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  • “Alcuna paroletta piú liberale”Contemporary Women Authors Address the Decameron’s Obscenity
  • F. Regina Psaki

The Decameron repeatedly thematizes its own attention to the status of women. What is the role or function of that attention in the text? Is Boccaccio a sympathizer who wants to explore the condition, limitations, and potential of women in his society as a useful end in itself? Is he using the status of women as a way to explore other epistemological questions around language, narrative, genre, sexual difference, the body personal, and the body politic?1 In the addresses to the reader in the Proem, the Introduction to Day 4, and the so-called Author’s Conclusion,2 Boccaccio explores the restriction of behavior and speech in his frame narrative through the construction of licit and proper female behavior and speech.3 In the tales, the field of action and of speech of male characters can be sharply delimited on the basis of “condition,” what we would transpose into class; for example, grooms may not sleep with queens, and if they do they had best suppress every physical (not to mention verbal) trace of their transgression (Decameron 3.2). But in the Primary Narrator’s addresses to the reader it is the conduct and expression of women, of men to women, and of the Narrator to women, that is the primary crux. I will return to this question at the end of this essay.

The Decameron opens with the opposition between female confinement and male freedom (Proem 9–13),4 and closes with the opposition between female self-confinement (internalized through Church teaching) and male self-liberation, at least in terms of artistic freedom. In the Author’s Conclusion, hypothetical critical female voices have joined (or replaced—the pronouns vary) the critical male voices of the Introduction to Day 4, critiquing the [End Page 241] narrator’s “license,” his transgressiveness, his sexual and representative frankness:

Saranno per avventura alcune di voi che diranno che io abbia nello scrivere queste novelle troppa licenzia usata, sí come in fare alcuna volta dire alle donne e molto spesso ascoltare cose non assai convenienti né a dire né ad ascoltare ad oneste donne.

(AC 3)

[There will perhaps be those among you who will say that in writing these stories I have taken too (much license), in that I have sometimes caused ladies to say, and very often to hear, things which are not very (proper) to be heard or said by virtuous (ladies).]


The Narrator’s virtuoso defense that follows is an elaborate minuet of ontological and teleological categories: values such as female propriety and principles such as artistic freedom on the one hand play against results and outcomes on the other—the benefits of correctly using potentially dangerous materials and speech, particularly in parlous times. Women are clearly Boccaccio’s limit-case for license in behavior and expression. While obscenity is notoriously difficult to define, in the Decameron it refers both to emplotting sexually transgressive behaviors, and to representing those behaviors in language (whether explicit or figurative) that is ipso facto obscene, lying outside the acceptable parameters for women. It is no wonder that women authors would take up his book and rewrite it.

In the Proem, the spatial restriction of women both reflects and enacts a legal and social restriction and subordination, which the Decameron narrator purports to pity, at least when it exacerbates the pains of love. Throughout the text, the curtailed field of action and personal autonomy of women is linked with a delimited field of speech and a delimited access to speech, despite the proverb “le parole sono femmine e i fatti sono maschi [words are female, actions are male].” Tales such as those of Ghismonda (4.1) and Madonna Filippa (6.7) explore women’s access to the word of power. Many tales explore women’s access to the artful word, the rhetorically efficacious and elegant riposte that rights a situation grown dangerously unstable, whether it is a question of women framing that speech, like the Marchesana di Monferrato in 4.5 or Madonna Oretta in 6.1, or understanding it, [End Page 242] like Madonna Malgherida in 1...


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pp. 241-266
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