Not the Prudes We Think They Were: The Decameron

By Mara Revitsky ’20

decameronAbove is John William’s 1916 rendition of people telling the stories of The Decameron.

I am an insufferable dork when it comes to history.

In taking just two European History classes, I realized just how many familiar problems people of the past have to modern society. Humans are still struggling with the same issues of greed, envy, heartbreak, social image, and so many others. Humans also haven’t evolved much when it comes to humor.

In the second of the two European classes, I read stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, and I was shocked by the similarities to our modern concerns. Boccaccio wrote three types of stories: satires, tragedies, and jokes.

His satires discussed concepts like church versus religion, punishment as a result of being different, and cleverness. The tragedies were primarily concerned with virtue and merit. The most interesting type, jokes, illustrated how people are human.

Before reading Boccaccio, I—like many others—believed the misconception that the people of the 14th century were prudish, uptight, and only associated sex with reproduction. However, one can clearly see how this is very false in the stories “Putting the Devil into Hell” and “The Dumb Gardner.”

“Putting the Devil into Hell” follows a fourteen-year-old girl, Alibech, and her journey to serve God. She goes in search of a tutor to enlighten her in the practices and teachings of the Lord. Because she is so young and so beautiful, all of these holy men turn her down. She is too much of a temptation to go against their vows. However, a younger monk who lives in an isolated cave takes her in to teach her. The monk is also tempted by her and seeks to have his way with her.

To accomplish this task, he tells her that the best way she can serve God is to put the Devil in Hell. In this euphemism, his genitals are the Devil and her genitals Hell. You see the humor here when Alibech begins to like serving God this way, pleading with him to “aid me with thy Devil in abating my raging Hell.” The monk gets worn out by all of this sex, so he wants to find a way to get rid of Alibech.

A young nobleman discovers Alibech has a great family fortune and takes her away to marry her, greatly upsetting Alibech. When she is asked by her fellow noblewomen after the wedding how to put the Devil back in Hell, she informs them with “gestures,” and the women burst out laughing. They tell her that she shouldn’t be upset because her husband “will want to serve the Lord as well.”

A similar sexual and religious theme is present in “The Dumb Gardner.” A young, capable man named Masetto pretends to be dumb in order to live, work in the garden, and sleep with all of the nuns at a convent. He says to himself, when he sees all of the young nuns, “Once you put me inside that garden of yours, I’ll tend to it better than it’s ever been tended before.”

He plays dumb so that the nuns have to make the first move, and two do so out of curiosity. Within a short time, all of the nuns and the Abbess find out and join in on the fun.

Masetto is in such high demand all day every day that he stops playing dumb and wants the Abbess and nuns to make an arrangement to share him equally. The Abbess thinks that it would be better to compromise than “tarnish the reputation of the convent.”

Therefore, Masetto continues to live, work, and sleep with all of the convent; he fathers many “nunlets and monklets” without ever having to provide for them and care for a family. When the Abbess dies, Masetto retires at an older age with a “fat pension” and no worries.

In both stories, an audience can see a criticism of the church, but more importantly, the idea that sexual situations are a prime source of comedy. This still carries over into modern literature and entertainment. Sex jokes will always be funny; explicit content is nothing new to today’s audiences.

The Decameron is a perfect example and truly showcases how humans haven’t changed in 800 years. It is realizations like this that make me love history for the pure aspect of understanding human nature to its fullest potential. The people of the 14th century really weren’t the prudes everyone assumes they were.

To read the full stories, you can access PDFs online from the following links:

“Putting the Devil into Hell:”

“The Dumb Gardner:”