Marilyn Migiel explores ethics and the 'Decameron'

Marilyn Migiel


Many readers have applauded 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio for giving his female characters powerful voices. Professor Marilyn Migiel has studied his work for years and she has a different tale to tell.

Boccaccio’s writing does include strongly pro-woman views but it also includes views that are misogynistic. But his work is far more complex than a two-sided story, said Migiel ’75, a professor of Romance studies and senior associate dean for arts and humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Her newest book, “The Ethical Dimension of the Decameron,” explores how one of Boccaccio’s most famous works challenges readers to think about the choices and assumptions they make as they read and as they live their lives.

“People are hesitant to accept ambiguity, but I’ve spent my scholarly life trying to find the complex language to explain accurately the ambiguities I see in texts,” Migiel says, adding that she enjoys the challenges of a complex text. “The ‘Decameron’ is sticky and thorny; rather than teaching readers, Boccaccio is testing them.”

In the “Decameron,” Boccaccio’s 10 characters are young people who have escaped the Black Death in Florence in 1348 by fleeing into the countryside. To while away the time, they tell tales, resulting in the 100 stories that make up the book.

The stories focus on various themes – many having to do with love and sex – from lovers whose relationships end in disaster to wives who play tricks on their husbands.

The stories invite readers to assess and judge not only characters and situations but also the way characters and situations are represented: Should the widow who was being pressured to have sex with a religious leader have tricked him by paying her female servant to have sex with him in her place? When a woman character chooses to have sex, how do our assumptions about her motivations – assumptions that may not be fully supported by the text – affect our interpretations? Are we willing to recognize character weaknesses even in characters said to be noble in spirit?

“There are many stories that cause people to take up polarized positions, but in fact, the choices can be very complicated,” she said.

Over the last 25 years Migiel has taught many first-year writing seminars on the “Decameron” and finds students relish the opportunity to debate the ethical questions posed by Boccaccio’s masterpiece.

“Students are right at the age where these questions are important for them to think about,” she said. “It’s a good text for helping them to see that not everyone will respond to an ethical dilemma in the same way. It also helps them formulate their own arguments and to be aware when a narrator is manipulating them into taking one side or the other.”

Migiel said experiences with great works of Italian literature like the “Decameron” have helped her respond with greater tranquility to adversity, to personal conflict, and to the death of friends and family members.

“My conversations with great authors of the past have shaped the way I think about untoward events,” she said. “Reading literature and processing what you’ve read can assist us in dealing with life’s challenges.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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