Reflecting on Decameron by Boccaccio

Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit (Tournai, c. 1353)

While the context of the Decameron is rather macabre, its story is rather uplifting and it revolves around the brigata made up of ten storytellers, predominantly women. We would like to bring to your attention the framing of this story: the contrast between the morbid plague and the peaceful garden, which brings to mind the question whether this was a form of escape or therapy for the brigata? The brigata secluded themselves in an almost utopian garden and embarked on several techniques to prevent bad humors from entering their body.

More importantly, we would like to ask what is the role of storytelling in Decameron? This question potentially links back to our last reading where Harrison argues that “the more important question, perhaps, is how these epidemics were understood by contemporaries” (58). Perhaps then the narrative framework provides us with a depiction of the public opinion at the time, which could really enhance our understanding of the plague as Harrison suggests.

Additionally, in class, we have discussed that at the time, many people believed that the plague was a form of punishment by God and hence appealed to religion to try to stop the plague. In the introduction to Decameron, the narrator mentions that “in the Face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken” (7). And we also learn that people abandoned their friends, neighbors or even refused to help their own children. In this setting where people died like animals, was the brigata spiritually blind? To answer this question we may want to consider the numerology and the belief system that the brigata agreed upon.

Building on the theme of religion, Decameron employs several themes, the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth) being some of which stand out. With a setting that is infested with disease and death, many have resorted to indulging in their urges and succumbing to worldly pleasures, almost as a way to avoid reality. It seems as though people have disregarded their religious beliefs and are unaware of the consequences of their actions in the afterlife.

Conversely, what would one make of the fact that the plague interrupted people’s religious rituals? Describing the decline in communal/familial burial rituals, the narrator says, “But as the ferocity of the plague began to mount, this practice all but disappeared entirely and was replaced by different customs” (10) (see header image in which people are buried in large numbers due to the amount of deaths). This example is one of many that illustrates the plague’s intrusion into people’s rituals. When people are robbed even of their rituals, are they to blame for abandoning everyone and everything and seeking happiness?

As we’ve seen in the various issues raised above, relevant themes to be raised include reality vs. escape, storytelling, religion, rituals, and spirituality, all of which link, somehow, to the socio-psychological effects of the plague on the people at the time.


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  1. Hi everyone, this is an additional paragraph on the theme of the seven deadly sins. It’s a very interesting concept that seems to be rooted at the foundation of the story. Please take a quick look at this paragraph and consider the questions at the end to possibly discuss tomorrow. Thank you!

    The state of the people of Florence is mirrored by the tales that are told by the ten storytellers. Many of the stories that are told have characters that are considered to be sinners in the eyes of Christianity, specifically ones that take part in the seven deadly sins. On the tenth day, the third story is based on the sin of envy. A young man named Mithridanes is envious over a noble man’s generosity and plans to murder him (711). The motive behind the murder is his desire to attain the same status of courtesy as him. Another sin that is in many of the stories is greed. This includes the fourth story on the ninth day when a character named Cecco Fortarrigo gambles away all of his possessions as well as Cecco Angiulieri’s money (663). This shows the desire for material wealth and the disregard for the more important things in life.

    What other sins are evident in this story? Is there a reason why you think Boccaccio would allude at the idea of committing major sins in the religion of Christianity? What does this have to do with the Black Death?

    -Mariam Al Shehhi 🙂

    • The idea of ‘major sins’ in Christianity almost goes back to what Justin Stearns was saying last week. I think it alludes to the theology of Christianity and how sin was believed to be associated with illness and vise-versa.

      • Is there some connection here to the line on p. 8: “Hence everyone was free to behave as he pleased”? Is there a bit of “eat, drink, and be merry” here?

  2. Hi Guys,
    Just had a few thoughts on the concept of ‘sins’ as mentioned in the convener’s post and in Mariam’s comment 🙂

    Last class, we talked a little bit about how every story, or paper, has heroes and villains. Although, I find that in the Decameron, particularly in the first introductory story, the lines between heroes and villains are rather blurred. On one hand, Pampinea’s actions could be seen as heroic, because they essentially ‘saved’ the group from potentially being struck by the plague. Conversely, her actions could also be interpreted as cowardly, in the sense that she chose to escape the plague and all the problems that came with it.

    Also, it’s funny how the function of fate operates very differently in this story as opposed to Oedipus. In a way, it is ironic how Oedipus was a man who confronted the harsh realities of life, no matter how bad they seemed to be, and yet his fate was far from fair (arguably). Yet, In Bocaccio’s introductory story, the characters who want to flee the hardships in life are in fact the ones who end up living a relatively consequence-free life.

    I think the larger moral/ethical question revolves around the subject of nobility. Although it is certainly understandable, should one simply leave behind their problems, and loved ones in pursuit of their own happiness? Or would they be considered ‘nobler’ if they stayed behind and perhaps suffered like everyone else? Thoughts?

    • On this front I’d ask whether they actually do escape. What kind of society do they recreate in their retreat?

    • Personally, though I understand the point of Pampinea’s actions being interpreted as cowardly, I think that as a band of women striving to escape together, it can be seen as a power move for taking initiative and control of saving their own lives. In fact, I could argue that Filomena’s remark of women needing a man to accompany them on their journey because they would be incompetent otherwise is a cowardly and anti feminist action to their feminist strive. I think that in certain situations, despite the consequences, it is necessary to be selfish to save your own life. Considering the change in culture and customs that went on during the Plague in the book, it is not surprising that the actions these women want to take, which are considered progressive and out of the culture, are feasible. In the case of the Plague, where everyone is dying around them, I do not think it would be considered ‘noble’ to stay, but rather foolish.

