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Bitching about the Decameron

Bitching about the Decameron

Author: Gwen verch David

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...while in quarantine!

The Decameron is 14th century Italian collection of short stories, told by characters who are hiding out from the Black Death as it ravages Florence. Join me to listen to the stories in translation, along with commentary, complaints, explanatory notes, exasperation and, well...bitching
21 Episodes
Bad Omens

Bad Omens


In today's stories of unhappy love, we have two examples of visions in a dream. In the first (4.5) a woman's lover is murdered by her brothers, and he appears to her in a dream to help her find his body. In the second (4.6) a man dismisses the ominous dreams of himself and his wife (who he married secretly), then dies suddenly and leaves her with the challenge of explaining the whole thing. CONTENT WARNINGS: Gore. In story one, after finding her lover's body, the protagonist cuts off his head and takes it home with her, where she treats it like a saint's relic. Corrupt justice system/sexual harrassment. In story two, a judge tries to convince the protagonist that he could protect her from suspicion in her husband's death if she sleeps with him. She refuses, and needs to physically back up that refusal before he gives up.
In today's episode, our storytellers continue to try to tell a story miserable enough for Filostrato, who has demanded tales of love that ended unhappily. After skipping story 4.2, 4.3 describes three pairs of teenagers who run away together, but whose happy ending turns to disaster after the eldest of the young men can't keep his eyes off the pretty locals. In story 4.4, two lovers learn of each other through rumour, fall in love based on reputation, and begin a relationship through letters. Before they can ever meet, the woman's marriage is arranged to another, and the man turns to piracy to rescue her - as is fitting for the theme of the day, she is killed during his 'rescue' attempt before they can ever speak to each other. CONTENT WARNINGS for first story: Underage relationships - female characters are 14 and 15, age of male characters is unknown but presumed young. Descriptions of verbal abuse of unfaithful spouse. Murder of spouse as revenge for (unconfirmed) infidelity. Mentions of torture of suspected criminals as interrogation technique. Person with power of life and death over one character uses that to convince her underage sister to have sex with him. She is murdered by her husband because of this.  CONTENT WARNINGS for second story: Female character is killed by her guards/escorts to prevent her from being kidnapped/rescued by her lover on her way to get married.
F*ck the Haters

F*ck the Haters


Day four begins with an authorial digression, in which Giovanni explains and disputes the criticism he has been receiving. From there, we launch into our first story of unhappy love (4.1): a true tragedy in which a woman's lover is murdered by her father and she kills herself in response. CONTENT WARNING: Obviously, strong warning for suicide. It's fairly specifically described in the text, but I do give a verbal warning and summary before the grisly bits, and there's nothing important you'll miss by skipping the rest of the episode after that. Also gore: the father has the dead lover's heart presented to the protagonist and the text is NOT shy about it. This is also after my verbal warning and summary. 
Skipping stories 3.8 and 3.10, in this episode we bring the third day to its conclusion with a tale (3.9) about a clever and determined woman, who neatly outmaneuvers her husband so that he is forced to acknowledge her worth and give her the respect she is due. CONTENT WARNING: Sex by deceit. The protagonist disguises herself as someone else to trick her husband into consummating their marriage. 
In this episode, a particularly long story (3.7) is skimmed, summarised, and bitched at. The protagonist, having been blanked by his lover, disappears for seven years, and comes back to find that he has apparently been recently murdered, and his lover's husband has been convicted of the deed. Rather than clear things up immediately, he takes the opportunity to manipulate everyone involved. CONTENT WARNINGS: Manipulative behaviour. The protagonist (in disguise) convinces his lover that he is God's representative and spends a long time berating her for abandoning him in the first place, implying that she had no right to end their relationship. Abuse of justice. A character is accused of murder without strong evidence, and it is strongly implied that the accusation is upheld because the magistrates care more about their reputation than the truth.
Today's stories (3.4 and 3.5) both feature men who managed to arrange liasons with married women under their husbands noses. In the first, the husband is preoccupied by prayer in the next room; in the second, the lover carries on both parts of the conversation himself.
In today's story (3.3), a woman decides she wants to have an affair with a particular gentleman. So she informs his friend, a friar, very specifically of all the things he really shouldn't do to such a respectable lady! (The gentleman gets the hint; the friar doesn't.) CONTENT WARNING: False accusations of sexual harassment, relying on the fact that the one who is told won't take direct action. 
Day 3 begins with two stories about men who satisfied their desires through deception, and got away with it. In the first (3.1), a labourer pretends to be deaf-mute in order to get hired by a nunnery, and quickly gets co-opted by the nuns to see to more than the garden. In the second (3.2), a groom disguises himself in order to sleep with a queen, and despite the king realising what happened almost immediately afterwards, remains unidentified thanks to his quick wits. CONTENT WARNINGS: In the first story, dismissive language around the protagonist because he appears to be deaf, mute, and 'simple'. In the second story, a man sleeps with a woman who thinks he is her husband. 



