Monthly Archives: March 2020

Let’s Read: The Decameron: Part I

What is this? Why am I doing this? You should have read the introduction!


Boccaccio starts by addressing his presumed audience, us “fairest ladies,” concerned that due to our compassionate and sensitive nature, may have difficultly of recounting details of the plague, we might end up in “an endless torrent of tears and sobbing.” But he assures us that once we get through said torrent, the reading will bring us great pleasure, using a spate of metaphors lifted straight from Dante.

He then describes the events of the Black Death on Florence, to set the scene for the tale to come. Some choice excerpts:

“But whatever its cause, it had originated some years earlier in the East, where it had claimed countless lives before it unhappily spread westward, growing in strength as it swept relentlessly on from one place to the next.”

“All sick persons were forbidden entry, and numerous instructions were issued for safeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail.”

“For in the early spring of the year we have mentioned, the plague began, in a terrifying and extraordinary manner, to make its disastrous effects apparent.”

“But what made this pestilence even more severe was that whenever those suffering from it mixed with people who were still unaffected, it would rush upon these with the speed of a fire racing through dry or oily substances that happened to come within its reach. Nor was this the full extent of its evil, for not only did it infect healthy persons who conversed or had any dealing with the sick… but it also seemed to transfer the sickness to anyone touching the clothes or other objects which had been handled or used by the victims.”

Boccaccio informs us of a “remarkable story,” that he would not have believed himself unless he had seen it personally, that of two pigs who chewed on the rags of a plague victim and dropped dead within minutes. We should be reminded that Boccaccio is an entertainer and not to be taken as historical fact.

He goes into the reactions people had to the plague, isolation and moderation, revelry in the face of destruction, or fleeing as far into the countryside as they could. But pretty much nothing worked.

The people who fell ill depended on their servants (here’s his upper-class viewpoint: servants don’t really count as people), and since so many servants died off, the ones that remain were either ill-trained or price gougers. Also women had to employ male servants, which led to a decrease in their chastity, due to increased comfort disrobing around men.

He talks about the sheer number of corpses, the greed of the corpse handlers, and that they were dumped in mass graves at whichever church was available.

And so on. It paints a pretty dark picture… but according to our translator, it was actually based on plague descriptions from the 8th century Historia Langobardorum. Again, Boccaccio’s presumed eye-witness account is anecdote and stolen history.

We go on to meet our protagonists. Again, it is presented as a true story, relayed to him by a trusty source. Seven young ladies meet at the deserted church of Santa Maria Novella. (See the assumed wordplay in the name of the Church, the word Novella, the form of the work itself.)

Boccaccio had previously written another work, the Comedia Delle Ninfe Florentine, something of a proto-Decameron, featuring seven Nymphs, who shared some of the same names. It is generally assumed that the seven ladies represent the Seven Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, Justice, Charity, Hope, and Faith. (Commentators disagree on who precisely represents what.)

The seven ladies, it happened, were all known to each other, and were unmarried and between eighteen and twenty-seven years of age. (Both multiples of 9, another lucky number. See Dante’s obsession with the number nine in his Vita Nuova, the poetry he wrote as a young idealist, as opposed to his more famous work, written as a jaded old man.) To be unmarried at that age is pretty unlikely, but contributes to the fairy-tale feel of the framing story.

“All were intelligent, gently bred, fair to look upon, graceful in bearing, and charmingly unaffected.”

Boccaccio assures us they were real people, and he could tell you their actual names, but declines to do so because of the scandalous nature of some of the tales and gossip told by and to them, so gives them pseudonyms based on their character.

(Consider this device as used by Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson is always referring to his cases with pseudonyms, for risk of offending or revealing controversy.)

The names of the ladies, and the Translator’s suggestion as to the meanings, in order from oldest to youngest (as introduced by Boccaccio):

Pampinea: “full of vigor”

Fiammetta: “little flame”

Filomena: “the beloved/lover of song”

Emilia: “she who allures”

Lauretta: Diminutive form of Laura, name of Petrarch’s beloved

Neifile: “Newly enamored” (possibly a reference to the Dolce Stl Novo literary movement, a name coined by Dante.)

