories have a similar thread or tune that ties them all together in this conglomerate that jumps out and ties to each other making the lesson that much more in depth.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron Review
In The Decameron, Boccaccio plays around with different levels of human virtue as he puts characters into some very strange and creative scenarios. In Day 8 Story 7 we see the Widow make a complete fool out of the Scholar. In the end he conducts a very extensive act of revenge upon her. In class I posed the question: How did the act of getting revenge affect the scholar and what was Boccaccio trying to depict about vengeance through this story? Many different views on vengeance were voiced. Some people believed that the Scholar’s act of retribution was uncalled for and too extreme. Others felt that that couldn’t stand because while it is unfortunate, it’s a natural reaction to want revenge. Some believed that Boccaccio was trying to portray that vengeance never ends well for anyone and should be avoided. The greatest point I saw Boccaccio making is that in the moment a person can easily be taken over by a desire for revenge and lose all sense of what is right or wrong. While vengeance may be relieving for a person they lose their sense of reality and there can be lasting effects on lives.
The major inequality in the story of the Widow and the Scholar is the difference between what the Widow did to the Scholar, and what he did in response. The Widow harmed the Scholar emotionally and physically when she locked him out of her house, leading him to believe that he was going to get the chance to spend time with her. Instead he spent the entire night outside in the freezing cold snow while she was inside with her lover making fun of him. He suffered damage from being in the cold all night, and great emotional distress. It is very easy to understand why the Scholar would be angry and want revenge. But what he did went above and beyond what he personally suffered.
Under the pretenses of helping the Widow with a spell to win back her ex-lover, the Scholar convinces her to immerse herself naked in water, and then climb up to the top of tower and deliver a spell, while he snuck up and removed the ladder. The Widow ends up having to spend all night, naked and freezing, and then remains outside the following day in the blistering sunlight. Whereas the Scholar was outside for one night, the Widow faced the elements naked and for much longer. She endured not only the cold as the Scholar did, but also blistering heat. Boccaccio even focuses on her recovery a lot more, emphasizing the Widow’s bug-infested blisters and how extensive they were, only allowing a brief paragraph to discuss how the Scholar needed to recover. All of these details were included by Boccaccio to purposely highlight the extreme that the Scholar went to in comparison to what the Widow did to him.
Throughout the Scholar’s scheme, the thought enters his mind a few times that maybe he should give up and have mercy on the poor woman. In one situation where the Scholar begins getting in touch with his humanity, Boccaccio writes, “but when he remember who he was, the injury he had received, and at whose hands, his wrath was rekindled,” (Boccaccio, 641). The anger he had about what the Widow had done only grew after he began his revenge, and there was no way he could pull himself out of it. He feels pleasure and sorrow as he listens to the Widow cry. Sorrow, because he still has a sense of morality within himself. But the pleasure he felt was stronger, because he was finally getting the revenge he had longed and planned for (Boccaccio, 643). Even thinking about the fact that one day the Widow would recover from this escapade inspired more anger within the Scholar. At one point he sees her completely naked in the moonlight, and feels his sexual attraction rising again, but even that can not break through his anger. He is so encaptured with anger and hatred that the only direction he sees is to continue going further with the cruelty. His rage really comes through when he meets the Widow’s maid, and can’t contain himself. He says, “I just wish … that I’d had you up there where I put her so that I could have punished you for your sins the way I’ve punished her for hers! But you can bet you’re not going to escape my clutches until I’ve made you pay such a price,” (Boccaccio, 652).
A question was raised in class concerning why the Scholar didn’t just take the opportunity he had created and rape the Widow. However, it is obvious by the fact that the Scholar went to such extensive lengths with his revenge that he wasn’t looking to simply gain something from the Widow. He wanted retribution but he also wanted to punish her. Raping her would have been revenge with his body. His extensive scheme took more focus, and thought. This is similar to Dante’s Inferno where the most punished crimes are those which required brain power and planning as compared to crimes of passion. By strategizing the Widow’s punishment, the Scholar is executing a more intense punishment.
In the end, after the revenge has been completed, the Scholar is able to move on and he hardly thinks about the Widow anymore. But because he went so over the top with his revenge, the Widow will never be the same. Not only was she physically punished with pain, but her beauty, which was something she found her identity in, was taken from her. This was the Scholar’s plan all along, as he stated, “While I practically lost my life as well as the use of my limbs, you will merely be flayed by this heat, and will wind up no less beautiful than a serpent who has shed her old skin,” (Boccaccio, 651). That mixed with the fact that she spent hours on end naked and humiliated, she has been deprived of her honor. Her confidence is taken and she is never able to fall in love again.
Boccaccio set Day 8 Story 7 up to show that revenge takes over a person and causes them to do things that they wouldn’t normally do. Not only did the Scholar right his wrong, he went above and beyond to punish the Widow and ruin her life, even though he had been able to recover. The hatred that was inside him would not allow him to stop. Even though The Decameron was written centuries ago, I see the kind of hatred that the Scholar encaptured all around me in the world today. Perhaps by digging more into The Decameron and really examining Boccaccio’s ideals of Compassion and Gratitude, we would find a way to implement those is today’s society.
