Least-favorite Decameron stories, Part II

4. Ninth story of the ninth day. “Two young men ask advice from Solomon, one of them as to what he must do to be loved, the other as to how he should punish his stubborn wife; Solomon tells the first man to love and the other to go to the Goose Bridge.” This story makes me want to vomit, even more so than the tale of Nastagio scaring and bullying his decidedly non-mutual crush into marrying him by taunting her with a horrific ghostly apparition.

The ninth day, under the rule of Emilia, is a free-for-all, with everyone allowed to tell stories on whatever topic they’d like. Emilia, who tells this repugnant story, has been called out by many commentators and scholars over the years as being rather anti-feminist and not very friendly towards her own sex. This story proves it in spades. Giosefo, the man with the “misbehaving” wife who dares not obey his every last word and never assert herself, sees a man beating his stubborn mule on the Goose Bridge, and gets the brilliant idea to beat the shit out of his wife so she’ll have her spirit completely broken.

The moral of the story is to learn to beat your wife so she’ll never step out of line, assert herself, or go against anything her asshole husband demands. Since, you know, God forbid women have rights or even a voice. They don’t get a say in anything because they weren’t born with a penis. It’s nauseating to think about how it was not only legal, but considered perfectly normal and socially acceptable, to beat one’s wife until relatively recently in human history. The charming Emilia also thinks women who assert themselves and don’t go along with everything their husbands think or say are a complete disgrace to all women. Yeah, Emilia, if you were real, I’m sure you’d just love getting beaten black and blue by some brute on a whim!

5. Third story of the eighth day. “Calandrino, Bruno, and Buffalmacco go down to the Mugnone River in search of heliotrope, and Calandrino thinks he has found it; he returns home loaded with stones; his wife scolds him, and he, losing his temper, beats her up, and tells his companions what they already know better than he.”

Another charming story culminating in spousal abuse and anti-woman violence. Calandrino figures in several Decameron stories, always playing the same town idiot whom everyone makes fun of without him realizing it. Picture a Medieval Italian version of someone like Homer Simpson, only without any charming, redeeming qualities. That’s Calandrino, the rube of all Florence.

Calandrino is led to believe by his so-called friends that there’s Magickal heliotrope in the river that’ll make him invisible. His supposed buddies make believe they can’t see him, and throw stones at him all the way back home, pretending they’re unable to see him and not aiming right at him on purpose. They let the customs guards in on the joke, so Calandrino is able to pass still believing he’s invisible. And as they’re coming home, there are very few people in the streets, since it’s dinnertime.

The joke is up when this moron comes home, and his wife Tessa berates him for being late. Calandrino is furious, believing she spoilt his “magic” because women always ruin everything. He beats her to a pulp, covering her in bruises and almost breaking her bones. I had absolutely no sympathy for this wife-beating asshole in any of the other stories he was featured in after this. But then again, wives were property in this era, a love match was almost unheard of, and most men thought they had the right to do whatever they wanted simply because they’d been born with a penis. Ugh.

6. Tenth story of the tenth day. “The Marquis of Sanluzzo is urged by the requests of his vassals to take a wife, and in order to have his own way in the matter, he chooses the daughter of a peasant and by her he has two children, whom he pretends to have put to death. Then, under the pretense that she has displeased him, he pretends to have taken another wife, and has their own daughter brought into the house as if she were his new wife, having driven out his real wife in nothing more than her shift. Having found that she has patiently endured all this, he brings her back home, more beloved than ever, shows their grown children to her, honors her, and has others honor her, as the Marchioness.”

Gualtieri wants to stick it to his vassals, so he marries a peasant, Griselda, whose looks and manners he’s been very impressed with. But he’s an asshole on a power trip, so he gets off on “testing” her in the most cruel ways. He presents a fake Papal bull of divorce, claiming his subjects are pissed he didn’t produce a child with a penis on the first try, pretends to have their kids killed, drives her out of their home in nothing but a slip, and then pretends he’s marrying a 12-year-old girl who’s really their daughter. What a vile, repugnant human being.

No woman in her right mind would patiently bear all these horrific insults, and no man who really loves his wife would put her through all this just to “test” her and because he doesn’t trust any women anyway. What a complete controlling asshole. Griselda patiently bears all these horrific things, and when this clown finally realizes what a true blue woman she is, he comes to his senses and brings her back as his wife. Ugh. The Oxford Scholar’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales is admittedly a practically word-by-word retelling of this charming tale of a controlling, suspicious husband and his unrealistically patient, loving wife.