Elissa: An alternate name for Queen Dido of Carthage, perhaps meaning “Oath of God”

(Which makes Elissa, Neifile and Lauretta references to the works of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch, respectively.)

After some prayers and collective sighing, Pampinea in a lengthy speech suggests that instead of idling about, they should all go together to a single place and hang out together, sending whatever servants are still alive ahead to do the actual work of setting up the place. And then everyone clapped.

Then Filomena “being more prudent than others” says that they need to find some men:

“You must remember that we are all women… [and women] are not the most rational of creatures.” She lists a litany of the character failings of women.

Elissa brings up some objections, not about whether or not it is true, but rather the practicality of finding men of suitable character during the plague, who could serve as boon companions without inciting scandal.

Fortunately for everyone, right then three young gentlemen arrive, each of them a paramour of one of the seven ladies.

Their names, and their meanings:

Panfilo: “all loving”

Filostrato: “defeated by love”

Dioneo: This is a masculization of “Dione,” the mother of Aphrodite.

According to scholar Victoria Kirkham, these fellows represent Reason, Anger, and Lust, which seems legit.

It doesn’t take long to sell the three gentlemen on the plan, and soon all the preparations are made, and the next day they set out to their destination, a palace in the countryside. Boccaccio gives a long description of the area and the palace itself, which again has a sort of fairy-tale essence, surrounded by picturesque wilderness.

“And on their arrival the company discovered, to their no small pleasure, that the place had been cleaned from top to bottom, the beds in the rooms were made up, the whole house was adorned with seasonable flowers of every description, and the floors had been carpeted with rushes.”

To keep some semblance of order, Pampinea is unanimously elected queen, and the custom is established that at the end of each day, leadership will be handed off to another member of the party. She delegates all the collected servants to various tasks, and then lets everyone wander about the nearby meadows, singing, dancing, waving garlands about, etc.

After lunch and an afternoon siesta, Pampinea gathers everyone and suggests that they spend the hottest part of the afternoon telling stories, each person sharing one. And thus, we get to the good stuff.


All these stories have a short description before them, which quite succinctly sums up the tale, including the ending. I have chosen to omit these. I guess the concept of spoiler warnings hadn’t been invented yet.

Panfilo’s story starts with a monologue praising God and His marvelous works, and says that he will tell a story so astonishing the listener will be super impressed with God or something.

The story involves Musciatto Franzesi, and his associate Ser Cepperello. Franzesi is a real person, and lots of these stories feature real people, sometimes as the main character of the story, of as a jumping off point, again with the effect of suggesting that these are real events that actually happened.

Anyway, Franzesi has a number of business affairs to attend to, and has to delegate them to various agents, which for most of the tasks is easy enough. The trouble is he has some business in Burgundy, and as Boccaccio tells us, the Burgundians are all dishonest untrustworthy villains. He needs someone just as villainous to do business with them, to make sure he doesn’t get swindled. So he settles on Ser Cepperello, who owes him several favors.

Ser Cepperello developed the nickname Ciappelletto in Paris, which means ‘little log,’ which is probably a dick joke.

Thus starts a lengthy accounting of Ciappelletto’s various misdeeds and sins: a forger, a giver of false testimony for fun and profit, murderer, blasphemer, a thief, a glutton, and a promiscuous bisexual:

“Of women he was a s fond as dogs are fond of a good stout stick; in their opposite, he took greater pleasure than the most depraved man on earth.”

Panfilo sums up: “He was perhaps the worst man ever born.”

Ciappelletto heads to Burgundy, where he stays with two Florentine moneylenders, however he comes down with a fatal illness. The brothers are concerned what to do: if they kick him out they will be known for refusing a sick man hospitality, but if Ciappelletto dies in their house, eventually the locals will discover who he was and how depraved he was, and run the two Florentines out of town. What to do?

No problem, says Ciappelletto, who was eavesdropping. He has no problem giving a false confession- he’s done so many sins, what’s one more to cap off his life? “So go and bring me the holiest and ablest friar you can find, if there is such a one, and leave everything to me.”

They are doubtful, but go and find the friar, who meets with Ciappelletto, and asks when his last confession was, “who had never been to confession in his life,” states that he tries to go to confession at least once a week, preferably more, and that his practice in Confession is to confess all of his sins over his whole life. He asks the friar to question him regarding the sins he might have committed.

