At some point of your education, whether at the end of secondary school or the beginning of university, you’ve probably encountered Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories a rag-tag group of pilgrims tell each other, the defining literary work of Middle English.  In fact, virtually all of Chaucer’s stories are derived from an earlier work, The Decameron, composed by “the father of Italian prose,” Giovanni Boccaccio around the year 1350.

Much like Dante’s obsession with the number 9, Boccaccio drew on medieval numerological traditions and used the number 10 as a symbol throughout his book; in the midst of the Black Death, ten young people escape from Florence to hang out in the countryside for ten days—hence the title, Decameron.  Because YouTube parties were not yet a thing, to entertain themselves they declare that everyone has to tell a story, resulting in a hundred stories told over the course of ten days.  These stories cover the full span of human nature, with a different theme set for each day: love stories, tragedies, tales of mischief, tricks, and virtue.

The tales are in turn bawdy and satirical, offering keen insights on the human condition during the early Renaissance.  Many are vignettes exposing the greed and corruption of the Catholic Church, in which clergymen are depicted as lewd, opportunistic megalomaniacs, not at all the spiritual leaders they were meant to be.  This, as well as Boccaccio’s depiction of sex as a natural, often comedic part of human existence, were virtually unthinkable in a post-medieval Italy dominated by religion, where asceticism and the life of the spirit were taught to be of prime importance and the Black Death was believed by many to be God’s punishment for mankind’s sins.  Boccaccio, through his jocular tales of cuckolded husbands, scheming young women, sexually voracious nuns, and money-grubbing friars, was able to pave the way towards the Renaissance’s focus on humanism and secularism.

Also unprecedented was Boccaccio’s treatment of women in his stories; while in Italian society of the times women were viewed as inferior to men, Boccaccio actually depicted them as having the upper hand to men in most relationships, as being altogether tougher, more lustful, and more cunning.  Many of the tales in the Decameron depict battles between the sexes, with women emerging victorious due to their superior wit, tolerance in the face of adversity, among other virtues.


Boccaccio also proved himself centuries ahead of his time—which was very emphatic in proscribing women from the public sphere, insisting that their only satisfaction should lie in taking care of the home and family.  Boccaccio, in the voices of his seven female raconteurs, takes a sympathetic view of women’s condition, in which lovesickness is more keen, daily trials more difficult, and unreached potential more frustrating, because women are not permitted to act out in any of these aspects.

Through his many tales of women outsmarting men, outperforming men sexually, and finding ways around the constrictions society—and the Church in particular—placed on them, Boccaccio stood out as one of the only public figures of his time who depicted women realistically.  Unlike other writers of the early Renaissance, most notably Dante and Petrarch, who viewed women in the dualistic way popularized by religious teachings—pure, saintly, and acquiescent in the tradition of the Virgin Mary or whorish, demonic, and out to corrupt all of mankind—Boccaccio was able to write women as individual and flawed, having lives and desires independent of men, rather than moral archetypes.  In the scope of European literature, this was not seen again in mainstream thought until the 18th century.