A Choice 2011 Outstanding Academic Title

The Governance of Friendship

Law and Gender in the Decameron

Michael Sherberg


Literary Criticism/Europe/Italian; Literary Criticism/Medieval
250 pp. 6x9

$49.95 cloth 978-0-8142-1155-7
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The author recommends the following links:

Decameron Web

Casa del Boccaccio


“This unfailingly lucid and intelligent study supplies further cogent evidence of American scholarship’s steadily maturing involvement with the second most interesting writer of the Italian trecento. Sherberg . . . reads Boccaccio’s Decameron with attentive care, skillfully deploying close textual analysis, his extensive familiarity with the relevant secondary literature, and an informed understanding of 20th-century legal theory . . . of a kind seldom found among medievalists. The result is a reading at once strikingly original and thoroughly convincing, centered on the story-collection’s theory of friendship, its depiction of gender relations, and the legal matrix of both of these, which Sherberg dextrously relates to a tradition of ethical thought running from Aristotle to Aquinas and distinguishes . . . from Christian natural law. Offering fresh and enlightening commentary on some of the Decameron’s most notable tales and a comprehensive interpretation of Boccaccio’s masterpiece that usefully inspires reflection and elegantly commands assent, this is a landmark in Boccaccio studies. And the book’s appeal will by no means be confined to boccaccisti. It is required reading for those interested in Italian literature, medieval studies, and interdisciplinary approaches to literature and law.” —Choice

“This important, original study of Boccaccio’s greatest work is the mature product of a sensitively reflective scholar who has lived long and fruitfully with this text and its author. Sherberg brings together three topics—friendship, law, gender—that provide a surprisingly flexible and apposite framework for what turns out to be one of the most complete and compelling interpretations of the Decameron in recent memory.” —Albert Russell Ascoli, Terrill Distinguished Professor of Italian Studies, University of California, Berkeley

The Governance of Friendship: Law and Gender in the Decameron by Michael Sherberg addresses two related and heretofore unexamined problems in the pages of the Decameron: its theory of friendship and the legal theory embedded in it. Sherberg shows how Aristotle’s Ethics as well as Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica inform these two discourses, at the intersection of which Boccaccio locates the question of gender relations which is one of the book’s central concerns.

Through a series of close readings at all three levels of the text—the author’s statements, the frame narrative, and the stories themselves—Sherberg shows how Boccaccio exposes and explores gender tensions rooted in a notion of the patriarchal household, which finds its own rationale in the natural-law postulate of the inferiority of women. Relying on the writings of the great twentieth-century legal theorist Hans Kelsen, Sherberg demonstrates how through the complex architecture of the Decameron Boccaccio dismantles the logic of natural law, exposing it instead as a rhetoric used by men to justify their control of women.

The Governance of Friendship aims well to advance our understanding of Boccaccio as an intellectual: not only steeped in the key texts of his time, but also at the forefront of critical thinking about such issues as law and gender which will play out over the coming centuries and beyond.

Michael Sherberg is associate professor of Italian, Washington University in St. Louis.