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The “Decameron” and the “Book of the Courtier” – a Discovery of Society

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio and the Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione, gave its readers insight into the period and atmosphere in which these two men lived. For Boccaccio, this was the period shortly after the plague of the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century. This was a time in which there was great displeasure and discontentment with the European Church of Rome due to the plague. Likewise, while Castiglione was writing his work, the Roman Catholic Church was going through a crisis with the Protestant Reformation, and Europe was in the thralls of the Renaissance. The themes of The Decameron, published in 1353, surround the discontentment with the religious organization. It also portrayed people of different social classes, as well as genders, join together in their daily lives. Yet, the central theme for Boccaccio is what makes a man worthy of being respected and honored. The Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, sought to determine what made a man the perfect courtier. It also defined place of women in society. The work maintained that though a noble birth, and the trappings that go with it, such as education and social graces, the man of the court must also carry himself in a noble manner. Both works contain a type of morality, or social instruction, one attempts to blend society, while the other focuses more on the upper, noble class. Lastly, while both works place men and women together, The Decameron placed them as equals and explained the evils of those in the elite strata. The Book of the Courtier gave instructions on proper actions and decorum for those same people.

The Decameron follows ten friends, seven of which were women, three who were men, who leave Florence for the countryside in the wake of the Black Death (Boccaccio 5, 10).  Each person took turns telling a story. In total, one hundred stories were published. For ten days, each person told one story a day and each told ten stories apiece. Although the stories involved subjects and persons related to the Roman Catholic Church, they did not portray the Roman Catholic Church in a positive light. In contrast, the stories were whimsical and satirical in nature in relation to the Church and her persons. This was due to the ill will felt toward the Roman Catholic Church because of the recent plague. The Church was not able to control the disease, nor did obedience to Church authorities in relation to the plague appear to alleviate the crisis. The stories mingled peasants, nobles, Jews, monks, thieves, lawyers, pilgrims and servants and more to show the Roman Catholic Church in a whimsical and comedic light.

For Boccaccio, the key for merit and self worth of men was their works and character. Though one might have been born a noble or into wealth, it did not make this person worthy of praise or respect. By using both men and women to tell the stories, he equated intelligence, not by social class or gender, but to the person themselves. Boccaccio allowed the ten friends, both male and female, to mingle together and tell stories to each other on equal terms. Along with this, the friends were shown with equality in their intelligence and life experience. This is not consistent with the European view of the day; women were not equal to men as well as notary intelligent as men.

Throughout the narrative, by using religious figures, who, in the eyes of humanity should be holy and righteous, or in their own right noble, Boccaccio showed that even though one might supposed to be respectable, it did not mean that someone was. The first instance of this is told in the very first story. A man named Ser Cepperallo, who was dying, is able to convince a friar that he was truly a righteous man, and becomes revered as a saint (25). This man was a notary and created fraudulent documents. He willingly gave “false testimony” and enjoyed doing so (27). He asked for a priest so he could give his confession, knowing that he was a sinful man (29). He was able to procure a friar. However, once he began his confession he continued his fraudulent ways (30-36). After he died, many miracles became to be attributed him and he was declared a saint by the people (37).

In another story, Boccaccio showed again how a good man, in the service of the Roman Catholic Church, could be tricked. Along with this, he also told how a man of the Church used this trickery to act in an unrespectable mannor (216). This again showed that just because someone was a nobleman, it did not mean that this man was worthy of his title. A rich man decided to, himself, become a friar (216). Though he was married, he would not engage in carnal acts, in contrast, he would “lecture” his wife on the “life of Christ” (217). He eventually became very good friends with a monk, Dom Felice. In the progression of their friendship, he eventually introduced him to his wife (217). With this introduction, the monk lusted after the friar’s wife and noticed that the wife also lusted after him (217). The monk was able to convince the friar, Puccio, to perform a ritual of penance for forty days in which he would be away from his wife for a set period of time (218-219). He believed that this act of penance would enable him to be received into Paradise (221). While he engaged in this penance, the monk, Dom Felice, and the Friar Puccio’s wife, would engage in sexual activity, right next to the room in which the friar would be conducting his penance (220). The wife was even able to convince her husband, one night when she and the monk caused to much shaking in the floor, that the shaking was caused by her fasting (220). This story not only showed the wiliness and irreverence of someone who was considered to be respectable, but it also showed the ignorance of one who was rich and became a friar. Again, for Boccaccio, just because one was born rich or noble or because one claimed to be righteous and a servant of God, their actions and intelligence could show otherwise. Also, concerning the woman, just as with the ten friends having shared a common and equal ground with their story telling, the wife of the friar shared a common and equal ground in the sexual impropriety. Thus, this elevates her, and her actions, as well as her intelligence by being able to convince her husband, to the level of Dom Felice. Not only did it raise her level of intelligence to the monk’s, but it also raised her level of intelligence above her husband’s.

The Book of the Courtier, by Castiglione, traced the route in which a man became a perfect member of the court, and how a woman became a lady of nobility and how they both should act. Castiglione himself was a courtier, so in essence, by having written this book, he was a primary source and witness to these types of events. Castiglione comprised the work with four imaginary conversations that discussed the manner in which a courtier should act, as well as including a series of letter dedicating his work. The first, second, fourth conversations, or books, discussed what defines a perfect courtier, while the third book addressed what defines the perfect or noble lady. For Castiglione, not only must a man possess noble qualities, but he must also practice these with “a certain nonchalance,” or in his native tongue, sprezzatura (Castiglione 35, 336). Clearly written for the more noble class, the imaginary conversations took place between people such as dukes and the Medici. The Book of the Courtier, is considered to be one of the spyglasses into the court of Renaissance society.

