Boccaccio’s Decameron

A Tale from the Decameron (1916) by J.W.Waterhouse

After a considerable hiatus from reading books reserved for the Classics Club challenge, I am back with The Decameron (also known as Prince Galahalt) by Boccaccio. I have not read the entire volume (which I hope does not mean I am cheating) as it is quite large, and I had to read only certain tales for my English course. Nevertheless, I do believe I can provide a decent review.

The one thing that struck me about the tales of The Decameron is how earthly and “low” the subject matter was: there are numerous “dirty” stories, accounts of foul priests, tales of thieves and pranksters. I expected something entirely different from a Medieval text. However, that is precisely the point of Boccaccio’s book.

The Decameron marked a transition from exclusively religious subject matter and the chivalric romances which only dealt with the nobles. Compared to Dante’s Divine Comedy (of which Boccaccio was an ardent fan, and the alternative title of the book is a reference to an episode in Inferno), The Decameron is mostly unconcerned with the state of the next life and focuses on the dealings of this one. What is more, the tales abandon the aristocratic setting of isolated castles and move into the urban sphere of merchants and artisans. Boccaccio “excuses” his light subject matter by dedicating the work to a female audience, which is also a novelty.

The narrative structure of The Decameron is a different thing altogether and a fascinating one at that. The frame story deals with seven young women and three young men who move to the outskirts of Florence to evade the plague which is tearing the city apart. As entertainment and nourishment for the soul the youths decide to each relate a story every day of their seclusion. There are ten days and ten stories per day, giving the grand total of 100 stories. The interplay of the embedded narratives and the frame is quite interesting to trace and reveals some of Boccaccio’s intentions behind the work.

I did enjoy what I read of The Decameron, though my expectations were largely overturned. I assumed a picture much like the one depicted above by my beloved John William Waterhouse: gardens and maidens, stories of courtly love and gallant princes, adventures and quests. A small part of that still exists in the frame narrative and the stories, but it does not characterize the work. Perhaps I felt much like Boccaccio’s contemporary readers — expecting a story like those before it but getting something new and different and ground-breaking in the tradition of story-telling.

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