Decameron is a collection of hundred stories told in ten days by seven young women and three young men who have stationed themselves in an estate in the outskirts of Florence. In the wake of the Black Death, these young men and women have decided to flee together from the city of Florence to a countryside estate to avoid the contagion. Having come to the estate, they discuss how best to enjoy their time and company during the limited stay. And storytelling was decided on as a part of their entertainment. Excepting two days, the stories are told according to a theme set by the leader of the day whom they called the King/Queen, and the stories run on love, lust, greed, deception, betrayal, and human wit and follies. This then is the backdrop of Boccaccio’s masterpiece.
The majority of stories were centered on love and lust, and Boccaccio brings in clergy and women as his main characters to form these stories. I wasn’t initially happy with his choice of characters. It seemed to me like he was bailing out the men. But this was written in the fourteenth century; one mustn’t judge it looking through modern lenses. Women at Boccaccio’s time lived secluded lives, always living under the authority and protection of their male relatives. Their needs and feelings were disregarded. If one looks a little deeper into these stories, one can see that Boccaccio’s satire is not aimed at women. Rather, it is aimed at the society and the conventions that place women in such a state. However, his meaning regarding the clergy was much more baffling. I couldn’t draw a proper conclusion whether his satire was on or against them. During the Black Death, peoples’ faith in the Church was somewhat diminished, and this general fallout might have prompted Boccaccio to view the clergy in not so a reverent light. Or else, it is possible that Boccaccio was led on by a need to show that even God’s servants are subjected to human follies and succumb to the temptations of human flesh.
I was at first surprised at how bawdy and coarse the stories were and was thinking to myself that this was a funny masterpiece. Then I remembered that authors of most of the classics set in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period haven’t much concerned themselves with refinement. So, I was able to reconcile with Boccaccio’s style. But bawdy they may be, ribaldry they may be, they were no less entertaining. Boccaccio’s humour and satire get the better of the coarseness. However, these are hundred stories. No genius can write them equally interesting, and no reader will find them so. It was the same with me. I enjoyed some more than the others. Many of them were interesting, some boring and a few nonsensical. But overall, it was an entertaining work. I enjoyed it more than The Canterbury Tales, with which it is often compared.
One word must be said about the translation. It is the first time that I wasn’t content with the Oxford University Press edition. It was easier to read, I admit, but being made easier to read means that the language was too modern for the time it was written. This is a personal peculiarity, but I do like to have the translation resembling the time period in which a classic is written no matter how hard it may be to read.