Societal Structure and the New Urban Economy

Boccaccio's Decameron takes place in the context of the rising social tensions in fourteenth-century Italy. The burgeoning urban economy presented the aristocratic elite with a perplexing situation in which a new merchant class emerged to challenge the status quo. The friction between these two major classes, the patriciate and the gente nova, was at the root of many of the political, religious, and social conflicts of the day.

The patriciate was composed of individuals and families who had long been active in the history of their city-states and communes. Being a member of an eminent and old family was an essential qualification for high social standing in medieval Florence. Indeed, the authority of individuals was often recognized as a direct reflection of family relations. These families, such as the Cerchi, Donati and Medici, were numerous and further strengthened their power by forming familial alliances through arranged marriages. The patriciate had inherited their dominant position from centuries of feudalism and had traditionally provided shelter and employment for the lower classes. According to the patricians, nobility of blood and the possession of land - not money - defined social status and it was in part through careful land management that these families had been so successful.

The rising merchant class threatened the very essence of the established aristocracy. The source of their power did not grow from their control of land, but through banking and commerce. By this time, Italy had grown into a trading center for all of Europe and in response to increased trade, new cities grew and generated new forms of wealth. The old patriciate, therefore, had to compete with the new mercantile class for economic hegemony. Once the merchants became economically independent, they too created jobs and, as a result, eliminated the patrician monopoly on labor. What is more, the aristocracy, who for centuries had considered money lending to be simple, sinful usury, began to see the nascent financial institutions as a viable source of capital. This change in attitude further contributed to the successes of the gente nova who, in turn, solidified their social influence through the establishment of guilds and, significantly, through the patronage of the arts.