There are a number of conundrums about Boccaccio’s Decameron – a collection of bawdy tales set in the Plague year of 1348 – that can’t be solved by reading it. How was it written? Why was it written? For whom was it written? And what has made it so enduring?
For starters, we know that it was written between 1349 and 1353 – nearly 100 years before the invention of the printing press, meaning that all 600 printed pages were originally hand-written with a quill pen. Furthermore, it contains precisely 100 “tales,” plus another dozen or so interstitial chapters that tell the overarching story of 10 young noble persons, seven women and three men, each telling a tale a night for 10 nights. It is a very long book, designed to while away the hours during oh, I don’t know, voluntary isolation as a result of a major epidemic of a potentially fatal disease…
As to who it was written for, in all likelihood, Boccaccio wrote The Decameron for an audience exactly like the characters in his book – wealthy Italian nobles holed away in their country villas waiting for the Plague to go away. In other words, his book was the 14th century equivalent of Netflix.
And what is it that these wealthy young people like to hear about as they loll on their divans? Stories about sex, chiefly, followed by tales of revenge, cruel raillery, practical joking, and the capricious twists of fortune that turn lives upside down from joy to sorrow, and sometimes back again. This short list makes up the bulk of plot types found in Boccaccio’s epic collection.
The people of the 14th century, being serfs, were generally a rough lot, but the rich nobles of The Decameron are above all that, painted as the very picture of courtesy with their cultivated speech and ways. Nevertheless, they relish wild tales, full of rape, murder, trickery, and revenge. They take it as the way of things, not just for the poor and ignorant but all the way up to the rich and marginally educated. The concept of goodness for its own sake seems not to exist in their world. Nobles are noble in name only. Otherwise, their actions are just as brutal and self-centered as anyone else’s. Here is perhaps a comment on human nature, laid bare as it was by this pestilential calamity that seemed to bring out people’s worst tendencies. We should not be surprised however. Kindness led to death in Plague-scoured Europe. In such times, it was every man for himself.
To their credit, the women of Boccaccio’s book show more mercy and kindness than their male counterparts. Indeed, it is their duty as women to do so. Unlike men, noblewomen were granted a license to be good, as if to keep that impulse alive in an otherwise harsh world where few could afford to be virtuous.
For a modern reader, it’s not easy to slog through the assorted atrocities of The Decameron, which at times leaves you shaking your head in disbelief that people could have been that bad. One is tempted to dismiss the book as a form of Medieval pornography or the Plague-induced fantasies of a bored young scribe with nothing better to do. In fact, the 100 tales collected in this book are not Boccaccio’s original invention but taken from other collections of tales from around Europe. In this sense, Boccaccio was more a translator than an author, although even this is no detraction, for what a window on the Medieval mindset he provides.
There are many less obvious points worth noting. Boccaccio’s description of the relationship (and relations) between men and women warrants an essay of its own. To begin with, he makes it clear that the notion of male lust and its prerogatives was broadly accepted in 14th century Europe. In their world, men lust after women and when in the grips of such lust, they may, if possible, coerce or trick a woman into having sex with them. There are numerous examples in The Decameron of women being raped, tricked, or forced to “lie with” men. It’s the price of being beautiful, we are told. Lustful behavior is simply a fact of nature.
The preeminence of Nature in these stories might come as a surprise to any reader who supposes that the Middle Ages were a time of piety. Far from it! This was an age in which God, the supreme being, was very much overshadowed by that other deity, the goddess of Nature, whose actions were more obvious and concrete than the future-focused promises of the Judeo-Christian god.
If there is a belief in an afterlife among late Medieval people, it’s not discernible in The Decameron. For these people, life on earth is all there is and you should enjoy it, for one day, any day really, you could be extinguished just like that. Bubonic Plague did not kid around – it killed its victims in a matter of hours. Once they die, people are said to be “in the grave,” not with the angels in Heaven. In Boccaccio’s stories, God and his saints do not intervene, and prayers are not even offered, much less answered.
The conclusion of The Decameron is as puzzling as the rest of the book. After 10 days in the most wonderful conditions imaginable, with sumptuous meals, restorative gardens, and the constant tinkling of fountains bringing pleasure upon pleasure, our young isolationists decide to return to Florence. This defies all modern logic since the risk of Plague in the cities has not abated. However, our heroes have good reasons for their seeming madness.
Firstly, they feel certain that their hide-out will eventually be discovered by other refugees who will invade them, thus destroying their blissful refuge. More humorously, they’re also afraid that if they keep telling each other salacious stories, sooner or later, someone will crack and then their virtue will be lost. Taken together, these are considered risks not worth taking,
And so, good fatalists that they are, they pack up their belongings and return to their mansions in the city where they will take their chances on their own. Their vacation from the Plague is over. They must now return to the real world with all its ills.
What did Fate bring them upon their return? If the estimates from the time are even remotely correct, nearly half of them would have died. But Boccaccio’s aim was not to terrify his auditors but to amuse them. And here is where God enters into the equation. For if it is God’s will that you shall live, so you shall. Otherwise, Death with his scythe will sweep you away, according to his whim. Nothing personal, you understand. It’s just the way of things. Or, to quote Donald Trump, “It is what it is.”