Dioneo, noting that Adalieta’s almost-second husband wouldn’t agree with the company’s praise of Torello, prepares to finish the day’s storytelling with a marquis whose actions were remarkably cruel, not generous.
Dioneo doesn’t just get the last tale of the day, but he gets to tell the last tale of the collection. And in his usual fashion, he deviates from the day’s theme. Instead of a tale of great generosity, he proposes a tale of great cruelty. Rather than balancing out the excessive generosity in the previous tales, his tale of excessive cruelty throws them into even greater relief.
In Saluzzo, Marquis Gualtieri is a childless bachelor. His citizens, concerned by his lack of heirs, offer to find him a noble wife who will make him happy. Gualtieri has always been disinclined to marry, because it’s so hard to find a wife who will adapt to a man’s way of life. His citizens can’t just investigate a woman’s heart well enough to know if she would make him happy or not. He agrees to marry but insists on choosing the woman. His citizens will either love her or learn how badly they’ve erred in “urg[ing him] to marry against [his] will.”
Gualtieri approaches marriage as his personal prerogative, but his subjects worry that he won’t have an heir to lead them because, for the ruling class, personal and political priorities intersect. Gualtieri’s response to his citizens’ reasonable request, however, is to antagonize them by picking a questionable wife. He has avoided marriage because it’s hard to find an obedient woman, and his subjects’ uppity demands mirror the things he fears in a wife. His attitude towards them foreshadows the adversarial and demeaning role he will assume in his marriage.
Gualtieri already has his eye on a very beautiful but very poor girl in the local village. After making arrangements with her father, he gathers his friends and citizens and says that he’s ready to marry a local “girl after [his] own heart” in order to gratify their wishes. While they make wedding preparations, he orders rich robes, rings, ornamental belts, crowns, and everything else his bride could need. On the appointed day, Gualtieri takes his company to the village, where they find Griselda returning from the well. In the presence of her father, Giannùcole, Griselda promises to always try to please and obey Gualtieri and to never be upset by anything he says or does.
What Gualtieri wants in a wife, evidently, is complete obedience. While law and custom in the Middle Ages already decreed that a husband was placed in authority over his wife, Gualtieri’s choice of a poor girl whom he enriches with gifts and elevates to a higher rung on the social ladder emphasizes his superiority and her inferior position. Gualtieri interrogates Griselda in her father’s presence because she is under her father’s authority until her marriage; like other women in the tales, she is never truly a free agent.
Gualtieri leads Griselda outside, where he has her stripped naked in front of everyone. Dressing her in rich robes and placing a crown on her disheveled hair, he marries her immediately, then takes her home, where their wedding is celebrated as grandly as if she were a French princess. In her marriage, Griselda blooms: a graceful and noble manner add to her natural beauty, and no one would guess that she came from a humble background. She so perfectly obeys and complies with Gualtieri that he considers himself the happiest man on earth. People who thought the marriage ill-advised change their minds. And in due time, Griselda gives birth to a daughter.
In case there were any doubts about exactly what Griselda owes Gualtieri (or how much authority he expects to wield over her), he has her stripped naked in front of the assembled crowd. This allows him to dress her in the expensive clothes he commissioned, visually representing her elevation in class from poor peasant to the aristocracy. It also offers her an early chance to show her obedience, since she accepts her humiliating exposure without comment. But if Gualtieri has chosen a poor woman, he hasn’t chosen an ignoble one, and Griselda quickly shows herself to be in possession of the fine manners and grace that usually typify members of the aristocracy.
After the birth of their daughter, a “strange desire to test Griselda’s patience” seizes Gualtieri. At first, he subjects her to extensive verbal abuse, claiming that his citizens are unhappy about his lowly wife and daughter. Griselda answers that she understands her inferiority and wants him to do what’s best for himself and his reputation; she will acquiesce to his wishes. Her humble attitude pleases Gualtieri, but he continues to suggest that his subjects dislike the baby. When he sends a servant to take the baby away, Griselda understands that he wants it murdered. Still, she hands her over her daughter “without any trace of emotion” even though “she felt that her heart was about to break.” The only thing she asks for is a proper burial, and only if Gualtieri will allow it. Her obedience amazes Gualtieri, who sends the baby to Bologna to be raised by his relative.
Even though he insisted on picking a humbly born woman for his wife (possibly to spite his subjects for demanding that he marry and produce an heir), Griselda’s ancestry allows Gualtieri to center much of his abuse around class issues. While her character and temperament are sufficiently noble, without her husband’s protection, she is still vulnerable to being treated as a low-class person. Gualtieri’s desire to test Griselda is never explained, especially since she doesn’t seem to have given him any reason to doubt her total obedience. Thus, when Gualtieri pushes things as far as pretending to murder their child, the tale takes pains to describe her grief so that readers won’t think that she is insufficiently maternal or loving. Griselda, it is clear, feels pain and suffering, but through extreme self-control, she ignores her instincts in order to obey as she promised to do.
