Week 10: Boccaccio's Decameron

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Background Reading

This week you have just one page of background reading!

Giovanni Boccaccio

This week you will travel back to medieval Italy, to the 14th century and the work of the famous medieval author Giovanni Boccaccio, who also lived in the city of Florence, like Dante before him. (Boccaccio's name is pronounced something like Bo-KA-cho.) Boccaccio was born in 1313 and he died in 1375. Just to give you some historical context, this places him in the generation that came after Dante (Dante died in 1321, when Boccaccio was still a young boy), and it makes him an exact contemporary of Chaucer in England (Chaucer was around 1340 and died in 1400). Boccaccio was actually a great influence on Chaucer, and many of Chaucer's works are modeled on the example set by Boccaccio.

Although Boccaccio is an Italian author, he was born in Paris, as the illegitimate son of an Italian father and a French mother. He spent his early years in southern Italy in Naples, and he began writing poetry in the 1340's. His early poems were imitations of classical authors such as Vergil, and he also wrote some allegorical poetry in imitation of Dante. Boccaccio moved to Florence in 1341, where he came under the influence of the great Italian poet Petrarch, who became his good friend. Boccaccio began studying Latin and Greek literature, and he also collected contemporary Italian stories and folktales. In addition to writing works in Italian, Boccaccio also wrote in Latin. The same is true of Dante and Petrarch, who both wrote works in Latin in addition to their Italian compositions. At the time, they had no idea that Latin would eventually become a dead language. For them, Latin was a sure thing, and writing in Italian was a somewhat dubious and risky project. As it turns out, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio are famous for their works in Italian, and their Latin compositions are almost entirely forgotten.

The Decameron

Between 1348 and 1353, Boccaccio wrote his most famous work: The Decameron. The title itself is Greek and means "10 Days" (Deca-hemeron), but the book is written in Italian. The Decameron is a collection of 100 stories, told by ten storytellers over a ten day period of time. Unlike Dante's Divine Comedy and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which were written as poetry, Boccaccio's Decameron is a work in prose.

Although the Decameron is primarily known as a humorous work, the frametale is very gloomy! In order to explain why 10 people would get together and tell stories to each other every day, Boccaccio invents a frametale about the Black Death (bubonic plague) which was ravaging Florence at the time that he began writing the Decameron. You will learn more about this in the reading selections for this week. Because of the horrible devastation caused by this epidemic, Boccaccio tells us that seven noble young women and three noble young men decided to escape to the countryside. They would be safe from the plague there and could spend their time in amusing one another with stories and games and dances.

You might think that the context of the Black Death would have some kind of gloomy influence on the stories, but this is not the case at all. Many of the stories in the Decameron are extremely humorous, often involving the illicit sexual escapades of monks and their lady lovers. There are also some tragic love stories in the Decameron. You will read both some humorous stories and also some tragic stories in the selections for this week. Don't worry: there are not one hundred stories in this week's readings - there are just eight stories for you to read!

The Medieval Church

Two weeks ago, you read Dante's Inferno which was a very serious piece of work (even though it is part of a larger work called a "Comedy"). Dante's stories clearly illustrated his strong conviction that sin would be punished in the afterlife. With the story of Paolo and Francesca, Dante specifically condemned the passions of adulterous love, and he even blamed the authors of love stories as contributing to this kind of sinful behavior. Dante definitely had a sense of humor (remember the devil blowing the trumpet out of his behind?), but he was also absolutely clear: adultery is a sin, and will be punished accordingly.

In Chaucer, there is a more light-hearted atmosphere and you got some hints about the many amorous escapades that medieval monks and nuns were rumored to engage in. Remember the ring that the prioress wore, with the inscription Amor vincit omnia, Love conquers all things...? Then, when the host commented on the Nun's Priest's tale, he made a direct comparison between the sexually-overcharged rooster Chanticleer and the priest who was telling the tale. And of course there was the story about the rich merchant's wife who had an affair with her husband's friend, the monk.

Boccaccio contains many stories about the sexual adventures of monks and other members of the clergy. One of the stories you will read this week is about an abbot who sends a man to "Purgatory" in order to teach him the lesson that it is better to not keep a close eye on your wife - because that kind of attitude can cause her all kinds of problems when she wants to have an affair with somebody else.

Since you have read Dante, you know that the punishment of sins in the afterlife could be treated as a very serious subject. In Boccaccio, you will see that this same subject can also be treated with a great deal of humor.

Because so many of the stories are connected to the world of the medieval church, and the world of monks and monasteries in particular, you will encounter some vocabulary that might not be familiar to you. Here are some words to watch out for:

Brief Note about the Bubonic Plague

The opening part of the reading provides Boccaccio's perspective on the effects of the bubonic plague in Florence. It is a grim and frightening picture, and Boccaccio does not exaggerate. The effects of the bubonic plague were devastating. In the early 14th century, the plague broke out in northeastern China, killing literally millions of people (perhaps as many as five million people died in China). The plague then moved westwards, following the trade routes of the time affecting countries in central Asia and the Middle East until it reached Europe in the 1340's. The plague reached the cities of Genova and Venice in Italy in 1348. It is estimated that about 75% of the population of Venice died from the plague at this time. Boccaccio's hometown of Florence, Italy was devastated by the plague, as you will read. Overall, about half of the population of Italy at this time died as the result of the disease. The economic and social disruption that it caused was immense.

In the nineteenth century, scientists discovered the bacterium that spreads the disease, and learned that it is carried by fleas and by rodents. Untreated, the mortality rate for bubonic plague is about 60%. It can be treated with modern antibiotics, but such treatments were, of course, not available in the Middle Ages. There are still outbreaks of bubonic plague in the modern world, and there was even an outbreak of bubonic plague in Los Angeles in the 1920's! In 1999, there were 2600 cases of plague reported to the World Health Organization, mostly from Africa, but also from Asia and the Americas.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM