Giovanni Boccaccio's "The Decameron" and the Roles of Men and Women

By Sujay Kulshrestha
2010, Vol. 2 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

In the society that Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron is set in, women generally are held in a lower social standing than men. As with most societies until relatively recently in history, women were not allowed to have a significant role in society, other than that of a wife and mother. In The Decameron, Boccaccio demonstrates that while they may not have significant social standing, women do have an upper hand in most aspects of the male-female relationship. Although the one hundred stories deal with an array of topics, when Boccaccio compares men and women, it appears that he favors women as the better sex in terms of both good and evil. When examining stories where Boccaccio details male-female relationships, it emerges that women are stronger, more lustful, and more cunning. Furthermore, in the instances where the male character appears to triumph or surpass the woman, men usually achieve victory through underhanded means. Overall, it is fair to say that Boccaccio does portray women as outshining men in many respects−some positive, and some negative.

Boccaccio portrays women in The Decameron as being hardier than men. While this trait is not as prevalent throughout the stories, Boccaccio demonstrates that women tolerate more adversity than men do. This increased tolerance for adversity may stem from a basic lack of options: if women are facing some sort of hardship, they have no power to try to eliminate their problems. As a result, women typically endure large amounts of hardship. Boccaccio most emphasizes this increased tolerance in the story involving the Marquis of Sanluzzo, Gualtieri, and his bride Griselda. In the story, Gualtieri’s vassals coerce him to choose a woman for a bride−Gualtieri decides to choose Griselda, a poor young girl of lower-class birth.  To prove her worth, Gualtieri decides to test her: calling her names, leading her to believe he murdered her children, and even divorcing her and remarrying (791-96). Throughout all of these tribulations, Griselda maintains a calm demeanor and simply acquiesces to all of Gualtieri’s absurd demands; even the vassals that once doubted her background and character now laud her for her saintly patience. Griselda’s patience comes back to reward her in the end−Gualtieri acknowledges her virtuous behavior and declares that she has passed his test−but not before the audience comes to understand that Griselda, and by extension women, can tolerate more hardships than men. One can see that Boccaccio’s extensive detailing of Gualtieri’s unwarranted and cruel acts towards Griselda serve to underline the notion that women can tolerate more adversity than men can. As a result, the audience finds it easy to believe that Boccaccio feels that women can accept more difficulties than men.

One theme common to both sexes in The Decameron is their overt sexuality. Many of Boccaccio’s stories deal with sexual relationships and members of both sexes are portrayed as perpetually sexually aroused−many stories deal with affairs and other illicit relationships. However, while both sexes are portrayed as being sexual creatures, Boccaccio’s stories emphasize the striking imbalance between the male and female desire for lust. Boccaccio demonstrates that women are significantly more sexual than men, many of the stories told in The Decameron center around female lust. For example, on the Third Day Filostrato tells the story of a young man, Masetto, who learns of a job as a gardener in a convent. Learning that part of the job's responsibility is sexually satisfying the nuns of the convent, Masetto pretends to be deaf in an attempt to trick the abbess into hiring him, foolishly believing that his lust surpasses that of an entire convent filled with nuns. However, Masetto gets more than he bargains for: he ends up being the sole sexual outlet for a convent full of nuns. This overt amount of sexual desire overwhelms Masetto: “I can’t stand it any me go, in God’s name” (199). It is apparent from Masetto’s outburst that he no longer foolishly believes that his lust can counter the lust of the entire convent−he pleads with the abbess to be let go.

Dioneo's telling of the story of Alibech and Rustico further demonstrates the abundance of female sexual lust on the third day. Rustico, giving in to his desire for lust, deceives Alibech into thinking that if they have sex, Alibech will be “putting the devil back into hell” (279). With time, Dioneo details the effects of Rustico’s deception−Alibech becomes insatiably aroused at all times, to the point where Rustico’s lust cannot compensate for Alibech’s. Again, Boccaccio details a case where a man foolishly believes that he has more lust than a woman, only to be utterly shocked by the woman’s exhausting desire for lust. In short, Boccaccio once more proves that women exceed men in some aspect of their lives, in this case, lust.

In addition to demonstrating women’s hyper-sexuality, Boccaccio also depicts women as being superior in skill in terms of cunning. This skill, perhaps most emphasized throughout the stories, seems to be the one in which women surpass men the most. Throughout the stories, the character that tends to formulate plans that involve a significant degree of cunning is female. Whether Boccaccio is trying to pronounce some sort of opinion on the trustworthiness of women is unclear, at any rate, he makes it vehemently clear that women possess superior expertise in devising devious plans.

