The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 2: Ninth Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s now Filomena’s turn, since Dioneo has permission to tell the day’s last tale. She recalls a proverb which says that “a dupe will outwit his deceiver,” which her tale will prove.
Dioneo’s exception shows that sometimes balance and moderation are achieved through bending the rules slightly: the day’s sovereign has the ability to pick the order of narrators, except that Dioneo always has permission to go last—and he usually tells a tale that balances out any seriousness in the rest of the day’s tales.
Themes
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
A group of Italian merchants at a Parisian inn brag about their sexual exploits while on the road. They all assume that their wives don’t let the “grass … grow under their feet” either. Only one, Bernabò Lomellin, disagrees. He believes that his wife (whose name is Zinerva) is without equal: she is beautiful, excellent at handicrafts, a “paragon of intelligence and good manners,” as capable on a horse or with a falcon as any man, an avid reader and writer, and—above all—the most chaste woman anywhere. He’s sure that even if he went missing for ten years, she’d be faithful.
The merchants boast about their own sexual prowess—and since they’re presumably sleeping with other men’s wives, they take it for granted that their own wives are also probably cheating. Their rather nonchalant attitude towards sex contrasts with the emphasis placed on female chastity in other tales—but then again, these men are merchants. While great lords must worry about having legitimate children to inherit their wealth, titles, and power, throughout the tales, middle- and lower-class characters consistently demonstrate a more casual attitude towards sex. The narrator, Filomena, doesn’t reveal whether Bernabò joins with his fellow merchants in womanizing while on the road, but he does expect his wife to be chaste in his absence. And, since ideas about sexual continence and class are frequently linked, it’s notable that his description of her explicitly positions her as a fine, noble lady who outclasses the rest of the merchants and their wives. And it’s also important to note that one of her good qualities is intelligence—another important theme that threads between the tales of The Decameron. Notably, this entertaining and beautiful tale was the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s play, Cymbeline.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Intelligence Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
A young merchant named Ambrogiuolo, laughs at Bernabò and asks who gave him such an unnaturally good wife. He is sure that Bernabò believes what he’s saying, but Ambrogiuolo doesn’t. He thinks Bernabò is a credulous fool, ignorant of human nature. Specifically, everyone knows that men are more perfect than women, and that they consequently have greater willpower. But if men can’t control themselves around beautiful women, how can they expect women to control themselves when faced with the sexual advances of an intelligent lover?
Ambrogiuolo is repeating standard medieval beliefs about the relationship between men and women, which were based both in cultural assumptions and in scientific theories. Scientifically and medically, medieval people usually ascribed to a model of humanity in which males were thought to be the full exemplar of humanity, while women were comparatively underdeveloped. Ambrogiuolo, in typical medieval fashion, links this to theological and cultural arguments which say that men should be dominant over women, including their daughters, sisters, and wives, because of their greater physical and moral perfection. The consistent worry about female lustfulness is based on the idea that women are less able to control their actions than men, because they are less developed and more child-like. If this is true, and men can’t control themselves around women, it’s naïve to assume that women can control themselves around men—and this idea recalls Panfilo’s recent tale (II, 7) of Alatiel, whose insatiable sexual appetite easily matched all her lovers’ desires.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Bernabò, a merchant rather than a philosopher, accepts that foolish women are weak but maintains that those who truly want to guard their honor (like his wife) are stronger than men. Ambrogiuolo questions how anyone would know, since horns don’t actually sprout on adulterers’ heads. He boasts that he could easily seduce Zinerva. Bernabò puts money against that claim, and the two men formalize their bet with a contract. Ambrogiuolo has three months to seduce Zinerva and prove his conquest with lovers’ tokens or secret knowledge.
Bernabò’s wife may be a sophisticated lady, but he himself is a practical, no-nonsense merchant. Ambrogiuolo raises the possibility that Bernabò’s wife might actually be cheating but just covering her tracks so well that he doesn’t know, since there are no visible signs of being cuckolded (cheated on by one’s wife)—a fact that contributes to misogynistic mistrust of female sexuality and the belief that women are willing to lie about their virtue (like Alatiel convincing her husband that she is a virgin when they get married in II, 7). In pictures, cuckolds are imagined with horns sprouting out of their heads, but in real life, men must either catch their wives in the act or make guesses.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
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In Genoa, Ambrogiuolo learns (to his dismay) that Zinerva is as upright as Bernabò claimed. Winning the bet will require trickery, so he befriends Zinerva’s friend and bribes her to secretly convey him into the house in a chest. At night, he opens the lid, memorizing the details of Zinerva’s bedroom, then uncovering her while she sleeps. He sees a distinguishing mole under her left breast. Although he’s tempted to have his way with her, he resists because of the reports of her moral rectitude. Finally, he steals some of her jewelry and trinkets.
Ambrogiuolo got Bernabò to make his wager based on the idea that only hard evidence can be trusted, but once he’s realized that he can’t win his bet fair and square, he resorts to cheating and trickery—thus calling into question any “hard evidence” that can be given against any woman. And Zinerva’s vulnerability to his lies offers a reminder about the various forms of violence to which women are subject. Although he desires to rape Zinerva, he resists, which contradicts his earlier argument that, since men are powerless to resist their sexual urges, women must be even more so. Zinerva’s upright reputation is thus amply confirmed by Ambrogiuolo’s act of restraint.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
After the old woman retrieves the chest, Ambrogiuolo hurries to Paris where he describes Zinerva’s bedroom and displays his prizes to Bernabò, who demands more proof, since anyone could get a description of the room or some stolen rings from the servants. Ambrogiuolo describes the mole, and this convinces Bernabò. His heart broken at her alleged betrayal, he pays the wager, then goes home with murder in his heart. From his estate outside of the city, he sends a servant to murder Zinerva.
