Boccaccio confesses that he was tormented by love in his youth; it was painful because his emotions were overpowering, even though the lady he loved wasn’t cruel. Back then, his friends could alleviate his pain by keeping him company. Now that God has reduced Boccaccio’s love to a manageable level, he feels more pleasure than pain.
Giovanni Boccaccio, the author of The Decameron, places himself in the book as the recorder of the tales. In this capacity, he writes a prologue, an epilogue, and an authorial aside at the beginning of Day IV to defend his stories. The character of “Boccaccio” should not be confused with the author Boccaccio, and may or may not fully represent his viewpoints and ideas. At the very beginning of the book, Boccaccio introduces two of its main themes: love and moderation. The torments Boccaccio describes undergoing when he was in love are classical descriptions of lovesickness as it was portrayed in medieval literature. And the overpowering love that can make a person sick is, by definition, an example of immoderation.
Boccaccio, remembering the kindness shown to him while he was lovesick, plans to show his gratitude by offering solace and instruction to others, especially women, since they are more vulnerable to being hurt by love. He suggests that they tend to hide their feelings dangerously, and, because they are under the authority of parents and male relatives, they’re often confined to idleness, even though excessive solitude encourages love to turn into melancholy.
Boccaccio sets himself up here as an author and an authority—ideas that were closely associated in the Middle Ages. He also gestures towards the differing social expectations of men and women. Love preys on the idle, who don’t have a lot of distraction to fill up their time, because endlessly ruminating on the object of one’s affections tends to increase feelings of love and to make the experience more painful. And women, confined physically and by social expectations, are particularly susceptible to imbalanced emotional reactions, such as melancholy. Medieval descriptions of melancholy, which is often associated with love, are like 21st-century understandings of depression.
Men in love travel, socialize, hunt, play games, or work to avoid melancholy, since mental engagement relieves love’s suffering. But Boccaccio thinks that female hobbies—sewing, weaving, spinning—aren’t distracting enough. In this way, fortune is unfair, subjecting women to greater lovesick suffering while providing them less access to therapeutic distractions. Boccaccio will tell one hundred stories to distract lovesick ladies and give them useful advice.
Boccaccio draws on the handbooks of fin’amors (refined love) to describe the various cures for lovesickness, which include recreational distraction. Again, social expectations separate men, who have a great deal of freedom, from women, who don’t have as much access to therapeutic distractions. This is also the introduction of fortune as an independent force in the book. In medieval literature and thought, “Fortuna” is a goddess-like force who hands out good and bad circumstances to people essentially at random.