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12 january 2014

Boccaccio's Decameron consists of a hundred short stories, imagined as being told at the rate of ten per day for ten days. The first story of the first day, however, is so good that one is tempted to just keep re-reading it; how could the other 99 top this?

Perhaps they don't. But they expand its concerns and elaborate its worldview across many narrative situations. At the heart of the first story of the first day is a humility in the face of Providence, illustrated with withering irony. Ser Ciappelletto is "probably the worst man that ever lived" (27). Out of town and on his deathbed, he decides to spare his hosts the embarrassment of having the worst man that ever lived die unshriven in their guest bedroom. Somebody locates an idiotic friar, and Ser Ciappelletto faux-reluctantly confesses to being the best man who ever lived. After he dies, people report miracles due to his intervention, and they revere him as a saint. Perhaps Boccaccio reminds the reader that if you believe in an omniscient God, you also have to believe that your knowledge can't come close to comprehending His. He has to work in mysterious ways most of the time.

That principle is maybe the only way to read the tenth story of the tenth day sympathetically. Gualtieri, the Marquis of Sanluzzo, keeps getting grief from his feudal retainers because he's a bachelor. He decides to marry the poor, lowborn Griselda: but things have to be done exactly Gualtieri's way. Griselda has little choice in the matter, and the retainers have to shut up now that Gualtieri has taken their advice. Displaying what the narrator calls "insane cruelty" (787), Gualtieri fathers two children by Griselda and then takes them away, pretending to have had them killed. He then sends Griselda back to her father, pretends to make plans for remarriage, and then insists that Griselda plan the wedding. Instead of telling him to FOAD, Griselda does everything Gualtieri wants, and her famous "patience" is repaid, her children and her marriage restored, and everyone LHEA.

Sorry about all the initialisms. The usual way of "saving" the story of patient Griselda (whether in Boccaccio's version or as Chaucer's Clerk's Tale) is to cast it as allegory. Griselda is the believer or the Church, and Gualtieri, moving in a very mysterious way indeed, is the God who continually tests us, but never beyond our capacity to pass the test. At least Chaucer's Clerk puts it that way:

For sith a womman was so pacient
Unto a mortal man, wel moore us oghte
Receyven al in gree that God us sent. (lines 1149-51)
Boccaccio's narrator Dioneo draws a different conclusion:
It might have served Gualtieri right if he had run into the kind of woman who, once driven out of her home in nothing but a shift, would have allowed another man to warm her wool in order to get a nice-looking dress out of the affair. (798)
And even the Clerk, in his "Envoi" to his own moral, has to advise women "Ne suffreth nat that men yow doon offense" (line 1197). Nobody can really interpret Griselda literally. But despite its absurdity as relationship advice, the Griselda story's austerity helps us think about the challenges that life throws up to us. Whether God exists or not, it often seems as if the universe treats us the way Gualtieri treats Griselda. And we admire people who bear that treatment as nobly as she does.

Several of the more striking and memorable stories in the Decameron concern men behaving badly toward women. (Women behave badly toward men passim as well, but often in comically flagrant ways that hurt nobody in the long run.) The eighth story of the fifth day is famously eerie. Since most of the Decameron stories are set in a prosaic (if not terribly "realistic") world, the magic alone in 5.8 makes it notable. Rejected by a woman (never named) that he's courted, Nastagio goes out to live in the woods and feel disappointed. He has lots of money, and the moping lifestyle seems to suit him. But evidently he's chosen an Arthurian-romance setting for his forest home, because he runs into a knight with a pack of dogs, who hunts down a young woman. The dogs kill her and tear her apart, she comes back to life, the knight and dogs chase her some more, kill, dismember, repeat. The spectral knight explains that he too was once unlucky in love, committed suicide, and this is what you get in Hell: you act out your vengeance eternally.

Nastagio decides that his ex would benefit from this performance, so he invites her out to a picnic and terrifies her with the ghost-dog show. She agrees to marry him. At this point, one suspects the wrong lessons are being drawn. Yes, the ghost woman is getting her comeuppance, but it seems obvious from the dead knight's tale that he's in no better shape: if anything, worse, because his unreasonable desires have locked him into a no-win situation. I'd draw a moral something like "There are other fish in the sea." Nastagio uses the fable to teach "Marry me or get ripped apart by ghost dogs."

I've been influenced lately by Joshua Landy's notion that fictions train one in mental debate – an old idea, inherent in the term "teaching story" and predating Boccaccio, let alone Landy, by millennia. And in this sense, "teaching" means not "delivering instruction" in the sense of providing a life hack, but "provoking uncertainty": getting you to think something through instead of relying on memorable platitudes. The arguments that a story like the Decameron's eighth of the fifth generate are not just good academic fun. They're the point of the story. Never reaching the end of them doesn't merely mean that the game of interpretation continues: it means that some ethical problems always raise agonizing questions that can't be preached away.