Griselda becomes pregnant again and gives birth to a boy. Again, despite his pleasure, Gualtieri cannot stop abusing her. Now, he claims, the people grumble that Giannùcole’s grandson will one day rule them. To avoid being deposed, Gualtieri says he will have to dispose of this child, too, and then marry someone else. Griselda tells him to “look to [his] own comfort” and not worry about her since “nothing brings [her] pleasure unless it pleases [him].” When he has their son taken away (and secretly sends him to Bologna), Griselda is as patient as before. Her judicious actions stun Gualtieri, who would think her heartless if he didn’t know how much she loved her children. Although his subjects think him cruel and heartless, Griselda never complains about him or his wishes.
Gualtieri’s testing of Griselda is excessive, which highlights her self-possession and the strict moderation of her responses—she betrays no intense emotions at all, no matter what she feels. When he took their daughter away, Gualtieri sent a servant to do his dirty work; this time he confronts Griselda with his plan in person. Nevertheless, she refuses to show emotion and demonstrates nothing short of perfect obedience. For the second time, the tale must explain that Griselda does, indeed, have a heart and loves her children. Yet, even as it tries to assure readers that Griselda isn’t a heartless monster, it doesn’t worry about explaining why Gualtieri cruelly continues to test her: his privilege as the man and the husband cannot be questioned.
Many years later, Gualtieri decides “to put Griselda’s patience to the final test.” Telling everyone that his marriage was a youthful error, he pretends to ask the pope for dispensation to divorce her and remarry. While his men chide him, Griselda is “secretly filled with despair,” but she prepares to “endure this final blow as stoically as she had borne fortune’s earlier assaults.” After leading everyone to believe he’s received dispensation, Gualtieri publicly renounces Griselda, since his ancestors were “great noblemen” and hers were “peasants.” She will return to her father’s house with her dowry and he will marry someone “far better suited.”
Divorcing Griselda will deprive her of her social status (dependent on Gualtieri’s wealth and her legitimate marriage) and her remaining dignity—the only “dowry” she brought to the marriage was her own, completely naked body. Gualtieri’s subjects and advisors chide him, betraying the horror that the audience is likely to be feeling at this point, but also displaying the disobedience he finds so utterly distasteful. In contrast, although Griselda isn’t happy about the turn of events, she obeys without complaint. She even refuses to place the blame on Gualtieri, choosing to place it on impersonal fortune instead. And yet again, although she has proven herself to have a noble spirit in addition to fulfilling Gualtieri’s expectations of total obedience, Gualtieri excuses his actions based on class, suggesting that personal worth (at least for women) is less powerful than wealth and status.
With superhuman effort, Griselda holds back her tears as she tells Gualtieri how aware she is that her wealth and status were gifts from him. She cherishes them, but since she does not own them, she will return them “with good grace.” Remembering how he took her from her father’s house “naked as on the day [she] was born,” she offers to return her dowry (just herself), if he thinks it’s appropriate for his subjects to see the body that bore his children. But she asks for a shift to cover herself, in exchange for the virginity she gave him and which he cannot return. Restraining his own tears and ignoring his subjects’ request to give his wife of thirteen years a dress, Gualtieri holds firm and offers her a shift. She leaves his house a pauper.
Griselda valiantly holds back her emotions to perform the perfect obedience she promised Gualtieri. The closest she comes to defiance is her request to be returned to her father’s house clothed. But even in this, she avoids direct noncompliance by appealing to Gualtieri’s honor, and reminding him that she didn’t come to the marriage with nothing: because she has given him her obedience and her virginity, which cannot be recovered, it’s not possible for him to reset the scale of obligation between them to zero.
Griselda returns to Giannùcole, puts on peasant clothes, and “bravely endur[es] the cruel assault of hostile fortune.” Gualtieri gives the impression he’s betrothed to a nobleman’s daughter, and as the wedding preparations commence, asks Griselda to come back and host his second wedding, since she alone understands perfectly how he likes things. Unable to lay aside her love as easily as her wealth and status, this request strikes Griselda to the quick. But she obeys. In coarse clothing, as if she were a “petty serving wench,” Griselda prepares for her replacement’s wedding.
Even after Griselda believes herself to have been divorced, she continues to obey Gualtieri as she did when he was her husband. And the tale’s insistence that she still loves Gualtieri even after years of emotional abuse suggests the limits of The Decameron’s understanding of women’s interior lives and desires. Although she is the heroine of this story and Gualtieri is the villain, even her thoughts are forced to conform with his desires and worldview. And, although she was allowed to leave Gualtieri’s home clothed, she hasn’t escaped further indignities: she’s made to return to the home where she was formerly mistress as a lowly servant, suggesting the general impermeability of class boundaries.
