Essay: Positively Primeval - An Analysis of “The Pleasures of Reading: Boccaccio's Decameron and Female Literacy” -

Essay: Positively Primeval – An Analysis of “The Pleasures of Reading: Boccaccio’s Decameron and Female Literacy”

“Nothing is so indecent that it cannot be said to another person if the proper words are used to convey it.”
― Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

In regards to medieval literature, there is not tremendous scope for memorable female characters. They are out there, to be sure, but few and far between enough to make a work like Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron all the more remarkable. Not only are the four main women protagonists in their own right, but the work itself is dedicated to the literate women of Boccaccio’s day—“literate” being the key word here. Judith Serafini-Sauli of Sarah Lawrence College apparently used this dedication as a starting point for her essay on female literacy in the Decameron. She is fundamentally correct in that Boccaccio “challenge[s] the conventional morality” of female literacy by “embed[ing] subversive (and empowering) messages to his idle lady readers” [emphasis added] (29) in his Decameron, but it is equally true that he reinforces the rules of a male-dominated society within the same text. There are some stories that could be considered feminist, promoting empowerment, but others that are inherently misogynistic, upholding passivity. Thus, despite the dedication of the Decameron to “idle ladies,” Boccaccio is more of an observer of the male and female lives around him, only endorsing—as Serfini-Sauli stipulates—equal literacy, not equal rights.

Serfini-Sauli begins her essay proper with a discussion of public literacy in Italy during the fourteenth century. Although the aristocracy was historically the only group of people able to read and write, literacy by this time was spreading to the upper middle class, even including a marketing sphere for the female public. This is not to say that the men were especially pleased with this; in fact, they warned each other against their wives’ free reading and insisted that if their women “were taught to read at all, they were to be exposed only to certain kinds of texts” (Serfini-Sauli 30). Serfini-Sauli uses contemporaries of Boccaccio as historical evidence. Wealthy ladies often had nothing to do when their men were out, but still were discouraged from reading due to the fear it would incur dangerous thoughts. What exactly these thoughts would be is unclear now and probably even then. It was simply that men believed uneducated women easier to control: the more submissive the woman, the more powerful the man, which is also probably why women were only allowed to read religious texts, as such that would keep them pious and obedient. It is here that Serfini-Sauli theorizes that Boccaccio was directly challenging these beliefs in Decameron. The literate ladies of the text are of the aristocracy or the upper middle class, the same as his dedicated audience. Serfini-Sauli goes on to describe the sexual overtones of the stories and how they are primarily considered with sexual freedom—or rather, the lack thereof. Books and reading in general seem to be considered as promiscuous as modern day erotic novels, something read secretly and certainly not advertised. Boccaccio firmly believed in the power of literature, however, and Serafini-Sauli concludes that his dedication to literate women was intended “to exhort his idle ladies to action by reading and imitation” (43).

The primary method of interpretation that Serafini-Sauli uses is a sort of feminist criticism. Even compared to the present day, the 1300s were incredibly sexist, but she uses modern ideals to seek out any feminism in the Decameron, rather than criticize its absence. That is not to say that Boccaccio was a feminist; in fact, he seems to hover somewhere between support for women and support for men—and, being a fourteenth century male, is naturally disposed toward the latter. Even his stories are a mixed bag of feminism and misogyny, albeit always praising intelligence and literacy regardless of the source. Serafini-Sauli is quite explicit about her method, as even the subtitle of her essay contains the words “female literacy,” and she states her thesis at least three times. She does not outright declare this to be a feminist paper, but the calling attention to female literacy is a trait of feminism, and her analysis of the power of sexual women in the Decameron is also quite feminist. Despite this, however, there is not a single use of a particular feminist theorist, Serafini-Sauli instead choosing to rely on Boccaccio’s contemporaries and other eminent scholars to provide evidence for her theory. There is no real issue with her choices, except this article was intended for an Italian audience, and thus all primary and secondary sources are in Italian, a language to which that not even the best translator could do justice. Obviously, Serafini-Sauli’s essay is more enjoyable to the Italian literate, but enough context and explanation is given so as to be able to understand it.

