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Decameron - Giovanni Boccaccio THE DECAMERON TRANSLATED...

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Unformatted text preview: Giovanni Boccaccio THE DECAMERON TRANSLATED WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY G. B. MCWILLIAM Penguin Books ___.._.W w_____.___ ___‘,_ w - -W _ _ A _ Here begins the book called Decameron, otherwise known as Prince Calahalt, wherein are contained a hundred stories, told in ten days by seven ladies and three young men. PREFACE To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who haVe once needed comfort, and found it in others. I number myself as one of these, because if ever anyone required or appreciated comfort, or indeed derived pleasure therefrom, I was that person. For from my earliest youth until the present day, I have been inflamed bayond measure with a most lofty and noble love, far loftier and nobler than might perhaps be thought proper, were I to describe it, in a person of my humble condition. And although people of good judgement, to whose notice it had come, praised me for it and rated me much higher in their esteem, nevertheless it was exceedingly difficult for me to endure. The reason, I hasten to add, was not the cruelty of my lady-love, but the immoderate passion engendered within my mind by a craving that was ill—restrained. This, since it would allow me no proper respite, often caused me an inordinate amount of distress. But in my anguish I have on occasion derived much relief from the agreeable conversation and the admirable ex— pressions of sympathy offered by friends, without which I am firmly convinced that I should have perished. However, the One who is infinite decreed by immutable law that all earthly things should come to an end. And it pleased Him that this love of mine, whose warmth exceeded all others, and which had stood firm and unyielding against all the pressures of good intention, helpful advice, and the risk of danger and open scandal, should in the course of time diminish of its own accord. So that now, all that is left of it in my mind is the delectable feeling which Love habitually reserves for those who refrain from venturing too far upon its deepest waters. And thus What was once a source of pain has now become, having shed all dis- comfort, an abiding sensation of pleasure. 46 PREFACE But though the pain has ceased, I still preserve a clear recollection of the kindnesses I received in the past from people who, prompted by feelings of goodwill towards me, showed a concern for my sufferings. This memory will never, I think, fade for as long as I live. And since it is my conviction that gratitude, of all the virtues, is most highly to be commended and its opposite condemned, I have resolved, in order not to appear ungrateful, to employ what modest talents I possess in making restitution for what I have received. Thus, now that I can claim to have achieved my freedom, I intend to offer some solace, if not to those who assisted me (since their good sense or good fortune will perhaps render such a gift superfluous), at least to those who stand in need of it. And even though my support, or if you prefer, my encouragement, may seem very slight (as indeed it is) to the people concerned, I feel nonetheless that it should for preference be directed where it seems to be most needed, because that is the quarter in which it will be more effective and, at the same time, more readily ap- preciated. And who will deny that such encouragement, however small, should much rather be offered to the charming ladies than to the men? For the ladies, out of fear or shame, conceal the flames of passion within their fragile breasts, and a hidden love is far more potent than one which is worn on the sleeve, as everyone knows who has had experience of these matters. Moreover they are forced to follow the whims, fancies and dictates of their fathers, mothers, brothers and husbands, so that they spend most of their time cooped up within the narrow confines of their rooms, where they sit in apparent idleness, wishing one thing and at the same time Wishing its opposite, and reflecting on various matters, which cannot possibly always be pleasant to contemplate. And if, in the course of their meditations, their minds should be invaded by melancholy arising out of the flames of longing, it will inevitably take root there and make them suffer greatly, unless it be dislodged by new interests. Besides which, their powers of endurance are considerably weaker than those that men possess. When men are in love, they are not affected in this way, as we can see quite plainly. They, whenever they are weighed down by melancholy or ponderous thoughts, have many ways of relieving or .4.