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Tales of Beggars and Nuns, Pirates and Kings

By Caroline Kim | HUMANITIES, May/June 2002 | Volume 23, Number 3

In 1334, a mysterious epidemic swept through Hopei, a northeastern province of China, claiming the lives of five million people--a full 90 percent of the population. The Black Death would eventually kill two-thirds of China’s inhabitants and come to be known simply as the plague. It traveled westward from the Orient along the trade route, arriving in Italy in early 1348, blazing its infectious way through country and city and causing chaos and panic everywhere it landed. According to the Cronica Senese of Agnolo di Tura, it decimated the city of Siena. He writes, “And I, Agnolo di Tura, carried with my own hands my five little sons to the pit; and what I did many others did likewise.” By the time it was over, half of Italy’s population had died.

One of the Florentine survivors was Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron and, along with Dante and Petrarch, one of the three elite in the pantheon of Italian medieval literature. The Decameron Web, a website being developed at Brown University, is a virtual encyclopedia that encourages visitors to explore the book and its cultural environment by supplying annotations, critical essays, and audio and visual materials in addition to the original Italian text and translations.

In the introduction to the Decameron, Boccaccio announces that the aim of his collection of short stories is to ease the hearts of unhappy women in love and bring them pleasure. He gives an eyewitness account of the plague, providing a vivid description of the progression of the disease and its effects on society at large.

“Its first sign here in both men and women was a swelling in the groin or beneath the armpit, growing sometimes in the shape of a simple apple, sometimes in that of an egg, more or less; a bubo was the name commonly given to such a swelling. Before long this deadly bubo would begin to spread indifferently from these points to crop up all over; the symptoms would develop then into dark or livid patches that many people found appearing on their arms or thighs or elsewhere; these were large and well separated in some cases, while in others, they were a crowd of tiny spots.” The infected person often died within three days of the first appearance of the bubo.

Hysteria and chaos followed the disease as both medical science and the church were unable to cope with the contagion, either to explain its source or heal its affects. Communal and familial bonds broke down as fear of contact with those stricken rose. Many deserted their homes, their families, and the city, bringing the plague to the countryside.

“Men and women alike were possessed by such visceral terror of this scourge that a man would desert his own brother, uncle would forsake his nephew, sister her brother, and often a wife her husband. What is more, believe it or not, mothers and fathers would avoid visiting and tending their children, they would virtually disown them.”

The sight every morning of bodies thrown into the streets to be carried away to hurriedly dug pits drove Florentines to react in varied ways. Some fell into a life of debauchery, no longer caring about a tomorrow that might never arrive; others became monastic and shut themselves away to tend their souls since it seemed that the end of the world was upon them. Still others went about as best they could, keeping from extreme behavior and hoping to ride out the crisis. Fortunes were made by avaricious priests and pallbearers who charged high prices for tending the sick, and lost when they themselves fell ill. The price of candles and funeral cloth rose at an alarming rate when they could be found. All work stopped; houses were deserted, courts and jails emptied, fields left to rot. According to Boccaccio, between March and July a hundred thousand people died in Florence alone.

Boccaccio uses the plague as a framing device in the Decameron, which is composed of one hundred stories narrated by ten storytellers. Meeting by chance in the church of Santa Maria Novella, the seven noblewomen and three noblemen decide to adjourn to a country estate where they can forget the plague for a time and engage in more pleasurable activities--singing, dancing, and especially storytelling. In the Middle Ages, “comedy was something that started badly and ended well,” says Guyda Armstrong, a post-doctorate fellow at Brown University and contributor to the Decameron Website. “He’s starting at ground zero. Society has been broken down. It’s been completely destroyed by the plague and his exemplary band can go off and remake it out of the scorched earth. He’s situating it in an apocalyptic landscape--obviously a good place to start a story.”

The young men and women who compose the brigata, or company, justify their reasons for leaving the city. One of the ten, Pampinea, suggests, “We would avoid like grim death the disgraceful example set by other people and live virtuously in the country, having a good time and making merry as best we may without overdoing anything. . . . Besides, we’re not deserting anybody, if I’m not mistaken; it would be far truer to say that it’s we who have been deserted--our families have abandoned us alone to all this misery, just as if we didn’t belong to them, for they’ve either died or run away from death. No one will blame us, therefore, if we do as I suggest; if we don’t, the likely result will be sheer misery and possibly death.”

“One of the things Boccaccio was trying to create was a human comedy,” says Michael Papio, assistant professor of Italian at the College of Holy Cross and one of the creators of the Decameron Web. Unlike Dante, whose Divine Comedy is more theologically oriented, “he wanted to show a progression from bad to good on a more worldly stage.”