Despite its brazen satire, that uncertainty is characteristic of the first story of the first day. Boccaccio (through the narrator Panfilo) tells us that Ciappelletto is the worst man who ever lived. But the only thing we see Ciappelletto doing – aside from lying outrageously to a friar, which hardly counts as a sin in the Decameron – is a favor to his hosts. He doesn't have to do the favor; he has nothing to gain from it and nothing to fear by omitting it, since he's fixing to die and fetch up in Hell within the next few hours. Yet with absolute freedom of action, the worst man on Earth does something nice for virtual strangers. His reward is sainthood.

Of course one can get a univocal sense from Nastagio and the ghosts. I was taught that all medieval tales conduced to charity. In this respect, Nastagio's girlfriend is being uncharitable, not realizing the he, the male (the good clergy, the Church, the Gospels, Jesus), knows what's right. She needs to be shown the foolishness of her resistance, just as Griselda needs a few pajamaless nights in the street to get with the idea that whatever is, is right.

But I'm not sure Boccaccio can be pinned down like that – and not just because the didactic readings of these tales are ugly, and reduce my pleasure in the otherwise good-natured fun of the Decameron, its lewd stories and its tales of practical jokes foisted on idiots. Most of the stories in the book are told by women, to an audience that's 70% women. Boccaccio's explicitly invoked readership is female, and his address, when he steps out of the frame to speak directly, is to women. Women win the battle of the sexes in the Decameron, on balance, even though a man tells the final story, in which a woman is subject to a powerful man's whims in unequivocal terms. Remember that it's a man, Dioneo, who concludes that Griselda should have found a guy who appreciated her.

The uncertainty about who's right in a no-win sexual standoff is brilliantly elaborated in the seventh story of the eighth day. Rinieri, a conceited academic – this is obviously fiction, you never meet them in real life – falls in love with a gorgeous young widow, Elena. He makes a date with her for a winter's night; he comes to the courtyard of her house to keep it. She locks him in the courtyard and has sex all night long with a different boyfriend, pausing now and then to laugh at Rinieri down below.

By the summer after, Elena's boyfriend breaks up with her – I like to think because he realizes he's next in line for the freeze-your-ass-off treatment. Lacking good sense, Elena goes to Rinieri and asks for some magic spells to get her boyfriend back. Rinieri doesn't know from magic, but talks Elena into stripping naked and climbing up on a rooftop. He leaves her there for a while, as she gets heatstroke and dehydrates; in the course of rescuing her, her maidservant breaks a leg. As translated by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, this is not comic-opera stuff, either the freezing or the parching. It's more than playful discomfort; it's near-lethal exposure. And there's no happy ending, not even the kind of papered-over reconciliation we see in 5.8 or 10.10. Pampinea, the narrator, says "Ladies, beware of playing such tricks, especially on scholars" (613); the audience's reactions are mixed. I think they're meant to be mixed. Desire has an ugly side; people get hurt. In Decameron 8.7, they stay hurt. We're left to wonder how much hurt is enough to inflict on someone who's hurt you.

Or sometimes, in the Decameron, how much help. One of the more preposterous stories in the collection is one of the few without a contemporary Italian setting. In the third story of the tenth day, in a fairy-tale realm far away, a certain Nathan sets himself up as the world's greatest exemplar of hospitality. A wannabe great host named Mithridanes is tired of hearing about how much more generous Nathan is than everybody else, so he shows up at Nathan's digs under a false identity, intending to ambush and kill Nathan. Nathan poses as a faithless servant and learns about the ambush. But then when it's time to spring the trap, Nathan walks right into it. Why? Nathan explains:

You came here seeking my life, and when I heard you ask for it, so that you would not be the only man to leave here without having obtained his request, I immediately decided to give my life to you, and in order that you might take it, I gave you the advice I felt best suited for allowing you to take my life without losing your own. (720)
Aw, how can you kill a guy after hearing that? Mithridanes can't go through with it. Knowing that envy is the main motive, Nathan proposes the ultimate gift for an envious man: they'll switch identities, and Mithridanes can live out his life as Nathan. Finally Mithridanes has to admit defeat. He invites Nathan for a deluxe stay, and admits that he's only the second-best host in the world.

You see the parallels to Gualtieri and Griselda, but also the complications. The moral of 10.3 is simpler and sillier: "it's nice to be nice to the nice." But being really, really nice means putting your life in someone else's hands, unreservedly. By doing so, you can win them over: but then you've got a formidable moral high ground. In Boccaccio, you really can win by losing.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Translated by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella. 1982. New York: Signet [Penguin], 2010.