  3. I just want to share some thoughts on how the Decameron depicts responses to the plague. I think first of all it introduces a new way that people responded to a plague that we did not see in the previous readings. We saw people responded to the plague as if it was a grave danger: they prayed to the Gods, conducted quarantine, or ran away from the plague. However, here in the Decameron, it seems as if the plague was something that caused sorrow and boredom for them. It is interesting to note that in Pampinea’s speech, there is a strong focus on avoiding the miserable situation caused by the plague, but not so much on avoiding being infected with the plague. Did they leave simply to have a happier life rather than out of fear from the plague?

    On the other hand, it could also be understood that by living a happy life, they were also warding off negative influences on the humors, which made them sick. According to this post by the Decameron Web ( , the rules set out in this little society all served to ward off negative influences:

    ——- “When Pampinea sets up the rules of the brigata as they do leave, she outlaws anything which might lead to bad humors entering the body: she forbids the servants from bringing any news except positive news, and even suggests that instead of playing games, which will “inevitably bring anxiety to one of the players, without offering very much pleasure either to his opponent or to the spectators” (180), the brigata tell stories to pass the time. Pampinea seems to go strictly by the regimen set up by the medieval medical tracts when she sets up the schedule of the brigata: “a certain amount of exercise before the two daily meals, usually in the form of walks; music, songs, and dancing after meals; and of course a great deal of congenial conversation throughout” (180).” ————

    I am still not so sure which is the more correct way to read the brigata’s responses to the plague.

  4. Hello.
    So I’m an augmenter, and I hope that I understand my role correctly.
    We talked a lot in class about “love sickness” and I had been thinking about the conflation of war and plague metaphors. However, after our last discussion I started thinking about our conflation between love and disease as well. People get obsessive about the ones they love, heartbreak syndrome is a real thing, and sometimes love is not healthy.
    So, there may be better songs out there to link to our text and to this thought, but I was thinking of Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine” (Link: )
    I think this song is also particularly interesting because Jon Bon Jovi tells us about how love is the bad medicine that he needs. Jon “got lots of money but it isn’t what [he] need[s]” and like our 7 women in the Decameron, they are all rich and come with wealth, but that’s not what they need.
    Maybe this is too much of a stretch? Who knows.

    P.S – Bon Jovi used to be my cup of tea at some point but I’ve moved on.

  5. I would like to point out Boccaccio’s tone in Decameron, mainly on his portrayal of the norm for women and how it was affected by the plague.
    Boccaccio presents women as powerful, with the character of Pampinea being a leader and taking charge of suggesting an adventure, in contrast, to the way society viewed women at the time (1353) the story was written. To give to give a context of how women are stereotyped, Boccaccio addresses ladies, humorously, in the introduction of the play and warning them that the play might be emotionally tough for them to handle. In his words, they might be “subjected [as they read] to endless torrent of tears and sobbing” (pg. 5). Furthermore, he points out the stereotype of women not being able to pursue love out of “fear or shame” (pg 2). He makes his stance of solidarity for women clear when he writes that he intends “to provide succor and diversion for the ladies….who are in love” (pg 3). Although excludes himself from the stereotype, he humorously throws in the expectations for women in his society, which is making use of “needles, their reels and their spindles”(pg 3). It is interesting that this comes in the beginning of the story to provide a context of the norm before the plague destroyed the order of things.

    Boccaccio shows the contrast in Pampinea’s powerful tone to Filomena’s soft and pleading tone. Filomena’s words that “women when left to themselves are not rational creatures” show how women were socialized to think of themselves (p.17) but the plague caused a change in the norm which led to Pampinea’s, a woman’s, ability in making decisions and convincing other women to follow suit.

  6. I think the question about the role of storytelling in Decameron is a really important one to ask, especially as it connects to many of the contagion narratives we have read for this class that include it as a key element.

    If Decameron tells us anything about stories, it is the importance of tell them, whether it is to distract oneself from the death and suffering of the outside world, mitigate survivor’s guilt through escapism, reimagine history, or to use it as a cure to stay well. The point of storytelling in the face of imminent threat of death is that it is a marker of life and civilization. Storytelling in Decameron serves as tool of archival, history and truth. The stories that the various members of the brigata come to tell about themselves, are understood to be true, and used to construct their reality despite the fact that they may have been used for manipulation.

    I agree with you that this narrative framework allows us to understand the public opinion at the time and enhances the understanding of the plague. After all, the brigata themselves understood each other through stories, whether they were true or not remains unquestioned. It is the telling of these stories that shapes our imagination, and creates the “heaven” or “hell” depending on the memories, that even the narrator of Welcome to Our Hillbrow reminds us of as it speaks directly to Refilwe towards the end of the book.

    “Soon you will arrive in Heaven, where you would meet Refentse, Lerato and others. You would share with each other your understanding of what the reality of Heaven is; that what makes it accessible, is that it exists in the imagination of those who commemorate our worldly life. Who, through the stories that they tell of us, continue to celebrate or condemn our existence even after we have passed from this Earth” (Welcome to Our Hillbrow, 124)

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