Theses Doctoral

Historicizing Maternity in Boccaccio's Ninfale fiesolano and Decameron

Swann, Kristen Renner

This dissertation explores the representation of maternity in two of Boccaccio's works, the early idyllic poem, the Ninfale fiesolano, and the author's later magnum opus, the Decameron, through readings in the social history of women and the family and medieval medical literature of obstetrics and gynecology. I create a dense historical context from which to examine the depiction of generative processes, maternity, and mother-child interactions in these works, allowing us to better understand the relationship between Boccaccio's treatment of these subjects and the author's larger stance on women and gender.

In Chapter One, I explore Boccaccio's uncommon interest in the events between conception and birth in the Ninfale fiesolano; I demonstrate the conformity of the Ninfale's literary depictions of conception, pregnancy, and childbirth to the medical literature of obstetrics and gynecology and social practices in the late Middle Ages. In the second chapter, I explore how the Ninfale, traditionally seen as an idyllic, mythological poem, reflects the practices and ideologies of the normative form of family structure in fourteenth-century Tuscany, the patrilineage. I first show how the poem's pervasive discourse on resemblance exposes, and undercuts, the importance of the paternal line; I then consider how Mensola's joyful maternity -her beautifully rendered interactions with baby Pruneo - contains an implicit critique of the role and function of maternity in patrilineal society.

With Chapter Three, I turn to Boccaccio's prose works; I explore how Boccaccio incorporates specific and historicized beliefs about generative physiology - the biological pre-conditions for maternity - into commonplaces of the misogynistic tradition in the Corbaccio and Decameron V.10. Chapters Four and Five focus specifically on the Decameron. In the fourth chapter, I consider how Boccaccio uses a distinctly gendered language of generation in Decameron III.8, V.7, X.4, and, most spectacularly, X.10 to underscore the marginality of women to family and line. In the fifth, and final, chapter, I explore the profound cultural embeddedness of Boccaccio's treatment of maternity by placing the Decameron's depictions of motherhood - whether unwanted, farcical, or affective - within the greater social context of Renaissance natalism. Throughout this project, I consider how representations of maternity and generative processes in Boccaccio's texts comment on the realities of motherhood - and womanhood - in the patrilineal society of fourteenth-century Tuscany.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Barolini, Teodolinda
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 25, 2012