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A Rhetoric of the Decameron

A Rhetoric of the Decameron

Marilyn Migiel
  • Book Info
    A Rhetoric of the Decameron
    Book Description:

    Both a passionate denunciation of masculinist readings of theDecameronand a meticulous critique of previous feminist analyses, Marilyn Migiel'sA Rhetoric of the Decameronoffers a sophisticated re-examination of the representations of women, men, gender identity, sexuality, love, hate, morality, and truth in Boccaccio's masterpiece. TheDecameronstages an ongoing, dynamic, and spirited debate about issues as urgent now as in the fourteenth century - a debate that can only be understood if theDecameron's rhetorical objectives and strategies are completely reconceived.

    Addressing herself equally to those who argue for a proto-feminist Boccaccio - a quasi-liberal champion of women's autonomy - and to those who argue for a positivistically secure historical Boccaccio who could not possibly anticipate the concerns of the twenty-first century, Migiel challenges readers to pay attention to Boccaccio's language, to his pronouns, his passives, his echolalia, his patterns of repetition, and his figurative language. She argues that human experience, particularly in the sexual realm, is articulated differently by theDecameron's male and female narrators, and refutes the notion that theDecameronoffers an undifferentiated celebration of Eros. Ultimately, Migiel contends, the stories of theDecameronsuggest that as women become more empowered, the limitations on them, including the threat of violence, become more insistent.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7045-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Note on Citations of the Decameron
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. Introduction: A Rhetoric of the Decameron (and why women should read it)
    (pp. 3-16)

    I have written this study of Boccaccio’sDecameronbecause it made real many of the questions I have been asking over and over, and in a variety of contexts, for the last decade. In theDecameron(written ca. 1349–51), seven women and three men struggle to claim authority for competing narratives about institutions and individuals. Contemporaneously, Author and readers (male Author and imagined female readers) struggle to find the place or places from which they may hear, re-articulate, and respond to the one hundred stories told by these seven women and three men.¹ TheDecameronis concerned with power...

  6. chapter one Woman as Witness
    (pp. 17-28)

    In his Introduction to Day 1 of theDecameron, the Author describes the outbreak of the Black Death in Florence in 1348: mysterious symptoms, the inevitability of death, the oppressive presence of the dead and the dying, the measures taken to avoid the plague, the abandoned city, the effects on morality. His is presumably an eyewitness account of a crucial and traumatic moment in Florentine history. In fact, however, this narrative is filtered through other literary and historical descriptions of plagues.¹ If we examine the principal subtext, Book 2, chapter 4 of theHistory of the Langobards(Historia Langobardorum) of...

  7. chapter two Fiammetta v. Dioneo
    (pp. 29-63)

    If one had to select the two narrators of theDecameronwho embody the different worlds that theDecameronexplores, these would most certainly be Fiammetta and Dioneo. Noting that scholars have often identified Fiammetta and Dioneo as a couple, Janet Smarr writes, ‘Whether or not these two are in love with each other, they represent two quite different attitudes which Boccaccio makes balance each other, just as he balances the structure of the book.’¹ As Smarr demonstrates, Fiammetta is pivotal to Boccaccio’s vision of a humanity that is rationally governed and temperate. In order to highlight this function of...

  8. chapter three Boccaccio’s Sexed Thought
    (pp. 64-82)

    Opinion from diverse quarters has it that a lot of sex is happening in theDecameron. First-year students reading theDecameronat Cornell University marvel at how quickly the characters fall in love (usually upon seeing an incredibly beautiful or handsome person for the very first time, and sometimes without seeing them at all); they are even more puzzled at how quickly those characters fall into bed. Thomas Bergin notes that the ten storytellers ‘are much interested in sex,’ and he calculates that ‘of the one hundred tales told 67 percent present situations where a sexual relationship (one cannot always...

  9. chapter four To Transvest Not to Transgress
    (pp. 83-108)

    Boccaccio’s transgressive women have found a special place in the hearts of readers, some of whom are so delighted at the prospect that women are taking any action at all that they cannot pause to ask whether there is justification for the women’s choices. How far did the author of theDecameronintend to go when (in the guise of his ten narrators, of course) he chose to portray ‘deviant women,’ women who depart from traditional codes for femininity and who may even assume roles traditionally reserved for men? Probably not as far as many readers think. I have already...

  10. chapter five Women’s Witty Words: Restrictions on Their Use
    (pp. 109-122)

    By the time theDecameronreaches its halfway point, it is patently evident that the ten storytellers are engaged in a communal project of constructing as well as describing the society they have left behind. During the open topic of Day 1, they have described the institutional and discursive challenges that beset them. They have offered tentative solutions to overcoming Fortune (Day 2) and to affirming the possibilities of individual agency and clever industriousness (Day 3). They have even begun to confront topics that come dangerously close to broaching news of the plague, as when, led by Filostrato, they confront...

  11. chapter six Men, Women, and Figurative Language in the Decameron
    (pp. 123-146)

    As the narrators of theDecameronuse figurative language, as they show the characters in their novellas using figurative language, they are performing gender and they are performing class. This is most markedly the case when figurative language is used to talk about sexual intercourse. As we shall see, theDecamerongives the impression that women will be on equal footing with men in these demonstrations of rhetorical power, but in the final analysis, the book empowers men, far more than women, to use figurative language about sexuality. This is one of the principal ways in which theDecameronconsolidates...

  12. chapter seven Domestic Violence in the Decameron
    (pp. 147-159)

    To speak of domestic violence in a fourteenth-century Italian text like Boccaccio’sDecameronis to position oneself on uncertain terrain. In our cultural imagination, domestic violence in the Middle Ages may seem like medieval misogyny, everywhere rampant. But thet fact is that readers hesitate to consider theDecameronmisogynistic and, in keeping with this, they have rarely chosen to see individual instances of violence against women in theDecameronas very significant to the reading of the work as a whole.

    Furthermore, readers have tended to imagine domestic violence in theDecameronas very many people imagine domestic violence today:...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 160-166)

    Over the time that I have written this book and presented portions of it at scholarly conferences, I have continued to sense in sectors of my public a certain anxiety about the usefulness of gender as an analytic category.¹ The concern, as regards theDecameron, seems to be that to focus on gender may detract from Boccaccio’s singular contribution. If we attend to gender and sexual difference, can we still read theDecameronas offering what Franco Fido calls a ‘luminoso progetto di civiltà’ (‘a brilliant outline of civilization’)?² Would we still be able to maintain that both men and...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 167-202)
  15. Works Cited
    (pp. 203-212)
  16. Index
    (pp. 213-219)