Women in the Decameron Module

This module explores aspects of the representation and role of women in the Decameron. These questions can be integrated into the classroom syllabus, or students can follow them as part of their personal study of the text. Students will also have the opportunity to develop one or more of them into a final project for the site.

In order to follow this module, students should pay close attention to (and preferably make notes on) every mention of women in the text. This raw data will prove extremely useful for reference when working on the various topics.

  • The role of women in the mechanics of the text: Consider the representation of women in the following different parts of the text: the authorial apparatus (dedication, Introduction to Day IV, Author's Conclusion); the frame story; the novelle.

  • Textual distribution analysis: Make a plan of the different narrators and the stories they tell. Note which days are ruled by a Queen, and which by a King. Can you detect any difference in the subject matter of each day according to gender lines? Do the narrators demonstrate gendered characteristics, or do you perceive them rather as mere ciphers or devices created only to present the various novelle?

    In which novelle do women appear? How many novelle (out of 100, or 101 if we include the tale of Filippo Balducci (Dec., IV, Intr.)) contain female characters? How many are exclusively homosocial? What conclusions can be drawn from these data? Consider what roles women fulfill in each novella in which they appear (e.g., child, maiden, wife, mother, widow, businesswoman, female religious, criminal, etc). What conclusions can be drawn about women's roles in Trecento society? Or about a male author's perception of female roles at the time? In what spheres are women present? absent?

  • Attitudes towards women in the Italian literary traditions of the 13th and 14th centuries: Consider the depiction of women in the Decameron in terms of the literary traditions with which Boccaccio was familiar, e.g., in the poetry of the troubadours, the Dolce stil novo, or of Dante and Petrarch. Apart from the French, Provençal, and Italian lyric, consider other genres, such as the fabliaux, the cantari, popular romance, medical or legal treatises, theological writings, and the antifeminist writings of the classical and late-antique period.

  • The idealized woman and the demonized woman: Which characters do you think are meant to be positive presentations of womankind? Which negative? Can we say that some characters are definitely 'bad' women? Are the activities and representations of the 'good' and 'bad' women materially different? Give examples.

  • The authorial agenda: What view(s) on women does the Decameron seem to put forward? How do its 'frames' of narrators and audiences affect our understanding of the text? Does Boccaccio appear to favor female autonomy, or submission to male authority? What responsibilities are women suggested to bear within society? What rights do women possess in society? Does Boccaccio suggest further rights to be extended to women? Can we detect challenges to religious, legal, social, or literary, conventions concerning women's expectations and behavior? What points of conflict can you detect in the text?

    For this topic, please read in particular: The Proem; the Introduction to Day I; I, 10 (Maestro Alberto); II, 7 (Alatiel); II, 9 (Zinevra); II, 10 (Bartolomea); III, 6 (Catella); III, 9 (Giletta); III, 10 (Alibech); Introduction to Day IV (authorial digression, Filippo Balducci); IV, 1 (Ghismonda); V, 8 (Nastagio); V, 10 (Pietro da Vinciolo) VI, 3 (Nonna de' Pulci); VI, 7 (madonna Filippa); VII, 5 (the jealous husband); VIII, 1 (Gulfardo); VIII, 7 (scholar and widow); IX, 7 (Margarita); IX, 9 (Melisso); X, 10 (Griselda); the Author's Epilogue.

  • Constructions of gender: Consider the depiction of women (and by opposition, men) in the Decameron in terms of their material demonstrations of gender, i.e., in terms of dress, ornamentation, physical attributes, etc. How does Boccaccio signal femininity? Does he signal class differences in the same way? bearing in mind the principles first outlined by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale, consider how narrative transformations are effected. When and how are the boundaries between the genders blurred?

  • Electronic textual analysis: Students will investigate the representation of women within the text of the Decameron via a series of guided textual analyses. Please work through the guided practice exercise before embarking on the textual analysis itself!



Go to the Decameron Web homepage, select Texts, and go to the search home page.


Select Single or Multiple Words on the search page. Type the word Galeotto in the box. The display will bring up the beginning of the text in the right-hand frame. Now click on the [1] at the beginning of the line, and you will be taken to the English translation in a separate frame. The language is very archaic, but you should be able to orientate yourselves in your McWilliam translation from it. Unfortunately, the search function only works on the Italian text, so you have to first search through the Italian and then click through to the translation using the blue paragraph numbers. You can then flip back between the Italian text and the English by changing windows.


