Table of Contents
This is the start of something new.
The events, developments, and conditions that were happening in history at a particular time.
Historical Literary Text
The Decameron”, a medieval masterpiece written by Giovanni Boccaccio and chronicled in ten days of events, highlights the worst and best of human behavior. Boccaccio’s stories cover topics like adultery (including premarital relations), love, devotion, trickery and manipulativeness, among other things. It is important because of the brutality and courage with which it exposes what goes on behind closed doors. Boccaccio’s Epilogue is full of “a plea for freedom, for a concept of literature without didactic or moralistic constraints, directed toward the amusement and comfort of the reader.”
Boccaccio wrote “The Decameron”, with the intention of entertaining the women who suffered and lost so much in the Black Death which swept across Europe. Boccaccio illustrated through his writings that the women of this era enjoyed a great deal of sexual freedom, which was due to the instability in society during and following the Black Plague. Boccaccio’s work also revealed a new side to women, one that men had never seen before: the way they used their intelligence, wit, sexuality, and sociability as tools to achieve a goal.
Bocaccio captures this moment in history in his works. The Decameron demonstrates how the women in that time used their intelligence, sexuality and power to break free of societal rules and restrictions.
Historical ContextIn order to fully understand why “The Decameron’s” characteristics were so unique, you must first know the barriers women faced in their daily lives. Classical Antiquity, or the time period between the 8th century BC and 400 AD, was preceding the Middle Ages. Although this period of time saw many changes, there is one significant difference in the societal structure of Europeans. Rome and Athens were the economic and cultural centers of antiquity. Both cities had similar roles for women and men.
In Rome the Romans considered women to be their father’s property until they were married. Roman wives and marriage were highly valued by Roman husbands. The wives’ advice was a manifestation of this appreciation. Men were known to listen to their wives’ advice in private, even though it wasn’t socially acceptable for women to give advice to their husbands publicly. Women tended to stay at home. In public or when traveling, a respectable woman would not be seen wandering around alone. They were socially expected to look after the family and children while their spouses worked. Women of higher social classes were not allowed to work. The Roman Empire did not allow women to hold any public office. Even a rich, elderly widow could not manage her finances independently. As a result, the social roles assigned to Roman women were very restrictive. In all aspects of life, women were subordinate to men.
Athenian woman were also equally submissive. Social paradigms between girls versus boys were firmly rooted in Athens from a young age. Boys and girls received separate educations that consisted of reading, writing and other skills. Girls were taught only domestic skills like weaving and childrearing. By tradition, fathers were the ones to marry their daughters off in male-centric weddings. Unlike Roman wives, Athenians did view their spouses as respected counterparts. They were viewed as nuisances that should be kept at home. Women from lower classes could only work if they were closely supervised. Respectable women were expected to take care of their husbands and families.
The Middle Ages began with the fall of Rome in the fifth century. Although the societal hierarchy of gender remained unchanged, the moral codes governing women were loosen due to The Black Plague. While the Church still regarded marriage as an institution of religion, in which women were bound to husbands, the chaos created by the disease led to a reduction in moral accountability in regards to the habits that women had with men. Boccaccio states in “The Decameron,” in its introduction, that the “venerable authority” of human and divine laws was “abassed and all-but totally dissolved in this extremity of the city’s sufferings and tribulations for the lack those who should enforce and administer them. The majority of citizens were either ill or dead and the servants were too hard-bested to be able to perform any official duties. In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that females were more sexually lustful, and had an “insatiable hunger”, than males.
Historical Literary ContextGiovanni Buccaccio wrote the “Decameron” after the Black Plague, and dedicated it primarily to women. He defends the reasons for his book’s writing in the Fourth Day Introduction. He cites as his main argument that he has a masculine attraction to women and says he wanted to write the book in order for the women to bring him joy. Boccaccio may have had good intentions, but his gender’s perspective is more important. The Decameron is a landmark book in the Middle Ages. It was written by a woman for women and celebrated their freedom, diversity, and individuality. The majority of women’s literature was written by female writers.
Boccaccio could be considered a feminist. In his writings, Boccaccio praises women for their intelligence, cleverness, aggression, manipulation, and sexual freedom. Boccaccio, in particular, reveals the sexuality of medieval women with an unprecedented level of honesty. The chaos caused by the Black Death led to a loosening of laws and a muddled focus in society for a period of time. Due to this, the social norms governing women at that time were no more applicable. Boccaccio’s “Decameron” highlights the sexual freedom women enjoyed during this time. Boccaccio and other medieval authors also wrote about similar themes, but never in the same way or with such honesty. Most medieval writers hid their sexual references behind euphemisms or double-entendres.
Analysis”The Decameron,” in studying the female gender of The Middle Ages has significance for two major reasons. First, the Decameron broke away from the norm and gave women a more accurate, diverse portrayal. The book also chronicles the stories of women who defied social conventions and formed their own identities.
The defiant Wife is one of the ways “The Decameron” identifies an independent woman. Women were socially subordinate partners who took care of the home, never asserting their independence, and always submissive. Boccaccio’s collection features a number of women who break this mould. Tofano locks out his wife, who is an incredibly jealous man, in the fourth tale of the seventh day. He wife, sensing the negative perception that will come from his neighbors, devises an immediate plan to take control of the situation. She threatens to kill herself and her husband, if she does not jump into the deep well. She throws down a clever rock. Her husband runs to her rescue, believing that she has just jumped into the well. In reality, she locks her husband out of the house. This reverses the situation. Now that she has more power, the wife takes advantage of it to be freer from her wifely role. This story perfectly illustrates how a woman can use her wits to gain more freedom in her marriage.
