For over a year, I’ve been on a Rome/Italy kick, and after reading a couple of novels set in Renaissance Florence (George Eliot’s Romola and Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus), I decided to tackle the copy of Boccaccio’s The Decameron that had been on my shelf for years. (If you’re not familiar with it, it’s basically The Canterbury Tales of Italian literature.)

The premise is that 10 young people flee medieval Florence during the plague and take refuge on a beautiful country estate, where they amuse themselves telling stories for 10 days. The standard comment you hear about the book is that a lot of the tales are “bawdy,” but if you’re used to reading modern romance, they’re pretty tame. What drew me in was the insight they offer into medieval Europeans. That’s not to say you get a well rounded picture of how they thought, but you do learn something about what entertained them and what values they had.

Some of the “clever” speeches or retorts made by characters don’t transcend time and translation, but the values these admired characters espouse are timeless. On the other hand, a lot of other characters are applauded for trickery, and at times the storytellers laughed over a tale when I thought the outcome was cruel. An overabundance of the anecdotes are about men trying to lock down their wives and daughters, and women tricking their husbands and fathers so they can be with their lovers. Then there are guys who trick the ladies, too.

It’s a long book, but the individual stories are short, so it’s easy to put it down and pick it up another time without having to remember what was going on. If you read a couple tales here and there, eventually you’re finished — and sorry to see it end. If shedding some light on the Dark Ages appeals to you, check it out.

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