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Islam & Medieval Western Literature
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After what had to have been one of the longest and most frustrating days of my life, I have gotten what little sleep time has allowed me and am now able to post. The Griselda story was, in my opinion, a strange choice for a final tale in the Decameron. Reading it, there are no big surprises, but more dramatic irony in the fact that we know what the marquis is doing while Griselda does not. Without a sense of allegory, it is an immensely frustrating series of events because of the unbelievable patience Griselda shows to her husband. Of course, Job would seem to be a fitting parallel for this story, but the moral is a little harder to grasp. In Job, we are clearly supposed to be more like Job, always having faith despite hardships. In Griselda, it’s hard to believe that anyone would put up with such cruelty as she did for the marquis. We find ourselves asking that if the marquis’ only condition for finding a wife was that she would always be faithful, then why was her initial word not a good enough indicator. Since she obviously proved herself a “worthy” wife in the end, it makes sense that she always was one. Likewise, Job proved himself worthy, but how can it be proved that the trials God put him through strengthened his faith to that level, or merely showcased it to a being that is supposed to know these things anyway. This is the tricky business of having one of your characters in a God-like role. The audience will not be as accepting to the notion that he can do anything and still be loved and revered. Bocaccio seems to believe that all of the cruelty from the marquis (and God in Job) is in the end unnecessary, being that the characters get the same point they were near the beginning, except in Griselda no one actually dies.

What strikes me is how this story has become so everlasting. Granted it is the last story, so it will undoubtedly have an accented effect, but it is unpleasant and bizarre. After Bocaccio’s version, Petrach rewrote it, then Chaucer included it in Canterbury Tales as the “Clerk’s Tale.” There is even this: The Hotel Griselda in Saluzzo. She appears in several modern plays as “Patient Griselda.” Obviously the Medieval world saw her as having great virtue, but we today see she had every right to give that marquis what he deserved when he brought those kids back. For me, it no longer works. Job was virtuous because in the end he found favor with God, which is something to aspire to. Griselda sought the happiness of just a man, and therefore her patience was for a goal that is unworthy.


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Petrarch vs. Boccaccio.

This will be brief; Dr. K is supposed to be here in five minutes and I just finished Petrarch’s letter as well as his version of Boccaccio’s Griselda story.

So far, I’m not a big fan of Petrarch’s. In the letter, he seemed to slap Boccaccio with some indirect-but-backhanded comments, ie: suggesting that Petrarch has much more serious work to attend to than to be writing in the vernacular as Boccaccio has. And he eventually goes on to completely (I believe) misinterpret Boccaccio’s story.

In reading the notes at the end of our edition, you find that many Biblical allusions are made within the story. At one point, Griselda is likened to the Virgin Mary, and at another Job. Of course! That’s exactly what this was– a sort of retelling of Job. A woman is, after all, supposed to love and support her husband as part of her service to God.

The kicker is when, upon completing the story, Dioneo denounces Gualtieri for his behavior. So… if Gualtieri’s actions are representative (albeit on a small scale) of God’s (ie: Job), and Griselda’s patience, faith and constancy was being tested… yet Gualtieri is a big butthead…? In a way I want to read this as a Boccaccio-angry-with-God story, but I can’t. As Kathryn pointed out yesterday, Boccaccio’s disillusionment seems aimed at the clergy, though Boccaccio doesn’t seem to have difficulty in separating the actions of the clergy with faith in God.

So this leads me to believe that this story is in the same vein: Boccaccio is not saying that God is a butthead– I don’t think– but rather that this sort of reasoning is ridiculous, the sort of reasoning used by the clergy.

And Kennedy arrives…


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Griselda

Boccaccio tells that story of Griselda, a story that we learn from Petrarch’s letter to him, is one that is well known in Italy at the time. I think this story is just wrong. Any man who would let a woman think that he had killed her children and then was going to put her aside for another wife is just plain wrong. And the idea that Griselda just goes along with it is terrible. Griselda needs to grow a backbone and tell her husband to shove it where the sun don’t shine. I know it makes a good story but the reality is that no one is that gracious and humble and obedient.

