Panfilo’s tale inspires many a sigh from the ladies—maybe from pity for Alatiel, maybe from jealousy at her sexual exploits—but everyone laughs at the ending. Elissa begins her tale next, setting it in the context of a war between France and Germany.
Fears of female sexual desire are raised—but neither confirmed nor denied—by the ladies’ sighs. But the laughter of the ending serves as a reminder that the purpose of the stories is to entertain their listeners and readers.
The French king and his son mobilize their forces and go to war, leaving Walter, Count of Antwerp, to oversee the kingdom. Walter is a noble, intelligent man who’s skilled in the arts of war and diplomacy. He’s also blessed with good looks and fine manners and is a recent widower who has a son and a daughter. In her husband’s absence, the French Princess falls in love with him.
In Elissa’s tale, Walter is an incredibly eligible and attractive widower—a portrait of the ideal nobleman, who is as accomplished and upright as he is handsome. The fact that he can both fight and negotiate points to the moderation and balance prized in the tales, and speaks to his intelligence and noble character. The trust the royal family places in him gives him a lot of power, but also makes him vulnerable, especially when the Princess falls in love with him.
In her bedroom, the French Princess confesses her inability to escape love’s urges to Walter, both because of her husband’s extended absence and because she doesn’t have enough to occupy her attention. She believes that a noble woman’s affair is harmless if it’s with a worthy man and kept secret. She asks Walter to take pity on her as she melts “for [him] like ice before a fire,” bursts into tears, and throws herself into his arms. He pushes her away, chastising her and declaring that he would prefer to be drawn and quartered than to permit anyone to sleep with the prince’s wife, much less himself.
The French Princess’s confession casts her sexual desires as an example of disordered, excessive female desire. But the invocation of the absent husband also speaks to a medieval understanding that sex had an important place in people’s lives, as long as it was practiced moderately and within the bounds of custom and law. However, her love isn’t orderly, but overwhelming, pointing to the powerful love described by poets throughout the Middle Ages. Thus, it’s not surprising when she invokes ice and fire in the same breath, as this language recalls the paradoxical or oxymoronic conceits that fill the love poetry of Giovanni Boccaccio’s contemporary and beloved friend, Francesco Petrarch. And, although she’s the first character to raise the idea that a secret love affair with a sufficiently noble lover is harmless—casting incaution or class-jumping as bigger sins than infidelity—she’s hardly the last, since this idea is typical in medieval depictions of stylized fin’amors (refined loving).
The French Princess’s passion turns to rage. She tears her dress, musses her hair, and begins to accuse Walter of trying to rape her. His conscience is clear, but Walter worries that envious courtiers will take advantage of the situation and harm his reputation. He hurries home, gets his children, and flees to England. These actions seem to confirm his guilt; the king and his son condemn Walter’s family to eternal exile and offer a reward for his capture if he returns.
The French Princess’s passion, because it is unbalanced and excessive, easily turns to rage. When she accuses Walter of rape—ironically, given that she does it out of anger that he repudiated her advances—the French Princess reenacts the story of Potiphar’s Wife, which can be found in the Bible in Genesis 39. Versions of this ploy—which confirm misogynistic fears about female sexuality and deviousness—are sprinkled throughout medieval literature. Fortune is at play in this situation because Walter has done the right thing but is nevertheless punished for it.
Dressed in rags, Walter and his children reach London. To protect their identities, he begins to call his son “Perrot” and his daughter “Jeannette,” and he tells people they fled France because of crimes committed by an older son. Eventually, the wife of one of the English king’s marshals (later named as Madame Lamiens) takes pretty and sweet Jeannette into her home. She promises to raise her well and find her a suitable husband someday. Walter and Perrot travel to Wales, where the king’s Welsh marshal is so impressed by the boy’s manners and athleticism that he takes him into his home. Walter lands in Ireland, where he patiently endures years of hard work and suffering as a servant in noble houses.
