In the introduction (proem) to the Decameron, the author spends some paragraphs writing about lovesick women and how he hopes his stories may give them some solace as their situation means they're often less readily able than men to distract themselves outwardly from their inward woes. He lists a bunch of activities that men may involve themselves in (emphasis mine):

For, when men are enamoured, their case is very different, as we may readily perceive. They, if they are afflicted by a melancholy and heaviness of mood, have many ways of relief and diversion; they may go where they will, may hear and see many things, may hawk, hunt, fish, ride, play or traffic. By which means all are able to compose their minds, either in whole or in part, and repair the ravage wrought by the dumpish mood, at least for some space of time; and shortly after, by one way or another, either solace ensues, or the dumps become less grievous.

-- The Decameron, proem (Rigg translation)

I already learned a new English word dumpish from this passage, but what does traffic mean as a verb in this context? Surely it doesn't refer to illegal trade, but perhaps there is another older meaning of this word in English? I don't speak Italian, so I don't know what the corresponding word is in the Italian text.

So I guess my question is in two parts: firstly, what is the intended meaning here (which could be found from the Italian original by someone who understands it), and secondly, was the word "traffic" an appropriate English translation at the time (1903) of Rigg's translation which I'm reading?

  • 1
    From the Italian text that you linked it appears that the corresponding Italian verb is "mercatare", which seems to relate to trade. Nov 6, 2021 at 11:03

3 Answers 3


firstly, what is the intended meaning here

From the translation:

(...) many things, may hawk, hunt, fish, ride, play or traffic.

in the original:

(...) molte cose, uccellare, cacciare, pescare, cavalcare, giucare o mercatare:

Looking at a dictionary:

mercatàre - verbo intransitivo

(arcaico) fare il mercante, esercitare un'attività mercantile

the infinitive form is also noteworthy


(letterario) mercanteggiare, trafficare, esercitare un commercio

The infinitive of the verb would be mercàre and the equivalent noun deriving from the same root mercàto. From the Latin mercatus. The direct equivalent exists in English as the noun market or verb to market.

The Italian sense is broad in the example and can mean any kind of business or trading. So trafficking in this case means simply transaction - to transact.

secondly, was the word "traffic" an appropriate English translation at the time (1903) of Rigg's translation which I'm reading?

I would say definitively yes. Jokingly, it was in the beginning of the 20th century when vehicle traffic and illegal traffic were not the main sense of the word trafficking we might think of today.

Looking at Merriam-Webster

traffic noun

4.b. the business of bartering or buying and selling

5.a. communication or dealings especially between individuals or groups

  1. archaic : wares, goods

traffic verb

  1. to concentrate one's effort or interest
  • 1
    Note that "mercatare" is in the infinitive form. That is, "mercare" is not the infinitive of "mercatare" (both are archaic verbs).
    – Charo
    Nov 17, 2021 at 21:41
  • @Charo are they different verbs? (Well, at least they stem from the same root, so it's the same word family. The meaning seem the same, but I should have found a better dictionary...)
    – bad_coder
    Nov 17, 2021 at 21:45
  • Sorry for the delay in answering your comment. They are indeed different verbs and, having a look into a good dictionary (see gdli.it/JPG/GDLI10/00000139.jpg, gdli.it/JPG/GDLI10/00000135.jpg and gdli.it/JPG/GDLI10/00000136.jpg), it seems to me that, at least in some contexts, they can have similar meanings. But I'm not at all certain of being able to fully understand how these two verbs were used: they are archaic words (and I'm not Italian).
    – Charo
    Dec 2, 2021 at 22:00

Here is the original text in Italian (bold mine):

[...] il che degli innamorati uomini non avviene, sì come noi possiamo apertamente vedere. Essi, se alcuna malinconia o gravezza di pensieri gli affligge, hanno molti modi da alleggiare o da passar quello, per ciò che a loro, volendo essi, non manca l’andare a torno, udire e veder molte cose, uccellare, cacciare, pescare, cavalcare, giucare o mercatare: de’ quali modi ciascuno ha forza di trarre, o in tutto o in parte, l’animo a sé e dal noioso pensiero rimuoverlo almeno per alcuno spazio di tempo, appresso il quale, con un modo o con altro, o consolazion sopraviene o diventa la noia minore.

So, "traffic" is a translation of the Italian archaic verb "mercatare". Looking up "mercatare" in Grande dizionario della lingua italiana (here you can find what follows), the most complete dictionary for words meanings in Italian literary works, you can see that this sentence of Boccaccio's Decameron is quoted as an example of usage of such verb with the following meaning:

Esercitare un'at­tività commerciale, praticare la compravendita per fine di lucro, trafficare.

"Trafficare" in this context, according to the same dictionary, means

Commerciare un prodotto, un manufat­to

i.e., "to trade certain goods or products" ("manufatto" is a "handmade product"). That is, the meaning of "mercatare" in Boccaccio's can be explained as

to exercise a commercial activity, to buy and sell goods for profit, to trade with goods.

  • so basically the modern US english translation would be "shopping"
    – jwezorek
    Dec 3, 2021 at 0:24

In the preface of the Decameron, Boccaccio indicates the ideal reader to whom the work is addressed. The audience is women who are forced to live segregated at home without the possibility of distraction from painful thoughts. On the contrary, men manage to get distracted in many practical ways. One of these is bargaining, not only at the market but in every occasion of economic transaction or favors. It is not necessary to find in this passage the specific type of business, but the fact of interacting with others to keep busy.

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