Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Paratexts and Their Functions in Seventeenth-Century English Decamerons

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Paratexts and Their Functions in Seventeenth-Century English Decamerons

Article excerpt

This article examines the first English translation of Boccaccio's Decameron (London: Jaggard, 1620), and its subsequent seventeenth-century editions. Meaning is shown to be constructed not only within the translated text itself, but also by the paratexts which surround it: the material features of the book (such as title-pages, illustrations, rubrics, and dedications) are shown to shape and authorize the foreign text for its English readerships. The route of transmission of the text from Italy to England via France is also signalled through both visual and textual elements, which reveal the interpretative frameworks of various readerships.


Boccaccio's Decameron has had a notoriously chequered reception in English translation: editorially, the text has a history of sporadic but violent dismemberment, while its translators have imposed both deliberate and unintentional distortions. (1) Editions of the work have demonstrated excesses of both fastidiousness and blatant titillation, especially in the matter of the illustrations. In fact, much of this text's fame (or notoriety) in the English-speaking world results from the fact that it was once considered so scandalous that it was deemed necessary for certain tales to be censored, in Italy and abroad.

This article will consider the creation of the English Decameron--and by extension, the English 'Boccaccio'--through a study of different editions of the first 'complete' translation of 1620. Rather than concentrating narrowly on the translated text, I focus on the 1620 translation as a product of the specific book culture of Stuart England, and show how the material features of the book shape and authorize the foreign text for its anglophone readerships. I argue that meaning is constructed not only within the translated text itself, but also by the paratextual elements which surround it. By then comparing the first edition with editions of the same text printed later in the seventeenth century, I show how paratextual modifications reveal changing characterizations of Boccaccio and his works.

The term 'paratext', coined by Gerard Genette, can be defined as that (usually textual) matter which surrounds and mediates the author's literary text to its readership. (2) The paratextual material which can accompany a text thus ranges from the factual, organizational, and ostensibly objective (e.g. the title, the author's name, the table of contents) to more discursive and more obviously subjective additions (e.g. dedications, author biographies, prefaces). Paratexts can even be non-textual, yet still highly meaningful (e.g. decorative elements such as illustrations). An analysis of the paratext can thus be an invaluable key to understanding the reception of a particular author by revealing contemporary perceptions of his or her status, as well as allowing us to draw tentative conclusions about historical readerships and reading patterns. (3)

Of course, the question of the paratext is further complicated when dealing with an author such as Boccaccio. Authorial paratextual devices form an intrinsic part of his writing, and this is nowhere more pronounced than in the Decameron. Here we find paratexts of every kind: 'factual' ones such as the title and subtitle ('Incomincia il libro chiamato Decameron, cognominato Prencipe Galeotto'), and the introductory rubrics; (4) and more discursive subsections which assume a paratextual form, such as the authorial Proem, the Introduction to Day IV, and the Conclusion. An examination of the late autograph manuscript of the Decameron shows that Boccaccio even included in his work visual paratexts such as marginal illustrations and scribal devices such as manicules. (5) As will be shown, Boccaccio's knowing manipulation of his text certainly seems to have resulted in some confusion among his English translators about what exactly constituted the source text.

Before beginning the discussion of the different editions, it would be useful to highlight the different types of paratexts under consideration. …

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