Everyone praises Filomena’s tale, especially Dioneo, who nevertheless contends that it’s foolish to think that women will forego sex, which his tale will prove while also showing how foolish it is for a man to marry out of his league.
Although Filomena’s tale had a happy ending, Dioneo disagrees with its thesis that women are virtuous—he holds that Bernabò is lucky to have won his bet, not wise. His tale will pick up on the theme of mismatched spouses (Zinerva’s fidelity and intelligence contrasted with her husband’s wrath and gullibility) and also Alatiel’s hyper sex drive.
In Pisa, a wealthy judge named Ricciardo di Chinzica wants a young, beautiful wife, even though he’s brainy, not brawny. His wife, Bartolomea, is pretty and charming—at least by Pisan standards. But just consummating the marriage nearly kills him. Realizing the limits of his sexual capacity, he tries to hide them by adopting a pious observance of sexual abstinence on saint’s days, church holidays, the eves of important saints’ days, Lent, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and certain phases of the moon. They have sex once a month at best. And Ricciardo constantly keeps Bartolomea away from other men.
The mismatched couple at the heart of Dioneo’s tale—an old husband and a young and attractive wife—is a classic setup for a fabliau (a tale of sexual tricks). According to medieval understandings of human physiology—a theory called the “humoral system”— the older a person got, the colder and drier their body became, while sex requires the heat and moisture that characterize the young. The pious observance behind which Ricciardo attempts to hide his sexual inadequacy has some grounding in medieval canon law (church law), which did indeed encourage married couples to abstain from sex during periods of the church year, such as Lent, or on specific holy days and weekdays. Dioneo pokes fun at this calendar, suggesting how infrequently medieval churchgoers probably took it seriously—and he increases the humorous setup by adding extra days (certain moon phases) of abstinence. While excessive sexual desire could be problematic, excessive abstinence is bad in its own way. Old husbands were often satirized in medieval literature for their excessive jealousy (since they didn’t have the sexual capacity to satisfy their wives, they feared rivals), and Ricciardo fulfils this stereotype too, with the close watch and strict rules under which he forces his pretty wife to live.
One hot day, Ricciardo takes Bartolomea and some of her lady-friends on a fishing expedition. They are surprised by Paganino de Mare, a famous pirate, who captures Bartolomea’s boat while Ricciardo makes it safely back to shore. All Ricciardo can think to do is wander through the streets bemoaning the wickedness of piracy.
The separate fishing boats give Bartolomea and her ladies enough room and explain how Paganino can kidnap her so easily from under her jealous husband’s nose. But the gendered segregation of the vessels also points to the lack of physical intimacy between Ricciardo and Bartolomea, seeming to suggest that even being in the same boat together is more intimacy than Ricciardo can handle. His subdued reaction to her loss emphasizes his feebleness: since he can barely muster the energy to have sex with his wife on rare occasions, it makes sense that he hasn’t got enough vigor to rescue her. His ineptitude in the face of the pirate’s bold actions adds to the story’s humor, while also hinting at what Bartolomea will find in Paganino: a satisfactory man.
Paganino, unable to comfort Bartolomea with words, eventually turns to comforting her with deeds—since he’s not the kind of man who follows the church calendar. Bartolomea enjoys his effective (and continual!) consolations, and Paganino treats her like his wife. When Ricciardo discovers they’re living together in Monaco, he goes there to pay whatever ransom is necessary to get Bartolomea back.
Like Alatiel’s lovers (II, 7), when words fail Paganino, he turns to actions. And, because women in The Decameron enjoy sex just as much as men—despite gendered expectations of female chastity—she enjoys her time with the pirate. Dioneo maintains that Paganino treats Bartolomea as a wife in part because he fulfils her sexual needs, because sex is a part of the respect that a husband should have for his spouse. The medieval idea of “marital debt” held that husbands and wives were both responsible to fulfil each other’s sexual needs, something that Ricciardo has utterly failed to do in his marriage.
