'To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others.'The guiding thread through the 'Prologue' is the need of companionship and the comfort that comes through kindness. Boccaccio himself felt this compassion while in the throes of love, but whether this is a true biological anecdote remains a question. We all give and seek for comfort, especially in hard times. I have been in the midst of my own personal trials and tribulations and the comfort and nearness given by friends and family was like a salve on a sore wound. Similarly now, all of us toughing it out in Shanghai are relying on each other to keep up our spirits and share resources where necessary.
In the 'Prologue' Boccaccio's stance on women also shines through. I was initially worried about this, since medieval texts aren't necessarily known for their understanding of the female plight. And yet, Boccaccio seems surprisingly aware, if a little condescending:
'Moreover, [women] are forced to follow the whims, fancies and dictates of their fathers, mothers, brothers and husbands, so that they spend most of their time cooped up within the narrow confines of their rooms, where they sit in apparent idleness, wishing one thing and at the same time wishing its opposite, and reflecting on various matters, which cannot possibly always be pleasant to contemplate.'
The First Day
The beginning of 'The First Day' is rather grim, as Boccaccio sets his scene. The scene is Florence in the midst of a deadly outbreak of the Black Plague. He infuses it with some social commentary, describing how those of the lower classes have nowhere to go and no one to help them, the healthy too afraid to approach the ill to aid them. He speaks of those who decide to live life to the fullest while they still have it, drinking, feasting and eating away, while also describing those who flee and live ascetic lives in the hopes it will stave of illness. It was interesting to read about the horror and despair that the Black Plague caused and to compare it now to my own experience. Not only is the Coronavirus nowhere near as deadly and the situation is nowhere near as dire. We're not in a situation where whole households vanish within hours or where we're running out of burial space. Thank God for working healthcare systems, vaccinations and medical staff that works through crises like this!
Boccaccio does promise that, after his horrifying descriptions of Florence, there is more fun to come:
'The degree of pleasure the derive from the latter will correspond directly to the difficulty of the climb and the descent.'He introduces us to his seven 'gently bred' ladies who have been waiting out the Plague while those around them either flee or die. Fed up with being stuck in Florence, the eldest, named Pampinea, proposes they depart for one of their country villas. Filomena interjects that surely women could never undertake this on their own, but thankfully the men show up just in time and agree to accompany them. It is all sorted out rather quickly, and soon our ten youths are settled in rather nicely at their no-longer abandoned villa. Thankfully they have some servants with them to help sort out the rather pesky details of dinner and housekeeping. Again, Pampinea has a rather splendid idea. Each day one of them shall be elected as Queen or King, to order the servants and the day. She herself becomes Queen of the First Day and after plenty of amusements, she proposes the telling of tales.
|Illustration from a ca. 1492 edition of Il Decameron|
Firstly we have a tale of a horrible, sinful man tricking his way into becoming a saint after his own death. Then there is a tale of a Jewish man called Abraham seeing the sinfulness taking place at the Vatican and deciding that Christianity must be a good thing after all if it can grow despite the disaster of Rome. The third story also centres on a Jewish man, Melchizedek, and how he outwits and makes a friend of the famous Saladin. The stories continue along a religious route, as a monk who ignores the rule of abstinence gets away with it through trickery. My favourite story is the fifth, in which the Marchioness of Montferrat kindly puts the King of France in his place through chicken. Back to religion, the sixth story pokes fun at an Inquisitor, while the seventh shows the power of storytelling to shame people into improving their behavior. The eighth story is very short but shows us again the power of a few well-placed words in changing someone's behavior. The ninth story starts quite horrifyingly with an assault, but ends with a king being called into action. And finally the tenth shows that thinking yourself to smart can lead to you being the one that's embarrassed.
I enjoyed the tales of the First Day, as each of them seemed to be about how quick thinking and wit can get you out of almost any situation, especially ones involving religion. Each story starts with a quick, three line summary/introduction, almost like receiving the moral before a fable. This meant I went into the second and third story kind of hesitantly. Antisemitism was rife throughout most of humanity's history, so this could have been utterly horrible. But they are fun tales that, aside from the Jewish characters of course begin rich, shows no hints of antisemitism. Saladin also continues to be consistently highly spoken off in every single thing I read about him. Overall I'd say it's Christianity that comes out of these tales the worst, with friars and monks being either gullible or sinful, the Vatican a cesspool of sin and the Inquisition as corrupt.
Boccaccio continues to critique and support women, all in one go. Below is a rather direct, yet kind of on point, quote:
'"For this special skill [wit], which once resided in a woman's very soul, has been replaced in our modern women by the adornment of the body. She who sees herself tricked out in the most elaborate finery, with the largest number of gaudy stripes and speckles, believes that she should be much more highly respected and more greatly honoured than other women, forgetting that if someone were to dress an ass in the same clothes or simply load them on its back, it could still carry a great deal more than she could, nor would this be any reason for paying ti greater respect than you would normally accord to an ass"'.Yes, that sounds harsh, but I could see logic in it. Removing the blame from women here, there has been an enormous yet sly movement for centuries and centuries to make women nothing more than beautiful decorations in a home, useful but quiet. Clearly the women in Boccaccio's Decameron are different. They may be beautiful and 'gently bred', but they are also witty, well-educated, eloquent and very outspoken. The quote is from Pampinea, who has led the whole endeavor so far. She has been the driving force between getting The Decameron started so I feel pretty justified in saying that a lot of this is tongue-in-cheek.
Boccaccio also builds up his nested narrative here which, as far as I can see, has three layers. Firstly there is Boccaccio, the narrator/author. He shows us Florence, he introduces us to the characters, he narrates their experiences. Secondly there is the Storyteller, one of the ten youths telling their tale. And thirdly, there is the Tale itself, a hundred of them to be precise. He says he received this story on good authority from someone who can be trusted, a trope that is seen in many medieval but also later works! I enjoyed how each of our characters told a tale, following up on the previous' tales theme while also advancing the theme.
The 'First Day' ends with a new Queen being crowned, Filomena. She upholds most of Pampinea's rules, but decides that from now on their story-telling should go by theme:
'"Ever since the world began, men have been subject to various tricks of Fortune, and it will ever be thus until the end. Let each of us, then, if you have no objection, make it our pupose to take as our theme those who after suffering a series of misfortunes are brought to a sate of unexpected happiness."'Naturally, they all agree! The only one who is allowed to exempt himself from the rule is Dioneo who, according to everything I've read, is pretty much Boccaccio's stand-in. I'm actually very excited to keep reading, so do join me again tomorrow for our 'Second Day'.