Panfilo begins his tale with some general comments on fortune, noting that it’s hard for humans to judge their luck. Sometimes poor people acquire wealth only to be murdered, or lowly people gain power only to realize that it comes with endless fear and worry. Others have longed for strength or beauty. But no one is immune to the “accidents of fortune”—especially people who are sinful or prone to excessive desire. Panfilo singles out ladies, who desire to be beautiful and will often go to extreme lengths to improve their looks. As a corrective, he offers the tale of a girl whose extraordinary beauty brought her only ill fortune.
Like Emilia, Panfilo suggests that fortune’s randomness can sometimes intersect with the divine will; in the preface to his tale, he suggests that it can function as punishment for sin and excess. He also explicitly notes that fortune can only be judged by the outcome: sometimes good fortune masquerades as bad fortune and vice versa. However, although the protagonist of his tale is indeed incredibly beautiful, there’s no suggestion that she’s especially vain. Panfilo’s attempt to connect his tale to a larger moral against female vanity hints that his tale will be solidly in the tradition of antifeminist writings.
Alatiel, a daughter of Beminedab, Sultan of Babylonia, is the most beautiful woman on earth in her day. Her father’s ally, the King of Algarve, asks to marry her, and her father puts her along with servants and guards aboard a ship bound for Algarve. Near the end of the voyage, they’re overtaken by a huge storm. On the third day of the storm, the ship begins to founder. The crew—and all the other men aboard—rush onto a smaller boat that ultimately sinks. Only Alatiel and her maids are still aboard when the ship runs aground in Spain.
Importantly to the coming action, Alatiel isn’t a Christian woman, but a Muslim. Like many other women throughout the tales, she becomes an object traded among men when her father offers her as a gift of thanks to his military ally. Sending her on a guarded ship only emphasizes the importance of her chastity in this role. The woman on a rudderless or storm-beset ship is a typical trope in medieval literature, both illustrating the movements of fortune (for example, Beritola’s unfortunate voyage across the Mediterranean in the immediately preceding tale) and also metaphorically suggesting a female tendency towards lawlessness or directionless-ness, which will come to bear on Alatiel’s story shortly.
The next morning, after the storm has passed, Alatiel gathers her maids. The ladies bemoan their plight until midday, when a local nobleman named Pericone da Visalgo passes by. Despite their language barrier, he pities the ladies, retrieving them and their valuables. The quality of their goods demonstrates Alatiel’s nobility. And even though she’s pale and disheveled, her overwhelming beauty immediately inspires Pericone to possess her, if not as his wife then as his mistress. But, despite his handsome figure, she ignores his advances—which only increases his desire.
Alatiel’s great beauty, like fortune, is neither good nor bad. In this moment, it is her salvation, but as Panfilo’s introduction suggested, it can quickly turn into a curse: Pericone’s immediate desire to have sex with her suggests her vulnerability as a single, unprotected woman, especially since he can see from the things she owns that she is a noblewoman (the class whose valuable sexuality usually deserves to be protected in the world of the tales). The language barrier between Alatiel and her rescuer is realistic (at least this early in her sojourn in Europe), one of the countless mundane details that Giovanni Boccaccio includes throughout The Decameron’s tales. However, after living many years in exile, it becomes far less believable that Alatiel would be unable to communicate with anyone. In that respect, the language barrier also functions as a mechanism for objectifying her and reducing her humanity.
Alatiel, recognizing that she’s landed in a Christian country, hides her identity. She instructs her maids to keep her secret and preserve their chastity if they can. Even as she realizes that she won’t be able to evade Pericone’s advances forever, she declares her intention to remain a virgin and submit sexually to no one but her promised husband. The harder Pericone romances her, the more firmly she rejects him, and the hotter his passion burns.
Alatiel, as a Muslim and as a woman, is doubly vulnerable as a castaway in Christian Europe; she is wise to hide her identity from her rescuers. Her value as a female lies in her chaste sexuality, and her initial intent is to cling to her virtue as strongly as any other noble heroine in the tales. But she’s aware that she doesn’t have any real protections, and holding Pericone at bay only serves to whet his appetite.
Understanding that he can’t woo Alatiel with flattery and not wanting to force her, Pericone decides to use trickery. Alatiel (because she is Muslim) is unused to drinking wine, but she has quite a taste for it. So Pericone holds a feast and gets her drunk. After dinner, he follows her to her room, where she undresses and gets into bed. He snuffs the lights, undresses himself, and follows her into bed. Alatiel doesn’t resist his embraces, at first because she is naïve, and then because she enjoys it. It’s almost like she regrets having put Pericone off for so long.
