Limitations of Horizon: Ideologies and Love In the Decameron and Heptameron
At the time that Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron became popular there were numerous similar works in circulation. Readers mainly enjoyed the tales as facile entertainment rather than literature, and most served merely to unconsciously reinforce the dominant ideologies of the time rather than interrogate or challenge them in any way. In light of this, it is unsurprising that the Decameron and Heptameron have remained great while similar works faded to obscurity. Unlike their contemporaries, the authors of these works employ not only superior technical skill throughout but also bring to their works perspectives that differ from the commonly accepted ideologies of their societies and call such conventions into question. Boccaccio, for example, used many of his stories to deconstruct the traditionally accepted social structure. In his eyes, rigid class systems were a social construct that led humanity away from God’s original order, an order that remained apparent through attention to human biology. In the First Story of the Fourth Day, a princess defends herself for taking a lover of a lower class, saying to her father,…consider for a moment the principles of things, and you will see that we are all of one flesh and that our souls were created by a single Maker, who gave the same capacities and powers and faculties to each. We were born equal, and still are, but merit first set us apart, and those who had more of it, and used it the most, acquired the name of nobles to distinguish them from the rest. Since then, this law has been obscured by a contrary practice, but nature and good manners ensure that its force still remains unimpaired; hence any man whose conduct is virtuous proclaims himself a noble, and those who call him by any other name are in error. (Boccaccio 297).In this speech it becomes clear that Boccaccio views the contemporary structure of society as an imposition upon humanity that runs “contrary” to the natural order (Boccaccio 297). This view can be seen consistently throughout the Decameron. One way in which it is manifest is through Boccaccio’s relatively gentle treatment of corrupt clergymen. In “Texts, Naked and Thinly Veiled: Erotic Elements in Medieval Italian Literature,” Christopher Kleinhenz argues that, when compared with the depictions of clergymen in contemporary works, Boccaccio’s stories are remarkably non-judgemental. For example, in the Second Tale of the Fourth Day, a man becomes a friar and convinces a silly woman to sleep with him by telling her that his body is inhabited by the Angle Gabriel. He is of course found out, but there is at least as much emphasis on the stupidity of the woman as on his own vileness, and he is spared death at the hands of her brothers in favour of public humiliation. Therefore, “In the end…he got the punishment he deserved, and repented in vain for the crimes he had committed” (Boccaccio 312). Kleinhenz argues that this lenient treatment of clergy who give in to sexual desire is symptomatic of Boccaccio’s greater underlying ideology that “all human beings” should be able to “act naturally and follow their natural desires, inclinations, and instincts to fulfillment” (102). The clergy are not the only ones to whom Boccaccio is lenient in their amorous desires. He appears to levy almost no judgement on adulterers or those who love outside of marriage, seeing them as adhering to the higher moral code of Nature rather than bending to the false and constricting moral code of society. Nearly every story begins with a pair of lovers separated by class. In the comic stories the lovers are victorious through a series of humorous circumstances.For example, in Tale 10 on the Fourth Day, a married woman and her lover succeed in tricking her husband and preventing him and the rest of the town from discovering them. The speaker concludes, “Their love continued to flourish, affording them greater and greater pleasure – which is what I should like to happen to me, except that I would not want to be stuffed inside a trunk” (Boccaccio 362). Here is a clear affirmation of adultery as an acceptable alternative to the loveless marriages forced upon people for the benefit of their families. The tragic stories, too, stem from the same perspective. Though they often end with at least one lover’s death, those left behind who originally imposed the lovers’ separation are nearly always repentant and see the error of their ways in upholding a socially constructed code over God’s natural moral order. Also following logically from this ideology is greater freedom and power of speech for women. R. Hastings argues in Nature and Reason in the Decameron, that in the Tenth Story of the First Day the speaker shows that “Nature…intends women to speak, else, [the speaker] implies, they would not physically be able to. Since Nature is morality in the Decameron, if Nature intended that women should speak, speak