The Decameron is a collection of novellas that was finished by Giovanni Boccaccio in 1353. To establish the frame narrative or frame tale for the book, Boccaccio begins his work with a description of the Bubonic Plague (specifically the epidemic which hit Florence in 1348, see Black Death) and leads into an introduction of a group of seven young women and three young men who flee from Plague-ridden Florence to a villa outside of Naples. To pass the time, each member of the party tells one story for each one of the ten nights spent at the villa. In this manner, 100 stories are told by the end of the ten days.
Furthermore, each of the ten characters is charged as ruler of the company for one of the ten days in turn. This charge extends to dictating the content of the stories for that day, so that there is a very loose organization to the tales (although adherence to this concept is not very strict). The themes range from "stories of bad luck unexpectedly changed to happiness" (day two, under Filomena) to the considerably more interesting "stories of deceptions women have played on their husbands" (day seven, under the rule of Dioneo). Each day also includes a short introduction and conclusion to continue the frame of the tales by describing other daily activities besides story-telling. These frame tale interludes frequently include transcriptions of Italian folk songs.
The circumstances described in the Decameron are heavily infused with a medieval sense of numerological and mystical significance. For example, it is widely believed that the seven young women are meant to represent the Four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude) and the Three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Love). It is further supposed that the three men represent the traditional Greek tripartite division of the soul (Reason, Anger, and Lust). Boccaccio himself notes that the names he gives for these ten characters are in fact pseudonyms chosen as "appropriate to the qualities of each". The Italian names of the seven women, in the same (most likely significant) order as given in the text, are: Pampinea, Fiammetta, Filomena, Emilia, Lauretta, Neifile, and Elissa. The men, in order, are: Panfilo, Filostrato, and Dioneo.
The Decameron is a distinctive work, in that it describes in detail the physical, psychological and social effects that the Bubonic Plague had on that part of Europe. The basic plots of the stories themselves should not be taken as Boccaccio's inventions however; they are based on older Italian sources, or sometimes French or Latin ones. It is also interesting to note that a number of the stories contained within The Decameron would later appear in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (however, it is not known whether Chaucer was directly familiar with Decameron).
Tales from Decameron
Some particularly notable stories from the collection:
- Medieval Sourcebook: Boccaccio: The Decameron - Introduction
- Waterhouse's painting of The Decameron's 'The Enchanted Garden' from the Lady Lever Art Gallery
- Full text of The Decameron, Volume 1 from Project Gutenberg