McMurdo’s Camp

Boccacio’s Decameron

Book Report: ‘Boccacio’s Decameron’  (STUD) 

Another trifling monograph by MEW

In A Study in Scarlet (STUD), it is declared that the first murder victim, E.J. Drebber, had a copy of Giovanni Boccacio’s The Decameron in his pocket.

The book did not belong to him, but was borrowed from his secretary, Joseph Stangerson, whose name was clearly written upon the flyleaf.

Today, The Decameron, believed to have been written between 1350-53, is considered a towering monument of medieval pre-Renaissance writing, one that inspired Chaucer, Keats and Shakespeare. It is considered a must-read for all literary scholars.

But not so long ago, it also fell foul of censors because of its many racy tales of free sex and its bawdy jokes.


The Decameron is a combination of two Greek words meaning Ten Days, and it tells the story of 10 young Florentines – seven young women and three young men – who escape the Black Plague by fleeing to the country and spending the time telling each other stories.

The book was banned in 1497 and 1559 in Italy and – believe it or not – in the U.S. from 1926-1931. It was seized by Detroit police in 1934 and banned in Boston in 1935.

What prompted the censorship and outrage?

For one thing, the book didn’t moralize or gloss over licentiousness among the clergy.

There is a story about a monk and an abbot sharing the same girl and a group of nuns all sharing the gardener.

There is a story about a wife sleeping with another man as revenge for her husband doing the same thing and a spate of spouse swapping. Its topics also included practical jokes and worldly initiations.

Employing this book as a device may have been The Literary Agent’s way of casting aspersion on the moral character of the two murder victims.

One can, perhaps, see Drebber and Sanderson of an evening, reading Boccacio’s bawdy bits aloud to each other and laughing uproariously, much as modern men may hoot over the latest Playboy farce.

Here are a few more details that may cast light on why these two gentlemen’s taste in literature may have encouraged Drebber to become so “free and familiar” with Madame Charpentier’s daughter.

– The subtitle is Prencipe Galeotto, or Galehaut (Galahad), the go-between of Lancelot and Guinevere, with a nod to Dante‘s allusion to Galeotto in “Inferno V.” Galeotto was blamed for the arousal of lust in the episode of Paolo and Francesca.

Boccaccio explains this subtitle as a dedication to ladies of the day for not having the diversions of men (hunting, fishing, riding, falconry). Instead, they were forced to conceal their amorous passions and stay idle in their rooms.

– The book contains 100 stories. Each of the 10 characters is charged as King or Queen of the company for one of the ten days in turn.

This charge extends to choosing the theme of the stories for that day, and all but two days have topics assigned: Examples are the power of fortune; the power of human will; love that ends tragically; love that ends happily; clever replies that save the speaker; tricks that women play on men; tricks that people play on each other; and even examples of virtue.

– 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) as in Book IV of Plato’s Republic

– Boccaccio borrowed the plots of almost all of his stories from such far-flung sources as France, Italy, India, Persia, Spain and elsewhere. Some were already centuries old.

Boccacio himself said he’d heard some of the tales orally.

While not original, he does put his own unique spin on them.

Some examples:

Tale Four, First Day

A young monkseduces a young woman and is secretly observed by an elder abbot. The monk, learning he has been seen, leaves on pretense of finishing a task and gives the key to his room to the abbot. The girl seduces the abbot while the concealed monk watches it all, thus using his knowledge to avert prosecution. The monk and abbot rush the woman out of the monastery – but often bring her back in.

Dioneo, the most bawdy of the storytellers, narrates this tale. The earliest surviving source is in Cento Novelle Antiche, an Italian compilation of short stories from the end of the 13th century. Boccaccio also may have garnered it from French fabliau, “L’Evesque qui benit sa maitresse” (“The bishop who blesses his mistress”).

Tale Seven, Second Day

The Sultan of Babylon sends a daughter, Alatiel, overseas, designing to marry her to the King of Algarve. By diverse adventures she comes in the space of four years into the hands of nine different men. At last she is restored to her father, whom she quits again in the guise of a virgin, and, as was at first intended, is married to the King of Algarve.

This scandalous tale is told by Panfilo. There is no agreement on its origin, probably because of the very eclectic nature of the plot, which may have been pieced together from various sources by Boccaccio. Some suggest “One Thousand and One Nights” or the Ephesian Tale may have given some inspiration, but this is unproven.

Tale One, Third Day

A groom lies with the wife of King Agilulf, who learns of it and shears the groom to mark him. The groom shears all his fellows and so comes safe out of the scrape.

Pampinea’s clever tale originates in either a Sanskrit story from the fourth century AD, or The Histories of Herodotus, however, Boccaccio’s version is unique in that the husband preserves both his honor and that of his wife, an emphasis on “keeping up appearances” that is distinct of the Renaissance merchant class, to which Boccaccio belonged.

1 Comment »

  1. Until this post piqued my curiosity, I had no idea what an expansive time-frame the phrase “banned in Boston” involved. All right, if a city founded by Puritans is still trying to ban books in 1965, then I guess the epithet “Puritanical” does actually have an excuse to be in the modern lexicon.

    Comment by Black Cloister — September 13, 2011 @ 1:29 am

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