Thus, he gives confession: he is a virgin, but does not want to be seen as prideful in admitting so, when asked if he has committed gluttony, he admits to being a glutton, since while fasting on bread and water he would sometimes have a craving “for those dainty little wild herb salads that women eat when they go away to the country” and drank too much water.

For avarice he regrets that he is a merchant by trade to sustain himself, and gives the rest to charity, but worries it is not enough. For wrath, he gets angry at sinners. He once spoke ill of a man who beat his wife. He was a liar: he once discovered he had been overpaid by four pennies, and was never able to track down the other party to give them back, and ended up giving them to a beggar.

And finally, his greatest sin of all, which he worries he will not be forgiven for: as a child, he cursed his mother.

Throughout this whole thing, the friar assures him that his sins are not so bad, but Ciappelletto insists they are.

Once he dies, Ciappelletto is taken to the church, and given extreme unction and burial with honors. The friar gives a eulogy praising the life of Ciappelletto, urging everyone to live by his example. After that, the people of the town began to venerate Ciappelletto as a saint, and then something very extraordinary happened: prayers made in the name of Saint Ciappelletto were granted, and miracles performed.

Panfilo ends his story with a reminder of the glory of God: so great is He that he answers prayers, even if they are addressed to a false Saint who is surely burning in hell.


Neifile tells us another story of God’s glory. She tells us of two Parisians, Jehannot de Chevigny, a Christian merchant, and his friend Abraham, a Jewish merchant, both men honest and worthy.

Jehannot is concerned about the soul of his friend Abraham, who is such a good man that it would be a shame for him to go to hell because of his faith. Won’t Abraham convert to Christianity? Abraham rebuffs this. Their discussions go on, and eventually Abraham says, perhaps driven by Jehannot’s persistence, that if you want me to convert to Christianity, I’m going to have to go see Rome, and observe the behavior of the Pope and Cardinals before he makes his decision.

Jehannot does not like this condition, for Rome is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Why go all the way to Rome? It’s so far, and no one likes boats, and this is Paris, there are plenty of canons here. We’ll go on a pilgrimage later, it’ll be fun. A road trip! How about it?

Abraham is insistent, and soon sets out to Rome. Jehannot despairs: “He was quite certain that Abraham would never become a Christian, once he had seen the court of Rome.”

Abraham witnesses all sorts of depravity in Rome, greedy and lusty priests, with pretty much no sin beyond them. He returns to Paris and his friend Jehannot, and reports what he has seen.

“As far as I can judge, it seems to me that your pontiff, and all of the others too, are doing their level best to reduce the Christian religion to nought and drive it from the face of the earth, whereas they are the very people who should be its foundation and support.”

However since despite of all this Christianity is waxing and Judaism is waning, it is clear that the only possible explanation is that Christianity is a more genuine religion. Thus, Abraham agrees to convert and be baptized, much to Jehannot’s astonishment.


The story of Abraham the Jew inspires to tell Fiolmena a story she had heard of a Jew named Melchizedek.

The tale concerns the Muslim leader Saladin, who needing vast sums of money to fight a war or something, thinks of Melchizedek the moneylender in Alexandria. Saladin does not think he could convince the Jew to part with the money, and is loathe to just take it by force. So he needs to establish a pretext. He visits Melchizedek and puts to him the following question: “which of the three laws, whether the Jewish, the Saracen [Islamic], or the Christian, you deem to be truly authentic.”

Melchizedek sees through the trap: no matter what he answers, Saladin can claim some outrage. So he tells a story (a tale within a tale within a tale), of a rich man, who had a beautiful ring passed down from son to son. And eventually one of his descendants had three worthy sons, so commissioned two more rings, just like the first. And he answers that the three faiths are like the three rings.

Saladin is so impressed by this he admits his true purpose in coming, and Melchizedek gives him the money, which he ends up paying him back, plus many gifts, and the two become super best friends.


Keep an eye on that Dioneo.

He tells us of a monastery, of a monk “whose freshness and vitality neither fasts nor vigils could impair.” This young monk takes a stroll and meets a young woman. “No sooner did he see her, than he was fiercely assailed by carnal desire.”