Serafini-Sauli believes her interpretation of Boccaccio’s text to be analogous to his intentions. Though a supporter of literacy in general, Boccaccio was rather keen on the “erotic power of narration, specifically for women” (Serafini-Sauli 37), thus “devilishly accredit[ing] the fears of the men who proscribed reading for women by using literature to encourage the sexual and reproductive function of women as a vital freedom” (40). Using the First Story on the Sixth Day, Serafini-Sauli postulates that the behavior of Madonna Oretta’s gentlemen friend indicates the supreme importance of storytelling, while still comparing it to a sexual act. As her viewpoint is ultimately a modern one, it is difficult to ascertain if her position is truly “medieval” in the sense of being congruous with the mentality of fourteenth century society. Boccaccio may have appreciated Serafini-Sauli’s theory, seemingly at least able to hold respect for women, but his contemporaries—or rather, the authors Serafini-Sauli chose to include in her essay—would be quite horrified at her support for female literacy. “Conduct” books at the time generally advocated caution when dealing with the written word as it was perceived as “fraught with dangers, for private and silent reading could facilitate the dissemination of subversive ideas, both political and erotic” (Serafini-Sauli 30). In any case, Serafini-Sauli does not explicitly state her position to be anything other than modern, especially given the amount of background to the 1300s that she provides. Such extensive research would not have been strictly necessary if her ideas would have been common or acceptable at the time. The first part of Serafini-Sauli’s essay, in fact, is directly comparing and contrasting modern female literacy against that of the past.

The second part of her essay, while still drawing from other writers besides Boccaccio, deals mainly with applying her female literacy thesis to the Decameron‘s stories. Serafini-Sauli states that the “[w]omen more commonly engage in the passive act of reading, while men can more actively try to seduce them by writing letters” (34), as in the Seventh Story of the Eighth Day, which features the unfortunate tale of the scholar and the widow. The crux of the story has little to do with literacy in general (and even less with the female variety), but Serafini-Sauli’s point is that if the nightmarish revenge he performed upon the widow had failed, “[M]y pen would not have done so, and with it I would have written so many things about you and in such a fashion that when you came to learn about them . . . you would have wished a thousand times a day that you had never been born” (Boccaccio 518). This is more representative of Boccaccio’s “keen awareness of the might of the written word” (Serafini-Sauli 36), however. A story in which a woman takes up the more masculine task of writing is in the First Story of the Fourth Day. Ghismunda, the daughter of a prince, takes a lover outside of her marriage. In order to arrange their secret meetings, she comes up with “an unusual scheme” (Boccaccio 251) and pens a detailed letter describing the way in which they can meet. This is a reflection of both Gihismunda’s character—naturally independent and intelligent—and of her social position.

An important story for Serafini-Sauli is that of the First Story of the Sixth Day, because male literacy is tied to female sexuality in the Decameron, and Boccaccio acknowledges this in Madonna Oretta’s tale. A knight offers to tell her a story during a foot journey, claiming it to be akin to riding a horse but makes such a terrible mess of it—“[the] sword by his side was probably no more effective than his tongue was in telling stories” (Boccaccio 383)—that Madonna Oretta begs to “dismount” the story. As Serafini-Sauli puts it, “A good storyteller then, is a good ‘rider’” (38), and with such juicy association words like “mount” and “ride,” there is small wonder that Boccaccio possibly considered the “erotic significance” (39) of storytelling. Thus, Boccaccio advocates female sexuality in literature as a sort of freedom.

Boccaccio may have been trying to promote literate equality with the Decameron, but there still remains the fact that many of the stories are misogynistic and rather contradict the progressive implication of the dedication. First, it must be understood that sexism is fickle thing: while individual people or objects may be commonly called “sexist,” such occurrences are really more like biases based on real sexism, which must include institutionalized power with gender prejudices. There is no denying that systematic sexism is still pervasive in today’s society, but even the most diehard feminists would grudgingly admit that things have improved since, say, the fourteenth century. The Decameron seems at first to be making great strides in the field of gender equality, but there is a disconcerting inclination for the stories to veer into misogyny. Serafini-Sauli definitely proves with her essay that Boccaccio supported literate women: the Decameron is dedicated to them, there are four female storytellers, and many of the women characters display great feats of wit and independence. The unfortunate implication to all this is that these views are tied up with sexuality. That is not to say that woman should not have power in regards to sex, but that it should not be the only manner in which woman can obtain power. Many of the Decameron‘s stories feature witty, sexually powerful women—or rather, their downfalls.