The stories in the Decameron present a microcosm of medieval life in fictional form. Though the narrators are of noble birth, the characters in the stories are from nearly every class and station--kings and sultans, priests and nuns, thieves, saints, common laborers, household servants, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The structural neatness of the text--ten storytellers, ten days, one hundred stories--and the cultural richness of the worlds evoked in the stories have secured its enduring popularity with both general readers and literary critics.

It also makes excellent hypertext material. Massimo Riva, associate professor of Italian studies at Brown University, came up with the idea of creating the Decameron Web in 1993, just before the Internet became a household word. “I was interested in the Decameron as one of those wonderfully narrative texts that can trigger all sorts of responses from the reader,” he says. “It fascinates twentieth-century critics because it goes to the roots of what narrative is.”

With a group of dedicated graduate students and the assistance of the Scholarly Technology Group at Brown, he began “taking new innovations in technology and looking at new ways of reading an old text,” and considering how to put the two together.

“The Decameron is a fascinating labyrinth, a palace, a series of physical spaces that can be explored. Perhaps the new technology allows us to explore it in a way we hadn’t even thought about,” says Riva.

From the beginning it has been a collaborative project and its inspirations are both theoretical and pedagogical. “We wanted to create an archive of material to provide students who had little or no knowledge of Italian or medieval literature with an easily accessible set of information about the book and its historical context, the Middle Ages,” says Riva. “On the one hand, there was this theoretical interest in the Decameron as a proto-hypertext, as one of those great complex works of narrative with all sorts of internal symmetries and correspondences. At the same time, there was this idea that we could recreate the backdrop of this text and begin illustrating, illuminating aspects of the text.”

Instead of students turning in their final projects to a professor and having them returned or put away in a drawer and forgotten, Papio says the Decameron Web team chose to allow students to put their best work on the website for the benefit of successive generations of students. “It made for a much more interactive environment among the students, where it wasn’t just the professor explaining the canonical approach to the text. Everyone was able to bring to the table something fun and interesting that helped in the elucidation of the text as a whole.”

Students brought their own interests to the site--biology students wrote about the plague, history students researched the text’s historical background, music students studied medieval songs and instruments, and culture and media students brought Marxist, feminist, and even film theory to the mix.

“The text is interactive in itself,” says project director Cristiana Fordyce. “The narrators respond to one another’s stories.”

Even so, each story is complete in itself and can be read apart from the others. Papio says, “As hypertext, rather than a linear trajectory through the text, it allows you to skip according to whichever way the reader wants to pursue the text.” On the website, one can choose to read only the stories of one particular narrator or stories with certain themes such as love, fate, or jealousy--or only those stories having to do with the clergy--with the simple click of a mouse.

English and Italian versions of the text are found on the site, along with links to secondary sources often not available in bookstores or libraries, and pages providing historical and cultural context on religion, literature, society, and arts in the Middle Ages.

“It’s a fantastic, rich text,” says Armstrong. “I’ve been working on it for seven years now and I’m still discovering new things every time I read it. It’s a very structured and highly organized text--you already have a framework with which you can navigate through the text. The subject matter is varied. It’s an encyclopedia of literary genres.”

An avid reader, Boccaccio did not limit himself to the classics as his contemporary and friend, Petrarch, did. He was as familiar with historical tales, chivalric romances, exempla--a type of sermon--and the bawdy French fabliaux, as he was with Ovid and Homer. According to Riva, he drew from literary tradition, popular literature, and oral literature, and put them together on the page.

“The Decameron is linked to a revolution in the visual arts that was taking place at the time with the invention of perspective from Giotto,” says Riva. “He was visualizing all the aspects of this new world and doing it almost as a visual artist would do it.” In turn, Boccaccio inspired visual artists who succeeded him, most noticeably Botticelli, who painted scenes out of the pages of the Decameron.

His reach toward the writers that came after him extends even further. “The short story before Boccaccio didn’t really exist,” says Papio. “That is to say, what you really had was anecdotes, exempla, fabliaux, bon mots, etc. What you didn’t have until Boccaccio was the kind of well-hewn construction of a story that has real characters.” The forerunner of the Decameron is the novellino, a string of exempla, anecdotes, and quips without a unifying thread. Typically, they feature stock characters.

“In Boccaccio, you actually have character development,” Papio says. “You have changes of scenery that are pertinent to the actual development of the tale. And these are all Boccaccio’s inventions.”

“It had an immediate diffusion into the culture,” says Fordyce. The book was considered both high art and popular art. This is in part due to the fact that Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the vernacular instead of in Latin. Influenced by Dante’s choice to write the poetry of the Divine Comedy in Italian, Boccaccio chose to experiment with the vernacular in prose.

“He writes in Italian so that the nonerudite type can appreciate it, but there are also allusions in it that the uneducated would not get. Definite references to high culture--a lot of translations or adaptations of stories that were available only in Latin,” says Papio.

