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Giovanni Boccaccio’s medieval masterpiece “The Decameron” is a collection of stories, chronicled over ten days, which highlights the best and worst of human nature. Boccaccio’s tales deal with themes such as adultery, love, premarital sex, devotion, trickery, and manipulation, among others. Yet this work is historically significant as a result of its brutal and unprecedented courage to show what was occurring behind the closed doors of medieval society. As one scholar notes in Boccaccio’s epilogue, there is a “plea for freedom of expression, for a concept and acceptance of literature free of didactic and moralistic constraints and directed towards the amusement, pleasure, and consolation of the reader.”
Boccaccio’s declared intent in writing “The Decameron” was to entertain the ladies of the era who had lost and suffered so much during the Black Death that swept the entire European continent. However, through his work Boccaccio also illustrated the sexual freedom women experienced during this time; a benefit of the social instability during and after the epidemic. Additionally, Boccaccio showed a side of the female gender, unseen before from the perspective of a man: woman using their intellectual prowess, wit, and sexuality as a means to achieve a desired outcome.
Therefore, in his work Bocaccio captured a defining moment for women in The Middle Ages. “The Decameron” is a commentary and illustration of how the women of the time used their intelligence and sexuality as a means to ascertain power and break free from the societal norms and restrictions placed upon them by the Church and the patriarchal societies that had repressed them throughout history.
To understand why the characteristics displayed of women in “The Decameron” were so uncommon and never before seen, one must first understand the societal barriers they dealt with during their day to day lives. Before the era known as The Middle Ages (approximately beginning in 500 AD) there was the period known as Classical Antiquity (spanning from around eighth century BC to 400 AD). While this shift in time marked many changes, one notable difference can be identified in the societal gender structure of the European community. Much of the history recorded during antiquity revolves around the cultural and economic centers of Rome and Athens. The role of women in society, with respect to men, in both these cities often paralleled one another.
In Rome, women were regarded as property of their fathers until they were married off to their husbands. Roman husbands generally did greatly appreciate the institution of marriage and their wives. This appreciation manifested in the influential counsel women provided their husbands. While it was not socially acceptable to advise your husband publicly, men were known to follow advice offered by their wives privately. Women were mostly limited to their homes. A respectable women was not known to wander around on her own; male supervision was required in public and when traveling. Socially their role was to rear the children and take care of the home while their husbands worked. It was not seen as socially acceptable for a woman above the lower class to work. Therefore women did not yield much power; at no point in the Roman Empire was a woman allowed to hold public office. Monetarily, even a wealthy, old widow was not allowed to independently manage her own finances. Therefore, women in Rome were extremely constrained by the roles society imposed upon them. Women were completely subservient to their male counterparts in all realms of life.
Athenian women were equally as submissive. From an early age the social paradigm between girls and boys was heavily entrenched. Boys were separated from the girls and offered private educations which consisted of reading and writing. However, girls were only taught domestic skills such as weaving and child rearing. Girls were married off by their fathers through male-centric weddings based around the father and groom. Unlike Roman husbands, Athenians did not see their wives as respectable counterparts. Instead, they were seen as inconveniences best left and restricted to the home. Wives were not allowed to leave the home unless supervised, and only lower class women were allowed to work. A respectable woman’s work was considered tending to the needs of her husband and family.
With the fall of the Roman Empire in the Fifth century began the period known as The Middle Ages. The societal gender hierarchy still remained intact, however, due to the Black, Plague moral codes which governed women loosened. While marriage was still seen by the Church as a religious institution in which the woman was bound to her husband, the chaos of the spreading sickness resulted in less moral accountability for women in regard to their habits with men. As Boccaccio explains in the introduction of “The Decameron,” “In this extremity of our city’s suffering and tribulation the venerable authority of laws, human and divine, was abased and all but totally dissolved for lack of those who should have administered and enforced them, most of whom, like the rest of the citizens, were either dead or sick or so hard bested for servants that they were unable to execute any office; whereby every man was free to do what was right in his own eyes.” Acknowledgment of female sexuality was now more widely accepted, as opposed to in Classical Antiquity. In fact, during The Middle Ages, public opinion leaned toward the theory that women were actually more sexually lustful than men, with “insatiable appetites”.
