The entire company listens to Fiammetta’s tale with uproarious laughter. Emilia assures her companions that the happy ending of her story will contrast with the unbelievably “intense and protracted” sufferings that arise from fortune’s “erratic course.”
In contrast to the previous few tales, Emilia’s has a much more serious, even tragic, tone. She thus reminds her companions (and readers) that the twists and turns of fortune aren’t always humorous.
Arrighetto Capece is an esteemed courtier of the Sicilian King Manfred. He has a lovely and aristocratic wife, Beritola Caracciolo, and a son named Guisfredi. When Manfred dies in battle with King Charles, Arrighetto prepares to flee, but he is captured before he can get his family to safety. Fearing the worst, a pregnant Beritola flees with Guisfredi, giving birth in exile to a son whom she names The Outcast. She hires a nurse and books passage on a ship to return to her family in Naples.
As in other tales, social and political upheavals of the late 13th and early 14th centuries provide context for this tale. One’s personal fortune is dependent on uncontrollable factors, such as which political party or king is in ascendency.
Extreme winds force the ship to shelter behind an island for several days. Beritola finds an isolated cave where she can privately grieve her ill fortune each day. While she is crying in the cave, pirates capture Guisfredi, The Outcast, and their nurse along with her ship, and Beritola finds herself alone. Abandoned, anguished, and afraid, after a day she is reduced to eating grass like an animal. While foraging, she encounters a female deer who leads her to the cave where her two little male fawns lie. Beritola nurses them, and the deer come to accept her companionship.
The fortunes of Beritola and her sons—as Emilia promised—go from bad to worse. The children are captured by pirates and Beritola is forced into an animalistic struggle for survival. But she demonstrates her feminine compassion and noble character when she nurses the fawns despite her own desperate straits. The doe and fawns clearly represent Beritola and her own children, and nursing the fawns not only allows her to act on her maternal instincts but suggests enough hope to keep her alive until she and her family can be reunited.
After several months, a ship carrying Currado Malespina and his wife is also driven to shelter at the island. When Currado’s dogs catch the young bucks’ scent and chase them to their cave, Beritola chases them away with a stick. Finding a noblewoman on the island greatly surprises Currado and his wife, who coax Beritola into telling her sad story. Currado’s wife ultimately convinces Beritola to leave with them, and they bring her three deer companions along. Beritola assumes the name “Cavriuola” and lives a quiet life as a lady-in-waiting to Lady Malespina.
Currado Malespina’s landfall on the same island is the first sign of Beritola’s improving fortune—but it’s also a realistic detail that suggests the vagaries of travel on the Mediterranean in the 13th century. It seems like ships are regularly driven aground on this island. Beritola’s desire to stay communicates her distress at the horrific loss of her entire family. But staying would be denying her improving fortunes. And in the arena of gender, Currado can’t convince Beritola to change her mind, and his wife must use emotional appeals to convince her to leave.
In the meantime, Beritola’s sons and their nurse are handed over to a Genoese merchant-pirate named Guasparrino d’Oria, who puts them to work as domestic slaves. The clever nurse, worried that the boys will be harmed if their identities are revealed (and hoping that fortune might eventually relent), begins to call Guisfredi “Giannotto” (The Outcast gets to keep his name). Guisfredi (Giannotto) finds servitude distasteful and after several years he runs away and becomes a sailor. Eventually, he finds employment with Currado.
As elsewhere in The Decameron, the Genoese are associated with piracy. Religious and civil laws forbade Christians from enslaving other Christians, but Guasparrino doesn’t seem to be bothered by forcing Guisfredi and The Outcast to serve him (their situation can be compared to Teodoro, also kidnapped and sold into slavery, in V, 7). Guisfredi’s noble temperament chafes under the bondage of slavery. His escape and subsequent success as a sailor and a gentleman’s servant demonstrate that this nobility of character can’t be destroyed by the accidents of fortune, even being forced into slavery. The nurse also demonstrates considerable sense, despite her lowly social status. In terms of the luck and chances blind fortune offers and withholds, many chance encounters in the several years of his exile bring Guisfredi into position for his bad fortune to be reversed.
While Guisfredi (Giannotto) serves Currado, he falls in love with Currado’s daughter Spina. The intensity of their love overpowers caution, and one day her parents catch them making love in the forest. Dismayed by his daughter’s dishonor, Currado plans to execute them both. Although his wife counsels mercy and convinces him to spare their lives, he imprisons them and makes their existence full of sorrow, starvation, and loneliness.
Currado’s murderous anger at finding his daughter having sex with a servant has both gendered and class triggers: patriarchal control of female sexuality places a high importance on women’s chastity and Currado doesn’t value his daughter as highly if she’s no longer a virgin. And, her sleeping with Guisfredi—whose servile position seems to show that he is a member of a much lower social class than her own— is worse, because the infraction can’t be remedied by a speedy marriage. Fortunately, Currado’s wife—following medieval associations of women and pity—is able to convince her husband to choose mercy instead of vengeance. However, in fortune’s game, often long-term good luck is temporarily disguised as bad luck, and on a day devoted to happy, fortunate endings, the tale’s audience is wise to remember that Guisfredi and Spina’s luck is likely to change, despite its current horrors.