As we discussed in class, that fact that the story can be read as an allegory, does not mean that is should be read as such. Others see Griselda as the perfect Christian, who does whatever is asked of her by her lord and master. The fact that is not at all what most people would tolerate in real life has no bearing on the story and it’s characters.

Griselda meets her husband

These three panels show the story of Patient Griselda.

The story details the humilation of peasant girl Griselda by a rich Marquis, Gualteiri, who is seeking to mould the perfect wife.

Here Griselda (right) is forced to strip in front of the male courtiers.

Griselda is cast out by her husband

In the second panel, Griselda has married Gualteiri, but he is keen to test her further.

He orders one of his servants to take Griselda’s baby daughter and tell her it is to be killed.

The panel shows Griselda’s acceptance as she tells the servant; “do exactly what your lord and mine has ordered you to do.”

The end of the story

The story climaxes with the return of Griselda’s daughter, now twelve, who was secretly raised in Bologna.

Griselda is told it is not her daughter but Gualteiri’s new bride-to-be, and she is ordered to sweep her quarters – which she does.

Eventually, Gualteiri confesses his trick, and says he has now taught Griselda “to be a wife.”

All images are copyright of the National Gallery.


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Hey, you guys. I am on my way, but I won’t be in until 11:15 or so. Look up on the Decameron Web Petrarch’s letter to Boccaccio about the Decameron, with his translation of the Griselda story. Look at the changes Petrarch makes, his explanation of the changes, and decide whether or not the ‘improve’ the story or not. What does Petrarch think the story is about? What might Boccaccio think his story is about?

 See you when I can.

Dr. K.


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On to The Decameron

I have been incredibly behind on this reading but today I am pretty sure I am up to snuff with the days four, six and seven. Hopefully that’s right. If not… well, dang.

To begin, the seventh day just screams out “The Canterbury Tales.” Each work was about how a woman tricked her husband in some way to stay with her lover. The most shocking one I found was the story with the bath, in which the stupid husband cleans it while the lover has his way with the wife.  I honestly couldn’t picture this situation in my head. It was too odd. one huge difference I noticed between this chapter and the general vibe of Arabian Nights was that sex and love making was a natural part of a woman’s crazy gene. But for the Decameron, sex is either a very grave subject or an incredibly funny subject. It’s like listening to a nervous fifth grader telling PG-13 rated sex jokes to his friends. Everyone huddled around laughing in an uncertain manner.

The sixth day made me feel kind of dumb. With each quirky  one liner I simply sat there scratching my head. I am sure they were brilliant at the time but if I said any of those things today I would probably get my butt kicked. I had no idea that there was such a reverence for cleverness. I thought that it was much less celebrated than that of Islamic culture. I didn’t realize how wrong I was.

Finally, on the fourth day, which I had already read a bit of, was even more interesting in the second half. I really like the story about the sage and the lover who dies from rubbing it up against his teeth. I liked that they actually had a reasonable explanation. If it was in the Arabian  Nights, they would have simply stated that it was a genie.


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I’m not worthy!

I know that there are some underlying, important ides centered around Dante’s obsssion with Beatrice and he even states that if you don’t get it, you’re not cool. Well, I can confidently say that I am not worthy of this guy’s time. I get that there is this near obsession with love and that she has a key to his vulnerability and hopes. But when he begins to create this holy air around here I become completely lost.

She is god-like and yet she barely even gives him a second glance. I can understand why there is a sudden relief for him when she dies. I mean, he needed those chains broken. I also don’t understand why he lavishes these poems with gushy imagery and what not but then has these incredibly simplistic and plain explanations. Is there some sort of greater significance involved here?

I’m no real romantic. I’m too skewed by modern notions of love. So overall, I found his love for her a little over the top. I get that he is basing his poetry on Medieval Lyric poetry and creating a number of different levels with each verse is cool. But why her? Why now after so many years?

Inferno also touches base with his lady love, who now is not only a holy object but also the reason for why Dante is able to go through hell and not be too messed up afterwards. I get the religious undertones. I’m not that dense. But I feel that there was something else within this work that I couln’t quite grasp. Looking at the different levels and the specific names he presents in the work (political figures) I feel that there may be some political significance. I think tha tthis was the period where Italy was n political and economic turmoil but I’m not sure. Honestly, class is going to be a big help today.


