Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1957


Giovanni Boccaccio writes his “Decameron” in the trecento, the Italian 14th century understood in terms of its cultural history. The heyday of the visual arts, music, and literature marks the transition from the Late Middle Ages to the Renaissance. An approach to the Decameron in 10 keywords.


1      Lovesickness: The preface states that the following tales have been collected in order to provide comfort to all those unhappy creatures suffering the pains of unrequited love. Stories are the best medicine, then and now.


2      Feminism: As a 21st century woman it is easy to disagree with Boccaccio on his image of women. Understood in the context of its time, however, it can be a source of great amusement. Here’s a preview: “Remember [...] how little reasonable women are among themselves and how ill, without some man’s guidance, they know how to order themselves. We are fickle, wilful, suspicious, faint-hearted and timorous.”


3      Numbers: “Decameron” literally means “created in ten days”. Within the framework of the text, it means that 10 fictional characters take 10 days to tell 10 stories a day so that the collection comprises 100 novellas. In the literary-historical context the number 100 points, among others, to the 100 cantos, or songs, of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.


4      Narrative: The 100 novellas are embedded in a frame narrative. When the plague wreaks havoc in Florence, a group of young aristocratic Florentines decide to flee to the countryside and pass the time by telling each other stories.


5      Novelline: The stories are all numbered and followed by a short synopsis before the actual story begins. The “Fifth Story”, for instance, is announced like this: “The Marchioness of Monferrato, with a dinner of hens and certain sprightly words, curbeth the extravagant passion of the King of France.”


6      Eroticism: Many of the stories are of a bawdy or erotic nature, which often contributes to the entertainment value of this collection of novellas. And yet, one should not reduce this influential literary work to the status of light fiction.


7      Morality: Central to the “Decameron” is its inquiry into the good and virtuous life, social order and morality. Here, Boccaccio repeatedly breaks with the Church’s absolute concept of good an evil that has dominated the Middle Ages.


8      Plague: Boccaccio needs the plague in the frame narrative to think about morality outside of the established conventions. He asks: What happens if we suspend our traditional standards of morality? In and through the stories the Florentines work out a new moral and societal framework for their existence, and replace the God-given, absolute morality with a dialogically developed, human one.


9      Early humanism: In this respect the Decameron marks a transition from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period, from a religious to a humanist world view. The afterlife is no longer the absolute point of reference against which human actions in this life are measured. Life on earth has its own dimensions, even if limited by time, and requires moral standards which are flexible and can be made to accommodate the range of human action from case to case.


10   Influence: Boccaccio’s Decameron is an important model for modern collections of novellas. Geoffrey Chaucer presents an English version with his “Canterbury Tales”, and Goethe’s “Conversations of German Refugees” are also modelled on the Italian format.


by Teresa Teklić




Signet Sunflower Foundation