The monk propositions the woman, and they sneak into his cell and have wild sex. Unfortunately the Abbot happens to be passing the cell at that moment and listens in, and decides he’s going to teach this monk a lesson. Unknown to the Abbot, the monk heard the shuffling of feet, and took the opportunity to look out a peephole and saw the Abbot. He knew he was going to be in deep trouble. He thinks up a plan, and says to the woman, I’m going to sneak you out of here, stay here for a bit and stay quiet.

He goes to the Abbott and says I’m going out, I didn’t finish my woodcutting this morning, here’s my key for you to hang onto. Once the monk heads out, the Abbot decides he’s going to confront the girl. He unlocks the monk’s cell, and sees the young woman, and is filled with his own carnal urges, and begins consoling the now quite upset woman, and then one thing leads to another and they have sex.

But the monk didn’t leave at all, he circled back around and watched through the peephole the whole time. So when the monk and Abbot meet back up, the Abbot is ready to give the monk a “a jolly good scolding and have him locked up, so that he alone would possess the prize they had captured.” But then the monk delivers a bon mot regarding the Abbot’s chosen sex position (cowgirl, “monks have women to support, as well as fasts and vigils.”) So the Abbot forgives the monk and swears him to secrecy.

And after that? “Then they slipped the girl out unobtrusively, and we can only assume they afterwards brought her back at regular intervals.”


Before going into Fiammetta’s story, Boccaccio tells us that the ladies all smirked and laughed at Dioneo’s story, but once it was done rebuked him to indicate such a story wasn’t fit for mixed company. I’m sure Dioneo won’t make that mistake again!

Fiammetta’s story opens with a proverb: “Whereas men, if they are very wise, will always seek to love ladies of higher station than their own, women, if they are very discerning, will know how to guard against accepting the advances of a man who is of more exalted rank.” In a nutshell: men should be looking to marry up, so beware the man who is looking down.

King Phillip Augustus II of France hears of the Marquis of Montferrat and his legendarily beautiful wife, becomes deeply enamored with her. He must see her! (The translator notes that the actual Marchioness at this time, Giulia of Austria was over seventy years old, probably not the type to inspire any great legends of beauty.)

The King makes a plan to visit Montferrat while the Marquis is away on crusade, planning on stopping in Genoa to pay her a visit. He sends a message ahead, telling the Marchioness that he is looking forward to visiting her. She thinks about why he would want to visit in her husband’s absence, and comes to the obvious conclusion: he is courting her. So she comes up with a plan.

“On meeting her for the first time, he was greatly amazed to find that she was even more beautiful, intelligent, and gentle-mannered than he had been led to believe,” and is even more enamored. She honors him with a great feast, but all the dishes are chicken. The King is surprised, isn’t there any meat here that isn’t chicken?

“Madam, is it only hens that flourish in these parts, and not a cock?” (Is that a dick joke in Italian? Everyone loves a good dick joke.)

The Marchioness delivers a (we are told) searing retort, the significance of which escapes me.

“No, my lord, but our women, whilst they may differ slightly from each other in their rank and the style of their dress, are made no differently here from elsewhere.”

From this reply (somehow) the King realizes that this woman is beyond reproach, and halts his advances.

I don’t get it.


Apparently everyone else got it, because Fiammetta’s story was a big hit, and inspires Emilia to tell her tale: “I likewise will describe a stinging rebuke, but one which was administered by an honest layman to a grasping friar, with a gibe no less amusing than it was laudable.”

She tells us of a Florentince Franciscan, a member of the Inquisition, however rather than hunting down heretics, this Friar was more interested in accusing the wealthy of heresy and extorting money from them. This friar hears of a merchant, who while drunk boasts that his wine is “of such a quality that Christ himself would have drunk it.”

The friar hears about this, and imagines all the money he could extort from this guy, and confronts him, accusing him of heresy. The man arranges for some gold to be paid, and the torture he is threatened with is downgraded to wearing a crusader’s cross and having to attend mass every morning and then report to the inquisitor.

On one of these mornings, he is particularly taken by a line from one of the verses of the Gospel, “for every one you shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” (Matthew 19:29) You get what you give.

(This is one of the lines prosperity gospel preaches use to convince you to send them money, after all, you get back a hundred fold what you give!)

