In my previous post … http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-two-tenfold-subtexts-of-john.html …I laid out the details of the allusions I see in Northanger Abbey to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and also to a prior work which Merchant itself alluded to, Boccaccio’s The Decameron. My familiarity with The Decameron is, frankly, very small, so today, I awoke wondering whether, by any wild chance, there might be something else in those hundred tales I had mostly never read, besides the first story on Day 6 (with the horse-obsessed man boring a woman with his inept story-telling), which might have been of interest to Shakespeare and/or to Jane Austen.
I quickly found two of Boccaccio’s stories (the second and third stories among the 100) which each related to a Jewish man, each of whom bears the mark of Shylock, so to speak: the first, Abraham, is, like Shylock, pushed into converting to Christianity by a “righteous” Christian; the second, Melchidizek, is, like Shylock, a bigtime money lender. I will leave for another day, after further study, the unpacking of the thematic significance of Shakespeare’s picking up on those two Jews in the Decameron while he was conceiving the character of his far more famous Jew, Shylock.
Today I will reveal to you the remarkable discovery I made, once I asked myself a wild question about Jane Austen: if Northanger Abbey at its core really is about the metaphorical “plague” of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth in Jane Austen’s England, then could it be that JA’s veiled allusion to the Decameron, written as it was about Florence in the grip of an actual Plague, might be a clue to search in those 100 tales by Boccaccio to find one or more of them which in some way involved that same “plague” of death-in-childbirth? I knew from my prior research that death-in-childbirth was not limited to England during Jane Austen’s lifetime, it had been going on for centuries, and not just in England, but in many continental European countries as well.
I quickly tested that wild thought with Google, and Google just as quickly led me to an exceptionally well researched 2012 dissertation, which, as I skimmed it with growing excitement, showed me that my wild thought had luckily hit a scholarly bulls-eye! I.e., in a dozen different ways, I learned that Jane Austen could not have chosen a more apt literary source to allude to regarding death in childbirth than the Decameron, even though it was published over 4 ½ centuries prior to Northanger Abbey, and takes place in Italy!
I immediately saw Catherine Morland’s ruminations on the geography of horror through the lens of Jane Austen having made herself the mistress of Boccaccio’s medieval, Italian masterpiece:
“Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.”
With that introduction, the best way I can show why I am now so certain of JA’s focus on the death-in-childbirth subtext of the Decameron is simply to quote from relevant passages in the 2012 dissertation, edited down by me to get to the essentials, which may as well have been written about NA as about the Decameron. After quotation of all the relevant excerpts, I will return at the end of this post with a final comment. So, here goes:
Historicizing Maternity in Boccaccio’s Ninfale fiesolano and Decameron by Kristen R. Swann (2012)
“…Why doesn’t Boccaccio play up ‘good mothers’? Why are mothers afforded little narrative presence in the Decameron?...As historians have shown, Tuscan women were conditioned for motherhood from a young age: their dowries included items for future children, their house contained items reminding them of the importance of becoming a mother (and bearing a male child), and, in society, they regularly encountered a wealth of recipes and practices aimed at increasing their fertility. I argue that the omnipresence and gender specificity of Tuscan society’s promotion of procreation is a necessary context when considering the way motherhood is treated in the Decameron. The Decameron is, as we know, openly dedicated to women subject to the wills of others - fathers, mothers, brothers, and husbands - and restricted to the narrow confines of their rooms. Regardless of the book’s actual audience [It is a matter of scholarly debate whether 14th-century women were actually readers of the Decameron…], which certainly included many men, the author frames the work, and its stories, as solace for 14th-century women.
…I ask how Boccaccio’s literary portrayal of motherhood - whether depictions of unwanted motherhood, such as V.7 or IX.3, or affective portraits of mother-child interactions, such as Monna Giovanna’s solicitude for her ailing son in V.9 - comment on, or provide solace with respect to, the ideology and reality of motherhood in 14th-century Tuscany…I aim to restore to the Decameron’s depictions of motherhood the multiple resonances which these passages would have carried for his contemporaries…I explore how, when depicting motherhood in the Decameron, Boccaccio alternately ignores, plays with, and, at times, subverts beliefs about motherhood and its attendant rituals and customs. …I take Boccaccio’s claim to be writing for women at face value and assume that the tales he includes in the work are selected with this audience in mind.
