Giovanni Boccaccio’s elegy has often been touted by scholars as the first psychological work of literature written in a modern language. It is an account of specific emotions occurring in an individual’s mind, whereas most medieval literature relates physical actions, such as the exploits of knights or pilgrims, or expresses idealized emotions, such as in courtly love poetry. Boccaccio’s work is composed as a letter written by the principal character, Fiammetta, to be sent as advice to other women who may find themselves in a similar situation, that is, seemingly duped by a man.
The elegy relates her emotional history from when she first sees and falls in love with her lover, Panfilo, through his leaving her, temporarily as she believes at first, up to her ultimate realization that he must have chosen never to return, thus rejecting her as his lover. Fiammetta seeks to express her feelings; the actions she leaves to readers to imagine. For example, she describes their trysts in only the vaguest of terms, but she expresses fully the emotions she feels during their affair.
Although, by her own account, happily married, she is impressed by the handsomeness of a young man. Becoming acquainted, they fall in love and carry on an affair secret to almost everyone. Even their pretend names for each other reveal the emotional nature of their relationship: Fiammetta (“endearing flame”) and Panfilo (“all-loving,” or “lover of all”). In a stream-of-consciousness literary style, she expresses the agonies of facing separation from her lover and then of wondering why he has stayed away far longer than he said he would, without communicating. Finally, she describes the despair that paralyzes her life. She blames herself, him, and the misfortune of the circumstances that divided them initially. Her emotions revolve between intense anguish in missing Panfilo and extreme anger because of his presumed rejection of her. She contemplates and even acts on thoughts of suicide. Her letter is meant to warn other women of the dangers of loving a man so deeply as to be as vulnerable to his abandonment as she proves to be.
The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta, although one of Boccaccio’s minor works, has become better known as literary critics and historians have paid greater attention to gender-related issues in their research. It is one of only a few works of its time that have a woman as a principal character and of even fewer...
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