Historical Literary Context
Giovanni Boccaccio wrote “The Decameron” following the Black Plague and essentially dedicated the book to women. Within the Fourth day introduction he defends his motives for writing this book. His main argument cites his masculine affinity for women, and declares that he wrote the book to delight the women who bring him happiness. Nevertheless, Boccaccio’s intentions are not as significant as the perspective provided by his gender. “The Decameron” was ground-breaking for The Middle Ages because never in history had a man authored a book, written for woman, which glorified the diversity and freedom of women. Most literature involving women came from the female community of writers.
One could almost say that Boccaccio presents himself as a feminist, praising and delighting in women who are witty, intelligent, manipulative, aggressive, and even sexually liberated. In particular, Boccaccio highlights the sexuality of women during The Middle Ages with unprecedented honesty. As a result of the chaos of the Black Death, laws did loosen and society’s focus was muddled for some time. Therefore, the repressive social norms which had previously governed women were not as applicable or enforced through judgment. Thus Boccaccio, in “The Decameron”, highlighted the sexual liberation women experienced during the time. Other authors of the era also authored literature with these themes in mind; however, never with the honesty had Boccaccio exhibited or to the extent that he pushed social norms of what was socially acceptable to reveal. Most medieval authors cloaked their sexual references with euphemisms and double-entendres.
“The Decameron” is significant in the study of the female gender in The Middle Ages for two primary reasons. First and foremost, within the literary community it broke from the mold and characterized women in a more honest, diverse light. However, more importantly, it chronicles cases of woman breaking from the social constraints placed upon them, and acting independently to form their own identities.
One way the independent woman is identified in “The Decameron” is through the defiant wife. Socially, women were always submissive partners, tending to the home and never asserting themselves as individuals. However, Boccaccio’s compilation features many women breaking through this mold. In the Fourth tale of the Seventh day, Tofano, an extremely jealous husband locks his wife out of the house. His wife, realizing the perception this situation will garner from the neighbors, quickly devices a plan to turn the dynamic and come out in power. She threatens her husband by saying that she will jump down the well and commit suicide; leaving him to be judged as a murderer. She cleverly throws a rock down the well. Her husband, interpreting that his wife just jumped in, runs out to save her. However, in reality she runs into the house and locks out her husband; reversing the situation and gaining control over her jealous husband. With power now in her hands, the wife uses this advantage to gain more freedom from the constraints of her role as a wife. This tale thus perfectly confirms the case of a wife using her wit to gain freedom within her marriage.
Furthermore, there are countless stories of woman asserting themselves by speaking out within their society. The Seventh tale of the Sixth day features Madonna Filippa, a wife who gets caught by her husband with a lover. Upon being brought to court, she cleverly argues against the statute on which she is being charged. Not only does is she acquitted of all charges, but the law she disputes also gets overturned. This tale is unique because it demonstrates the case of a woman asserting herself through her intelligence, not just against her husband, but also against the society and laws which govern her. The Third tale of the Sixth day also showcases a woman using rhetoric to defend herself. Monna Nonna is approached by two men of wealth who are haughty and abusive of women. After seemingly disrespecting her in public with a biting question, she does not subject to their status, but rather bites back. Shocked and ashamed, the two men ride away and do not bother her any further. Monna Nonna, therefore, displays the woman who is not afraid to speak out upon being wronged, and in doing so avoids further embarrassment or abuse.
Most notable is the sexual demeanor of women in the tales. The nuns in the First tale of the Third day encapsulate the sentiment around all of the sexually aggressive women of the collection when they say, “whereas a single cock is quite sufficient for ten hens, ten men are hard put to satisfy ten women.” Women in “The Decameron” are not afraid to publicly and unconventionally avow their sexual identity, often against the structure of their marriage. Since the women of the time were interpreted to have stronger sexual lusts then men, this theme is not as surprising. The character Peronella, in the Second Tale of the Seventh day, out rightly commits adultery with her husband in the same room. When her husband returns home early, his wife is with her lover. Luckily he does not enter, and she’s able to fool him into thinking the other man is just there to buy a barrel the husband has made. While the husband is cleaning the barrel out, Peronella’s lover begins to perform sexual intercourse with her, behind her husband’s back, figuratively and literally. Neither is caught and the cheating wife gets away with the scandalous act. This tale is representative of a wife who has her own sexual identity outside of the confines of marriage, and her loyalty to her husband. She acts like an individual and in doing so undermines the power or control her husband has over her. Peronella, with her quick thinking mentality, is able to control the power in the marriage and ultimately avoid detection.
