“De Mulieribus Claris” might almost sound like gossip magazine when translated in English, namely “On Famous Women,” however it is a biography written by a man in the medieval ages.
Who was Boccacio?
Why would a guy in the middle ages write about women when at that time they were regarded as little more than baby-making machines? Giovanni Boccaccio was a dreamer. As a young man he fell in love with the daughter of a king, he wrote poetry in her name and called her Fiammetta, or “little flame.” Perhaps he was an early day feminist?
In his own words, Boccaccio mentioned that he wrote the book in the name famous ladies so that their names and deeds can be passed onto generations to come. The work itself is a collection of one hundred and six biographies of various historical or fictional women. Some examples include Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess that was worshipped across the ancient world. My personal favourite is Penthesilea, who was a warrior goddess and the queen of the fictional Amazonian female-only tribe. After she accidentally killed her sister Hippolyta during hunting, Penthesilea decided that she was only worth dying. Thus, she recruited herself to fight for Troy in the Trojan War.
Boccaccio probably used historical figures firstly because he had access to their biographies through classical Greek works and the Bible. Additionally, if he had used women who had been his contemporaries this would have been deemed offensive and inappropriate for his time. Therefore, he wouldn’t have been able to dedicate the book to anyone. Finally, he dedicated the work to the Countess of Altavilla.
Why is this work important you might ask? It seems not a very interesting topic to collect stories of side characters throughout history. It was also probably not a very hard work to write since all Boccaccio had to do was a simple literature review to find the information that he needed. The importance of it is perhaps not in the book itself but in how it affected other historical events. Many say that the book is what inspired Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. This is said to be one of the first true feminist novels.