Really Old Classics – Boccaccio’s Decameron

One of the advantages of the current COVID isolation is the abundance of time with which to read.  While I enjoy many genres of contemporary fiction and modern writers, I occasionally dip into some of the classics of yesteryear.  For many readers, the old ‘classics’ are difficult to wade through if only because of the older conventions of language usage.  The modern reader, used to economy of word-smithing and action orientation, can find the old classics a little daunting.  When I pick up a volume of this type, I gird myself for a different reading experience and can never resist wondering if the classic will still hold some power to grip and amuse the reader.  Some succeed while others now seem curious period pieces.  I have never been able to get through more than the first book of Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’, for example.  On the other hand, I was recently able to delve into Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’ and emerge on the other side. Perhaps it was the blatant humor and variety in the Decameron that helped me get across the finish line.

Giovanni Boccaccio was in Florence in 1348 when the first wave of the plague arrived in the city from the east.  His eyewitness account, found in the preamble to the first tale in his ‘Decameron’, makes sober reading in this age of a new, and much less deadly, pandemic.  The citizens of Europe were aware of the approaching menace headed at them from the East.  Boccaccio even describes a curious difference from accounts of death in the East compared to the European experience.  ‘It did not take the form it had assumed in the East, where if anyone bled from the nose it was an obvious portent of certain death.’  Those in Europe developed large ‘apple’ sized growths in the groin and under the armpits before the growths spread to the rest of the body and life soon terminated.

In Boccaccio’s words:

‘In the face of its onrush, all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing.’

‘…numerous instructions were issued for safeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail…’

‘…it would rush upon these (those without the plague who came into contact with those who had it) with the speed of a fire racing through dry or oily substances…’

Boccaccio relates one scene he witnessed himself related to the disease infection both animals and humans:

‘…the rags of a pauper who had died from the disease were thrown into the street where they attracted the attention of two pigs.  In their wonted fashion, the pigs first of all gave the rags a thorough mauling with their snouts after which they took them between their teeth and shoot them against their cheeks.  And with a short time they began to writhe as though they had been poisoned, then they both dropped dead to ground, spread-eagled upon the rags that had brought about their undoing.’

Such was the rather infertile field that brought Boccaccio the inspiration to write his ‘Decameron’.  The story of the Decameron is quite simple: three young gentlemen and seven ladies of quality meet in a church and decide to flee the city while the plague rages.  They find a congenial spot in the countryside and entertain each other over ten days with songs and dancing.  Most importantly, each person takes a turn each day telling one story or tale for the amusement of the others.  Ten people over ten days make one hundred tales – the contents of the Decameron.  

Bawdy, amusing and satiric, the tales gives the modern reader a unique glimpse into the world of fourteenth century Italy.  A gallery of rogues, nobility, clowns, avaricious friars, the virtuous and oversexed priests populate the tales.  A great many tales involve cuckolds, jealous husbands, conniving lovers and romantic trysts.  Fidelity in marriage is mocked, ignored and lauded all in turn.  Like many of the great ‘classics’, it provides more than a few pleasures in reading, even if one has to accept a more leisurely pace of writing and the curious blend of fourteenth century sexism wedded to earthly desires of the flesh. 

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