The discussions found within the Book of the Courtier, displayed differences of opinion on what is required of a courtier. Within the narrative, the qualities accounted for perfection continue to build upon each other. In the first book, it is written that the courtier must be a warrior, strong and bold. He should also avoid cowardice (25). However, he should avoid praising himself, and instead, dress himself in the praise of others (27). Next, everything the courtier does should be done with a certain grace (32). Echoing the call for gracefulness, the courtier’s language, both in speaking and writing, both in public and in private, should avoid “faulty” words (38-39). This is illustrated by the example of whether or not it was proper to use the Tuscan language in both written and oral dialogue (40). The morality of the courtier also played a very important role. He should be an “honest and upright man” (55). This includes “prudence, goodness, strength and temperance of mind” (55). The narrative continued to expound that the courtier must be proficient in the arts, such as music and painting (62, 67).

The second book continued were the first finished. Included in this is that a courtier should be a well dressed man (100). Also, the friends he chose should be of the proper sort, and beyond this, the courtier should treat them with respect and properness (103-104). Again, this harkens back to the courtier acting in a graceful manner, and that grace should not be tainted by impropriety. The courtier should not be a drunk, or given to gluttony, nor to any other “evil habit” (113). Also, if the courtier does not have knowledge of a certain topic, he should not try to “win any fame,” but should claim his ignorance, lest he appear foolish and prideful (114).

The third book, or conversation, primarily discussed the role of women in the court and the proper way for them to act. First, the book described how the courtier and the lady of the court had qualities in common, as well as those befitting only a lady. These qualities befitting only a lady of the court included such things as her “manners, words, gestures and bearing” (173). In this, the lady should show “an air of womanly sweetness,” unlike a man being stout, sturdy and manly (173). However, like the courtier, the woman should also have a grace about her actions. Likewise, she should not be arrogant; she should be clever, prudent and should not be vain (173). Though in contrast, for the lady, beauty is more important (173-174). Also, she should have been able to entertain and converse intelligently with a man, yet at the same time not seem to overcome the man at court (174). Ironically, Castiglione, like Boccaccio, used the Roman Catholic Church, particularly its friars, to elaborate on women. By this, women were contrasted with the hypocrisy of the friars of the day (186). Certain women were placed above those men, such as the Virgin Mary, Octavia, Porcia, Caia Caelia, and Harmonia (186, 188-189). Castiglione noted that, though not equal to men, by their virtue they rose above lesser men who had no virtue.

Both The Decameron and The Book of the Courtier gave glimpses into the society of their day. While The Decameron showed a picture of simple equality between both social classes and gender, The Book of the Courtier, though seemingly egalitarian in ways, further divided society. Boccaccio, through the telling of stories by both men and woman, brought gender together. Likewise, by showing the persons of the Roman Catholic Church in the light that he did, he showed that all men and women were merely human. To be respectable, one does not need to be a noble, a cardinal, a king, or a monk; one simply needed to act in a virtuous manner. In contrast, Castiglione gave a glimpse into the life of the princely court of the Renaissance. Yes, both men and women had roles, and yes, the required virtues were similar. However, there was a stark contrast in responsibility and graceful manner. A man was supposed to be strong, the courtiers being required to be a man of war, yet graceful. A woman was to be strong and intelligent, yet never outshining the man, especially the lord of the court. Further, simply being a man was not enough. One must have had to possess noble qualities; in fact, being nobility itself was a requirement. In conclusion, the observation is that, in tragedy, such as the plague of the Black Death, men and women, peasant and noble, come together to cope with the crisis. Again, in contrast, tragedy has passed, and humanity had the ability to rest and enjoy themselves, as in the Renaissance, classes become distinct, and gender once again began to determine one’s role in society.

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  1. Billah
    September 4, 2014 at 1:41 am

    Good essay but you don’t really go into how pornographic the Decameron is. In the one hundred stories it contains, there are many dozens of often explicitely described couplings. What sexual act does not take place within the pages of the Decameron? My only problem with this book is that on several pages it condones domestic violence like in the stories of when Calandrino collects the black rocks at Mugnogne and when the two men go to see King Solomon. Admittedly, Calandrino’s wife Tessa does later mercilessly beat him in turn after catching him in bed with Nicolosa (?). Calandrino’s stories with his “friends” Bruno and Bufalmacco are just hilarious, but in a base 14th century sort of way.

    Concerning The Book of the Courtier, the rules that it contains describe how to always be taken seriously and how to quietly impress (sprezzatura) those who come in contact with you wherever you go. These rules all serve one perfectly well in the present day and the book is, though this sounds silly, a very good guide to how to be cool. It is not just a snapshot of society. It is a guide to how to be a cool person and how to act correctly wherever you go. Everything in this book pertains to the modern day. Just think of what it says about fashion, art, music, or dancing. Baldesar Castiglione was timelessly sophisticated.

    Giovanni Boccacio was a very entertaining Bawd.

  1. November 11, 2011 at 10:11 pm

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