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The Decameron | Context



Giovanni Boccaccio states in his introduction that he wrote The Decameron for women since they have a harder lot in life and in love. He wrote these stories to comfort them as well as to guide them in what and what not to do, although there remain questions regarding his sincerity. Boccaccio's female characters and the world of The Decameron is truly democratic for its time period. His female characters are just as human as his male characters, capable of the same shortcomings, passions, and misdeeds: some empty-headed, some loyal, some conniving, some deeply in love, and others only interested in satisfying their lust. The women in the stories are not put on pedestals nor are they derided. They are presented as people, fully human and in control of their own wants and desires and outcomes. The same holds true of the seven women in the frame story, who outnumber the men 7:3. They speak and act for themselves—for example, it is Pampinea's idea to leave the city that sets the entire story in motion. In a period when women lacked agency, this narrative feminism was extraordinary.

Because Boccaccio's motivation for writing The Decameron stemmed from personal memories of being in love, and because he wishes to entertain women, a large number of his stories touch on relations. For example, Filostrato requests an entire day of love stories with tragic endings, and Fiammetta orders love tales with happy endings on her day. A large number of the stories deal with marital infidelity, especially in cases of a young beautiful woman married to a much older man. In these instances the woman is just as likely as the man to initiate the affair and enjoy the pleasures of it. Some of these relationships lead to true and lasting love, while others are fleeting examples of lust, but there is little judgment made about the woman's character or honor. Boccaccio's work is truly supportive of gender equality in that sense.

The Black Death

An epidemic of bubonic plague—often referred to as the black death—had a profound effect on life throughout Europe in the 14th century. The plague is a bacterial infection caused by infected fleas. Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches. Because there were no antibiotics at the time, the estimated population of Florence, 100,000, for example, may have been reduced by up to 75,000 as a result of plague deaths.

The socio-economic changes were intense. Due to the rapid and devastating spread of the disease, all work halted, funeral rites that had been in place for generations shifted or stopped completely, and people fled cities for the countryside, abandoning friends and family alike. The economy shifted in light of the death toll: workers became difficult to find, thereby causing wages to rise at the same time as productivity shrank. Trade became difficult as cities and towns closed their borders to stop the spread of the plague, leading to rising prices for goods and materials. This, in turn, led to both financial and social upheaval. The lower classes became empowered due to the wage hike, in some cases openly revolting against the nobility when they tried to roll back to more traditional pre-plague ways.

The mood of the people changed as well. Some believed the plague to be God's judgment for the sins of man and gave themselves over to penance and prayer. The aftermath of such devastation led to a drop in the faithful, due to death and the failure of faith and prayer to halt the spread of the disease. Others adopted a more worldly approach to the fragility of life, carousing and partying with the idea they might all be dead the following day.

Boccaccio's account of the plague in The Decameron gives readers a window into a society's breakdown through Pampinea's narration in the introduction. She argues people are dying everywhere, the normal burial rites are mostly going unobserved, and they have all been abandoned by their family and friends. Why shouldn't they abandon the city themselves? She mentions the wild behavior of some of the citizens, and her concerns about staying in Florence.

By placing his narrative against the backdrop of the social upheaval of the plague, Boccaccio is able to thwart societal convention. The idea of noblemen and women going off to a country estate with no chaperones would have been impossible without it. Because of this breakdown, the characters can tell stories with themes that might not be commonly accepted, just as Boccaccio himself can set up his frame story in such a way that wouldn't be acceptable in a different period.

Finally, Pampinea's reasons for leaving Florence and surviving the plague are remarkably in line with common medical practices of the day designed to treat the plague, stop its spread, and inform the populace of potential causes of infection. Pampinea (and Boccaccio) would have been aware of these, and they are neatly built into the narrative. Pampinea suggests they leave the city and make their way to the country. She makes a point to order the servants to bring them nothing but cheerful news so they might maintain a positive attitude—a key component to balancing the humors of the body (in the Middle Ages people believed all illnesses resulted in the body's four humors being out of balance). She orders the telling of stories and singing and dancing to keep their minds focused on happy engagements. The pleasure of their retreat is not just a simple act of avoidance—it is means of survival.


The Decameron takes place in a time when religion was a critical part of people's daily lives. Religion was omnipresent in medieval Europe. The Christian (Catholic) clergy was powerful, in some cases wielding as much power as the nobility. The Church dictated nearly every aspect of medieval life: marriage, sex, taxation, other religions, laws, and punishments. Religious observances dominated the way people ordered their days and weeks.

There was little separation between government and religion during the 13th and 14th centuries. Because religion pervaded so much of medieval life, the penalties imposed on those who did not abide by its dictates were draconian. The Church increased its censure of heretical behavior and hunted those thought to be heretics. This led to conflict between the Church and secular arenas, especially those dealing with commerce. As the middle class became more powerful, religious cynicism took root in response to the economic recession and the Church's "witch" hunts.

But while the Church controlled the religious aspects of people's lives, it wasn't immune to conflict within its ranks. Many expressed criticism of the growing earthly power of the Church, as well as the heretical behavior of certain sects. A schism occurred in the 14th century when the French refused to accept the new Roman pope, and instead nominated their own pope. Such religious upheaval had a ripple effect throughout all social classes from kings to commoners, resulting in instability and the prospect of change.

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