Gender Relationships in Boccaccio’s Decameron
In The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio presents new ideas about love and physical love, women, and their role within society through one hundred novellas told by seven women and three men. Boccaccio dedicates The Decameron to women, expressing his prolonged dedication to them throughout his life. In fourteenth century Florence, women did not have a say in most anything, especially when it came to love and relationships. Boccaccio is challenging his readers to focus on important issues within their society — issues that many members of society were not concerned with: women, their freedoms, and the social stigma around physical love. In the time of The Decameron, women were given very few rights. They were bound to their husbands, and if they never married, they were bound to their male relatives. The Decameron, as Boccaccio claims, is a book of advice that encourages women to shatter the moulds of their society. Women can exercise physical love for a man without being married to them. He also uses tragedy to introduce a flaw in their current society, such as Nastagio manipulating the daughter of Messer Paolo Traversari or Lisabetta’s brothers killing Lorenzo. Even though his stories can be interpreted as either misogynistic or profeminist, Boccaccio uses them to raise gender issues within his society and openly expresses the natural human tendency to crave physical love.
Boccaccio wants to demonstrate an idea for the changing times; an idea that is built on the freedom of women but also the freedom of physical love. In his Fourth Story of Day Five, Filostrato tells the story of Caterina and her lover Ricciardo. Ricciardo falls in love with Caterina and struggles with hiding it from her; however, Caterina reveals she loves him too, in fact, she loves him ‘with equal fervour.’  Such love is foreign to most readers at the time, as unrequited love was the common circumstance in fourteenth century society. Boccaccio has already addressed a traditional aspect of his society, and goes even further by challenging an even more controversial subject: physical love. Caterina invites Ricciardo to spend the night with her, hiding it from her parents. They are deeply in love with each other; after embracing, ‘they lay down together and for virtually the entire night they had delight and joy of one another, causing the nightingale to sing at frequent intervals.’ (Boccaccio, p. 660) Intercourse was only permitted when a man and a woman are married, strictly for the purpose of childbearing; in fact, when touching on sexual relations within Catholicism in the fourteenth century, Michael Goodich states, ‘Conjugal intercourse purely for the sake of carnal satisfaction may be sinful, and thus the only permissible form of sexual expression is that which encourages the procreation of children.’  Boccaccio is raising awareness for a very new ideal emerging from his traditional Florentine society. He even creates a euphemism for the male genitalia, calling it the ‘nightingale’, and highlighting the fact that women ‘are too embarrassed to mention [it].’ (Boccaccio, p. 660)
Boccaccio is expressing his confusion with human nature, or our tendency to be embarrassed of our own biology; love and sex can coincide without marriage, because it is natural to love someone emotionally and physically — this is what Boccaccio is trying to communicate to his fellow Florentines. He concludes this fact by creating a reaction from Caterina’s father that does not result in the death of Ricciardo. However, it does result in the recognition of the couple’s love, and the choice to either face violence or marry Caterina. The audience at the time would have expected Ricciardo to be killed (without an alternative) for his actions, but since Boccaccio is trying to make a point, he allows the reader to become immersed within a different point of view, expressing the fact that the love of a women should not be at the complete mercy of her father.
Boccaccio uses his Fifth Story of the Fourth Day to illustrating the gender relationships within a family; Filomena tells the story of Lisabetta and the death of her beloved Lorenzo. Her brothers ‘had failed to bestow her in marriage,’ (Boccaccio, p. 543) and did not react kindly to the discovery of her love affair with Lorenzo. Lisabetta is sinning by exercising physical love outside of wedlock. Her brothers ‘took Lorenzo off his guard, murdered him, and buried his corpse’ (Boccaccio, p. 545) in order to protect their sister’s honour; however, they did not think of the love she possessed for him. She finds his body, decapitates him, and keeps her lover’s head in a pot of basil. Her love for him lives on even after his death, proving that even though her brothers did not approve of her love, she truly loved Lorenzo. Boccaccio is trying to show the importance of letting women have their say, and again highlights the importance of allowing women to love who they want to love without the interference of male decision.
