Boccaccio’s The Decameron is a late medieval prose work in which a group of seven women and three men desert Florentine society for an idyllic estate. The cause of their retreat from society is a terrible plague that is ravaging the city leading to the breakdown of the traditional rules of society.
“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 (7).”
After their escape to the countryside, the party decides over the course of ten days to each tell a story as a way of keeping themselves entertained. On most days, the stories have a general theme or topic for the frame-characters.
- Day 1 has no theme
- Day 2 are stories about misfortunes with happy endings
- Day 3 are stories about people who gain or lose an object they desire
- Day 4 are stories about love that ends unhappily
- Day 5 are stories about love that ends happily
- Day 6 are stories that involves clever retorts
- Day 7 are stories about tricks women play on their husbands
- Day 8 are stories about people who trick each other
- Day 9 has no theme.
- Day 10 are stories about munificent deeds.
As my translator and editor, G. H. McWilliam suggests the characters in the frame-story are symbolic, the seven women representing Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, Faith, Hope, and Love, while the three men represent Reason, Anger, and Lust. Likewise, the paradisiacal setting where the group of ten tell their tales symbolizes Eden. In this way, the work has allegorical qualities that fit well with other medieval literature. However, there are stark differences that hint at important social changes. Although the nobility are often the main characters of the stories, middle class merchants also make appearances frequently and play important roles that stand in stark contrast to earlier medieval literature, representing the changing society in which the middle class is becoming more prominent. There is an irreverence towards church figures in the tales, especially friars, while maintaining belief in God and respecting genuine Christian belief in general.
Human pleasure, however, is given primacy over religious devotion. In many of the tales, wives choose to cheat on husbands because their husband’s strict religious commitment prevents them from sleeping with their wives and providing them with pleasure. The characters often justify cheating on their overly religious spouses with the idea that life is too short and it’s better to enjoy it while you’re young and you can. This is not the only reason adultery is committed in the stories; sometimes it’s merely a matter of lust, inflamed passions, and love. Love and pleasure is celebrated as an ultimate good, shifting from a focus on achieving salvation and happiness in the afterlife to an emphasis on finding pleasure and joy in this life. Human ingenuity is also celebrated as many of the characters in these stories spend time tricking each other, usually for the purpose of sleeping with someone’s wife or husband. Indeed, with this theme of trickery and cleverness in mind, we should note that there is an entire day dedicated to tales about clever retorts. Adultery is frequent in these stories and can be found on almost every day no matter what the main theme of the stories. All of this is reflective of the backdrop of the plague, which historically not only led to changes in social values, but led to the rise of the Middle Class.