Satire is a form of literature in which societal wrongs, vices and lapses are ridiculed. The purpose is to shame the persons, the groups or even society as a whole so that there is realization and improvement. It is supposed to be humorous but that is secondary to the main purpose – using wit as a tool to criticize for constructive betterment. Parody, exaggeration, comparison and double entendre are all parts of satire. Its sarcasm is often militantly sarcastic. The entire Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio targets the church in its satirical style. In the hundred stories narrated, no direct mention is made of the church but in each of the tales there is a corrupt priest and s people who are openly disrespectful towards the church.
When the plague of Black Death was raging through Italy, a group of youngsters, seven women and three women, run away from Florence seeking shelter in a vacant villa in Fiesole countryside. They spend two weeks here and during the nights each of the group narrate a story except for the days of rest and the days set aside once a week for chores. The tales are interspersed with folk songs and adaptations of previous forms of writing. Despite variations the running theme is mocking the greed and the lust of the church members, the tensions gripping society in Italy between the new mercantile class and the nobles as well as the adventures and dangers faced by traveling merchants.
Boccaccio was largely influenced by the trend of Divine Comedy of Dante. Allegory is used at various levels to show the links between the literary happenings in the narrations and the message of Christianity. Boccaccio deviates from Dante in that the purpose is not educating the reader but to attack satirically the learning method. This was the broad trend following the Black Death when there was pervasive discontent against the church.
The Decameron is not free from the medieval influences of numerology and mysticism. The seven women are representative of the cardinal virtues of fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence plus the four theological ones of faith, charity and hope. The men are representative of the reason, appetite and spirit. Alongside, Boccaccio treated sex as a natural phenomenon by entwining it with experiences in nature; he makes sex normal. Sex is seen as something transcending all classes.
The Decameron is set in Florence of 1348 – the Black Death era. Through literature Boccaccio encompassed in his work many classes; he focused on their habits and their morality. He portrayed the pull of the Church doctrines on the one hand and the march of human progress on the other. The new findings and facts in science and philosophy did not correspond to what the Church taught.
At that time there was none who was not connected with the Catholic Church. Thus this was the common thread that ran through all the classes. In the Decameron for instance the practice of lying during confession is highlighted. Many identify themselves with the liar Ciapelletto who is made a saint and has no difficulty in seeing a familiar figure they come across in the gullible priest. The process of making a saint is mocked. Another tale is that of a Jew who travels to Rome to study the core of the Church there. He becomes a Christian not because of the virtue of Church but because he marveled that a religion that could spread so widely despite such corruption needed to be recognized.
The tales are interwoven with satire to provide entertainment to all classes. The wit was savored by the lower classes as well as the elite. For this his tools are sexual and religious humor. All classes are equally mocked through the short stories; the classes laugh at themselves and at others.