The Language of Women as Written by Men in Literature

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      Increasingly, critical practice has turned its focus to the reading of gender within the works of Giovanni Boccaccio — not just as the study of the representation of women within the novella of the Decameron, but understood broadly as the convergence of language and gender in Boccaccio's oeuvre. Recent scholarship in this vein comes to terms with the author's rhetorical and ideological engagement with women, ranging from studies of female discourse within his narratives to his challenging objectification of women which resists totalizing claims. Some scholars argue that we cannot ask whether or not Boccaccio was a misogynist or a feminist, claiming that his hermeneutics challenge these categorizations (most recently, Marilyn Migiel). Others, such as Millicent Marcus, have asserted that detecting misogyny in Boccaccio's novelle, such as Decameron VIII, is a "misreading" because the novella itself critiques misogyny. Still, others view the foregrounding of women producers of discourse within society as the origins of a feminist literary tradition (Teodolinda Barolini).

      To judge from the critical literature, Boccaccio's apparently contradictory stance, from the dedication to lovelorn women in the Decameron's Proem to the anti-feminist diatribes of the Corbaccio, shifts problematically from one of philogyny to one of misogyny. This dualistic interpretation hinders a reading of his corpus — let alone of singular works — in one direction or the other. Gender studies in Boccaccio have yet to examine the ways in which his views on the vernacular as the "volgare delle feminine" vis-a-vis Dante impact upon our reading of the Decameron's authorial voice and its dedication to "vague donne"

      I posit that by means of an interpretation of Boccaccio's gendered history of the vernacular one can achieve a different reading of the canonical negotiations of the Proem, the Introduction to Day Four, and the Conclusion of the Author in the Decameron. Ultimately, I argue that Boccaccio can be related to misogynist and non-misogynist ideologies by means of his own rhetoric of philogyny when seen as the result of linguistic debates within textual communities that can be discerned inside and outside of the Decameron. There are several instances in Boccaccio's corpus in which his Author (or, in the case of the Decameron, the ''primary narrator") adopts a female persona or addresses a female audience. The narrator of the Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, for example, is a woman who addresses "inamorata donne" (in the spirit of Ovid's Heroides); the Teseida is dedicated to a fictional woman, Fiammetta; the Author of the Decameron addresses a female audience, and its storytelling brigade is populated with more women than men.

      Additionally; the Decameron highlights the role of women as producers and interpreters of discourse, from the seven female members of the brigade to numerous female characters who advocate for themselves and others with their words, such as Ghismonda and Madonna Filippa. Yet while female characters have been the subject of analysis, it is the Author of the Decameron — he who identifies with the "vague donne" and with the poets of the Stil Novo, while also jockeying for a position within their ranks — who has escaped similar scrutiny regarding his relationship to gendered discourse. The gendered subject in Boccaccio's works, I would argue, can be read as both sociological (for example, in the study of female characters) and sociolinguistic (as in the ways in which language is gendered as a whole and in its grammatical parts). The nature of Boccaccio's authorial self-fashioning in the Decameron requires that we shift our focus to a voice whose brief autobiography accounts for his transformation from "innamorato" to that of a poet in the service of ladies.

      His service to women in offering the text of the Decameron is scripted in a false stance of humility in relation to the ranks of other stilnovist poets who write about love — Dante Alighieri, Guido Cavalcanti and Cino da Pistoia. At the same time, Boccaccio addresses his potential detractors, those humanists who favored only-Latin production and translation and who had yet to accept the idea of vernacular production in lyric poetry, let alone in prose.

      The combination of a female audience with interlocutors both instrumental (as in the case of the three lyric poets) and disinterested (as in the case of humanist detractors) in the establishment of a vernacular canon gestures to the complexity of literary production in the vernacular during a time of shifting ideologies, when Petrarch and other humanists at the vanguard of Latinate literary production ran counter to the linguistic project initiated by Dante in the Commedia.

      This complexity; I believe, is reflected in the words of the Author whom I read in part as a fictional elaboration of Boccaccio as a historical author. As the Author changes from one who once suffered like women, so does Boccaccio's language transform from a "maternal vernacular" (according to Dante's theorization of eloquence in the vernacular as the "maternal locutio," De vulgari eloquentia I. vi. 2) to a new literary vernacular in prose, one that is — and is not — different from the "volgare delle femine" (Esposizioni Accessus, 19). He speaks not in an original maternal vernacular, and not in the language of women (as Boccaccio claims in the Esposizioni)— yet he continues to write in the vernacular.

