The Decameron is a collection of 100 tales or novellas by author Giovanni Boccaccio. It is a medieval allegorical work known for its bawdy tales of love from erotic to the tragic to the mundane. This paper will explore Giovanni Boccaccio’s views on women using some of the tales of love he concocted in his time.
Proto-feminist vs. Misogynistic
This compilation was actually inspired by women- being Boccaccio’s muse. It permits women to speak their minds and these simple acts grant women some degree of autonomy. It acknowledges women’s sexual desires and frustrations and forgives women for obtaining satisfaction in sating their needs. Chastity is a not a virtue. There are very strong female characters in this work. This is the proto-feminist side of The Decameron.
There is another side. The misogynistic side of this book is that there are tales of men abusing women. Beating them, hurting them, embarrassing them and worst- eating them for breakfast, literally.
From reading The Decameron, it is difficult to give an assessment of which is the better side of the author. Below are a few stories from the Decameron that might help us understand Boccaccio’s views on women:
The Introduction of The Decameron basically just told of how young people decided to escape the confines of medieval Christian civilization and decided to have a glorious time in the countryside. They decided each to occupy themselves with a story for ten days, just to diminish their boredom. The first day is an open topic.
Mainly, the first three stories are about religion. The first one ridiculed the then-practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The second story is the most thought-provoking of the three as in this story, the Jew converts religion because he logically concludes that only a religion supported by God could prosper despite the corruption of its leadership. The third story shows how Boccaccio shows respect of the Jews despite how the Jews were treated at the time in all of medieval Europe. In these stories, I do not actually see any relation of the author to being proto-feminist and being misogynistic.
In this Day, women are finally mentioned. It seems that women, as relayed on this day, seem to be the toys of the men in their lives. For instance, in story three, the daughter of the King of England’s riches was used by her lover so he could gain back his previous station in life; story four shows a woman who entertains a man in his boredom; the seventh tale shows the hardships of the sultan’s daughter because of the Sultan himself, and worst, in tale number 9, the husband ordered the death of his wife because of another man’s trickery. This Day most definitely shows the misogynistic side of Boccaccio.
Stories 1, 3, 8, 10
I believe that story one is pro-feminist. As in this story, women do not hide their sexual desires. Women, do not at all feel sinful with the idea of sharing one man to their bedroom and we are talking about a whole nunnery here that a man must service to pleasure. Story three also show cases a woman’s gratification in sex. She does not treat it in a shameful manner. Story 8 shows a woman who enjoys sex with a man who is not her husband and a man who is a servant of the church without any guilt. Story 10 most especially narrates perhaps the most proto-feministic of all tales as in this story, the young, fair wife of a boring man, discarded her husband in favor of her lover abductor.
Regarded as the 101st tale, in this story, Boccaccio justified the genre of his writings but it also shows the power of women over men. A young man got very excited on his first sight of women. He acted like a deranged animal.
Stories 1, 2, 5, 7
Though the introduction is empowering women, stories 1, 2, 5 and 7 showcase women as overemotional females, prone to suicide. The tales are mainly about women drinking poison or causing harm upon themselves upon the death of their lovers.
Stories 7, 8, 9
Stories 7, 8, 9 shows Boccaccio at his most misogynistic form. These stories show just what being scorned does to a man and how love can drive him to madness. The worst of this lot is story eight where a man took up cannibalism (eating a woman) to frighten the woman of his dreams into marriage with him. The woman actually agreed for fear of the same fate.
Stories 9, 10
Day VI stories show characters avoiding embarrassment by saying a clever remark. Stories 9 and 10 are not particularly about women as they are more related to religion and the worship of relics of the Catholics of that age.
Stories 2, 3
Stories 2 and 3 show a wife who tricked her husband in favor of her lover. Again, in the Decameron, being wily, especially in the subject of sex is not sinful. It is a compliment on the woman who is sexy and uses her wit to commit adultery which viewed as charming rather than sinful. These two stories show the proto-feminist side of the author.
Stories 3, 6
Boccaccio keeps contradicting himself. In the third story, a husband seems to have enjoyed beating up his wife and waxing her to death, with the aid of another male friend. The other story shows two men doing everything possible to prevent the wife from knowing the misdemeanors of her husband. This shows that the husband is in fear of his wife’s wrath.
Stories 2, 3
Story 2 shows another sexually liberated woman. This is once again a compliment. Story 3 ridicules a man by making him believe he is pregnant. Since this is viewed as a ridicule, I believe that this is an insult to the female gender. I do not quite see anything wrong with being pregnant, even though he is a man. Considering that they believe in miracles in these days.
Stories 3, 5, 6, 9, 10
These stories at least show case men showing genuine affection for women. Despite gender bias of any age, there is always genuine romance that falls between a male and a female. Boccaccio again defended his genre here. But this time, he made it humorous and quite sacrilegious.
From the text above, we can deduct that Giovanni Boccaccio is both a proto-feminist and misogynist. It is clear that he does not see women as an equal, given the ways the males treat them in some of his style. And though this may be true, he does not completely disrespect them. He understands, it seems that women are entitled to the satisfaction of their lust, as men are.
This must be his greatest salute to the female kind. He, at the very least, thought it was okay to harbor such sinful feelings such as lust. He also understands that women have the capacity, if given a chance, to control men, by wielding their feminine wiles and other gifts of nature bestowed to the women kind such as beauty. However, once conquered by a man, a woman becomes his property and a man can very well do as he pleases with his wife.
- Boccaccio, G. The Decameron. Signet Classics: 2002.