The Decameron  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
The Decameron is a collection of 100 novellas by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, probably begun in 1350 and finished in 1353. It is a medieval allegorical work best known for its bawdy tales of love, appearing in all its possibilities from the erotic to the tragic. Other topics such as wit and moral degeneracy of the clergy and worldly initiation also form part of the mosaic. Many notable writers such as Shakespeare and Chaucer are said to have borrowed from The Decameron. Tzvetan Todorov used the Decameron as the basis for the Grammar of the Decameron (1969), an exploration of the general structure of all narrative.

Literary sources and influence of the Decameron

The compelling way in which the tales were written and their almost exclusively Renaissance flair made the stories from the Decameron an irresistible source that many later writers borrowed from. Notable examples include:

  • The famous first tale (I, 1) of the notorious Saint Ciappelletto was later translated into Latin by Olimpia Fulvia Morata and translated again by Voltaire. Molière later drew upon the latter translation to create the title character of Tartuffe.
  • Martin Luther retells tale I, 2, in which a Jew converts to Catholicism after visiting Rome and seeing the corruption of the Catholic hierarchy. However, in Luther's version (found in his "Table-talk #1899"), Luther and Philipp Melanchthon try to dissuade the Jew from visiting Rome.
  • The ring parable is at the heart of both Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1779 play Nathan the Wise and tale I, 3. In a letter to his brother on August 11 1778, he says explicitly that he got the story from the Decameron. Jonathan Swift also used the same story for his first major published work, A Tale of a Tub.
  • Posthumus's wager on Imogen's chastity in Cymbeline was taken by Shakespeare from an English translation of a fifteenth century German tale, "Frederyke of Jennen", whose basic plot came from tale II, 9.
  • Both Molière and Lope de Vega from tale III, 3 to create plays in their respective vernaculars. Molière wrote L'ecole de maris in 1661 and Lope de Vega wrote Discreta enamorada.
  • Tale III, 9, which Shakespeare converted into All's Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare probably first read a French translation of the tale in William Painter's Palace of Pleasure.
  • John Keats borrowed the tale of Lisabetta and her pot of basil (IV, 5) for his poem, Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.
  • Lope de Vega also used parts of V, 4 for his play No son todos ruiseñores (They're Not All Nightingales).
  • Tale V, 9 became the source for works by two famous nineteenth century writers in the English language. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used it in his "The Falcon of Ser Federigo" as part of Tales of a Wayside Inn in 1863. Alfred, Lord Tennyson used it in 1879 for a play entitled The Falcon.
  • Molière also borrowed from tale VII, 4 in his George Dandin, ou le Mari Confondu (The Confounded Husband). In both stories the husband is convinced that he has accidentally caused his wife's suicide.
  • The motif of the three trunks in The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare is found in tale X, 1. However, both Shakespeare and Boccaccio probably came upon the tale in Gesta Romanorum.
  • At his death Percy Bysshe Shelley had left a fragment of a poem entitled "Ginevra", which he took from the first volume of an Italian book called L'Osservatore Fiorentino. The earlier Italian text had a plot taken from tale X, 4.
  • Tale X, 5 shares its plot with Chaucer's "The Franklin's Tale", although this is not due to a direct borrowing from Boccaccio. Rather, both authors used a common French source.
  • The tale of patient Griselda (X, 10) was the source of Chaucer's "Clerk's Tale." However, there are some scholars that believe Chaucer may not have been directly familiar with the Decameron, and instead derived it from a Latin translation/retelling of that tale by Petrarch.
  • Christine De Pizan often restructures tales from Decameron in her work "City of Ladies"
  • Tale IV, 1 was reabsorbed into folklore to appear as Child ballad 269, Lady Diamond.
  • Tzvetan Todorov used the Decameron as the basis for the Grammar of the Decameron (1969), an exploration of the general structure of all narrative.

Boccaccio, in turn, borrowed the plots of almost all of his stories. Although he only consulted French, Italian, and Latin sources, some of the tales have their ultimate origin in such far-off lands as India, Persia, Spain, and other places. Moreover, some were already centuries old. For example, part of the tale of Andreuccio of Perugia (II, 5) originated in second century Ephesus (in the Ephesian Tale). The frame narrative structure (though not the characters or plot) originates from the Panchatantra, which was written in Sanskrit before 500 AD and came to Boccaccio through a chain of translations that includes Old Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. Even the description of the central current event of the narrative, the Black Plague (which Boccaccio surely witnessed), is not original, but based on the Historia gentis Langobardorum of Paul the Deacon, who lived in the eighth century.

Some scholars have suggested that some of the tales for which there is no prior source may still have not have been invented by Boccaccio, but may have been circulating in the local oral tradition and Boccaccio may have just happened to be the first person that we know of to record them. Boccaccio himself says that he heard some of the tales orally. In VII, 1, for example, he claims to have heard the tale from an old woman who heard it as a child.

However, just because Boccaccio borrowed the storylines that make up most of the Decameron doesn't mean he mechanically reproduced them. Most of the stories take place in the fourteenth century and have been sufficiently updated for the author's time that a reader may not know that they had been written centuries earlier or in a foreign culture. Also, Boccaccio also often combined two or more unrelated tales into one (such as in II, 2 and VII, 7).

Moreover, many of the characters actually existed, such as Giotto di Bondone, Guido Cavalcanti, Saladin and King William II of Sicily. Scholars have even been able to verify the existence of less famous characters, such as the tricksters Bruno and Buffalmacco and their victim Calandrino. Still other fictional characters are based on real people, such as the Madonna Fiordaliso from tale II, 5, who is derived from a Madonna Flora that lived in the red light district of Naples. Boccaccio often intentionally muddled historical (II, 3) and geographical (V, 2) facts for his narrative purposes. Within the tales of the Decameron the principle characters are usually developed through their dialogue and actions so that by the end of the story they seem real and their actions logical given their context.

Another of Boccaccio's frequent techniques was to make already existing tales more complex. A clear example of this is in tale IX, 6, which was also used by Chaucer in his "The Reeve's Tale", but more closely follows the original French source than does Boccaccio's version. In the Italian version the host's wife (in addition to the two young male visitors) occupy all three beds and she also creates an explanation of the happenings of the evening. Both elements are Boccaccio's invention and make for a more complex version than either Chaucer's version or the French source (a fabliau by Jean de Boves).

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Decameron" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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