The Decameron

No matter how much you read it, medieval lit is always ruder than you think. Whatever great wave of decorum swelled up between then and now was significant. It’s as if Boccaccio felt it coming, talking to future readers over a divide: “these stories were told,” he explains in The Decameron‘s epilogue, “at a time when going about with your trousers over your head was not considered improper if it helped to save your life.”

enchanted gardenYet, after six-hundred and sixty years, this great collection still forms a persuasive defence of love at its most embodied. That’s why it’s so full of passion’s enemies: the celibate, the impotent, the jealous. In these stories, desire’s not a metaphor but a literal beating heart, the signature ending not “happily ever after” but “by mutual consent they lay together for a long time and in great delight.” I haven’t read a sexier novel.

It’s addressed to women, and describes women sharing tales in which female desire is foregrounded. One whole day’s storytelling is given over to “the tricks which, either out of love or for their own self-preservation, wives have played on their husbands,” and many of the remaining ninety stories are feminist: the wife who defiantly leaves her impotent husband for a more virile man; the ten nuns who exhaust the sexual prowess of their gardener; the doctor who cures the king then persuades her husband to love her for “her perseverance and her intelligence.” And if any in the group of storytellers tries to disclaim their enjoyment of these sex-positive tales, their words are always undermined by a sigh or a knowing laugh. Even the most moral-forward stories (in which a wife and husband share the same young man, or two couples establish a polyamorous foursome) are received by the listeners as uncontroversial, if hilarious.

Throughout the book Boccaccio sets a new framework for judgement and sin: not between cardinal and venial, but between unnatural and natural, in which sins that conform to human nature – “if what young people do in the name of love can be called a sin” – are easily forgiven. In this world, the virtue of chastity is replaced by that of discretion; in one story a loving husband gives his wife “permission to do whatever she pleased, but to do it so discretely that he would never notice.” Refreshing stuff, and utterly medieval. Did you hear the one about the one-legged crane?

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