Listening to Dioneo, the ladies were embarrassed and amused. When he finishes, they gently rebuke him for the naughtiness of his story. It’s Fiammetta’s turn next. Her tale reminds the company that women must be extremely cautious about accepting advances from men who outrank them.
Dioneo’s tale forces the brigata to consider the limits of reasonable pleasure. Although it initially embarrasses the women’s modesty, they eventually acknowledge its humor. The goal of the brigata in leaving Florence was to find pleasure in living moderately, and Dioneo’s tales consistently demonstrate the limits of the moderate/moral without crossing the line. Fiammetta picks up on the theme of wit and wisdom that both draws on earlier medieval texts governing romantic relationships (in providing an example of how a woman can rebuff a man who outranks her) and offers a contrast to the Country Girl’s wordless acquiescence to the Young Monk’s and Abbot’s sexual advances in the preceding story (I, 4).
The Marchioness of Montferrat is outstandingly beautiful, virtuous, and wise. While her husband is away on the Third Crusade, King Philip II of France falls in love with her because of her reputation. Planning to detour by her home on his way to the Crusade, he sends her a message. Because the Marchioness is as insightful as she is beautiful, she realizes that he must have dishonorable reasons for visiting while her husband is absent.
The Marchioness of Montferrat and King Philip II of France are the book’s first (but not last) historical characters. But Giovanni Boccaccio tends to use historical characters loosely, as he does in this case—the historical Marchioness would have been an old woman and is unlikely to have been desired by the French King during the tale’s timeframe. In this tale, however, she is the epitome of feminine virtue and wisdom. King Philip’s desire is an example of “amor du lonh” or “love from afar,” a feature of the fin’amors (refined loving) that was popular in medieval literature and culture. And the Marchioness’s instinctive understanding of the King’s immoral plans offers a reminder of the precarious and vulnerable situation of women in a society where their chastity was of the utmost importance, but they were also vulnerable to the authority and physical threats of men.
The Marchioness comes up with a clever plan. She gathers as many hens as she can find and orders her cooks to prepare a royal banquet with each dish featuring chicken. Upon meeting the Marchioness, King Philip becomes even more lovestruck, but his pleasure turns to puzzlement when he realizes that every dish at the banquet is chicken. Curious but not wanting to embarrass her, he jokes that there seem to be a lot of chickens around but no roosters.
King Philip’s comment about the cocks (which carry the same vulgar association as in modern English) underlines the Marchioness’s vulnerability in the absence of her husband—she is like a hen without a rooster to protect her. He tries to be witty, but he isn’t as wise as he thinks himself to be.
The Marchioness answers that there aren’t any roosters and that the women of her country are exactly like women elsewhere. King Philip understands her rebuke and, knowing that neither sweet words nor force will overpower her virtue, he thanks her for her generosity, and quickly leaves her home.
The Marchioness’s answer basically tells the king that she knows what he’s up to and that he should find another woman (presumably one less virtuous than she is) to pay attention to. King Philip has at least enough wisdom to understand her and enough character to leave without further embarrassing himself or resorting to violence to take what he wants from her—another reminder of the vulnerability of women to the desires of men in medieval society.