After mass, he meets with the Franciscan, who asks him if he has any questions about what he heard during mass. He says he does: he quotes the line and asks if it is true. The friar says it is. The man recounts that he frequently sees the Franciscans giving away bowls of vegetable water to the poor, and so they should be careful: “So if you are going to receive a hundred in the next world for every one you have given, you will have so much of the stuff that you will all drown in it.”

The corrupt friar is pissed, but the other friars who overhear think this is hilarious, much to the wicked friar’s reproach.

This one is still pretty hard to follow, but kind of makes sense. The vegetable water is hardly fit for human consumption, and the friars have so much wealth that they should be able to do better charity than that. Or maybe the mental image of drowning in vegetable water is just supposed to be funny.


Filostrato, employing the metaphor of an archer hitting a moving target, suggests that its easy to make fun of a corrupt friar for being miserly, but harder to chide a great prince, so says he will one-up Emilia. As a segue it works, but I feel like Filostrato comes off as kind of a dick.

All right, Filostrato’s story concerns Can Grande della Scala, a wealthy prince of Verona. Can Grande had taken in Dante after his exile from Florence, and was memorialized by him in the Paradisio for his generosity and military prowess. Filostrato calls him “one of the most outstanding and munificent princes that Italy has known since the Emperor Frederick the Second.”

Can Grande is hosting a festival, at which he plans to give out lavish gifts, but at the last minute he changes his mine, and turns everyone away, and gives them a token gift. Everyone but poor traveling Bergamino, known for his wit and conversation. (Why? Filostrato doesn’t tell us. Maybe there weren’t enough to go around, and Bergamino was at the end of the gift line.) Bergamino figures that if he stays in Verona long enough, Can Grande is bound to give him a gift, so he books a room at an inn. Can Grande hears about this, and feels it would be wasteful to give Bergamino a gift.

Bergamino waits at the inn, hoping for a message from the prince, but with his entourage of servants and horses, is starting to run up expenses. He bought with him three fancy robes so he would fit in at court, and has to sell them, one at a time to cover his expenses.

Some time after selling the third one, but before the money runs out, he goes to a restaurant, and he sees none other than Can Grande della Scala sitting at a table, looking right at him. Can Grande, being a dick, asks Bergamino, why the long face?

Bergamino, on the spot, invents a story, (another tale within a tale within a tale), regarding Primas, a canon and well-known poet. Primas is in Paris and intends to pay a visit to the Abbot of Cluny (a very wealthy monastery). If he sets out at dawn, he should arrive in time for breakfast. But what if he gets lost, or is otherwise delayed? He decides the prudent thing to do would be to bring three loaves of bread.

Primas arrives at the monastery for breakfast, and was impressed at the whole place. Breakfast is about to be served, and the Abbot spies Primas, dressed like a scruffy hermit, and decides he doesn’t like the look of the fellow. No one else nearby knows who he is, so he orders breakfast put off until Primas leaves. But he doesn’t want to be seen refusing hospitality, so no one says anything to Primas, they just wait for him to go away on his own.

Meanwhile, no one else is getting to eat either. The story does not address how they felt about this, but I’ll bet they were pretty pissed.

Primas starts to get hungry, and remembers he’s got those three loaves. So he eats one loaf of bread, and still no sign of the Abbot, starts on the second.

The Abbot gets word of this, and is first angry that this hobo is here, having brought his own food, but then later reflects that he is acting like a miser, and has been much more generous in the past. He wonders if the visitor is actually someone important.

At this point, the Abbot needs to know who the visitor is, and he finds out its the famous poet and canonist Primas, here to confirm rumors of the Abbot’s generosity. The Abbot, feeling chastised, feeds Primas well, clothes him well, gives him a horse and saddle, some money, and the freedom of his household. The end.

Can Grande sees that this is a very thin metaphor for his own situation, and realizes that he too must act like the Abbot, so similarly gives to Bergamino: settling his debts, giving him one of his own fancy robes, a new horse and saddle, money, and took him into his own household.

Okay, I got to give it to Filostrato. That was better than Emilia’s story.


