Religious Criticism and Idealization of Women in Giovanni Boccaccio's "Decameron"
In the world of medieval literature, Giovanni Boccaccio is renowned for his timeless contributions in the form of "Decameron," also translated as "Ten Day's Work." This literary piece by Boccaccio chronicles the short stories and narratives of ten (10) people who sought refuge from the city that is being affected with Black Plague, a disease that left Europe's developing human civilization to ruin and destruction. "Decameron" is created to provide people with a venue for discussion of the social ills that "plague" the 13th and 14th century society of Europe, particularly Boccaccio's homeland, Italy. These social ills are parallel to the disease that is ravaging Europe's cities during the Black Plague, and Boccaccio uses this event to discuss and criticize the dysfunctions that he found to exist in his society. Thus, with this in mind, Giovanni Boccaccio set out to accomplish one of early Renaissance's greatest works, "Decameron."
In "Decameron" two main themes are prevalent among the stories narrated by the ten young people assembled outside the city during the Black Plague. These themes are the criticism of the Catholic Church and the Christian religion and the "idealization" of women, illustrated through Boccaccio's portrayal of women in his narratives in "Decameron." These two themes will be discussed and analyzed in relation to specific passages extracted from "Decameron" and these passages will be related in accordance to the social, political, and religious landscape of European society during Boccaccio's time in order to understand fully the message implicated behind the stories Boccaccio's main characters narrate in "Decameron."
In the Induction part of the novel, Boccaccio illustrates to his readers the social landscape of Europe during his time, which is a timely experience to discuss the ills that plague Europe during his time.
In narrating an introduction to his novel, Boccaccio sets the time at 1348, a period which he describes to be: "... that memorable mortality happened in the excellent City, farre beyond all the rest in Italy; which plague, by operation of the superiour bodies, or rather for our enormous iniquities, by the just anger of God was sent upon us mortals." It is evident that Boccaccio's Induction illustrates the glory of European civilization during the 14th century, a time where all great developments in the arts and sciences thrived. Also, this passage implies the significant role religion plays in Boccaccio's life (as well as other Europeans), since he attributes the Black Plague as not simply a product of science and improper disease management, but as an event that happened to extend the "just anger of God." This phrase shows how religion is bound to every aspect of European life during Boccaccio's time.
Indeed, religion seems to be the primary force that sets the mood and theme-building in Boccaccio's "Decameron." In a study of literature during the Middle Ages, Glending Olson (1982) remarked that Boccaccio's "Decameron" is not only a simple form of narrative of Middle Age literature. Instead, "Decameron" shows how religion is interspersed in each story in order to let Boccaccio's readers achieve a proper perspective "connected with a certain view of "right," extending the dominion of the Church or of a moral code." One concrete example of this passage illustrated in "Decameron" is found in the first novel of the First Day, since the stories in "Decameron" are divided into ten stories for each day, thereby amounting to one hundred (100) stories in all. The First Novel of the First Day is entitled, "Wherein is contained, how hard a thing is, to distinguish goodenesse from hypocrisie; and how (under the shadow of holinesse) the wickednesse of one man, may deceive many," is a story that narrates the life of Messire Chappelet du Prat, an individual that serves as a symbol representing the hypocrisy of the Church.
The first story in the novel initiates the beginning of Boccaccio's depiction of religious criticism in "Decameron." Through the character of Chappelet du Prat, Boccaccio was able to point out to his readers how the Church fails to live up to its own decrees and rules on morality and true sense of being a believer of Christ and the Church. Boccaccio's tone in the First Novel of the First Day is humorous yet sarcastic, thereby resulting to a satiric narrative of how Chappelet du Prat, a great sinner and deceiver of Man, managed to become Saint Chappelet upon his death. Two interesting character descriptions by Boccaccio provide a good analysis of the nature of Chappelet as the protagonist of the First Novel of the First Day: (1) "He was a great glutton and drunkarde, even he was not able to take any more: being also a continuall gamester, and carrier of false Dice, to cheate with them the very best Friends he had," and (2) "Master Chappelet was a very holy man, as appeared by all the parts of his confession, and made no doubt, but that many miracles would be wrought by his sanctified body, perswading them to fetch it thither with all devoute solemnity and reverence..." These two character descriptions represents Chappelet as a man who was revered despite his immoral ways, which he managed to live up to until his death.
Interestingly, Chappelet's character represents the dual character of the Church, an institution respected and feared by the society because of its great hold and political power in European society during the Middle Ages. While the Church is demonstrated as a holy and religious institution as personified by "Saint" Chappelet, the Church is also criticized for its harsh treatment of non-conformers and rigid rules imposed upon the society, which is a characteristic evident in Boccaccio's portrayal of Chappelet. The severe and rigid treatment of the Church to European society during the Middle Ages is best explained by Giulio Ferroni (1991), who described the religious and social landscape during the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe: "The backlash reactions to perceptions of heretical behavior induced the Church to clamp down upon those thought to be agitators. By the 14th century, this move further contributed to fuel the uneasy relations between the Church and several lay institutions and gave rise... To a new sort of religious cynicism which lent greater importance among the middle classes to the tangible and utilitarian aspects of life." Indeed, Boccaccio's criticism of the shortcomings and 'ills' that also plague the Church institution is explicitly illustrated in his depiction of the lives of men and women found in the stories in "Decameron."
The second main theme of the novel also touches on gender issues concerning women in a patriarchal society. A discussion of this theme is important since women are a marginalized sector during Boccaccio's time, dictated by a patriarchal society both in the civil society and religious institution. The best story that Boccaccio narrates in "Decameron" is his portrayal of the Nuns in the First Novel of the Third Day, aptly entitled, "Wherein is declared, that virginity is very hardly to be kept in all places."
The Third Day novel is a critical look at the behavior of women sworn under the solemn oath of chastity and purity to the Lord and how the main character in the novel, a man named Massetto, was able to penetrate through the thoughts of the women (nuns) and exploit them through their weakness. Massetto, despite his devious character, is portrayed as the protagonist who exposes the weakness of the Church, and it is through the nuns, who are weak to the call of flesh. Boccaccio, through this story, provides his readers his "ideal" notion of a woman of his time by providing a characterization of women who are portrayed to be unideal (the Nuns). Apart from providing his own characterization of women, Boccaccio primarily aims to go…