The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 3: First Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Filostrato remarks that there are a lot of ignorant people who think that nuns and peasants don’t have any carnal feelings, even though this would be contrary to nature’s design, as his tale will demonstrate.
Like fortune, in the medieval conception of the world, nature was a semi-deity in charge of procreation. She had a complicated position in the Christian faith, since she was imagined as handmaiden to both Venus (the Roman goddess of love) and God. Nature is thus often used as a way to describe the human sex drive, which—as this tale will show—is more powerful than religious vocation or moralistic laws.
Themes
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A long time ago, there is a convent with a very beautiful garden where eight nuns and their Abbess live. When their gardener quits, he complains to a handsome young peasant named Masetto that the pay was terrible and that the nuns tended to yell at him. Masetto, tingling with desire to live with these nuns, decides to pretend to be a deaf-mute beggar to convince them that he is harmless. The convent’s steward and Abbess, taken in by this trick and appreciating his hard work, quickly hire him.
Not only are gardens appropriate settings for love stories, but they also symbolize female genitalia, and there are certainly sexual overtones to the importance of the garden in drawing Masetto to the convent. Even before Masetto arrives, however, Filostrato starts to drop hints that the nuns aren’t very upright in the sense of traditional Christian morality, such as their rude, impatient treatment of the gardener. Masetto further demonstrates the power of intelligence when he comes up with his clever plan to infiltrate the convent.
Themes
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Masetto plans to tend more than one kind of garden, and because the Abbess thinks he’s “lost his tale as well as his tongue,” she doesn’t pay attention when the nuns (believing he can’t hear them) harass him. 
In case the sexual connotations of the garden weren’t already clear, Filostrato reiterates the connection when Masetto arrives planning to tend to the convent’s garden but also the sexual needs of its residents. This recalls the imagery of sex as productive labor and field cultivation used by Beritola in Dioneo’s last story (II, 10) and is an image he will use again in a later tale (VII, 10). There is no suggestion that the Abbess was foolish to fall for Masetto’s deaf-mute charade, but she does demonstrate a lack of common sense when she seems to assume that losing the use of his tongue has also rendered this handsome young man impotent or harmless.
Themes
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One day, two of the Young Nuns stumble on Masetto pretending to sleep in the garden. The first one, having heard about the pleasures of the flesh, sees an opportunity to experience them herself—despite pledging her virginity to Christ. Masetto can’t tell on her, and she doubts that he’d even understand what was happening, since he’s such a “dim-witted hulk.” Having convinced her companion, the pair lure Masetto to a shed where they take turns keeping watch and testing his “riding ability.”
In the Roman Catholic tradition, nuns were “Brides of Christ,” and the vows they made on entering a convent echoed the wedding ceremony. Nevertheless, these young women still have sexual urges, reminding the audience that the clergy are still human beings and are prone to the same sins and shortcomings as everyone else—although the frequency with which religious figures in The Decameron jump into bed with others is also a part of the book’s anticlerical criticism, showing how the clergy are even less vigorous in holding themselves to the moral standards they represent. The Young Nuns take Masetto to be a peasant or country-bumpkin caricature that emphasizes the difference between his class and theirs—as most nuns would have come from the middle and upper classes of medieval society. But like the Abbess, their assumption that he is harmless because he is lower-class is unfounded, and in truth, although they think they’re coming up with their own clever plan, they are merely fulfilling his. 
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The rest of the Young Nuns eventually discover these goings-on and join the fun, as does the Abbess, who requires Masetto to indulge her with the pleasure she used to condemn most fiercely. 
Although the Abbess’s condemned pleasure isn’t specified, the specific pleasure she derives from indulging in it highlights the hypocrisy of religious figures and criticizes church leaders for enjoying the very things they themselves forbid.
Themes
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Eventually, Masetto becomes so exhausted that he drops the ruse. One night, he “miraculously” recovers his speech and tells the Abbess that while one cock can satisfy ten hens, ten men can barely satisfy one woman, and he himself is responsible for nine.
The day’s theme is those who get what they desire through hard work, and by the time he’s brought all the nuns into his arms, Masetto is certainly working very hard. His exhaustion is understandable, given that he is having sex with all eight of the nuns and the Abbess. But it also draws on misogynistic medieval fears about women’s excessive sexual desire, suggesting that they’d be insatiable no matter how many men were responsible for them.
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Luckily the steward just died, so the Abbess reports Masetto’s miraculous healing to the neighborhood, appoints him the next steward, and he lives at the convent, pleasuring the nuns and fathering their children for many years. He returns to his village as a prosperous old man, rewarded with peace and prosperity for setting a pair of horns on Christ’s head by cuckolding him.
Masetto earned his comfortable position at the convent (as steward and lover) through perseverance and hard work. But his life there is far from traditional standards of morality: not only have the nuns ignored their religious vows of chastity to sleep with Masetto, but they’ve also created what is essentially a polygamous colony together. While this tale might be poking sly fun at the idea of each and every nun as a bride of Christ (how many wives would God thus have?), it's also simply painting an extreme example of the kind of religious hypocrisy that The Decameron consistently mocks as part of its anticlerical satire—instead of being devoted to God, these nuns are devoted to sex and lying to the public about their curious lifestyle.
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Quotes