While everyone is laughing at Rinaldo’s good fortune (and the Lady’s!) Pampinea prepares to tell her tale, which will illustrate how inscrutable fortune’s motives are. She introduces Lamberto, Tebaldo, and Agolante, the sons of a rich Florentine merchant. Their father dies while they are still teenagers, and they quickly waste their inheritance in a “reckless orgy of spending.” To pay their debts, they first pawn and then sell everything they own. Finally, their destitution forces them to emigrate to England. They start moneylending and quickly rebuild their fortune.
Although no one will acknowledge openly the Lady’s luck—because of gendered expectations for female chastity—everyone in the brigata recognizes it. To balance out a tale in which rewards and punishments perhaps seemed to fall too neatly where they were deserved, Pampinea’s tale will illustrate how fortune can overrule the good or bad choices people make. The reckless orgy of spending in which Lamberto, Tebaldo, and Agolante waste their inheritance shows the dangers of immoderation, but their punishment for their recklessness is temporary, and fortune blesses their moneylending business. It’s important to note that they go to England to lend money there, in keeping with the international and marginalized role of moneylenders in medieval Europe—moneylenders were usually outsiders in a community, since charging interest on loans made to one’s friends and neighbors was considered inappropriate if not sinful. This story also betrays a bourgeoise attitude towards money and the upward mobility of the merchant and business classes in medieval Europe: the brothers are sober and business-like while earning their money, but they don’t know how to handle it when they have achieved great wealth.
The brothers return to Florence but send their nephew Alessandro to England to continue running the moneylending business. In Florence, they resume their extravagant lives, paying their expenses with their English moneylending profits. But when civil war divides England, Alessandro loses control of their assets, the income dries up, and the brothers lose their property again. They are thrown into debtors’ prison while their wives and children fall into poverty.
Fortune’s wheel continues to spin for these brothers and their family—Alessandro’s success in England increases their wealth, but an unexpected civil war demolishes it again. The brothers, who didn’t learn from their first experience of spending beyond their means, are once again not only impoverished but thrown into debtors’ prison.
Several years into the war, Alessandro decides to go home. Not far into his journey, he meets with a large group of travelers, including an Abbot in White and two knights whom he happens to know. They invite him to join their traveling company, as they go with the Abbot to Rome. Because he is so young, the Abbot must ask special permission from the Pope to run a monastery.
The abbot’s white outfit indicates that he belongs to the Cistercian Order—a group of monks associated with austerity, humility, and which generally received much less anticlerical ire than other orders like the Franciscans or Dominicans. Like Rinaldo (II, 2), Alessandro knows it’s better to travel in a company to protect himself from highway robbers, and falling in with this well-armed group of travelers heading in the same direction as himself (back to Italy) represents a stroke of good fortune.
As they travel, the Abbot in White and Alessandro become friendly. The Abbot finds Alessandro to be the most handsome and agreeable person he’s ever met. Alessandro’s history fills the Abbot with pity, and he assures Alessandro that God will restore to him the wealth that fortune has stolen.
In medieval literature, pity is a strongly gendered trait associated with women, and the Abbot’s pity is a hint that his identity is not exactly as it appears. However, at this point, the primary force of attraction between Alessandro and the Abbot is a shared nobility of character: they enjoy talking together on the road. When the Abbot promises Alessandro that his fortunes will be restored, it seems to indicate some knowledge that remains hidden from Alessandro and the readers. A connection between fortune and divine providence is sometimes made throughout The Decameron and can be found in other medieval writings. But, as this day’s tales will show, fortune just as frequently has nothing to do with just deserts or Divine will.
After a few days, they arrive at a small town. Alessandro finds everyone a room at the local inns, but the only space available to him is the Abbot in White’s closet. Having overheard the innkeeper telling Alessandro to sleep in the closet, the Abbot invites him into the bed instead. The Abbot caresses Alessandro intimately, and just as Alessandro starts to worry about the Abbot’s impure sexual desires, he undresses and puts Alessandro’s hand on “his” breasts, revealing that he is a disguised woman.
