The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 10: Ninth Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Panfilo praises Filomena’s description of friendship, then turns to his own story, which shows another eminently worthy and generous friendship—the friendship of Saladin and Messer Torello of Strà. Before the Third Crusade begins, Saladin disguises himself as a merchant and takes two counselors and a few servants on a secret tour of Europe to gather intelligence so that he can better defend himself. On the road between Mila and Pavia, they encounter Torello, who is on the way to his country estate. Torello deduces that the men are “foreigners of gentle birth,” and he  wants to “do them honor.” He tricks them by saying they can’t reach Pavia that night and offers to have a servant take them to a place (his) to stay.
Saladin, 12th century sultan of Egypt and Syria, was renowned in medieval Europe for his military skill, wisdom, and generosity, even though he was a Muslim and an adversary of European interests in the Near East. Many other stories in the collection have shown that a poor or low-born person can still possess a noble spirit; Saladin shows that a non-Christian can be worthy of honor and friendship as well (at least in the confines of a story). In this context, it’s notable that Torello sees through Saladin’s disguise—not to his true identity, but at least to intuit his class status, which is well above the bourgeoise merchant class. The Third Crusade was organized to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin. In this tale, Saladin and Torello engage in a game of cleverness and generosity, where each one tries to outdo the other.
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Torello rushes to his estate, sets tables for a feast in the garden, and is ready to welcome Saladin’s group when the servant brings them to the gates. Saladin realizes that the reason for Torello’s trick was to keep him from refusing the invitation. He complains that it’s unfair to be offered hospitality that they can’t return, and Torello replies that he won’t be able to entertain them as well as they deserve. Because they all speak excellent Italian, Saladin and his men have no trouble talking with Torello over his fine wines.
Even in disguise, Saladin’s personal merit is evident to Torello, who honors him according to his worth. Torello makes a big to-do over Saladin as a mark of respect for his merit (even though he doesn’t realize that his guest is, in fact, royalty). But because Saladin is in disguise—not to mention on the opposing side of the coming war—he doesn’t expect to be able to return the favor and honor Torello, so it makes him uncomfortable to be in the honorable man’s debt.
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Saladin and his men find Torello to be the “most agreeable, civilized, and affable gentleman” they’ve ever met. And although they claim to be simple merchants from Cyprus, Torello (correctly) concludes that they are more distinguished than that and deserve a better feast. He sends a message to his wife (later identified as Adalieta), asking her to invite the Pavian nobles to a great banquet the following morning. With a princely spirit (instead of a womanly one), she pulls together the necessities for a “sumptuous banquet.”
The tale continues to emphasize Saladin’s evident nobility; he can obscure his identity but not hide his true merit. Additionally, in the context of the brigata’s friendly competition to showcase the most stunning example of generosity, Torello’s desire to provide a second feast is also an excuse for him to perform almost unbelievable generosity. In this, his wife Adalieta is a full partner to him. Much of her value comes from her so-called “princely spirit;” like Roussillon’s wife (III, 9), Ghismonda (IV, 1), and Filippa (VI, 7), she is presented as more valuable the closer she hews to masculine ideals of self-possession instead of excessive feminine emotionality.
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The next day, Torello invites Saladin to hunt, after which Saladin asks for directions to the comfortable inn in Pavia. Torello, offering to lead the way, takes Saladin and his men to his own home, where a crowd of gentlemen wait for them. They protest that Torello entertained them splendidly enough the previous night, but he claims that fortune prevented him from doing them justice by sending them to him too late in the day to make a proper feast. Now, he will breakfast them with the appropriate “pomp and ceremony.” Saladin, used to kingly treatment, marvels at the quality of this banquet.
The generosity and expense are starting to get ridiculous here; this story is a huge catalogue of noble generosity that far exceeds the others covered on this day. Somehow, a mere nobleman like Torello can entertain a king in the style he’s used to. And while this is his response to Saladin’s inherent nobility, it also demonstrates his own noble spirit and generous nature. Torello’s claim that fortune stopped him rings hollow—it sounds more like an excuse he can make to justify a second (and better) feast.