      Thus the "untidy business of gender studies" (to cite Migiel's titular phrase) must consider the Author's gendered identity — a once lovelorn man writing for an audience of lovelorn women — alongside the establishment of the vernacular as a literary language despite and because of its history as the language of women. It must see philogyny as a strategy to revise and benefit from the misogynist commonplaces of current linguistic and artistic ideologies. Furthermore, it must see philogyny as part of a rhetorical strategy to build vernacular authority within shifting textual communities, those that comprise the 'litterati' (i.e., Petrarch, see Esposizioni XV. 96), and those that comprise literature in the vernacular (i.e., the merchant class).

      In this essay, I propose that we view the dedication of the Decameron to women and its philogynous rhetoric as intrinsic to Boccaccio's daring new project of composing the vernacular Decameron. In particular, by situating the self-fashioning of the Author within the context of Boccaccio's reception of Dante, who first articulated the gendered linguistic difference of a maternal vernacular and a literary one in the De vulgari eloquentia, we can acquire a new vision of Dante's linguistic influence on Boccaccio. I shall begin by problematizing the decision to write the Decameron in the vernacular in light of the concept of the 'galeotto' and then of Boccaccio's explication of Dante's gendered history of the 'voigare'.

      This informs my reading of Boccaccio's interpretation of Dante's vernacular in the Trattatello in laude di Dante and in the Esposizioni, in addition to the gendered definitions of the vernacular in the Epistle to Cangrande della Scala, the Convivio and the De vulgari eloquentia. I thus contextualize Boccaccio's misogynist history of the vernacular for a Florentine audience at the beginnings of Renaissance humanism. This context is then compared to the language of the Decameron and its dedication to women in love in the Proem, which Boccaccio seems to contradict in a subsequent letter to Mainardo Cavalcanti (Epistola XXII).

      Finally; I address the Introduction to Day Four and its negotiation in erotic terms of canonical hierarchy. Ultimately I propose that we read Boccaccio's authorial self-fashioning within the literary circles from which it originated (namely Dante) and for which it was theoretically destined, thereby locating the dependence of authorial masculinity upon a rhetorical philogyny. Or, to echo Alison Cornish's affirmation as regards Cavalcanti's "Donna me prega": "We might with reason suspect that all this supposed talk to women, even in the context of the dolce stil novo, is really to impress other men, and then only an elite among them.

      In the case of Boccaccio, the dedication of the Decameron to women was truly to the literary elite of posterity. Boccaccio's lifetime witnessed the project of attributing authority to the vernacular. From Dante onwards, as well as for other authors in French and Old English later on, such a project entailed distancing the vernacular from its "maternal" origins and feminine usage and lending it to the crafting of the language of erotic material, as manipulated by male writers. It meant exploiting the spoken vernacular as the language used by women for moments when a fictive audience was required (as in the Decameron's Proem), but restoring the written vernacular to the Muses. For Boccaccio, this meant that it was the Muses who, as he explains in the Introduction to Day Four, showed Boccaccio how to write, not the women whom he claims gave him inspiration. His Muses, I argue, are the emblems of classical instruction in literature; they provided him with the refined language that he could use while also claiming, with false humility, to speak in the language of women. And if Boccaccio's Muses are an "illustrious vernacular," then Dante is instrumental in his defence of that literary language.

      A "galeotto” should inspire its female reader to fall in love. But what if we were to shift the paradigm, reading the "galeotto" as also intended for a male author reading a text, one who possesses the authority to judge its inherent value? Viewing these canonical negotiations as dependent upon the readership troped as female in the Proem and the Introduction to Day Four but ultimately destined for a male, literary readership, one notices the intersection of misogynist and philogynist discourses with literary auctoritas. And the important predecessor and interlocutor of that discourse - the first writer to theorize the "galeotto” — is Dante.

      He latter part of the full title of the Decameron — "cognominato Prencipe Galeotto" — suggests vast horizons for a reading of Boccaccio's authorial voice vis-a-vis the Decameron's relationship to Dante. "Galeotto" evokes a multiplicity of contexts proposed by Inferno V: Dante's lyric history, courtly love and the roles of texts and readers.

      Cited as the text's "cognome" by Boccaccio both at the beginning of the work, before the Proem, and at its very end, after the Conclusion of the Author, the Decameron has been debated in its role as a "galeotto": is it meant as counsel for women in love or as an admonishment towards women not to follow its examples of women in love? We can look to Boccaccio's interpretation of Paolo and Francesca in his Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante for a possible response to that question.