they shall, and any rule to the contrary is wrong” (2). However, despite this early endorsement of female equality, as the novel moves forward it retreats from this view. A series of stories concerning female empowerment and vocal women in Days 7 and 8 are followed in the final Days by stories that “try to delimit the power that women might wield,” even resorting to graphic violence in order to reinstate the absolute power of male authority (Migiel 149). Marylin Migiel argues in her book, A rhetoric of the Decameron, “It seems hardly coincidental that violence against women emerges when the very possibility of women’s empowerment does. The stories of the Decameron imply that if women gain power their power must remain limited by violent means if need be” (149).This contradiction at the heart of Boccaccio’s work is perhaps due to an inability to visualize true gender equality from the perspective of the misogynistic society in which he was writing. Though Boccaccio appears to have made great strides in rejecting the dominant ideology and affirming transgressions of conventional love in favour of class equality, these affirmations ultimately serve only to benefit men. Therefore, the resulting vision becomes one of a society in which there is only one true lower class: women. Though Marguerite’s Heptameron was written only a few years later, and though she too suffers from limitations of vision in a patriarchal society, she is able to partially succeed where Boccaccio failed in overturning oppressive male rhetoric. It is possible that this reflects subtle changes in society’s treatment of women; however, it is more likely a result of her more immediate understanding of the female position.One significant difference between the two works is that Marguerite is not so quick to affirm extramarital and premarital affairs, though she, like Boccaccio, locates the roots of adultery in patriarchal and class-oppressive systems. Boccaccio seems to write his stories as if society would be ultimately accepting of natural law if only enough lovers were brave enough to uphold it. He seems to believe that overt resistance is straightforward and always productive. Marguerite, however, writes with more attention to the complexity and reality of such situations. Unlike him, she pays more attention to the negative effects this has on women in particular. She recognizes the double standard men and women have for defining honour and the problems this poses for women who transgress conventional morality in favour of Nature’s moral code.The men throughout the Heptameron who attempt to seduce female lovers see honour as simply an appearance of chastity. The continually attempt to seduce women based on the argument that they are witty and capable of “protecting” her honour. So long as no one finds out, they consider her honour intact. There is a double standard, however, because these same men, were their own wives to subscribe to this view of honour, would consider her honour disgraced for committing the act of adultery. For example, in Day 1 of the Heptameron, Tale 6 shows how, in reality, for a woman to take a lover outside of marriage ends with her being scapegoated as the deceiving adulteress. Though men obviously recognize the difficulty of remaining chaste in arranged marriages and have no intention of doing so themselves, the women are punished far more harshly, and their adultery is attributed to their sinful female nature rather than to the oppressive system. Therefore this patriarchal double standard prevents the kind of uncomplicated rebellion present in the Decameron. It is not so simple to combat such a complex ideology when the punishment for the female lover is unequal to the punishment for the male.In an attempt to combat this difficulty, therefore, Marguerite does not simply write as if social censure is a minimal obstacle. Instead, as Patricia Francis Cholakian argues in her book, Rape and Writing in the Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre, Marguerite embraces the potential for female rhetoric, overturning traditional patriarchal stories in order to expose their oppressive nature and place women in the position of power. For example, Tale 8 of Day 1 is a retelling of a traditional story. In it a husband schemes to meet with his maid in a dark closet and after having her himself, unknown to her, exchange places with his friend so that he may enjoy her as well. The husband’s wife, however, discovers that the husband intends to meet with her maid, though not that he intends to trade places with his friend. Outraged, she determines to exchange places with the maid, but in doing so thereby unwittingly making her husband a cuckold. In the original version of the story the husband retains control. He does not tell his wife what has happened, dismissing the maid as the guilty one, and forcing his friend to remain silent. In this way he reinstates his authority, and the joke is at the expense of the unwitting wife.In