Despite their newly desperate situation at the bottom of fortune’s wheel, the inherent nobility of Walter and his children is evident even when they are impoverished refugees; an instinctive recognition of their value inspires the offers of the marshal’s wives to foster Perrot and Jeannette. They attract the attention of noble persons because they themselves are noble. The children are wholly innocent and are thus somewhat protected from the vagaries of their ill fortune—they are protected and cared for by noblepersons. As one of fortune’s victims, Walter’s situation is more painful and physically taxing. But his external circumstances can’t extinguish his internal nobility of character.
Years pass, and Madame Lamiens begins to think of finding a husband for Jeannette. Fortunately, God has a plan to prevent the noble Jeannette from being married beneath her station in life: it just so happens that Madame Lamiens’s son (later identified as Jacques) has fallen violently in love with Jeannette. Fearing parental reproach for loving someone they believe to be a commoner, he keeps his feelings secret, but this just intensifies his suffering. Secret love makes him so sick that his parents must call many physicians to his bedside.
The idea of Jeannette marrying across class lines is categorically excluded by everyone: Madame Lamiens, unaware of her noble status, can’t imagine Jeannette marrying her social betters, and fortune is imagined as actively intervening to prevent her from being married to a man of inferior status. And Jeannette’s inherent nobility of spirit, despite her lowly social status, is part of the reason that Jacques falls in love with her. His suffering is a stereotypical example of lovesickness, in which excessive, unrequited love makes a person physically ill—note that his parents call doctors to his bedside. This is one of the occasional moments where fortune takes on the power of divine will, and it also recalls the idea of fortune’s wheel—Jeannette’s inherent nobility attracts Jacques, and this will be the means by which she’s saved from the horrible situation her family was thrown into when her father’s inherent nobility attracted the affections of the French Princess.
None of Jacques’s physicians can identify or treat his illness until one happens to be taking his pulse when Jeannette walks into the room. Noticing that this makes Jacques’s heart race, the doctor waits for an opportunity to call her back in. When she returns to the room, Jacques’s heart races again, and the doctor realizes that he’s suffering from lovesickness over the young woman. He tells Jacques’s parents that “unmistakable symptoms” show that Jacques is “ardently in love” with the oblivious Jeannette.
Jacques’s diagnosis parallels a story that was popular in the Middle Ages, in which a doctor diagnoses Antiochus’s mysterious wasting illness as love for Stratonice. In turn, this story develops out of an early medical text authored by the Roman doctor Galen, who describes the diagnosis for lovesickness by observing the pulse of patients when their lovers’ names are mentioned.
Jacques’s parents are relieved to know the cause of his illness, but they’re disturbed by his love for a supposed commoner. Madame Lamiens tells Jacques that she knows why he is sick and that she’s willing to help him recover. Unfortunately, her plan isn’t marriage, but suggesting to Jeannette that she take Jacques as a lover. But Jeannette is horrified by the idea, and she declares that she will guard her chastity with her life and will love no man but her lawful husband. She says she would even refuse to be the king’s lover despite his power and good looks.
Madame Lamiens’s plan highlights the relationship between class and the value placed on female chastity: she’s more afraid of Jacques damaging his honor by marrying someone who she thinks is beneath his social class than she is of ruining Jeanette’s sexual honor, even though she promised Walter to make sure the girl was honorably married when the time came. But it’s Jeannette’s inherent nobility of character that attracts Jacques’s love anyway, and her horror over compromising her integrity and being forced to take him as a lover merely emphasizes it. In her insistence on doing what’s right, she also aligns herself with her father’s repudiation of the French Princess’s indecent proposal.
Madame Lamiens, although impressed by Jeannette’s morals, is frustrated. She suggests locking Jeannette in Jacques’s room so he can have his way with her. But Jacques finds this plan horrifying and suffers a relapse. Finally deciding that they’d rather have an unsuitable daughter-in-law than a dead son, Marshal Lamiens and his wife relent and allow Jacques to marry Jeannette, much to the young couple’s mutual delight.
