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Time & Place

Late Middle Ages, early Renaissance. Composed between 1350 and 1353 in Italy.

Language & Form

Italian collection of tales in prose. The collection is structured as 100 tales told over the span of 10 days by seven ladies and three gentlemen (the word "decameron" is derived from the Greek and means "ten days"). Recommended translations: G. H. McWilliam, Peter E. Bondanella.


Frame Narrative
The plague is ravaging the city of Florence and people are dying in great numbers. All social order, customs, and traditions are undermined. Fear leads to a breakdown of social relations and to the neglect of both the living and the dying. Ten young people (seven ladies--Pampinea, Fiammetta, Filomena, Emilia, Lauretta, Neifile, and Elissa-- and three gentlemen--Panfilo, Filostrato, and Dioneo) flee from the city and seek refuge in a countryside estate where they pass the time telling stories and enjoying each other's company. They deliberately abstain from competitive games and choose instead forms of entertainment which give pleasure to everyone (music, dance, song, feasting, storytelling). Each member of the group tells one story each day for ten days (hence the "decameron" or ten days).

First Day: First Story
The scoundrel Ser Cepperello manages to pass himself off as a virtuous man during his last confession. After his death, he is remembered as Saint Ciappelletto and people pray to him for favors and believe him capable of performing miracles.

Fourth Day: Second Tale
A scoundrel by the name of Berto della Massa moves to Venice and becomes a friar, taking the name Brother Alberto. He manages to fool everyone into believing that he is a very holy man. Brother Alberto then sets out to seduce the vain and gullible Madonna Lisetta, the wife of a wealthy merchant. Praising her beauty he leads her to believe that the Archangel Gabriel is in love with her and wants to pay her a visit in her bedroom. Brother Alberto tells her that the angel will visit her by taking possession of his body. Madonna Lisetta believes it all and receives numerous visits from the angel. Eventually, due to Lisetta's boasting that the angel Gabriel is her lover, the affair is discovered. Brother Alberto suffers public humiliation and permanent confinement in his monastery.

Fourth Day: Ninth Story
Guillaume de Cabestanh has an affair with the wife of his friend Guillaume de Roussillon. Roussillon ambushes and kills Cabestanh, tears out his heart and has it cooked and served for dinner to his wife. After she finds out what she's eaten, she jumps out a window and dies.

Fifth Day: Eighth Story
Wealthy Nastagio is in love with a lady of noble lineage who despises him. Discouraged, Nastagio leaves town and, in the wilderness, witnesses the frightening scene of a young woman being chased down and murdered by a knight. The knight explains to Nastagio that they are both souls in torment doomed to repeat the scene for a number of years. The deed is part of their punishment for his having committed suicide in despair at being rejected by the lady. The lady in turn is punished for her pride and cruelty in rejecting the love of the knight. Nastagio has the idea of making arrangements to have his beloved witness the scene. When she sees it, she changes her mind about Nastagio and agrees to be his wife.

Fifth Day: Ninth Tale
A young gentleman by the name of Federigo falls in love with a beautiful lady named Monna Giovanna. He spends large amounts of money trying to gain her attention but she remains indifferent to his love. Eventually he loses everything and is forced to live in poverty in a little farm with only his beloved pet falcon for company. Meanwhile Monna Giovanna's husband dies and her son falls very ill. The sick child asks his mother to get him Federigo's falcon. She goes to visit Federigo to ask for the falcon. As she arrives at Federigo's house, he is very distressed to see her and not having any food in the house to offer her. Not knowing the cause of her visit, Federigo kills his falcon and makes it into a meal for his visitor. After dinner Monna Giovanna reveals the reason for her visit. Federigo is devastated that he cannot help her and she has to leave empty-handed. Monna Giovanna's son dies. After a period of mourning, Monna Giovanna, who is rich and still young and beautiful, rewards Federigo's loyalty by marrying him.

Ninth Day: Sixth Story
Pinuccio, a Florentine gentleman, falls in love with Niccolosa, the daughter of a humble countryman. With the help of his friend Adriano, Pinuccio makes arrangements to stay overnight at the home of Niccolosa and secretly sleeps with her. During the night, guests and hosts move about in the dark, unwittingly ending in the wrong bed and leading to Adriano making love to the countryman's wife and to Pinuccio boasting of his conquest to his host. As things are about to take a tragic turn, the host's wife smooths things over by claiming she had been in bed with Niccolosa all night and that Pinuccio was only dreaming. (Chaucer used this story as the basis of his Reeve's Tale in the Canterbury Tales).

