By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Giovanni Boccaccio
Narration by: Frederick Davidson
“The Decameron” is a series of stories about the western world’s comic/tragic society. Compiled or written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century, it recalls 100 stories told by seven women and three men over a period of ten days. “The Decameron” pictures humanity as subject to luck, avarice, and lust. Each story implies human relationship is determined by circumstance, and informed by nature. The circumstance is societal position and the moment of experience. Nature is the exigency of the emotive moment.
Written during or after the spread of the Black Death (1346-53), “The Decameron” skewers belief that God determines one’s fate. The stories range from raucous to sedate, to sinful and salacious.
Each story implies humans are like wood chips loosed on the sea. Humans float into and away from society’s harbor; toward and away from each other, driven by happenstance and nature. Men are often depicted as lustful beasts; women as lustful manipulators of chance and circumstance. Corruption of morals is as evident in the priesthood as in the lay public. In Boccaccio’s world, God may have created the universe but everything after the seventh day is driven by chance and nature.
All stories are of tradesmen, merchants, upper class men and women who have the luxury of exercising desires in life; i.e. desires beyond the necessity of food to eat and shelter to protect. Women are generally shown as weaker than men but also as clever clandestine operatives. Women and men living above the level of abject poverty seem equally consumed by interest in love and lust. Considering the history of human misogyny, love and lust may have been women’s principle source of security. Love seems riven with lust in men while more frequently used as a tool of manipulation by women.
Neither the church or the lay public are shown to be morally superior. The priesthood and upper-class laymen use the tools of wealth, power, and prestige to seduce women. In contrast women use guile and sexual favor to clandestinely acquire the same earthly desires. The exception is the wealthy widow that has some control over unforeseen consequences of chance.
The comic/tragic events of the stories offer a view of what it is like to live during the dark ages. Some priest’s use the confessional to seduce women; nuns are found to sleep with Bishops. Power, not surprisingly, lies in the hands of men but the fairer sex is shown capable of co-opting power with charm and cunning. Revenge seems equally distributed between the sexes but consequentially more severe for women than men.
There are some insights to history and society offered by “The Decameron”. A clever decision by a military strategist is to refashion bows and arrows with smaller slits than common. The result is that enemy bow carriers on one side of a battle are unable to use arrows invented with smaller slit arrows. But, the wide slit arrows could still be used by soldiers with small slit bows. This small bow and arrow innovation gave one side of the battle twice the ammunition of the opposition.
More interesting insights are the rise of a middle class in the dark ages, and the early recognition of organized religion’s corruption. God is still considered as all-powerful but organized religion is rife with the same sins of all human beings. Women may have been treated as second class citizens but they still found ways to compete in the drive for money, power, and prestige. Then and now, cuckold and adulteress share equal billing for shame. However, the double standard for men that wander, and women that survive adultery is shown as appalling unequal then as it is now. Men are forgiven while women are brutalized (sometimes murdered) and left to deal with the consequences of childbirth and poverty.
Finally, there is the underlying theme of nature and happenstance that determine the course of life. Among Boccaccio’s followers, there is belief in God but only as Creator. Humankind is on its own in stories of “The Decameron”. Some suggest Boccaccio is among the first humanist writers (a system of thought emphasizing the human rather than the divine). Buffering by nature pushes and pulls humankind with chance circumstances of the day. Rich, poor, saintly, and heathen are equally decimated by the plague. God seems to have washed His hands of what happens on earth. Plans of man are perceived as changed by nature’s unpredictability; not by God.
Though some may be entertained by this presentation of “The Decameron”, it is not to this critic’s taste. It is too long. It is delivered monotonously. It elicits little laughter. It ponderously consumes thirty hours of a listener’s time. However, as noted above, it offers a remarkable picture of life in an era of western world’ upheaval (consequence of the black plague) and change (from God’s plan to the unpredictability of nature).