While Guisfredi (Giannotto) languishes in prison, the political winds shift. On hearing that King Charles has been expelled from Sicily, he complains to his guards that this good news comes too late since he is held captive. They wonder how the affairs of kings could possibly matter to a servant, and Guisfredi (Giannotto) reveals his true identity, now that his father’s enemy has been ousted. A guard carries this information to Currado, who confirms the story with Beritola—without revealing the source of his information. Currado then realizes that he can salvage his honor (and Spina’s) by marrying her to her lover.
Guisfredi’s fortunes—and those of the rest of his family—are beginning to shift, but their eventual good luck is still concealed by bad luck, since the change in political fortunes seems to have come too late to save any of them. Currado’s caginess with Beritola (and everyone else) serves to increase the drama of the tale, and deliver the emotional catharsis Emilia promised at the outset. The revelation of Guisfredi not only solves the riddle of his noble character (despite his evidently lowly social status) but also means that Currado can repair the damage to Spina’s honor—and by extension, his own—with a legal marriage between his daughter and another nobleman’s son.
Currado visits Guisfredi (Giannotto) to complain about his dishonorable actions with Spina. But since he has learned that Guisfredi (Giannotto) is a “man of gentle birth,” he offers the chance to turn their “dishonorable friendship into an honorable marriage.” Although this is exactly what the young man wants (since he’s still deeply in love with Spina), he won’t allow such remarks against his character to stand. He defends himself, swearing that his love for Spina was pure, unmotivated by desire for power or riches. Any impropriety was the fault of his youth, and he reminds Currado that he was once young, too. He says that he would have asked for Spina’s hand in marriage honorably if he had thought that Currado would have consented. The noble sentiments Guisfredi (Giannotto) expresses in self-defense only make Currado respect him more.
The tense conversation between Guisfredi and Currado illustrates class and gender-based tensions in the tale—and in broader medieval culture. Guisfredi’s impassioned defense of himself shows that class isn’t just a matter of wealth and status, but also of character. Loving Spina purely, without desire to enrich himself or improve his fortunes, demonstrates that he retained his noble and generous character even in forced slavery and later in servitude. The shifting of fortune is offering Guisfredi everything he wants—restoration of his name, his wealth, and marriage to the woman he loves—but he won’t compromise or endanger his personal honor and worth over it. And it works: his future father-in-law is impressed by his fortitude and honor. His reminder that Currado was young once, too, points to the sexual double standard that calls for female chastity but excuses young men from playing around sexually.
Currado sets the stage for reunion. He asks Cavriuola (Beritola) if she’d like Guisfredi back and Spina as a daughter-in-law. Then he asks his wife if she’d like Guisfredi as a son-in-law. Of course, neither would object. Similarly, Guisfredi (Giannotto) tells Currado he would like his mother back, but he can’t imagine that she survived her terrible misfortunes. He and Beritola didn’t recognize each other in Currado’s home, but when Currado presents the bride and groom, Beritola can now see that the servant she knew as “Giannotto” is her son, and Guisfredi recognizes his mother. The two reunite tearfully.
Beritola and Guisfredi somehow instantly recognize each other now, despite not being able to during the whole time they were together in Currado’s home. This seems to be the work of fortune, which clouded their awareness when their luck was low, and clears it now that their luck is again climbing. The marriage of Spina and Guisfredi will confirm the friendship between Currado’s Wife and Beritola, whose life she once saved through her compassion and kindness.
Guisfredi asks Currado to retrieve The Outcast from Guasparrino. While he is initially reluctant to believe that his lowly slave is a noble, once Guasparrino verifies the truth he is ashamed by his contemptuous treatment of The Outcast. To make amends—and because Arrighetto is a well-connected man—he offers The Outcast his own daughter as a wife. Guasparrino’s party arrives at Guisfredi’s wedding along with the happy news that Arrighetto has survived and is now in possession of his old land and titles.
Guasparrino’s initial refusal to recognize The Outcast as a nobleman emphasizes the rigidity of class lines: noblemen weren’t slaves, so it’s just about impossible to imagine that a slave could be a person with any social worth. Yet, he’s wrong, and other tales (specifically V, 7) will also feature noblemen illegally sold into slavery. However, once he’s realized his mistake, Guasparrino works quickly to make amends and protect himself from punishment or retribution. Offering his daughter both assuages his guilt and creates a protective kinship tie. It’s also a very clear example of female objectification: his nameless daughter is a thing given from one man to another.
After the wedding, Beritola, Guisfredi, Spina, The Outcast, his wife, and the nurse sail back to Sicily under favorable winds, where Arrighetto greets them with exceptional joy. As far as anyone knows, they live long, happy, and peaceful lives, always grateful for the blessings God has bestowed on them.
The end of Emilia’s tale suggests a relationship between divine intervention and fortune, which is also hinted at in other tales. However, The Decameron avoids offering a singular view of fortune, and while God might have used the changing fortunes of Arrighetto and his family to bless them with wealth and power, it’s not necessarily a sign that all fortune—good or bad—is divinely intended. Fortune can work with God’s purposes, but it doesn’t always.