Motif Index Codes

(How to Locate Boccaccio's Sources and Imitators)

This document was prepared to assist students interested in tracing the literary heritage of certain tales - both before and after the Decameron. One of the most efficient ways in which to do this is by utilizing what is known as a "motif index." A scholar named Stith Thompson (whose enormous work is cited below) is generally credited with the invention of such indices. His system of categorization, though almost Victorian in its organization, provides an excellent resource for anyone interested in locating and studying the development and elaboration of plots or plot elements (which are known as "motifs") throughout the folklore tradition. Thompson collected and classified thousands of different tales based upon general categories which he identified by a letter of the alphabet. These groups are:

These groups are further divided using numbered categories (which are in turn broken down still more with a decimal system much like that used by the Library of Congress' call number system). Thompson's idea was such a good one that scholars have continued to employ this system in their own specialized indices. Brown owns several that are useful for work on the Decameron:

While these categories are wonderfully efficient for studying motifs in themselves, they are not really very good for following the production of a single author. What one needs then is a list of motifs organized around tales - rather than the other way around. I have attempted to solve this in the table below (with the help of Prof. Donald McGrady of the Univ. of Virginia) by putting together a list of motif codes for as many of Boccaccio's tales as possible.

How does it work? Let us say, for example, that we are interested in Decameron V.9 (the famous story of Federigo and his falcon). In order to find other tales that are similar in content, you locate "Day Five, novella 9" in the table and there you see: "Lee, p. 170; N345." This means that the book by A. C. Lee (cited above) discusses the tale and that its motif code is N345 (i.e., number 345 in the category "Chance and Fate"). Once you have this code, you look it up in any of the motif indices. Here is what we read in Rotunda's collection under N345:

N345. The falcon of Ser Federigo. An impoverished suitor has only a falcon to catch birds with. His lady's son wants the falcon and she goes to ask for it. The suitor serves dinner for her - his falcon. When she makes the request it is too late. Boccaccio, Decameron, V, No. 9 (Lee, p. 170); Sansovino, Cento Novelle Scelte, V, No. 3; Spanish: Lope de Vega, El Halcón de Federico; R. Anschütz, Boccaccios Novelle vom Falken und ihre Verbreitung in der Literatur nebst Lope de Vegas Komödie "El halcón de Federico", Erlangen, 1892.

From this entry we find out that the tale was taken up by both Sansovino (a minor writer of novellas who came after Boccaccio) and Lope de Vega. What is more, Rotunda cites an important study by Anschütz. (If you read German, this would make for an interesting new document!) You can learn even more about the tale by reading the cited pages in Lee and by looking up motif N345 in some of the indices listed above.

Once you have compiled a list of possible sources (if the tales are from before 1350) or adaptations (if after 1350), find them and read them. I say "possible" because two or more tales that have the same motif are not necessarily "related." (Avoid the temptation to trace some Polynesian tale of the 19th century directly to Boccaccio simply because Thompson listed them both under N345!) The medieval oral tradition was strong and it is likely that many of these tales or sources of these tales were never written down and are therefore lost to us. Like "urban myths," the oral versions could have spawned two or more authors not necessarily known to one another. For this reason, you should carefully read each tale you find in order to determine whether it is a plausible source or reworking. On the other hand, Boccaccio was extremely familiar with many written sources and was enormously popular among writers who followed him. Rotunda's book is an excellent guide as is the book by Lee which I will lend to anyone interested in it. Good luck and happy hunting!

Motif Codes

Day One

novella 1 U116
novella 2 Lee, p. 2; J1263.3
novella 3 J1262.6
novella 4  
novella 5 J81
novella 6 J1262.6
novella 7 J1575
novella 8 J1576
novella 9  
novella 10 J1221

Day Two

novella 1  
novella 2 Lee. P. 25; N225
novella 3 K1812.8.2; K1837; L161; T91.4
novella 4 Lee, p. 30; N226
novella 5 K335.1.6; N778
novella 6 Lee, pp. 34, 39; N251; N730; T31.1
novella 7  
novella 8 Lee, pp. 34, 39; K2111; L111.1; N251; N730
novella 9 Lee, pp. 42, 54, 56-57; K512; K521.4.1.1; K1342; K2112.1; N15; Q464
novella 10 R12.1; R12.2; T242

Day Three

novella 1 Lee, p. 59; K1323
novella 2 Lee, p. 62; J1142.2.1; K415; K1311.0.1
novella 3 Lee, p. 71; K1584
novella 4 Lee, p. 75; K1514.2
novella 5 K1359.1
novella 6 Lee, p. 79; K1311
novella 7 H94; K1817.2.1; Q421.0.4
novella 8 Lee, p. 91; K1514.3
novella 9 H1187; K1843.2; T72.2; Q94
novella 10 K1363.1

Day Four

novella 1 Q478.1.1
novella 2 Lee, p. 123; K1315.1.1
novella 3 K626
novella 4 T11.1; T89.7
novella 5 Lee, p. 136; T85.3
novella 6 K1812.5.1.2
novella 7 K2116.3
novella 8 Lee, p. 140; N391; T81.3; T86; T211.11
novella 9 Lee, pp. 116, 143; Q478.1
novella 10 K675.1

Day Five

novella 1 T10.1.2
novella 2 R12.2
novella 3  
novella 4 T36
novella 5 H51.1; N681.3.2
novella 6  
novella 7 H51.1
novella 8 Q415.1
novella 9 ee, p. 170; N345
novella 10 Lee, p. 173; K1555.1

Day Six

novella 1  
novella 2 J1319.7.1
novella 3 K1228
novella 4  
novella 5  
novella 6  
novella 7  
novella 8  
novella 9 J1224.1
novella 10 Lee, p. 179; K1961.1.2.1

Day Seven

novella 1  
novella 2 K1517.3
novella 3 Lee, p. 189; K1517.2
novella 4 K1511; T381.1
novella 5 J1545.2
novella 6 Lee, p. 203; K1517.1; K1517.1.2
novella 7 K1514.4.1
novella 8 Lee, p. 222; K1512
novella 9 Lee, p. 231; J2324; K1518; K1545
novella 10 E374

Day Eight

novella 1 Lee, pp. 257ff.; K1581.3
novella 2 Lee, pp. 257ff.; K1581.3
novella 3 Lee, p. 254; J2337; X950
novella 4 Lee, p. 54; K1218.4; K1223
novella 5  
novella 6 K1044
novella 7 Lee, p. 258; K1212
novella 8 Lee, p. 261; K1566
novella 9  
novella 10 Lee, p. 266; L431.2

Day Nine

novella 1 Lee, p. 271; K1218.4
novella 2 Lee, p. 274; K1273
novella 3  
novella 4 K484.3
novella 5 K1963.2
novella 6 Lee, p. 281; K1345
novella 7 T255.7
novella 8  
novella 9 J21.16
novella 10 K1315.3.2

Day Ten

novella 1  
novella 2 Lee, p. 311; J1606
novella 3  
novella 4  
novella 5 D961.1; F971.5; H352; H1552.1.1
novella 6  
novella 7  
novella 8  
novella 9  
novella 10 H461

If you find any mistakes or omissions in the table above, please tell me about them so that I may make corrections. Thanks.

(M. P.)

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