- Two Notes on the Decameron (III vii 42–43 and VIII vii 64, IX v 48)
These notes treat details in the Decameron which are admittedly minor, but whose clarification seems to result in a clearer understanding of Boccaccio’s sense and intention at several points.
I. The “santa parola dell’Evangelio” (III vii 42–43)
The “altra santa parola dell’Evangelio” cited by Boccaccio’s character (and mouthpiece), the feigned pilgrim Tedaldo, is not in the four gospels at all, being instead from Acts 1:1. Tedaldo, in his long polemic against the friars of his day, complains that they say, “Do what we say and not what we do”—so they themselves may be at liberty to do the opposite of what they teach. Instead, why don’t they follow that other holy word of the Gospel: “Incominciò Cristo a fare e a insegnare”? With alteration only of the divine name, this is a rendering of the Vulgate at Acts 1:1: “. . . coepit Iesus facere et docere” (Jesus began to do and to teach).
“Facciano in prima essi, poi ammaestrin gli altri (Let them do first, and then teach others).” The whole point is the order of the verbs, do and teach, and in the New Testament, Jesus is said “to do and teach,” in that order, in just one passage, Acts 1:1. Sapegno and Branca, in their editions of the Decameron, apparently feel the need to identify the biblical reference, but neither can do better than cite passages in the gospels which are only vaguely similar in wording to Boccaccio’s citation (both refer to Matt. 4:23; Mark 1:21; [End Page 186] Luke 4:18), which is, in contrast, a precise quotation of the beginning of Acts. I am not aware of other commentators who have come closer to the mark.
Once recognized, the author’s point is considerably clarified. The sarcasm of his anticlerical attack here is expressed by a parody of a clerical technique, argumentation from the precise order of topics and words in the Scriptures. St. Paul himself used this mode of reasoning, for his purposes: “Adam enim primus formatus est deinde Eva” (1 Tim. 2:13).
Several observations help explain, if not justify, Boccaccio’s citation of Acts 1:1 as “gospel,” and encourage us to think that his contemporary readers would not have cavilled at such a designation. The book of Acts was held to be by St. Luke, the evangelist, and indeed the style and content of the first narratives in Acts suggest a continuation of Luke’s gospel. Beyond this, Acts chapter One was from ancient times—certainly by Boccaccio’s day—read as the principal lesson for Ascension Day, a celebration which was by then kept very widely throughout Christendom. According to Klauser, keeping of Ascension Day as part of the Paschal festival dates to as early as the fourth century (Klauser 86). It is reasonable to suppose that, in an age when much knowledge of the Scriptures came through hearing rather than reading, this practise conferred on the initial passage of Acts both familiarity and prestige.
II. Cateratte (VIII vii 64 and IX v 48)
The unusual word cateratte occurs in two stories having to do with magic practices. The shorter and simpler tale is IX v, where Bruno takes a special parchment, brought for the purpose by Calandrino, and writes on it “certe sue frasche con alquante cateratte,” as part of a love charm for his enamored friend.
In a longer novella, much more elaborated artistically, VIII vii, a poor scholar, who has suffered cruelly at the hands of a gentlewoman who is in love with another, finds an opportunity for revenge when the lady is forsaken by her lover. Gullible, and misled by her equally stupid maid, she seizes on the notion that one who is a scholar must be a master of black arts as well, and thus able to charm back her lover. As a result the scholar, almost effortlessly and with the cooperation of the victim, is able to impersonate a magician, and put the lady through a silly, humiliating, and ultimately painful burlesque of a magic...