Pampinea’s tale plays with anticlerical opinions and fears that monks—living in gender-segregated communities—were prone to homosexuality. However, the bed games merely serve as the device to reveal the Abbot’s secret—“he” is a woman in disguise. This revelation diffuses the potentially uncomfortable sexual tension that appeared to be building between the companions on the road, and explains the Abbot’s attraction to Alessandro. Women disguised as monks were a literary trope—and occasionally a historically attested occurrence—throughout the Middle Ages.
Realizing that his beloved friend is a woman, Alessandro quickly embraces her. The Abbot in White stops him because she’s a virgin. She feels that fortune sent Alessandro to her, so she confesses her love and offers herself as his wife. He doesn’t know her identity, but he surmises that she’s rich and noble from the number of people traveling with her, so he quickly agrees. The two exchange vows and rings, then spend the rest of the night sporting in bed.
Despite her attraction to Alessandro, the Abbot isn’t one of those women prone to give in easily to the temptations of the flesh: she’s a virgin and a woman of character who insists that she won’t sleep with Alessandro unless they’re married. Again, she drops a hint here about her true identity that Alessandro and the audience must wait to see fully explained later in the tale. Despite her virtue, the evident strength of character it takes to disguise herself as a man to undertake a difficult and dangerous journey to Rome, and her declaration of personal agency in proposing marriage to Alessandro, it’s notable that she doesn’t ever get her own proper name but remains “the Abbot” and the “lady” throughout, which seems to indicate that her individuality is less important than his. It’s also important to note that the exchange of rings and vows, even without witnesses, would have constituted a legally and morally binding marriage according to medieval civil and religious law.
When the group arrives in Rome, the Abbot in White reveals herself to the Pope as the English King’s daughter. She was supposed to secure his blessing for her marriage to the King of Scotland, but she ran away to avoid that marriage. The Scottish king is old, and she worries that being the young bride of an old man is a setup for falling into adultery. In any case, she found her ideal husband in Alessandro (even if he isn’t royalty), and she asks the Pope to officially bless the marriage they contracted secretly.
The marriage which the English princess wished to avoid, between an older man and a younger woman, is frequently the set-up for either tremendous unhappiness or adulterous hijinks in medieval literature. While her concern over the potential for falling into adultery reflects the misogynistic fears about female lustfulness, it is also based on a medieval acceptance of the sexual drive as a natural part of human nature—she imagines cheating not because her husband is old, per se, but because he can’t fulfill her sexual needs. Medieval concepts of married sex were based on the idea of the “marital debt”—husbands and wives were both responsible to fulfill each other’s sexual needs. In averting this potentially disastrous marriage, fortune has blessed the princess almost as much as it has blessed Alessandro, by raising him from the reviled bourgeoise profession of moneylending to the level of royalty.
Alessandro is delighted to discover that the Abbot in White is a princess, but the two knights with whom they travelled are less pleased. The Pope must intervene to prevent them from killing the couple. The Pope is also surprised—both by the princess’s disguise and by her request—but he nevertheless arranges a splendid wedding ceremony. As a bridegroom, Alessandro is so handsome and fine that he looks more like a prince than a moneylender.
Although Alessandro and the Abbot are legally married and they only ask the pope to publicly confirm and bless their union, the knights’ angry reaction demonstrates the vulnerability of women due to concerns about gender and class in medieval society. The knights want to kill Alessandro for taking advantage of the princess, and they want to kill her for allowing her honor to be besmirched by marrying both a foreigner and someone so far below her own social status.
Alessandro and the former Abbot in White leave Rome and return to Florence, where the lady pays off his uncles’ debts and reestablishes their riches. The couple is honorably received by the King of France before returning to England, where Alessandro is welcomed as a worthy son-in-law and given a noble title. Because of his personal virtues, Alessandro wins over the entire British people, and he later conquers Scotland and is crowned its king.
In this tale, fortune not only restores but elevates both those who deserve it (sober, careful Alessandro and his lady) and those who don’t (Alessandro’s spendthrift uncles). Alessandro’s elevation to royalty demonstrates The Decameron’s ongoing argument that character—rather than external markers like status or wealth—determines the value of a person. Alessandro, because he was a moderate and sensible businessman, a fittingly noble companion for a princess, and a circumspect secret husband, deserved to be recognized for his noble qualities.