Giovanni Boccaccio’s the Decameron, written in the Early Renaissance, is a sharp social commentary that reflected the ideas and themes of the Renaissance and of Renaissance Humanism. His tales of nuns and priests caught in compromising situations, corrupt clergy selling chances to see religious artifacts, and of wives cheating on their husbands show the changing ideals of the time and the corruption that was running rampant within the church and in the lives of the general populace. The Decameron speaks against this corruption and reflects the secular attitude of living as happily as possible, demoting the principals of Christian morality that had ruled daily life in the time before the Renaissance. Another concept that sprung from the Renaissance was capitalism, an aspect that Boccaccio explores. The capitalism of the Renaissance, corruption of the Church clergy and the ideas of humanism are reflected in the Decameron.
Boccaccios Decameron reflects Renaissance capitalism and the new attitude of people towards sin and making money. Prior to the Renaissance, it was considered a sin to charge interest on borrowed money. There were very few Christian bankers in the early Middle Ages, and it was not until the late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance that it became acceptable to start charging interest. As a result, capitalism was able to reach new height in the Renaissance. Despite the changing attitude of those seeking to get rich, usury was still considered a sin. The attitude of the people towards sin began to change, and the Renaissance was characterized by these changing morals. Sin became more acceptable when the benefit of sinning was becoming rich. Capitalism led to materialism, which corrupted the clergy as well as the laity. In the Middle Ages, social classes were very structured, and there was little room for social movement. Yet in the Renaissance, it was not uncommon for people to gain social status, because they could make money. There was a class of popolo grosso, or new rich. Capitalism allowed people who had very little to gain material wealth. The woman in the 10th day 10th story, a peasant is able to move up in social status, by marrying a richer man. It was very possible that this could happen during that time. This social mobility also brought with it a sense of greed and materialism, even within the clergy. In the 6th day, 10th story, Boccaccio tells of Brother Cipolla, a monk who convinces peasants to give him money to see a false relic, a feather from the wing of the angel Gabriel. When the relic is replaced with a piece of coal, the monk is still able to manipulate the peasants into giving him their money, persuading them in the heat of the moment that the charcoal is some other precious religious relic.
“In this manner, and with great profit for himself, Brother Cipolla turned the entire populationinto crusadershe happened to rake in for himself all during the following year no less the charcoal had that day”(478).
The spirit of greed that characterized the time period drove even a monk to manipulate his parishioners for personal profit. In the 1st day 2nd story tale of the Jew who goes to Rome and observes how the clergy were acting, the Jew finds that
“The more closely he observed them, the more he saw that they were all just avaricious and greedy for money and that they were just as likely to buy and sell human (even Christian) blood as they were to sell religious objects pertaining to the sacraments…and in these commercial ventures they carried on more trade and had more brokers than there were engaged in any other business in Paris”(41).
The attitude of the clergy was worse than that of the laity, as the clergy would have had a clear idea that their greed for profit was a sin. The Decameron clearly reflects the greed and materialism that Renaissance capitalism brought, and new attitude of the people who were no longer as concerned with sinning.
Another aspect of the Decameron that displays facets of the Renaissance is the corruption of the clergy. The church during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance was filled with corruption, and clergy from priests to Popes acted immorally. Late Renaissance Popes such as Alexander VI, the Pope who not only married but had children, and Julius II, the war Pope who was obsessed with offensive wars and conquests, not only went against the Church teachings, but set an obvious example to that immorality was not only allowed but acceptable. In the aforementioned 1st day 2nd story tale of the Jew who observes the clergy in Rome, the Jew also comments on the overall immorality he sees.
“The Pope, the cardinalsfrom the highest to the lowest of them, all participated in the sin of lustwithout the least bit remorse or shame. He observed all of were open gluttons, drinkers, and sots, and that after their lechery, just like animals, they were more servants of their bellies than of anything elsethey called their blatant simony meditation’ and their gluttony maintenance,’ as if God did not know the intention of these wicked minds”(41).
