In The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio presents new ideas about love and physical love, women, and their role within society through one hundred novellas. Boccaccio dedicates The Decameron to women, expressing his prolonged dedication to them throughout his life. In fourteenth century Florence, women did not have a say in most anything, especially when it came to love and relationships.
Boccaccio is challenging his readers to focus on important issues within their society — issues that many members of society were not concerned with: women, their freedoms, and the social stigma around physical love. In the time of The Decameron, women were given very few rights. They were bound to their husbands, and if they never married, then they were bound to their male relatives. The Decameron, as Boccaccio claims, is a book of advice that encourages women break out of the molds of their society. Women can exercise physical love for a man without being married to them. He also uses tragedy to introduce a flaw in their current society, such as Calandrino senselessly beating his wife or Lisabetta’s brothers killing Lorenzo. Even though some of his stories can be interpreted as misogynistic, Boccaccio uses them to raise gender issues within his society and to openly express the natural human tendency to crave physical love.
Boccaccio wants to express an idea for the changing times; an idea that is built on freedom of women but also freedom of physical love. In his Fourth Story of Day Five, Boccaccio writes about Caterina and her lover Ricciardo. Ricciardo falls in love with Caterina and struggles with hiding it from her; however, Caterina reveals she loves him too, in fact, ‘she began to love him with equal fervour.’ Such love is foreign to most readers at the time, as unrequited love was the common circumstance in fourteenth century society. Boccaccio has already challenged a traditional aspect of his society, and goes even further by challenging an even more controversial subject: physical love.
Caterina invites Ricciardo to spend the night with her, hiding it from her parents. They are deeply in love with each other; after embracing, ‘they lay down together and for virtually the entire night they had delight and joy of one another, causing the nightingale to sing at frequent intervals.’ (Boccaccio, p.
660) Sex outside of wedlock is strictly forbidden; Boccaccio is raising awareness for a very new humanist ideal emerging from his traditional Florentine society. He even creates a euphemism for the male genital, calling it the ‘nightingale’, and highlighting the fact that women ‘are too embarrassed to mention it.’ (Boccaccio, p. 660) Boccaccio is expressing his confusion with human nature, or our tendency to be embarrassed of our own biology; love and sex can coincide without marriage, because it is natural to love someone emotionally and physically — this is what Boccaccio is trying to communicate to his fellow Florentines. He concludes this fact by creating a reaction from Caterina’s father that does not result in the death of Ricciardo. However, it does result in the recognition of the couple’s love, and the choice to either face violence or marry Caterina. The audience at the time would have expected Ricciardo to be killed (without an alternative) for his actions, but since Boccaccio is trying to make a point, he allows the reader to become immersed within a different point of view, expressing the fact that the love of a women should not be at the complete mercy of her father.