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Giovanni Boccaccio: The Decameron

The Black Death of 1348 forms the background to Boccaccio's Decameron; a group of ten young high-born citizens of Florence -- seven women and three men -- flee the city to escape the disease and take refuge in the villas outside the city walls. The idea of refuge lies behind the form of the text, and the place of refuge is not only an escape but a viewpoint from which the real world can be analysed, criticized, and rendered harmless through mockery (Forni, 54). The refugees from the plague pass the time in their refuge by telling stories, with each person telling one story each day to make a total of one hundred tales. The Decameron thus arises from and reflects a society afflicted by the overwhelming catastrophe of the Black Death, a catastrophe which, in the 1340s, reduced the population of the city by up to one-half (Brucker, 26) and severely affected every aspect of Florentine life.

The plague rendered human endeavours futile, for all attempted remedies were equally ineffectual: 'The responses of the Florentines to the threat of the epidemic, including seclusion, flight, herbal remedies, and continual carousing, neither guarantee health nor accelerate illness' (Levenstein, 313). Boccaccio's own descriptions, in the preface to the Decameron, of the effects of the plague on the city and its people are among the most vivid that have survived: the dead piled up in the streets like so much rubbish, the sufferings of the dying, the fear of the survivors. The society of his stories is one surrounded by death and social decay: 'In the face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city' (Boccaccio, 7-8). The plague, as Boccaccio describes it, did not merely attack the bodies of the sick, it also weakened the body of the community itself, attacking the bonds of society so that 'brothers abandoned brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and in many cases wives deserted their husbands ... And mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children' (Boccaccio, 9).

In the Italy of the Black Death, afflicted by thousands of deaths and the disruption of social, economic and cultural life on a vast scale, it would hardly be surprising if attitudes to life and death and to the institution that claimed to be the guardian of truth on these matters, the church, failed to undergo any changes. One historian has written of 'a massive psychological reaction, bordering on societal hysteria' (Logan, 283) provoked by the Black Death; another has pointed out the emphasis placed by sixteenth-century Italian historians on the period of the pestilence as one characterized by the 'dissolution of morals and religion' and constituting a dividing line between an era when all was stable and prosperous and one of decline and decay (Henderson and Verdon, 455). It may have appeared that every aspect of the settled order of society was undermined and thrown into doubt by the catastrophe of the plague, and Boccaccio's text does reflect something of this prevailing attitude.

It is important to note, however, that criticism of prevailing social structures and particularly criticism of the church and the clergy did not arise directly from traumas such as the Black Death but was deeply rooted in society and was a common feature of the type of popular literary genres upon which Boccaccio drew in compiling his Decameron; the 'stories of Boccaccio ... only gave shape to still earlier anecdotes about the sexual incontinence of monks and nuns' (Hale, 428). Popular mockery of religious institutions and even religious ideas long pre-dated the fourteenth century, and Boccaccio drew on that tradition while giving his interpretation of these themes an extra satirical edge.

That satirical criticism is clear in the second novel of the first day, in which Neifile tells the story of Abraham, a Jew who, at the instance of a friend, Jehannot, who is trying to convert him to Christianity, decides to 'go to Rome, and there observe the man whom you call the vicar of God on earth, and examine his life and habits together with those of his fellow cardinals' (Boccaccio, 38). This prospect alarms Jehannot: 'if he goes to the court of Rome and sees what foul and wicked lives the clergy lead, not only will he not become a Christian, but, if he had already turned Christian, he would become a Jew again without fail' (Boccaccio, 39). This passage is interesting in taking for granted that the listeners to the story, and of course the readers, share the opinion of Jehannot and the narrator that Rome is a place of iniquity and that the clergy there live foul lives inconsistent with the supposed teachings and values of Christianity. Abraham's experience of Rome does indeed confirm Jehannot's fears; he finds that the great men of the church 'from the highest to the lowest were flagrantly given to the sin of lust, not only of the natural variety but also of the sodomitic', 'were all gluttons, winebibbers, and drunkards ... next to their lust they would rather attend to their bellies than anything else, as though they were a pack of animals', and 'were such a collection of money-grubbers ... ready to ... trade for profit in any kind of divine object, whether by the way of sacraments or church livings' (Boccaccio, 40). Jehannot is not surprised when upon his return Abraham gives him his opinion that the place is 'a hotbed of diabolical rather than devotional activities' (Boccaccio, 41) but is surprised when Abraham announces nonetheless his intention of converting to Christianity. His reason is that any faith that flourishes in the world as Christianity does despite the behaviour of its supposed leaders must be 'a more holy and genuine religion than any of the others' (Boccaccio, 41). Neifile's story thus ends with a pro-Christian message, but only after following an anti-Church line; the message is that Christianity flourishes despite the church, not because of it, and that its strength lies elsewhere than in its pastors and leaders.

A conventional critique of the supposed carnality of the clergy is found in the fourth story of the first day, the story told by Dineo. This tale is set in an abbey in the region of Lunigiana which, Dineo pointedly says, 'once had a greater supply of monks and of saintliness than it now has' (Boccaccio, 45). Among the monks of this abbey was a young brother 'whose freshness and vitality neither fasts nor vigils could impair' who, coming upon 'a strikingly beautiful girl' one afternoon while taking a stroll around the abbey grounds, was 'fiercely assailed by carnal desire' and smuggled her into his cell (Boccaccio, 45). The noise they made during their dalliance, unfortunately, awoke the abbot who listened at the cell door and 'came to the definite conclusion that one of the voices was a woman's'. Rather than bursting in and confronting the pair, the abbot decided to wait until the monk came out; the latter had, however, observed the abbot in the corridor and decided to catch him out by giving him the key of his cell while he went out on some errand. The consequence was that the abbot entered the cell and confronted the woman, and 'looked her up and down, saw that she was a nice, comely wench, and despite his years he was promptly filled with fleshly cravings, no less intense than those his young monk had experienced' (Boccaccio, 47). The abbot promptly engages in the same activities as the monk, and is secretly observed by the latter so that when the abbot attempts to confront him with his sin the monk reveals his knowledge of the abbot's own carnal indulgences:

The abbot, who was no fool, quickly realized that the monk had outwitted him and, moreover, seen what he had done. Being tarred with the same brush, he was loath to inflict upon the monk a punishment of which he himself was no less deserving. So he pardoned the monk and swore him to secrecy concerning what he had seen, then they slipped the girl out unobtrusively, and we can only assume that they afterwards brought her back at regular intervals. (Boccaccio, 48)

At one level this story is satirizing the human weaknesses of the monks, but it is also sharply critical of the way in which they reason their way out of responsibility for their actions. Boccaccio has the abbot justify himself by saying 'This is a fine-looking wench, and not a living soul knows she is here. If I can persuade her to play my game, I see no reason why I shouldn't do it ... No one will ever find out, and a sin that's half hidden is half forgiven', and even arguing that it would be wrong to reject the God-given beauty of the woman and the pleasure of sexual intercourse with her: 'It's always a…[continue]

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