Clergy members not only sinned but also did so openly. The basis of the Church was in Rome, yet in Rome this kind of immoral behavior was accepted and regularly practiced. The Church was sullied through to its base. Clergy members were hypocritical, teaching one thing and practicing something quite different. Common priests were just as corrupt, selling indulgences and chances to see false religious relics. They lied and promised that by giving up money, parishioners could save their souls. The 7th day 3rd story of the Decameron tells of a friar who is in love with a woman, and uses his position to find an excuse to sleep with her. When she asks him if its appropriate for a friar to act in such a way, he replies “Madam, the moment I remove this cloak, which I can remove quite easily, you will see me as a man made just like all others and not as a friar I’m not saying it’s not a sin, but God forgives even grater sins as long as you repent” (499). The friar, who is trusted by people to do the work of God, is trying ton convince the woman cheating on her husband with him is not a serious sin! The attitude of the friar also reflected the attitudes of the people at the time, who seemed to think that giving into worldly desires was acceptable, especially since the clergy of the Church were doing so as well. In one story, Boccaccio describes an entire convent of nuns who are taking turns sleeping with the gardener. When one nun protests, saying ” Don’t you know that we have promised our virginity to God?'” another nun responds, ” how many promises do we make to Him every day which we can’t keep? If we made Him promises, let Him find others to keep them for us’ “(197). This flippant attitude towards sin, and disobeying God even when they clearly knew what they were doing was wrong was an attitude that perverted the Church, and the corruption in the clergy had an effect on the population. Christian morality was being demoted, seen as secondary to having a good time and living a happy, earthly life. People had a no regrets mentality towards morality and did whatever pleased them. The stories of the book reflect this demotion of Christian morality that was affected greatly by the corruption of the clergy.
The Renaissance was characterized by Humanistic thinking, which revolved around the glorification of man. During the Renaissance, people began to recognize the transience of life, and were interested in living in the present. The concept of living with a more worldly attitude was new to the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. People wanted to live as happily as they could on earth, and Hedonism for its own sake was practiced and even accepted. Standards of morality were lowered as a result of Renaissance Humanistic thinking, as it was acceptable to act sinfully if it made people happy to do so. In the 9th day 2nd story, the Abbess of a convent decides to accept the nuns scandalous behavior and allow all the women to sleep with whoever they wished.
She “concluded that it was impossible for anyone to defend themselves from the desires of the flesh, and she said that everyone there should enjoy herself whenever possible, provided that it had been done discreetly”(662).
Humanistic thought elevated the image of man, and people thought that they should do what pleased them, instead of following imposed moral restrictions. While people were discreet about their actions, and not blatantly sinning in public, people assumed that if they were smart enough to cover up their immorality, then it was acceptable to act immorally. During the Renaissance, mans intelligence was celebrated. In the 7th day 6th story, Boccaccio tells of a woman who devises a clever plan to cheat on her husband. When her husband discovers that she has been cheating, then learns of her cunning, he allows her to continue to sleep with her lover under his own roof!
“And so the clever wife, practically given a license to do what she pleasedhad him(her lover) enter through the front doorby acting discretely, she was able to enjoy herself with him on many an occasion and to lead a happy life”(516).
The idea that someone’s cleverness can outweigh the necessity of adhering to the principals of their morality reinforces the Humanistic thinking about celebrating the qualities of man, even when those qualities give way to sinfulness. Even Boccaccio’s book is filled with lewd tales. While the book reflects many aspects of the Renaissance and makes social commentary, it is filled with sordid details of nuns who sleep around and other vulgar tales. It is written to be art, but not art to glorify God as most art had previously been intended. The Decameron reflects Humanistic thinking about the elevation of man, which had an influence upon morality in the Renaissance.
The Renaissance was a period when society, attitudes and ideas were changing. Capitalism allowed for social mobility, yet it also served to change peoples opinions on morality. People now saw things that were once thought immoral to be acceptable, when the gain was great. Capitalism paved the way for greed and desire for material wealth. Immorality also existed in the clergy of the church. Corruption in Popes and priests set an example for all other Christians, and would eventually set the stage for the coming of Protestantism. Through Humanistic thinking, man and his art were elevated. Boccaccios The Decameron is a work in which the capitalism, corruption of the clergy and humanistic thinking are reflected. Each story of the book reflects the overall changing society of the Renaissance.