Sex, Death, and a Little Love: Boccaccio’s Decameron and the Novella Tradition

This course will focus on a close reading of Boccaccio’s often bawdy masterpiece, which has often been banned and frequently bowdlerized and assembles an extraordinary range of medieval narrative forms into its 100 (or is it 101?) tales. To fully appreciate the extent of Boccaccio’s achievement, we will read selections from previous frame narratives like the Arabian Nights and Apuleius’ Golden Ass, in addition to addressing the influence of Ovid’s various erotic poems and Heroides. Some topics to be addressed include Boccaccio’s apparent feminism, the relation of language to reality, the uses of literature, the contest between human wit and fortune, the power of love in the face of societal forces, the changing views of religion (and the religious), the birth of the merchant (and middle) class, and the seriousness of comedy.

Encompassing all these issues and many more, the Decameron is often regarded as the human comedy to match Dante’s divine one, and it continues to elicit creative responses, from Pasolini’s film version to Aldo Busi’s modern rewriting. These materials, as well as selected secondary and theoretical readings, will be used to help us understand the complexities and contemporary resonances of Boccaccio’s attempt to recreate a world through storytelling in the face of the Black Death.

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