Alatiel’s desire to cling to her chastity doesn’t inspire Pericone with respect; it makes him resort to trickery. Again, her Muslim identity provides a small but realistic detail in the story: since Muslims typically abstain from all alcohol consumption, it makes sense that she’d be uniquely vulnerable to the effects of intoxication. But savoring the wine despite its illicit nature in her religion also suggests that Alatiel may not be as serious about maintaining her chastity as she said she was initially: her immoderate love of wine foreshadows an immoderate desire for sex. In this way, Alatiel confirms misogynistic medieval fears about the excessive lustfulness of women.
Fortune has reduced Alatiel from a king’s bride to a baron’s mistress and is planning to debase her even more. Pericone’s young brother Marato has also fallen in love with Alatiel and thinks that she reciprocates his feelings. He first makes arrangements to sail on a ship bound for Greece, then he and several of his friends kill Pericone in his sleep, kidnap Alatiel, and carry her with more of Pericone’s “most precious possessions” aboard the ship.
In this story, we see fortune’s wheel turning a full revolution: Alatiel was a princess engaged to a ruler, now she’s a baron’s mistress, and she’s about to fall to even lower-class lovers. Like his brother, Marato falls victim to Alatiel’s excessively powerful beauty, which serves as a metaphor for the uncontrollable nature of the sex drive. And, in associating Alatiel herself with Pericone’s other valuable belongings, the tale emphasizes her role as an object to be traded (or stolen) by men and possessed by them, rather than as a human being in her own right.
Initially, this new catastrophe distresses Alatiel greatly, but Marato has the help of “Saint Stiffen-in-the-Hand” and he “consoles” her so pleasantly that she begins to love him and forgets Pericone.
Panfilo jokes that Marato can comfort Alatiel with help from “Saint Stiffen-in-the-Hand”—in other words, by having sex with her. As with her encounters with all the rest of her lovers, Alatiel’s easy acceptance of a new man after he has sex with her represents misogynistic fears about female lustfulness. It doesn’t seem to matter to Alatiel who has her or how he got her, as long as she enjoys having sex with him. Of course, in a tale where she lacks the language to communicate with any of her lovers and where our last insight into her desires was her early insistence that she would remain a virgin—a goal long since lost—Alatiel’s motivations are filtered through Panfilo’s assumptions and broad generalizations. It’s impossible to know how she takes these reversals of fortune and whether she truly enjoys being traded from one lover to the next or not.
Fortune has still more in store: the two Young Masters who own the ship are moved by Alatiel’s beauty as well. Discovering that they both love Alatiel, they plan to share her, as if love were a fungible good like money. When the opportunity arises, they throw an unsuspecting Marato overboard and then rush to comfort Alatiel. But when they disagree about who gets to take her to bed, they pull their daggers. At the end of the fight, one man is dead, and the other is grievously wounded. Alatiel disembarks with the wounded survivor at Corinth.
The Young Masters’ plan to share Alatiel emphasizes her objectified status in this tale. And yet again, her incredible beauty inspires equally excessive behavior in the men around her who murder each other to possess her. Fortune was often portrayed in the Middle Ages as an active agent (for good or bad) in people’s lives—like a demi-goddess. This active interference in people’s lives is the most evident in Panfilo’s tale, in which fortune seems to become Alatiel’s adversary. At this point, it’s worth recalling the ostensible moral of the tale, that women shouldn’t be vain. Panfilo’s advice seems odd set against the details of his tale, in which fortune goes out of its way to toss Alatiel from one man to another and to put her in vulnerable situations: she’s at the mercy of these men and their relatives and is held responsible for their action inspired by her beauty.
At Corinth, the fame of Alatiel’s great beauty reaches the Prince of Morea, who falls in love with her at first sight. Given her circumstances, he sees no reason why he shouldn’t have her, and the wounded Young Master’s family readily turns her over. Recognizing Alatiel’s inherent nobility only further delights the Prince, who treats her with the honor due to a wife, not just as a mistress. Alatiel is relieved to be absolved of responsibility for the Young Masters’ fight and by her improved luck.
The Prince of Morea can’t imagine why he shouldn’t be able to have Alatiel because her series of lovers—starting with Pericone and leading through Marato and the Young Masters—have ruined her virtue and reduced her to a sexual object rather than an independent, autonomous being or a noblewoman whose sexuality has a value. Notwithstanding that he treats her better than a mistress, that’s still all she is to him. Her noble status isn’t enough to overcome assumptions that female worth is tied exclusively to sexuality. Alatiel’s delight in her new lover seems to stem in part from his wealth and nobility—he can keep her in better style than the merchants who last stole her—but also arises out of the relative stability she can find in his home. The Young Masters’ families might hold her accountable for their demise, but she’s absolved of this responsibility when she enters the Prince’s protection.
