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Literature / The Decameron

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A Tale from the Decameron by John William Waterhouse, 1916

"And she, who had lain with eight men maybe ten thousand times, lay down with him as a virgin and made him believe that such she was, and lived for a long time happily as his queen. Hence the saying, 'A mouth that's kissed is not undone, but rises newly like the moon'."
Panfilo, from The Decameron, Second Day: Seventh Story

The Decameron is a classic work of Italian literature, written c. 1350-53 by Giovanni Boccaccio.

In the midst of The Black Death, ten wealthy young Florentines—three men and seven women—decamp to a countryside villa with their retinue, and pass their days in storytelling, an attempt to reclaim a world that everywhere is dying. Over the course of ten days they tell a hundred stories between them, full of generous aristocrats, clever tricks, toilet humor, lustful women, wicked churchmen and lots of illicit sex. Boccaccio himself steps out from the shadows twice (once in the introduction to the fourth day, once in the epilogue) to deliver impassioned, hilarious, self-deprecating, and (in the case of the epilogue) incredibly obscene defenses of his work.

Famous stories include:

  • Day 1, story 1: Ciapelletto, a notoriously wicked Italian Amoral Attorney and scoundrel who has been a murderer, forger, perjurer, and Depraved Homosexual (among many other things), falls terminally ill while on business in Belgium, where almost absolutely no-one knows him. His slightly less evil companions bring a monk from a nearby convent to hear his confessions and give him last rites. Ciappelletto proceeds to tell him the most ridiculous lies about his life and how holy he's been the whole time, while pretending to repent over venial sins. He is completely believed by the monk, who preaches a sermon on his life and ends with everyone there believing him a genuine saint and attributing miracles to him.
  • Day 1, story 2: A Jew converts to Catholicism after seeing the corruption of Rome, reasoning that if Christianity can last and still spread even when its hierarchy is so sinful, the Holy Spirit must be its foundation.
  • Day 3, story 1: Masetto da Lamporecchio feigns to be dumb to win a seat as gardener in a convent. He ends up having sex with all of the nuns.
  • Day 3, story 10: Long considered the most obscene and was censored or removed in translations for a significant period.note 
  • Day 4, story 5: Lisabetta and the lowly Lorenzo love each other in secret, but her three brothers find out, lure Lorenzo away and kill him. He appears to her in a dream and leads her to where his body is buried, and she cuts of his head and hides it in a jar of earth where she plants basil. Her brothers note her obsession with the jar and steal it away, and she dies of grief.

Virgin Territory is loosely based on some of its tales, as is The Little Hours.

