Tom Hodgkinson: Lusty friars trick credulous ladies into shagging them by pretending to be the Archangel Gabriel


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People have completely the wrong idea about the Middle Ages. In the popular imagination, it is an era of bad teeth, short lives, no anaesthetic, religious intolerance, the suppression of women, rampant superstition, boring food and recurrent plagues. But this caricature is very wide of the mark. In actual fact it was an intellectually lively period that was playful, sophisticated and enormous fun. And if the 14th-century Florentine writer Boccaccio is to be believed, it was pretty relaxed when it comes to sex.

I've been reading Boccaccio's Decameron over the past few weeks. Written in around 1350, when there was a plague in Europe, it is a collection of 100 short stories. They are very readable, very funny and most of them involve shagging. The set-up is that seven young men and women have quit the city of Florence to escape the plague, and to while away the time, they tell each other stories. The first thing to observe is that they drink much spiced wine, eat dainty dishes and take a siesta every day. It's a leisurely life. After their morning meal, they dance, sing and play games in the various gardens in which they find themselves.

Pretty much all the stories they tell involve love and sex. And the men and women are equally up for it. Nuns shag gardeners, abbots shag serving girls, lonely wives shag their neighbours while their knightly husbands are away, lusty friars trick credulous ladies into shagging them by pretending to be the Archangel Gabriel. (Boccaccio believed the clergy to be completely hypocritical.)

A frequent problem is a young wife saddled with an older husband who appears not to be able to do it very often, leaving his wife frustrated. One such new wife is heartily disappointed with her husband's performance straight after their marriage. "On the first night he only managed to come at her once in order to consummate the marriage, and even then he very nearly fell out of the game before it was over."

He then appears to take some form of medieval Viagra the next morning: "He had to swallow down vernaccia, energy-tablets and various other restoratives to pull himself round." This husband, a prissy judge, tells his wife that they are not allowed to have sex on any of the many holy days of the year, "much to the chagrin of his lady, whose turn came round once a month at most". Luckily for the lady, she is kidnapped by a virile pirate called Paganino, who pays less regard to the holy days than her hubby: "So effective were the consolations he provided, that before they had reached Monaco, the judge and his laws had faded from the lady's memory, and life with Paganino was a positive joy."

The sex scenes are delicately but humorously done, and always insist on the mutual joy of the couples in question. Here is a typical example: "They then enfolded one another in a blissful embrace, and partook of the greatest pleasure that Love can supply, repeating the experience several times over until they unwittingly fell asleep in each other's arms."

I was delighted to discover in another of these ribald tales that surgical operations were performed under anaesthetic. A doctor examines a patient's gangrenous leg and decides he will have to remove the affected bone to prevent amputation. "Realising that the invalid would be unable to withstand the pain unless he were doped beforehand, the doctor issued a special prescription providing for the distillation of a certain liquid which he intended to administer to the patient in order to put him to sleep for as long as the pain and the operation were likely to last."

Giovanni Boccaccio was a banker's son. His father tried and failed to get this bookish type going on a career in both banking and law. A proto-feminist and lover of strong women, in 1374 he wrote a book called De Mulieribus Claris, which told the life stories of 106 famous women. He died at the age of 62. While on holiday near Florence this summer, I read a few of the stories out loud to the assembled company. It was great fun. It's a shame that we don't read out loud to each other any more. I'd urge everyone to go out and get the Penguin Classics translation of the Decameron and start honing your oratorical skills.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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