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The second chapter focuses on the tale of Calandrino and the heliotrope (8.3). It asks two primary questions: why does Calandrino need to be a real historical person and what is the role of the custom agents in the tale? The answers to these questions are related because Boccaccio’s documentary style turns the pranks against Calandrino into a form of community policing. The shaming of Calandrino is a group effort and a public spectacle, a form of pittura infamante. In a justice system in which art could function as social conditioning by making citizens feel continually seen, it makes all the difference whether the person depicted can be identified. The tale of Calandrino and the heliotrope is justly celebrated as a masterful reflection on art and illusion. This chapter illustrates the political nature of this reflection. Namely, is Calandrino simply a bad friend—or is he also a bad citizen? Contemporary readers would thus have understood the real threat posed by Calandrino’s illegal—and supposedly undetected—border crossing when he passes through the gates without paying the custom agents. At stake is why we should obey the law when there is no one around to see.
This chapter explores the poetics of punishment, contrasting Dante’s contrappasso (countersuffering) with Boccaccio’s beffa (prank). It argues that, for Boccaccio, Dante’s contrappasso illustrates a “hegemonic” conception of justice. In this sovereign system of justice, criminal offenders have to pay back more than an eye for an eye: they owe a debt to the divine “state” above and beyond that owed to the victim. The beffa instead embodies a communitarian form of justice in which victims are fairly compensated. In the art of the beffa, it lacks decorum to take more than an eye for an eye. Boccaccio brilliantly reveals how Dantean violence needs always to be in excess; what is poetic in this form of poetic justice is its license to “outdo” tradition. Boccaccio explores this phenomenon in the haunting tale of the scholar and the widow (8.7), where the scholar punishes a widow who humiliates him by forcing her to endure a series of Dantean punishments. In doing so, he turns private vengeance into sovereign punishment, teaching her a lesson on behalf of all scholars.
In Boccaccio's time, the Italian city-state began to take on a much more proactive role in prosecuting crime – one which superseded a largely communitarian, private approach. The emergence of the state-sponsored inquisitorial trial indeed haunts the legal proceedings staged in the Decameron. How, Justin Steinberg asks, does this significant juridical shift alter our perspective on Boccaccio's much-touted realism and literary self-consciousness? What can it tell us about how he views his predecessor, Dante: perhaps the world's most powerful inquisitorial judge? And to what extent does the Decameron shed light on the enduring role of verisimilitude and truth-seeming in our current legal system? The author explores these and other literary, philosophical, and ethical questions that Boccaccio raises in the Decameron's numerous trials. The book will appeal to scholars and students of medieval and early modern studies, literary theory and legal history.
This concluding chapter turns from inquisitional procedure to the inquisition as an institution. The first part of the chapter examines the tale of the good man and the inquisitor (1.6). The second part argues that when Boccaccio responds to his nameless critics, he puts himself in the role of the good man and treats his critics as inquisitors. In mounting his defense, Boccaccio compares his situation to that of Dante’s; both must contend with the talk of the crowd. Yet instead of transcending common talk, Boccaccio answers it: he parries his critics’ talk, their novelle, with another novella (recounting a tale about a hermit’s son’s sexual awakening). Dante responds to an inquisition against him by ensnaring his judges within a more encompassing inquisitorial trial. Boccaccio turns their monologue into a dialogue, their whispered criticisms into an open rhetorical contest, their secret denunciation into an accusatorial trial.
This chapter re-examines Boccaccio’s naturalism and its putative connection to his feminism, disputing the claim that naturalism in the Decameron is inspired by Boccaccio’s advocacy for natural rights. Critics often celebrate the strong female protagonists of Bartolomea (2.10) and Madonna Filippa (6.7), who defend themselves against accusations of adultery, as evidence that Boccaccio was an early proponent for natural rights, especially the subjective rights of women. However, when Boccaccio gives his adulteresses a chance to finally speak, it is not to insist upon their subjective rights but to take a more unsettling stance: they rest their defenses on their status as socially valuable things. In both of these tales, the women situate their infidelity within a moral economy that views property relations from the ground up, vindicating the needs of things over the rights of individual owners. Having experienced the agricultural crisis wrought by the Plague, Boccaccio’s storytellers would have been especially receptive to such arguments for “adulterous” forms of possessing.
The introduction makes a case for returning to the topic of Boccaccio’s realism through the lens of law and rhetoric. Boccaccio’s Decameron is not just realistic from a stylistic perspective, a mark of the authors modernity. Rather, the work is itself a critical examination of the uses and abuses of realism. This examination of everyday, social mimesis occurs most trenchantly in the Decameron’s numerous trial scenes. Accordingly, this introduction argues that we should shift focus from Boccaccio the expert canonist to Boccaccio the astute observer of procedural law. It argues, further, that that the difference between Dante’s and Boccaccio’s realism can be seen as a legal-procedural difference. Dante prefers in inquisitorial poetics aimed at uncovering hidden truths while Boccaccio’s realism is dialectical and accusatorial.
The first chapter analyzes the role of verisimilar realism in two trials: the summary trial officiated by Dioneo between the servants Tindaro and Licisca (Introduction, Day 6) and the inquest of the woolworker Simona, who is falsely accused of poisoning her lover Pasquino (4.7). It argues that Boccaccio uses these trials to foreground the risks involved when rhetorical categories such as “likely” and “probable” are used to evaluate evidence. These procedural tales are driven by the tension inherent between what everyone knows on the one hand and the singular event on the other, or between normative knowledge and the “novella.” In the trial between the two servants, the judge Dioneo acknowledges that women are not always virgins on their wedding night. He updates the storytellers’ shared picture of the world, making it more realistic. The trial of the woolworker Simona suggests how an art of the probable might incorporate singular phenomena. Yet certain details always remain outside the frame.
The fourth chapter examines the depiction of torture in the Decameron. Boccaccio was fascinated by torture from both an epistemological and narratological standpoint. The greatest storyteller of the Middle Ages could not ignore the enticements of omniscience and narrative closure it proffers. The chapter argue specifically that Boccaccio saw a parallel between plot and due process, on the one hand, and torture and dénouement, on the other. What does torture tell us about the sense of an ending? The torture of Martellino by the sadistic Trevisan judge (2.1) is played as farce. In the tale of Zinevra-Sicruano (2.9), torture provides a happy ending within the fantasy world of romance. In the novella of Tedaldo (3.7), the romance of torture is domesticated by due process and the contingency of the novella form. Respect for due process and plot are abandoned in controversial final novella of the Decameron, the story of Griselda (10.10). After years of imposing unimaginable suffering on his young bride, Gualtieri finally gets his happy ending—but one that makes us question the nature of all endings.