258. Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, 1350

Ten young Florentines (seven women and three men) flee the plague-ridden city and hide up in a country manor, whiling away the days dancing and singing, eating and drinking, and telling stories. Each tells a story a day for ten days, making 100 stories.

Source :  My copy was the Everyman’s Library edition, translated by J. G Nichols.

Thoughts : Let’s get the framing story out of the way first, as it did distract me for the first few chapters. Whereas The Arabian Nights had Scherezade in danger every night, and Chaucer had his pilgrims traveling together, Boccaccio has his storytellers escaping from plague (and certain death as he would have believed) by leaving the city and literally frolicking away in happy seclusion. It is this daily party atmosphere that jars with the reality outside their walls. At the end of two weeks and 100 stories, they decide they may as well return to Florence. Ran out of stories? Wine and nibblies? Body spray??

Now to the stories themselves. As Forrest Gump’s mum might have said, the Decameron is like a box of chocolates. Each a pleasant little bite, but most are easily forgotten once consumed. Many are known to have been rewrites of earlier tales, and in their turn, picked up by later authors including Shakespeare.

Later versions of the Decameron had certain stories edited or removed, particularly the last story on Day 3 (see below)

Favourite quotes/scenes:

The majority of the stories centred on cuckolded husbands, lecherous priests and beautiful noblewomen, and developed a sameness after so many. My favourite stories were the funniest, the bawdiest and the most horrific.

Fifth story of day 2 : Young Andreuccio is duped out of his money and subsequently falls into company with two thieves who plan to raid the tomb of a senior churchman who died that morning. After levering the top of the heavy marble sarcophagus off enough for Andreuccio to crawl in and strip the corpse, the two thieves take everything he passes back to them, then shut the lid leaving Andreuccio trapped inside. Another group of thieves arrive, also arguing over who should climb in to rifle the body, including a priest who lowers himself into the reopened tomb,

“What are you afraid of? Do you think he’ll eat you? The dead don’t eat the living. I’ll be the one to go in.” He leant his chest against the edge of the tomb, twisted around and put his legs in so that he could drop down. When he saw this, Andreuccio stood up, gripped the priest by one of his legs, and made as though he were trying to pull him in. The moment he felt this, the priest let out an enormous shriek and threw himself out of the tomb. This terrified the rest of the thieves so much that they fled away as though they were being pursued by ten thousand devils, leaving the tomb open”

Andreuccio escapes home, keeping a valuable ruby ring he held back, and presumably lived happily ever after.

Tenth story of day 3: Alibech, a naive young Tunisian girl travels into the desert to learn from the holy hermits about God. She is sent to Rustico, a young hermit who cannot resist her beauty, and when his body reacts in a way she has never seen before, he teaches her how to “put the Devil back into Hell”.

“Sometimes, while they were at it, she would say:  “Rustico, I don’t know why the Devil wants to get out of Hell; because if he were as happy to be there as Hell is to receive him and keep him there, he would never leave””

Unfortunately for Rustico, Alibech’s enthusiasm and appetites soon exhaust him so totally he has to send her home, where she finds she is the sole heir to her family’s fortune.

Fifth story of day 4: Elisabetta’s brothers kill her lover Lorenzo. She dreams of where his body lies, finds his corpse and removes his head which she buries in a pot of basil, which she takes back to her room, and spends her days hugging and crying over. The brothers steal the pot and unearth the decomposing remains of their evil deed, and run away, while poor Elisabetta dies wailing for the return of her pot. I’m sure she still haunts her room even now.

Digressions/diversions:   In the way that the universe tends to throw up things when you are thinking about them, there were two confirmed cases of deaths in China this week from the Black Death. It is not an extinct disease but lies low in the environment and rises up occasionally. Thankfully modern medicine can cope given sufficient warning and access. I’ve started to read The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, a quite approachable history of the 14th century plague. Only in chapter one so far, but using infected corpses as catapult projectiles to spread the plague inside besieged cities is going to stay in my head for a while.

The Decameron may also have inspired Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

Personal rating:  6/10

In the decade 1340s

  • Battle of Sluys near Bruges between English and French navies, gives England control of the Channel, 1340
  • Castile and Portugal defeat Muslims at Rio Salado, sealing Christian reconquest of Spain, 1340
  • Edward III invades Normandy, defeating French at Crecy and laying siege to Calais, 1346; concludes truce with France 1347
  • The Black Death arrived in Europe from Asia, decimating a third of the population in three years, 1348-1350

Other reading:  Lots of Asterix comics (the early ones where Goscinny and Uderzo were at their best), as well as

  • The Satan Bug by Alistair Maclean. Continuing November’s disease motif (not deliberately I assure you) we have a thriller about stolen superbugs from a research station in England and a countdown to track the villains and save the world.
  • The House Opposite by J. Jefferson Farjeon. Tramp Ben is also holed up from society, but strange doings across the road lead to him getting involved in murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and blackmail. You have to get used to his accent which is a little difficult to understand on the page at times. One of a successful series of books at the time.

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