Boccaccio and Chaucer


Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I’m fascinated by the Black Death. I want to know what people thought about it, how they coped while it was at its height and what life was like after it. One day, when I’m a much better writer than I am now, I hope to write a novel about it.

Last year, partly in the hope of getting a bit more insight into how people coped during the Black Death, I read Boccaccio’s The Decameron. It’s a collection of 100 stories told by ten refugees from the plague in Florence to while away the time until they can return to the city. It’s a fantasy, of course. They retreat to a lovely, secluded villa, where there are beatific grounds in which they wander until the evening, when they gather together to tell their tales, none of which has anything to do with the Black Death.

The main reason why I read The Decameron was because it’s one of the major literary works of the fourteenth century. Boccaccio had probably been collecting the stories for years and the conceit of ten young people entertaining one another gave him a structure for putting them together. Every evening (except Sundays and the day on which they move to another, even nicer villa) each of the ten has to tell one story. Apart from the first, each evening has a theme for the stories. There are stories about fidelity and infidelity. There are stories against the church and stories against ‘clever’ men. There are stories about revenge and about wives who know more than their husbands. Some of the stories are amusing and some of them are very dark indeed.

Some of the tales found their way into The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer visited Italy at least twice and he probably read some of Boccaccio’s works, as well as those of Petrarch, Boccaccio’s friend, while he was there. His Troilus and Criseyde is a retelling of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. The structure itself of The Canterbury Tales might be borrowed from The Decameron.

The stories weren’t, for the most part, created by Boccaccio. Some of them aren’t even Italian in origin. His genius lay, as did Chaucer’s, in the way he told them and in the way he put them together.

Although Boccaccio lived through the Black Death, it’s unlikely he was in Florence all the time. Apparently, he hated the city of his birth and preferred Naples, where he spent his early adulthood. He was born in 1313 and, while he was in Naples, he was apprenticed to a banker. Banking was very advanced in Italy and the rest of Europe borrowed from Italian bankers. Boccaccio wanted to write, though, and went back to Florence in 1341. The Black Death arrived in Italy in 1347 and had receded by 1349. Boccaccio probably started work on The Decameron around then. In later life, he travelled on behalf of the Florentine state, visiting Avignon, where the papal court was based, and Rome. He died in 1375.

As it turned out, reading The Decameron did give me some insight into life during the Black Death. In his introduction to the stories, Boccaccio describes what Florence was like in 1348. He describes the symptoms of the plague and what happened when people grew ill and died. It’s the horrors of this nightmare world that his storytellers want to escape and they do so by telling stories of life before the plague arrived.

In case you’re wondering, I enjoyed reading The Decameron. Some of the stories are very dark, but most of them are entertaining.


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Black Death, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

29 responses to “Boccaccio and Chaucer

  1. April, I’m sure you will write that book! You could’ve picked a more cheerful subject 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I worked my way through The Decameron when I was young enough to remember Chaucer only from A Levels and loved it. Pleased to see you describing it as entertaining as I think its size can seem a bit intimidating but, as you say, it’s one to dip into.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I should tackle The Decameron – just as I should go back and finish the 90% of Chaucer that I didn’t read when doing my ‘A’ levels! The Black Death is covered very briefly on ABAB, but not to the depth that you would want/need. I don’t know how communities coped – they must have been terrified. If the same thing happened today our emergency services would be overwhelmed. Aside from the personal tragedies and enormous impact on demographics there would be profound socio-economic consequences. As there probably were in the 14th century, but I don’t know enough about it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Stay tuned on the Chaucer front. I’m thinking about Troilus and Criseyde for next week.