Bernabò is right to be suspicious of Ambrogiuolo—but unfortunately, he’s not quite suspicious enough. Gender allegiance means that, in the end, no matter how noble Zinerva is, he trusts the word of another man rather than his wife. His plan to murder her without confronting her (and thus learning the truth) demonstrates immoderate wrath (to match his insufficient thoughtfulness) and emphasizes her vulnerability to male violence.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Luckily, quick-thinking Zinerva convinces the servant to spare her life. Disguised as a man, she runs away while the servant brings her torn clothing to Bernabò as proof of her death, claiming that wolves devoured her body. Zinerva begins to call herself Sicurano da Finale and she sails as a cabin boy on a Catalan merchant’s ship. When they deliver a shipment to the Sultan of Alexandria, Sicurano’s impressive manners earn him a spot in the Sultan’s household, where Sicurano quickly earns respect and admiration.
Zinerva, however, proves herself to be as good as Bernabò’s description of her. Her quick thinking marks her as one of the most intelligent women in a book that places a high value on intelligence—especially female intelligence—and mitigates the bad turn of her fortunes. It’s not surprising that Bernabò accepts the thin evidence of her ruined clothing, since he’s already shown himself to be susceptible to lies bolstered with thin physical evidence. Zinerva’s exile, like that of Walter (II, 8), proves the depth of her noble character, which shines through her disguise and allows her to distinguish herself sufficiently to earn the respect of a king—even after she lost her husband’s respect.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Intelligence Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
Because Sicurano (Zinerva) can speak the language of Christian merchants, the Sultan sends him to the Acre trade fair, where he stumbles on Ambrogiuolo’s stall and discovers some of his stolen belongings. Ambrogiuolo, not recognizing Zinerva, explains that he acquired them after sleeping with Bernabò’s wife and proving that all women are untrustworthy and fickle. Zinerva understands what has happened to her and she vows to punish Ambrogiuolo.
Fortune brings Zinerva back into contact with Ambrogiuolo so that she can restore her reputation and regain her former status. The pair illustrate fortune’s wheel perfectly: she’s the only one who could possibly know that he is a liar, and their chance encounter signals the rising of her fortunes and the approaching fall of his.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Intelligence Theme Icon
 Zinerva—still disguised as Sicurano—befriends Ambrogiuolo, convincing him to go to Alexandria with the promise of a sizeable investment. She also entices Bernabò, who has fallen into poverty, to Alexandria. With both men in place, she asks Ambrogiuolo to tell his story to the Sultan of Alexandria, where Bernabò will be in attendance. The Sultan laughs at first, but then demands the truth; terrified to be the subject of the Sultan’s interrogation, Ambrogiuolo tells the truth.
Zinerva displays her intelligence and tact again when she deftly plays on Ambrogiuolo’s greed to tempt him into her trap—after he lied about having sex with her to win a sizeable wager he made with her husband. His excessive greed (and willingness to cheat and lie to enrich himself) are at the root of his coming problems.
Themes
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Intelligence Theme Icon
Still in her disguise, Zinerva turns on Bernabò and demands to know what he did after hearing falsehoods about his wife. Bernabò confesses that he had her killed because he was enraged by his loss of money and honor. Zinerva, heaping shame on Bernabò for his stupidity and Ambrogiuolo for his lies, promises to reveal the lady in question if the Sultan of Alexandria will pardon the dupe and punish the deceiver. She then reveals herself to be Zinerva, displaying her breasts (with their identifying mole) as proof.
As elsewhere, male honor is tied to female sexuality—Bernabò felt that his own reputation was compromised by his wife’s alleged infidelity. And he connects this blow to his ego with the loss of the wagered money, which makes his relationship to Zinerva sound more like that of an owner and his belonging than a man and his wife. Nevertheless, Zinerva fulfills feminine expectations of compassion in her desire to protect Bernabò from punishment for his attempted murder.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
The Sultan of Alexandria, recovering from his shock, praises Zinerva’s virtue and strength of character, and he immediately gives her gifts of fine clothes and servants. Bernabò begs for forgiveness, which she graciously offers. Then the Sultan has Ambrogiuolo fixed to a pole, smeared with honey, and left to be devoured by insects. He bestows the deceiver’s wealth on Zinerva along with many presents from his own treasury. When the greatly esteemed Zinerva and her husband return to Genoa, Ambrogiuolo’s bones hang from their post as an ongoing testimony to his wickedness.
Like many of fortune’s playthings, both on Day 2 and throughout The Decameron, fortune doesn’t just restore Zinerva to her former position but elevates her even higher—mostly thanks to her intelligence and noble character. Similarly, Ambrogiuolo not only loses his ill-gotten gains, but is gruesomely executed, bearing the punishment that Bernabò wished to enact on his wife—but which Ambrogiuolo deserved.
Themes
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Intelligence Theme Icon