Tropes in The Decameron include:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Girolamo after two years comes back to find his lover married to another man and she completely forgot about him. He dies after failing to win her back and she dies from remorse.
  • Accidental Pornomancer: Alatiel becomes the sex slave or the wife of eight men before being reunited with her fiancé. (Day 2, story 7)
  • All Women Are Lustful: Masetto states "While farmers generally allow one rooster for ten hens, ten men are scarcely sufficient to service one woman" after he manages to sleep with every single nun in the convent. (Day 3, story 1) In general, the theme that women need sex, and if you don't sleep with your wife it's your own fault if she takes a lover, crops up a lot.
  • An Aesop: All the stories end with some kind of lesson. However, some of them fall into other categories, like Captain Obvious Aesop or Spoof Aesop.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Ciapelletto's List of Transgressions includes blasphemy, sacrilege, inciting violence, and many felonies such as assault, robbery, and murder, but concludes by noting that he's known to use loaded dice.
  • Bed Trick: Frequently, and with many different outcomes - a woman is tricked into having an affair with another man and decides she prefers him to her husband (Day 3, story 6); a woman tricks a suitor into having sex with a maid and humiliates him (Day 8, story 4); a case of mistaken identity makes a woman think quickly to come up with a cover story (Day 9, story 6); a palace worker impersonates the king, sleeps with his wife and gets away with it by shaving the heads of the palace staff (Day 3, story 2); a man, as a favour to his love-sick best friend, tricks his fiancée into consummating a union with the latter instead (Day 10, story 8).
  • Black Comedy Rape: Apparently, Alibech does this to Rustico in (Day 3, story 10).
  • Blasphemous Boast: (Day 1, story 6) has a drunken man claim that his wine is "good enough for Christ himself."
  • Brainless Beauty:
    • Cesca (Day 6, story 8) is told not to look at her face in the mirror lest she sees nasty folk.
    • Lisetta da Quirino (Day 4, story 2) is easily fooled by Friar Alberto, who claims that he's the Archangel Gabriel so he can sleep with her.
    • Cimone before falling in love with Iphigenia (Day 5, story 1).
  • Butt-Monkey: Calandrino is a recurring character, and in every story where he appears, he ends up falling for some ridiculous prank played on him by his "friends." He never sees through their plans, since his intelligence is so low that he might trip on it.
  • Cartwright Curse: Alatiel. Six of her eight lovers die (often being murdered one after the other). (Day 2, story 7)
  • Corrupt Church: Very frequently referenced in his stories. Perhaps the most famous example is the story of Abraham, a Jew, converting to the Christian faith despite AND because of the corruption he witnessed firsthand, saying that any organization that has managed to withstand this much corruption for so long must have the Holy Spirit holding it together.
  • Covered in Gunge: Day 8, story 9 has Bruno and Buffalmacco cast a physician named Simone into a filthy ditch and leave him there.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: (Day 7, story 5) is set on Christmas Day and involves a husband who is suspicious about his wife.
  • Dirty Old Monk: At least half of all male clergymen in the stories are also shameless leches.
  • Distinguishing Mark: Teodoro is recognized by a strawberry shaped birth mark (Day 5, story 7).
  • Domestic Abuse:
    • According to Day 9, story 9, beating your wife will scare her into submission.
    • A less sympathetic example of a domestic abuser would be Calandrino in (Day 8, story 3). In it, he collects stones. As soon as his wife catches him in their house, he beats her up until she is black and blue! Boccaccio points out that in this instance, he is more at fault than she because he did not warn her beforehand.
  • Downer Ending: The theme for Day 4 is that a character ends up suffering misfortune, although the second tale has a comedic tone and the person who suffers is an Asshole Victim.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come:
    • (Day 4, story 6): Andreuola dreams that a dark and terrible thing is clutching at her lover Gabriotto. The next day, Gabriotto dies in Andreuola's arms.
    • (Day 9, story 7) has a man named Talano d'Imolese dream that his wife is attacked by a savage wolf. He tries to warn her, but she ignores him. The dream comes true.
  • Dude, She's Like in a Coma: Messer Gentile goes hugging and kissing his lover's corpse, just to find out her heart is still beating.(Day 10, story 4).
  • Exact Words: Ciapelletto doesn't have to lie when the monk asks him whether he has ever fornicated with women...
  • Far East: The story of Mithridanes and Nathan (Day 10, story 3) takes place in "Cathay,"note  a little bit outside the capital (probably Khanbaliq, i.e. Beijing).
  • Fate Worse than Death: A lady rejected her knight suitor and rejoiced when he killed himself. She's sentenced to be hunted and killed by him, eaten by his dogs and brought back to life every Friday for the same amount of years than the months she was cruel to him. This frightens Nastagio's love so much she finally agrees to marry him. (Day 5, story 8)
  • Female Misogynist: The female storytellers. They start off planning their trip out of Florence by saying that they have to bring some men along because as women, they're too fickle, silly, and quarrelsome to make it on their own. It is Emilia who narrates the infamous "Salomon and the Bridge" tale (Day 9, story 9), about the necessity of beating your wife brutally to make her show complete obedience.
  • Flat Character: The ten storytellers. Or so many readers think; some scholars think there's actually a lot more to them than meets the eye.
  • Framing Device: A group of wealthy young men and women pass the time by sharing stories while waiting out the Black Death in a deserted country villa.
  • Happily Ever After: The theme for Day 5 is that a pair of lovers survive calamities or misfortunes and attain a state of happiness.
  • Historical Domain Character: A lot of the people in the stories are historical figures- most of the time, they are merchants/aristocrats who were contemporaries of Boccaccio, but there's also some figures who are well-known today, such as the painter Giotto.
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager: Surprised? The storytellers are all in their late teens or early-to-mid twenties. They are essentially unsupervised. An inordinate proportion of the stories either have to do with sex or hint strongly at sex. And there is much subtext indicating that each of the three guys is trying to get into at least one of the girls' pants (or in Dioneo's case, it would appear that he's trying to get into all of their pants). So no wonder there's so much fucking in the stories.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: It is very clear that Ciapelletto is a man who lived a criminal life, even lying about having lived a life of sanctity and faking contrition for his sins when confessing to the friar. The friar, completely put on, goes on to preach about Ciapelleto's supposed sanctity.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Day 9, Story 2 is about an abbess who was woken up at night with a report that one of her nuns harbors a lover. She catches the girl red-handed, assembles everyone, starts lecturing her about what a terrible and unforgivable sin this is... until the nun politely points out that upon being woken up, the abbess put on her head not the required headdress, but her own night guest's pants. The abbess hurries to change the tone of her lecture to one of forgiveness and the difficulties of resisting temptation.