But the Duke of Athens, a friend of the Prince of Morea, hears about Alatiel’s beauty and decides he must see her himself. After he asks the Prince if she is really that beautiful, the Prince brings his friend to Alatiel’s bedroom so he can show her off. The three sit together, and her beauty speaks even though she still doesn’t know the language. The Duke thinks that looking at her will be enough, but her beauty is powerful enough to poison him through his eyes. He becomes enflamed with passion and decides to take his friend’s “beautiful […] plaything” for himself.
As in all her previous situations, Alatiel is little more than a plaything or precious object to her current lover, and the Prince of Morea signs his own death warrant when he shows her off as if she’s just another one of his many possessions. The Duke of Athens appears to be unaware of how dangerous looking is in medieval conceptions of lovesickness, but a long tradition in literature and medieval medicine links excessive looking at a beautiful woman with the kindling of excessive desire that leads to lovesickness—which can only be cured by possessing the desired woman.
The Duke of Athens devises a cunning plan. With the help of Ciuriaci (the Prince of Morea’s most trusted servant), he enters the Prince’s room at night, stabbing him in the back while he peacefully looks out the window. Then the Duke strangles Ciuriaci and throws master and servant from the window. Alatiel, who slept through the murders, accepts the Duke into her bed thinking that he’s the Prince, and he makes love to her with his hands covered in the Prince’s blood. He takes Alatiel to Athens, leaving her in a splendid palace just outside the city as his mistress.
The antifeminism that suffuses Panfilo’s story comes to the surface again when Alatiel enjoys sex with the Prince’s murderer. And the horror of her endless, excessive sexual appetite is enhanced by the idea that she doesn’t even notice the literal blood on her new lover’s hands. Just as when Pericone tricked her, she doesn’t put up a fight, because according to misogynistic stereotypes, women are not discerning enough about their lovers. Yet, the tale doesn’t fully engage with or account for the fact that she’s tricked and stolen time and again. Her objectified status complicates efforts to paint her as a villain because she enjoys having sex with murderers, since she is never given the opportunity to refuse. In this misogynistic horror story, Alatiel’s overwhelming beauty causes men to lose all sense of virtue and moderation: time and again, brother turns against brother or friend murders friend because of her.
Citizens find the Prince of Morea’s murdered corpse under the window. They assemble an army that sets out toward Athens to avenge him. The Duke of Athens mobilizes his own forces for war, calling on his brother-in-law Constant—who is the son of the Emperor of Constantinople—and Constant’s nephew Manuel. The Duke’s wife complains bitterly to her brother, Constant, about Alatiel, and begs him to fix the situation for her. Constant and Manuel ask the Duke to introduce them to Alatiel, and although he should know how lethal her beauty can be, he prepares a banquet in a beautiful garden so that he can show her off.
Fortune’s campaign against Alatiel has political consequences; the fate of a foreign princess is bound to her captors/rescuers in complicated ways. By now, we have seen the pattern repeat enough times to know what is about to happen: Alatiel’s beauty will overwhelm Constant and he will engage in whatever evil deeds are necessary to take her by force from the Duke; and, since the tale is decidedly antifeminist in its outlook, rather than react with horror, we know Alatiel will simply enjoy having sex with her new lover. Thus, at this point in the narrative, the Duke’s willingness to show off Alatiel feels like a joke. Constant sees Alatiel first in a garden, places which, throughout the tales, represent a break from the cares of the world and which are so often places dedicated to love.
Constant is so overpowered by Alatiel’s beauty that he understands why the Duke of Athens has gone to such great lengths to possess her. Soon he’s so in love with her that he’s lost interest in the war, and while the Duke is with his troops, Constant gives his responsibilities to Manuel, returns to his sister in Athens, and promises to end her husband’s affair. He does this out of lust instead of brotherly love, ultimately kidnapping Alatiel and setting sail for Chios, where he thinks they will be safe from the Duke and his father. Although initially distressed at this new misfortune, Alatiel eventually succumbs to Constant’s charms, and even begins to enjoy this newest gift of fortune.
Even if the audience has become used to the objectification and exchange of Alatiel and to her willingness to forgive her captors as long as they’re good in bed, the misogynistic feeling of the tale is somewhat punctured by the real distress of the Duke’s wife, who wants her husband’s affair to end. Unfortunately, she must rely on the men around her for help, even after all the tale’s men have shown themselves to be powerless to resist Alatiel’s charms. Regardless, Constant’s kidnapping of Alatiel feels even more horrible in that it both shows one sibling betraying another’s trust and shows a man repudiating male bonds of friendship and political alliance. And Alatiel, as before, finds Constant’s sexual prowess so pleasing that she considers him a gift, rather than a punishment, of fortune.