Least-favorite Decameron stories, Part I

While I love many stories in The Decameron, there are some that never sat right with me, not even upon rereading. These are the kinds of stories that just haven’t aged well, and that make the average modern person cringe. It’s so annoying when certain people insist someone only feels offended by blatant racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, etc., in an old book or movie because s/he’s “too PC.” Um, no, it’s more like s/he’s a modern person who genuinely feels uncomfortable at certain unflattering depictions of other races and religions, slur words, or outright inaccuracy or slander. Even if you realize that’s unfortunately how things were in those days, that doesn’t mean you can’t feel genuine discomfort.

***

1. Second story of the first day. “A Jew named Abraham, encouraged by Giannotto di Civigni, goes to the court of Rome, and after observing the wickedness of the clergy, he returns to Paris and becomes a Christian.” Like the Jewish character of the third story of the first day, Melchisedech, Abraham too is almost exclusively called simply “the Jew” throughout the story. Ugh. It’s like reading a story where someone is derogatorily called “the Catholic,” “the Japanese,” “the Hispanic,” “the Indian,” or “the Muslim.” Way to take away his proper name and disrespect him by writing him out of existence!

Giannotto, like many European Christians of the Middle Ages, feels his religion is not only superior to all others, but the only true religion in the world. This is one of the prime reasons why for so long I just wasn’t a fan of anything Medieval, this hideous Christocentric attitude, and persecution of anyone who dared prefer another faith path.

Most Jews who converted in the Middle Ages also did so for increased social or financial opportunities, not out of sincere conviction. It’s pure Medieval bullshit to claim the average apostate of this era would’ve done so out of religious conviction. It’s also more Medieval fantasy to claim that a visit to the Vatican would inspire someone to convert, because he saw how Christianity thrives in spite of the corrupt Pope and clergy of the era. If anything, that probably would’ve made any sane person run far away!

2. First story of the fifth day. “Cimone acquires wisdom by falling in love with Efigenia, his lady, whom he abducts on the high seas; he is imprisoned in Rhodes, from where he is freed by Lisimaco, with whom he once again abducts both Efigenia and Cassandrea during their marriage celebrations, fleeing with them to Crete; there the ladies become their wives, and then they are all summoned back to their own homes.”

Ugh. Cimone is such a damn bully, a poor excuse of a hero in the kick-off story on the day devoted to love stories that start unhappily but then have happy endings. He starts out sort of like the town fool, a country bumpkin not worthy of his noble birth. He basically gets a huge crush on Efigenia, but she never likes him in return. Her father also refuses to okay their marriage, and always insists on following through with the marriage he’s already arranged for her. So Cimone and his buddy Lisimaco go and abduct their crushes and forcibly marry them. There’s no mutual love between Cimone and Efigenia. He throws his weight around, kidnaps her, and coerces her into marriage. Yeah, that’s really a happy ending. </sarcasm>

3. Eighth story of the fifth day. “Nastagio degli Onesti, in love with a girl from the Traversari family, squanders all his wealth without being loved in return; his relatives beg him to leave for Chiassi; there he sees a knight hunting down a young lady, who is killed and devoured by two dogs; he invites his relatives and the lady he loves to dine with him, and when she sees this same young lady torn to pieces, fearing a similar fate, she takes Nastagio as her husband.”

UGH. Nastagio is an even bigger asshole and bully than Cimone. He throws his weight around and essentially scares the object of his creepy affections into marrying him. When you marry someone out of coercion and fear, because someone bullied you, that’s not a love match, a happy ending, or a love story at all. That’s the story of a controlling asshole who can’t admit defeat and let his crush find a man she does love to marry. He’s like an overgrown baby who refuses to give up what he wants, even when he’s not wanted in return. This story makes me sick. But of course, women had no legal rights in this era. The woman doesn’t even get a name in this story.

Favorite Decameron stories, Part VII

This is a story I found rather horrifying the first time around, but when I got older, I began to recognize the wisdom of the scholar’s words and the cruelty of Elena in rebuking him. She reaps what she sows. In my Russian novel sequel, I had villain Boris quote some of the scholar’s words to his young teaching assistant Kseniya when he’s waging his dastardly campaign to woe her and ultimately seduce her. Young Kseniya is impressed by his command of classic literature, even though Boris is still as base and uncouth as ever. All he’s done is memorize some text, which any fool can do. But of course, Boris is ultimately punished for not only how he causes a sex scandal with Kseniya, but also for what he later does to Lyuba. Once again, the deceiver lays at the mercy of the deceived.

The scholar’s long speech is one huge paragraph in the book, but I’m breaking it up just to be easier on the eyes!

