Neifile’s turn comes next, since Dioneo has the privilege of going last. Protesting how hard it will be to follow up Lauretta’s entertaining tale, she offers her own “for what it is worth.”
Throughout The Decameron, Neifile is characterized by her modesty, as when she downplays her tale in introducing it.
The invalid Count of Roussillon keeps a doctor called Gerard of Narbonne as a member of his household staff. Gerard’s daughter Gilette grows up alongside the Count’s son Bertrand. When the Count dies, his son goes to the king’s court to be fostered. This breaks Gilette’s heart, since she has fallen head-over-heels in love with Bertrand, despite her tender age.
Via several intermediary translations of Giovanni Boccaccio’s work—first into French and then into English—Shakespeare adapted the premise of this tale for his play All’s Well That Ends Well. Although Gilette and Bertrand grow up together, he is the son of a nobleman, and she is the daughter of a doctor—a middle-class occupation. Thus, Gilette’s love is precarious, since it crosses class lines.
Gilette’s love doesn’t diminish as she grows up, burning even hotter when she reaches a marriageable age. Learning that the king suffers from a painful fistula that no one can cure (but which she knows how to treat), she sees a chance to win Bertrand’s hand in marriage. The king, after many painful attempts, has given up on treatments, but he can’t refuse the charming and beautiful Gilette. Because he doesn’t take her seriously, he promises to find her a “fine and noble” husband if she cures him. Gilette extracts a promise that she can pick the man as long as he’s not royal.
Gilette possesses two of The Decameron’s highest virtues: intelligence—demonstrated by understanding her father’s craft well enough to practice medicine herself—and steadfast love for Bertrand that is not stinted by time or distance. However, she is disadvantaged by gender and class. Although her father was a famous physician, the king can only see a pretty face, not a competent healer—even though there were several famous and successful female physicians in the Middle Ages. And her promise to the king emphasizes her bourgeoise status—aspiring to royalty would be aiming too far. In the beginning of the tale, Gilette is constrained by a definition of worth that looks at social class and wealth, not personal character.
Gilette heals the king and asks for Bertrand as her husband. Bertrand is unwilling and indignant because Gilette is a “she-doctor” and her family is beneath “his own noble ancestry,” but the king is unwilling to break his promise and compels him. He swears he will never “rest content” with the marriage, despite royal assurances that she is “beautiful, intelligent…deeply in love” and a better match than many a loftier lady.
Bertrand’s reaction betrays his rigid understanding of gender and class: instead of being impressed by Gilette’s intelligence and her medical skill, he’s bothered that she’s practicing an occupation reserved for men. And instead of remembering how well her father cared for his own—the fact that Gilette was raised among the noble children in the household suggests that the old Count respected his doctor, despite their class difference—he would rather lose his wealth than marry a bourgeoise (if wealthy) wife. However, at this point, the king is starting to see the strength of Gilette’s character and realizes that she’s a better catch than many a girl with a better pedigree.
Compelled to marry Gilette, Bertrand refuses to consummate the marriage except in Roussillon, and he avoids returning by offering to help the Florentines in a war against Siena. An unhappy Gilette arrives alone in Roussillon, where she restores order to Bertrand’s neglected estates, thus winning his subjects’ love. When she informs her husband of her achievements, he sends a message saying that he will never live with her unless she first wears his favorite ring on her finger and carries his child in her arms.
Although Bertrand can’t—or won’t —acknowledge Gilette’s worth, she possesses both steadfast love and steady intelligence. Despite his alleged superiority thanks to his class, Bertrand’s land is in chaos and confusion thanks to his extended absence. When Gilette restores moderation and order, she earns the love of her subjects and demonstrates that she has the skills and knowledge necessary to make a good wife and Countess alongside Bertrand. Her subjects recognize her value even if her husband can’t see past her allegedly humble origins.
Although she is initially dismayed, Gilette sets about winning her husband back. Reminding his subjects of her hard work on their account and her husband’s coldness, she tells them that she has decided to spend the rest of her life as a pilgrim in exile so that Bertrand can return. Despite their pleas for her to stay, she dresses in pilgrim’s garb, takes an ample supply of money, and departs for Florence.
