Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron around half a century after Dante wrote his Inferno, so it is no surprise that the two works and authors are often compared and contrasted. Both authors accomplished something unique and outgoing for his time, but, while both focus on the affairs of men and possibly the state of men’s souls, Boccaccio supports a rather secular, fleshly view of man and his state of affairs, whereas Dante focuses mostly on the state of men’s souls and their punishment or reward in the hereafter. Both were considered to be very religious men, and possibly had some of the same aims when creating their classic works of medieval literature. Boccaccio and Dante both strike at the sin of people during their lives, yet one seems to take a humanistic, secular approach, often including humor and sarcasm; and the other, Dante, takes a very spiritual approach, using a more serious and structured subject matter. Both authors seem to be of the same mind on some things and opposites in a lot of other areas, yet both have created great works of literature that criticize the clergy and its role in men’s lives as well as carnality and its place with both natural and spiritual man.
Boccaccio is very harsh in his criticism of the clergy. In several stories he accuses members of the clergy, and the church itself, of being sinfully worse than even the laypeople. In fact, his first few stories center on the condemnation of borderline devilry within the clergy. In Boccaccio’s second story of the first day, the lady Neifile tells a story in which a Jew goes to Rome to see what the Christian faith, at its heart, looks and acts like. The Jew sees nothing but depravity, scandal, usury, simony, and carnality. And while the Jew, in the end, sees that since Christianity survives despite all that evil being done in its name, and becomes a Christian, no one can deny that one could call this story one of the harshest attacks on the Roman heart of the Early Christian Church and the papacy (37-41). Though the account in the first day’s second story criticizes the highest levels of debauchery in the high seat of the church, there are many instances throughout the entirety of The Decameron that exhibit friars, priests, nuns, or monks committing individual acts of deceit and carnality. The fourth day’s second story, where a friar deceives a lady into thinking he is the Angel Gabriel and is in love with her in order to sleep with her, is one example (301-312). Though, with all of these attacks on the church and the overwhelmingly secular material of this work of literature, it is hard to remember that Boccaccio was a religious man. One must think of The Decameron as an expression of life in the context of humor, as well as, a work expressing criticism of the clergy in possible hopes of informing others and reform. Dante also addresses the clergy, but not as harshly as Boccaccio. Dante approaches the corrupt churchmen from the perspective of the punishment for their acts already having been given to them and continuing to take place, while Boccaccio approaches from the perspective of acts that the churchmen are doing presently in life and are getting away with in the physical world without any evidence of divine punishment.
In addiction to humorous criticism, Boccaccio is also a master of characterizing the people in his stories, as well as, presenting their motivations. In each of his stories, he presents the main characters with unique qualities and characteristics that also influence their actions. Their motivations range from wanting to obtain saintliness to wanting carnal pleasure or material gain. However, in all cases, Boccaccio focuses on secular goals and motivations in his characters; even the pursuit of saintliness is put in the perspective of a worldly pursuit, of something to be gained, self-servingly, in the eyes of other men and the rest of the church rather than for a truly selfless, spiritual reason. In the fourth story of the third day, the story of Friar Puccio is an example of this. The friar seeks a shortcut to saintliness and is, thus, tricked into serving a penance while the man who revealed this penance to him, Dom Felice, sleeps with his wife which was the worldly duty Friar Puccio was supposed to fulfill, a duty which he neglected. Dom Felice, seeing the woman was clearly wanting the attentions of her husband, fulfilled this duty for the friar, much to the happiness of the wife. The story, rather than promoting the husband’s pursuit of saintliness, seems to emphasize the importance of not forgetting the responsibilities of the physical world and not to miss out on the secular things in this earthly life (215-221). In the third story of the third day, Boccaccio gives the noble lady’s motivation quite plainly: she is in a marriage she does not like, so she wishes to give her attentions secretly to someone she sees as more deserving than her lowborn, though rich, husband. In this story, the pursuit is of carnal pleasure rather than saintliness, and the motivation is different. In this story and in many others, Boccaccio at least writes a brief description of why a character is pursuing a certain goal throughout the story (205-215). By explaining a little about his characters’ motivations, Boccaccio reveals some of the motivations people have that make them do the things they do. Also, it gives some credulity to the story, for most of his motivations for his characters are realistic and are thoughts or situations that one would see in everyday life. With Dante and the Inferno there aren’t many motivations revealed; Dante is writing from the perspective that the deeds are done and the punishment already issued, so there is no need to study the motivations of people because no amount of explaining will change anything in their placement in hell or in the state of their punishment due to the omniscience of God. Boccaccio, who focuses on men and their dealings among men without, or with little, interference or evidence of the divine, explains men’s motivations because they are still relevant in life and are still able to be considered and judged by men.
Boccaccio, though religious, focused on the ways of men without spiritual interference. He revealed aspects of human behavior that most medieval societies wished to “sweep under the rug”: the corruption among the clergy and the motivations for why people commit the acts they do. The Decameron is a secular work though it is associated with religious writings also, and, compared to Dante’s Inferno, is a work focused on a lot of the same themes, but from a different, worldly point of view. Overall, Boccaccio’s The Decameron is a great medieval text that gives humorous insight into human behavior and motivation as well as the wrongs men commit with, or to, each other.