Paganino and Ricciardo agree that if Paganino’s lover recognizes Ricciardo, Paganino will hand her over. Ricciardo, confident that Bartolomea will of course recognize her beloved husband, is surprised when she ignores him completely. Assuming that his sufferings have made him unrecognizable to her, he reminds her of their fishing expedition and asks why she doesn’t recognize him or the expense of retrieving her.
Bartolomea pretends not to recognize Ricciardo, and his surprise betrays his real inability to recognize his own failings. He misunderstands her and misjudges his own performance. Even while claiming he loves his wife, his complaints about the time and expense of retrieving her make his mission feel more like a business transaction than an act of love, further emphasizing his sexual and romantic inadequacies.
Thinking Bartolomea may be afraid of Paganino, Ricciardo asks to speak to her alone. Bartolomea finally admits that she knows Ricciardo but accuses him of failing to recognize her existence as his wife. He should have known that a young woman has needs more than just clothes and food, even if her modesty won’t let her say so. Her husband shirked his duty to tend her “field” with his excessive calendar. She considers herself blessed to have been given to a man who cares more about hard work than abstaining.
Paganino allows Ricciardo to speak with Bartolomea in private—something that Ricciardo (as a jealous yet underperforming husband) would never have allowed. Clearly, Paganino has nothing to fear from this other man. Bartolomea’s complaints are based on the idea of the marital debt and an understanding that both men and women have sexual needs. She reiterates the idea that even abstinence can become excessive. Her metaphors equate sex with productive labor—an ongoing theme in a book that focuses so intently on trade and the concerns of the merchant class.
Ricciardo can’t understand why Bartolomea would rather live as Paganino’s whore than as his wife, casting away her honor and living in mortal sin because of her immoderate sexual appetite. He promises to do better if she comes home. Bartolomea thinks that her parents neglected her honor when they gave her to a man who couldn’t satisfy her needs. As for living in “mortar sin, it can be pestle sin too!” And anyway, he’s clearly so sickly and dried up that he won’t be able to do any better than he did before.
Ricciardo’s disbelief is based on a traditional understanding of Christian morality that says sex outside of marriage is sinful. Bartolomea rejects this worldview, and although The Decameron operates in the context of a Christian society, it is not overly invested in traditional or legalistic morality; she is not punished for her sins but is instead rewarded with a satisfactory husband. The argument that men and women should enter sexually matched marriages, to avoid sins of the kind into which Bartolomea has fallen, recalls the reasons the Abbot in White gave for fleeing the marriage her father arranged for her and an elderly ally (II, 3). Bartolomea’s malapropism—mishearing “mortal” sin as “mortar” sin—allows Dioneo to insert a joke about sex. A mortar and pestle is a kitchen tool used to crush or grind substances; a “mortar” is a bowl and a “pestle” is a club-shaped object that fits inside it. The action of grinding ingredients recalls vulgar descriptions of the sex act.
Realizing the foolishness of an impotent man taking a young wife, Ricciardo returns to Pisa, goes mad, and wanders the streets saying, “there’s no rest for the bar.” After his death, Paganino and Bartolomea marry and labor daily, regardless of holidays. Based on this example, Dioneo concludes, Bernabò’s faith in his wife may have been rewarded, but he was taking a great risk by believing in her.
Although Ricciardo ultimately realizes his own responsibility for losing Bartolomea to another man, he nevertheless shows ongoing jealousy in his madness. The “bar” is a double entendre: it points to the law that Ricciardo used to practice, but rods and bars bear a physical resemblance to male anatomy, so Ricciardo’s ranting constitutes a complaint about Bartolomea’s limitless sexual appetite, an obsessive jealousy over Paganino’s superior sexual performance, or both. Bartolomea and Paganino also demonstrate the day’s theme—fortunate endings—since they are mutually satisfied with their marriage.