      Since Boccaccio himself exculpates Francesca from any blame in her alleged adulterous act in his lengthy novella-like commentary in Esposizioni V, claiming that she had been deceived by her father in marrying the ugly Gianciotto, it could be assumed that Boccaccio would ascribe blame as well to agents other than Francesca, granting power to a text to "condurre" to good or bad conduct (as reminiscent of Francesca's own identification of blame with Love in her verse, "Amor conduces noi," Inf. V 106). After all, Boccaccio would later write to Mainardo Cavalcanti that the Decameron should not fall into the hands of the women of his household, given the corrupting power of his novelle (Epistola XXII).

      If Boccaccio's strategic elaboration of the tale of Paolo and Francesca in the Esposizioni reads as a novella, then his letter to Mainardo, I suggest, betrays his belief that in composing the Decameron he had written a "galeotto" in the spirit of Inferno V. Reading the Decameron as a "galeotto," as the text that has the power to sway hearts and silence reason, but most importantly as the text which Dante did not write, casts Boccaccio as a writer armed with the ingegno required to narrate the remnants of the Commedia's uncrafted imaginary Where Dante affords us a name or a title (as in "galeotto"), Boccaccio, as historian and storyteller, produces a novella-like biography or a collection of the novella. Where Dante states the "nominal," Boccaccio constructs the "consequentiae rerum." The fact that Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the vernacular would also suggest that his narrative in the vulgar continues where Dante's history reaches the ends of its narrative fili, crafting portraits where Dante provides sketches. Writing in the vernacular also implies joining a newly-formed literary community that will shape the emerging canon. As the Decameron's Author implies in the Introduction to Day Four, composing in the vulgar allows Boccaccio to join the ranks of those who also wrote love poetry; such as Dante, Cavalcanti and Cino da Pistoia — and to compete with their lyric production by writing both in the Florentine vernacular and, for the first time for the emerging canon of Italian literature, in prose.

      There are three texts in which Boccaccio discusses Dante's decision to write in the vernacular — in two of the redactions of the Trattatello in laude di Dante and the Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante. He treats the matter at greatest length and in gendered terms in the Esposizioni. The historical moment of the Esposizioni, between 1373 and 1374, deserves to be noted as a fraught moment not only for the reception of Dante's poem per se, with its potentially heretical content, but also one during which the vernacular experiences an opposing value for merchants and humanists. If Boccaccio went against current literary cultural conventions earlier to write lengthy prose in the vernacular Filocolo and then the Decameron, Dante's originality in this regard goes without saying.

      But how does Boccaccio justify Dante's choice of composing in the vernacular at this point in literary history, during which time, as scholars such as William Robins indicate, we witness the new mercantile "regime of the vernacular" alongside the advent of humanism? As Erich Auerbach writes, the struggle between Dante chose to write in the vernacular because of the alleged demise of Latin literature, but also, as he affirms in a previous passage in the Convivio (I. ix. 2), "non avrebbe lo latino cosi servito a molti": Latin would not have served many to the same extent. Indeed, one of the possible projects of the unfinished Convivio (though this is much more the guiding principle of the De vulgari eloquentia) can be read as a defense of compositions in the vernacular (Poi che purgato questo pane da le macule accidentali, rimane ad escusare lui da una sustanziale, cioe da l'essere vulgare e non latino) Gesturing beyond the vernacular's merits of accessibility to a wider audience, Auerbacb argues that Dante's predilection for the vernacular can also be read as the love for his native language ("lo naturale am ore de la propria loquela"), which Dante also declares in the Convivio.

      As noted by Padoan, this is not the first instance in which Boccaccio would address Dante's decision to compose in the vernacular. Where "grandissimi litterati" express the doubt that Dante himself was not "litterato" if he chose to compose in the vernacular, many "savi uomini" pose the "quistione" of the vernacular since Dante was "solennissimo" in "iscienzia," as two redactions of the Trattatello in laude di Dante read.

      What was once inquiry takes the skeptical tone of doubt in the later Esposizioni. Additionally, the acknowledged functions and audiences for vernacular compositions differ. As well, Boccaccio writes, Dante accomplishes something original by composing in the vernacular, and also shows its beauty and his art in that achievement. This redaction continues by pointing out, as does the Esposizioni, that the liberal arts were abandoned by lords and other important men, and also includes the "first" Latinate beginning of the Commedia. In contrast, Boccaccio states here that Dante did not complete the Commedia in Latin because it would have been like putting bread to the mouths of nursing infants.