The Turkish King, Uzbek, hears rumors of Constant and his mistress, kidnaps the two from their bed one night, and takes Alatiel as his wife. The Emperor of Constantinople was negotiating an alliance with King Basano against Uzbek, which he formalizes quickly after his son’s kidnapping. Called to war against Basano, Uzbek leaves Alatiel in the care of a trusted advisor named Antioco, who has fallen in love with Alatiel because of her beauty. Antioco speaks her language, and, despite his advanced age, they are soon lovers.
For a second time, Alatiel has become reason for political upheavals. It’s hard at this point to accept Panfilo’s projected moral that the story will correct women’s excessive vanity, since Alatiel has shown no sign of vanity and her beauty seems to have a life and power of its own. It’s so powerful that it can even overcome natural laws. Because Antioco is old, according to medieval medical theories (called humoral medicine), his nature should be impervious to Alatiel’s charms; yet he is not an impotent old man but a lover able to please her endless sexual appetite. It’s also important to note, however, that Antioco is the first lover who seems to care about Alatiel as a person: he is her caretaker for some time before they become lovers, and because he can speak her language, they appear to have an emotional connection, not just a sexual one.
When Basano defeats Uzbek and marches on Turkey, Antioco and Alatiel flee to Rhodes. They are staying with a Cypriot Merchant when Antioco falls ill. On his deathbed, he leaves his possessions to the Merchant, asking him to cherish and take care of Alatiel. A few days later, the Merchant and Alatiel leave for Cyprus, pretending to be married for her protection. Accordingly, they bunk together on the ship and what with one thing and another—the heat, the pleasantly rocking ship, their enforced idleness during the voyage—they soon become lovers, despite the memory of their friend Antioco.
Although his will still seems to group Alatiel in with his other valued possessions, Antioco is the first of Alatiel’s lovers to speak of her with affection instead of just lusting after her sexual charms. It’s notable, in this context, that he dies of natural causes and that no one steals Alatiel from him. Yet, the antifeminist stereotypes of dangerously excessive female lust reappear as soon as Alatiel sets sail for Cyprus, where the attentions of her newest lover make her easily forget her affection for Antioco.
While Alatiel is living as the Merchant’s wife in Cyprus, she encounters a lowly gentleman named Antigono—another one of fortune’s playthings—whom she recognizes from her father’s court at Alexandria. He tells her that her father and her people have thought her dead for many years. Alatiel replies that drowning would have been preferable to her “appalling misfortunes.” When she describes them to Antigono, he weeps for pity. And he assures her that because she concealed her identity, she can be restored to her rightful position.
In meeting Antigono, Alatiel finally has a non-sexual encounter with a man, but because of her gender, she is still dependent on his male help and support. As in many of the tales’ other examples of fortune’s schemes, the good and bad fortune of Alatiel and Antigono are tied together. Restoring her to her family also offers a means for him to improve his own lackluster fortune. He also provides a reminder that fortune has a will of its own—he has been sidelined and underappreciated through no fault of his own, since he has served his king well. It’s also notable that, near the end of her story, Alatiel once again has a voice and she belies Panfilo’s continual characterization of her excessive sexuality by calling her adventures “appalling misfortunes,” showing how little she has truly appreciated what has happened to her.
Antigono arranges Alatiel’s triumphant return to Egypt. To account for her absence, she tells her father that after the shipwreck she was taken in by a convent of nuns devoted to “Saint Stiffen-in-the-Hollows.” Hiding her identity on account of her religion, once she could communicate in their language, she claimed to be the daughter of a Cypriot nobleman. Eventually, the Abbess sent her “home” under the protection of some relatives. At the harbor, her identity was protected when she happened to see Antigono, who went along with her ruse that he was her father. Then he helped her return home. Antigono adds that Alatiel’s chaperones praised her excellence and virtue in the convent and while traveling.
The story that Antigono and Alatiel tell her father bears sly hints as to what truly happened in her time away—for example, this reference to a St. Stiffen that seems remarkably like the saint that came to Marato’s aid earlier. The devotion of the fictional nuns to this saint also provides a sliver of anticlerical satire in the midst of the tale. But this version can be understood as the fantasy of how she would have liked her exile to go. In this story, Alatiel is protected by women rather than being victimized by men, thus keeping her chastity intact, as she indicated she wanted to do early on. And she learns to speak the language, which allows her to advocate for herself and become an active agent in her return, rather than fortune’s passive plaything.
The delighted Beminedab rewards Antigono and reestablishes Alatiel’s betrothal to the King of Algarve. And somehow, even though she’s had thousands of sexual encounters with her eight lovers, Alatiel enters his bed as if she were a virgin, ultimately convincing him that she is. She thus proves the proverb that a kissed mouth turns up new again like the moon.
The story ends on an antifeminist note that plays on the fear of female sexual freedom: somehow, Alatiel uses her feminine wiles to convince her new husband that she’s a virgin even though she’s had a cornucopia of sexual experiences already.