There are many stories about women who have asserted themselves and spoken out in their societies. Madonna Filippa appears in the Seventh story of the sixth day. She is a woman who was caught with her lover by her husband. She cleverly challenges the law on which she was charged when she is brought before a court. She is acquitted not only of the charges against her, but she also has the law in question overturned. This story is special because it illustrates a woman who asserts herself by using her intelligence to fight not only her husband, but the laws and society that govern her. The Third Tale of Sixth Day also shows a female using rhetoric as a means to defend themselves. Monna nonna is approached in the street by two rich men who are abusive and haughty towards women. She doesn’t give in to their arrogance after she was questioned publicly with a question that sounded like it was meant as a dig. Instead, she bites them back. They leave her alone, embarrassed and shocked. Monna Nonna is a woman who does not hesitate to speak up when she has been wronged. This prevents further abuse or embarrassment.
The sexual behavior of the women is most notable. The nuns from the First story of the third day sum up the attitude of all sexually aggressive women when they state, “A single cock will satisfy ten chickens but ten men would struggle to satisfy 10 women.” The women of “The Decameron,” on the other hand, do not hesitate to declare their sexuality in a public and unconventional way, sometimes against the marriage. The theme of this story is not so surprising since the women at that time were believed to be more sexually lustful than the men. In the Second Tale of the Seventh Day, the character Peronella commits adultery in the same bedroom with her husband. When the husband comes home early, she’s with her lover. She is able to trick him into believing that the man was there to purchase a barrel her husband made. Peronella and her lover begin to engage in sexual activity behind the back of her husband, both figuratively as well as literally, while he is cleaning out the barrel. The wife cheats and is never caught. This story demonstrates a wife that has a sexual identity separate from marriage but is loyal to her man. She does not act like her husband and undermines his power. Peronella’s quick-thinking mentality allows her to maintain control over the marriage.
Similar themes are found in The Fifth Tale of Seventh Day. A jealous husband poses as a pastor to listen to his wife confess and confirm suspicions about adultery. The wife plays on the husband’s ignorance and convinces him that her lover will always enter through the doors. She sneaks into the house through the roof, while her husband patiently waits for her lover to come in. This act of adultery may be committed in a discreet manner, but the consequences are still the very same. The wife’s wit undermines husband power by achieving her desired result. The first tale of the ninth day is about a woman with a sexually lustful nature who challenges two lovers, not a spouse. Madonna Francesca, who loves neither lover, tries to rid them both. She devises a plan to trick the first lover into posing as a corpse and convince the second one to go in the tomb to retrieve him. Since both refuse, Madonna Francesca ends her love affairs. This story illustrates how a wife does not have to challenge her husband’s power, but rather men in general. Madonna Francesca’s intelligence allows her to put herself above both men. In doing so, she embodies the brave and defiant female Boccaccio attempted to faithfully illustrate in his “The Decameron.”
The overt homosexuality of some women in the “Decameron” is therefore a reaction to their need for rebellion against social structures. Often the restraints that women felt came from their marriages, the expectations of society, and even the men they married. Boccaccio credits women’s wittiness, intelligence, and sexuality with gaining power and controlling society. Boccaccio attributes characteristics within women such as wit, intelligence, and sexuality as means by which they attain power and control in society.
The Decameron, written by Giovanni Boccaccio, is ironically a feminist criticism of the Middle Ages. The stories, which serve as a comment on women’s changing roles at that time, also end up serving as a cautionary tale in many ways. The plots and themes of many stories provide examples to women on how they can live their lives and maintain relationships. It promotes women rebelling against social institutions like marriage, particularly if they’re unhappy or have overbearing spouses. The stories cited by Tofano’s Wife and others show how women rebelled only after being controlled or jealous husbands. Women can also learn from the stories of women who speak out for their rights in their community. Boccaccio wanted women to live happier lives after the Black Plague’s melancholy overtones. In this way, Boccaccio thought that women could use the opportunity of the Black Plague to publicly challenge the statusquo and denounce the unjust laws that were governing them. Boccaccio is a master at using cautionary stories to push his agenda. Monna Nonna stands up to two men after they disrespect her. Her ability to prevent the abuse instills confidence in women, who can emulate her and use their own strength of will to fight for what they believe is right.
Giovanni Boccaccio could have been making a statement by placing the story at the end of the Tenthday. Boccaccio may have placed this story on a day that was not corresponding to the message to bring it to light and to attract more attention. Griselda’s husband abuses her continuously all her life. She is not aware that he is testing her patience and commitment to the marriage. Then he commits terrible acts towards her: he abandons her, sends her kids away, and many other cruel things. Griselda, however, remains loyal to him. Her husband finally explains what he has done and attempts to make amends by bringing the children back. Once he has been convinced of her love, he treats his wife with kindness. Boccaccio is sarcastic throughout this tale. This story may serve as a warning to Boccaccio’s female characters that their steady devotion and will can lead them to do the wrong thing. Griselda’s story serves as a warning for women. Bocaccio was likely trying to convince women that they should not tolerate unfair treatment at the hands of men, as well as furthering his feminist agenda.
Boccaccio might have felt a special affinity for women. He may have written a series of stories to encourage the female community in The Middle Ages to strive to achieve greater respect.
ConclusionGiovanni Buccaccio declares in “The Decameron’s” Introduction and throughout the entire work that he wants to entertain and educate women, whom he holds in high regard and admiration. Boccaccio wished to transcend the sadness that characterized the time following the Black Death and to encourage the women of his day to use their intellect and freedom for greater happiness. In the end, Boccaccio’s work is an illustration of the increasing freedom and independence that women demonstrated at the time.