Gender also uses tragedy to introduce a flaw

Gender Relationships in Boccaccio’s Decameron

In The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio presents new ideas about love and
physical love, women, and their role within society through one hundred
novellas told by seven women and three men. Boccaccio dedicates The Decameron to women, expressing his
prolonged dedication to them throughout his life. In fourteenth century
Florence, women did not have a say in most anything, especially when it came to
love and relationships. Boccaccio is challenging his readers to focus on
important issues within their society — issues that
many members of society were not concerned with: women, their freedoms, and the
social stigma around physical love. In the time of The Decameron, women were given very few rights. They were bound to
their husbands, and if they never married, they were bound to their male
relatives. The Decameron, as
Boccaccio claims, is a book of advice that encourages women to shatter the moulds of their society. Women can
exercise physical love for a man without being married to them. He also uses
tragedy to introduce a flaw in their current society, such as Nastagio
manipulating the daughter of Messer Paolo Traversari or Lisabetta’s brothers
killing Lorenzo. Even though his stories can be interpreted as either misogynistic
or profeminist, Boccaccio uses them to raise gender issues within his society
and openly expresses the natural human tendency to crave physical love.

            Boccaccio
wants to demonstrate an idea for the changing times; an idea that is built on
the freedom of women but also the freedom of physical love. In his Fourth Story
of Day Five, Filostrato tells the story of Caterina and her lover Ricciardo.

Ricciardo falls in love with Caterina and struggles with hiding it from her;
however, Caterina reveals she loves him too, in fact, she loves him ‘with equal
fervour.’ 1
Such love is foreign to most readers at the time, as unrequited love was the
common circumstance in fourteenth century society. Boccaccio has already addressed a traditional aspect of his society,
and goes even further by challenging an even more controversial subject:
physical love. Caterina invites Ricciardo to spend the night with her, hiding
it from her parents. They are deeply in love with each other; after embracing,
‘they lay down together and for virtually the entire night they had delight and
joy of one another, causing the nightingale to sing at frequent intervals.’
(Boccaccio, p. 660) Intercourse was only permitted when a man and a woman are
married, strictly for the purpose of childbearing; in fact, when touching on
sexual relations within Catholicism in the fourteenth century, Michael Goodich
states, ‘Conjugal intercourse purely for the sake of carnal satisfaction may be
sinful, and thus the only permissible form of sexual expression is that which
encourages the procreation of children.’ 2
Boccaccio is raising awareness for a very new ideal emerging from his
traditional Florentine society. He even creates a euphemism for the male
genitalia, calling it the ‘nightingale’, and highlighting the fact that women
‘are too embarrassed to mention it.’ (Boccaccio, p. 660)

Boccaccio is expressing his
confusion with human nature, or our tendency to be embarrassed of our own
biology; love and sex can coincide without marriage, because it is natural to
love someone emotionally and physically — this is what
Boccaccio is trying to communicate to his fellow Florentines. He concludes this
fact by creating a reaction from Caterina’s father that does not result in the
death of Ricciardo. However, it does result in the recognition of the couple’s
love, and the choice to either face violence or marry Caterina. The audience at
the time would have expected Ricciardo to be killed (without an alternative)
for his actions, but since Boccaccio is trying to make a point, he allows the
reader to become immersed within a different point of view, expressing the fact
that the love of a women should not be at the complete mercy of her father.

Boccaccio uses his Fifth Story of
the Fourth Day to illustrating the gender relationships within a family;
Filomena tells the story of Lisabetta and the death of her beloved Lorenzo. Her
brothers ‘had failed to bestow her in marriage,’ (Boccaccio, p. 543) and did
not react kindly to the discovery of her love affair with Lorenzo. Lisabetta is
sinning by exercising physical love outside of wedlock. Her brothers ‘took
Lorenzo off his guard, murdered him, and buried his corpse’ (Boccaccio, p. 545)
in order to protect their sister’s honour; however, they did not think of the
love she possessed for him. She finds his body, decapitates him, and keeps her
lover’s head in a pot of basil. Her love for him lives on even after his death,
proving that even though her brothers did not approve of her love, she truly
loved Lorenzo. Boccaccio is trying to show the importance of letting women have
their say, and again highlights the importance of allowing women to love who
they want to love without the interference of male decision.

In the Eighth Story of the Fifth
Day, Filomena speaks of Nastagio degli Onesti, and his love for the daughter of
Messer Paolo Traversari. She did not love him back, and ‘was persistently
cruel, harsh and unfriendly towards him.’ (Boccaccio, p. 699) One day, while in
the woods he caught sight of a naked woman being chased by a man on a horse,
killing the woman for her cruelty towards him, a cruelty similar to the one in
which Nastagio experiences. Both are condemned to Hell for their actions,
however the woman is suffering more for bringing the horseman to kill himself.

Nastagio acts on this repetitive event, bringing the Traversari girl (amongst
other women) to view this act. Once she sees it, she is ‘stricken with so much
terror as the cruel maiden loved by Nastagio, for she has heard and seen
everything distinctly and realised that these matters had more to do with
herself than with any of the other guests, in view of the harshness she had
always displayed towards Nastagio.’ (Boccaccio, p. 706) She was so afraid of
having the same fate as the naked woman that she convinced herself to love and
marry Nastagio. He exploits this vision of Hell in order to manipulate a woman
into loving him. This makes the reader think woman must obey men; however,
Boccaccio is using this story to encourage reflection and again to address a
gender issue.

