By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D. , Purdue University
Of all the plague tales, the most important is, without a doubt, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Boccaccio was born in the early 14th century in Florence or just outside that great Italian city-state. He came from a well-to-do Florentine family; his father was a banker and wanted young Giovanni to follow in his footsteps. Let us take a closer look at the life of this famous Italian writer and The Decameron.
Boccaccio preferred to study law, and his father consented to this. But after six years, Boccaccio found he really didn’t like law. What he did like was studying and learning, particularly in the fields of science, medicine, and literature.
He had as his mentor and tutor the great Francesco Petrarca, better known simply as Petrarch. Petrarch was arguably the father of the Italian Renaissance, an accomplished writer who was the first poet laureate to be crowned since the days of the Roman Empire, and he was a traveler.
He had traveled to Avignon, which is where he first laid eyes on his beloved Laura, who was married to another man. Upon her death—which may have been from the plague, but also could have been due to another disease or postpartum complications—Petrarch wrote movingly of his grief.
As Boccaccio’s mentor, Petrarch translated Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey from Greek into Latin at his pupil’s request. Boccaccio traveled with his father to Naples when the latter became head of a bank there. In that city, Boccaccio composed some of the most important works in the Italian canon.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Premise of The Decameron
Eventually, Boccaccio returned to Florence, and there he began to work on The Decameron. The premise of The Decameron is that a group of noble youths have fled plague-ravaged Florence and headed to an estate in the country to wait until the Black Death has finished with the city.
In order to pass the time, the young nobles take turns telling stories. There are 10 of them—seven young women and three young men—and each must tell a story every night for two weeks, with two nights off each week for the completion of chores and other necessary activities. Thus, at the end of 10 nights of storytelling, the group will have heard 100 stories—hence the title Decameron, which comes from the Greek words for ten and day.
Learn more about the Black Death’s political outcomes.
Boccaccio’s Ingenious way of Telling a Tale
Each member of the group gets to act as king or queen for a day, meaning he or she gets to pick the general theme or instruct the others as to what the subject matter is for that day’s round of storytelling.
This frame story of the nobles telling tales to pass the time is an ingenious way of grouping together stories from a whole bunch of different genres into just one text, allowing Boccaccio to include stories that deal with holy saints, ribald and risqué stories about adulterous husbands and wives, moral fables that impart a lesson, medieval romance stories about knights and chivalry, and pretty much everything in between.
Interesting Stories in The Decameron
Boccaccio had completed the work by 1353, just as the first wave of the plague was dying down to smoldering embers in the medieval world. At the beginning and end of each day of storytelling, Boccaccio includes some additional framing details relating to what activities the group had engaged in during the day, so we get a kind of slice of life of the 14th-century Italian countryside.
The stories themselves were borrowed from other sources—this was standard practice for writers in the Middle Ages—but Boccaccio made them his own by recasting all the characters and events to reflect 14th-century Italian culture, and here and there he even put real historical figures into the stories. He also took basic plotlines and deliberately complexified them, making them more interesting and nuanced in the process.
Learn more about the end of the plague’s first wave.
The Introduction in The Decameron
But the part of The Decameron that gets the most attention is Boccaccio’s introduction, in which he details the horrors that the Black Death had wrought on the city of Florence. Boccaccio describes accurately the buboes that appeared on those afflicted with the plague, the desertion of people by their family members once it became clear that they were infected, the mass burials that took place at the height of the epidemic, and the terrifying rapidity with which the disease could spread from one person to another.
He concludes his preface by noting that it is reliably thought that over a hundred thousand human lives were extinguished within the walls of the city of Florence. Yet before this lethal catastrophe fell upon the city, it is doubtful whether anyone would have guessed it contained so many inhabitants.
Common Questions about Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron
Petrarch was arguably the father of the Italian Renaissance, an accomplished writer who was the first poet laureate to be crowned since the days of the Roman Empire, and he was a traveler. Petrarch was the mentor and tutor of Giovanni Boccaccio.
Giovanni Boccaccio changed the stories that he had borrowed from other sources by recasting all the characters and events to reflect 14th-century Italian culture, and here and there he even put real historical figures into the stories.
The part of The Decameron that gets the most attention is Boccaccio’s introduction, in which he details the horrors that the Black Death had wrought on the city of Florence.