Perhaps the first example of this disparity occurs on the Seventh Day, when Elissa tells the story of brother Rinaldo and his godchild’s mother. The narrator takes time to detail the craftiness of both genders, to serve as a comparison by which to evaluate the overall cunning of each gender. Brother Rinaldo is shown to have had an elaborate plan to seduce his neighbor’s wife, which included becoming friends with his neighbor, becoming his neighbor’s son’s godfather, and eventually seducing his neighbor’s wife, Madonna Agnesa (497-98). However, the narrator then details Madonna’s crafty plan to avoid being caught−by far surpassing Rinaldo’s cunning. Madonna, who until this point appears to be fairly unintelligent, devises a plan to explain to her husband why she and the friar were in the bedroom with the door locked (500-01). By characterizing Madonna as somewhat brainless until this point, Boccaccio strengthens the contrast when she suddenly, cunningly concocts a plan to avoid any trouble with her husband. Furthermore, Madonna’s superior cunning is further highlighted by the fact that Rinaldo scrambles and fails to come up with a plan to evade getting into trouble with his friend. Based on this story, it appears that Boccaccio feels that women are significantly more cunning than men.

Yet another example of Boccaccio’s depiction of women’s superior cunning occurs again on the Seventh Day, This story, narrated by Neifile, details the superior cunning of Monna Sismonda in a myriad of ways. First, Neifile describes the system that Monna Sismonda has devised to discreetly have sex with Ruberto, her lover (528). Furthermore, if this alone was not cunning enough, after she realizes her husband has discovered her system for alerting her lover and by extension her affair with Ruberto, Monna Sismonda quickly decides to call her maidservant to take her place in bed. This allows her to avoid being beaten, and eventually to trick her brothers into believing that her husband is lying to them (529-535). In both parts of the story, Monna Sismond displays superior craftiness; being able both to construct an elaborate method to avoid being caught and then to further avoid any trouble after being caught. In this case, it is plainly apparent that Boccaccio is depicting the superior cunning of women over men, who cannot seem to rival the apparent craftiness of the softer sex.

While there are many stories in which Boccaccio informally declares women to be the victor, one can argue that the reverse is also true.  In other words, there exist stories where men emerge victorious over women and appear to surpass women in some way. While this is true, it is important to note the circumstances under which men claim superiority−men emerge victorious in The Decameron because of their own depravity and not through a superior use of cunning or intellect. For example on the Fifth Day, Dioneo tells the story Pietro di Vinciolo and his wife. Pietro discovers his wife’s lover in their chicken coop and determines a suitable punishment for the two of them (438-39). Pietro decides that the best course of action is for the man to have sex with them both, as Pietro has no desire to have sex with his own wife. Here Pietro only obtains what he desires not through superior cunning or intellect but through good timing; his fortune in catching his wife’s lover allows him to coerce him to do as he pleases.

Another example of male depravity leading to superiority occurs on the Eighth Day, when Panfilo tells the story of Belcolore and the priest. In the story, the priest manages to fool Belcolore into having sex with him and to double cross Belcolore to get out of having any obligations to her. When Belcolore realizes his plan, she stops talking to him−much to the priest’s dismay. The priest gets so angry that the only way for him to make Belcolore talk to him again is by invoking his priestly abilities, threatening to curse Belcolore into hell (563-64). Boccaccio makes it clear that the priest can think of no plan to assuage Belcolore’s anger than to threaten her with the prospect of purgatory. This method, cruel as it is, suggests that Boccaccio believes men gain victory through dishonorable means−not through use of superior judgment. As the stories demonstrate, when a male victory occurs, it is typically achieved with deceit and not with superior trickery, as the women of The Decameron do.

Boccaccio’s The Decameron, while touching on a variety of topics and themes, provides a significant amount of commentary on the differing characteristics of men and women. The stories seem to propose that women are significantly superior in many aspects; specifically, Boccaccio implies that women are hardier, more lustful, and more cunning. In the stories, the various narrators compare both male and female attempts at these characteristics in an effort to provide a reference with which to compare the genders−in each case, the women come out on top. Women come across as outdoing men in all these respects, moreover, in the off chance that men somehow can unwittingly outperform a woman in The Decameron, they must resort to deceptive means in order to succeed. Boccaccio’s The Decameron demonstrates the subtler powers of women; though they do not enjoy any real power in the social hierarchy of the 14th century, they do possess a considerable amount of power over the male sex because of their superiority over men. In depicting the superiority of women over men in these ways, Boccaccio reveals the masked power of women over men.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Trans. Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella. New York: Signet Classic, 1982. Print. 

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