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Who was the great precursor? Short narratives and tales had existed for centuries in one form or another: think of Scheherazade, Boccaccio’s Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, let alone the bible, subplots in plays and novels, satires, pamphlets, sagas, narrative poems, essays, journalism.

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In this essay, I read the 9th story of the 9th Day—a tale, ostensibly, of Solomonic wisdom—as the negative apotheosis of its narrator, the deeply confused Emilia. After considering the novella itself as a disturbed and disturbing scene of interpretation, leading to the savage beating of an unruly wife, I frame it, by turns, in relation to (1) Emilia’s introduction of the tale as an inverted allegory of female subjugation to patriarchal power; (2) her (largely abdicated) role as queen for a Day of narrative license and incompetence; and (3) her key, if contradictory, appearances throughout the Decameron as a whole, which consistently foreground the unstable relation of the text to medieval traditions of epistemology and gender hierarchy. Emilia and her story of Solomon’s enigmatic advice hold up a mirror, though a dark one indeed, to the conflicted soul of the Decameron itself, by turns celebratory and condemnatory of women, thoughtlessly sensual and deeply reflective in its pleasures, Solomonic both in its commitment to compassionate wisdom and its confinement to the world of the human and the natural, and, above all, incessantly worried over how to re-negotiate the fundamental opposition of Christianity, medieval and Dantean, between the letter that kills and the spirit that saves.

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The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio Essay - Free Essays…

Yet women are also repeatedly defamed in the Decameron. They are “fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, weak, and fearful.” (It is a woman, Filomena, who says this.) They are tirelessly lustful. Strong men may imperil their health by trying to fulfill their sexual demands. So, in order for life to proceed calmly, women must submit to men and, above all, be chaste—the very thing that Boccaccio’s heroines so seldom are. Those who do not obey their husbands should be beaten. (Again, this is a woman speaking.)

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The dominant notes of the Decameron are this realism and cheer and disorderliness, but, whatever you say about the book, something else arises to contradict you. Though Boccaccio insists on Renaissance earthiness, he makes room for elegant medievalisms. The young people often join hands and do the carola, a circle dance born of the Middle Ages. They also, now and then, between tales, deliver long, ornate speeches, full of medieval rhetorical flourishes. You may weary of these refinements and long to get back to the nice, rude tales, but the tension between the two modes is fundamental to the Decameron.

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When he was in his late twenties, they came to an end. Boccaccino had business reverses. He and Giovanni returned to Florence, which, at that time, was the capital of Italian mercantilism. And so, from the exalted realm of court manners and medieval allegory, Boccaccio dropped down into a milieu of calculation and ambition and realism—of merchants, after a day’s work, sitting around the fire at an inn, with their boots on the grate, talking business and trading stories. The young man no doubt recoiled, and then, eventually, he acclimated. Indeed, on the evidence of the Decameron, he came to love this rough-and-tumble world. The majority of the tales are about people of the merchant class, and the skill they most feature is the one most prized by that class, ingegno: cleverness, wit, thinking on your feet. Only on four of the ten days is cleverness the declared theme, but many stories told on the other days are also about that. Boccaccio still liked gentlefolk, especially highborn ladies, with cheeks like roses, but it is in their commentaries on the tales—and, for the most part, only then—that the Decameron becomes boring. The proles are what give the book its richness and humor and vital force.A famous tribute to ingenuity is the story of Peronella, told by Filostrato. Peronella spins wool for a living, and her husband is a stonemason. She is pretty, and soon she has a lover, Giannello. One morning after the husband has gone to work, Peronella and Giannello are enjoying each other’s company when suddenly the husband returns. There is a barrel in the house, and Peronella tells Giannello to hide in it. When the husband enters, she begins loudly berating him:

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Boccaccio was not a noble; he was one of the nuova gente, the mercantile middle class, whose steady rise since the twelfth century the nobles feared and deplored. Boccaccio’s father, Boccaccino di Chellino, was a merchant, and he expected Giovanni to join the trade. Giovanni was born illegitimate, but Boccaccino acknowledged him. When the boy was thirteen, Boccaccino moved from Florence to Naples to work for an important counting house, and he took his son with him, to learn the business: receive clients, oversee inventory, and the like. Boccaccio did not enjoy this work, and so his indulgent father paid for him to go to university, to study canon law. Boccaccio didn’t like that, either, but during this time he read widely. (The Decameron is, unostentatiously, a very learned book.) He also began to write: romances in verse and prose, mostly. With those literary credits, plus his father’s contacts, he gained entry to Naples’s Angevin court, whose refinements seeped into his work. He later said that he had never wanted to be anything but a poet. In Naples, he became one, of the late-medieval stripe. These were the happiest years of his life.