The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio (translation by Wayne A. Rebhorn). New York: W. W. Norton, 2013 (originally published 1353).
Summary: A classic collection of one hundred stories told for amusement over ten days by seven women and three men escaping the plague of 1348 in Florence.
A hundred year old copy of Decameron resides in the depths of my bookcases. I don’t suspect it was ever read, with pages still uncut but my mom spoke of these stories as if she knew them. I never picked them up until this spring, when a reading group I’m a part of decided to read this. The first challenge was to chose an edition. We looked at the classic (and free via e-book) translation by John Payne. It read formal and dense, and we decided we would never survive a book of this length without finding a more readable translation. Wayne A. Rebhorn’s recent translation more than fits the bill. It is lively, vernacular, and brings out the humor and earthiness of Boccaccio’s tale, combining readability and nobility without ever becoming stuffy.
“Decameron” means “ten days,” which alludes to the framing story for these one hundred stories. It is 1348 and the plague has struck Florence. Seven women and three men fleeing the city meet up and decide to travel together and take up lodgings in the course of the stories at several idyllic country estates with separate bedrooms (!) and verdant gardens and servants to supply their needs. For amusement, they agree to meet together each day for ten days (with breaks extending the ten days of storytelling over fifteen days abroad) and each tell a story for the others. One of their number presides as king or queen each day, both arranging meals and most importantly, setting a theme for the stories each day for the group–for all that is but Dioneo. Dioneo claims special privilege to tell the concluding story and choose his own theme. Two of the days are storyteller’s choice. Other themes include misfortunes turned to happiness, resourcefulness in action or wit, loves that end unhappily or happily, tricks played by women on husbands, on men in general, men on women, and men on men. The collection concludes on a high note with stories of those who act with magnificence in love or otherwise.
How does one summarize these stories? They are earthy, and often the women are as lusty as the men, and affairs seem to be accepted and generally inconsequential unless one is caught, and even then, the test is whether one may escape by one’s wits. The lack of the sad consequences that follow such affairs in real life seemed somewhat disconcerting, and an indulgence in unreality–some of us thought of it as a male fantasy world. Some stories are fairly crude, as is the case where a friend is called to cast a spell to turn a man’s wife into a mare, and for the spell to work, the friend must pin his “tail” on the mare.
The church hardly escapes this earthiness as bishops, priests, and nuns (in one case a whole abbey) succumb to sins of the flesh. One of the most telling commentaries is the second story in the collection in which a Jew goes to Rome and on return converts because, given the low estate of the church that he saw, it can only survive because there is a God (sadly true at several times and places in our history!).
Sometimes they are downright hilarious, particularly the tales of Buffo and Buffalmacco and their witless friend Calendrino, who they dupe in several stories. One wonders how he can be so stupid to let these guys deceive him, and why he retains them as friends.
While earthy, they retain a certain focus on style. Day Six’s stories where a witty response or quick retort saves the day or puts one in their place is an example. One example is an uncle who suggests to his vain niece that she not preen in the mirror if it is true that she does not like looking at disagreeable people! We thought that this kind of wit, of which Ronald Reagan was the epitome, is desperately needed in our public life.
Style extends to nobility of spirit and action. Perhaps my favorite story in the volume was that of Torello and Saladhin. Torello extends generous hospitality to Saladhin, traveling incognito. Later when captured by Saladhin in a Crusade, the tables are turned in a marvelous way that transcended these wasteful conflicts.
Not all is noble, however and there is a dark undercurrent running through these stories of how men exercise power over women, sometimes with great physical and psychological cruelty (one husband tests his wife’s loyalty by seeming to kill her children, and then send her off to her father, feigning to marry another). Yet often women find way to give as good as they get. One wife, caught in an affair and dragged before the judge, exposes her husband’s “inattentiveness” and gets the law changed through her witty defense. Women trick their husbands, often without the husbands knowing they have been tricked.
In the epilogue, Boccaccio gives a defense for the bawdy or unseemly character of some of his stories. He argues both that when these are written with elegance, and read by people of character, they do no harm but simply amuse or delight. And it seems that this is indeed the case for the young women and men who tell and listen to these stories. It might be argued that the survival of these stories to our own day suggests the power of Boccaccio as a story teller. Boccaccio reveals humanity in our pretensions to greatness, and the realities of our desires, our blindness and folly, sparks of wit and the thrill of romance, unseemly greed, and noble generosity. We still like stories that explore all these things and perhaps the genius of Boccaccio was to combine them through a compelling framing story into a single volume.