Boccaccio addresses the “noble young ladies” for whom he labored to write this book. With God’s help, he believes that he’s met his goal, and the time has come for him to rest his “pen and weary hand.” But before signing off, he will answer “certain trifling objections” that might be in his readers’ minds.
Boccaccio’s justifications and rebuttals for his work in the Epilogue parallel those he offered in the Introduction to Day 4.
First, some might say that Boccaccio has made the company’s ladies hear and say less-than-virtuous things. However, he claims, nothing told in polite language can be improper. And, even if some stories were inappropriate, redacting them would have changed their character. But, back to language, he says that plain words like “hole, and rod, and mortar, and pestle, and crumpet, and stuffing” are used every day without anyone getting upset. Artists show saints’ swords and lances in action, and Christ is pierced by one nail—or two!—when he’s depicted on the cross. Nor were the stories told in a church, which would require chastity and purity (although there’s a lot of scandal in church chronicles, too!), or in a school. They were told by respectable and level-headed young people in gardens, places designed for pleasure.
Boccaccio’s basic argument is that his tales, meant to entertain as well as teach, haven’t exceeded the bounds of propriety. However, this depends on how one defines propriety, and so he accordingly takes the narrowest definition possible. He explores a string of double entendres to claim that all the words he’s used in the book are themselves polite and proper—never mind that they can all be used to suggest various impolite actions and unmentionable body parts. Boccaccio has a tongue-in-cheek attitude that borders on blasphemous when he describes the way Christ is pierced by nails in artwork. He references a shift in depictions of the crucified Christ that happened in the 13th century from one nail in each foot to both feet being pierced by one nail. More importantly, however, a dirty mind could read the nails as symbolic in their penis-like shape, and Boccaccio’s comments here are clearly meant to suggest such a blasphemous idea to his readers. As in the example of Christ’s nails, the meaning of the polite words he claims to have scrupulously used has always been clear from their context. Finally, Boccaccio invokes the gardens in which the tales were told. Throughout The Decameron (as in medieval literature generally), gardens are not just places where love is at home, but they are outside of the normal boundaries of society. They are thus fitting settings for tales that flirt with excess (although they always rebalance themselves) and push on the boundaries of social, religious, and political boundaries.
The help or harm of stories, like everything else in the world, depends on the context. Wine is good for the healthy but harmful to the feverish; fire provides warmth, but sometimes destroys homes or cities. Corrupt minds will corrupt pure words, but unseemly language cannot contaminate a well-ordered mind. If even the Bible can be wrongly interpreted, anyone who wants to get “evil counsel” from Boccaccio’s tales will succeed—but only by twisting and distorting them. On the other hand, if read by the proper audience, they will render no evil. And anyway, the stories can’t force themselves on anyone; whoever reads them reads at his or her own risk.
Boccaccio’s argument leans on the idea of balance and excess. He claims that almost nothing is good or bad in itself. A warm hearth is differentiated from a blazing housefire by the amount of the fire, not by some essential difference in the flames themselves. By implication, he claims that his tales are essentially balanced, and that any imbalance lies in the eyes of the beholder. Thus he places responsibility for finding good or bad advice in the tales on the reader’s choices.
Boccaccio answers those who think he should have omitted some of the stories with the conceit that he merely transcribed the company’s tales as they were told. And if they have imperfections, so does everything else, since no one but God can make things perfectly. Whenever many things are collected, their quality will vary, and his stories aren’t an exception. The reader can read what they like and skip the rest. Likewise, anyone who thinks tales are too long shouldn’t be wasting time reading tales at all. The collection was specifically designed for ladies with time on their hands; brevity may be good for students but not noble ladies.
Boccaccio also maintains the fiction that these aren’t his stories but rather the tales told by the members of the brigata (even though he never places himself in the group or explains how he was able to overhear them). But this serves to further distance him from any criticism, since it in effect claims that the tales aren’t really his. Designing the work for ladies with leisure time has both gender and class implications: as he mentioned in the Prologue, women suffer more from the pain of unrequited love because they don’t have the ability to go out and engage in distracting activities. And the women with leisure to read a book like The Decameron—Boccaccio’s target audience—are aristocratic ladies who don’t need to earn their own living.
Some people might think the tales too quippy and humorous. Maybe a man of “weight and gravity” should attend to more serious matters, but Boccaccio has no gravity. And when even priests add quips and jokes to their sermons, there doesn’t seem to be any harm in humorous stories. Speaking of the clergy, rather than having an “evil and venomous tongue,” Boccaccio notes that he’s only told “the truth about friars,” those decent fellows who forsake lives of “discomfort,” grind when the mill-pond is full, and maybe smell a bit like billy-goats.
As at the beginning of Day 4, Boccaccio disregards critics who accuse him of frivolity. Writing in Italian (instead of in Latin) and including humorous stories as well as serious ones are both political statements about the power and importance of entertainment that is accessible to a broader audience (even though Boccaccio still clearly imagines that aristocratic ladies are his primary readers). And he offers a defense of his anticlerical satire, even though much of it was standard medieval fare.
Granting that things in this world are unstable and liable to change, Boccaccio affirms that he was recently told by a lady that he had the “finest and sweetest tongue in the world,” and since he was almost done with the tales at that point, he concludes that he must have written them quite well indeed. So, he will take her opinion and ignore those of people who want to spite him. Leaving each reader to believe about his skill what they please, Boccaccio offers humble thanks to God for the strength to complete his task and commends his readers to God.
In the final lines of The Decameron, Boccaccio can’t help but sneak in one final double entendre: when his neighbor lady compliments his sweet tongue, it’s almost certainly meant in a sexual context, but he also presents her words as confirmation that he has a special gift for telling stories (in other words, a golden tongue or a gift for language). With such praise, Boccaccio can blithely ignore any of his critics.