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.