To return to the First Story of the Fourth Day, Ghismunda proves her intelligence by devising a plan to see her lover regularly without arousing suspicion. It all falls to pieces when her father decides to assert his male authority over her by killing her lover and to add insult to injury, sends her the heart. Ghismunda has a brief moment to defend her actions, even going so far to say to her father, “’I was moved to act this way not so much by my womanly weakness but by your own lack of interest in marrying me’” (Boccaccio 254). Emotion is very often depicted as a female weakness and stoic rationality as a male strength. Calm, analytical women were something to be feared in the 1300s, hence the excessive efforts to curtail the literary ventures of women. Freedom to think would give them ideas and the “recollection [of questionable literary words] may lead her to temptation” (Serafini-Sauli 34).

This is where Boccaccio seems to be a bit contradictory: he promotes female literacy by writing the very stories that supposedly caused infidelity in women. Serafini-Sauli credits this as his attempting to prove to men that such assumptions were not true: “They are offered to suggest, stimulate, and in a word, pander” (Serafini-Sauli 43). “Pander” is an interesting choice of words, as it hints that Boccaccio was only writing what he knew people wanted to hear, and thus, there was nothing groundbreaking or enlightening about his works at all. He wrote exciting stories for women about other women outwitting men, having rewarding sexual romps, and otherwise exercising influence and power, but on the flip side, also wrote stories about punishing women for their emotions, men utilizing woman as objects of desire, and overall delegating the female to their tried-and-true position of homemaker. Boccaccio wanted his stories to entertain woman because he knew there was no truth in the common beliefs at the time, because if women were not being faithful, then it was obviously because their men were not controlling them properly, not because of a silly story they had read.

The greatest example of this can be seen in the Tenth Story of the Tenth Day, in which the Marquis of Sanluzzo submits his wife to series of cruel and unusual “tests” to prove her honesty and patience. These tests include pretending to kill their children, then raising them away from their mother; kicking her out of their house, claiming to be tired of her; and then presenting his grown daughter as his new wife. Throughout it all, his wife remains remarkably placid and rather blandly forgives the Marquis when he announces the entire thing as a scheme and brings their children back home. He is “judged to be the wisest of men (although the tests to which he had subjected his wife were regarded as harsh and intolerable)” (Boccaccio 681), which basically means he was ruthless in his methods but wise in performing the tests in the first place, because he was able to prove that his wife was, and always will be, faithful to him.

It must not be forgotten, however, that Boccaccio was not aiming for great social change; he just wanted more people to read (especially his own books). That he wrote sexist stories was merely a reflection of the times, and that he was able to fit in assertive and dominant women at all speaks volumes of his influence in the literary world. He wrote stories to entertain, not to educate. His position on equal rights leans neither left nor right: he is merely an observer of the life around him, and he must have noted the slow rise of female power, and instead of condemn it, he chose to utilize female interest in literature by dedicating an entire work to them. Serafini-Sauli’s essay is more of a treatise on female literacy during the fourteenth century than specifically in the Decameron. She creates a connection between female sexuality and female literacy, and attempts to relate with Boccaccio’s belief that the two are mutually exclusive and indicate freedom. Though at its core, it is still misogynistic, overall the Decameron does promote equal literacy, if not equal rights.

Works Cited

  • Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Trans. Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1982. Print.
  • Serafini-Sauli, Judith. “The Pleasures of Reading: Boccaccio’s Decameron and Female Literacy.” MLN 126.1 (2011): 29-46. 2011. Project MUSE. Web. 9 June 2012.



One of the problems of being an English major is that you have to read so many things, you kinda forget about a few of them. I remember that I liked The Decameron, but I can’t specifically recall any of the stories. I do remember one piece of feedback for this story (since I don’t seem to have the actual notes) was my professor calling attention to my “add insult to injury” line. In the first draft, I’d written “add injury to insult,” probably because I heard in a TV show or movie that way, and my professor corrected me on it. Frankly, I think it means basically the same thing, especially in this context, but whatever. This essay was written in 2012 for my Studies in Medieval Literature class.

“Italy-0102 – Original Archangel Michael” by Dennis Jarvis is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.


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