Lauretta tells the story of Ermino de’ Grimaldi. The Grimaldis were a real Genoese family, Ermino is fictitious. Ermino de’ Grimaldi is the richest man in Italy, and a greedy miser who despite his wealth dresses in rags. Because of this he has been dubbed Ermino Skinflint.

Into Genoa comes Guiglielmo Borsiere (which Dante places in hell for his crime of sodomy), who Lauretta introduces as a “worthy courtier,” then delivers a diatribe about how courtiers today aren’t as honorable as back in the good old days, which comes out of nowhere and then just sort of peters out.

Guiglielmo pays Ermino a visit, and despite being a miser, Ermino Skinflint is a gracious host. He shows Guiglielmo around a splendid home (apparently Skinflint’s one vice is home décor), and the single unpainted wall. He says he wants to paint it with something no one has ever seen before, and wants to know if Guiglielmo has any suggestions.

No, but he can suggest something Ermino has never seen. Ermino is curious to hear what this could be.

“Let Generosity be painted there.” OH SNAP

And then the typical denouement: Ermino does a 180 and becomes the most generous man in Genoa. This story is short and sweet, and has my favorite zinger from the first day.


A woman from Gascony is returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and stops in Cyprus, recently conquered by Christians. She is attacked by a band of ruffians, and afterwards, decides she is going straight to the top: she’s going to bring this matter before the King.

Don’t bother, the locals tell her, he’s such a total loser, not only does he not enforce his own laws, he’ll let anyone badmouth him as much as they like. It’s fun. Let’s say some bad things about the King.

The Gascon woman is disheartened, but pursues and audience with the King. When she meets him, she asks the following:

Rather than to pursue redress for the attack in his lands, “I beg you to instruct me how you manage to endure the wrongs which, as I am led to understand, are inflicted on upon you, so that I might learn from you to bear my own with patience.”

Realizing that he has been a chump, the King resolves to be a chump no more, and starts by making sure the wrongs committed are “avenged most harshly.”


Finally, our dear queen’s story for the day. Pampinea speaks of zingers, and how great they are.

“These, being brief, are much better suited to women than to men, as it is more unseemly for a woman to speak at inordinate length, when this can be avoided, than it is for a man.”

How anyone ever thought Boccaccio was a feminist is beyond me.

After some more ranting, Pampinea tells us the tale of Master Alberto of Bologna, an elderly doctor, and Malgherida de’ Ghisolieri, a beautiful widow. (Master Alberto may be supposed to be actual person Alberto de’ Zancari.

Master Alberto is old, but not too old to feel the flames of love. He catches a glimpse of Malgherida at a feast, and resolves to catch a glimpse of her. He makes sure to pass by her house as many times a day as possible until he sees her. Romantic, or stalker? You be the judge.

Malgherida and the women of her household learn of that, and decide they’re going to make fun of old Alberto. The next time they see Alberto, the other ladies invite him in, and ask him how he’s in love with Malgherida. Doesn’t he know she has suitors much younger and handsome than him?

(Malgherida seems to be present, since Alberto’s reply is addressed to her, even though its the other women who are doing the asking.)

Alberto says that while old men might be “naturally deficient in the powers required for lovemaking, they do not necessarily lack a ready will, or a just appreciation of what should be loved. On the contrary, in this respect their longer experience gives them an advantage over the young.”

He then relates a story about how women eat lupines and leeks incorrectly. (This has the feel of innuendo for something, possibly blowjobs, but ultimately its lost in translation.)

And since you’re so bad at eating leeks, what do you know? Maybe you would take an old man as a lover.

Malgherida is much reproached, and admits Alberto’s wisdom. “And therefore, saving my honour, you are free to ask of me what you will, and regard it as yours.”

And then he turns her down! He takes his leave of her. Total power move.


So despite Pampinea not proscribing a theme, there is a common thread in all of these, a reversal of expectations, due to quick thinking and wit on the part of the protagonist. (The story of Abraham the Jew maybe not so much, but the ending is definitely the opposite of what is expected.) I was also quite amused by the stories that purport to tell the glory of God and the church, then show something completely opposite.

Pampinea decrees that for the next day, she is going to turn over her crown to Filomena, who will be queen on day two. She says that she will not change any of the major arrangements put into place by Pampinea, except that from now on, each person will submit a topic the night before, so the storytellers have time to prepare a good tale.