- m‘r-I-w— PREFACE 47 expelling them. For if they wish, they can always walk abroad see and hear many things, go fowling, hunting, fishing ridin ’and gambling, or attend to their business afi'airs. Each of these pfrsuits has the power of engaging men’s minds, either wholly or in part and divertuig them from their gloomy meditations, at least for a ceitain pegged: after which, some form of consolation will ensue, or the a ction Will grow less intense. So in order that I may to some extent repair the omissions of Fortune, which (as we may see in the case of the more delicate sex) was always. more sparing of support wherever natural strength was more defiCient, I intend to provide succour and diversion for the ladies, but only for those who are in love, since the others can make do With their needles, their reels and their spindles. I shall narrate a hundred stories or fables or parables or histories or whatever you choose to call them, recited in ten days by a worthy band of seven ladies and-three young men, who assembled together during the which recently took such heavy toll of life. And I shall also u e some son ' ' ' amusement. gs, which these seven ladies sang for their mutual In these tales will be found a variety of love adventures bitter as well as pleasmg, and other exciting incidents, which took plaée in both anCient and modern times. In reading them, the aforesaid ladies will be able to derive, not only pleasure from the entertaining matters therein set forth, but also some useful advice. For they will learn to reco nize :ihat should be avoided and likewise what should be pursued:5 and aifilsiithingfs 1pnly lead, in my opinion, to the removal of their th on. th s s ould happen-(andmay God grant that it should), let em give anks to Love, which, in freeing me from its bonds has granted me the power of making provision for their pleasures. ’ FIRST DAY Here begins the First Day of the Decameron, wherein first of all the author explains the circumstances in which certain persons, who presently make their appearance, were induced to meet for the purpose of conversing together, after which, under the rule of Pampinea, each of them speaks on the subject they find most congenial. Whenever, fairest ladies, I pause to consider how compassionate you all are by nature, Iinvariably become aWare that the present work will seem to you to possess an irksome and ponderous opening. For it carries at its head the painfial memory of the deadly havoc wrought by the recent plague, which, brought so much heartache and misery to those who witnessed, or had experience of it. But I do not want you to be deterred, for this reason, from reading any further, on the assumption that you are to be subjected, as you read, to an endless torrent of tears and sobbing. You will be afl'ected no differently by this grim beginning than Walkers confronted by a steep and rugged hill, beyond which there lies a beautiful and delectable plain. The degree of pleasure they derive from the latter will correspond directly to the difiiculty of the climb and the descent. And just as the end of mirth is heaviness,* so sorrows are dispersed by the advent of within few words) is quickly followed by the sweetness and the pleasure which I have already promised you, and which, unless you were told in advance, you would not perhaps be expecting to find after such a beginning as this. Believe me, if I could decently have taken you whither I desire by some other route, rather than along a path so difficult as this, I would gladly have done so. But since it is impossible without this memoir to show the origin of the events you *Proverbs xiv, I 3. DECAMERON: FIRST DAY (INTRODUCTION) mdAg:lrlnstt:h these maladies, it seemed that all the advice of physicians Perhaps theenftijfg £21: mfiendicme were profitless and unavailing e 1 ess was such that it allowed n 1(1): thiose people vlvho were treating the illness (whos: 2:211:15- se enormousy because the rank f th ' invaded by people both men and S o 6 qualified were I D . , . . . Women, who had never recei d 31:; fin medicare), bemg ignorant of its causes, were it p u ht t e appropriate cure. At all events, few of those who 3:: dart eger recovered, and in most cases death occurred within ys om the appearance of the symptoms we have described, 50 will read about later, I really have no alternative but to address myself to its composition. I say, then, that the sum of thirteen hundred and forty—eight years had elapsed since the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God, when the noble city of Florence, which for its great beauty excels all others in Italy, was visited by the deadly pestilence. Some say that it descended upon the human race through the influence of the heavenly bodieS, others that it was a punishment signifying God’s righteous anger at our iniquitous way of life. But whatever its cause, it had originated some years earlier in the East, where it had claimed countless lives SI before it unhappily Spread Westward, growing in strength as it swept relentlessly on from one place to the next. In the face of its onrush, all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing. Large quantities of refuse were cleared out of the city by officials specially appointed for the purpose, all sick