How a 14th century Italian beat medieval cancel culture

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Giovanni Boccaccio. Photo from Wikipedia

By the time Giovanni Boccaccio began writing the “Decameron” in 1350 following the plague of 1348 that killed nearly two-thirds of his fellow Florentines, he had already gained a measure of fame as the author of numerous works in the Italian vernacular. The “Decameron” — a collection of 100 generally ribald tales told over the course of ten days by seven young women and three young men who decamped for the hills outside Florence to escape the plague — would become his most celebrated. 

However, his prior success did not prevent detractors from decrying the “Decameron” and so, in an extraordinary literary moment, Boccaccio interrupted his narration between the third and fourth days of his work to defend himself from those who would, to adopt the modern expression, cancel him — “mettere a fondo,” or “to sink.” 

In the “Introduction to the Fourth Day” of the “Decameron,” he addressed his female readers directly to lament the “fierce onslaught of those turbulent winds,” i.e., the withering attacks on his person and work:

“Dearest ladies, I always assumed that only lofty towers and the tallest of trees could be assailed by envy’s fiery and impetuous blast; but I find that I was mistaken. In the course of my lifelong efforts to escape the fierce onslaught of those turbulent winds, I have always made a point of going quietly and unseen about my affairs, not only keeping to the lowlands but occasionally directing my steps through the deepest of deep valleys. Yet in spite of all this I have been unable to avoid being violently shaken and almost uprooted by those very winds, and was nearly torn to pieces by envy.”

As with today’s cancel-crusaders who trawl through decades-old tweets, emails, and social-

media posts — akin to Boccaccio’s “deepest of deep valleys” — looking for something with which to tear down a public or even private figure, his critics weren’t content to go after only those occupying the cultural heights. 

In Boccaccio’s case, and to his apparent surprise, they attacked his “Decameron,” which was written “not only in the Florentine vernacular and in prose, but in the most homely and unassuming style it is possible to imagine.” Small beer, in other words. Or “parvitas materiae,” if you prefer.

His critics accused him of liking women too much and praising them too vociferously. They attacked him in now-familiar identitarian terms for being too old to write about such matters as the “Decameron” contained. They also charged that his historical accounts were false, and assailed him for choosing inferior, gossipy prose over superior poetry and the Muses of Parnassus. 

To these accusations, Boccaccio responded carefully, and appealed both to nature and history. He noted that a man’s attraction to women is right and good; that antiquity holds many examples of outstanding men who praised women; and that the Muses, while good precisely

because they are like women, have “never caused me to write any [lines of poetry] at all.”

What lessons does Boccaccio’s successful and direct self-defense hold for us today, in this age of the angry Twitter mob ready at a moment’s notice to ostracize public — and, what’s more worrisome, even private — figures? 

To be sure, the internet makes cancel culture possible today in a way that just couldn’t have happened in medieval Italy, but the example of Boccaccio is illustrative. (Although I have contemplated an article comparing the dynamics of the medieval sonnet to Twitter. Don’t make me write it!)

First, Boccaccio got out ahead of the mob and was his own best defender. Lest his detractors prevent the completion of his collection, he undertook a defense of his work before it was finished. 

Second, he did not apologize for his sincerely and deeply-held views. 

Third, Boccaccio made recourse to reason, objective truth, and documentary evidence:  “I would be greatly obliged to the people who claim that these accounts are inaccurate if they would produce the original versions, and if these turn out to be different from my own, I will grant their reproach to be just, and endeavor to mend my ways. But as long as they have nothing but words to offer, I shall leave them to their opinions.” 

Fourth, and most important, he denied those who would “sink” him a victory, however small. Adages exist because they are, at least in part, based in truth, and the expression “if you give an inch, they will take a foot” applies to no one more so than to our modern-day social media Savonarolas. Boccaccio recognized this characteristic in their medieval forerunners, and argued that, should there be no brake applied to their efforts, they would never be sated. 

Then, as now, there was no limiting principle: 

“As God is my witness, I take it all calmly and coolly; and though I need no one but you [readers] to defend me, I do not intend, all the same, to spare my own energies. On the contrary, without replying as fully as I thought, I shall proceed forthwith to offer a simple answer to these allegations. 

“For I have not yet completed a third of my task, and since my critics are already so numerous and presumptuous, I can only suppose that unless they are discredited now, they could multiply so alarmingly before I reached the end that the tiniest effort on their part would be sufficient to demolish me. And your own influence, considerable though it may be, would be powerless to prevent them.”

What’s more, Boccaccio identified the very reason for attempts to cancel him: “invidia,” or envy. Now, as then, for many the crusade to cancel represents a brief respite from an otherwise inconsequential, humdrum life, as well as a path to power. Imagine being a random Twitter user who takes down a historical Great Man or Woman? An undergraduate who gives a professor his comeuppance? An aspiring letterato nipping at the heels of an accomplished author? What a rush!

For Boccaccio, envy lay at the root of cancel culture and constituted a “fiery and impetuous blast” and a “fiery passion of hateful spirit.” 

As an antidote, Boccaccio suggests a vigorous defense, along with a well-calibrated understanding of our place in the world as mortal beings: “Whatever happens, my fate can be no worse than that of the fine-grained dust, which, when a gale blows, if it should fall, it cannot sink lower than the place from which it was raised.” 

In the end, Boccaccio was not cancelled, at least not until the “Decameron” was put on the Index by, ahem, us Catholics and Pope Pius IV in 1559 — even then, it was more properly corrected via a 1573 edition approved by the Church than suppressed. After all, the title remained, and remains, Deca-meron.

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