Tenth Day: Tenth Story
The nobleman Gualtieri marries Griselda, a peasant woman. At first he treats her well but then decides to test her obedience. He speaks to her abusively and takes away their two infant children, suggesting to her that they are to be killed (in reality, they are taken to Bologna and raised by friends). Griselda bears this with patience. He then expresses his wish to divorce Griselda and sends her back to her father's house. Pretending to be making arrangements for his new wedding, Gualtieri calls back Griselda and orders her to take care of all the preparations, including the welcoming of the new bride and her little brother. Putting up with it all, Griselda obeys and graciously receives the beautiful young woman. Gualtieri then reveals the truth and announces that the supposed bride and her brother are really their own children, now twelve and six years old. Griselda is congratulated on her heroic patience and obedience and welcomed back as the lady of the home.

Main Issues

framing narrative of story-telling, self-conscious work of literary art (storytelling within storytelling)

literal and symbolic meaning of the plague image; "plague" as symbol for the condition and direction of society in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance

entertainment and instructional aspect of stories; stories as "mirrors" of vices and virtues; literature as medicine for the plague

emergence of a playful, light-hearted, human, and humane view of life; critique of human vices marked by understanding and humor rather than heavy moralizing

one of the common targets of the tales is the hypocrisy of religious and moral authorities; superstitions and the gullibility of people are also often ridiculed

beauty, pleasure, love, laughter and play as privileged values of the stories; carpe diem ethos of the work

frequent featuring of mixing of people from different social levels and classes; portrayal of a changing and more egalitarian society; merit based on actions and character rather than birth or inherited wealth

Study Questions

"How specifically does life change as a result of the plague? What may be the significance of the various different reactions to the plague? How do people behave or feel toward one another? What may be the symbolic meaning of the plague and the social disorder which it brings about? May the plague be related in some way to the general cultural and social situation of European cities in the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance? What is the function of literature and storytelling in the general chaos brought about by the plague? Is there any possible symbolic meaning to the general format of 10 tales being told each day for 10 days? Does this arrangement take on any special significance in the context of the plague epidemic? Are other arts also represented in the entertainments chosen by the young people? Why? Does Boccaccio show some general attitude toward or understanding of the arts? Why do the protagonists choose to pass the time telling stories rather than playing games? How does Boccaccio distinguish between the urban and the countryside settings? Is there any significance to this distinction? Why do the protagonists flee to the countryside?

What specific issues are addressed by Boccaccio in the story of Ser Cepperello? Who or what is the target of the tale's critique? What are the implications of a scoundrel coming to be regarded as a saint? What problems does such a situation point to?

What human, cultural, social or other problems are addressed in the story of Brother Alberto? What is the significance of his manipulation of religious beliefs and images (e.g. the angel Gabriel)? How about Madonna Lisetta's gullibility?

What may be the significance of the story of Guillaume de Cabestanh's eaten heart? What does the heart symbolize? Who is/are the villain(s) and who the victim(s) in the story? Why? How does this story show the influence of courtly love and values? Why does the husband choose such a gruesome form of revenge? What did he intend to accomplish or suggest by it? Why does the lady commit suicide after she finds out what she was forced to eat? What may that represent or imply?

What do you think about Nastagio's way of persuading the lady he loves to marry him? Does it seem fair? What do you think is behind this sort of tale? What sorts of values does the tale advance? From whose point of view is it told? Why did the lady despise Nastagio? What are the differences between her and Nastagio? What sorts of social class issues does the tale engage? What social ideologies are promoted? Which ones discouraged?

What issues are explored in the story of Federigo and Monna Giovanna? What virtues and values are emphasized? How is the influence of courtly love and culture visible here? How does this story compare/contrast with stories like that of Brother Alberto and Madonna Lisetta? What polarities of values and behaviors may be established through such comparisons/contrasts?

What are the issues in the story of Pinuccio and Niccolosa? Is it significant that Pinuccio is a Florentine gentleman, while Niccolosa is the daughter of humbler man? Is the tale critical of what transpires in the cottage during Pinuccio and Adriano's overnight visit? What is the attitude toward the love affair and the tone of the description of the events? How are human sexuality and social relations viewed in this tale? How is the intervention of the wife assessed? What seems to be the target of the tale's comic critique?

What is the significance of the tale of Gualtieri and Griselda? What about the tests which Gualtieri imposes on Griselda? Does it seem fair or right to do such things? Why does he do it? What does that suggest about his character? What about her reactions to his actions? What do they say about her character? What ideas does the tale seem to want to advance? How do you interpret the tale's closing comments regarding Gualtieri? What seems to be the narrator's attitude toward what Gualtieri has done?


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