persons were forbidden entry, and numerous instructions were issued for safe— guarding the people’s health, but all to no avail. Nor were the countless petitions humbly directed to God by the pious, whether by means of formal processions or in any other guise, any less ineffectual. For in the early spring of the year we have mentioned, the plague began, in a terrifying and extraordinary manner, to make its disas- trous effects apparent. It did not take the form it had assumed in the East, where if anyone bled from the nose it was an obvious portent of certain death. On the contrary, its earliest symptom, in men and women alike, was the appearance of certain swellings in the groin or the armpit, some of which were egg—shaped whilst others were roughly the size of the common apple. Sometimes the swellings were large, sometimes not so large, and they were referred to by the populace as gavficcioli. From the two areas already mentioned, this deadly gavbcciolo would begin to spread, and within a short time it would appear at random all over the body. Later on, the symptoms of the disease changed, and many people began to find dark blotches and bruises on their arms, thighs, and other parts of the body, some- times large and few in number, at other times tiny and closely spaced. These, to anyone unfortunate enough to contract them, were just as infallible a sign that he would die as the gavbcciolo had been earlier, and as indeed it still was. some people dying more r 'dl ' ' ' any fever or other complicézliltiionis].tha-u Others, the majomy wnhom thiztsyfiliirrsiangstpestigme eylen more severe was that Whenever I 1 mix wit people who were '11 it would rush upon these with the m unaECCth’ . d of a fire ra ' hr or orly substances that ha spec mg t ough dry . ppened to be placed within ' Was this the full extent of its evil f ' Its read}- Nor , or not only dld it infect h l h ‘ Persons who conversed or had an ' ' ' eat y I ' I _ y dealings With the Sick, kin fee: all or Vismng an equally horrible death upon them, buini: alsg the e bto transfer the Sickness to anyone touching the clothes or o It o Jects which had been handled or used by its victims the ffaagmlarkable story that I have to relate. And Were it not for [guild t alm one of many people who saw it with their own eyes thou h Isiarge y dare to believe it, let alone commit it to paper even P13 guge “13:6 1131:;1'1dd1t flogn a persop whose word I could trust. The I . . . escn mg was 0 so contagious a nature th t pnfteililchshd nfiore than simply pass from one person to axioilfg -,weneverananimalotherthanahumanb' . :lticcrlielciinbelongingto a person who had been strickefindf from it agost :yt onecjlsrp‘asiuit pp]; only caught the sickness, but died _ . o o 's, as I havejust said, 111 ‘ Epognéess on mlprehtlaag one occasion. One day, for might: 63h: V auper w o a ied fiom the disease were thro ' , th fig: whfire they attracted the attention of two pigs. In thtii' film: their :10: t: plfgs firsltn (2; all]1 gave the rags a thorough mauling with a ter w ‘ ey took them betw h ' shook them against their cheeks. And within a shit:1 timedrtligtbeglahi 52 DECAMERON: FIRST DAY to writhe as though they had been poisoned, then they both dropped dead to the ground, spreadeagled upon the rags that had brought about their undoing. These things, and many others of a similar or even worse nature, caused various fears and fantasies to take root in the minds of those who were still alive and well. And almost without exception, they took a single and very inhuman precaution, namely to avoid or run away from the sick and their belongings, by which means they all thought that their own health would be preserved. Some people were of the opinion that a sober and abstemious mode of living considerably reduced the risk of infection. They therefore formed themselves into groups and lived in isolation from everyone else. Having withdrawn to a comfortable abode where there were no sick persons, they locked themselves in and settled down to a peaceable existence, consuming modest quantities of delicate foods and precious wines and avoiding all excesses. They refrained from speaking to outsiders, refused to receive news of the dead or the sick, and enter- tained themselves with music and whatever other amusements they were able to devise. Others took the opposite view, and maintained that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, gratify all of one’s cravings Whenever the opportunity offered, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke. Moreover, they practised What they preached to the best of their ability, for they would visit one tavern after another, drinking all day and night to immoderate excess; or alternatively (and this was their more frequent custom), they would do their drinking in various private houses, but only in the ones Where the conversation was restricted to subjects that were pleasant or entertaining. Such places were easy to find, for people behaved as though their days were numbered, and