The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 1: Introduction Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Because women are naturally compassionate, Boccaccio worries that the opening of his book will bother the sensitive ladies for whom he wrote it, since it describes the recent outbreak of Bubonic Plague. But this shouldn’t dissuade his audience; rather, the painful beginning will make the ensuing stories much sweeter, just like a steep preceding hike enhances a beautiful view. He can’t avoid it, anyway, since it’s the context that brought the company together.
Boccaccio’s warning to his female readers not only plays on gendered assumptions about females as weak and emotional, but it also capitalizes on the strong medieval association of compassion with women and with noblepersons that will reappear throughout the book. Although Boccaccio claims that he must describe the plague, since it was the circumstance that brought the brigata together, the literary rationale for including it is to increase the contrast between the chaos and disorder of Florence and the idyllic, moderate, and pleasant life the brigata lives in the countryside.
Themes
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The plague comes to Florence in 1348. Some think it’s divine punishment, and others think it’s caused by astrological events. Regardless, it can’t be prevented or prepared for. It is characterized by swollen lymph nodes and bruises. Physicians can’t treat it, either because they don’t understand it well enough or because it is incurable. It passes like wildfire between the sick and the well, even affecting animals. 
The Bubonic Plague did indeed hit Florence in 1348, and if Giovanni Boccaccio didn’t witness it himself from inside the city, he knew people who did. However, his description in the book is drawn from earlier plague narratives. The variety of responses to the plague illustrate how surprising and destabilizing it was for Florentine society.
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Of course, everyone is terrified and tries to avoid catching it. Widespread responses include carrying on normally but using medicinal herbs for protection; forming groups and living quietly and moderately in isolation; living it up, drinking, and partying (which is only possible because so many civil authorities have died that it’s impossible for them to enforce societal rules); and abandoning the city, as if God’s punishment is confined by its walls.
Those Florentines who use the plague as an excuse to abandon moral and civil codes behave excessively, in contrast to those who live quiet and moderate lives (foreshadowing the brigata). Carrying medicinal herbs (or “posies”) was a common, if  unhelpful, practice to ward off the plague.  Giovanni Boccaccio’s humanism is on display in his disdain for people who think of the plague in terms of divine punishment that can be escaped by leaving the city itself.
Themes
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Quotes
When people inevitably fall ill, they are abandoned by everyone: neighbors, relatives, close family members, and servants. Parents even refuse to take care of their sick children. This leads to some morally questionable practices, like male servants taking care of sick noblewomen, who willingly expose their naked bodies to these servants, which probably explains why plague survivors show less chastity than normal.
Fortune’s blindness causes the plague to strike at random, and no one is immune. The chaos and disorder of the plague is highlighted with the images of parents abandoning their children and male servants caring for noblewomen. This latter situation also has gendered overtones of concern over female chastity, which is demonstrated by the sly poke at the female survivors who are particularly promiscuous. And the suggestion that noblewomen would engage in sex with servants raises concerns about maintaining the divisions between the upper and lower classes.
Themes
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Before the plague, female relations and neighbors would gather to mourn a person’s death, while male relations and neighbors would carry the body to the priest for burial. But during the plague, people die alone and un-mourned. Their bodies are carried to the church by the cartload, a new service invented by enterprising members of the lower classes who charge a large fee to haul away corpses. Funeral services are abbreviated, and people are buried in mass graves. 
The total breakdown of social norms, including funeral rituals, continues the theme of chaos and anarchy unleashed by the plague. The novel disease upends the order and moderation that used to characterize society. And once again, gender roles are used to emphasize these shifts: one consequence of the plague is that women aren’t performing their usual roles in mourning any longer.
Themes
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Quotes
Many regular people die in their homes, discovered only when their corpses begin to stink. Neighbors leave victims in the streets to be picked up, carried to the church, and buried in mass funerals. In fact, plague victims are treated with less respect than dead goats. The dead must be buried in mass graves because churches are running out of consecrated ground. People in the countryside aren’t safe either; their suffering is in fact magnified by a lack of doctors and servants. They also neglect their responsibilities, feasting on their livestock instead of tending to their fields.
It’s only now, with an explicit mention of middle-class and poor plague victims, that it becomes clear that the entire description so far has been focused on aristocratic people. The plague is a force that comes for rich and poor, and the fact that no one is immune continues the theme of chaos and anarchy—and a lack of moderation, which is on display just as much among the poor who feast and abandon their social roles as among the rich. The ubiquity of death also points back to the ridiculousness of thinking that leaving the city, as some people did, would provide protection.
Themes
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Between March and July, 100,000 people died. Boccaccio mourns palaces emptied of lords, ladies, and servants; prestigious family lines abruptly ended; riches lost; and the handsome men and charming ladies who died. The more he thinks about what was lost, the sadder he becomes.
Although this number is vastly overstated (the total population of Florence in the 1340s was less than 100,000 according to best estimates), the exaggeration helps to convey the scale of the deaths. In his mourning, Boccaccio uses the “ubi sunt” motif, which asks “where are” the lovely things of the past—in this case, lords, ladies, fine families, and immense wealth.
Themes
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During this chaos, seven ladies bound by kinship and friendship descend on the Church of Maria Novella on a Tuesday morning to pray. They are between the ages of 18 and 27, intelligent, well bred, beautiful, and charming. Boccaccio will give them pseudonyms (based on their character or temperament) to prevent any embarrassment that might arise from naughtiness in their stories. They are Pampinea, Fiammetta, Filomena, Emelia, Lauretta, Neifile, and Elissa.