***

Seventh story of the eighth day: “A scholar is in love with a widow, who loves another man and makes the scholar stand one winter night under the snow waiting for her; later on, as the result of following his advice, she is forced to stand for an entire day in mid-July on top of a tower, naked and exposed to the flies, horseflies, and the sun.”

Elena gets a real power trip out of leading Rinieri on, which culminates in getting him to stand in the cold and snow outside her house for an entire night, after she’d told him they’d finally get to be lovers. This ordeal naturally isn’t good for his body or health, and it takes him awhile to physically recover. Luckily he’s still young enough, and the warmer weather arrives before long. The eighth day, under the rule of Lauretta, is devoted to stories about tricks people play on one another (men on men, women on men, men on women, and women on women), with even Dioneo telling his story on the topic instead of exercising his special privilege of telling a tale on any subject he likes.

Thus it follows that this scholar decides to take a very cruel revenge upon Elena, taking advantage of her desire to get back together with her lover, who’s recently left her for another woman. Rinieri tells her to stand naked up on top of the tower of the Church of Santa Lucia by the Prato gate in Florence, claiming it’s part of a magic spell he’s casting to help her to win back her man. And while she’s starting to suffer up there, realising it’s all a mean trick, Rinieri starts rebuking her at great length. Among the words he speaks to her are these, which I really hadn’t paid very close attention to when I first read the book (and was deep in the throes of a heartache myself, caused by a younger man):

“….You women go around falling in love with younger men, and wanting them to fall for you because their complexions are fresher and their beards a bit blacker, and they walk straighter, and because they dance and joust; somewhat more mature men once possessed all these attributes, but they also know things younger men still have to learn. Moreover, you believe that younger men are better riders [i.e., lovers] and able to do more miles in a day’s ride than more mature men.

“True, I will admit that they can warm your wool with greater energy, but mature men who are more experienced are better acquainted with all those places where the flea hides; a small but spicy serving can be far better than a big but tasteless one; hard riding will break and tire anyone, no matter how young he is, but a slow ride, though you may come somewhat later to your destination, at least will get you there in good shape.

“Senseless creatures that you are, you women do not see how much evil lurks beneath that little bit of handsomeness. Young men are not satisfied with one woman, they desire as many as they see, and they think they deserve to have just that many, so their love cannot be stable, and you yourself can now testify quite well to this fact through your own experience.

“And they think they deserve to be pampered and worshipped by their ladies, and their greatest glory is in boasting about all the women they have had—a defect which has made many a woman end up under a friar, who never opens his mouth about such matters. And although you claim no one knew about your love affair except your maidservant and me, you are mistaken and quite wrong if you believe this; all of your lover’s neighbors, as well as your own, speak of almost nothing else, but the person who is most concerned with such affairs is usually the last to know these things.

“Also, young men will steal from you, while more mature men give you gifts. Therefore, you, who made a bad choice, belong to the man to whom you gave yourself, and you must leave me, whom you scorned, for another, for I have found a lady who is worth much more than you are, one who understands me much better than you ever did….”

I knew from personal experience that a large part of the reason things didn’t work out with [my second and third loves] was because they were so young, immature, inexperienced, still a lot of growing up to do. In hindsight now, I’m glad I didn’t end up with either of them, since they weren’t good matches in the long run. And most younger men want to have a good time, not a serious relationship. And we all know women tend to mature a lot faster than men.

There’s also the issue of how men may reach their sexual peak before women, but who wants a fumbling inexperienced lover who doesn’t know how to last long enough or fully please a woman? For a full ten years, I was convinced I could only have a younger man, as though I’d forgotten how immature men of that age can be. Given the choice between someone who’s barely more than a boy and a grown man, what woman would honestly prefer the much-younger guy?

Favorite Decameron stories, Part VI

More favorite runners-up.

8. Sixth story of the first day. “With a witty remark a worthy man confounds the wicked hypocrisy of the clergy.” Another sanctimonious man of the cloth figures in this story. He finds out that the hero of the story said he possessed such a wonderful wine that even Jesus would drink it, and, though he’s unable to burn him at the stake, manages to subject him to a pretty severe punishment and penance—until the man turns the tables on both this friar and his fellow clergy.

9. Ninth story of the first day. “Rebuked by a lady of Gascony, the King of Cyprus is transformed from a fainthearted man into a courageous ruler.” While on a pilgrimage, this woman is attacked and raped by some bandits from Cyprus, but she’s told that taking her case to the king won’t solve anything. This excuse of a king is such a horrible ruler he routinely lets all manner of people insult and shame him, and does nothing about it.