treated their belongings and their own persons with equal abandon. Hence most houses had become common property, and any passing stranger could make . himself at home as naturally as though he were the rightful owner. But for all their riotous manner of living, these people always took good care to avoid any contact with the sick. In the face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws I. (INTRODUCTION) 53 of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our City. For like eVerybody else, those ministers and executors of the .laws who were not either dead or ill were left with so few sub- ordinates that they were unable to discharge any of their duties Hence everyone was free to behave as he pleased. . There were many other people who steered a middle course be- tween the two already mentioned, neither restricting their diet to the same degree as the first group, nor indulging so freely as the second in drinking and other forms of wantonness, but simply doing no more than satisfy their appetite. Instead of incarcerating themselves these people moved about freely, holding in their hands a pos of flowers, or firagrant herbs, or one of a wide range of spices which they applied at frequent intervals to their nostrils, thinking it an excellent idea to fortify the brain with smells of that particular sort; for the stench of dead bodies, sickness, and m d. . and pollute the whole of the atmosphere. '3 1cmes seemed to fill Some peOple,’.pursuing what was possibly the safer alternative, callome mamtamed that there was no better or more efficacious remedy against a plague than to run away from it. Swayed by this argument, and sparing no thought for anyone but themselves, large numbers of men and women abandoned their city, their homes their relatives, their estates and their belongings, and headed for the countryside, either in Florentine territory or, better still, abroad It was as though they imagined that the wrath of God would not unleash this plague against men for their iniquities irrespective of where they happened to be, but would only be aroused against those who found themselves within the city walls; or possibly they assumed that the whole of the population would be exterminated and that th city’s last hour had come. 6 Of the people who held these various opinions, not all of them died 1‘? or, however, did they all-survive. On the contrary, many of each difl'erent persuasion fell ill here, there, and everywhere and ha ' themselves, when they Were fit and Well, set an example to those :lifi were as yet unaffected, they languished away with virtually no one to nurse them. It was not merely a question of one citizen avoidin another, and of people almost invariably neglecting their neighbourg and rarely or never visiting their relatives, addressing them only 54 DECAMERON: rmsr DAY (INTRODUCTION) from a distance; this scourge had implanted so great a terror in the order to moumi 55 hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned brothers, uncles to him; moreovei'l 1:135:13, off? Women who had been closest their nephews, sisters their brothers, and in many cases wives deserted along with his neighbours and W911 forgad}? in front of his house their husbands. But even worse, and almost incredible, was the fact be a contingent of Priests whvanous on:th citizens, and there would that fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, 5 quality of .the deceased' his his: numbers varied according to the as though they did not belong to them. ,- Church in Which he had, Wanted 3’ VEOUId _be taken thence to the Hence the countless numbers of people who fell ill, both male and shoulders ofhjs Peers amidst th fil‘; C buried, being heme. on the female, were entirely dependent upon either the charity of friends ; But as the ferocity ofthe Pla u Cb em] Pomp 0f Candles and dlrges (who were few and far between) or the greed of servants, who i disappeared entirely and Wasgrc legs: to mount, this practice all but remained in short supply despite the attraction of high wages out of only did people die VVltllout haeP gee by different customs. For not all proportion to the services they performed. Furthermore, these great numth (16me d this Mevmg many Women about them but a latter were men and women of coarse intellect and the majority were unused to such duties, and they did little more than hand things to . the invalid when asked to do so and watch over him when he was dying. And in performing this kind of service, they frequently lost their lives as well as their earnings. As a result of this wholesale desertion of the sick by neighbours, relatives and friends, and in view of the scarcity of servants, there grew up a practice almost never previously heard of, whereby when a woman fell ill, no matter how gracious or beautiful or gently bred she might be, she raised no objection to being attended by a male servant, whether he was young or not. Nor did she have any scruples about showing him e...
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