Guest Column: The Decameron and sex

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By Margaret S. Burns Special to the Express

This morning a friend sent me an article suggesting that, for these ‘interesting times’ we now live in, we turn to a very old volume of stories to learn how to react.

The volume is The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio who wrote the book following the outbreak of the Black Plague in Florence in 1348. He tells how a group of gay (in the old meaning of the word) young friends took themselves off to a country estate where they spent the time telling and making up stories to amuse and titillate themselves and while away the time until they could return to the overpopulated urban environments in safety. This was the 14th century version of ‘social distancing.’

That book has a huge resonance in my life, since it was that book that explained the mysteries of sex to me.

It was a humid summer between fifth grade and sixth grade in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania a town in Western Pennsylvania, of 6,032 people, most of whom worked in the steel and manufacturing factories in the region, surrounded by small farms.

My friends and I had begun to experience changes in our bodies, growing fat deposits here and there, tentative interest in boys as something other than to punch or yell at, and some of us had already got ‘the Curse.’ Knowledge about any of these changes was a closely held secret and never talked about except with some snickers. The advent of puberty and menstruation was marked, at best, by our mothers handing us the Kotex box and a pamphlet that showed an ovary and little sperm swimming against the tide to reach the egg and that was somehow what caused the blood to rush out every month.

Remember, this was 1951, nearly 70 years ago, and delicate matters like childbirth, cancer, or ‘hardening of the arteries’ (aka dementia) were mentioned only in whispers in polite society and rarely in front of children.

Well, my friend, Janet Auchter, and I were having none of that. We decided to find out what was what about human intercourse. Since we were both avid readers, we knew that ‘intercourse’ was a word that went to the heart of the matter. We also knew the word ‘coitus.’

So we got out our Webster Dictionaries and looked up the words, expecting to be enlightened. Not so. One word just referred to another word in an endless loop that told us nothing about sex. We may have gone to the Carnegie Library that was the source of all knowledge in our area, but we were no further ahead than we were with the dictionary. We dropped it for the time being and probably went back to our neighborhood skipping rope or jack tournaments.

Sometime that long, boring, sweaty summer, I picked up another one of the books that was lying around the house. My parents let me read anything I wanted. One of the books in the great books collection we had was Boccaccio’s Decameron. It was pretty boring at the outset and took a long time to set the stage to get all the young people into the country telling stories to each other. And some of the stories were about how to be good, religious souls.

But then there was the story about the young nun looking for enlightenment. She goes to the hermit in the desert and asks his help in her religious upbringing. He agrees, and the stage is set for him to settle wisdom upon her. But first, he tells her, “We must put the devil into Hell.”


There it was! The perfect metaphor!

I phoned Janet right away.

We were enlightened and could turn our attention to other important matters, like catching Louis Fornelli’s eye – he was the sixth grade heartthrob.

Is it any wonder that I love books and libraries?


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