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HUI 235 - Essay Example

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Medieval times were nothing like the way of life we know now: to modern people it seems a primitive world of animal-drawn transport, castles, hovels, kings and…
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Academia - Research December 2009 Oh, woe Tragic Society Tales from the Decameron When Giovanni Boccaccio wrote his hundred tales or novellas in the mid-1300s, the world was a different place. Medieval times were nothing like the way of life we know now: to modern people it seems a primitive world of animal-drawn transport, castles, hovels, kings and noblemen on one hand, and paupers on the other. It was a society where people treated one another with vengeance and little mercy: perhaps it is no surprise that tragedies happened in such an environment.
What was it like - and why did so many cruel personal dramas happen? Two of Boccaccio’s tales illustrate what could happen in that strange medieval period in a society where power and morals were quite different to how we consider them today, and where fear was a very real emotion in women and those who occupied the lower strata. Political correctness and formal ethics had not been invented yet, and it was certainly not an egalitarian society. The first tale from Day Four, when Filostrato tells his story, shows exactly how unequally people dealt with each other. He recounts the plight of Ghismonda, the daughter of Tancrede the King of Salerne.
Daughters were under their fathers’ power whether they were servants or kings. Women had very little say in the direction of their lives: the reason for Ghismonda’s tragic fate. Although she was already widowed after an arranged marriage, her father made all decisions about her life, choosing her husband: ‘Neverthelesse, at length, he matched her with the Sonne to the Duke of Capua.’ She could not simply fall in love with any man who came her way. When she did form a secret liaison with Guiscardo - who was not even a nobleman, and occupied a lower position in the palace - she was taking an enormous risk. Secrecy and lies, subterfuge and concealment were vital: a father was seen to be justified in killing his children if they went against his will or trespassed on some social more. There was no freedom and very little fairness. Tancrede blamed his daughter for his anger: ‘...thou hast meerly murthered the unfeigned affection I bare thee, as never any father could expresse more to his childe.’ Her tragedy came from social inequality and the perception - by all - that men were superior and fathers (especially if they were kings) almighty.
In the fifth tale of the day, Philomena’s tale about Isabella (Lizabetta in some versions) and her herb pot, her brothers have power to do what they liked with her and anyone who got in their way. It was a world where people died like flies from the plague, where darkness, disease, and superstitious beliefs made people fearful and weak, unless they were very wealthy and powerful men. The rich wielded might and right, and ran their holdings like despots, striking fear into the hearts of women and underlings. Isabella’s brothers thought they were totally right when: ‘... they tooke Lorenzo in their company, and when they were come to a solitarie place, such as best suited with their vile purpose: they ran sodainly upon Lorenzo, slew him, and afterward enterred his body...’
In the midst of all this male power against which nothing or no one could pit their wits, it is no wonder tragedies took place. Ghismonda’s father kills her lover Guiscardo and sends her his heart in a gold cup, to which she adds poison and drinks it. Isabella’s brothers kill her lover Lorenzo, who then appears to her in a dream to tell her where his grave is. She disinters his head and plants it in a flowerpot where she obsessively grows basil. Struck by insanity when even this is taken from her, she dies a melancholic death. These dramatic tragedies seem overdone to modern readers, but medieval people liked stories of this nature as much as we like watching Friends: a bit over the top, but on the whole similar to our modern life. It is art imitating societal trends of the time.
Works cited
Boccaccio, Giovanni. (1325) The Decameron. Translated by Mark Musa and Thomas G. Bergin New York: Signet Classic, 2002 Read More
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