In this story (2.10), a young woman is kidnapped from her old and unsatisfactory husband by a pirate, who proves to be far more satisfactory. Repeatedly, and at considerable length. When her husband arrives and tries to reclaim her, she informs him of that fact. Repeatedly, and at considerable length.
In today's story (2.9), locker room talk turns into a boast, then into a bet, then sneaking into someone's bedroom, stealing their stuff, and accusing them of adultery, which is followed by attempted murder, a secret escape, living in disguise, dramatic revelations, and a gruesome punishment for...ONE of the guys responsible? Unsurprisingly, this is accompanied by a lot of bitching. CONTENT WARNINGS: Locker room talk, throughout. Sexual harrassment: a character sneaks into a woman's room and examines her body while she's sleeping, takes some of her stuff, and uses that to convince people he slept with her. Domestic violence: a character believes his wife has cheated on him, and so orders a servant to murder her. This becomes widely known and is not punished. Gore: a character (bad guy, we don't like him) gets executed by being covered in honey and bitten to death by insects. This is described in a fairly gruesome way between 30:30 and 30:50 (after the main character returns home and is celebrated by her community). REFERENCES: In this episode, I refer to the 'Visions of Medieval Trans Feminism' issue of the Medieval Feminist Forum journal, which is freely available online at 
After skipping story 2.7 (due to intolerable values clash), this episode picks up with story 2.8, a truly Shakespearian plot of deceit, hidden identities, convenient illnesses, and dramatic revelations at the very end. 
In today's story (2.6), a family is split up by war, shipwreck, and piracy, and experiences increasingly implausible adventures in the decade and a half before they are all reunited. 
In our first story (2.4), a failed merchant turns pirate, gets captured by other pirates, gets shipwrecked, and quits the trading life altogether once he makes it home. In our second (2.5), a well-meaning but foolish young man has a hell of a night in Naples, but loses no more than he gains. 
Tropes Galore!

Tropes Galore!


In this episode, in a single story (2.3), we encounter: Fair and clever young gentleman thrown into poverty;  There was only one bed;  Woman disguised as a man;  [redacted];  Secret marriage;  Secret royalty;  God/fortune brought me the perfect husband;  Maids when you're young never wed an old man;  Rags to riches;  Moneylender makes good;  Inherently noble protagonist becomes king; and Happy ending! There's also an unusually large amount of historical commentary, on the investiture controversy, interest rates, and a rising class consciousness that created the Renaissance. 
In this episode, we embark upon the second day of the Decameron, which has the theme of 'people who get into trouble, then have an unexpected stroke of good fortune'. Our two stories (2.1, 2.2) describe a guy who pretends to be paralysed, gets the shit beaten of him, and then gets out of trouble because a rich guy thinks he's funny; and a guy who gets robbed and left for dead on a snowy night, before a widow takes mercy on him and gives him a hot bath, a good supper, and a 'satisfying' night.  CONTENT WARNING: Unjust justice system, ableism, and violence in the first story. After pretending to be paralysed, the protagonist gets discovered, beaten up by a mob, taken in for theft, none-too-gently interrogated, and is likely to be sentenced for crimes he didn't commit due to the bias of the judge, before being rescued by the power of wealth, influence, and whimsy.
In this episode, we bring Day 1 of The Decameron to its conclusion with stories 1.8, 1.9, and 1.10. Hear about a miser shamed into virtuous wall-art, a cowardly king turned vengeful by a noblewoman's bitching, and an old dude who justified his crush with an argument about the best way to eat a leek. You can also hear about fourteenth century gift culture, changing attitudes to tolerant rulers, courtly love, and my impatience with Pampinea as she (once again) is a mouthpiece for Giovanni's bad attitude to women.
This episode features a record-setting FOUR stories (1.4-1.7), with hypocritical abbots, lecherous kings, miserly friars, and uncharacteristically parsimonious princes all being set in their place by appropriately deployed wit. Also misogyny, and a weird bit of dialogue about chickens... CONTENT WARNING: The first story in this episode (running from 1:30-9:40) has some issues with sexual coercion (not that Giovanni seems to notice). A character who agrees to sex with one guy gets trapped with another guy, there are also power imbalance things going on. According to the narrator she's perfectly willing, but that's because Giovanni's a misogynist who doesn't get these things. Take care, and skip ahead if you need to.
In the second and third stories from Day 1, Boccaccio uses learned and virtuous Jews as mouthpieces for controversial statements about religion: first, that the entire Papal Court is full of shitbags, and second, that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all have equal reason to think they've got the right of it. Meanwhile, I drop in a lot of comments with remembered tidbits from my time studying medieval history at uni, and my cat makes her presence known.
Mister Little-Hat

Mister Little-Hat


At last, we hear our first story: how an utterly reprehensible person lied so thoroughly in his last confession that an entire town became convinced he was a saint.
A Plot Device Appears!

A Plot Device Appears!


In this episode, we meet the protagonists of our frame tale: seven young women and three young men, who decide to hide out from the plague in a palace outside the city. The organisation of this venture, for some reason, requires several lengthy speeches that don't so much 'betray' Giovanni's misogyny as 'parade' it...and after a while, I quite lost patience with him.
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