By Regina Psaki
Heliotropia, Vol.1:1 (2003)
Introduction: Boccaccio’s literary corpus offers a broad spectrum of ideological positions on how the nature and worth of women are understood in institutional contexts which typically privilege maleness, whether these contexts be social, intellectual, theological, legal, or literary. I have written about the complexity and contingency of Boccaccio’s range of stances on the ontological status of women (Psaki 1997 and 2000), and will not aim here to identify a single, “authentic” authorial opinion on this matter. Instead, this essay will explore how Boccaccio plays with one convention of medieval misogyny—the motif of women’s secret knowledge, often posited as a corrosive counteragent to the normative knowledge and power of men—to highlight the masculine fear which underlies and generates misogyny as a cultural discourse.
Because the misogynous strain in medieval writing is overwhelmingly considered in modern scholarship to represent a broad cultural consensus, a critic must marshal overwhelming evidence to claim that a text containing or comprising misogynous topoi is parodic or even ambiguous. A thread of dissent has emerged in recent years, of which Robert Hollander’s Boccaccio’s Last Fiction (1988) is representative. Hollander argues that Boccaccio’s Corbaccio is
not a “serious” satire, but one which turns back on itself, revealing its major misogynous characters to be male hysterics, latter-day haters of womankind because of their own weaknesses and failings.