The Decameron: First Encounter with a Medieval Classic

Having finally busted through The Silmarillion and having finally finished my exploration of Richard III, I find myself in the position of being compelled once more to tackle another of the “difficult” books of great literature.  I do this from time to time, a carry over from my laughable experiences of high school and college.  I have this drive to continue the education I never got.  Some people climb a mountain for a sense of fun and accomplishment, some run a marathon… I read a great book.  My Tolkien and Shakespeare projects will continue, of course.  That’s not going to change.  But there are a number of other books I want to tackle in the near future that I know will also demand some study on my part.

For example, a couple of nights ago after dinner, I pulled my hardcover copy of Boccaccio’s The Decameron from the shelf where it’s been patiently waiting forever.  You ever have the feeling that some books call to you, and others just silently mock you until you deal with them?  This one’s done both for a while now.  The version I have is a 1972 translation.  It’s very different from the recent audio release from Naxos that I got from Audible.  I should have known up front that would be the case given the Medieval origins of this work.  True story, this book is why I haven’t posted any music blogs the last few days.  You see, a few years back, I was able to finally crack The Canterbury Tales. in such a way that I finally appreciated it for what it was and truly enjoyed it, contrary to the dismal experience I had with it in high school.  The Decameron is supposed to be the book that inspired that.  It’s also said to have inspired at least one of Shakespeare’s comedies (As You Like It) and a host of other works.  I was always told it was on the funny side, which would be expected given the information I just related.  I don’t think I ever truly considered what exactly this book is, however.  Now I’m beginning to understand, and I’m not entirely certain I want to go there just yet.

At the same time… I think I need to.

The Decameron is one of those most important works of literature that, by its mere existence, we get all manner of insight into a time and place that makes things perhaps all too real.  Unlike it’s predecessor, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, this book was written in vernacular (yet still Medieval) Italian, one of the first books to do that sort of thing and make it stick.  It’s inspired a great many other books, a number of great artworks… it’s just one of those things I feel needs to be experienced so I can drop a lot of other things into proper context.  It’s also the direct product of its time, and by that, I mean the introduction will give you first hand accounts of the horrors that made headlines in 1348 when it was written: the Black Death.  A person can read about these things in history texts all the live long day and turn off some kind of emotional response, made easier due to a lack of photographs in that era, and the art of the time is actually really interesting.  But to read it from someone who was living through it… that’s hard.  For anyone who thinks post-apocalyptic stories are your thing, try this one on for size and see if you still feel that way.

The introduction is just the stage setting for the stories themselves that comprise the work.  How it works is there are seven ladies and three young men who, looking to avoid the ravages of the plague, head out to a country villa.  Of course, this is Medieval literature and all that implies.  Each of these characters has symbolic significance, numerological significance, and religious significance.  Each will tell ten stories chronicled over the next ten days, for a grand total of a hundred tales.  Each of those tales has a moral that directly reflects upon the spiritual or secular conditions as seen through the lens of the Black Death ravaged world of 1348.  They don’t discuss the plague directly, but they do give us a pummeling as to the state of mind these people operate with on a daily basis.  Look around your life from where you are.  Now imagine fully two in five people you know are dead within hours and dropped unceremoniously into unconsecrated mass graves by the hundreds and thousands.  That might have an effect on the way you live and think, right?

Contrary to my usual approach when I decide to engage with the classics of literature, I didn’t think through any of this when I cracked open the book.  The reality of it hit me in the face as with a dead fish.  But I persisted through the introduction, took a short break, and then read through the first of the tales, again not really having a full grasp of what it was I was reading.  Just enough to know, not enough to really put it together.  This is why most of the great works don’t get read, because most people do not want to lay the groundwork to understand them.  The resulting experience becomes empty.  They want to simply pick up the story and enjoy it on its own merits, and that’s fine.  My thing is I don’t want to read books by the dozen that I’m not going to remember a week after I’ve read them.  That just seems like a waste to me.  Books like this… you could pick them up and read them easily enough if you lived in that era, provided you could read and had the luxury of time in which to do so.  But it’s been almost 700 years.  Things have changed a bit that make a book like this a little more challenging, even with a translation to a language we can read.  So I read the first tale with zero expectations.  As I finished it, I sat back and thought about what I read and discovered that empty disconnect.  I didn’t care at all.  I didn’t even feel like I was a part of the world at that point, theirs or mine.  I had been so mentally assaulted by the introduction that the first story just bored me stupid in the moment, and then it hit me slowly over the course of the next day as to the ramifications of what I’d read.

The first tale tells of the confessions of an overly pious man to his priest, which in the days of the Black Death would have been rare beyond words according to this, both the piety and the confession.  His confessed sins are so over the top in their piety that he’d shame absolutely anyone, including the priest and all of his brothers.  The result is almost cartoonish in its exaggeration.  And that’s just the first story in this book.  There are ninety-nine more!  Is this comedy?  Is it philosophy?  Is it a reflection upon just how morally corrupt the reader must be?  Probably, it’s all of the above and then some, but I need to approach these tales from a bridge of understanding that my modern perspectives alone will not abide.  I have some of that personal groundwork in place already, thanks to other Medieval studies, but I tend to tiptoe around anything resembling the plague.  This book will require me to run headlong into that part of the culture, a literary danse macabre.

What’s become apparent to me is that I need some study guide resources, which are thankfully readily available online, and I need to work through this very slowly.  By that, I mean I may read a story or two every month.  I could easily do one or two a week, but I feel like I need to do a lot of other things I actively enjoy to help get me through this one, so it could take a while.  As a medievalist, I feel this is one of those books I absolutely have to have under my belt.  But I feel like the wind got knocked out my sails already.  I could do yet another blog series on these stories to force the issue, but I won’t.  It’s not that kind of a book.  I want to understand it, and I’ll have to dig deep to do so, but… this book literally has one foot in the grave.  It’s not a collection of horror stories by any stretch, but there’s something about this book that gives me that feeling of dread that I don’t get from the horror stories that try to achieve that very effect.

I have other books waiting in line, of course.  I want to revisit The Iliad and The Odyssey.  I want to engage with Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie QueeneThe Autobiography of Margery KempeThe Histories of Herodotus.  An entire mountain of Arthurian literature, some of which will be new to me.  Dostoevsky.  Tolstoy.  The list goes on, most of it stuff I’ll need study guides to get the most out of it.  I think the lightest literary reads I have ahead of me on this front are the historical novels of Edward Rutherfurd and the weekly Sherlock Holmes story (which are like candy by comparison, and I’m grateful for that).

All this, and Tolkien and Shakespeare remain at the top of that pile.

What’s on my nightstand right now?  The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard.

One of these things is not like the others…


2 thoughts on “The Decameron: First Encounter with a Medieval Classic

  1. Oddly enough, one of the reads I just finished is The Great Mortality, which is about the Black Death’s rampage through Europe. (It’s good.) Boccaccio gets a mention there, if I recall correctly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Talk about timing. I’d certainly hope Boccaccio gets a mention. He’s one of the best first hand sources we have in literature. I’ve gone through the Great Courses series on the Black Death, and it’s really enlightening, but it’s just a tough topic to deal with to me. Someone told me you just get used to it after a while, and I don’t think I ever did.


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