Elissa prefaces her tale with a moral, reminding her listeners against the arrogance of assuming that one knows a lot while everyone else knows nothing—a belief that can backfire when other people are clever.
Elissa’s story on Day 3 features a person who thinks he’s very intelligent getting his comeuppance when he encounters someone cleverer than he himself is—almost like a rehashing of Pampinea’s story about the equally matched King Agilulf and his wife’s Groom (III, 2). It will demonstrate the perseverance of the second man, in alignment with the day’s theme, but it also previews the theme of Day VI, when Elissa is sovereign—clever answers, retorts, and ripostes.
Francesco Vergellesi is wealthy, shrewd, and arrogant. When he is appointed Governor of Milan, he finds himself in need of a horse grand enough to match his title. The only suitable horse happens to belong to a man of humble birth called Zima (“The Dandy”). Zima loves Francesco’s Wife, and Francesco thinks he can leverage this to get the horse for free.
Francesco clearly thinks highly of himself, and although his social status and wealth support his arrogance, his lack of a suitable horse shows that even the most wealthy and powerful men are sometimes subject to limits. But instead of taking this as a lesson in humility, he believes that he can manipulate Zima—one of his social inferiors—into giving him for free that which he could buy if he weren’t a miser. His stinginess is a form of excess for which he will be rebuked in the tale. Each man has something the other wants, and while Francesco demonstrates greed and stinginess, Zima’s willingness to give the horse up for free indicates his generosity—and inherent nobility of spirit in contrast to the wealthier man.
In exchange for the horse, Zima asks Francesco for permission to speak a few words in private to his wife. Francesco readily agrees but forbids his wife from replying in any way. Although Francesco’s Wife resents this arrangement, she has no choice but to comply. Taking her to the side, Zima embarks on a lengthy speech outlining his feelings in the tradition of fin’amors. He speaks of his suffering and submits himself to her possession, begging her to take pity on him.
Despite his humble origins, Zima is well-versed in the tropes and traditions of fin’amors or refined love—sometimes called “courtly love” for its association with the aristocratic classes. In nobility of spirit he is thus at least Francesco’s equal, if not his better; in intelligence he is clearly superior, since he finds a way to subvert Francesco’s attempt to limit his communication (or plan an affair) with the woman he loves. Francesco’s Wife, however, is a pawn in play between the two men, reduced to an object that her husband can trade for what he really wants—a fine new horse.
Previously, Francesco’s Wife has never appreciated Zima’s advances, but in listening to his speech, she is moved to love and, although she remains silent, she can’t suppress a tiny sigh. When Zima realizes that something is preventing her from saying what she obviously wishes to, he assumes her voice and replies to himself, promising to consummate their love after Francesco leaves for Milan and explaining how they’ll conduct their affair. Zima then resumes his own voice, thanking his lady for her kindness and generosity and promising his eternal gratitude.
Although she initially participated in the audience with Zima grudgingly, Francesco’s Wife responds favorably to his speech now, because his performance of aristocratic love has elevated him in her opinion. It also suggests that she responds favorably to a man who is far cleverer than her husband. Her sighs—a characteristic sign of love in medieval literature—are at least as effective in communicating her feelings as words would have been, and they allow her to “talk” with Zima without disobeying her husband’s orders.
After Zima leaves Francesco’s Wife, he complains to Francesco that he may as well have been talking to a statue. Francesco is pleased with his wife’s obedience. After Francesco leaves for Milan, his Wife asks herself why she’s wasting her youth and decides to enjoy herself with Zima. She follows his plan to the letter, and he happily comes to her. Kissing “a hundred thousand times,” they go directly to bed to enjoy “exquisite pleasure."
In making Francesco believe that his strategy has worked, and that Zima’s advances have indeed been frustrated, Zima displays his superior intelligence. Francesco’s Wife may have obeyed his orders in letter, but her sighs mean that she disobeyed in spirit. But by letting Francesco believe in her obedience, Zima also adds a layer of protection to their eventual affair—Francesco will henceforth suspect nothing of the two, since he thinks his trust in his wife has been confirmed. The argument Francesco’s Wife has with herself illustrates the “carpe diem” or “seize the day” literary trope, where the advent of old age is used as an incentive to enjoy love in the present moment.