      Composing in the maternal vernacular, the language defined by Dante in the De vulgari eloquentia as that which we learn by imitating our nurses ("vulgarem locutionem asserimus quam sine omni regula nutricem imitante accipimus," I. i. 2-3) would thus guarantee wider comprehension for an "infantile" public. The second redaction of the Trattatello traces Boccaccio's gradual ideological shift to the Esposizioni.

      Absent is the affirmation that the vernacular had a broader audience; absent as well is the description of the originality of writing in the vernacular. The current state of the liberal studies as abandoned by princes and lords is foregrounded, together with the Commedia's "abandoned" Latin incipit. Instead, the vernacular poem has two new functions: first, it inspires the unlearned to study; and second, it enabled Dante to acquire great fame.

      By the time of the Esposizioni, however, Boccaccio has adopted the language of humanist disdain for those unlearned in Latinlf Dante acknowledges that the vulgar is the tongue that women speak, and even if the illustrious vernacular is an artistic (and artificial) transformation of the "lingua materna," he would not trope the feminine vernacular with language that describes its incomprehensibility or its inaccessibility — or its inferior value.

      As Cornish writes, "The mother tongue is superior to the tongue learned in school. The lady is better than the old male authority" (Cornish, "Lady" 178). Even though grammatical, the language produced by a refinement of the maternal vernacular, is not one and the same as the maternal vernacular, Dante's definition of the vernacular embraces the maternal language as sublime. Furthermore, the Commedia alludes to poetic language as nurturing and feminine, such as his description of Vergil's Aeneid, which is described as his mother and his nurse (as cited above). For Dante, the vulgar tongue, and poetry in the vulgar tongue, as well as literary antecedents in the vulgar tongue, are maternal or serve a maternal function. Dante's original and extensive enterprise of establishing the vernacular as a legitimate literary language does not eliminate Boccaccio's apparent need for Boccaccio's gendered defense in the Esposizioni. Why did Boccaccio deem it necessary to revisit this issue? One possibility could be the way in which Dante embraced the vernacular regardless of its maternal origins: he did not achieve a separation between the "lingua materna" and the language in which men write to the satisfaction of the cultural elite. Evidence of this in Dante's time can be found, again, in the exchange between Dante and Giovanni del Virgilio, where the latter accuses Dante of casting his pearls before swine

      To this accusation, Dante poignantly responds that del Virgilio takes issue with his "humble words that fall onto the lips of women". Dante points to a view of the vernacular as the language spoken by women as the cause of del Virgilio's discomfort with the Commedia's language.

      Apprehension of a feminine vernacular is not simply a matter of a misogynist trend in emerging humanist thought, but seems indicative of the theory that vernacular production could be seen as "feminizing" its audience. This framework has been advanced by scholars of Middle English texts of the late 14th century; as Jocelyn Wogan-Browne has written, "If women are targeted as a special group that 'needs' works in English, the vernacular may have the potential to feminize its male audience by aligning them with non-Latin-literate women" (121-22). And it is here in the Esposizioni that the gendered status of the Commedia’s language stands as a primary concern. Late medieval authors, not only in Italy and England but also in France and Spain and later in the New World, went through extensive efforts to differentiate the vernacular from a traditional view on its role as "mother tongue" to instead a language of literary authority. As Gretchen Angelo writes in reference to Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose, "Misogyny served as a hallmark of translation study, allowing male authors to place themselves in an illustrious line of scholarship. It simultaneously weakened the association of vernacular literature with the feminine by creating a masculine textual community and a masculine vernacular." During the time of translation studiorum, a poem written in the language of women for an audience of men posed a substantial ideological obstacle for its reception.

      If writing within the vernacular already challenged existing literary conventions, "vernacularizing" a vernacular poem could be interpreted as the reduction of poetry to the primary function of the vernacular itself: the dissolution of the literary word to the spoken word, circulating within the "vulgar" crowd. Understandably, then, the first dantista sustained that "vulgarizing the poem" (that is, delivering the lectures of the Esposizioni) was a failed project.

