Some years after he wrote The Decameron, the group of tales that is his major work, Giovanni Boccaccio compiled this collection of 124 essays on women. It is considered the first grouping of women's biographies in Western literature. In his Preface, he claims that the compilation was undertaken as a balance to Petrarch's Lives of Famous Men and announces his decision to include the stories of women renowned for any sort of great deed. This of course admits bad as well as good women to his roster, but he assures prospective readers that the little sermons on virtue he incorporates will spur them on to good deeds, not wicked ones. For instance, his essay on Medea, whose butchery of her sons is a truly terrifying act of wickedness, concludes with a mini-sermon on correct control of the eyes because he charts Medea's downfall from her first sighting of Jason: "A person who was wise would either keep his eyes closed or raise them heavenward or fix them on the ground. Between heaven and earth there is no safe direction for eyes to turn."
Each translated essay, printed on the right hand page, is matched by its original on the left. This bilingual production of Famous Women (edited and translated by Virginia Brown, Harvard University Press, 529 pages, $29.95US, cloth, ISBN: 0674003470) makes the book especially valuable for students of medieval Latin. For general readers its interest lies in the wide range of lives recorded and in the status of women revealed in the telling. In her detailed introduction Professor Brown calls his method "praising with faint damns." In Boccaccio's accounts women are certainly by nature the inferior sex, obstinate, unbending, stingy, timid, suspicious, lascivious, avaricious and lazy: "the highest accolade Boccaccio can bestow is to describe her as æman-like' or as a woman capable of deeds beyond the powers of most men." In his descriptions he was, of course, following the opinions common to men of his time.
Brown finds, however, that he was ahead of his time in finding much to praise in women's accomplishments in literature and learning. The very fact of his undertaking such a compilation testifies to his rejection of many of the prejudices of his time. To me, in recording such lives as Cleopatra's or Dido's Boccaccio also projected a sort of fearful awe at the exploits of powerful women. That fear, of course, was a major factor in centuries of repression.
There is much in this collection to intrigue and inform the general reader. The collection provides an extended lesson on the amalgam of history and myth that constitutes these old old stories. ò