In the Eighth Story of the Fifth Day, Filomena speaks of Nastagio degli Onesti, and his love for the daughter of Messer Paolo Traversari. She did not love him back, and ‘was persistently cruel, harsh and unfriendly towards him.’ (Boccaccio, p. 699) One day, while in the woods he caught sight of a naked woman being chased by a man on a horse, killing the woman for her cruelty towards him, a cruelty similar to the one in which Nastagio experiences. Both are condemned to Hell for their actions, however the woman is suffering more for bringing the horseman to kill himself. Nastagio acts on this repetitive event, bringing the Traversari girl (amongst other women) to view this act. Once she sees it, she is ‘stricken with so much terror as the cruel maiden loved by Nastagio, for she has heard and seen everything distinctly and realised that these matters had more to do with herself than with any of the other guests, in view of the harshness she had always displayed towards Nastagio.’ (Boccaccio, p. 706) She was so afraid of having the same fate as the naked woman that she convinced herself to love and marry Nastagio. He exploits this vision of Hell in order to manipulate a woman into loving him. This makes the reader think woman must obey men; however, Boccaccio is using this story to encourage reflection and again to address a gender issue. Boccaccio encourages the reader to reflect openly on his short stories, which in effect opens them to criticism as well. Although Boccaccio seems to be an advocate for women, Janet Lavarie Smarr uses her essay Speaking Women: Three Decades of Authoritative Females to highlight the fact that ‘arguments are easily found for both cases: that Boccaccio was a feminist ahead of his time, and that he shared the traditional or even misogynistic views of his era.’ Some novellas of The Decameron seem purely protofeminist, while others are open to debate.
In Mihoko Suzuki’s article within Comparative Literature Studies, he focuses on a specific issue in Boccaccio’s depiction of women, saying ‘despite this dedication to female readers, and despite the fact that seven of his ten storytellers are women, his tales — even those told by the women — most often take the point if view of the male protagonists, and many of the stories victimise female characters in the process.’  It is apparent that Boccaccio sometimes ‘[depicts] male protagonists using women for their own sexual satisfaction,’ (Suzuki, p. 233) showing the flaw in the still new and developing idea of early feminism. For example, in the Tenth Story of the Third Day, Alibech is tricked into thinking she is ‘putting the devil back in Hell’ (Boccaccio p. 459) by participating in intercourse with Rustico. Even though this may be shocking to the modern reader at first, Boccaccio is also praising the woman, saying that her ‘Hell’ is more sustainable and insatiable than a man’s ‘Devil’.
It is important to read The Decameron and recognise that Boccaccio’s view of women was at the time ‘revolutionary,’ and similar with any early view of women and feminism, there will be some flaws. The most recognisable aspect of Boccaccio’s Decameron is that he is sensitive towards women; he pities them. It is his sympathy that shows a glimpse into the development of protofeminism, for women were rarely ever pitied for the social situation in which they naturally faced. In her book The Invention Of The Renaissance Woman, Pamela Joseph Benson recognises this sympathy and admiration towards women in Boccaccio’s works, saying ‘a persuasive and sensitive profeminist voice emerges from the text, a voice that admires female political, moral and physical strength although it does not endorse a change in the contemporary political status of women.’  Boccaccio does not plainly say he thinks women should be treated better within his society. Alternatively, he encourages us as the readers to reflect on his work and to form our own opinions on the matter. Boccaccio uses his collection of novellas as an outlet for critical, social thinking. Although some of them may be more obviously feminist, others have underlying misogynistic aspects.
With Caterina and Ricciardo, he shows that love can be physical, even outside of marriage. In the story of Lisabetta and Lorenzo, he highlights the controlling aspects of male roles within a family. Nastagio’s story encourages women to do what they want instead of what men tell them to. Although the story of Caterina and Ricciardo promote a feminist ideal, it is still her father that offers the choice between violence or marriage. And even with Nastagio and Lisabetta, it is still the men who make the decisions for the women in order to encourage reflection. Despite these facts, it is important to take into consideration the time of The Decameron, and understand its impact over its misogyny. Boccaccio uses these stories to raise awareness for the wrongs society so acceptingly preforms against women; he advocates for their freedom from society’s moulds. Boccaccio’s Decameron is neither purely feminist nor purely misogynistic; the beauty of his work is its openness towards different interpretations. It challenges the audience’s way of thinking, and in doing so presents many new ideas to the public, which is a glimpse into the evolution of fourteenth century Florence and how writers have an impact on it.
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