Giovanni Boccaccio would be a more than appropriate figure to assume the honorary status of Patron Saint of the First Amendment. If, that is, he had not lived well before America, the Constitution or the very idea of freedom of speech ever existed. Not only did Boccaccio predate the First Amendment, he was a Renaissance Man of Letters before the coming of the Renaissance. The literary output of Boccaccio demonstrates a versatility capable of excelling in nearly as many genres as there are Dewey Decimals to categorize them: his oeuvre expands to include long intricately plotted poems, biographical non-fiction and novels of romance. And, of course, folk tales involving romance of a more bawdy nature. Such are the collected works that make up Boccaccio’s most famous and most assaulted literary creation, the Decameron.
Considering that Boccaccio was born in 1313 when the power of the Catholic Church in France was as strong as it had ever been and as willing to stick its nose into areas where it really did not belong as it would ever be, the fact that the Vatican was at the forefront of attempts to censor the extraordinarily popular Decameron should hardly shock anyone these days. Of course, a delightful little irony underlying the Church’s assault on freedom of speech enters the tale in form of Boccaccio himself being a faithfully attendant Catholic himself. How else could the Decameron have been so very efficient at satirizing high ranking members of the Church hierarchy within those bawdy little stories that make up the text?
Boccaccio’s academic background prepared him to enter into the exciting world of accounting, but his love of all literature overcame that ambition and sent him straight into classes studying ancient texts and the sciences to provide context. He would not begin working on the Decameron until 1348 and it would be another five years before it was finally completed. The structure of this literary tour de force comprises an assembly of associates who come together at Florentine villa resulting from their attempt to outrun the Black Plague. Not terribly unlike that similar group of people who come together to share tales on the way to Canterbury, these folks find the best way to pass the time and avoid the anxiety produced by the possibility of the Plague coming after them is to tell stories. And, like the stories that are told by Chaucer’s creations, these little fictions span quite the gamut, running from insane satire to love stories far more romantical, but every bit as humorous.
The humor contained within the Decameron did not, however, amuse the Church.
Not that the Catholic Church is the only authoritarian entity bent on keeping the Decameron out of the hands of suggestible readers. Boccaccio’s Decameron was one of the few literary texts which could automatically be confiscated by US customs officials as a result of the passage of the Tariff Act of 1930. Automatic confiscation would end the next year, a ruling by a New York court that declared the book to be obscene ensured irregular confiscation well into the late 1930s, thus creating, as usual, the ultimate irony of most attempts to censor creative works: if Boccaccio is known at all in the 21st century, he is known for the Decameron.