2.52: Late Medieval Literature – The Decameron

The Decameron (subtitle: Prencipe Galeotto) is a collection of 100 novellas by Italian author Giovanni
Boccaccio, probably begun in 1350 and finished in 1353. It is a medieval allegorical work best known for its
bawdy tales of love, appearing in all its possibilities from the erotic to the tragic. Some believe many parts of
the tales are indebted to the influence of The Book of Good Love. Many notable writers such as Chaucer are
said to have drawn inspiration from The Decameron. The title is a portmanteau of two Greek words meaning
“ten” (δέκα déka) and “day” (ἡμέρα hēméra).


The Decameron is structured in a frame narrative, or frame tale. The Decameron played a part in the history of
the novel and was finished by Giovanni Boccaccio in 1351. This work opens with a description of the Bubonic
Plague (Black Death) and leads into an introduction of a group of seven young women and three young men
who fled from Plague ridden Florence for a villa outside of the city walls. To pass the time, each member of the
party tells one story for every one of the ten nights spent at the villa. The Decameron is a distinctive work, in
that it describes in detail the physical, psychological and social effects that the Bubonic Plague had on that part
of Europe. It is also interesting to note that a number of the stories contained within the Decameron would later
appear in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. However, it is unclear as to whether or not Chaucer had known of the

One of the women, Pampinea, is elected Queen for the first day. Each day the company’s previous king/queen
elects who shall succeed them and nominates the theme for the current day’s storytelling. Each day has a new
theme assigned to it except for days 1 and 9: misfortunes that bring a person to a state of unexpected happiness;
people who have achieved an object they greatly desired, or recovered a thing previously lost; love stories that
ended unhappily; love that survived disaster; those who have avoided danger; tricks women have played on
their husbands; tricks both men and women play on each other; those who have given very generously whether
for love or another endeavor.

The subtitle is Prencipe Galeotto, which derives from the opening material in which Boccaccio dedicates the
work to ladies of the day who did not have the diversions of men (hunting, fishing, riding, falconry) who were
forced to conceal their amorous passions and stay idle and concealed in their rooms. Thus the book is subtitled
Prencipe Galeotto, that is Galehaut, the go-between of Lancelot and Guinevere, a nod to Dante’s allusion to
Galeotto in “Inferno V”, who was blamed for the arousal of lust in the episode of Paolo and Francesca.
Boccaccio gives introductions and conclusions to each story which describe the days activities before and after
the story-telling. These inserts frequently include transcriptions of Italian folk songs. From the interactions
among tales told within a day (or across multiple days), Boccaccio spins variations and reversals of previous
material to form a cohesive whole which is more than just a collection of stories.


Beyond the unity provided by the frame narrative, Decameron provides a unity in philosophical outlook.
Throughout runs the common medieval theme of Lady Fortune, and how quickly one can rise and fall through
the external influences of the “Wheel of Fortune”. Boccaccio had been educated in the tradition of Dante’s
Divine Comedy which used various levels of allegory to show the connections between the literal events of the
story and the Christian message. However Decameron uses Dante’s model, not to educate the reader but to
satirize this method of learning. The Roman Catholic Church, priests, and religious belief become the satirical
source of comedy throughout. This was part of a wider historical trend in the aftermath of the Black Death
which saw widespread discontent with the church

Many details of the Decameron are infused with a medieval sense of numerological and mystical significance.
For example, it is widely believed that the seven young women are meant to represent the Four Cardinal Virtues
(Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude) and the Three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity). It
is further supposed that the three men represent the classical Greek tripartite division of the soul (Reason, Spirit,
and Lust, see Book IV of Republic). Boccaccio himself notes that the names he gives for these ten characters
are in fact pseudonyms chosen as “appropriate to the qualities of each”. The Italian names of the seven women,
in the same (most likely significant) order as given in the text, are: Pampinea (the flourishing one), Fiammetta
(small flame), Filomena (faithful in love), Emilia (rival), Lauretta (wise, crowned with laurels), Neifile
(cloudy), and Elissa (God is my vow). The men, in order, are: Panfilo (completely in love), Filostrato
(overcome by love), and Dioneo (lustful).