In contrast to her vain and easily agitated husband, Gilette is strong and composed, not to mention clever—a wife that anyone should be proud to have. In the face of his ongoing repudiation, she doesn’t despair but instead decides to match wits with him and figure out a way to earn his love. In her eventual success, she will prove The Decameron’s thesis that nobility is better found in character than in wealth or status.
In Florence, Gilette soon catches sight of Bertrand. Her innkeeper explains that he is an affable gentleman who is hopelessly in love with the daughter of a noblewoman who has fallen into poverty but still protects her daughter’s honor. Gilette ingratiates herself with the Impoverished Noblewoman, promising that if they work together, they can overcome their ill fortune and be restored. She reveals her identity and offers to pay the daughter’s dowery if they will help her.
Bertrand’s love interest, noble in title but impoverished, is the opposite of Gilette, who was wealthy but bourgeoise before their marriage. In paying attention to this new girl, Bertrand shows the consistency of his views—even if he is valuing the wrong indicators of worth. However, because he’s already married, the only relationship Bertrand could have with this girl—his social equal—is an illicit one that would ruin her reputation, which suggests that his values aren’t entirely consistent. In this way, despite his noble title, he is inferior to Gilette, who demonstrates constancy and intelligence. The proposal Gilette makes to the Impoverished Noblewoman is yet another example of fortune’s machinations. Although all three women have been turned to the bottom of fortune’s wheel, by working together they can rise up once again.
Gilette wants the Impoverished Noblewoman to send a messenger to Bertrand saying that her daughter is ready to become his lover, but first she wants his ring as a gift. Once Gilette has it, she wants the Noblewoman to secretly invite him to sleep with her daughter, but to substitute Gilette (who needs to become pregnant). Because any hint of sexual involvement with Bertrand will ruin her daughter’s reputation, the Noblewoman is wary. But believing it to be noble and correct to help Gilette retrieve her husband, she agrees to participate.
As women, the reputations of both Gilette and the girl are subject to their sexual experience: the girl must preserve her virginal reputation at all costs, while Gilette must find a way to get pregnant to ensure her place at Bertrand’s side. It’s risky for Gilette because it’s her only path to regaining her husband, and it’s risky to the girl because marriage to a wealthy man is her only path out of poverty. Gilette has the Impoverished Noblewoman demand Bertrand’s precious ring as a lover’s token—a valuable gift that confirms his intentions—so that she can fulfil the first of his conditions. But as a lover’s token, it also functions to create a bond of obligation between Bertrand and his love interest: since he has given her a gift, he expects her to have sex with him. Finally, it’s notable that Gilette employs a switched-lover ploy, which also featured in Fiammetta’s Day 3 tale of Catella (III, 5), but whereas in Fiammetta’s tale the trick was played in bad faith on a faithful wife, this time it is played for upright reasons by the faithful wife.
Bertrand falls for their plan, and contentedly sleeps with Gilette—thinking her to be the Impoverished Noblewoman’s daughter—many times. Once she realizes that she’s become pregnant, Gilette gives the Noblewoman a generous gift of thanks and then returns to her inn, where she stays until she gives birth to twin sons who are the exact image of their father. Meanwhile, Bertrand returns to Roussillon.
Bertrand’s delight in the affair he thinks is with the girl but is actually with his wife emphasizes how silly and shallow his repudiation of Gilette was: they have a shared upbringing, she’s charming and intelligent, she has shown her capacity for leadership of his lands, and they’re erotically well-matched; the only thing that separates them is his noble title and her comparatively humble roots. This encapsulates The Decameron’s argument that nobility and the value of personal character always show whether someone is rich or poor.
After their babies are born, Gilette secretly returns to Roussillon just in time for a great feast. Wearing the ring and carrying his children, she enters Bertrand’s palace and throws herself at his feet. She tells her story, and he is so impressed with their children’s beauty and with her persistence and intelligence that he not only honors his promise to accept her as his wife but does so willingly, and with great affection. From that day forward, he “loved her and held her in the greatest esteem.”
In the end, fortune not only restores Gilette to her husband’s side but elevates her beyond her initial position, since Bertrand finally loves and esteems her as an intelligent, faithful, and persistent wife. Notably, her character hasn’t changed throughout the tale; only his ability to see it and to understand its value has.