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Too bad Dante’s not around to hear Taking Back Sunday.

From the very beginning of Vita Nuova, I get that Dante has elevated Beatrice beyond just Beatrice, some girl he bumped into a couple of times during her life. Rather Beatrice becomes a heavenly entity through Dante’s work. In fact, early on I believe he actually refers to her as a god(dess)– in one of the phrases that required a translated footnote. Dante even devotes an entire section or two of Vita Nuova to the dazzling effect Beatrice has on the people who encounter her, almost as a religious experience. When Dante encounters pilgrims, his first thought is that they must know nothing of the death of Beatrice, the tragedy that his town has suffered. (His second thought is an almost haughty assertion that, were he able to communicate his plight to the pilgrims, Dante could certainly cause them to weep. A little sick, yes?)

What is interesting then, is what this belief does to his poetry. The sole purpose of his work is to praise Beatrice who sustains Dante, even after her death. Love, then, becomes Dante’s religion, Beatrice is his god(dess) and his poetry is his prayer. Granted, courtly “love” thrives on this sort of extreme devotion, but what pushes Dante’s case over the edge, then, is the Divine Comedy.

Truth be told, my knowledge of the Divine Comedy before starting the Inferno was (is) limited. I get the gist, but what is interesting after reading Vita Nuova is Dante’s approach to describing this tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Dante asks Virgil how it is that he obtained permission to see what becomes of the soul before actually dying, and Virgil explains that Beatrice requested it. This answer is sufficient for Dante, thus likening Beatrice to God again. It is through poetry– represented by Virgil– that Beatrice’s message to Dante is communicated and her wishes executed. As far as Dante is concerned, Beatrice is the keeper of the afterlife. What’s more, a footnote early on in the Inferno points out that Dante rarely if ever (I don’t remember which) refers to Christ or the Virgin Mary; Dante has no need of these traditional religious figureheads as he has Beatrice.

At times it seems that Dante is attempting to translate his praise of Beatrice into praise of God, her creator, but the references relating them are few and far between, as if the use of “God” were only for emphasis. I wonder if Dante’s obsession with Beatrice would not be seen at the time as idolatry? But then again, it was not Catholicism that was quick to condemn idolatry, so perhaps not. It seems there is a fine line between traditional courtly love and idolatry, if there is a line at all, and if so, where is it drawn?

You could slit my throat
And with my one last gasping breath
I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt

Taking Back Sunday


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Sexuality

After reading the first assigned chapter (7) in Irwin’s companion to the Arabian Nights, I am already having ideas for my paper run through my mind. I probably just missed the big picture, but when he mentions that many of the tales are not of Islamic origin, but are simply moved to places such as Cairo or Baghdad and characters are assigned Islamic names – I was kind of surprised. This doesn’t take anything away from the tales, in my opinion at least, but it is fascinating. Were these tales relocated and reassigned to another group of people based on the fact that Arabian women better fit the mold for many of the narratives (adultresses, witches, prostitutes are a few examples Irwin mentions)? Or is it just an unbiased authorial decision?

To get back to my inspiration for my paper, as rough of an idea as it is, I want to look into how women would trick men, be it disguising themselves as men and all of the benefits this provided or adultery. The obvious reason for dressing as a man would be to put oneself on an even playing field with other men – no more sexual discrimination. But Irwin talks about this disguise in relation to male homosexuality. The Arab women were having to compete with young boys for the affection of their husbands, which is a popular motivation for dressing as a man/boy. Irwin mentions Ali al-Baghdadi’s The Book of the Delicate Flowers Regarding the Kiss and the Embrace, which I think would have a lot of information for the type of topic I am interested in. There is also the ever prevalent topic of adultery, which Irwin says was simply a “plot mover” (161). While this may be true and makes sense, it is also an example of female power, which ties in with the womens’ decisions to disguise themselves as males.

One of the most memorable parts of this chapter is when Irwin mentions that the superstitious of the day would be wary for a male to sit in the same place a woman had recently been sitting in for fear that some sort of “illicit sexual pleasure might be derived therefrom” (167). The idea that the behind was a super-sexual part of the body is not a foreign or archaic concept, but this seems to be an ancient concern.

