Posted by: mmkelly | November 30, 2009

Boccaccio’s Decameron

Boccaccio’s Decameron completely overturns modern stereotypes of the Middle Ages, granting the characters in his story a diverse and realistic array of motivations and impulses. While he certainly pays homage to the cultural centrality of ideas about chivalry, he also undermines these ideas by acknowledging the hypocrisy which underlies the application of chivalric ideas; though overtly Christian, Boccaccio has no qualms about making explicit and extremely focused attacks upon the corruption and excess of the Catholic Church; and though written in a time with extremely proscribed class and gender roles, he constantly provides subalterns with opportunities to upturn the social hierarchy and achieve a fairly real social parity. The Decameron is an amazingly bold work. It is written in a no-holds-barred style, often making shockingly explicit sexual references, and it demonstrates the full extent of medieval culture, unearthing the realities that people dealt with beneath the stated veneers of chivalry and faith. Boccaccio presents, through stories often fantastic and romantic, a fairly just world full of opportunities….Is it realistic or idealistic—hard to say.

The central feature of the book, as Boccaccio states in his introduction, is love and the variety of emotions that it evokes. Boccacio sees loves as taking place between a dichotomy of pain and pleasure—“In these tales will be found a variety of love adventures, bitter as well as pleasing, and other exciting incidents, which took place in both ancient and modern times” (3) he explains in the introduction—mirroring both the “inordinate amount of distress” as well as the “abiding sensation of pleasure” (1) that he has felt in his own life. Consequently, the tales in their depiction of love often switch between emotional opposites—a long-endured pain is finally transformed into the ultimate pleasure of sexual attainment and a joyous love is shattered in eternal separation. This attitude also conveys a key aspect of Boccaccio’s understanding of love: the game of love is winner-take-all—to lose is absolute pain and death, while to win is absolute pleasure and life—and therefore ordinarily repugnant behavior is justified.

Of course, the repugnant behavior that Boccaccio describes and sometimes lauds was a new development. Indeed, the author claims that it was during the plague of 1348 that a great change occurred in society, making it “inevitable that among the citizens who survived there arose certain customs that were quite contrary to the established tradition” (9). People adapted to the plague in different ways—some “of the opinion that a sober and abstemious mode of living considerably reduced the risk of infection” and others maintaining “that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, gratify all of one’s cravings whenever the opportunity offered, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke” (7)—and Boccaccio aligns himself emphatically with the latter. Overall, he justifies his sexualized perspective on contemporary Italian society as realistic: with the coming of the plague, “all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city” (7-8) and because women were being treated for disease, and therefore exposing their bodies to strange men, those who recovered “were possibly less chaste in the period that followed” (9). (This certainly parallels Thucydides analysis of the social effects of the plague in Athens).

Females, in the Decameron, are presented ambivalently: Boccaccio often overtly describes them as the weaker sex, yet in many stories gives them great agency to pursue their own happiness and generally treats them as equals, and not as objects. While setting up the Decameron’s frame, one of the seven ladies states, “[we] must remember that we are all women, and every one of us is sufficiently adult to acknowledge that women when left to themselves, are not the most rational of creatures, and that without the supervision of some man or other their capacity for getting things done is somewhat restricted. We are fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, cowardly, and easily frightened…” (17). And yet, as the stories progress, women always seem to make decisions and to take part in trickery. Several deceive poorly acting husbands, others pursue an unrequited love, and some even manage to climb the precipitous medieval social ladder.

One prime example of Boccaccio’s positive depiction of women is in the introduction to a story told by one of the ladies. She begins by declaiming the current materialism of current women, stating that “She who sees herself tricked out in the most elaborate finery, with the largest number of gaudy stripes and speckles, believes that she should be much more highly respected and more greatly honored than other women, forgetting that if someone were to dress an ass in the same clothes or simply load them on its back, it would still carry a great deal more than she could, nor would this be any reason for paying it greater respect than you would normally accord an ass” (63). A true and virtuous women, therefore, is not a decoration—as much medieval romance would have you imagine—but a thoughtful human. In comparison to his predecessors, Dante and Petrarch, who generally treated women as abstract objects of inspiration, Boccaccio adopts a surprisingly enlightened view upon gender roles.

Perhaps most remarkable is the description of women’s sexual desires and needs as being excessive of men’s. Several stories feature old men who have acquired young wives, but fail to keep them satisfied. After all, “a fresh and vigorous young woman needs something more than food and clothes, even if modesty forbids her to say so” (183). In several stories, a man who believes himself lucky to have seduced a beautiful woman, finds himself taxed by the woman’s sexual demands. One man finds himself as the sole sexual provider for an entire nunnery, a task that quickly exhausts him. Certainly this violates many medieval stereotypes about gender roles—women are not purified objects set atop a pedestal, but are lusty and sinful human beings capable of the same, if not stronger, emotions as men.

