Boccaccio’s Decameron

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The DecameronI never read The Decameron in any original, or complete translation. I have a bowdlerized edition I read in part some time ago, perhaps the 1970s. I recall seeing an art film based on the book, in the 1970s (directed Pier Pasolini). But I can’t recall it in any detail, except that it was subtitled. I have an old Penguin edition upstairs, its pages yellowing, mostly unread, but saved for that time in my life I felt able to tackle it. Seems that time has come.

This week I found a copy of a recent translation of the Decameron at a local used book store, a revised Penguin edition,  It’s the same translator – McWilliam – as my old Penguin, but he has redone the book with a revised, updated translation and an enhanced introduction. For me, a comprehensive introduction is always a draw because I want to know about the author’s life, influences, style and times.

It occurred to me, as I stood there browsing it this week, that my literary education was severely lacking in not having read it. Which was all the justification I needed to buy it. Well, to be fair, I really need no justification to buy any book. Reading is such a great pleasure than it is its own reward. A life without books would be shallow, indeed. Oh how sad to have only the drivel in the local paper as one’s sole reading material!

The Decameron is a collection of 100 stories told by a group of young men (three) and women (seven) who had fled Florence to escape the Black Death and holed up  in a villa for ten days. To pass the time, they told one another stories. Some were moralistic, but many were about love. In many tales, fortune plays a role, mostly benign – which would contrast with the role fortune played in that other great Florentine’s work – Machiavelli’s The Prince.

It was written by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) between 1348 and 1353, shortly after the Black death laid waste to Florence. It is an important work because it comes in the period when the Middle Ages were ending and  the Renaissance beginning and it retains elements of both. As noted in the New Yorker in 2013:

Boccaccio wrote the book between 1348 and 1352, when the values of the Middle Ages (valor, faith, transcendence) were yielding to those of the Renaissance (enjoyment, business, the real). The Middle Ages were by no means over. Boccaccio’s young ladies do not assemble in real meadows, where bugs might crawl up their dresses. They gather in ideal fields. Birds sing; jasmine perfumes the air. The animals don’t know to be afraid of humans: little rabbits come and sit with the young people. This is the locus amoenus, or “pleasant place,” of ancient and medieval pastoral poetry. It is a sort of paradise, and that is what it is based on: Eden.
Social relations, too, are idealized, and imbued with the conventions of medieval courtly love… The dominant notes of the Decameron are this realism and cheer and disorderliness, but, whatever you say about the book, something else arises to contradict you. Though Boccaccio insists on Renaissance earthiness, he makes room for elegant medievalisms.

The writer adds,

,,,the high spirits of the Decameron have political force. They help make the book proto-democratic. Boccaccio probably wasn’t trying to raise the humble. Yet, because he clearly liked these people, he did raise them.

Boccaccio was a near-contemporary of another of the great literary geniuses, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), whose works I greatly enjoy. There are many similarities in style between The Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer may have even met Boccaccio on his trip to Italy in 1373. Some of his stories in the Canterbury Tales are drawn directly from The Decameron.

Boccaccio was also a contemporary of the poet Petrarch, whom he met and revered as his master and model. He also revered Dante and wrote a commentary on the first 17 cantos of the Divine Comedy.

Both Boccaccio and Chaucer’s stories include the bawdy with the social commentary. There’s a pleasant earthiness in Chaucer that I have been led to believe is also in Boccaccio, but how it comes across depends greatly on the translator. In the past, translators shied away from vulgarity, but more modern ones accept it as the nature of the work. As Joan Acocella wrote in the New Yorker of Rebhorn’s recent version:

Most of the tales also describe, not politely, how people had sex, and dealt with bathroom matters. Glancing down the table of contents of Dubin’s volume, we find the following titles: “The Knight Who Made Cunts Talk,” “The Piece of Shit,” “The Mourner Who Got Fucked at the Grave Site,” “The Peasant’s Fart.” The words used here have not been adjusted to conform to modern immodesty; the translation is literal. In “The Piece of Shit,” a man actually eats one, though it’s his wife’s, and small.
This is fun, until you get tired of it. A fuck is always a “fuck,” regardless of what was presumably one episode’s difference from another… He is probably Western literature’s foremost master of sexual euphemism.

My McWilliam translation doesn’t have such brief – and pithy – titles, but rather the table of contents has brief descriptions of the stories themselves, running two to four lines each. I suspect I will discover McWilliam finds other ways to express the words than outright profanity. After all, he is a scholar, not some NINJA blogger.

Both authors took not a few swings at religion – mostly at the behaviour of monks and priests rather than at beliefs themselves. The corruption of the church and venality of many higher officials was a topic that had been around for centuries before Boccaccio, and neither author was afraid to throw a pointed remark about it into their tales.

In an essay on the similarities, Nicole Smith wrote:

The similarities in each of these works of medieval literature that are identified include both authors’ concern with representing the temporal setting of the stories, the use of the frame narrative technique in both tales, and the authors’ clever use of morality and its opposite in order to convey messages and meaning about their society and time… While both authors provoke thought about issues of love, marriage, and sex through humorous repartee, they are far from advocating promiscuity or infidelity. Boccaccio and Chaucer, though, use their narrators to advance their individual perspectives about fidelity and infidelity… The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales are entertaining and thought-provoking narratives that give the reader a window into the Medieval Period, as well as into the very heart of human relationships. The fact that both of these texts endure in the literary canon centuries after they were written seems to suggest that their themes are universal and timeless; thus, both can continue to be instructive and entertaining for the contemporary reader.

That timelessness of human emotion is, in part,  one of the reasons we can still read, enjoy and be entertained by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes and all the great authors before our own time. I’m not sure about instructive, because the morality of authors before the 20th century was very much shaped by the religious and social cultures they were raised in. From my admittedly non-scholarly perspective, few authors before then were able to mount a significant challenge to the church, its morals, corruption or practices through their fiction.

From what I’ve read online, Chaucer not only took some of Boccaccio’s style and stories, he expanded on both, creating not simply a plagiarized work but something reborn and remade. Whole cloth, as it were, from Boccaccio’s yarn.

Both works also have a lot in common with the Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights, also a great favourite of mine that I am still working my way through), although it is unlikely either ever read it (although Arabic versions have been around since the 9th century, it doesn’t seem to have been commonly shared until the 12th, and it wasn’t translated into French until the very early 18th century). It’s also like The Golden Ass of Apuleius. This sort of story-within-a-story framework had a long tradition, older than either author, and seems to be cross-cultural.

Anyway, this is all mere musing on The Decameron as I settle in to read it in its entirety for the first time. I will admit that I like having Chaucer in the Middle English as well as a modernized version, so I can work my way through the language and delight in deciphering it. With Boccaccio, I don’t have that particular pleasure.

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