The Decameron (Penguin Classics)

The Decameron - G.H. McWilliam, Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron, by Giovanni Bocaccio ****


Bocaccio followed hot on the heels of Dante but in many ways the books for which they are both known could not be more different. “The Decameron” is almost the exact opposite of Dante’s “Comedia”, written in prose instead of poetry, concerned with things earthy rather than divine, governed by the number ten instead of the famous “threes”, and telling many disparate stories rather than one.


Set in Florence during the days of the black plague, seven women and three men set out from the city for a villa in the countryside in the hopes of escaping the many horrors of the plague. Upon arrival, they take measures to arrange for their entertainment during their stay. They decide to devote a certain amount of time every day to telling stories, each of them taking turns acting as a sort of “master of the revels”, deciding what the topic of the stories is to be. The topics range from how women contrive to fool men to stories of unrequited love, to how people have saved themselves through quick wits and clever tongues. The stories themselves run the gamut from lowbrow potty humor, to adventure on the high seas, to tales of honor and nobility.


There are, however, several themes that are common to nearly all the stories. The first of these is romantic, erotic love. Passions run wildly amok in the Decameron, often with hilarious results. Though tragedy is not completely avoided, the prologue makes it clear that these people have had their fill of tragedy. They are on vacation to lighten their souls and do so by making each other laugh. So it is that there is not a man or woman who made it to their wedding night a virgin, not a husband or wife who was not cheating or being cheated, not a monk or nun who did not think it was better to ask forgiveness for violating their vows of chastity than face the temptation and win.


It should be noted that the Decameron is not gratuitous and avoids descending into mere pornography. Lewd, ribald, bawdy, yes, but Bocaccio’s goal was to entertain and educate, not merely titillate. He preserved stories that came to him from multiple sources, many of which would go on to inspire future authors. At least two of the stories from the Decameron wound up in the plays of Shakespeare.


Another theme that runs through many of the stories is a critique of the church, and in this Bocaccio parallels Dante. The excesses of Rome and many of its prelates were common knowledge at their time. Bocaccio, like his great predecessor, pulls no punches. They were the great reformers of their day, exposing the avarice and lechery that ran rampant through the church. In one of the earliest stories, a merchant daily exhorts one of his best friends, a Jew, to convert and become a Christian. The Jew, a devout and intelligent man, decides to visit Rome in order to inspect the most important city in Christendom. The merchant, knowing full well what his friend will discover there, attempts to dissuade his friend, but to no avail. The Jew goes to Rome and is disgusted by what he sees. Nevertheless, upon his return, he is baptized as a Christian. The merchant is baffled and asks for an explanation. His friend replies to the effect that if Christianity is able to spread so far and so fast in spite of the perversions of Rome, then God must be at work through the church.


One of the most interesting sections of the book is the last day. After nine days of stories that are mostly lewd, the king of the day asks that the storytellers tell tales of nobility. What happens is surprising. Whereas before it seemed that each was trying to outdo the other in lewdness, they now try to outstrip each other in honor, each telling tales of self-sacrifice greater than the one before. I think Bocaccio touches on an important truth here. We all have a tendency to want to do our neighbor one better. We are competitive creatures and we will compete no matter what the arena or contest. Set a goal of telling the dirtiest story and we will descend into the muck and start digging. Set a more lofty goal and we will start with ladders, move to mountains, and then look for wings. It is a worthy thing to compete for the title of doing the most good for the most people; everyone wins.


The Decameron was an enjoyable, if challenging, experience. It is not for the faint of heart. If you are easily offended by bawdy content, steer well clear. But for those who are not, and are looking for more than titillation, the Decameron holds much that makes it worth reading.