Continuing a theme shared with other members of the fourteenth-century Italian canon, the Decameron regularly criticizes the contemporary corruption of the Catholic Church. While this criticism is slightly moderated by the book’s undoubting Christian faith, the absolute distrust of the Christian Church is undisguised. The first story, the tale of Ser Ciappelletto, tells the story of a entirely corrupt man who lies his way into sainthood. Indeed, “the fame of his saintliness, and of the veneration in which he was held, grew to such proportions that there was hardly anyone who did not pray for his assistance in time of trouble, and they called him, and call him still, Saint Ciappelletto” (36). However, the storyteller presents this troubling tale of ecclesiastical corruption with a positive message. Ser Ciappelletto, despite the menace he poses to Catholicism, demonstrates the truth of Christianity: for “how very great is God’s loving-kindness towards us, in that it takes account, no of our error, but of the purity of our faith, and grants our prayers even when we appoint as our emissary one who is His enemy, thinking him to be His friend, as though we were appeaing to one who was truly holy as our intercessor for our favor” (37). The Church’s temporal corruption demonstrates the benevolence of the Christian God, who accepts prayer even though it comes in such a convoluted manner. Similarly, in story 1.2, when the Jewish man travels to Rome to seek conversion to the Christian faith, he is ironically drawn to Christianity not by the purity of the Church but by its impurity: upon seeing the moral decay of Rome, he remarks that only a true religion could withstand such corruption and degradation and still survive.

This distrust of the Church is reflected in a distrust of the churches messengers. Priests, nuns, and monks are often portrayed as fools, deviants, and hypocrites. One story begins with a long diatribe against the priesthood which, according to the storyteller, “consists for the most part of extremely stupid men, inscrutable in their ways, who consider themselves in all respects more worthy and knowledgeable than other people, whereas they are decidedly inferior. They resemble pigs, in fact, for they are too feeble-minded to earn an honest living like everybody else, and so they install themselves wherever they can fill their stomachs” (205-6). Throughout the book, priests are lusty, nuns are lascivious, and the entire Church is indicted as more corrupt than the society they are trying to purify.

Sex, in the Decameron, is often conflated with Love. One woman explains her adultery away by claiming that “The fact is that I am unable, in my husbands absence, to withstand the promptings of the flesh and the powers of Love” (150). That is, “Love” or sexual desire drives her to seek sexual satisfaction from someone else. The entire book operates on a similar conception of Love that subsumes idealistic and chivalric notions with pragmatic realities. For instance in the story of Bernabo (2.9), a character attacks Bernabo’s depiction of his wife as an utterly pure creature by arguing that he must have “not devoted enough attention to the study of human nature…When the rest of us spoke so freely about our womenfolk, we were merely facing facts, and so as not to let you run away with the idea that we suppose our wives any different from ours, I would like to pursue this subject a little further with you” (167). Sexual transgressions are, in fact, assumed in this highly practical world, for “What chance do you think a women, fickle by nature, can have against all the entreaties, the blandishments, the presents, and the thousand other expedients to which any intelligent lover will resort?” (167).

Two final points are worth mentioning. First, the entire idea of honor is based upon an acknowledged separation between a public “truth” and a private reality. A woman might lose her virginity to a man—an act that should entail her loss of honor—but the loss of honor only occurs once the loss of virginity becomes public knowledge. There is an acknowledged hypocrisy here—people believe that laws can be escaped from, that they don’t have to obeyed as much as respected. Secondly, Boccaccio gives us several heroes who act with incredible deceit. In 3.6, we have a character who completely deceives and manipulates a woman into having sex with him under false pretenses—an act which ultimately ends positively for him. Upon confrontation by the woman, our hero exclaims, “Save my soul, do not upset yourself so. What I was unable to achieve by mere wooing, Love has taught me to obtain by deception. I am your Ricciardo.” Deceit in the name of love is encouraged in the book, and it is something often ennobled rather than despised.

Perhaps, then, because of his pragmatic attitudes and willingness to deceive, we should consider Boccaccio to be the Machiavelli of Italian Romance.



  1. Thank you so much for such a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the Decameron. I am about to write a term paper on it, and this was the perfect source to spark possible thesis ideas! By far the best review of it that I could find!!

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