“Let each of us, then, if you have no objection, make it our purpose to take as our theme those who after suffering a series of misfortunes are brought to a state of unexpected happiness.” No doubt some rags to riches (or riches to rags to riches) stories are ahead.

Everyone agrees to this, except Dioneo. He wants a special privilege that he be allowed to talk about anything he wants, and in exchange, he is willing to always be the last person to speak. Everyone else sees no downsides to giving Dioneo these privileges. I’m sure he won’t abuse them at all.

After dinner there is dancing, and Emilia sings a song, about how beautiful her own reflection is and that no one else can shape up. Her companions are a little uneasy about the song, but at least it has a catchy chorus!

Let’s Read the Decameron, Part 0: Introductory Notes, and Author’s Prologue

Let’s Read The Decameron

Part 0: Introductory Notes, and Author’s Prologue

Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the wake of the Black Plague. Boccaccio was the third best poet/writer of 14th century Italy, and the Decameron is probably his most famous work. (And man, this guy wrote a lot.)

So, what is this, exactly? The Decameron is the story of ten people, seven women and three men, who in the wake of the Black Plague, take refuge and entertain each other by telling each other ten stories a day over ten stories (hence the ‘Deca’ in Decameron). Chaucer was a huge Boccaccio fanboy, hence the framework of the Canterbury Tales. (Seriously, many of his other works are retellings of other Boccaccio works.) Boccaccio was certainly not the first person to do the whole tales within a tale, but the Decameron is one of the trope makers.

Why do this? I trust the topic of people sitting inside in fear of the plague, telling each other stories because they have too much time on their hands is not too on the nose.

Beyond that though: it’s a transitional work, written during a transitional time. Boccaccio wrote during the last days of the Middle Ages, with the Renaissance on the way, and we can see some of the attitudes of the Renaissance in his work. It is also a work of unabashed popular fiction, in prose, rather than the poetry of Petrarch and Dante. This is a time when Novella meant New, not ‘a story that is exactly the wrong length to find a paying fiction market for.’ Trust me, no one is going to accuse the Decameron of being Novella-Length.

The edition I’m reading, by the way, is the Penguin Classics version, translated by G. H. McWilliam. Apparently there are lots of different translations, McWilliam takes pride in his, but I get the impression that he’s not really a snob about it or anything, he just really loves the Decameron and is enamored with your pedestrian attempt to convert 14th century Florentine slang into meaningful prose.

Ok, let’s dive in. Let’s get through this Preface to the Second Edition… a few interesting anecdotes in here, and then onto the Translator’s Introduction…

Wait, how long is this? The Introduction is a hundred and forty four pages long. Fuck.

Am I the only person who reads these? I always feel tempted to skip them, but there are plenty of reasons not to. For example, they explain a lot of the historical context behind the author and the text. All that stuff you read up above? I cribbed that from the intro. Thanks, translator dude.

But man, this is one long intro. I picked another book off my shelf, Hildegard of Bingen, Selections from Her Writings, and it is one hundred and forty five pages long. Just one page longer. (Though the intro to the Decameron has a much more extensive Bibliography.)

This introduction is so long, I needed a bookmark to get through it. In fact, while reading, one of my cats ran up and snatched my bookmark up in his mouth and ran off with it.

Another thing about these introductions to classics, beyond just historical context and summarizing key points of critical analysis, is the basic plot summary they provide. Now normally I’d say “Spoiler Alert!” (technically, the statute of limitations on spoilers for classic* literature is long passed, but it’s always new to someone). But oftentimes, having a basic plot outline is useful for even understanding what it is you’re reading, since the prose can get pretty wordy and allegorical.

(*Classic literature, as opposed to Classical Literature, which is Roman or earlier. The Boccaccio is old, but it’s still about a thousand years too late to be Classical. If Boccaccio was composing music though, and who’s to say he didn’t, he’d be about four hundred years too early for it to be Classical Music.)

I’ll bring in points from the introduction when and if they become relevant, but here’s the cliff’s notes:

Boccaccio was bastard son of a rich merchant. He failed as a banker and as a canon lawyer, so he became a writer instead. He spent a lot of time in Paris. He was a fanboy of Dante and a student of Petrarch. He wrote a lot of stuff, but the Decameron was the big one.