      In verses written to a correspondent who accused Boccaccio of ignoring the humanist ideals of disdainful detachment from the people who are unable to appreciate poetry; Boccaccio would later claim that Apollo had punished his body for having "vilmente prostrate" the Muses to the "vulgo dolente" (Rime 122, 123, 124, 125). Boccaccio accepts this accusation and writes that it was "follia" (Rime CXXIII. 8) to assume this task, one that he would never attempt again. The contradiction between the dedication and the later letter to Cavalcanti poses a formidable challenge. Just as his concerns in the Esposizioni over the vernacular are more sensitized to a misogynist humanist audience than they are in the Trattatello, Boccaccio might have changed his perspective on a female readership between 1350 and 1372.

      While Boccaccio could be said to have changed in many regards between his earlier literary production (the period that ends circa 1350) and later, more Latinate production, the assertion that Boccaccio categorically changed in every ideological aspect of his views on art because of his encounter with Petrarch has been debated. Textual evidence that shows Boccaccio's later work as compilations of earlier material and revisions of earlier rhetorical strategies and discourses speaks to a continuity within his corpus that challenges such a totalizing claim. Simply put, Boccaccio's production changes in ways that Boccaccio criticism has grown accustomed to noting. Perhaps it is time to revisit these formulaic commonplaces. What if, by means of a revisitation of the discursive polarity of misogynist and philogynous rhetorical strategies, we were to view Boccaccio's literary production as a continuation of fluctuating modes? If his scribal activity in transcribing and compiling his work involved periodic revisitations of his own manuscripts at different points in his life, perhaps criticism should view the watershed encounter with Petrarch in 1350 as revolutionary to his thought but not divisive to his corpus. In a similar vein, the existing holograph of the Decameron, the codex Hamilton, which dates to 1370, still retains what Kirkham calls the ''admirably chivalrous gesture" of its dedication to women in love.

      Entertaining the hypothetical situation of a Decameron without a dedication to women in love indicates the importance of buttressing of an authorial voice in the Proem, the Introduction to Day Four and the Conclusion of the Author. I see the Author's amatory stance, though separate from Boccaccio himself, as necessary for an author who wishes to insert himself into a nascent vernacular canon. Without the Author's voice at the beginning, the near-middle, and the end of the collection, the Decameron would feel ahistorical, and lose its relationship, however emblematic, with its imagined critical reader. The voice that is not explicitly Boccaccio's is still one that must accompany the novelle in their diffusion, in order to define their relationship to the emerging tradition as forged by Dante and stilnovist poets upon their reception.

      Migiel accomplishes this integrated reading of the Author's voice as a separate narrative when she addresses the author's shift to an audience of male readers (potential detractors) in the Introduction to Day Four. This strategy allows Boccaccio to hide behind his fictive female audience established in the Proem in order to anticipate and deflect criticism: "If that Author were to address himself to an audience that were more critical, more discriminating, he would find himself in a tight squeeze"

      The feminine vernacular can be reduced to words, to fragments (or to fragments of things in the vernacular, to evoke Petrarch). Dante, in the De vulgari eloquentia, addresses the feminine lexicon of a maternal vernacular as that which must be removed, in addition to those infantile words and urbane words — even though he would use some of those words in the text of the Commedia. 49 In the Conclusion of the Author in the Decameron, the Author must defend his integration of a sexualized lexicon by recalling that both men and women use these words in their language.

      If the worth of the literary vernacular is in the hands of the literate, those who judge the content of that language are here evoked as women. The vernacular comes from women, is spoken by women and will be judged by them; indeed, women may value words more than deeds. The Author's task — his fatto — of composing stories in the parole of a feminine vernacular will be judged by those who create, teach, and speak language, from its maternal origins to its use in gossip. And women have the power to criticize the deed of the Decameron on the basis of the language it uses. But here, at the end of the Decameron, the vernacular becomes the language which both men and women speak: "agli uomini e alle donne di dir." The vernacular is composed of both masculine and feminine words, of "foro" and "caviglia". A reading of the vernacular as solely feminine, for the Decameron, is thus an imprecise one. As much as it speaks to the historical tension inherent in composing in the vernacular, it also masks the result of the linguistic metamorphosis inherent in the male author's craft, who transforms these feminized vessels of form, these parole, into the eroticized content of desire.

      The authors of those texts — the fatty themselves — are men who fashion the vernacular as feminine, but who cannot utterly transpose the social and artistic exchange of parole to an exclusively feminine world. Nor is that their objective, I would argue. Literary interlocutors of posterity, chief among them Dante, serve as much as an inspiration to compose both verse and prose. In revisiting the phrase "le Muse son donne," it is then, perhaps, those men who come closer to resembling "donne" rather than so many "papere".

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