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Humor and Comedy in The Decameron and its Appeal to All Classes in Fourteenth-Century Italy

Updated on May 29, 2013

Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron tells tales of love in many forms, from the tragic to the comedic. The entertaining, and in many cases, joyful stories are unique in mid-fourteenth-century Italian literature, where the plague is one of the principle influences on writing and literary substance. Boccaccio uses his tales as a way to entertain all classes, and as a way to comment on various social issues that he feels are of concern to everyone. Because of this popular appeal, Boccaccio had to find away to produce humor and wit that the lower, as well as the upper classes would find funny. He accomplishes this through the use of religious and sexual humor. Boccaccio mocks all classes equally over the course of the various novellas, that allows every class to laugh at themselves just as much as laugh at everyone else.

The Catholic Church was an entity that nearly every Italian was connected to in some way. Thus, religious satire and humor was an essential way for Boccaccio to appeal to all classes of society. The first story in The Decameron actually drew its humor from a religious criticism, the issue of lying during a confession. The story tells of Ciapelletto, a notary who was know by many as a man who led a “wicked life”(Boccaccio, 1.1, Pg. 27). He is asked by a friend to do some business for him in Burgundy, which Ciapelletto agrees to do. Unfortunately, upon his arrival there, he falls fatally ill. When a friar is brought to him to hear his confessions, Ciapelletto lies to him and convinces the friar that he has led a virtuous life. After Ciapelletto's death, the friar delivers a sermon that makes everyone believe that Ciapelletto is a saint, and he is buried in a local chapel. The humor of this story appeals to all classes because many of those reading it would have been through a confession, and many may have also lied during confession themselves, and it portrays religious figures as gullible and overly blinded by faith, something not entirely false, but an aspect everyone could laugh at. This is also mocking the process of becoming a saint, that any man who claims he has led a pure life will be taken to be a “saintly man”(Boccaccio, 1.1, Pg. 35) and worshiped, regardless of anyone witnessing any miracles of substance, which was not an uncommon thought among people, for instance the sainthood of Thomas Aquinas.

Another aspect of the church that is even to this day ridiculed, is the corruption that is so common among church leaders. The second story that Boccaccio included in The Decameron revolves around this issue and the humor that stems from it. Abraham, a Jew, decides to travel to Rome to witness for himself the heart of the Catholic Church, and see if he would be willing to convert. To Giannotto di Civignì, a close friend of Abraham, who has been trying to convert in for years, this is a tragedy. He knows that once Abraham witnesses the corruption in Rome and “sees what foul and wicked lives the clergy lead, not only will he not become a Christian, but, if he ha already turned Christian, he would become a Jew again without fail”(Boccaccio, 1.2, Pg. 39). However, upon Abraham's return, Giannotto di Civignì is pleasantly surprised to hear that Abraham has chose to convert, claiming that only a religion that is able to spread, despite the corrupt hierarchy, could be the true word of God. While the personal connection to Giannotto di Civignì's original thought would bring a great deal of agreement and humorous entertainment to most readers, the final moral of the story also has a great connection to the readers. While not necessarily humor, except for maybe how unexpected the result was, Abraham's decision would give all Catholic readers a sense of pride in their faith, that it is strong amidst the corruption and the wickedness that plagues the church. The lowest and the highest class would have common feelings on this, and would be able to share same outlook on the ending of this story.

The religious aspects of the stories told in The Decameron provide appeal to both upper and lower classes because of the common religion, Catholicism, that many of the readers are a part of. Another aspect of these stories that has common appeal is the topic of sex and sexuality. Sex was not unique to any class and thus, any humor on that subject was enjoyed by all groups. In Boccaccio's fourth story, he begins to introduce this type of humor, coupling it with more religious humor. A monk, struck by a local girls beauty, convinces her to accompany him back to his room in the monastery. Unfortunately, the abbot observes this and is determined to catch the monk. However, the monk approaches the abbot and says that he is going to go and finish a task, and hands his key over to the abbot. The abbot then decides to enter the room himself and take advantage of the situation, still thinking that he is going to turn in the monk, while being able to indulge in pleasures of his own. The monk sees this and approaches the abbot. They both decide to keep quiet about the whole matter, and it is assumed that “they afterwards brought her back at regular intervals”(Boccaccio, 1.4, Pg. 48). Not only does this story mock the perceived promiscuity of clergy, but it also provides a humorous situation that does not apply directly to any class. Again, nearly every reader of this story would be able to find humor with the situation. It also reinforces the idea that the church hierarchy is corrupt and do not follow the protocol that they preach, as was also displayed in the second story.

Another instance of this coupling of religious criticism and sexual humor is in the first story of the third day. After the gardener of a convent quits, a man from his village decides to take the job, with the intention of playing dumb so that the nuns would think that they could get away with sleeping with him because “if he wanted to let the cat out of the bag, he wouldn't be able to”(Boccaccio, 3.1, Pg. 196). After having worked for awhile, this exact thing happens. Eventually, every nun at the convent, including the abbess is sleeping with him. He reveals that he is actually not dumb, and they decide to continue their relationships with him, with him as the steward, and he stays there for the rest of his days. This story is quite racy, and would be one of the only ones where any great deal of offense might be taken, especially among women. This story does not divide amongst classes, however, there is a good chance that men would enjoy this situation over women readers. Overall, the story is quite humorous because of the sneaky situation of the gardener getting exactly what he was looking for, and because of the high unlikeliness of that something like this could actually happen, especially the arrangement made in the end. But the sexual situation and religious connotations are the perfect way of appealing to both ends of the class spectrum.

Most of the stories that Boccaccio tells that include some sort of sexual humor, the actual act of sex is rather discreet and many things are implied. This is helpful, as it is less likely to offend people who are not as comfortable with sex. However, Boccaccio drastically changes from this pattern in the tenth story of the third day, and the sexual humor becomes much more graphic. In the story, Alibech, a young beautiful girl, goes to a man named Rustico, who is a monk to learn about how she could serve God. Rustico, overcome by lust, seduces her and convinces her that the best way to serve God is to help him put his “devil” into her “Hell”, as that will make the devil go away(Boccaccio, 3.10, Pg. 277). Eventually, Rustico tires of this, but Alibech is now troubled by her Hell, wanting to put the devil away. Though there is a pretty heavy metaphor that masks the actions that are taking place, it is still very clear as to what is going on. The story utilizes both religious and sexual humor, though it seems to be much more blunt in its execution, and is quite different from most of the others. While the idea that classes are not unbalanced is still present, the appeal of this story is a little more narrow to the audience that would enjoy its humor.

These stories that Boccaccio tells are important way that all the classes could be connected. The fact that The Decameron was written in the vernacular indicates that Boccaccio was hoping that everyone would have the opportunity to enjoy the stories and laugh at common humor. While some stories were slightly geared toward certain groups, overall there is a balance that doesn't cause to be turned off of the stories. The use of common issues that were found in society at that time and in that area made it more accessible to more people and allowed the jokes, puns, and criticisms to be more widely understood. Boccaccio created a highly entertaining and appealing piece of literature that was enjoyed by all manners of people and was capable of breaking class lines in its humor.


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