Irwin speaks of the “ghunj” as a term to refer to a distinctive waggling gait especially during sex. He first mentions the “ghunj” in reference to women and the fascination with their behinds, but two pages later he characterizes a typical homosexual as having hairy ankles, wearing long robes, and when he walks, his legs sway. This reminded me of the “ghunj,” which could further complicate the identification of sex if a woman is disguising herself as a man to attract men, but those around her could mistake her for a homosexual man. Maybe there is a distinction between a female’s “ghunj” and a male’s swagger.


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Bold Women

The issue I seem to keep running up against in both Arabian Nights and the Decameron is the extent of control women have in their marriage choices. I really hadn’t thought that they would have much say in the matter of who they would or would not marry. In the Tale of Kamar Al-Zaman, not only does Kamar refuse to marry, but Princess Budur refuses her father as well. And yeah, so she gets scolded, locked up in her own little chamber, but she still gets what she wants: no husband. And when the lovely princess decides that she’s changed her mind, she’ll only marry Kamar. When I had thought of wealthy aristocratic families like this, whether Arabic or English, I had thought the daughters married who their fathers said they would marry, no questions asked. And they certainly wouldn’t get away with threats of suicide.
And in the Decameron, second day, tenth story. How in the world does Bartolomea get away with deciding to stay with the man who kidnapped her over the man she married? Since when did women have the balls to do something like that and when did men start letting them get away with this in the medieval times? As much as I applaud her efforts, I’m truly struggling to wrap my brain around these women playing such an active role in their marriage choices and lives.

And another thing, in both the Tale of Kamar Al-Zaman and about three or four stories in the Decameron, women are dressing up and parading around as men. I mean, I know Boccaccio is trying to create this blended world of unknown Greek and exotic Arabic, but really? How believable is it that women could dress up as men, hide their completely different body types and mannerisms, and become kings, sultans, advisers, husbands, etc. I especially liked that the daughter of the King of England is traveling as a male Abbott. I really think the royal family may have had a problem with this.


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Pleasantly Surprised

I remember reading an article for the annotated bibliography in Dr. Kennedy’s 310 class about Boccaccio’s The Decameron, and I also remember thinking that I hoped I would never have to read it. When I saw it on the syllabus for this course, I won’t lie – I was a little intimidated. I had never had an intensive study on Boccaccio but from what I heard, he seemed like an unavoidable author as an English major. When I forced myself to sit down and read The Decameron, I realized that *shock!* I actually genuinely enjoy his writing. I have a lot easier time getting through lengthy readings when they are broken down into shorter stories, and the fact that Boccaccio uses language such as “amorous sport” and “the kind of horn that men do their butting with” to describe scenes that are usually left up to readers’ imaginations just helps to keep my attention. Even though it was written hundreds of years ago, Boccaccio’s language (or the translation at least) somehow evokes a modern feel. I don’t feel like I am reading a medieval narrative because the stories (while some details are not completely up to date) are not too hard to imagine happening today. I really enjoy how the women are portrayed as being very in control of their sexuality especially in Day One (of what I’ve read so far). It reminded me of The Arabian Nights (though I am drawing a blank for specific examples at the moment… sorry).
As I sat in the waiting room for PrimeCare (a truly special experience in its own right) and had an old woman comment on the “really big book” I was reading, I realized that The Decameron, all 800+ pages of it is something I would never have picked up on my own and can only thank classes like these for exposing me to it. Though I see similarities between Arabian Nights and The Decameron, I am slightly more inclined to hold on to my copy of The Decameron. I can only explain this with the fact that the humor kept me interested, though from what you said about the onion/rose parallel, I am probably missing out on even more hilarious moments throughout. Though I am going off on a slight tangent, I feel that English majors should be exposed at some point, though I don’t effectively know how, to basic Latin, French, and Greek mythology to name a few before studying upper level courses. If we had a foundation of some of these fields, it would be more evident when we read texts such as the ones in this course. I studied Spanish, which has very little to no bearing on anything I have studied as an English major thus far. Anyway, to get to the point, I am glad that I am being “forced” to read works such as The Decameron – a text that I had planned on avoiding like the plague (no pun intended).

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