  • I Call Him "Mister Happy": Rustico's "The Devil" in Day 3, story 10.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Pietro, a Depraved Homosexual whose wife is pretty much The Beard. (Day 5, story 10). Pietro's wife ends sharing her lover with him.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: The tales' titles consist of brief summaries of their entire plots.
  • Magical Jew: The novel was written during The Renaissance, when this trope was common, and features two characters of this type. First, there is the wise Jew Abraham who travels to the Vatican and criticizes the corruption there, essentially becoming the author's mouthpiece. Second, there is the Jewish money lender Melchisedech, who is asked by a Sultan which of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, or Islam) is true, and answers with a parable about the three rings, one of which is precious and the other two are fake, but nobody knows which is which.
  • Malicious Misnaming: (Day 4, story 2) in which Pampinea, who tells the story, refers to Lisetta as, among other things, "Lady Numbskull," "Lady Birdbrain," and "Lady Noodle."
  • Mister Seahorse: Calandrino is the victim of an attempt by his two friends to believe he's pregnant. It works--he's just that stupid. Then he buys an expensive medicine to abort. (Day 9, story 3)
  • National Stereotypes: Several stories note stereotypes associated with various Italian regions. For instance, people from Sienna were supposedly stupid and all Venetians are greedy and corrupt (because Venice was a rival of Boccaccio's city state, Florence).
  • Naughty Nuns: In a couple of the stories. One story from night 9 contains a nun having sex with her lover, being discovered by the abbess who just had sex with her own lover (as evidenced by her accidentally wearing his pants, and not her habit, on her head).
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: Every time someone (both genders) rapes somebody, or impersonates a spouse or a lover to have sex with somebody else, you can expect the story to try to make the fact that the victim enjoyed it work as a justification.
  • Out-Gambitted: It happens to some of the characters (e.g., Tofano in Day 7, story 4 is outwitted by his own wife).
  • Please Kill Me if It Satisfies You: Nathan is willing to be killed by his rival. (Day 10, story 3)
  • Polyamory: After sleeping with each other's wives, two men agree to share them freely. (Day 8, Story 8)
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Ciuriaci, after killing his master the prince of Morea on the Duke of Athens' orders. (Day 2, story 7)
  • Samus Is a Girl: The abbot is the princess of England (Day 2, story 3), Sicurano the sailor (Day 2, story 9).
  • Secret Test of Character: For years, the Marquis of Saluzzo test his wife's patience and obedience by mistreating her, pretending to kill their both children and pretending to dump her for a twelve year old girl. Jesus... (Day 10, Story 10)
  • Sexy Soaked Shirt: Day 10, story 6. The twin daughters of Messer Neri degli Uberti, dressed demurely in white dresses, go fully clothed into their father's fishing pool to catch fish for a banquet Messer Neri is hosting for King Charles I the Oldnote  of Naples and his court. The king and his courtiersnote  were charmed by the girls when they walked in from the house, but absolutely captivated once they emerged from the water.
    On seeing that the fish had been cooked, the girls emerged from the pool, their fishing done, with their thin white dresses clinging to their flesh so as to conceal almost nothing of their dainty bodies.... The King, the Count, and the others who were waiting upon him had been eying the girls most attentively, and each of them had secretly much admired their beauty and shapeliness, as well as their charm and impeccable manners, but it was upon the King that they made the deepest impression. Indeed, he had studied every part of their bodies as they emerged from the water, that if anyone had pinched him at that moment he would not have noticed.
  • Spoof Aesop: The final story of Day 10, which is about the wonders of magnanimity, tells the tale of Griselda, a woman so patient and generous that she smilingly puts up with her husband apparently murdering their children, and who only ever requests of him that he not kick her out of their house naked. It turns out her husband was only testing her and she gets everything back because she was so "magnanimous" as to never tell him what a colossal asshole he was being...but the absolute over-the-top horror of what she's willing to go through is clearly meant to be ridiculous, and Dioneo caps off the story by saying Griselda is unrealistic and it would've served her husband right if she dumped him and got a new lover instead.
  • Suicide by Cop: Attempted by Gisippe accusing himself of a murder he did not commit (Day 10, story 8).
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Lots of them, generally involving a woman cheating on a much older husband and it often the case that the woman is an Impoverished Patrician and the husband a Nouveau Riche.
  • Take That!: Boccaccio really hated corrupt clergymen. And Venetians. There is story after story after story of corrupt or hypocritical clergymen, who fool around like rock stars while pretending to keep their vows of chastity,
  • Those Two Guys: Bruno and Buffalmacco in (Day 8, story 3), (Day 8, story 9), and (Day 9, story 3) are two pranksters who outwit such buffoons as Calandrino and Simone.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Putting the Devil back into Hell" (Day 3, story 10). It is for this reason why this tale was not translated in earlier English translations of the Decameron.
  • Wearing It All Wrong: Day 9, Story 2 is about an abbess who was woken up at night with a report that one of her nuns harbors a lover. She catches the girl red-handed, assembles everyone, starts lecturing her about what a terrible and unforgivable sin this is... until the nun politely points out that upon being woken up, the abbess put on her head not the required headdress, but her own night guest's pants. The abbess hurries to change the tone of her lecture to one of forgiveness and the difficulties of resisting temptation.
  • A Wizard Did It: An eden garden in winter (Day 10, story 5) and teleportation of a man from Saladin's palace to Pavia (Day 10, story 9).
  • Wretched Hive: At least, that's how Boccaccio views Venice, "where the scum of the earth can always find a welcome." (Day 4, story 2)
  • You Have Waited Long Enough: Torello arrives just in time when his wife is about to remarried after he had been declared dead (Day 10, story 9).

Alternative Title(s): Decameron