The Decameron book cover“Nature proves it to us very plainly, for she has made [women] soft and fragile of body, timid and fearful of heart, compassionate and benign of disposition, and has furnished us with meagre physical strength, pleasing voices, and gently moving limbs. All of which shows that we need to be governed by others; and it stands to reason that those who need to be aided and governed must be submissive, obedient, and deferential to their benefactors and governors. But who are the governors and benefactors of us women, if they are not our menfolk?”

With Florence in the grip of the Black Death of 1348, a group of seven women and three men retire to the countryside to escape the sickness and spend time in relaxation and frivolity. While there, they spend much of their days telling each other stories, ranging from very moral to very bawdy and from devious to munificent. Over ten days of storytelling, one hundred diverse tales are told.

The Decameron is a daunting book to pick up, given that it’s over eight hundred and thirty pages of 14th century writing. What’s more, it’s an equally daunting book to review, as it’s essentially a collection of short stories and it seems insufficient to review the whole – but just plain foolish to review all hundred tales separately instead.

Boccaccio’s work is of great importance to the literary tradition, but for me, as a historian, it’s the social setting of the tales and their underlying belief system that is most fascinating. In a sense, the stories themselves are of no great excitement to the modern reader, beyond the fact that they prove that some things really are timeless. There is an abundance of romance, plenty of trickery, smatterings of sex and the occasional moral for good measure. Usually, the guy will get the gal, but occasionally the gal will get the guy or they’ll both die horrible deaths.

Indeed, the predictability and repetitiveness of the stories is The Decameron‘s main downfall. It’s not a book that is easy to read in one go. After a point, I made the decision to read it a day (or ten stories) at a time, reading other books in between sessions, and my enjoyment increased greatly once I put this into practice. Many of the days involve ten stories told around a single theme, which tends to highlight the similarities in the collected tales. This didn’t bother me when it came to the themes I particularly enjoyed – the two days’ worth of tales of trickery, for example – but made the less-interesting themes seem to drag even longer.

The historical value of The Decameron is utterly priceless, however. Through fiction, the modern reader can learn so much about the society and social mores of Boccaccio’s time. The way in which the clergy is described was fascinating – both in terms of corruption and active sexuality. There are descriptions of political hierarchies, occupations, social groups, marriage rites, leisure activities and family routines. Each one of these hundred stories contains so much excellent information about 14th century Italian life.

Most intriguing to me is the way in which Boccaccio portrays his female characters. The quote above is uttered by one of the seven women in the prelude to her ninth story, which is a strong encouragement to husbands to soundly beat their wives. It’s an uncomfortable piece of writing, made more so by the knowledge that it is a woman who has been chosen as the moral’s advocate. And yet, elsewhere, Boccaccio’s women act in surprising ways. Women are portrayed as being smart, brave, strong, witty, loyal and accomplished. They are shown to possess healthy sexual appetites, rather than the common extremes of animalistic urges or chaste disinterest. Throughout the book, there is an obvious conflict between the accepted boundaries for women and the actual diverse natures of women, who may just as easily laugh at bawdy tales of lustful nuns as they may assert their own virtue.

The Decameron may be a daunting book to pick up, but it is worth the time you’ll spend buried in its pages. As a work of fiction, it is witty, romantic and perceptive; as a work of history, it is invaluable.