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  • The Governance of Friendship. Law and Gender in the Decameron by Michael Sherberg
  • Francesco Ciabattoni
Michael Sherberg. The Governance of Friendship. Law and Gender in the Decameron. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2011. 250 pages.

The Governance of Friendship investigates the relationship between friendship and governance in Boccaccio’s masterpiece against the backdrop of political and religious theories of friendship. These include Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, Cicero’s De inventione as well as Hans Kelsen’s Introduction to the Problems of Legal Theory and Richard Posner’s Law and Literature.

Sherberg’s thorough research testifies to the rising critical interest in the theme of friendship in medieval Italian writers, adding to such publications by Anna Fontes-Baratto, Emilio Pasquini, Franco Masciandaro, and others. Sherberg begins by contrasting Boccaccio’s reference to the friend whose ministrations saved his life (“li piacevoli ragionamenti d’alcuno amico e le sue laudevoli consolazioni” Proem, 4) with Aristotle’s three types of friendship: utilitarian, pleasurable and virtuous, which, according to the Greek Philosopher, inform all human relationships. Sherberg then analyzes the dynamics of political governance in the brigata against the backdrop of the Aristotelian constitutions of monarchy, aristocracy and timocracy, whose perversions (oligarchy, democracy and tyranny) are always lurking behind bad leadership. Sherberg also extends his analysis to sensibly selected tales to show how law and legal theories regulating human relationships bind together the various narrative layers of the Decameron.

Chapter One, “The Order of Outsiders,” reveals the rhetorical strategy at play among the women of the brigata: exclusion of male rule and revenge on men for having been marginalized in the textual space. Such instances occur particularly in the Proem, the Introductions to Days One and Four and tales 4.1, 4.5, 5.8 and 7.8.

Chapter Two, “Lessons in Legal Theory,” demonstrates how Boccaccio questions the validity of the link between divine law and natural law by questioning the connection between things that are unseen and things that are empirically perceivable. Focusing on 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 6.7, 6.9 and 6.10, this section also shows how the world of the frame narrative is entirely free from teleological concerns, which shifts the balance in favor of natural rather than divine law. Thus the return of the repressed male hierarchy hinges on the autonomy of a natural law that provides men with “the rhetorical props to rationalize violence—real and metaphorical—that they perpetrate against women” (106) and so leaves women to navigate the fine line between rhetoric and coercion. [End Page 145]

This narrow space is explored in Chapter Three, “Strategies of Coercion: Filostrato,” in which Sherberg shows how Pampinea challenges Filostrato by telling the tale of Frate Alberto (4.2), which flouts and parodies the king’s theme of tragic loves. Filostrato attempts to impose a narrative world in which women must obey men because the latter are “physically stronger and as such may coerce obedience” (115), but his attempt fails because female storytellers create a free literary space for themselves and their fictional characters in which women rhetorically subvert male dominance.

Chapter Four, “Dioneo and the Politics of Marriage,” draws on Albert R. Ascoli in analyzing the apparent contradiction in electing a king who has joined the brigata only to be an outlaw. From outsider to insider, Dioneo proposes for Day Seven the theme of wives’ beffe upon their husbands, thus allowing for the creation of a narrative space in which the violence of authority is counterbalanced by fiction. Elissa and Pampinea leading the women to the valle delle donne is a fitting example of this sexual and political subversion, though, Sherberg affirms, the valle is a place not of unbridled, but of disciplined pleasure, since male members of the brigata will penetrate and survey that space.

Chapter Five, “The Rule of Panfilo: Fables of Reconciliation,” explores the role of women in a world ruled by male bonds of friendship. In the author’s words, this day represents “the triumph of the homosocial” in marginalizing female agency. Courtesy and giving are the centerpieces of this day that embodies Aristotle’s noblest type of friendship, that based on goodness. Such...


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pp. 145-147
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