Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron as a collection of a hundred short stories and it was completed by him in 1353. Many of the stories have been sourced from earlier tales and quite a few of the stories are connected to the bawdy idea of love, practical jokes of the time, the social hypocrisy of the clergymen, and the increasing importance of the newly developing mercantile class (Barolini, 1983). In this context, the Decameron can also be seen as a study of the role fortune and intelligence play in the lives of the characters particularly those stories which are connected with the mercantile class. This is certainly a change from the earlier ideas of fate and god’s grace being more important than intelligence and makes the Decameron and important work for students of both literature and history.
With regard to that idea, researchers such as Patch (1927) note that fortune, along with intelligence and love, becomes the primary force that guides characters in the stories presented in the Decameron. It is these forces that drive characters to take action and make their decisions but in some ways, these forces have been modified in comparison to earlier writings. For example, the strict ideal of fortune having a predetermined course for all individuals is no longer applicable for the characters in the Decameron since fortunes can change. Instead of a divinely ordained fate for individuals, fortune becomes an active player with which wealth in society can be circulated to make the rich become poor or the poor into overnight lords.
The same representation of fortune is seen in the Divine Comedy where Dante is told by Virgil that fortunes can shift as the wealth changes hands as per the divine will of the almighty (Patch, 1927). In the Decameron, this fluid nature of fortune is used to create storylines and situations where intelligence, effort, risk-taking, and hard work may result in good fortunes. For instance, the idea of merchants taking risks by leaving their homes and traveling into unknown territories by facing the dangers of travel is important for the Decameron. This traveling and seeking fortune in far off lands leads several merchants to become rich.
In fact, Barolini (1983) suggests that the wheel of fortune is the primary element that drives the stories in the Decameron. It can be seen as an ethics-based rational structure that is not subjected to any religious dogma as a part of nearly all the tales told on the second day. Good fortune for the characters brings happiness and wealth while bad fortunes bring sadness yet the end of the story remains unexpected since the readers know that fortunes can change during the events of the story. Of course, there is a relationship between having a high level of faith and having good fortunes. The stories show that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people but since every listener or reader would consider him/herself to be good, the idea of fortune could give readers and listeners a hope to be free from what the indoctrination of the church of the times would support.
This notion of fortune playing a part in people’s lives is linked with the changing social orders of the times since the peasant classes and the ruling classes had to come to terms with the rising mercantile class of professional bankers, money lenders, artisans, and in certain situations, prostitutes who had enough money to be considered rich (Brown University, 2007). In those times, the long-established position of the landed aristocrats was being challenged in the same way as it had been challenged with the rising power of the clergy a few centuries ago. However, the aristocrats had little idea how to deal with the new class structure but storytellers such as Boccaccio could see the changes that were coming.
The Decameron certainly shows that there is a clash between the rising and established classes. While the new professionals were able to get their money from the urban developments that were taking place at the time, the land-based revenue of the aristocrats often remained less than the income of the bankers and money lenders. The change in the social order was also affected in many ways by how the politics, religious teachings, and social problems of the time were handled by the people (Brown University, 2007).
For example, the social conditions of the times meant that family-based marriage played a prominent role in terms of fate since love and marriage were often unrelated in practical life. Being a part of one of the old families of Italy meant immediate entry into the elite of society but it also meant that the marriage of that individual is most likely to be arranged into another family of greater or at least equal social standing (Brown University, 2007). Fate in this case meant the lottery of birth since having money or not having money might be taken as immaterial if the person belonged to noble blood and owned some amount of land. Fate for the mercantile class brought with it the idea of changing fortunes as merchants became rich or poor and having money became the standard of being in good standing in society.
The social structure of the aristocrats meant that the revenue from land remained static and could not be grown or lost except by internal family disputes, war with other nations, or through the displeasure of the rulers. On the other hand, banking, trade, and commerce could help people grow in stature and wealth even though their nobility remained questionable since they had no land to their name. As described by Patch (1927), in the Middle Ages, Italy had taken a position of dominance by acting as a European door to the rest of the world as far as trade was concerned. Traders could easily call on more wealth and resources than the aristocrats could and this change in fortunes is beautifully expressed with the stories contained in the Decameron.
This idea presented in the stories can be easily understood by the fortunes that were changing in society. Former peasants or even children of peasants could walk with the nobility and claim to have a higher social status through their money than the ones who treated their parents with disdain. The stories of beggars becoming rich or merchants becoming part of the elite would therefore be nothing unacceptable to the listeners of the time and in fact, they might have listened eagerly. Even ideas such as the concept of usury which had been anathema for centuries in the past could become acceptable to the bankers and merchants since the social situation fated them to be so.
The connection between fortune and social standing is also a testing ground for the Italian society where the debate on fate and fortune could be seen playing out on a daily basis in the streets of the larger cities (Brown University, 2007). New ideas and innovations in law, technology, and even politics could be tested on the basis of fortune. Undoubtedly, the popularity of an idea is certainly not a given until the role of fortune also connects at the right time with the right individuals to make that idea acceptable.
In conclusion, I feel that the believers in a preordained fate might have considered these stories to be too modern for the times. However, considering the social changes which Italy and Europe at large were going through at the time, it becomes more understandable since the literature of a given period certainly reflects the zeitgeist. It is interesting to contemplate how the literature of our own times will be read and understood a few hundred years from today.
Patch, H. 1927, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature. Harvard.
Barolini, T. 1983, ‘The Wheel of the Decameron’, Romance Philology, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 521-539.
Brown University. 2007, ‘Decameron: Societal Structure and the New Urban Economy’, [Online]