The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio: Introduction and Day One.

A Tale from the Decameron by John William Waterhouse (1916).
Introduction and Day I | Day II | Day III | Day IV
Day V | Day VI | Day VII | Day VIII | Day IX | Day X

The Decameron (Il Decamerone), subtitled Prince Galehaut (Prencipe Galeotto) was written by the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio in the mid-14th Century. It is a collection of a hundred short stories told by a group of seven women and three men in a villa near Florence, Italy, who are escaping the Black Death. The tales are told over a period of ten days, and the title Decameron comes from the Greek δέκα meaning ten and ἡμέρα meaning day, so δέκα-ἡμέρα would mean a 'ten day event'. 

The Black Death was plague that ravaged Europe, peaking between 1346-53. By the end of 1347 to the early part of 1348 the plague hit Italy, and it is during these times Boccaccio conceived the idea for The Decameron. He begins in his introduction by referring to the plague:
Whenever, fairest ladies, I pause to consider how compassionate you all are by nature, I invariably become aware that the present work will seem to you to possess and irksome and ponderous opening. For it carries at its head the painful memory of the deadly havoc wrought by the recent plague, which brought so much heartache and misery to those who witnessed, or had experience of it. But I do not want you to be deterred, for this reason, from reading any further, on the assumption that you are to be subjected, as you read, to an endless torrent of tears and sobbing. You will be affected no differently by this grim beginning than walkers confronted by a steep and rugged hill, beyond which there lies a beautiful and delectable plain. The degree of pleasure they derived from the latter will correspond directly to the difficulty of the climb and the descent. And just as the end of mirth is heaviness, so sorrows are dispersed by the advent of joy.
He then goes on to write that the time frame is within 1348: "... the sum of thirteen hundred and forty-eight years had elapsed since the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God, when the noble city of Florence, which for its great beauty excels all others in Italy, was visited by the deadly pestilence". He describes the symptoms of the plague, and the effects on not only those it takes hold of, but those who attempt to flee the city. Many, he writes, "were constrained, either by their poverty or the hope of survival, to remain in their houses". He goes on to write about the dead, the problems of burying the dead, and the fear people had of caring for the sick, then finally he introduces the characters of this tale:
... it chanced (as I afterward heard from a person worthy of credit) that there foregathered in the venerable church of Santa Maria Novella, one Tuesday morning when there was well nigh none else there, seven young ladies, all knit one to another by friendship or neighbourhood or kinship, who had heard divine service in mourning attire, as sorted with such a season. Not one of them had passed her eight-and-twentieth year nor was less than eighteen years old, and each was discreet and of noble blood, fair of favour and well-mannered and full of honest sprightliness.
Inside the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella.
They talk to each other, and one, Pampinea, observes that there is no good reason to remain in the city and they ought to go to the countryside to avoid the worst of the plague. The ladies agree and ask three young men "in a spirit of chaste and brotherly affection" to accompany them. And so they go, and having spent a short while sleeping and familiarising themselves with the area, Pampinea, who has been elected queen of the day, says:
As you can see, the sun is high in the sky, it is very hot, and all is silent except for the cicadas in the olive-trees. For the moment, it would surely be foolish of us to venture abroad, this being such a cool and pleasant spot in which to linger. Besides, as you will observe, there are chessboards and other games here, and so we are free to amuse ourselves in whatever way we please. But if you were to follow my advice, this hotter part of the day would be spent, not in playing games (which inevitably bring anxiety to one of the players, without offering very much pleasure either to his opponent or to the spectators), but in telling stories - an activity that may afford some amusement to both the narrator and the company at large. By the time each one of you has narrated a little tale of his or her own, the sun will be setting, the heat will have abated, and we shall be able to go and amuse ourselves wherever you choose. Let us, then, if the idea appeals to you carry this proposal of mine into the effect.
All are in favour and they begin.

