cover for Penguin Books' Little Black Classics No. 01 - Mrs. Rosie and the Priest by Giovanni Boccaccio

“Bawdy tales of pimps, cuckolds, lovers and clever women from the fourteenth-century Florentine masterpieceThe Decameron

Embarking on a quest to read all 80 of the “Little Black Classics” published by Penguin Books, I did not expect such a lewd and crude opening. Familiar with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron by name only, I did not have a great idea what to expect. I knew Boccaccio to be a renowned Italian author, and the Decameron to be one of the greatest works of early Italian literature.

Raucous tales of prostitutes, lascivious priests, and runaway wives were not at all what I anticipated. That’s not to say that these novellas by Giovanni Boccaccio were not entertaining, but they are a bold choice to begin a series of classic literature. Take heed future writers, sexual innuendo and tales of pimps and whores will not prevent your work from achieving praise throughout space nor time. Here I am, over 600 years since Boccaccio’s passing, giggling at his metaphorical use of a mortar and pestle to discuss the relationship between a certain Mrs. Rosie and her priest.

Context

The Decameron was written by Boccaccio in the 14th century, and is set in a secluded villa outside of Florence. Staying in the villa for two weeks, 7 women and 3 men were seeking refuge from the Black Death plague which was wreaking havoc throughout European cities at the time. To occupy their time, and to distract themselves from the horrors without, the refugees decide that each night, all 10 of them will tell a story to the group. In the course of a fortnight, the group takes one day off each week for chores, and one day each week off to observe the holy days – thus leaving 10 days of story-telling and 100 total tales. For those interested in etymology, “Decameron” is derived from the Greek deka(“ten”) and heméra(“day”), leaving us with a title which can be roughly translated to “Ten Days”. Words are fun.

Each day the tales focus on a different subject ranging from tales of love that end well, tales of love that end tragically, tales of virtue, stories of the tricks people play on each other, and so on. Boccaccio’s format includes a brief introduction and conclusion to each day, and also revisits material from previous nights. In doing so, Boccaccio is able to create something that is more than just a collection of short stories.

In addition to the entertainment value, The Decameron provides unparalleled insight into 14th century Italy. Written in a time where the feudal system was giving way to a more urban society centered on mercantilism, Boccaccio’s tales allow the reader to understand the predominant ethical values of the time. One of the stories that was featured in the Little Black Classics collection,  Andreuccioda Perugia’s Neapolitan adventures, is a classic story of a man from a small city traveling to a big city and getting duped. In it, we follow the titular character, a merchant who seriously lacks business sense, as he attempts to navigate the bustling markets of Naples.

Summary

There are four short stories included in this collection, and I’m certain that all of them will upset you in some way.  Andreuccioda Perugia’s Neapolitan adventureswas the story that I most enjoyed reading since it doesn’t involve a young girl marrying an old man, or a king tormenting his wife to see how patient she is (he had good intentions).

The main character, Andreuccio ventures into Naples looking to exchange his 500 gold florins for some quality horses. A remnant of feudal society unused to big cities and mercantile exchange,  Andreuccio speaks openly about the amount of money he has and is willing to part with and is overhead by a crafty Sicilian woman. She proceeds to lure him into her home under the guise of being a long-lost sister of his. Fooled by her ruse, Andreuccio lets his guard down and becomes even more dimwitted by the intoxication of alcohol. He manages to lose both his 500 gold florins and his clothing as he stumbles from an upper-level of the house, and into a pile of shite. Dismayed, Andreuccio wanders the streets of Naples searching for a place to bath himself when he runs into a pair of criminals who offer him a role in their heist, promising a fortune to be made. Naturally, our friend Andreuccio goes along with them which leads to him being trapped and abandoned in two instances – once in a well and once in the tomb of a freshly deceased archbishop. Proving that it is better to be lucky than smart, Andreuccio manages to get out of each predicament unharmed. In fact, he somehow comes away with a valuable gold ring. Relating his story to his fellow merchants the next morning, Andreuccio is advised to leave Naples immediately. “He quickly did so and returned to Perugia, with his funds now invested in a ring, after having set out to do some horse-trading.”

It’s a strange story, but it is entertaining. While I’m not sure if I’ll add it to my list of must-read classical literature, these short stories allow readers to connect with 14th century Italy in a way that history books do not allow for. Rough around the edges, these stories show the humanity of the people of the time and remind us that we are not so different today.

Final Thoughts

What makes these stories fun to read, is the fact that they are easy to relate to, despite being from a distance place in a time long ago. Without understanding much about the culture in which Boccaccio lived, the reader is able to  experience the ideas, values, and even humor of Italy in the 14th century – in the midst of the Black Death no less. Readers can relate to these stories, but also have the opportunity to read about the different qualities and morals that were favorable in a past time. Written in a time of transition, much of what seems commonplace about city life or commercialism would have been less well-known and understood than it is to someone reading these stories today. It makes me wonder which of our values today will endure for over 600 years. Which aspects of our lives will seem backwards or cruel to future readers of the stories written today?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.