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After breakfast, Torello introduces Saladin to his greatest treasures: Adalieta and their two angelically beautiful children. Adalieta gives Saladin fur-lined silk robes and silk jackets as gifts—things much nicer than a merchant would usually warrant. Saladin briefly worries that his identity has been discovered, but still graciously accepts them. Before he leaves the next day, Torello replaces his road-weary mounts with fine horses, proving himself the most courteous, considerate, and perfect gentleman ever born. Saladin thinks that if all Christian princes were this noble, his forces would never be able to resist them. He’s sad to leave Torello and—although still intent on winning the war—resolves to return his hospitality if he ever can.
The generosity displayed by Torello walks a fine line between being altruistic (focused on honoring his guest) and ostentatious (showing off what he himself has). In this way, noble generosity confirms the worthiness (and class) of both the giver and recipient. There is also a disconnect between Saladin’s appreciation of the generosity and the reminder that he and Torello are still on opposing sides of a coming war: the rules of generosity, evidently, can interrupt but not overrule political and religious conflicts.
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As the Crusade begins, Torello, moved but undeterred by Adalieta’s tears and entreaties, prepares to leave. His only request is that, if he dies, she will not remarry sooner than one year plus a month and a day from his departure. Adalieta protests that she will be faithful to him, even in his death, and while he doesn’t doubt her words, he knows that her family will eventually force her to remarry. In that case, she promises to honor his instructions, and she gives him one of her rings as a gift when she bids him farewell.
Adalieta and Torello show what the “happily ever after” of Day V’s fortunate lovers might look like: well matched in nobility of spirit and generosity, they are also devoted to each other as spouses. Yet, Adalieta’s position without her husband is precarious, and Torello fully expects that if he dies, she will be forced to remarry by her family. The gifts she gives serve as a reminder of the promise that Adalieta has made, and a reminder to Torello of the worthy wife he’s leaving behind.
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Torello travels to Acre, where the Crusader army falls prey to a plague. Because so many die, Saladin easily surrounds and captures the survivors. Torello, sent to Alexandria as a prisoner, is assigned to train hawks. He excels at his task, so Saladin frees him and appoints him falconer. Neither man recognizes the other. Torello, homesick, tries to escape; he also tries to send word of his imprisonment by giving a letter addressed to his uncle, the Abbot of San Pietro, to a Genoese emissary.
Torello’s involvement in the Crusades is disastrous, although he luckily escapes the plague. Thus, fortune has provided Saladin the opportunity to repay the hospitality he earlier received from his Italian host. Just as Torello recognized Saladin’s worth through his disguise, so too does Saladin recognize the nobility of his prisoner (even if he doesn’t yet recognize Torello). Torello’s personal accomplishment of gentlemanly skills like falconry earns him better treatment from his captors.
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One day, Saladin notices the way Torello smiles and recognizes his old host. Taking him to the royal wardrobe, he asks Torello if he recognizes anything, and Torello picks out the robes and jackets his wife gave to his onetime guests. When he realizes that this was Saladin himself, he is both delighted to have entertained such a guest and ashamed for his frugality. Saladin welcomes him warmly, dresses him in regal robes, and presents him to the Alexandrian nobility.
There is no way that the style with which Torello hosted Saladin could be described as “frugal,” and the tale earlier made a point of describing Saladin’s appreciation of such a royal welcome, even though he was disguised as a merchant. Torello’s fears are thus a humble-brag that serve to draw attention to actions he claims to downplay. But this moment also shows the individualistic nature of generosity, at least as it is described in Day 10’s tales: Torello’s previous generosity towards Saladin ensures that he is well treated now, but it does nothing to help the other prisoners of war languishing in the sultan’s power.
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Meanwhile, Adalieta believes that Torello has died, because on the day he was captured, another knight named Torello was buried, and camp gossip conflated the two men. After several months of mourning, her family begins to pressure her to remarry. They eventually wear her down (despite her tears), although she insists on waiting the agreed-upon period from Torello’s departure. About a week before it runs out, in Alexandria, Torello sees the man to whom he’d entrusted his letter. Learning that the voyage ended in disaster, he realizes that no one has heard from him in over a year. He falls into a deep despair on the suspicion that Adalieta must be about to remarry. When Saladin discovers the reason for this distress, he offers to get him home before the wedding.