Meanwhile, Gualtieri retrieves his children (now twelve and six years old) from Bologna as if the girl is his fiancée. When the girl arrives, Griselda graciously welcomes her, despite the pleas of Gualtieri’s subjects that Griselda be excused from this duty. Gualtieri, convinced that nothing will shake Griselda’s obedient demeanor (even though he knows she has feelings), tries to provoke the anger he thinks must be simmering inside her. He asks what she thinks about his new bride. Griselda thinks well of her and hopes she will make Gualtieri happy. But she asks that he treat her more kindly, since her tender age and refined upbringing can’t have prepared her to endure hardship as gracefully as Griselda herself.
Gualtieri has ample evidence of Griselda’s obedience in practice, since she has never complained or contradicted his wishes, no matter how horrific they have been. Yet, his final test suggests that even her obedience in act would be insufficient to please him if he discovered insubordination in her spirit, so he tries to provoke her. Showing superhuman (or possibly inhuman) patience and selflessness, Griselda wishes Gualtieri and his bride well. Gualtieri (and the tale) take the desire for feminine obedience (laid out in detail in IX, 7 and IX, 9) and push it to its extreme—although it’s unclear to what degree Griselda’s patience is a satire of gendered expectations of wives.
When he realizes that Griselda truly believes his ruse and still betrays no sign of resentment, Gualtieri tells her that she is about to reap the reward of her patience. He says that he tested her to show her how to be a good wife, to teach his subjects how to choose and keep their wives, and to ensure that he himself would live with his wife peacefully and quietly forever. Her refusal to oppose his wishes, no matter what, has persuaded him that she can provide this peace and happiness. So, in an instant, he will restore what he took: their daughter, their son, and her husband who “loves [her] above all else.”
In revealing the truth of his behavior to Griselda—admitting that he was testing her—Gualtieri offers several rationales for his inhumane behavior. Yet, they are questionable. Griselda didn’t need to be taught obedience since she demonstrated it from the moment she met Gualtieri. Some of the harshest tests, such as taking the children away, happened outside of his subjects’ view, and anyway, their general sympathy towards Griselda suggests that they wouldn’t be eager to adopt Gualtieri’s methods of choosing and testing wives. The only explanation that makes sense is the last: that he subjected Griselda to intense emotional manipulation and abuse to settle his own fears that his wife would be disobedient or opinionated. The lesson seems to imply not that obedient wives will be rewarded, but that even obedient wives are vulnerable to the whims of their husbands.
Gualtieri embraces and kisses Griselda, who is weeping for joy, and then they embrace the children. Gualtieri unravels the mystery to everyone. In an echo of her wedding, the ladies take Griselda to a room where they undress her and clothe her in a fine dress, even though she acted as graciously as their mistress in rags as in robes. Returning to the hall, Griselda celebrates with the guests, who condemn Gualtieri’s “harsh and intolerable” tests, although they acknowledge his wisdom. Still, the obedient Griselda is considered “the wisest of all.” Gualtieri also welcomes Giannùcole as an honored father-in-law. Gualtieri and Griselda live out their lives contentedly, and he never fails to honor her to the best of his ability.
Since Griselda, after 13 years of marriage to Gualtieri, has finally proven herself to be the kind of wife he wants, he embraces her and restores her to her position. And while the general excess of Gualtieri’s tests is condemned by his subjects and guests, the tale still implies that his concerns over wifely obedience were well founded and that his tests were wrong in degree, not necessarily in intent.
There’s nothing else for Dioneo to say, except that sometimes “celestial spirits” inhabit the poor, while the most royal men might make better swineherds than rulers. He also acknowledges that no one but Griselda could have endured these “cruel and unheard of trials” so cheerfully. And it would have served Gualtieri right to have married a wife who, after being turned out in her shift, found someone else to “shake her skin-coat for her.”
The tale ends with Griselda being rewarded for her patience and obedience, yet the moral the brigata—or The Decameron’s readers—should take from this tale is unclear. Dioneo offers a class-based possibility: Griselda’s tale shows that wealth and status don’t guarantee nobility. Griselda made an excellent aristocrat despite her humble birth, while the wealthy and powerful Gualtieri used his position to terrorize his subjects and his wife. Yet, the fact remains that Gualtieri’s expectations and fears were deeply steeped in misogynistic stereotypes about women, and his tests were founded on gendered expectations that women were to be ruled by their husbands. Dioneo gestures towards the discomfort in the tale when he suggests that Griselda’s superhuman patience can exist only in a story rather than in reality, where a scorned woman would be more likely to just find a better man.