Critiques on Molarity 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.
Significance of Gardens in ‘Decameron’ and ‘Confessions’
She told him about…country sounds and country smells and of how fresh and clean everything in the country is. She said that heought to live there and that if he did, he would find that all his troubles were city troubles.
-Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
Rural areas in Western literature are pure and good, going back the to the Garden of Eden in Genesis. They represent spirituality, beauty, and often an escape from the troubles of a sinful world. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, citizens of Florence escape their plague-ridden city for the solitude and safety of the countryside. In Saint Augustine’s Confessions, the narrator has his most significant spiritual awakening in a garden in Milan.
At the beginning of The Decameron, Boccaccio describes the plague occurring in Florence:
Large quantities of refuse were cleared out of the city byofficials specially appointed for the purpose, all sick personswere forbidden entry, and numerous instructions were issued forsafeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail. (I. Intro)
This passage describes the vast presence of sin in the city. “Officials” can be interpreted to mean clergymen, “sick persons” can mean criminals, and “numerous instructions” can mean the work of the church. “All to no avail,” however, signifies the continued presence of sin and ugliness in the city despite the efforts of the church.
Several young citizens of Florence, however, meet in a church and then physically leave it, in a jaunt to the countryside, which is, importantly, “some distance away from any road.” (I. Intro) There,
The young men and their fair companions sauntered slowly througha garden, conversing on pleasant topics, weaving fair garlandsfor each other from the leaves of various trees, and singingsongs of love. (I. Intro)
Words like “fair,” “pleasant,” and especially “love” stand in stark contrast to the earlier descriptions of Florence. The vision of “young men and their fair companions” conversing is one that is pure and chaste, somewhat pre-lapsarian. Emphasis is placed on the natural aspects by the mention of “garden,” “garlands,” and “leaves of various trees.” In the introduction to the Third Day, the new garden they arrive in is directly compared to the Garden of Eden:
They all began to maintain that if Paradise were constructed onearth, it was inconceivable that it could take any other form,nor could they imagine any way in which the garden’s beauty couldpossibly be enhanced.
In this passage, Boccaccio appears to be stating that Paradise is indeed attainable on earth, and that the countryside is the manifestation of human perfection. The beauty found in the description of the garden seems almost impossibly perfect, but Boccaccio argues that it is real.
The perfect garden is even created without the aid of God in Fifth Story of Day 10. In this story, Dianora asks Ansaldo for a May garden in January, which she believes is impossible. Ansaldo, however, enlists the aid of a magician, who creates “one of the fairest gardens that anyone had ever seen, with plants and trees and fruits of every conceivable kind.” The description is almost exactly the gardens in the framing narrative. The creation of a garden without divine intervention again demonstrates Boccaccio’s religious skepticism, which pervades his lusty text.
While the characters in The Decameron are able to exist in the garden that symbolizes human perfection without ruining it, Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, fails to do so. In Book II, Augustine steals a pear from a tree in a vineyard:
The fruit which we stole was beautiful because it was your creation, most beautiful of all Beings, maker of all things, thegood God, God the highest good and my true good.
Augustine, a human, damages God’s creation; like Adam and Eve in Genesis, he is unable to live without sin. Also, Augustine places emphasis on the fact that he did not act alone but under the encouragement of others, showing the negative effects that humans often have upon one another, similar to the impact of the serpent on Adam and Eve. Unlike Boccaccio’s description of the garden, Augustine emphasizes the beauty of the pear not by describing the pear itself but by describing the pear as a work of God. Here we see Saint Augustine’s strong religious beliefs as opposed to Boccaccio’s belief that humans can function well on their own.
Later in Confessions, Augustine finds himself in a horrible state of religious confusion. Where he is living, however, there is a garden:
The tumult of my heart took me out into the garden where no onecould interfere with the burning struggle with myself in which Iwas engaged, until the matter could be settled. (VIII. Vii (19))
Augustine does not take himself to the garden, but rather is led more metaphysically by “the tumult of [his] heart.” The solitude of the garden is emphasized: “We sat down as far as we could from the buildings.” (VIII. Vii 19)) Only away from the sins of other humans will Augustine be able to make any spiritual breakthrough. Alypius is present, but he is not a negative influence. The “burning struggle” describes the pain and anguish caused by sin, and the difficulty of breaking away from sin. Augustine tries to use his will to break away, but is unable. He finally is able to experience conversion when he hears a voice telling him to “pick up and read.” (VIII. Xi. (29)) He reads the word of the Lord, and again comes to the conclusion that the sins of the common (city-dwelling) people are what have been preventing him from attaining perfection:
‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism andindecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord JesusChrist and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.’
(Rom. 13: 13-14) (VIII. Xi. (29))
The countryside is the only place that can be perfect and the only place where humans can possibly hope to achieve perfection, because it is there that they can be with God’s creation and away from the negative influence of others.
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
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.
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.