      The social impact of the Black Death was huge. Lords of the manors wanted their rents to stay the same and to pay the same wages (where they paid wages), but there were fewer people to pay the rents. The people doing the work wanted higher wages, because more work was being demanded of them. The church was trusted less, as well, because it began by saying that people were being punished by God, but priests and monks died in huge numbers. It was a desperate time in so many ways.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Losing the Plot

    Church artwork might be another source of information about the Black Death, where stories no longer remain in printed form (if they ever did) they may still exist pictorially?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think there’s much art work at all about the Black Death. There are quite a few written records, though, including a sad letter from Edward III about his daughter who died of the plague in Bordeaux on her way to get married.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Losing the Plot

        I thought, I had viewed (an absolutely grotesque) wall panel with people descending into hell, and the pestilence they were suffering from was all based on the Black Death, but I can find no reference to that. There was also a carving I thought it was doors to a Cathedral but all I can find are doors celebrating survival. That and images of the Dance Macabre

        On a different tack, I know that scientists are currently worried about a return of the Black Death because there are corpses buried prior to permafrost forming that are in danger of thawing. The bacteria has proved to survive freezing for long periods.

        Liked by 2 people

        • The plague is still about. We don’t have to worry about bodies thawing out. There are cases every year and there was at least one serious outbreak in the 20th century.

          I think a couple of the books I have on the Black Death have illustrations. I’ll have a look this afternoon. I suspect they’re mostly images of the Three Living and the Three Dead, or those tombs showing the dead person above a skeleton.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Losing the Plot

            Lol! I wonder why they were getting their knickers in a twist? It was an article on bacterial resistance, a fun read 😂

            Liked by 2 people

            • You know how to have a good time 🙂 As you know, I don’t do science, but perhaps the disease has changed over the centuries and they’re not sure that they know how to fight the original. I think they do it these days with antibiotics, which brings its own worries.

              I did find a near-contemporary picture in one of my books of people being buried in a plague pit. I’ll see if I can find a link to it later. Most of the books about the Black Death aren’t illustrated at all and some only have maps.

              Liked by 2 people

              • Losing the Plot

                Yes, that’s why I was wondering about churches. But I don’t want to send you on a wild goose chase, it was only to glean a bit of extra info. Things are sometimes shown in pictures that are never written formally. But it’s possibly not worth spending a lot of time chasing 😬

                Liked by 2 people

  5. I would not have thought of reading these stories until now…thanks yet again for the heads up April.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Oh, Boccaccio 🙂 I, too, started reading The Decameron in preparation for writing my novels about the 14th century plague outbreak, which was super fun to dive into and write about. I wasn’t able to finish it in between my school studies before I had to return it to the library, unfortunately. Though I found plenty of other more helpful sources that lacking that one didn’t make an impact, you’ve inspired me to try again. I need to read Chaucer, too. Also, looking forward to September 15th!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Boccaccio is worth reading for himself, but it is a commitment to read all the stories. They’re great if you’re remotely interested in how people lived in fourteenth-century Italy and what their preoccupations were

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I dipped into Boccaccio when I was at university, but I’m afraid I can’t remember very much about his stories now. I really enjoyed Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ – but alas, I can’t remember it well, either! I do hope you do a post on it.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. priscillaking

    I think I have a copy in storage somewhere, but know I’ve never read it. I finally read Spenser this spring, and am now working my way through an ADULT-SIZE first edition of a book in French, for a “challenging read” early in the morning; have Boccaccio and 2/3 of the Divine Comedy to look forward to, and others. Thanks for the encouraging word!

    Liked by 2 people

    • If you’re reading in translation, the translation itself makes all the difference. I read Clive James’ translation of the Divine Comedy. He learned Italian in order to be able to read it, so I thought it would probably be good. He’s also a poet, which makes all the difference.

      Liked by 2 people

      • priscillaking

        I wanted Dorothy Sayers’ but what I found for the right price was John Ciardi’s. Oh well. (You’re right…I can’t properly read Italian. I see it as bad Spanish, miss every nuance, make a few major mistakes, know I’m doing this but have never yet made myself take the time to look up the words…even when I had the Italian dictionary.)

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Pingback: Troilus and Criseyde | A Writer's Perspective

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