The Decameron is a collection of one hundred tales and was decidedly different from any collection before, not just in subject matter but in presentation. Boccaccio set his stories within an overarching story called a “frame”. The format was new, like the Plague itself, which acts as the backdrop for the action.
The Black Death was unprecedented. It reduced populations by as much as one-third in several areas of Europe and essentially destroyed the city of Florence. Social, religious, as well as hierarchical order, broke down. Laws ceased to function. Religious services disappeared. Boundaries between people and property vanished, along with social distinctions. Many retreated into isolation as the social fabric of Florence collapsed. All was ruined.
In Boccaccio’s tale, Pampinea and her friends meet one Tuesday morning and decide to flee to the country for two weeks and devote ten days exclusively to storytelling. By doing so, they hope to create a separate life for themselves, away from the tragedy that was Florence. They fabricate a liminal time and space (from limen, Latin for “threshold”) where their creations in the form of stories and daily rituals restore some of the order that had been lost. It is the dawn of a new world, and their storytelling is unlike any that has preceded it.
The group selects four themes to organize their tales: Intelligence, Fortune, Desire, and Magnanimity.
Intelligence in this sense is the ability to deal with the pressures and constraints of society. The actors in the stories must use their wits to overcome the barriers that society has constructed around them.
In pre-Plague Florence, Fortune is God’s servant, but in The Decameron, fortune is secular, and it is intelligence that must thwart fortune when it turns against the individual.
Boccaccio’s stories, many of which are carnal in nature, have sexual Desire as themes.
The church had taken a firm stand against such passions, but their influence had disappeared with the many clergy who had succumbed to the disease. Many of the tales portray desire as fulfilling, such as when a couple lives happily ever after, yet others show that desires can just as easily deceive and be exploited for ill use.
Boccaccio makes the point that given that there is a Heaven and a Hell, reality is somewhere in the middle.
The final theme expressed in the tales is Magnanimity, portrayed as generosity and compassion, yet even such redeeming virtues are not always what they seem. By the end we are amused, but also disconcerted. Ideals may be sought after but reality is different, and we find ourselves caught between the two.
In today’s context, the stories — some truly bizarre, some wonderful — take on an unusual hue if only because we know intimately what is being written about. We’re there.
Some thoughts that are worth considering:
Although horrible to contemplate and experience, plagues, pestilence, and sickness are finite matters.
Boccaccio survived and stood along with Petrarch, his friend, at the dawn of a new age of humanism, later to become The Renaissance. Had it not been for the deaths and the winnowing of society at all social levels during the Black Death, the individual would never have gained the importance and respect he or she acquired in later years.
Today, we stand at a similar threshold to Boccaccio, at the liminal point of something new and different. Because of that, we must consider what he has to say.