Fifty-four pages of “pimps, cuckolds, lovers and clever women” (as its rear proudly advertises) – a mere snippet to the full Decameron – and a handful of minutes lets us romp about in these short and saucy tales.
This pocketsize book from Penguin, first in the publisher’s line-up of 126 minor works from major writers, includes four stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron. No introduction, nor even a whiff of context, substantiates its content, and the result is a picture of Boccaccio as a street bawler in tight leggings, pulling the ears of passersby and peddling lewd tales.
It’s quite delectable.
The Renaissance didn’t get under way for nearly another hundred years after Boccaccio wrote his tales, and the Decameron is the last pat on the buttocks of the Middle Ages, sending the more bodily pleasures scurrying for the sheets before the higher forms of art could shout their Renaissance rebuke. Boccaccio’s writing is that final peek behind the veil of celebrated humanism, a peek into the rudimentary joys of life at a time when death was catching.
The Decameron is a loose collection of tales told by 10 people hunkering down just outside of Florence, steeling themselves against the Black Death then presenting his calling card at every second house in Florence.
How better to pass the time than to tell a few stories? Pre-Shelley, pre-Chaucer, Boccaccio put pen to the practice of storytelling-as-diversion and the result was his Decameron, his full work encompassing the highs and lows of morality and portraying love in spirit and a love more fleshly enjoyed while running the full gamut of contemporary Florentine life. Mrs. Rosie, of course, is a selection of the bawdier bits.
The translation Peter Hainsworth gave Boccaccio for this edition is inelegant, littered with drab words and speaking a casual flippancy. In other words, it’s perfect because Boccaccio wrote in the Italian vernacular, still a little slip of a thing in the literature of the 14th century, and Hainsworth’s translation picks up on that.
Mrs. Rosie and the Priest is a cleverly-selected little volume and one best enjoyed at face value because it’s exactly what it purports to be: a little diversion in your day, a pocketful of innuendo.
Mrs. Rosie and the Priest (from the Decameron) · Giovanni Boccaccio · 1348-‘53
Peter Hainsworth translation · Penguin, 2015 · 54 pages, paperback