Marguerite’s version, however, the husband is unable to maintain authority. His wife berates him until his is reduced to guilt and shame. He cannot keep control of the situation; the story gets out and it is he who is mocked for making himself a cuckold, while his wife’s honour remains intact. Therefore, in this version, the wife turns the tables of power against her husband, simultaneously revealing her “master’s” true nature and proving herself as still desirable (Cholakian 73). Therefore, through this female retelling of a male story, the subjective “place of women within marriage, the unquestioned potency of the husband, and the pact that unites men” are all undermined, “not to mention the [supposedly objective] signification of rape, honour and desire” (Cholakian 76). In this way, through appropriation of oppressive male rhetoric, Marguerite is able to not only challenge traditional ideologies but shift the position of power to the women in her stories.Despite this, however, ultimately, Marguerite also struggles to envision an equal gender society. In Tale 10, the longest and most complex story in the Heptameron, the narrator struggles to position the woman as the subject of what is traditionally and fundamentally a man’s story. Romance by definition situated the woman as the object, that of the male protagonist’s desires. The story is historical, a retelling of a famous warrior’s attempts to convince the married women of his affections to return his love, first through praise and later through physical force. Floride, the woman of his desires, manages to maintain her honour, though she is wounded both physically and emotionally, denying her own love for him in order to remain chaste. Cholakian contends, “Floride thus finds herself completely isolated in a system that simultaneously arouses and thwarts female desire” (95). She cannot give in to her love without losing her honour, but to maintain such honour requires her to fend off increasingly threatening advances and retreat from love altogether. Whereas the women of previous stories who rejected male advances did not love the men, Floride loves Amadour but still rejects him.The readers are left unsure, however, whether this means she is more virtuous than the women of the previous stories or whether “by portraying her heroine as subject to desire…Parlamente [confirms] the traditional construction of women’s rampant sexuality” (Cholakian 101). This is further confused by Parlamente’s inability to make the male listeners in the Heptameron recognize a female-centered Romance. Though the story is clearly meant to show Amadour’s lack of virtue in attempting to rape Floride on more than one occasion, nonetheless Geburon says that “in spite of” all Parlamente has said, the company may “rest assured” that this man, whom Geburon recognizes from her description, “was as noble and virtuous a knight as ever lived” (de Navarre 130).Cholakian argues, “To the men in the company, this is still a man’s story. Programmed to react to the masculine plot, they cannot assimilate the transposing of gender roles, represented symbolically by Amadour’s place in the bed” (Choakian 102). In light of this, the story ultimately, “like its heroine…fails to accomplish what it sets out to do. Although it demonstrates the split between the male and female honour, it does not solve the dilemma posed by female desire” (Cholakian 101). Therefore, love’s relationship with morality is highly complicated in the Heptameron by the seemingly inescapable trap into which women are placed by patriarchy. Their only options appear to be a nunnery or acceptance of whatever husband is chosen for them, despite his almost inevitable infidelity. To resist or take a lover, though it may be morally justified, means disgrace, heartbreak, and sometimes even death. The Decameron, therefore, seems to put forth a more positive ideology in which rebellious lovers are capable of overturning the oppressive systems of society. However, as has been discussed, this vision is not without its flaws, some of which are heavily interrogated in Marguerite’s Heptameron.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. London: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.Christopher Kleinhenz. “Texts, Naked and Thinly Veiled: Erotic Elements in MedievalItalian Literature.” Decameron Web. Web. 27 May 2011.Cholakian, Patricia Francis. Rape and Writing in the Heptameron of Marguerite deNavarre. United States: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. Questia. Web. 27 May 2011.Migiel, Marylin. A rhetoric of the Decameron. London: University of Toronto Press,2003. Google books. Web 27 May 2011.De Navarre, Marguerite. Heptameron. Digireads.com. Google books. Web. 27 May2011.
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At the time that Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron became popular there were numerous similar works in circulation. Readers mainly enjoyed the tales as facile entertainment rather […]