She knows then that getting revenge is hopeless, but goes to see the king anyway. And when she asks him to teach her how to patiently bear all these wrongs and insults, it’s as though he’s woken up from a dream. First he exacts severe revenge on the bandits, and then transforms himself into “a most severe persecutor of anyone who committed an act against the honor of his crown.”

10. Fourth story of the first day. “A monk, having committed a sin deserving of the most severe punishment, saves himself by accusing his Abbot of the same sin and escapes punishment.” More clergy behaving badly. Both of these men sleep with the same young lady, unknowing at first each has been seen by the other. The young monk outsmarts his Abbot with very witty remarks, telling him that he hasn’t been a member of their order long enough to have learnt all the rules, and that thus “up until a moment ago, you never showed me how monks were supposed to support the weight of women as well as fasts and vigils. But now that you have shown me how, I promise you that if you forgive me this time, I shall sin no more in this respect; on the contrary, I shall always behave as I have seen you behave.”

Favorite Decameron stories, Part V

More of my favorite runners-up.

5. Eighth story of the second day. “The Count of Antwerp, being unjustly accused, goes into exile; he leaves two of his children in different parts of England; he returns to Scotland, unknown to them, and finds them in good condition; then he joins the army of the King of France as a groom, and after he is proved innocent, he is restored to his former position.”

Gualtieri, the Count of Antwerp, is left a widower with two small children, and besides being a single parent, he also is much respected at the French court. Because he’s so handsome, charming, and well-mannered, the King’s daughter-in-law falls in love with him, and one day reveals her feelings. After he rejects her and rebukes her foolish passion, she quickly changes track and rips her clothes, screaming that he’s trying to rape her.

Believing this woman will be believed more than he’d be, he gets out of there asap, rushes home, and without taking a moment to reflect, puts his kids on a horse, gets on another horse, and flees as fast as possible to Calais, then takes a boat into England. Luckily, he finds people to take in first his daughter and then his son, whose names he’s changed to protect them.

I like how the innocent man and his children win out in the end, even though it seemed as though luck had turned against them, and that good prevailed because they were innocent. In particular I like this line, in the part where the noblewoman raising the daughter, Giannetta, decides to arrange an honorable marriage for her according to the social class she was led to believe she occupies:

“But God, the just discerner of the merits of others, knowing her to be of noble birth and blamelessly suffering the penitence of another’s sins, disposed matters differently; and we must believe from the events which followed that he out of his lovingkindness allowed all this to happen in order to prevent the noble young lady from falling into the hands of a man of inferior station.”

6. Sixth story of the third day. “Ricciardo Minutolo is in love with the wife of Filipello Sighinolfi; hearing that she is jealous, he tells her Filipello is going to the baths to meet his own wife on the following day and persuades her to go there, and believing that she is lying with her husband, she finds out it was Ricciardo.”

Catella, the jealous wife, gives Ricciardo, whom she believes to be her husband, a great earful after they’ve finished a marathon sex session. My translation does such a better job of it than the older one I first read; that older edition didn’t do justice at all to a lot of the raunchy language. For example, in the story about Ruggieri and the doctor’s wife, it says “He wanted to joust with such a fine Christian woman” of the part where the chief magistrate gets his hook into the maidservant. That’s really intellectual dishonesty and deception, making the dirty language into something so untruthful and innocuous.

Well, Catella lets him have it, saying that because he believed it was another woman, he put a lot more love and effort into it than he ever had with her. He paid her more amorous attention in that short time than he ever had in the entire 8 years they’d been married.

“‘….Today, you disowned dog, you were full of life doing it, and at home you’re most of the time so weak and worn-out that you can’t keep it up. But, praise be to God, it was your own field you were plowing and not someone else’s, as you thought! No wonder you didn’t come near me last night! You were waiting to unload yourself somewhere else, and you wanted to arrive fresh as a knight entering the battlefield; but thank God and my wits that the water ended up flowing in the right direction!….'”

7. Third story of the third day. “Under the pretense of going to confession and being of the purest of minds, a lady, who is in love with a young man, induces a sanctimonious friar, who is unsuspecting, to arrange things to the entire satisfaction of her pleasure.”

This woman is of noble birth yet married to a common wool merchant, and as rich as he is, she doesn’t believe she deserves a merchant for a husband. Once she discovers her much more appealing crush is friends with this friar, she starts going to confession to tell him this man has been bothering her with unwanted attentions. The friar rebukes the man for his bad behavior, and the woman continues going to confession and reporting he’s getting worse and worse, more and more personal and intrusive. In this way the man realises she’s in love with him, and even the way to get to her house and bedroom.