The Demographic Realities of Motherhood in 14th-Century Tuscany
…high maternal and infant mortality rates profoundly influenced the way Florentines thought about reproduction and structured the family. In this section, I explore the demographic factors influencing a woman’s experience of maternity and consider how, and why, Boccaccio’s treatment elides or obscures these harsh realities. Perhaps the most pressing and unavoidable ‘reality’ of motherhood in the premodern period was the ever-present specter of death…childbearing in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance was “risky business”, many women died during birth or following it, while only half the children they bore reached maturity…roughly 20% of the deaths of married women in 15th-century Florence were associated with childbearing...Data indicates a maternal mortality rate of 14.4 deaths for every 1,000 births, a rate on par with maternal mortality today in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, and approximately 300 times higher than in most modern European countries today…Half of all deaths of married women who predeceased their husbands in the ricordanze are related to childbirth; only one in six (17%) of these deaths of married women is attributable to various fevers, illnesses, or epidemics. As Park notes, this data indicates 3 times as many married women died in childbirth “as died of disease, even in the relatively unhealthy period following the Black Death of 1348.” Being from a prosperous family did little to protect a 14th-century woman from death in childbirth; if anything, it exposed her to it more. Because patrician families in Renaissance Tuscany, “placed especial emphasis on lineage,” Jacqueline Marie Musacchio writes, women “underwent pregnancy after pregnancy, in an attempt to bear an heir.” The more pregnancies one underwent, of course, the higher the probability of something eventually going wrong. Beatrice d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia, Maddalena de la Tour d’Auvergne de’ Medici, and the Grand Duchess Giovanna de’ Medici all died as a result of childbirth; the Medici secretary’s notation of Maddalena’s death is evidence of the common nature of this outcome…
…28 of 202 women’s wills [from that era] which were studied were explicitly written during pregnancy, and another 31 were written by wives who may’ve been pregnant. Excluding out unmarried testatresses from his sample, Chojnacki calculates that as many as 49.2% of married women writing wills were pregnant at the time. Alessandra Strozzi bought insurance to cover her pregnant daughter in 1449 to protect the 500 florins already advanced to her son-in-law.
…The biggest way people dealt with the perils of reproduction was, somewhat paradoxically, by having more children: in this respect, the desire to produce heirs outweighed the fear of death in childbirth. “High fertility,” Margaret King notes, “was in the interest of the propertied family, whose ability to prevail ‘against the powerful forces of death’ required at least one surviving male heir.” As frequently noted, upper class Tuscan families achieved startlingly high levels of fertility…Maximum biological fertility for the human female is generally considered 12 births, but many Renaissance women were able to surpass this number: Florentine Antonia Masi, the wife of an artisan, gave birth to 36 children, while Venetian noblewoman Magdalucia Marcello bore 26, nearly one per year for her years of fertility. The patrician family’s focus on fertility and heirs meant, in practical terms, that women spent a large portion of their lives pregnant. Historians have found that the wealthiest women in Renaissance Florence were also the most fecund: wealthy women were both younger when they first became mothers and were able to maintain their fertility over a longer time span than poorer women, having, on average, 9.4 children.
The well-established practice of wet-nursing - the sending of an infant to be nursed by another woman for a period of up to two years - allowed upper class women to circumvent nursing’s contraceptive effects, thereby freeing them up to conceive children in quick succession. Yet as Angus McLaren rightly notes, this system benefited the husband much more than the wife “since, at no risk to his health, it brought the promise of additional heirs.” Historians point to the heavy physical toll that repeated pregnancies had on women: even if they did survive, their health was often compromised, as the many descriptions of women ‘worn out by childbearing’ attest. Katharine Park sums up the reality of motherhood in patrilineal Tuscany in rather stark terms: “Wed in their teens to much older men, these women were supposed to perpetuate the families of their husbands by producing as many male children as their bodies could bear.”
The picture of motherhood that emerges from these sources is not pretty. The stark demographic realities of childbearing and childrearing and the patrician family’s focus on heirs combined to make a woman “perpetually pregnant” and in constant peril during her years of fertility. Florentine women could expect to bear “a series of children in quick succession, only to die in childbirth in their twenties or early thirties.” If this is the reality of motherhood in 14th-century Tuscan society, it is not, however, the picture we receive when reading the Decameron. To start with one significant departure, no woman dies in childbirth in Boccaccio’s text, nor does any woman suffer a pregnancy related illness. This observation stands both for narrated events, and past events related in the work; mothers who are already dead in a tale (such as II.8 or IV.1) are not identified as having died in childbirth. While the Decameron does not ignore childhood morbidity and mortality - in VII.3, Agnesa’s son is said to be stricken with vermi, or ‘worms’, a common childhood disease, and in V.9 Monna Giovanna’s young son dies after a brief illness - it does ignore these other troubling aspects of motherhood. If the brigata is under strict orders not to talk about the plague, it seems they also cannot speak of maternal mortality. This may seem like a banal observation, but given that, as Teodolinda Barolini has astutely pointed out, women and their issues “are never peripheral” to Boccaccio, it strikes me as significant that this women’s issue is so patently ignored.