My mental image of him is John Rhys-Davies as DaVinci from that one episode of Star Trek: Voyager, even though he didn’t actually look anything like that.

It’s hard to say how much of the stories in the Decameron are traditional folk tales being collected for the first time, and how many are inventions of Boccaccio. Some of both, probably. He had previously written versions of a number of the stories involved, including the characters of the framing story.

It needs to be stressed that like the Arthurian tales, this is popular fiction, meant for mass consumption for entertainment. It’s chock full of sex and violence and naughty priests, the sort of thing that medieval audiences really go wild for. It’s so chock full of sex that our translator assures us that only about a quarter of the tales involve adulterous women. (And the emphasis is always on the woman. Which is a bit odd, since it takes two to adulter, but there’s your double standard.) But we can look forward to all kinds of genres, especially humor and a whole day devoted to gory tales of horror.

The triple themes of the book are established as Love, Fortune, and Intelligence, though its worth noting that to Boccaccio love and lust are the same, and by Intelligence his tales generally champion cunning and wit. In the Prologue, Boccaccio capitalizes both Love and Fortune (he doesn’t mention Intelligence, at least not yet.)

One last fun fact between we get to the Prologue: Boccaccio’s subtitle for the Decameron is Il Principe Galeotto, or The Prince Galehaut.

So what? Who’s this Galehaut? Galehaut was an Arthurian figure (not to be confused with sanitly Galahad), who was a half-giant and enemy of King Arthur. He is going to crush Arhtur’s army, but is so impressed by Lancelot that he surrenders and becomes super best friends and maybe lovers with Lancelot. When Lancelot goes missing, Galehaut dies of grief. Later, Lancelot has himself buried next to Galehaut.

Anyway, in Book 5 of the Inferno, Dante meets Francesca and Paolo in the second circle of Hell, for their crime of extreme lust, trapped in a whirlwind, doomed to forever chase each other and never to meet. Francesca tells Dante that they read of the Book of Galahaut and became so incensed with lust and passion that they had to adulterize.

(My copy of the Divine Comedy, translated by Henry Francis Clay, just says “For our delight we read of Lancelot… All trembling kissed. The book and writer both/Were love’s purveyors. In its leave that day/We read no more.” I looked in a different copy of the Divine Comedy, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “One day we reading were for our delight/Of Lancelot… Kissed me upon the mouth a palpitating/Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it/That day no farther did we read within.”)

So what does Boccaccio’s subtitle mean? Is the book supposed to be representative of love (or lust)? Is this Boccaccio’s version of self-insert fan-fiction, suggesting that The Decameron is the book (that hadn’t been written yet) that so inspired Francesca and Paolo to the throes of passion? Or is it just a pun on Galeotto, slang for Pimp? Is is all of these?


Boccaccio starts off his prologue with a proverb, tradition in medieval work, similar to a thesis statement. (Readers of Austen are familiar with a classic example from a much later century.) Here’s this one:

“To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others.”

From there, he dovetails into dedicating the book to his anonymous and noble lady love, who he has unrequitedly loved from afar, tragically separate due to the difference in their ranks, and how he eventually got over it. Some historians think his lady love was Maria d’Aquino, daughter of King Robert of Naples, once Boccaccio’s patron. Other historians think Maria d’Aquino never actually existed. In any case, it’s a classic trope, the medieval equivalent of “I have a girlfriend, but she goes to a different school/lives in another state/is Canadian.”

He goes on to say that he got over it, and wrote this book, specifically for the entertainment of lovesick women, because women are especially prone to lovesickness. (So far, Boccaccio strikes me as something of a medieval White Knight, trying to prove how woke and feminist he is while saying m’lady and complaining that Maria d’Aquino won’t have wild adulterous sex with him. Based on reading the translators notes, I can tell you that historians have mixed opinions regarding Boccaccio’s stances.)

Anyway, he goes on to tell us we can look forward to the hundred tales, told over ten days by “a worthy band of seven ladies and three young men.” He promises pleasure, excitement, succor and diversion, and hopefully we all learn a few lessons along the way.

And then… oh the Prologue is done already. It was just three pages.

Next: The Decameron, day one.