First Story: This is narrated by one of the young men, Panfilo, and it is about the wicked Ser Cepperello of Prato -
He would take particular pleasure, and a great amount of trouble, in stirring up enmity, discord and bad blood between friends, relatives and anybody else; and the more calamities that ensued, the greater would be his rapture.
Cepperello, or Ciappelletto as he is also known, is diagnosed with a terminal illness. In his last confession he lies, pretends to show remorse for lesser sins, and portrays himself as a very holy man. After his death he is venerated into a saint. The earliest source for this story is found in Sulpicius Severus' Life of Saint Martin (5th Century A.D.).

Second Story: This is narrated by Neifile, "whose manners were no less striking than her beauty". She tells the story of a Jewish man, Abraham, whose friend Giannotto di Civignì tries to convert to Christianity. Despite witnessing first hand the corruptness and depravity of the clergy, Abraham converts, believing that even with all of this, Christianity "continues to grow in popularity, and become more splendid and illustrious, I can only conclude that, being a more holy and genuine religious than any of the others, it deservedly has the Holy Ghost as its foundation and support". He is baptised as John and becomes "a good and worthy man". This story derives from Avventuroso Ciciliano by Busone da Gubbio (1311).

"The Three Rings" by Louis Chalon (1900).
Third Story: This is told by Filomena and is about Saladin, a sultan who has run out of money. He believes Melchizedek, a Jewish man, could help him financially but he does not trust him to lend him money fairly. He devises ways to trick Melchizedek out of his money, but -
The Jew, who was indeed a wise man, realized all too well that Saladin was aiming to trip him up with the intention of picking a quarrel with him, and that if he were to praise any of the three [Judaism, Christianity, or Islam] more than the others, the Sultan would achieve his object.
Melchizedek replies with a story of a man who promises his three sons that he will leave them a previous ring. Unable to decide which son to leave the ring to, he makes two additional copies so it is impossible to tell the rings apart. Impressed, Saladin is honest with Melchizedek, and Melchizedek lends him the money he needs. This story probably is inspired by a French poem Li dis dou vrai aniel, which in turn derives from The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit by Stephen of Bourbon (13th Century).

Fourth Story: This is narrated by Dioneo, one of the young men. He tells of a young monk who seduces a woman, and is observed by an abbot. Knowing he has been seen, the young monk leaves his room (and leaves the woman where she is) and the abbot goes in:
Master Abbot, having looked her up and down, saw that she was a nice, comely wench, and despite his years he was promptly filled with fleshy cravings, no less intense than those his young monk experienced. And he began to say to himself: 'Well, well! Why not enjoy myself a little, when I have the opportunity?'
And so he does, and is discovered by the monk. The Abbot cannot punish the monk for something he has done himself, so they sneak her out, and, as Dioneo says, "we can only assume that they afterwards brought her back at regular intervals". This story quite likely comes from Cento Novelle Antiche (13th Century) or a notoriously bawdy French tale L'Evesque qui benit sa maitresse (The bishop who blesses his mistress), which Geoffrey Chaucer was also inspired by. Dioneo is gently rebuked afterwards for telling such an unsuitable story.

"The Dinner of Hens" by Louis Chalon (1900).
Fifth Story: This is told by Fiammetta and is based on a tale from One Thousand and One Nights (كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة). In it she tells of the Marchioness of Montferrat who is host to the King of France. She realises he intends to seduce her and so fills him up with a banquet of chickens to check his passions - "And thus, in the same way that he had foolishly become inflamed, so now he wisely decided that he was honour-bound to extinguish the ill-conceived fires of his passion".

Sixth Story: Told by Emilia, it is about a man who remarks one day he had previously drank wine of such quality Christ himself would have drunk it. A friar takes offence, and he is instructed to appear at Mass every morning then report to him at breakfast. During one mass the man hears the quote "For every one you shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life", after which he presents himself to the inquisitor who asks him if he has any doubts or questions about the service. The man replies,
Every day since I started coming here, I have seen a crowd of poor people standing outside and being given one and sometimes two huge cauldrons of vegetable water which, being surplus to your needs, is take away from you and the other friars here at the convent. So if you are going to receive a hundred in the next world for every one you have given, you will have so much of the stuff that you will all drown in it.
The other friars find this amusing, but the inquisitor, having had his hypocrisy highlighted, does not and orders him to go away and never return (I must say I found this tale rather bizarre). This tale may be based on a real inquisitor, Pietro della Aquila of Florence.

The tomb of  Cangrande della Scala.
Seventh Story: Narrated by Filostrato, this is a story about a prince of Italy, Cangrande della Scala (who, in real life, was Dante's patron). He is to host a great banquet, however he changes his mind at the last minute and offers presents to all the court-entertainers who would have performed - all except Bergamino. Bergamino stays around until Cangrande (also spelled Can Grande) asks him why he looks so unhappy. He replies with a story about Primas who, with others, goes to an Abbot's house for breakfast. Primas looks very much unkempt and so the Abbot refuses him food, so Primas is left eating his own bread. Soon the Abbot is ashamed of himself and offers him food, drink, clothes, and the freedom of his household. Cangrande is left feeling guilty for not giving Bergamino any kind of compensatory gift, so he settles Bergamino's bills and treats him much as the Abbot ultimately treated Primas.

Eighth Story: This story is told by Lauretta and it's about the avarice of Ermino de' Grimaldi, and how Guiglielmo Borsiere, with a few choice words, shames him:
'Sir, I do not think I could suggest a thing that no man has ever seen, unless it were a fit of the sneezes or something of that sort. But if you like, I can certainly suggest a thing I do not believe you yourself have ever seen.'
'Ah', said Ermino, who was not expecting the answer he was about to be given, 'then I beg you to tell me what it is.'
Whereupon Guiglielmo promptly replied:
'Let Generosity be painted there.'
When Ermino heard this word he was so overcome with shame, that his character was suddenly and almost totally transformed.
Ninth Story: This is the shortest story and is narrated by Elissa. She tells of a sharp reply from a lady of Gascony to the King of Cyprus, which changes him from a weak man to a courageous one. This story comes from Il libro di novelle et di bel parlar gientile (also known as Cento Novelle Antiche) written between 1280 - 1300) by an anonymous author.

Tenth Story: The final story of the day is narrated by Pampinea, who was elected queen for the day. She tells of Master Alberto of Bologna, an old physician who falls in love with a widow - Malgherida de' Ghisolieri. She and her friends mock his age, and he chides her; thus she is defeated.


Following the tales is the conclusion: the sun is setting, the heat is abated, and Pampinea elects Filomena to be queen of the second day. And as tempting as it is to try to read and write about The Decameron in ten days, I couldn't possibly find the time this week! So I'm aiming to write about each day of The Decameron over the next ten weeks. This is obviously the first, and next Tuesday I'll write about the second. So far I'm very much enjoying it! I've wanted to read The Decameron for a while, but I decided that it might be good as a precursor to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which was very inspired by Boccaccio.

Further Reading
Decameron Web

Nᴇxᴛ: Day II


  1. Just excellent, O! I love how you're going so in depth! It's wonderful that you'll have these stories documented from your read.

    I'd love to learn more about Boccaccio ........ for some reason he reminds me a little of Malory.

    I really have to get back to this read, but I feel like I should read Metamorphoses first. :-Z

    1. Thank you! This is all because I regret not posting more in-depth about Metamorphoses and The Divine Comedy - I must one of these days.

      I also must read Malory - I'm putting that one off to be honest. It's on my 2015 TBR list (the one hosted by Adam) and I bet it will be the last one I read. Speaking of that list, no way will I get to Das Kapital this year, fortunately though that option is an alternative.

      Go read Metamorphoses - it really is very enjoyable! :)

  2. Your post makes me want to get a complete copy of The Decameron and read the whole thing! One of my university classes read a selection of stories, but I've never read the entire thing--and the photo you include of a Florentine church reminds me that I've not read any of them since I actually was in Florence. Must remedy!

    1. Ah, you've been to Florence! How lovely! I'd love to go one day :)

      I'm enjoying this so far - just finished the second day over the weekend so I'll be writing about that tomorrow. It's also nice to meet a new author, especially a contemporary of Chaucer :)


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