Little Black Books: 1. ‘Mrs Rosie and the Priest’ by Boccaccio

Hello hello. This is the first of a new series I’m hoping will stretch to 80 editions over roughly the next year and a half. For my birthday I was given the full set of the Penguin ‘Little Black Classics’, 80 little books, each about 60 pages long, covering fiction, poetry and various other literary odds and ends. 

The Penguin tagline is: “From India to Greece, Denmark to Iran, and not forgetting Britain, this assortment of books will transport readers back in time to the furthest corners of the globe. With a choice of fiction, poetry, essays and maxims, by the likes of Chekhov, Balzac, Ovid, Austen, Sappho and Dante, it won’t be difficult to find a book to suit your mood.”

Now I’m not going to let myself ‘find a book to suit my mood’. Instead I’m going to plough straight into Book #1 like a greedy truffle hound (see the first review below), pop something about it on this blog and then move onto Book #2 – rinse and repeat, until Book 80. That’s the plan at least.

Without further ado, here is the first ‘little black book’, ‘Rosie and the Priest’. 

This is a collection of excerpts, essentially short stories, taken from the bawdier parts of Boccaccio’s DecameronThe Decameron is a frame narrative, 100 tales told by 10 travellers over a period of 10 days (δέκα (‘ten’) and ἡμέρα (‘day’) gives ‘ten-day [event]’). Think ‘The Miller’s Tale’ or the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in The Canterbury Tales, another frame narrative written at around the same time. In fact Chaucer’s ‘The Clerk’s Tale’ may have been inspired by the story of ‘Patient Griselda’ (see below).

Something I really enjoyed was the whimsical translation (mediaeval Italian to modern English). Always crisp and clear, it was also often amusingly blunt and idiomatic. For instance two thieves say they’ll give someone “a bashing round the head” with an iron pole. This “put the wind up” him. I also felt that it caught (what I imagine, not speaking mediaeval Italian, is) the tongue-in-cheek tone of the original. Boccaccio opens the titular story, about a lecherous priest, by saying: “[the village] had a valiant priest, a fine figure of a man who served the ladies well.” Soon we learn quite how well he did (or did not) serve them. The thinly veiled euphemisms only add to the quirky fun of the unlikely tales.

The tale that most stood out to me was the last one in this collection, and indeed the last in the whole Decameron, ‘Patient Griselda’. 

This is a rags to riches (and back to rags, and back to riches) tale. 

There are two main characters, a lordly husband and a peasant wife. Their narrative arcs drive the story. You start off loving the lord, then are forced into a kind of baffled hatred at the awful things he does to test his wife. At the end you don’t quite know what to think.

His wife Griselda similarly presents a conundrum. She comes from a peasant background, and endures a seemingly unendurable series of ‘trials’ from her husband, all “with a calm and steady exterior”. When the husband eventually “applies the sweetest possible medicine to the wounds [he] inflicted” surely most readers would say it is rather too late for her to forgive him. Yet she does and they both live happily ever after.

The question Boccaccio poses, through the tale and in the closing moral, is whether wifely patience and obedience is simply a Good Thing, per se, as might have been assumed in mediaeval Italy. The story suggests it may not be. Even if Griselda is (meant to be) the paragon of wifely obedience, surely her husband’s  treatment of her is beyond the pale? The villagers certainly think so, judging the “tests inflicted on [the husband’s] lady too severe, indeed intolerable”. 

Instead the ‘Patient Griselda’ suggests taking everything (whether that be cruelty or forgiveness) in moderation. 

Please see the Little Black Book page for the next post in the series. 

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