Study Guide

The Decameron

by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Contemporary Florence, during the terrible Black Plague, is the setting chosen by Boccaccio for The Decameron, which historians generally agree was written between 1349 and 1351. A desire to escape the horrors of the city prompts a group of ten young people (seven women and three men) to retreat to a country villa. There, they amuse themselves by telling each other stories.

The structure of The Decameron begins with a frame. The author addresses his readers, whom he presumes to be women, in his prologue, declaring his intent. He offers The Decameron as a pleasant distraction to those tormented lovers whose woes are more difficult to endure. He then apologizes to the “charming ladies” for the book’s unpleasant but necessary beginning. A graphic description in realistic detail of the devastation of the plague in the city of Florence follows. The device of the frame was used by Boccaccio in earlier works, but on a smaller scale, as in Labor of Love. The frame in The Decameron provides a specific location and date to the story, while offering a realistic and reasonable explanation for such a collection of unchaperoned young people in a remote place. It further serves to unify what would otherwise be a loose collection of seemingly unrelated tales. The frame characters are the ten narrators, each endowed with intelligence, breeding, charm, and some distinguishing feature. Once settled in their country villa, it is proposed that each of the ten preside as queen or king for one day, choose a topic for that particular day, and invite everyone to recount an appropriate tale: thus, the significance of ten by ten, or one hundred stories, which explains the title and also satisfies medieval numerology.

The first day is ruled by Pampinea, the oldest, who assumes throughout the book a somewhat mature, motherly stance. There is no appointed topic of the day, but many of the stories told represent the tenor of the book as a whole. The tale of the debauched and irreverent Ciappelletto, who confesses falsely on his deathbed with such seemingly deep contrition to sins so minor as to render him a saint in the perception of those around him, is one of the most famous stories in The Decameron. Vice and virtue intertwine in the work as in life, and Boccaccio...

(The entire section is 948 words.)

The Decameron Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A terrible plague is ravaging Florence, Italy. To flee from it, a group of seven young women and three young men, who meet by chance in a church, decide to go to a villa out of town. There they set up a working arrangement whereby each will be king or queen for a day. During the ten days they stay in the country, each tells a story, following certain stipulations laid down by the daily ruler. The stories range from romance to farce, from comedy to tragedy.

Pampinea’s Tale About the Three Tedaldo Young Men. When Messer Tedaldo dies, he leaves all of his goods and chattels to his three sons. With no thought for the future, they live so extravagantly that they soon have little left. The oldest son suggests that they sell what they can, leave Florence, and go to London, where they are unknown.

In London, they lend money at a high rate of interest, and in a few years, they have a small fortune. Then they return to Florence. There they marry and begin to live extravagantly again, while depending on the moneys still coming to them from England.

A nephew named Alessandro takes care of their business in England. At that time, there are such differences between the king and a son that Alessandro’s business is ruined. He stays in England, however, in the hope that peace will come and his business will recover. Finally, he returns to Italy with a group of monks who are taking their young abbot to the pope to get a dispensation for him and a confirmation of the youthful cleric’s election.

On the way, Alessandro discovers that the abbot is a woman, and he marries her in the sight of God. In Rome, the woman has an audience with the pope. Her father, the king of England, wishes the pope’s blessing on her marriage to the old king of Scotland, but she asks the pope’s blessing on her marriage to Alessandro instead.

After the wedding, Alessandro and his bride go to Florence, where she pays his uncles’ debts. Two knights precede the couple to England and urge the king to forgive his daughter. After the king knights Alessandro, the new knight reconciles the king and his rebellious son.

Fiammetta’s Tale of Tancred and the Golden Cup. Tancred, prince of Salerno, loves his daughter Ghismonda so much that, when she is widowed soon after her marriage, he does not think to provide her with a second husband, and she is too modest to ask him to do so. Being a lively woman, however, she decides to have as her lover the most valiant man in her father’s court. His name is Guiscardo. His only fault is that he is of humble birth.

Ghismonda notices that Guiscardo returns her interest, and they meet secretly in a cave, one entrance to which is through a door in the young widow’s bedroom. Soon she is taking her lover into her bedroom, where they enjoy each other frequently.

Tancred is in the habit of visiting his daughter’s room at odd times. One day, when he goes to visit, she is not there. He sits down to wait in a place where he is, by accident, hidden by the bed curtains from his daughter and her lover, who soon come in to use the bed.

Tancred remains hidden, but that night he has Guiscardo arrested. When he berates his daughter for picking so humble a lover, she scolds him for letting so brave a man remain poor in his court. She begs nothing from Tancred except that he kill her and her lover with the same stroke.

The prince does not believe Ghismonda will be as resolute as she sounds. When her lover is killed, Tancred has his heart cut from his body and sent to her in a golden cup. Ghismonda thanks her father for his noble gift. After repeatedly kissing the heart, she pours poison into the cup and drinks it. Then she lies down upon her bed with Guiscardo’s heart upon her own. Tancred’s own heart is touched when he sees her cold in death, and he obeys her last request that she and Guiscardo be buried together.

Filomena’s Tale of the Pot of Basil. Isabetta lives in Messina with her three merchant brothers and a young man named Lorenzo, who attends to their business affairs. Isabetta and Lorenzo fall in love. One night, as she goes to Lorenzo’s room, her oldest brother sees her. He says nothing until the next morning, when the three brothers confer to see how they could settle the matter so that no shame should fall upon them or upon Isabetta.

Not long afterward, the three brothers set out with Lorenzo, claiming that they are going part way with him on a journey. Secretly, however, they kill and bury the young man.

After their return home, the brothers answer none of Isabetta’s questions about Lorenzo. She weeps and refuses to be consoled in her grief. One night Lorenzo comes to her in a dream and tells her what happened and where he is buried. Without telling her brothers, she goes to the spot indicated in her dream and finds her lover’s body there. She cuts off his head and wraps it in a cloth to take home. She buries the head in dirt in a large flowerpot and plants basil over it. The basil flourishes, watered by her tears.

She weeps so much over the plant that her brothers take away the pot of basil and hide it. She asks about it often, so the brothers grow curious. At last they investigate and find Lorenzo’s head. Abashed, they leave the city. Isabetta dies of a broken heart.

Pamfilo’s Tale of Cimone, Who Becomes Civilized Through Love. Galeso is the tallest and handsomest of Aristippo’s children, but he is so stupid that the people of Cyprus call him Cimone, which means “Brute.” Cimone’s stupidity so embarrasses his father that the old man sends the boy to the country to live. There Cimone is content, until one day he comes upon Efigenia, whose beauty completely changes him.

He tells his father that he intends to live in town. The news worries his father for a while, but Cimone buys fine clothes and associates only with worthy young men. In four years, he is the most accomplished and virtuous young man on the island.

Although he knows she is promised to Pasimunda of Rhodes, Cimone asks Efigenia’s father for her hand in marriage. He is refused. When Pasimunda sends for his bride, Cimone and his friends pursue the ship and take Efigenia off the vessel, after which they let the ship’s crew go free to return to Rhodes. In the night, a storm arises and blows Cimone’s ship to the very harbor in Rhodes where Efigenia is supposed to go. Cimone and his men are arrested.

Pasimunda has a brother who is promised a wife, but this woman is loved by Lisimaco, a youth of Rhodes, as Efigenia is loved by Cimone. The brothers plan a double wedding....

(The entire section is 2734 words.)