Boccaccio himself lived easily in different social worlds. The illegitimate son of a wealthy banker who nonetheless recognized him officially, “he was at home with the very highest, intellectual elite as well as in the tavern,” says Papio. “And so you get a relativistic perspective on everything.”

“There is something in the book for everyone,” continues Papio, “which is one of the testaments to its enduring popularity. It’s been translated into just about every language and it still continues to fly off the shelves in bookstores. You don’t really need a lot of information about medieval society to understand certain aspects because they’re so universal--like love and hate and jealousy--just things that are part of the glory of being a human being. And so in that way, it’s exciting and it’s accessible.”

Many of the stories are about love and the role that fate plays in gaining or losing love. Inverting the literary trope of appealing to the muses, Boccaccio dedicates the book to unhappy women in love, writing that when men are heartbroken or depressed, they can turn to outside distractions such as hawking or hunting, fishing or riding, gambling, or pursuing business. He writes, “The effect of such activities will be to improve his spirits to a greater or lesser degree and stave off depression for a while at any rate, after which somehow or other he obtains comfort or else the problem recedes.” In contrast, women in medieval times had little freedom of movement outside of their family circle.

“Now since Fortune has tended to be at her most niggardly in that one quarter where strength has proved the most defective, as is evident in the gentle sex, I will to some degree make amends for her sin: to afford assistance and refuge to women in love--the rest have all they want in their needles, their spools and spindles--I propose to tell a hundred tales (or fables or parables or stories or what you will).”

“One of the things I enjoy about Boccaccio is that he’s so contradictory,” says Armstrong. “He says one thing and then he subtly undermines it. In the authorial proem, he says that he’s offering these tales to console women in love and give them advice. And then, in fact, he gives them advice in how to take a lover. I think that’s one of the inherent, deliberate contradictions in the text. And also one of the things that makes it so enjoyable.”

On “Day Two” of the tales, Dioneo narrates the story of Ricciardo and Bartolomea, an old man who marries a young bride whom he cannot satisfy sexually. Trying not to lose face, he brings his bride a religious calendar and points out the inappropriateness of sharing a bed on holy days, fast days, the vigils of apostles’ feast days, “as well as Fridays, Saturdays, the Lord’s Day and the whole of Lent, as well as during certain phases of the moon, and on many another exceptional occasion.”

During a fishing excursion, the pirate Paganino captures Bartolomea and whisks her away. Ricciardo eventually discovers the identity of the pirate and finds Paganino and Bartolomea living happily as husband and wife. Bewildered and angry that Bartolomea chooses to stay with Paganino, he asks, “Would you live here as this man’s concubine, and in a state of moral sin, rather than as my wife in Pisa? When he tires of you he’ll throw you out, and what a humiliation for you that will be. Are you going to forsake your honor and desert me, who love you more than my life, all on account of this dissolute and disgraceful appetite of yours?”

Bartolomea cares little for his moral attitude. She says, “You ought to have been awake enough to notice that I’m a hale and hearty young woman, and to realize what it is that young women need beyond feeding and clothing, even if it’s a thing they’re too modest to give a name to. . . . Let me tell you, here I feel like Paganino’s wife; in Pisa I felt like your strumpet, to think that we depended on phases of the moon and geometrical calculations for the conjunction of our planets. Here Paganino clasps me all night long in his arms and cuddles me and nibbles me; his particular attentions I’ll leave to the Good Lord to describe.”

Fordyce says that in such stories, far from being heretical, Boccaccio is reminding his readers of the rule of natural love, and that it is unnatural to pair an old man with a young woman. He is also asserting that women are equal to men, Fordyce says. “They have the same sexual desires, the same needs.”

Armstrong agrees. “He allows women to be human. He acknowledges women’s sexuality.” She says another reason for Boccaccio’s popularity may be that he “has a good understanding of human psychology, and female psychology in particular.” In the Divine Comedy, the two major female figures are Beatrice and the Virgin Mary, who operate as role models and remain distant. “Boccaccio’s cunning, crafty ladies are completely different,” says Armstrong.

Each new reading of the Decameron offers fresh interpretations and ideas about literature and medieval society. Since the project’s inception in 1994, the Decameron Web has changed and grown as the scholarship continues to yield new commentary and research materials. Riva says there may soon be a medieval cookbook on the site--the idea of one student. Talented music students have researched fourteenth-century music, played it themselves, and are in the process of recording it for the website. More and more, it becomes possible to imagine the world of Boccaccio as one reads the Decameron. Papio says, “It is a whole new way of looking at literature.”

About the Author

Caroline Kim is a writer in San Francisco.

Funding Information

Brown University has received $370,000 in NEH support for the development of the Decameron Web. To visit the site, go to