- Ritual and Ceremony in Boccaccio’s Decameron
Despite the rich and extensive bibliography that has been produced on Boccaccio and his literary masterpiece, the Decameron, one important aspect of his work still remains to be fully explored: ritual and ceremony. It is, therefore my intention in this paper to dwell on this particular topic and to analyze the ritualistic forms of behavior dramatized in the book by Boccaccio’s nobile brigata, whose ideals of beauty, perfection, and decorum are set against the harsh and bitter reality of the plague. 1
Ceremonial performances, ritual, pageantry, popular festivities—communal and symbolic activities such as these—formed the experience of human society during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, assigning to each individual a role and a particular identity as it was done in most earlier societies known to us. But the era of the Renaissance also witnessed a questioning of ceremonial symbolism, the crisis of which we bear witness today in our own century, most visibly, though not exclusively, in the religious sphere. Thomas Greene once asserted of the modern world that “we are divided from most of human history by the waning of the ceremonial sign, and it is that incipient, massive, slow, uneven, almost invisible process, that deserves our attention” (p. 282). 2
The historical crisis brought about by the Black Death, described in an unprecedented fashion by the author of the Decameron and well documented by the Florentine chronicles of the time, 3 indeed reflects a shift in semiotic history. As an historical document but more significantly as a literary text, the Decameron bears witness to the continued force of ceremonial symbols and the [End Page 143] new challenges presented to them. Although deeply rooted in an historical reality, the plague becomes for Boccaccio a powerful tool to attack traditional forms of signification, claiming a disjunction between signs and meaning, more specifically, between sacred objects and what they signify.
From our point of view, there is no doubt that the most striking element in the Decameron is Boccaccio’s theatrical representation of a communal society, “ritually” secluded in an idyllic world during a time of crisis and engaged in a type of behavior that resembles the “liminal” rituals of tribal and early agrarian societies described by Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner. 4
In the world of the Decameron, rites of passage stem from the reality of the plague. Despite its unruly and mysterious nature, the plague is conceived by Boccaccio as a powerful force that leads to a reappraisal of social, political and economic structures, and to a radical transformation of moral and religious values. Strictly tied to the creation and development of the cornice, the plague stands significantly at the beginning and at the end of every social process: at the beginning, as it undermines the very foundations of civil and religious society and, at the end, as it initiates movement toward detachment, withdrawal and self-reflection, upon which is based every act of regeneration.
Although strictly applicable to a particular tragic event in history, the plague presents itself universally as a process of “undifferentiation,” destroying all specificities, dissolving all variations, altering the very foundations of all socio-political, economic and religious institutions (Rene Girard, p. 833). 5
Dico adunque che già erano gli anni della fruttifera incarnazione del Figliuolo di Dio al numero pervenuti di milletrecentoquarantotto, quando nella egregia città di Fiorenza, oltre a ogn’altra italica bellissima, pervenne la mortifera pestilenza.(p. 10) 6
Boccaccio’s subtle allusion to the Incarnation and its fruitful effects (fruttifera incarnazione) is not coincidental here for it serves to widen the gap between the “efficacy” of God’s word and action and the “inefficacy” of man in the attempt of re-creating, through sacramental signs, the experience of redemption in body and soul. Man’s presumption to translate God’s mysteriously unified reality into human reality, by substituting Christ’s salutary action with the mediating activity of sacraments, is immediately set against Boccaccio’s dark and fragmentary vision of the plague. In this world, the Christian ideal of a reborn society, the Church, with its anointed members as one body in Christ, crumbles in the...