The exclusion of maternal mortality from the Decameron appears intentional. When Boccaccio transformed a Filocolo story into Decameron X.4, he deliberately changed the cause of Catalina’s death from childbirth-related to a generic illness, a move that bucks the general trend of increased socio-historical specificity in the novella. In Question 13 of the Fourth Book of the Filocolo, widely seen as the precursor to Decameron X.4, Catalina’s counterpart dies in childbirth...The change in cause of death, from childbirth in the Filocolo to an unrelated sickness in the Decameron, has no narrative logic: it does not affect the rest of the story…In light of the novella’s increased geographical and historical specificity, the change in cause of death is striking. Had Boccaccio wanted to be historically accurate, he could have easily continued to attribute Catalina’s death to childbirth; as we have seen, twenty percent of married women died in or shortly after childbirth. Instead, he chose to change it from a historically specific and plausible cause to a non-specific ‘cruel illness’. I would note that this change is made by an author who is more than capable of narrating the “specifics” of female life, when he wants to. In the Corbaccio, in a passage widely patterned off of Juvenal’s Satire VI, Boccaccio laments women’s anti-natal practices..Boccaccio’s mention of the perennially defoliated savina plant in the Corbaccio, regardless of the motivation behind the passage, well demonstrates the author’s attention to the details of women’s lived experience.
To return to X.4, what we notice is that Boccaccio has gone out of his way to avoid mentioning an all-too-common element of female life. Giovanni Getto claims that Catalina’s passage from death to life and then birth in X.4 reveals the breadth of the Decameron’s narrative reach. It is in the context of this thematic breadth - the Decameron’s ability to narrate all aspects of human life - that the absence of death in childbirth is so significant: it appears that Boccaccio elected to not include this aspect of human - and specifically female - existence.
Why might the author be reluctant to narrate this aspect of female life? Other medieval authors had shown that childbed death scenes held dramatic possibilities…Yet…Boccaccio does not seem interested in the pathetic or regenerative narrative possibilities of childbirth death scenes. The Decameron is written, by Boccaccio’s own admission, to provide lovestruck women with succour and diversion [Proemio, 13]); the tales are meant to provide women with both pleasure and useful advice. In this context, the avoidance of the mention of maternal mortality in the Decameron, as well as the birth of the work’s many male infants, may be read as a sort of wish-fulfillment, in the sense that Boccaccio would be offering his purported female audience a vision of the best possible reproductive outcome: no one dies and a male heir is (almost) always produced.
There may be, however, another, less sanguine, reason for the author’s reluctance to discuss maternal death. Historians of Renaissance Tuscany detect an idealization of death in childbirth among patrician society; according to these scholars, death in the service of the patrilineage - bearing heirs - was the “hallmark” of the ‘good wife’ in late medieval and Renaissance Tuscany…When noting the deaths of their wives in ricordanze, Tuscan men consistently listed the number of children they had borne them. As Louis Haas notes, this accounting “was not just a statement of fact but an evaluation of worth”: women were prized for their ability to create male children, and thus heirs, for the line…
…I contend that the Decameron’s lack of interest in female fertility is less the result of the frame characters’ narrative agendas - Migiel argues that narrators present views on sex, marriage, women, and children based on their classification as men or women - than it is a rebuttal of a functional view of maternity that places women (and their bodies) at the service of the male line.
…Historian Margaret Miles has suggested that the idealization of the virginal woman in 14th-century Tuscan painting may have “symbolized to medieval women freedom from the burden of frequent childbearing and nursing in an age in which these natural processes were highly dangerous.”
…Recently, scholars have explored the variety of ways in which women in late medieval and Renaissance Tuscany were encouraged to assume a maternal role. These scholars, working primarily in the field of art history, have drawn attention to the overt and subliminal messages contained within domestic rituals and objects with which women interacted on a daily basis….Other scholars…have also examined the interplay between art and ideologies of motherhood in Renaissance Tuscany. A commonality to these scholars’ approaches is a careful attention to the way visual art - whether private or public - interacted with societal discourses promoting the family and motherhood in Renaissance Tuscany, shaping or mediating a woman’s experience…
…The first wave of plague in 1348, with which Boccaccio would have been familiar when writing the Decameron, is believed to have killed two-thirds of Florence’s population, or 78,000 people (shrinking the city’s population from 120,000 pre-plague to 42,000 immediately after...In the Introduction to the Decameron, Boccaccio puts the number of dead at 100,000. While the plague is an important context for Renaissance natalism, birth-related objects and rituals were present in Tuscan society prior to the mid-14th century, due to an emphasis on marriage and family among patricians, as well as the risks associated with childbirth; their popularity rose, however, in the years following the plague…
…The encouragement started before marriage: birth-related items were a common constituent of a woman’s material dowry; in addition to new dresses and jewels, a bride received special birth cloths and swaddling bands, charms for future infants, and sometimes life-size dolls in her wedding chest. A girdle, an item possessing definite connotations of fertility, was also included in these chests; their interiors were frequently painted with erotic or suggestive imagery (nude or barely dressed young men and women) to encourage sexuality and procreation. Nuptial ritual also emphasized procreation: at the presentation of the betrothal chests during the wedding ceremony, a child was placed in the bride’s arms as a promise of fertility; this practice was so popular in Florence that sumptuary laws were drawn up in 1356, 1388, and 1415 to regulate it.
