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Goggio Lecture: Marilyn Migiel “What Can a Maidservant Do For You? Answers from the Men and Women of Boccaccio’s Decameron”
December 5, 2019 @ 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron is, as Vittore Branca has noted, the first book whose protagonist was contemporary society. In this masterpiece of Italian literature, the ten upper-class Florentines who temporarily flee their city during the Black Death of 1348 are able to create a life and tell their 100 stories thanks to the labor of their servants, who carry their things, prepare their lodging and their meals, and remain largely invisible. Relatively little has been done, however, to explore how servants are portrayed in the stories of the Decameron.
My talk focuses on the broad dialogue about maidservants that develops over the course of the Decameron. It aims to illuminate how Boccaccio uses his male and female narrators to tell a story (not surprisingly, a gendered story) about the workings of power in superior/subordinate relations. Featuring prominently in my talk is the final story on Day 4 of the Decameron, told by Dioneo, in which he imagines a much expanded role for a maidservant. My thesis is that the Decameron’s male narrators (and most especially Dioneo) open up a role for maidservants, giving them a certain authority to speak and act, and that the female narrators move instead to circumscribe and neutralize the authority that maidservants could have.