Excerpt from the Decameron

And this pestilence was the more virulent for that, by communication with those who were sick thereof, it gat hold upon the sound, no otherwise than fire upon things dry or greasy, whenas they are brought very near thereunto. Nay, the mischief was yet greater; for that not only did converse and consortion with the sick give to the sound infection of cause of common death, but the mere touching of the clothes or of whatsoever other thing had been touched or used of the sick appeared of itself to communicate the malady to the toucher….

In this sore affliction and misery of our city, the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine, was all in a manner dissolved and fallen into decay, for [lack of] the ministers and executors thereof, who, like other men, were all either dead or sick or else left so destitute of followers that they were unable to exercise any office, wherefore every one had license to do whatsoever pleased him.

It was then (even as we yet see it used) a custom that the kinswomen and she-neighbours of the dead should assemble in his house and there condole with those who more nearly pertained unto him … which usages, after the virulence of the plague began to increase, were either altogether or for the most part laid aside… Few, again, were they whose bodies were accompanied to the church by more than half a score or a dozen of their neighbours, and of these no worshipful and illustrious citizens, but a sort of blood-suckers, sprung from the dregs of the people, who styled themselves pickmen[1] and did such offices for hire …

The condition of the common people (and belike, in great part, of the middle class also) was yet more pitiable to behold, for that these, for the most part retained by hope[2] or poverty in their houses and abiding in their own quarters, sickened by the thousand daily and being altogether untended and unsuccoured, died well nigh all without recourse. Many breathed their last in the open street, whilst other many, for all they died in their houses, made it known to the neighbours that they were dead rather by the stench of their rotting bodies than otherwise; and of these and others who died all about the whole city was full. For the most part one same usance was observed by the neighbours, moved more by fear lest the corruption of the dead bodies should imperil themselves than by any charity they had for the departed; to wit, that either with their own hands or with the aid of certain bearers, whenas they might have any, they brought the bodies of those who had died forth of their houses and laid them before their doors, where, especially in the morning, those who went about might see corpses without number; then they fetched biers and some, in default thereof, they laid upon some board or other. Nor was it only one bier that carried two or three corpses, nor did this happen but once; nay, many might have been counted which contained husband and wife, two or three brothers, father and son or the like…. The consecrated ground sufficing not to the burial of the vast multitude of corpses aforesaid, which daily and well nigh hourly came carried in crowds to every church,—especially if it were sought to give each his own place, according to ancient usance,—there were made throughout the churchyards, after every other part was full, vast trenches, wherein those who came after were laid by the hundred and being heaped up therein by layers, as goods are stowed aboard ship …

I am myself weary of going wandering so long among such miseries; wherefore, purposing henceforth to leave such part thereof as I can fitly, I say that,—our city being at this pass, well nigh void of inhabitants,—it chanced (as I afterward heard from a person worthy of credit) that there foregathered in the venerable church of Santa Maria Novella, one Tuesday morning when there was well nigh none else there, seven young ladies, all knit one to another by friendship or neighbourhood or kinship, who had heard divine service in mourning attire, as sorted with such a season. Not one of them had passed her eight-and-twentieth year nor was less than eighteen years old, and each was discreet and of noble blood, fair of favour and well-mannered and full of honest sprightliness….

Wherefore, in order that we may not, through wilfulness or nonchalance, fall into that wherefrom we may, peradventure, an we but will, by some means or other escape, I know not if it seem to you as it doth to me, but methinketh it were excellently well done that we, such as we are, depart this city, as many have done before us, and eschewing, as we would death, the dishonourable example of others, betake ourselves quietly to our places in the country, whereof each of us hath great plenty, and there take such diversion, such delight and such pleasance as we may, without anywise overpassing the bounds of reason. There may we hear the small birds sing, there may we see the hills and plains clad all in green and the fields full of corn wave even as doth the sea; there may we see trees, a thousand sorts, and there is the face of heaven more open to view, the which, angered against us though it be, nevertheless denieth not unto us its eternal beauties, far goodlier to look upon than the empty walls of our city. Moreover, there is the air far fresher[3] and there at this season is more plenty of that which behoveth unto life and less is the sum of annoys, for that, albeit the husbandmen die there, even as do the townsfolk here, the displeasance is there the less, insomuch as houses and inhabitants are rarer than in the city.

  1. i.e. gravediggers (becchini).
  2. i.e. expectation of gain from acting as tenders of the sick, gravediggers, etc. The word speranza is, however, constantly used by Dante and his follower Boccaccio in the contrary sense of "fear," and may be so meant in the present instance.
  3. Syn. cooler.