Historical Significance of Bocaccio's Decameron

How Historically Significant is the Introduction to Boccaccio’s The Decameron?

The Decameron is a collection of one hundred allegorical short stories written around 1353CE by Italian author, poet and scholar Giovanni Boccaccio (c.1313 - 1375). Boccaccio was most likely born in Florence or Certaldo and was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Bocacino di Chellino. As a youth he was trained to follow in his father’s business but he eventually chose instead to study canon law and subsequently pursued the arts.

The Decameron is viewed as Boccaccio’s masterpiece and is generally regarded as the work that cemented his reputation as the founder of Italian prose literature. The earthiness of human experience expressed in an accessible style of Italian vernacular prose was a significant divergence from the formulaic models for plot and character and transcendental idealism that dominated European writing during this period. (McWilliam).

The Decameron is written as framed narrative which is a literary compositional technique that allows various different stories to be related within a previously introduced main story (Rimmon-Kenan, pg 123-129). The Decameron tells a story of ten young Florentines who have fled from the Black Plague to reside in Naples. The one hundred allegorical stories are shared through the narrative voices of these young people as they spend their nights regaling the company with tales from the erotic, sensual, and bawdy to the intellectual, philosophical or tragic. The narrative’s fundamental theme is of struggle between life and death in the face of the Black Plague and the various ways life continues in spite of traditional moral attitudes and beliefs.

Historical Significance

While primarily a work of fiction, the Introduction to The Decameron has emerged as an important historical record of the physical, psychological, and social effects of the aggressive spread of the previously unknown Yersina pestis bacteria. It provides a significant philosophical insight into the medieval psyche as Europe faced the alarming and unprecedented epidemic of the 1348 Black Plague.

Boccaccio discusses the contemporary view that the plague was from the uncivilized East ‘where it propagated itself without respite from place to place and so calamitously had spread into the West’ (Boccaccio) and the alternate belief that the pestilence had been sent ‘by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities’ (Boccaccio). However given ‘the Black Death killed the vicious and the virtuous alike’ (Fernandez-Arnesto, pg 351) it had an enormous moral impact on a frightened and superstitiously religious populace.

Interpretation - Placement, Meaning or Difficulties

Boccaccio’s account provides valuable insight to the altered human moral behaviour during the adversity - the willingness to persecute foreigners and Jewish people, the harsh ostracism of the sick, the self imposed exile of the healthy, the ready abandonment of loved ones and family, as well as the extreme indifference towards a disproportionately affected lower class. Also mentioned is the deterioration of social institutions - medical, religious, public health and legal and their inability to affect any control on the progress of the disease.

Whether Boccaccio was in Florence as the Black Plague swept the city is uncertain. However, he doubtless had access to authentic information on the abject suffering caused by the plague and the subsequent social ramifications. (Rigg)

The Decameron is one of the most famous surviving documents detailing pervasive effects of the Black Plague yet Boccaccio’s profession as novelist and poet raises questions regarding the veracity and accuracy of his account. There are many other primary sources of the Black Plague such as those penned by Gabriele de Mussi, a notary from Piacenza (Deaux, pg 75); Marchionne di Coppo di Stefani, a Florentine land owner and Agnolo di Tura who was a chronicler, tax collector and shoemaker from Sienna (Bowsky, pg 13-14).

These varied accounts mirror Boccaccio’s assertions regarding the reality of the epidemic and the aftermath felt across Italy and while this provides validity to Boccaccio’s portrayal being based in fact, this particular document may continue to pose controversy for serious historians as it remains in essence a prologue to a narrative fiction penned by a author and poet and not by a noted historian.

Select Bibliography

  • Boccaccio, Giovanni : 1353, The Decameron - Author’s Introduction, Internet Medieval Source Book - Viewed 04/09/09 - 09/09/09. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/boccacio2.html
  • Bowsky, William M. : 1971, The Black Death: A Turning Point in History, Hold Rinehart & Winston, New York. Extract Agnolo di Turna - The Plague in Siena : An Italian Chronicle, The University of Arizona Website - Viewed 05/09/09. http://www.u.arizona.edu/~afutrell/w%20civ%2002/plaguereadings.html
  • Deaux, George : 1969, The Black Death 1347, Weybrigh and Talley, New York. Extract Gabriele de Mussi - Ystoria de morbo sive mortalitate que fuit 1348. Brown University Website - Viewed 04/09/09. http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/plague/perspectives/de_mussi.shtml
  • Mc William, G.H. : 1995, Introduction to The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, Penguin Classics, Suffolk England.
  • Rigg, J. M. : 1903, Introduction to The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, A. H Bullen, London.
  • Rimmon Keenan, S : 2007, Narrative Fiction, Rutledge, London & New York.
  • Rodolico, N. : 1903, Rerum Italicarum Scriptores. Citta di Castelllo, S. Lapi. Extract Marchionne di Coppo di Stefano Buonaiuti - Cronaca Fiorentina. University of Virginia Website - Viewed 04/09/09. http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/osheim/marchione.html