Boccaccio encourages the reader to
reflect openly on his short stories, which in effect opens them to criticism as
well. Although Boccaccio seems to be an advocate for women, Janet Lavarie Smarr
uses her essay Speaking Women: Three
Decades of Authoritative Females to highlight the fact that ‘arguments are easily found for both
cases: that Boccaccio was a feminist ahead of his time, and that he shared the
traditional or even misogynistic views of his era.’3 Some
novellas of The Decameron seem purely
protofeminist, while others are open to debate. In Mihoko Suzuki’s article
within Comparative Literature Studies,
he focuses on a specific issue in Boccaccio’s depiction of women, saying
‘despite this dedication to female readers, and despite the fact that seven of
his ten storytellers are women, his tales — even those told by the women — most often take the point if view
of the male protagonists, and many of the stories victimise female characters
in the process.’ 4
It is apparent that Boccaccio sometimes ‘depicts male protagonists using
women for their own sexual satisfaction,’ (Suzuki, p. 233) showing the flaw in
the still new and developing idea of early feminism. For example, in the Tenth
Story of the Third Day, Alibech is tricked into thinking she is ‘putting the
devil back in Hell’ (Boccaccio p. 459) by participating in intercourse with
Rustico. Even though this may be shocking to the modern reader at first,
Boccaccio is also praising the woman, saying that her ‘Hell’ is more
sustainable and insatiable than a man’s ‘Devil’.

It is important to read The Decameron and recognise that
Boccaccio’s view of women was at the time ‘revolutionary,’ and similar with any
early view of women and feminism, there will be some flaws. The most
recognisable aspect of Boccaccio’s Decameron
is that he is sensitive towards women; he pities them. It is his sympathy that
shows a glimpse into the development of protofeminism, for women were rarely
ever pitied for the social situation in which they naturally faced. In her book The
Invention Of The Renaissance Woman, Pamela Joseph Benson recognises this
sympathy and admiration towards women in Boccaccio’s works, saying ‘a
persuasive and sensitive profeminist voice emerges from the text, a voice that
admires female political, moral and physical strength although it does not
endorse a change in the contemporary political status of women.’ 5
Boccaccio does not plainly say he thinks women should be treated better within
his society. Alternatively, he encourages us as the readers to reflect on his
work and to form our own opinions on the matter.

Boccaccio uses his collection of
novellas as an outlet for critical, social thinking. Although some of them may
be more obviously feminist, others have underlying misogynistic aspects. With
Caterina and Ricciardo, he shows that love can be physical, even outside of
marriage. In the story of Lisabetta and Lorenzo, he highlights the controlling
aspects of male roles within a family. Nastagio’s story encourages women to do
what they want instead of what men tell them to. Although the story of Caterina
and Ricciardo promote a feminist ideal, it is still her father that offers the
choice between violence or marriage. And even with Nastagio and Lisabetta, it
is still the men who make the decisions for the women in order to encourage
reflection. Despite these facts, it is important to take into consideration the
time of The Decameron, and understand
its impact over its misogyny. Boccaccio uses these stories to raise awareness
for the wrongs society so acceptingly preforms against women; he advocates for
their freedom from society’s moulds. Boccaccio’s Decameron
is neither purely feminist nor purely misogynistic; the beauty of his work is
its openness towards different interpretations. It challenges the audience’s
way of thinking, and in doing so presents many new ideas to the public, which
is a glimpse into the evolution of fourteenth century Florence and how writers
have an impact on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Primary Source:

Boccaccio, Giovanni, The
Decameron, trans. by G. H. McWilliam, 2nd edn (London: Penguin, 2003)

 

Secondary Sources:

Benson, Pamela Joseph, The Invention of the
Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female Independence in the Literature and
Thought of Italy and England (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania
University Press, 1992), 18-72

Goodich, Michael, “Sexuality, Family, And The
Supernatural In The Fourteenth Century”, Journal Of The History Of Sexuality, 4.4 (1994), 493-516

Smarr, Janet Levarie, “Speaking Women: Three Decades of
Authoritative Females,” in Boccaccio and
Feminist Criticism, ed. by Thomas C. Stillinger and F Regina Psaki (Annali
d’Italianistica, Inc, 2006), viii, 29-31

Suzuki, Mihoko, “Gender, Power, And The Female Reader:
Boccaccio’s “Decameron” And Marguerite De Navarre’s
“Heptameron””, Comparative
Literature Studies, 30.3 (1993), 231-252

 

1
Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. by G. H.

McWilliam, 2nd edn (London: Penguin, 2003), 656.

2
Michael Goodich, “Sexuality, Family, And The Supernatural In The
Fourteenth Century”, Journal Of The
History Of Sexuality, 4.4 (1994), 496.

3
Smarr, Janet Levarie, “Speaking Women: Three Decades of
Authoritative Females,” in Boccaccio
and Feminist Criticism, ed. by Thomas C. Stillinger and F Regina Psaki
(Annali d’Italianistica, Inc, 2006), viii, 29.

4
Mihoko Suzuki, “Gender, Power,
And The Female Reader: Boccaccio’s “Decameron”
And Marguerite De Navarre’s “Heptameron””,
Comparative Literature Studies, 30.3
(1993), 231.

5
Pamela Joseph Benson, The Invention Of The Renaissance Woman
(Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1992), 18.