…Musacchio considers these birth-related items and rituals “blatant encouragement” for a bride’s future role as mother. Yet messages to procreate were not limited to a woman’s dowry or marriage ritual; objects promoting motherhood and reproduction were also present in a woman’s home before and for a long time after a birth…According to Musaccchio, these objects focused a woman’s attention on reproduction but also sought to control and direct the procreative process, by providing paradigms for proper female behavior and channeling a woman’s imagination toward desired reproductive outcomes. Familiar childbirth or confinement scenes provided comfort or “positive reinforcement” for women currently, or hoping to become, pregnant, while the presence of male infants stimulated a woman’s imagination “toward the procreation of similarly healthy, hearty sons.” (A childbirth tray from the 16th century is bluntly to the point: the underside simply displays the word maschio.) Inside her home, then, a woman was surrounded by objects encouraging motherhood and procreation; outside her home, she encountered a multitude of recipes and practices purporting to increase her fertility.
In the following section, I explore two depictions of unwanted motherhood in the Decameron - one sympathetic, one farcical - and consider how Boccaccio’s treatment undercuts contemporary ideologies of motherhood and the family….
…In the Decameron, unwanted pregnancies occur, predictably, in tales concerning extra- or pre-marital sexuality, such as III.1, III.8, and V.7, or in novelle involving the reversal of sex roles, such as IX.3 where Calandrino becomes ‘pregnant’. In these tales, women (and men) want sex but not the consequences, a dynamic most evident in III.1 where the nuns’ hesitation to have sex with Masetto disappears once they are assured there are a thousand ways to deal with an undesired pregnancy. The marital or social situation of these tales’ protagonists is a fundamental context for the undesirability of these pregnancies: we have nuns (III.1), an adulterous affair (III.8), a premarital relationship (V.7), and, in IX.3, a pregnant man. What I find interesting about these tales, however, is that despite their varying treatments of the unwanted pregnancy theme, they offer alternatives to the dominant discourse about women and motherhood. At the most simplistic level, depictions of unwanted pregnancies counter Renaissance natalism by showing women who, for various reasons, do not want to conceive. For the sexually curious nuns in III.1, pregnancy is an evil - a mal. For Ferondo’s adulterous wife in III.8, it is a misfortune - a sventura. To the unwed Violante, it is unwelcome - discaro.
The undesirability of these pregnancies is inextricably linked to the extra-marital quality of these affairs: pregnancy threatens to reveal the protagonists’ sexual transgressions (tellingly, Boccaccio never depicts a married couple who do not want to conceive). Nonetheless, the explicit characterization of pregnancy as a misfortune or evil could have provided a counter narrative to the insistent promotion and praise of female fertility that a Tuscan woman encountered on a daily basis. These tales raise the possibility, if safely ensconced in an extra-marital context, that some women might not want to become mothers.
[In two Decameron tales, V.7 and IX.3, motherhood is so unwanted that protagonists seek out abortive remedies to avoid it: in V.7, Violante employs various measures to disgravidare, or miscarry, none of which produce the desired effect… “ END QUOTE FROM SWANN DISSERTATION
I reached out this afternoon to the author of that brilliant analysis, Kristen R. Swann, a prof at UNH, so as to better understand her take on Boccaccio's intentions in the Decameron. Does his avoidance of the facts on the ground in Florence of rampant death in childbirth when he wrote the Decameron suggests that he was a propagandist for tricking women into submission to the prevailing norm of endless pregnancy, or a subversive wishing to undermine those norms in the eyes of the knowing reader?
It’s no coincidence that the same sort of question applies to so much of Jane Austen’s subtextual meanings – which is what she really believed, the surface meaning or its opposite? On the issue of death in childbirth, I believe Jane Austen’s actual position is indisputable, in part because of all the sarcastic comments in her letters about English wives being knocked up yet again. But the fascinating question raised by this post is, how did she read Boccaccio?
I’ll return with a followup when I have got more to tell.
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