True to Torello’s prediction, Adalieta doesn’t find autonomy in widowhood but is instead pressured by her family to remarry. However, she demonstrates both her love and her strength of will by refusing to do so until she’s fulfilled her promise to her husband to wait for a year. Despite her faithfulness, misfortune continues to plague Torello and threaten their reunion, as a shipwreck has prevented his letter from reaching home. This sets the stage for Saladin’s ultimate act of generosity—one which neither Torello nor anyone else can match, since it involves magic.
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In one night, Saladin’s magician can send Torello, sleeping peacefully in a bed, back to Pavia. Although he understands Torello’s desire to return to Adalieta, Saladin mourns the loss of a friend with whom he would have shared his very kingdom. After dressing Torello in “Saracen”-style clothes and preparing a splendid bed—decorated with pearls and jewels in the opulent Eastern style—he tearfully says goodbye and begs Torello to come back to Alexandria if he ever can. Torello, also in tears, replies that he won’t ever forget Saladin’s “courteous deeds and sterling worth.” The magician gives Torello a sleeping potion and Saladin fills the bed with gifts of jewels, doubloons, and treasure.
“Saracen” is the medieval word for a person from Syria or the Arabian Peninsula, or, more broadly, a Muslim. By dressing Torello in Saracen-style clothing and placing him in a bed so opulently and expensively decorated that it strains belief, Saladin effectively makes it impossible for anyone to overtake him in generosity. Again, the friendship between the two men, built on their shared sense of nobility and personal worth, contrasts with the enmity between their peoples in the Crusade. Thus, personal worth is stronger than even political or religious alliances.
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Torello and his bed are deposited magically in the church of San Pietro just before matins. Its sudden appearance surprises the sexton, who rushes to fetch the Abbot of San Pietro. As Torello stirs and wakes up, they are all frightened, especially when Torello calls his uncle by name—they think he’s a ghost. Eventually, the Abbot finds the courage to approach the bed, where he finds his living nephew. He tells Torello that, since everyone believes he’s dead, Adalieta’s wedding is happening this very day.
Notably, it’s only in the tales of the final day where magic isn’t treated with suspicion in the tales. The suspension of some of the tales’ normal “rules” is underwritten by the competition among members of the brigata to outdo each other’s stories, and sometimes (as here and in X, 5), magic is the only way to show more generosity than the previous tale. Fortunately, Torello has arrived just in time to save his wife from her forced second marriage.
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After securing the treasure, Torello asks the Abbot of San Pietro to take him to the wedding feast as a guest so that he can observe Adalieta’s feelings. There, disguised in his eastern clothing, Torello sits across from her and observes her “troubled look.” He tells a servant that it’s customary in his country for the bride to welcome an honored guest like himself by sending him her own wine cup. The guest drinks what he wants, then sends it back with compliments, and she drinks the rest. With “her wonted tact and courtesy,” Adalieta sends her cup to him. He drinks almost all the wine and secretly drops in her ring. On seeing it in the cup, Adalieta recognizes the guest as Torello.
The wedding feast, unlike a modern-day reception, would have taken place prior to the celebration of the marriage. Because both celebration and consummation are necessary to make a marriage legally binding in the Middle Ages, Adalieta isn’t yet tied to her new husband. The clothing that Saladin gave Torello makes a convenient costume, allowing him to conceal his identity and test Adalieta’s fidelity in his absence. Despite signs that she’s distressed instead of happy on her wedding day, Adalieta’s noble spirit won’t allow her to be rude to a guest.
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Adalieta stands up so quickly she overturns the table, runs across the room pell-mell, flings herself on Torello and clings to him for dear life. Torello, promising to give her as many embraces as she wants later, convinces her to disentangle herself, and then narrates the story of his captivity and return. The embarrassed bridegroom gallantly relinquishes his claim on Adalieta. After celebrating, Torello sends news of his safe return to Saladin, and he lives happily with his lady for many more years.
Adalieta proves herself to be a faithful lover in this moment; her joy at the reappearance of Torello dispels any doubt that she might have entered her second marriage willingly. It’s also a nice reversal that on a day where men trade women between themselves, the second-to-last tale features a husband being miraculously returned to his faithful wife.
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