The level of detail Giovanni Boccaccio uses to describe the ladies of the brigata suggests that they are—or could be—based on real people, but it is only a literary device. The women are clearly not meant to be real people, but are representations of literary, mythological, and cultural ideas. As characters, the ladies of the brigata represent the ideal version of womanhood and aristocratic values.
Themes
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Having met by good fortune, when they’re done praying, Pampinea reminds the other ladies it’s natural to try to preserve their lives. In the city, they can only pray, count corpses, and hope to escape the thugs partying in the streets. Anyone who can has already left Florence, and since total anarchy has engulfed society, she’s afraid. She wonders why they’re still in Florence: do they think they’re somehow immune to harm?
Fortune, having spared these ladies from the plague’s ravages, plays a key role in bringing the brigata together. But because fortune is blind, or at least random, their good luck isn’t guaranteed, and staying in the city would be tempting fate. The vulnerability of women in medieval society to gendered violence creeps into Pampinea’s speech, since one of the reasons to leave is to escape Florentine street thugs. Pampinea’s argument here is essentially humanist, appealing to reason in place of other responses to the plague that have already been described, including religion (fasting, praying), superstition (the use of posies and herbs to ward off illness), or license (using the plague as an excuse to party in the streets). 
Themes
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Quotes
Instead, Pampinea proposes that they leave the city together and in comfort but “without overstepping the bounds of what is reasonable” at a country estate, surrounded by pleasant scenery, fresh air, and fewer corpses. Since their families are all dead or escaped, they have no one to hold them in the city. They can take maidservants to handle their daily needs while they pursue the pleasures and entertainments left in these dark times until the plague ends. It’s better to go away and preserve their honor than to stay and forfeit it.
Pampinea’s plan is to leave the chaos of the city behind so that she and the others can return to living a moderate life, guided by reason rather than superstition or chaos. Bringing their maids to the country invokes class and offers the reminder that although these characters are presented as an ideal to which anyone can aspire, they are still wealthy, aristocratic people. The contrast between the chaotic city and idyllic countryside starts to come into focus here, before the brigata have even left. And, part of the country’s appeal is the ability for the ladies to preserve their chastity, which puts them in contrast to the promiscuous aristocratic women who were waited on by male servants during the height of the plague’s chaos.
Themes
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Most of the other ladies are eager to go, but Filomena urges caution: she’s worried that without male guidance they might quarrel and split up. Elissa agrees, wondering where they can find the right men. Meanwhile, Panfilo, Filostrato, and Dioneo enter the church looking for their lady-loves (who are among the company) because even the terrible plague hasn’t cooled their passion. Pampinea immediately declares fortune has sent just the right men to join the group.
When she worries that the group will fall apart without a strong man to guide them, Filomena expresses a standard medieval antifeminist sentiment, which isn’t softened in the mouth of a woman. And again, fortune intervenes, providing the right number of men to make the group 10—a number representing order, perfection, and completion.
Themes
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Neifile flushes with embarrassment and begs Pampinea to be careful; traveling together might lead to gossip. Filomena retorts that gossip can’t harm a person who lives honestly and has a clear conscience before God. She agrees with Pampinea that fortune seems to be smiling on them. Pampinea invites the trio, and they leave at dawn the next day.  
In the strict world of medieval gender roles, the merest hint of sexual desire—especially for unmarried, aristocratic women like those in the brigata—was grounds for scandal and the kind of ruined reputation they hope to avoid by leaving the city. But since the men, by good fortune, are also noble of character and tied to the women by kinship and affection, the brigata’s arrangement dodges these concerns.
Themes
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Their first stop lies two miles outside of Florence. It’s a palace on a hill surrounded by shrubs, trees, courtyards, gardens, meadows, and wells of cool water. It’s well-stocked, clean, and decked with flowers. Dioneo declares that he’s left his troubles behind in Florence, and Pampinea suggests a system to preserve their happiness: each day they will select a sovereign to decide how they will live. She is unanimously elected first and crowned with laurels. 
The garden—an important symbol in the book—appears almost as soon as the brigata leaves Florence. In their first resting place, the garden is a “hortus conclusus” or enclosed space, which alludes to both the Christian narrative of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary—where the garden is a moral and sacred space symbolizing Mary’s virgin womb—and to medieval romances, where gardens are places for love. The fact that no one appears to be at this villa, yet it is still cleaned and prepared for visitors, highlights the contrast between the chaotic city and the peaceful life of the brigata in the countryside. Not too far from Florence, the brigata is reasserting order and moderation by setting up their own rational court—and because Pampinea represents reason, it’s fitting that she is the first sovereign.
Themes
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Quotes
Pampinea assigns jobs to the servants, commanding them to keep bad news away from the company. They eat a lavish breakfast, play music and dance, then retire for a siesta. Afterwards, Pampinea leads them to a shaded meadow where they find chess and other games. But she decrees that the best way to pass the afternoon is by telling stories—on any topic—because it amuses both the teller and the audience. Turning to Panfilo, she asks him to go first. 
With the election of Pampinea as the first day’s sovereign, the last vestiges of the plague-ravaged world fade away, to be replaced with an idealized vision of a society ruled by friendship and reason. The entertainments that the brigata enjoys on this and all subsequent days are solidly aristocratic, and are underwritten by a class of servants whose work is largely invisible and ignored by the brigata.
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