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The Decameron | Themes

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Love

Most of the stories within The Decameron deal with some form of love or lust. Giovanni Boccaccio writes about them in all of their various shapes, with varying results. Love is a force of nature, something that cannot be reasoned with, nor denied. In the courtly love stories of the medieval period, love was usually chaste and not consummated—the gentleman worshipped the lady from afar, usually doing great deeds in her honor. Boccaccio ultimately doesn't believe in this—his love is earthy, natural, and nearly always consummated.

True love is deep and lasting—something Boccaccio shows in stories like that of Griselda—while lust is fleeting. Love is abiding and patient, even if the outcome is not a happy one. In addition, love is expressed physically. Boccaccio's characters are decidedly not chaste—they revel in the act of love and lust. Women have as much agency as the men, and enjoy sex as much as men do—a stark departure from the literature of the time period, in which women were characterized as ideally chaste and pure.

Class

Boccaccio wrote during a period of immense change as the medieval period gave way to the Renaissance. The feudal society of the Middle Ages was moving toward a system based on commerce, where traders and merchants began to hold sway. The plague upended the social order further as noble families and the poor alike were cut down, often leaving no heirs. This lead eventually to the rise of the middle class.

The Decameron straddles this line. While the brigata are part of the nobility, the stories they tell reflect the earthiness and rawness of the lower classes. Humanity is on display in all of its facets in the stories the brigata tell. The Decameron is a melding of the old guard and the new order—the medieval, and almost "out of touch," behavior of the brigata juxtaposed with the rising sensibilities of the Renaissance.

Women and their place in society is one aspect of this change in class hierarchy. Most women lacked power and position, and were usually relegated to cementing political alliances with their bodies through marriage. In the brigata, however, Pampinea is the leader, and the equality between the men and the women is real. Boccaccio's stories reflect the status quo just as often as he turns it on its head to allow the women in his tales the upper hand and the better outcome.

Religion

Religion in medieval Europe was widespread. Catholicism was the order of the day, and the pope ruled in Rome. Although the plague may have upset the course of daily life, the Church and religious services went on as best they could. The brigata meets up at a church for services, and continue to worship even while on their trip outside of Florence, taking several breaks in the storytelling for religious observance.

The clergy present in the stories of The Decameron are quite an interesting and startling collection of scoundrels, liars, and con men. Boccaccio paints in broad strokes, creating characters typically made fun of at the time. But although many would happily mock the corrupt clergy at any time, most people still believed in God and still worshipped at their church.

However, Boccaccio's focus on the love between men and women, rather than love for God, illustrates his belief in the power of humanity—that reward is in the here and now rather than in heaven. He is fiercely humanist. If there is to be a fight between human passion and religious purity, it is clear which camp Boccaccio falls into. His portrayals of the clergy show a myriad of human passions. His characters give in to them willingly, most times showing no remorse.

Again, The Decameron was meant to entertain and enlighten his readers. While caricatures of the clergy were common, Boccaccio was also reminding those reading/listening to beware what came out of the pulpit. Abbots, friars, and monks are no different in The Decameron than other men—they are subject to the same lusts and greed.

Trickery and Wit

Trickery plays an important part in nearly all of the stories in The Decameron. It is present in practically all of the stories—either through pranks, disguises, lies, magic, and misdirection. People use costumes to appear wealthy for the purpose of obtaining money or sex. New identities are often created and discarded like clothing.

There are two days devoted to stories about pranks or trickery in The Decameron. It is interesting to note how lighthearted most of the stories are. Nearly everything is used to make the reader laugh (although there are a few exceptions). Even language is used to deceive. "Put the devil in Hell" is one example of a phrase with a humorous double meaning within the context of its story.

Characters often use their wits to get out of uncomfortable situations (or get themselves into them). They are often clever, observant, and resourceful, able to think fast on their feet. Boccaccio shows these to be impressive and desirable traits, even when he plays them for laughs.

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