Return to the search page by using the search bar at the top of the page. Now type the word donne (women) into the single word search. In the results page, the left hand frame shows the occurrences of the word in each of the days of the Decameron: select the Proemio by clicking on it. The right-hand screen will now show the Proemio, with the word donne highlighted in red; you can scroll down to see the distribution of the word throughout the text. Cut and paste each sentence containing the search word into another document that you have set up. This will be where you can keep your raw data which will be used for your analyses. E.g.:

[1] Comincia il libro chiamato Decameron, cognominato prencipe Galeotto, nel quale si contengono cento novelle in dieci di' dette da sette donne e da tre giovani uomini.
[9] E chi negherà questo, quantunque egli si sia, non molto piú alle vaghe donne che agli uomini convenirsi donare?
[13] Adunque, acciò che in parte per me s'amendi il peccato della fortuna, la quale dove meno era di forza, sí come noi nelle dilicate donne veggiamo, quivi piú avara fu di sostegno, in soccorso e rifugio di quelle che amano, per ciò che all'altre è assai l'ago e 'l fuso e l'arcolaio, intendo di raccontare cento novelle, o favole o parabole o istorie che dire le vogliamo, raccontate in diece giorni da una onesta brigata di sette donne e di tre giovani nel pistelenzioso tempo della passata mortalità fatta, e alcune canzonette dalle predette donne cantate al lor diletto.
[14] Nelle quali novelle piacevoli e aspri casi d'amore e altri fortunati avvenimenti si vederanno cosí ne' moderni tempi avvenuti come negli antichi; delle quali le già dette donne, che queste leggeranno, parimente diletto delle sollazzevoli cose in quelle mostrate e utile consiglio potranno pigliare, in quanto potranno cognoscere quello che sia da fuggire e che sia similmente da seguitare:

If you need to use the English translation, paste the sentences in again underneath, thus:

[1] Beginneth here the book called Decameron, otherwise Prince Galeotto, wherein are contained one hundred novels told in ten days by seven ladies and three young men.
[9] Who will deny, that it should be given, for all that it may be worth, to gentle ladies much rather than to men?
[13] Wherefore, in some measure to compensate the injustice of Fortune, which to those whose strength is least, as we see it to be in the delicate frames of ladies, has been most niggard of support, I, for the succour and diversion of such of them as love (for others may find sufficient solace in the needle and the spindle and the reel), do intend to recount one hundred Novels or Fables or Parables or Stories, as we may please to call them, which were recounted in ten days by an honourable company of seven ladies and three young men in the time of the late mortal pestilence, as also some canzonets sung by the said ladies for their delectation.
[14] In which pleasant novels will be found some passages of love rudely crossed, with other courses of events of which the issues are felicitous, in times as well modern as ancient: from which stories the said ladies, who shall read them, may derive both pleasure from the entertaining matters set forth therein, and also good counsel, in that they may learn what to shun, and likewise what to pursue.

Consider where this word occurs in the text, and what meaning can be derived from it. Obviously we are only looking at the Proemio in this practice exercise, but some conclusions can still be drawn. For example, the first occurrence is in the subtitle of the work, thus demonstrating the importance of the (seven) ladies both to the frame narrative to follow and the book as a whole; the next reference occurs in the ninth paragraph, after the opening rhetorical statement of the author. The remaining four references occur in the very last section of the Proemio: why are they here? what effect does this close repetition serve? can you distinguish between the different types of ladies nominated in the text? where do they fit in the organization of the narrative frames and the audience? What kind of audience are they: listeners (auditors) or readers? Why does the Narrator use women in this way?

As you will see, even something as basic as this search can be used to describe the text, its readership, or even the societal perception of women in the fourteenth century and nowadays.


Donne is the plural form, so you can do the search again for donna (lady). If you select the Proemio, you will see that this word appears once:

'nondimeno mi fu egli di grandissima fatica a sofferire, certo non per crudeltà della donna amata, ma per soverchio fuoco nella mente concetto da poco regolato appetito' [but nevertheless extreme discomfort and suffering, not indeed by reason of cruelty on the part of the beloved lady, but through superabundant ardour engendered in the soul by ill-bridled desire] (§3).

Another female figure is thus present in the Proemio, the unnamed beloved of the Narrator. The same word (in its singular and plural forms) thus serves to describe the motivation of the Narrator in creating this work, his intended audience, and those women who form part of his story-telling team.

N.B.: You can also truncate any word in the search form with an asterisk, e.g., by typing donn* you will produce the same results as the two searches already described.