She Doesn’t Protest

Colin Burrow

In Florence in 1348, shortly after two of its biggest banks collapsed because the English king had defaulted on a loan, roughly two-thirds of the population died of the Black Death. Egg-shaped buboes swelled up in the victims’ armpits or groins, and then black bruising spread across their bodies. According to Giovanni Boccaccio, whose father and stepmother died during the outbreak, the disease was so infectious that pigs who nuzzled the discarded clothing of the dead began instantly to writhe in agony, and then dropped down dead. The healthy fled the sick, and some, in the words of the first complete English translation of the Decameron from 1620, ‘lived as separatists from all other company’ – or in the flatter style of the most recent version, ‘kept clear of everyone else’.

Boccaccio’s Decameron was compiled in the aftermath of this plague. The book – ten days of storytelling which outgo the six-day narrative of the Creation, the hexameron – consists of a hundred novelle about cuckolds, randy friars, acquisitive merchants, foolish painters and lascivious abbesses, with the odd tale of shipwreck, tragic love or noble love thrown in. They are related by a merry band of ten young Florentines who meet during the plague in a church appropriately called Santa Maria Novella and decide to leave the city, its thieves and its dying friars, and gather in the Tuscan countryside.

The novelle which they relate have sources and analogues in a variety of genres: French fabliaux, highfalutin romances, novellini or tiny tales, as well as Dante and Ovid. The stories rebuild the relationships, scams and interconnections – literary, economic, sexual – which hold the normal world together, and range in setting from the back streets of Florence to Constantinople and beyond. Boccaccio spent his early years in Naples, where he worked for the Florentine Bardi bank until around 1341. The Angevin kings of Naples gave a French slant to its culture. They also allowed merchants and bankers from Genoa, Pisa and Florence regular access to the court and its libraries. In Naples Boccaccio could spend his days with those who travelled and traded throughout the Mediterranean basin, and also mingle with scholars and noblemen at court. This milieu generated the extraordinarily fluid social commerce of the Decameron. Classes mix through trade and sex. Vagrants drift to Candia (the old name for Heraklion); exiles have dealings with the sultan; the implausibly beautiful lady Alatiel finds no fewer than nine lovers, from merchants to princes, in locations ranging from Majorca to Smyrna. There are even brief glimpses of Northern Europe. The fortunes of three spendthrift brothers are revived when their agent meets a helpful abbot who turns out to have ‘two round and firm and tender little breasts’, and who reveals herself to be the daughter of the king of England.

The Decameron is full of rumpy-pumpy – that’s what we know about it. A man pretends to be deaf and dumb so that a whole convent can sleep with him without fear of discovery. A woman persuades her husband to get into a tub and clean it out. As she leans over the side to yell at him, her younger lover ‘satisfied his youthful ardour’ in ‘the same manner as wild horses on the broad fields of Parthia’. A hermit shows an innocent girl the ‘resurrection of the flesh’, and claims that his penis is the Devil and that the Devil needs to be put back in Hell, which is to be found in a predictable place. A con artist disguises himself as the angel Gabriel in order to seduce a gullible citizen’s wife.

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