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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / literature



Love and Sex in the Time of Plague

by
Guido Ruggiero


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Love and Sex in the Time of Plague



Title: Love and Sex in the Time of Plague
Author: Guido Ruggiero
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2021
Length: 205 pages
Availability: Love and Sex in the Time of Plague - US
Love and Sex in the Time of Plague - UK
Love and Sex in the Time of Plague - Canada
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • A Decameron Renaissance

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Our Assessment:

B+ : neat readings of Boccaccio, well-placed in fascinating historical context

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       The time of the plague in Love and Sex in the Time of Plague is the fourteenth century -- but the plague that ravaged Europe is, itself, only incidentally significant in Guido Ruggiero's work. A much more central role is given to the grand work of fiction from around that time, Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, set in 1348 and featuring a group of ten storytellers that come together in a Florentine church and escape the city to the comforts of a villa in the nearby hills -- with, as Ruggiero notes: "helpful servants, gracious gardens, and a peaceful lush atmosphere that breathes escape, tranquility, and safety from the ravages that continue below in the city". The tales they then recount for each other are not exactly escapism, but certainly also not closely focused on the crisis -- indeed, catastrophe -- of the moment. Instead, Ruggiero suggests, they are a product of and commentary on the new polities of northern Italy, the changing and rapidly evolving world that was the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance (or, as he prefers to consider it, the slightly broader Rinascimento).
       As he eventually sums up:

I have attempted to show how those one hundred tales may be read as historical documents that at the time both proposed and, in their own way, created a Decameron renaissance for those who read or heard them in late fourteenth-century Florence, the cities of northern Italy, and more widely and, in turn, how they contributed in a foundational way ultimately to the birth of a more general European renaissance and perhaps to visions of marriage, love, and sexuality that still underpin Western notions that are central to our shared culture today.
       Ruggiero helpfully makes clear the context in which these tales were written, in a time when city-states such as Florence were rapidly developing as commercial and artistic centers, and, significantly, were dominated neither by Church nor royalty or nobles. Remarkably:
For while nobles and clerics remained the leaders in the rest of Europe, with kings and princes at once both challenging their dominance and relying on it, in most of the cities of northern Italy, nobles had lost power to the urban populace who had taken control of government, usually violently, and in the process had hamstrung them with restrictions or simply outlawed them in city after city from the mid-thirteenth century.
       As Ruggiero points out:
When the traditional nobility had ruled and controlled most wealth, it was relatively clear who was important and who deserved their position on top of society. And that position was supported by a host of cultural and traditional values both social and religious. Driving out the old nobility in the context of the increasingly complex social and economic world of the day put all that up for grabs. Traditional values and cultural norms crumbled before new economic and social realities, and the tales of the Decameron were being told right in the midst of this complicated and highly contested transition, a transition aided and aggravated by the devastation of the plague.
       In the five parts of his book, Ruggiero uses tales from Boccaccio's collection to describe and discuss this process and these tensions. The concept he particularly focuses on is that of virtù -- a sought-for and admirable quality, a kind of virtuousness but also encompassing more than that. And:
     As a label with such great power in a period of rapid and profound change, exactly what virtù meant and required was an issue that, not surprisingly, engendered considerable debate.
       Ruggiero focuses on a handful of stories from the Decameron -- including the final one --, recounting them in close detail and considering their implications. Matters of love and sex -- only partially overlapping concepts -- raise questions of virtù and, for example, status in various contexts, and Ruggiero makes a good case for how these concepts were evolving at the time. Among the notable observations is how virtù came to be a measure for all of society, not just the upper class, as a part of a general democratizing of society; so, for example, Ruggiero suggests that Ghismonda, in IV.1:
Status, she claimed, should not be based on the traditional standards of nobility -- birth and blood given by fortune -- but on newer behavioral models that turned on reason, manners, and the ability to get things done -- in sum, the familiar attributes of upper-class virtù.
       Ruggiero does harp a lot on virtù -- and can't resist the occasional wordplay with it -- but it is a useful concept around which to present the societal evolution and change he is charting. The colorful examples from the Decameron he relies on are effectively used, with Ruggiero weaving them well into his essay; he has a good touch in recounting them, providing more than just summary but also leaving readers eager to turn to the actual source. Limiting himself to a manageable number of examples, and thematically dividing up the book into five general areas -- 'Laughter', 'Violence', 'Sorrow', 'Transcendence', and 'Power' -- Ruggiero offers insightful readings of Boccaccio while also making larger points about the changing society and attitudes of the times.
       Sex and love feature prominently in his examples, in a fascinating exploration of attitudes towards both at the time, and how circumstances influence how various examples of them are seen, such as the neat resolution of the tale of the cuckolded prince, Agilulf, (III.2), with both life (that of the groom who took advantage of the queen) and honor (the prince's) being preserved, as: "the prince demonstrated his wisdom (virtù) as a ruler, and the groom survived his love sickness thanks to his own cleverness (virtù)".
       Among the stories Ruggiero discusses at length is that of Alibech and how she is taught to 'put the Devil back in Hell' (III.10) -- a story cut from numerous translations of the Decameron as simply too risqué (and shockingly blasphemous), but which he suggests: "may also be reread as a wistful rewriting and reversal of the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden with the triumph of a loving God of life over a wrathful God of plague and death". It may seem a bit of a stretch, but Ruggiero makes a good case for it, and Alibech's innocent devotion, here.
       Written in an engaging style -- and with obviously engaging subject-matter (not least the focus on love and sex, and the appropriate, often very colorful examples from Boccaccio's grand collection) -- Love and Sex in the Time of Plague is far from dry-academic. (Note also that the endnotes, while making for a slightly more academic layer, aren't simply references but also include valuable supplemental material.) Love and Sex in the Time of Plague is quite fascinating for its reading of the Decameron, but beyond that also offers considerable insight into the place and times -- and tells a good story of both the beginnings of the Renaissance and attitudes towards love and sex.
       An enjoyable and interesting read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 June 2021

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Links:

Love and Sex in the Time of Plague: The Decameron: Guido Ruggiero: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Guido Ruggiero teaches at the University of Miami.

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© 2021 the complete review

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