Madame Lamiens’s attempt to cure Jacques’s lovesickness by making Jeanette his lover is doomed to fail anyway, since she’s trying to apply a sexual cure to a case of true love. Jacques demonstrates his own worthiness (and shows that he’s a suitable match for Jeanette) when he also reacts with horror to his mother’s indecent suggestion that he essentially rape Jeanette. Fortune smiles on Jeannette and makes sure that her honor is preserved and that she gets an appropriate husband.
Meanwhile, handsome, fearless Perrot makes a favorable impression on his benefactors. And God also provides him a suitable spouse: when a plague sweeps through Wales, most of the marshal’s family dies, leaving just one marriageable daughter who quickly takes Perrot as her husband.
Perrot’s tale, though less detailed than his sister’s, also demonstrates how a truly noble character cannot be repressed or overcome by circumstance and bad fortune. And in his case, too, fortune aligns with divine will to ensure that he ends up in a situation that befits his social class. The quick dispatch of his wife’s family by plague—necessary so that he can easily marry her and come into her money—seems a bit harsh in light of the frame narrative’s setting at the height of the Bubonic Plague. But the fact that the plague here can be just a simple narrative device also highlights the impermeable wall that seems to sit between the brigata and the harsh realities they left behind.
After 18 years, Walter decides to check on his children and returns to England. Age, labor, and hardship have made him almost unrecognizable. In London, he loiters near Jeannette and Jacques’s home. When Jacques invites him to receive charity, their children instinctively love their grandfather in disguise. They become so attached that the family hires him as a servant to play with the children. Marshal Lamiens, spiteful towards his “common” daughter-in-law, takes his grandchildren’s attachment to Walter as proof of their mother’s low birth.
The irrepressible character of Walter, Perrot, and Jeannette is evident in the family’s third generation, and the children’s instinctive love for Walter—whom they don’t know and can’t recognize—proves their own noble spirits. Marshal Lamiens is blinded by class-consciousness and takes this affection as a sign of the children’s low class rather than realizing it could also indicate Walter’s true character. He can’t see through Walter’s downtrodden appearance to recognize his true nobility, which shines there despite decades of hard labor and ill fortune.
In the past, the French king made peace with the Germans, but his son resumes the hostilities after his father’s death. The English king sends an army to his aid under the command of Perrot and Jacques. Walter joins Jacques’s contingent as a groom (someone who cares for horses). The French Princess, having fallen ill, makes a deathbed confession of her love for Walter and her false accusation of him. The new French king grieves over Walter’s undeserved exile, decides to restore his honor and status, and offers a reward for information on his whereabouts.
The illness and confession of the French Princess shifts the narrative, illustrating how chance and happenstance can easily change the direction of fortune’s wheel and restore those who have been demeaned. And, once again, the relationship between political affairs and fortune comes into play.
Walter reveals the truth of his identity—and his children’s—to Perrot and Jacques. He tells Perrot that Jacques married his sister without a dowry (the property and wealth a woman brings into her marriage), so it’s best for Jacques to claim the king’s reward as a dowry. Perrot recognizes his father, and their tearful reunion astonishes and delights Jacques. He begs forgiveness for the times he spoke harshly to Walter under the assumption he was a lowly servant rather than a nobleman.
As in the story of Beritola and her sons (II, 6), somehow, neither Jeannette nor Perrot recognize their father until after their fortunes are about to be reversed—which illustrates the power fortune has over the lives of humans. This also allows the tale to explicitly explore one of the book’s themes—the importance of inherent nobility of character over circumstance and factors like wealth or social status.
Jacques presents Walter and Perrot to the king, claiming the great reward, and the king gives Walter the gift of “clothes, servants, horses, and accoutrements” appropriate to his status. Walter asks Jacques to remind Marshal Lamiens that his grandchildren aren’t descended from a lowlife on Jeannette’s side, and they all live happily ever after.
In the context of a rigidly class-based society, even though Walter’s inherent nobility has carried him through the decades of his exile, the restoration of his status is still dependent on the restoration of his wealth and power. Although the tales praise those who, like Perrot’s wife or Jacques, can recognize nobility in a person’s character, a noble identity must still be confirmed by the appearance of wealth and power.