The Fifth tale of the Seventh day has a similar theme. A jealous husband disguises himself as a priest in order to hear his wife’s confessions and confirm his suspicions of adultery. Figuring out his trick, the wife fools the husband into thinking her lover always comes in through the door. While the husband waits patiently every night by the door awaiting her lover, she sneaks in her lover through the roof and lies with him. While this act of adultery is committed more discretely, the underlying implications are the same. The cheating wife is undermining the power of the husband by using her wit to get achieve her desired outcome. The First tale from the Ninth day features a sexually lustful woman, who does not challenge a husband, but rather two lovers. Madonna Francesca, while having two lovers, but loving neither one, seeks to get rid of both. She devices a plan and tries to get the first to simulate a corpse in a tomb, and then attempts to convince the second to enter the tomb and fetch him out. Since both refuse, Madonna Francesca ends her love affairs. This tale hence serves as an instance of a woman not necessarily challenging the power of her husband, but just men in general. Madonna Francesca uses her intelligence to simply put herself above these two men and in doing so exemplifies the daring, socially defiant woman that Boccaccio tried to loyally to illustrate in “The Decameron.”
The overt sexuality exhibited by certain women in “The Decameron” thus stems from their need to rebel against the social structures which constrained them. Often these restraints came in the form of marriage, their husbands, and the expectations society placed upon them. Boccaccio attributes characteristics within women such as wit, intelligence, and sexuality as means by which they attain power and control within society. Therefore, by doing this, women are able to turn the tide and act much in the same way that men were depicted in literature before “The Decameron.” Women are shown to be illustrious, aggressive, and empowered; their rebellious spirit stemming from the oppressive lives they previously lived or were expected to live.
“The Decameron” ends up being a feminist critique of The Middle Ages, ironically written by a male, Giovanni Boccaccio. Not only do the stories serve as a social commentary on the changing nature of women at the time, but the book also ends up being a cautionary tale for women in a variety of ways. Many of the underlying themes and plot lines provide women with examples for how to carry out their lives and relationships. First and foremost, it promotes women revolting against certain social institutions such as marriage, especially if they are unhappy or are victims of overbearing husbands. Many of the tales cited, such as Tofano’s wife, demonstrate how women only rebelled after living under the control of jealous or controlling husbands. Additionally, the tales of women speaking out to assert their rights within their communities also serves as a model for women. Boccaccio wanted the women of the time to pursue happier lives following the melancholy overtones of the Black Plague. Therefore, he saw this point in history as an opportunity for women to battle against the status quo and publicly declare that the laws which governed them were commonly absurd and unjust. The lesson of Monna Nonna is one way Boccaccio pushes his agenda of cautionary tales. Monna Nonna, upon being disrespected by two men does not just submit to their will, she stands up for her rights as a human being. Her success in averting the abuse provides women with the confidence to emulate her strong will and stand up for their rights as well.
However, it is the odd placement of the last tale of the Tenth day that potentially offers one of the most blatant commentaries by Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio might have included this story in a non-corresponding day to highlight its message, and bring more attention to it. Griselda, a lower class woman, is essentially abused continuously throughout her life by her husband. During the marriage she is unaware of that his intention is to test her patience and devotion to the marriage. Therefore, he continues on committing terrible acts against her; leaving her, sending her children away, among other cruel deeds. However, through it all Griselda remains loyal to her husband. Ultimately her husband explains to her why he did what he did and tries to make up for it by bringing her children back. Now sure of her devotion, he treats her kindly. However, Boccaccio’s tone throughout the tale is one of sarcasm. Potentially this story serves to show Boccaccio’s women that a steady will and devotion can be applied to the wrong things. Once again, the story of Griselda is a cautionary tale to women. Bocaccio’s intent might have been to instruct women to not accept unfair treatment from their male counterparts, and further his feminist agenda.
Hence there exists the possibility that Boccaccio had a unique sympathy for women, and wanted to write a lengthy collection of stories that would incite in the female community a desire to fight to obtain greater respect within the patriarchal society of The Middle Ages.
Giovanni Boccaccio asserts in the Introduction of “The Decameron” and later on throughout the work that his intent is to entertain and enlighten women; for whom he has an incredible amount of respect and admiration. Following the Black Death, Boccaccio wanted to break through the sadness of the era and speak directly to the female population and inspire them to embrace their intelligence and freedom in order to achieve greater happiness. Consequently, his work ends up demonstrating the increased freedom women were exhibiting at the time, and serves as a model for how women should assert their rights.
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