When I was at university, one of my first year courses was an introduction to medieval Italian literature through the means of the works of the three writers whose work would most influence what would become standard Italian: Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio. At the time, I devoured the poetry of Dante and Petrarch with relative ease, but simply didn’t have the time to read through the entirety of The Decameron, so only read the stories set to us as homework. Having more time to spend reading now, I decided that I would actually sit down and read through it as much for completeness’ sake.
The Decameron is an interesting book structurally. The book starts by following a group of ten Florentines as they leave Florence to take refuge from the Black Death in the countryside. In an attempt to keep themselves amused, they decide to tell stories to one another. These stories continue for ten days, with one story apiece, until they decide to head back to Florence. On the majority of the days, the stories will revolve around a particular theme, one example being a set of love affairs that end tragically. It’s a structure that almost makes the book worth it, simply because frame narratives don’t tend to be all that common.
I don’t think that I can recommend The Decameron for anything beyond its historical value, because there were so many times that I considered putting the book down because of its subject matter. I went into it knowing that there would be dissonance between my values as a modern, very liberal reader and the values of the medieval writer, but most of the time I’ve found that it’s stuff that you can sort of ignore or understand within its historical context. In this case though, I couldn’t help but feel really uncomfortable, because the level of misogyny in some of these stories is truly remarkable, depicting a level of cruelty towards women that I haven’t seen in even other texts of the time. Several examples spring readily to mind. A woman who won’t cheat on her husband is tricked into thinking that he’s having an affair, suffers rape through fraud and is then blackmailed until she agrees to continue the affair. Another is savaged about the face and neck by a wolf because she didn’t heed a warning that her husband gave after having a nightmare about just such an event. And one final example, one woman is left naked in the open at the height of summer without shelter or water, to the point that her skin is cracked and openly bleeding. All of these are presented as being her just desserts for their behaviour. Quite honestly, I was expecting that there would be the whole thing of condemning women if they aren’t virtuous whilst simultaneously whining that they won’t sleep with the male protagonist simply because they’re already married to someone else, but this level of sheer animosity was something else. It got to the point that it honestly felt like Boccaccio was vicariously living out a revenge fantasy on some poor woman who spurned his advances, and that is not something that I would recommend to anyone. Sure, there are a few stories that I might recommend, like the story of Lisabetta and her pot of basil, or the stories featuring Saladin, but they get overshadowed entirely by the entries that are so obviously and violently anti-women.
I might recommend this if you’re interested in the time period or if you’re looking to compare Boccaccio’s work with that of Dante or Petrarch, but even then only with caution. Some of the stories contained within are so deeply resentful and bitter towards women that I had trouble finishing the book at times. It’s one of the only books that I have considered burning passages from, and that’s positively sacrilegious for me. 1/5
Next review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor