Boccaccio Essay, Research Paper
One of the most valuable tools for learning about past cultures and societies is through the literature of that period. When studying the fourteenth century, a surplus of good books exist revealing characteristics of life at that time. One of such books is The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. In The Decameron, Boccaccio describes lifestyles in the fourteenth century through 10 days of stories told by various characters. He covers all topics and even though he writes in fiction, the characters are similar to actual people of that period. In the “Eighth Day” of The Decameron, Boccaccio accurately depicts women’s submissive role in the family, male dominance in society, and sexual promiscuity of the fourteenth century.
In the “Eighth Day”, a majority of the stories told represent women as submissive wives to what their husbands say. In the second story told, Boccaccio tells of a woman who had asked the priest for his cloak as a surety that he would pay her the five gold coins he promised. A servant of the priest came to retrieve the cloak without the payment. When the woman’s husband found out that she had taken a surety from the priest, he ordered her to go give the cloak back. She willingly did as she was told and fetched the coat to give back to the priest. (pg. 559) This is an accurate representation of the attitudes of the fourteenth century. Thomas Aquinas, a writer of the fourteenth century, advanced the idea of women as being passive and submissive. (Spielvogel 406) This idea was widely accepted and believed by most people and women began to fit into the role of obedient housewife.
Another important characteristic of lifestyles in the fourteenth century is that of male dominance in the society and workforce. This is represented in both the first and second stories in The Decameron. In both cases, the woman is left alone at home because her husband is away on business travel. In the first story, an exchange of money takes place between two men. It would be considered improper at this time for the man’s wife to make such a decision because she is considered suitable for housework. In the second story, again a woman’s husband is off on business travel while she is left at home. The man does not ask his wife to go and do the business or to even come with him because it is not considered her place in society. This shows that men were the domineering force in the society and made all business decisions. One fourteenth century Parisian provost states that “no master’s widow who keeps working at his craft after her husband’s death may take on apprentices, for the men of the craft do not believe that a woman can master it well enough to teach a child to master it, for the craft is a very delicate one.” (Spielvogel 406) This shows that women were not viewed as capable of undertaking all of the activities and duties that men obtained.
The third main characteristic of fourteenth century Europeans exemplified in The Decameron is that of sexual promiscuity. Six of the ten stories relayed by Boccaccio contain either extra-marital affairs or attempts at intercourse outside of marriage. The second story is based on the idea of a priest desiring to have sex with a man’s wife. He waits until the man leaves town on business, and then goes and seduces the man’s wife into bed. In another such story, a woman agrees to have sex with a man who is not her husband for money. Boccaccio writes that, “She then went back to Gulfardo and conveyed him to her bedroom, where, not only on that occasion, but on many others before her husband’s return from Genoa, she placed her person freely at his disposal.” (554) This suggests repeated sexual misconduct and affairs. This was an instance that was not uncommon at this time. The basic family included the husband, his wife and their children. Included this also is any of the husband’s illegitimate children. (Spielvogel 406) The fact that many husbands had illegitimate children would point to a widespread acceptance of extramarital sex. When writing The Decameron, Boccaccio made many references to sex outside of marriage and was possibly attempting to bring attention the fact that it had become so overlooked.
Througout the Eighth day of The Decameron, Boccaccio uses specific examples in displaying characteristics of people. These characteristics are not merely fictional depictions, but accurate observances of people in the fourteenth century Europe. He shows that women were submissive in the family, men were dominant in the workplace, and everyone was sexualy permiscuous. By comparing his works to historical data, one can develop a good understanding of life in the fourteenth century.