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The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (thoughts)

December 15, 2011


I bought The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by Mark Musa & Peter Bondanella back in 2007 (to be more precise, that September) and then proceeded to not read it for four years. I would glance at it every once in awhile, but at over eight hundred pages and being a medieval classic, it just plain intimidated me. Fortunately, this year I have discovered how accessible, fascinating, and just plain fun medieval lit is, so I knew it was finally time to break this one open!

It ended up taking me awhile to read, because I have a mass market paperback edition, so every time my Sjogren’s flared up I’d have to put it down for a while. Fortunately, the format lends itself well to piecemeal reading: seven Florentine ladies and three gentlemen have repaired to the country to avoid the plague, and they spend their time telling each other stories. Each tells one story each day for ten days, hence the title, and most of the days have a loose ‘theme.’ The only thing I knew going into it was that the collection is known for its bawdiness; at first, I thought it had been exaggerated. But as I got further into the book, and the storytellers apparently loosened up, I began to understand just how it got that reputation! Many of the stories revolve around love, of both the courtly and more carnal varieties, with cuckolded spouses, misbehaving priests, and insatiable women making frequent appearances in the latter. I couldn’t help but marvel at Boccaccio’s ability to create so many different metaphors and images for one activity. ;) Even more, I admired his humour: I was often giggling to myself at one caper or another.

His portrayal of women is at times predictably sexist (in that medieval, women-are-only-after-one-thing way, which I actually find fascinating since it’s the exact reversal of our current prevailing stereotypes) but out of the hundred stories only two actually offended me (in one, a husband learns that beating his wife is the best way to have a happy home life and in the other, a thwarted would-be-lover takes a pretty brutal revenge). And Boccaccio frequently portrays men in a negative light as well, so over all his attitudes towards women never got in the way of my enjoyment of the book. While he’s often skewering (particularly towards the clergy), I also didn’t get any hint of misanthropy (unlike, say, Swift or Voltaire), so the satire stayed fun. With its zest for life, a structure that lends itself to easy reading, and wide cast of characters, I found The Decameron to be a completely delight. Highly recommended! (Oh, I almost forgot, but I loved this translation; it’s rendered in a similar style as the Italian original would have been for medieval readers, and has occasional footnotes explaining when Boccaccio is making puns/playing with language. Very good!)

Suggested Companion Reads

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2011 6:18 am

    I doubt this is something I’ll ever read as I really struggle to like pre-19th-century works. It isn’t until the regency- and then Victorian ages that I find enjoyable stuff.

    And your review isn’t changing my mind on that ;)

  2. December 15, 2011 7:36 pm

    My English professor in college assigned us some readings from The Decameron–ten, if I recall correctly. I definitely enjoyed them and read a number of others from the book I had, and had my dad read them. Unfortunately the text we were assigned only contained a selection of the stories, so I’ve never read the whole thing. Now that I’ve read your recommendation, I will have to remedy that!

  3. December 16, 2011 7:16 am

    Interesting that some many medieval stories are stories-within-stories (Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights, etc). Was it their way of writing a collection of short stories?

  4. December 16, 2011 9:28 am

    Testing…

  5. December 16, 2011 10:18 am

    Thats so werid because last night I started reading penguins short version of this (its only a selection of around 15 of the stories) and so far its a delight and kind of like reading a collection of medievel jokes. I made a point last night of aiming to buy the whole collections

  6. December 16, 2011 10:18 am

    Thats so werid because last night I started reading penguins short version of this (its only a selection of around 15 of the stories) and so far its a delight and kind of like reading a collection of medievel jokes. I made a point last night of aiming to buy the whole collection

  7. December 16, 2011 11:05 am

    I’ve had this in my TBR pile for a while and haven’t gotten to it since it’s a litlte intimidating. Your post inspired me to bump it up on my list! It’s nice that you can read it in smaller sections to break it up more.

  8. December 17, 2011 6:17 am

    I read this in college and really enjoyed it, but then when we were having our class discussion about it the professor asked us to discuss whether Griselda was a saint or a fool, and there were these two sisters in the class who were super Christian and said that once a woman gets married, anything her husband does to her or her children is just her cross to bear because divorce is always wrong. And now whenever I think of the Decameron I think of the heated, protracted, and pointless fight I had with them over the idiocy of their position. Sigh.

  9. December 18, 2011 2:40 pm

    This reminds me of a collection I read four or five years ago, edited by a Stanley Appelbaum, called simply Medieval Tales and Stories: 108 Prose Narratives of the Middle Ages. I remember really enjoying the read, and there were some risque tales in that one too, like one called “The Greyhound.”

  10. December 19, 2011 7:40 pm

    I did really like Arabian Nights. Not sure this one is for me, but I may give a try someday.

  11. December 22, 2011 12:45 pm

    I’ve read almost no medieval lit so this would be a good one to try, especially since it sounds like it could space out my reading of it and not have that take away from my enjoyment of the stories.

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