Leech (2008 Congress)

Mary Leech
(University of Cincinnati)
“Social Virtue and Family Honor in Boccaccio’s Unhappy Romances”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2008)
Session on “Heads Will Roll:  Decapitation Motifs in Medieval Romance”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized By Jeff Massey and Larissa Tracy

2008 Congress

[Published on our first website on 16 May 2012]

In romance, the decapitation of a character does not always signal death, as the head can speak and even reattach itself, most famously in Gawain and the Green Knight.  In the medieval romance, macabre imagery such as being tricked into eating a lover’s heart, or dying gruesomely for love, are commoon motifs.  The praising of body parts, the blazon, is also common in medieval romance, as is the social convention of venerating saintly relics.  In all these motifs, the dismembered body comes to represent various aspects of social need, often related to communal values or communal fears about the breakdown of such values.

In The Decameron, the fourth day is dedicated to telling stories of love that ended unhappily.  Perhaps the most interesting tale here is the fifth story, the story of Lisabetta’s murdered lover.  With the retrieval of her lover’s head and her devoted care for the basil pot in which she buries the head, Lisabetta usurps her brothers’ desire to rid her of her lover.  The story hints, however, that the brothers have failed their sister by not finding her a suitable husband.  Their homicidal scheme to save the family honor eventually leads to the discovery of their sister’s affair and their role in the lover’s murder.

Within this story of macabre imagery of love and sympathy for sinful lovers there is also a subtle moral for those who place too much emphasis on their place in the community rather than their moral duty to a family member.  The merchant-class brothers do not kill the lover for the dishonor to their sister, but rather for the threat the affair has to their social standing.  In this tale, images and motifs mix together in conflicting ways, perhaps pointing to conflicts within the understanding of the social dynamics represented in these tales.