Finding Fortune in The Decameron

Image via the Public Domain Review, from a 1492 edition of the Decameron.

Allow me to point you to two older convener’s posts for The Decameron. I’m especially drawn to the following questions:

What does it mean that Boccaccio directly addresses a female reading public at the outset? How might this invocation — and the predominance of female characters — give us meaningful inroads to discuss gender and gendered bodies in the selections you’ve read so far.

What do you make of the contrast between the morbid plague and the peaceful garden? Is storytelling a form of escape or a form of talk therapy for the brigata, something with salutary effects?

Remember the review essay you read from Prof. Stearns? It gestured toward the question of theodicy, an issue in several of the contexts we’ve examined so far. How could a just God allow such things to be? What explanations might be required to preserve a sense of God’s omnipotence or benevolence? Stearns writes:

Since the plague was indiscriminate in its victims, the massive death it brought with it raised the question of theodicy, or of why God would have caused the death of so many potential innocents; some Christian scholars explained the death of children to the plague, for example, by referring to their failing to honor their parents, or, conversely, by their death being a punishment for the sins of their parents.

As we noted in class, Boccaccio steers away from such explanations for the most part (though he notes that some do see the plague as divine punishment for “our iniquitous way of life” (5). Instead, The Decameron asks us to consider another explanatory frame: Fortune.

From Brown University’s awesome Decameron site:

Fortuna is a classic literary motif that along with wit and love represents one of the main themes of the Decameron. Medieval society was greatly interested in the workings of Lady Fortune. Most of the stories told by the Brigata members entail instances of Fortune because adventures by defintion are usually the product of fateful encounters. Fortune is usually kind in the Novellas, except for Day 4, bringing characters in contact with the right people at the right time, or more often, at the right place at the right time. In some of the stories, the protagonists are able to change the course of fate by using wit, deception or undergoing a clever action to escape harm, punishment or loss of love. In other stories, fate has total control over the characters and dictates the course of the Novella. In the end, Fortune usually brings lovers together either for life, or a few precious nights.

What kind of explanation is this? Just a way to ease survivors’ guilt?

Any time I think about the concept of Fortune, I’m reminded of this piece by the cultural historian Jackson Lears about the concept’s history (especially in Western thought). A few relevant excerpts:

In ancient Rome, Fortuna began as a fertility goddess but soon came to embody prosperity in general, as well as a basic principle of potentiality. She merged with the older Greek divinity Tyche, whose devotee Palamedes, the mortal grandson of Poseidon, supposedly invented dice and dedicated the first pair, made from the ankle bones of hoofed animals, to her. The iconography of Fortuna linked her with emblems of abundance but also with uncertainty and ceaseless change: she carried a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables yet stood on a ball or turned a wheel that rotated her beneficiaries. “Changeable Fortune wanders abroad with aimless steps, abiding firm in no place; now she beams with joy, now she puts on a harsh mien, steadfast in her own fickleness,” Ovid wrote in his Tristia, after he had been forced into exile. “I, too, had my day, but that day was fleeting; my fire was but a straw, and short-lived.”

But Fortune did not fit well with Christian ideas of Providence. To early Christians, the divine plan unfolded as mysteriously as the fluctuations of luck, but however remote the planner or apparently perverse his decrees, his purpose was ultimately benign. Boethius, unjustly imprisoned in the sixth century after a distinguished public service career, endorsed this idea in the Consolation of Philosophy. “Well, here am I, stripped of my possessions and honors, my reputation ruined, punished because I tried to do good.… Why should uncertain Fortune control our lives?” Lady Philosophy appeared in Boethius’s story to explain that behind the apparent caprices of Fortune, divine Providence governs all things with “the rudder of goodness.” Chance was “an empty word,” Lady Philosophy said. After all, “what room can there be for random events since God keeps all things in order?”

This was the traditional Christian argument that would be repeated for centuries.

We can see the language of Fortune at work in the frame story as Pampinea begins to lay the foundations for the new society she will establish: “See how Fortune favours us right from the beginning, in setting before us three young men of courage of intelligence, who will readily act as our guides and servants if we are not too proud to accept them for such duties” (18). Can you see some sort of political theory in the society she establishes that speaks to questions of fate, chance, or Providence? You’ll also want to watch out for how such concepts factor into Defoe’s narrative, coming up next for us. (Image via.)

Since we won’t necessarily come back directly to this text in class, I’m hopeful that you’ll let the conversation from today continue in the comments.

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