Emilia, the next narrator, tells the story of Tedaldo degli Elisei, who has an affair with Ermellina, the wife of Aldobrandino Palermini. But one day, fortune decrees herself Tedaldo’s enemy, and Ermellina spurns him without explanation. After trying and failing to regain her love, Tedaldo secretly flees Florence. Eventually, he lands in Cyprus, where he becomes a rich and successful merchant.
Thus far, sexual and romantic fidelity have been a concern for the tales within marriage, but in the context of fin’amors (refined loving), lovers were bound by ties of affection at least as strong, if not stronger, than wedding vows—which is why Tedaldo can’t stop loving Ermellina even after she dumps him. From his perspective, there’s no reason for her to have done this, so he understands her changed attitude as a downturn of fortune’s wheel.
But when Tedaldo hears a song that he composed for Ermellina, he remembers his undaunted love for her and decides to return to Florence disguised as a pilgrim. There, he finds her home locked up tight and all his brothers in mourning. A neighbor tells him that Tedaldo degli Elisei was recently murdered and Aldobrandino has been convicted of the crime.
When Tedaldo hears the song he wrote for Ermellina, it just confirms that he can’t run away from his love, because a true lover never stops loving his beloved. And if he thought that fortune intervened to change Ermellina’s attitude before, now it’s even clearer that outside forces are at work, since his lover’s husband stands accused of an impossible crime—murdering Tedaldo.
Tedaldo’s shock prevents him from sleeping that night, and he hears footsteps on the roof. Peeping through a crack in his door, he overhears three men and a woman whispering about Aldobrandino’s conviction, which will allow them to get away with Tedaldo’s murder. Understanding that Aldobrandino has been falsely accused and convicted with fabricated evidence, Tedaldo hatches a plan to save him and reveal the truth.
It's a mark of Tedaldo’s character—and his devotion to the truth—that he’s willing to help save his lover’s husband. While this strikes modern sensibilities oddly—why would he help a man who is, essentially, his rival?—the complex codes and traditions of fin’amors (refined loving) as they had developed by the 14th century really only condemned husbands who interfered in love affairs. In a society where many aristocratic people were married based on convenience or alliances, love matches were often imagined as happening outside of marriage, and fin’amors partly filled that gap.
The next day, Tedaldo (still disguised as a pilgrim) presents himself to Ermellina, claiming to have been sent by God to set things right. He proves his prophetic skills by explaining Aldobrandino’s case. He also claims that Ermellina is being punished for the unconfessed sin of snubbing her lover Tedaldo. Under the pretense of examining her conscience, Tedaldo asks why she turned her back on him.
As with other lovers and lost children (see, for example, Beritola and her sons in II, 6 and Walter and his children in II, 8), Tedaldo’s identity remains concealed from his lover as long as it’s convenient for him. Disguised not only as a pilgrim but as a religious authority, Tedaldo puts himself in God’s shoes as an emissary—claiming that God will set things right. But this position also allows him to ask the question he would most like answered—why she turned her back on him—and even puts him in a position from which he could force her to make amends (as “penance”) for repudiating him.
Ermellina reveals that she mentioned the affair in confession, for which she was warned that she would be sent to Hell unless she mended her ways. Frightened, she cut ties with Tedaldo, but she admits that she still loved him and was about to take him back when he disappeared. Tedaldo scolds her for repudiating love that she had freely given—if the eternal consequences were important to her, she should have thought of them before beginning the affair. Because she and Tedaldo gave themselves to each other freely, they each owed the other loyalty; by depriving Tedaldo of her love she was robbing him of a gift she had freely given to him.
When the choice is between religious devotion and love, the tales in The Decameron invariably side with love, and Tedaldo’s impassioned defense of fin’amors is an example of this. Tedaldo’s argument—that it is worse to have broken off an affair than to have begun it in the first place—clearly prioritizes fin’amors and romantic love above religious commandments. It also parallels Bartolomea’s arguments about marital debt (II, 10) and emphasizes the mutuality of romantic relationships, where lovers are tied by bonds of affection as well as responsibility.
Claiming to be a friar himself, Tedaldo then makes a very long speech outlining the hypocrisy and sinfulness of modern-day clergy, whose clothing is splendid instead of shabby, who desire riches and women instead of holiness, who charge extortionary prices for caring for laypeople’s souls and who insist that the laity conform to standards they themselves reject.
Ermellina’s alarming experience with the priest also gives Tedaldo the opportunity to make one of the most pointed anticlerical speeches in the entire book. His characterization of clerical hypocrisy matches many examples throughout The Decameron.
And anyway, Tedaldo continues, even if adultery is a bad sin, isn’t theft worse? Having extramarital sex is a “natural sin,” but theft and attempted murder can only proceed from “evil intentions.” Ermellina robbed Tedaldo of her love, and because this cruelty nearly killed him, she’s also guilty of attempted murder. She’s also responsible for his years-long exile. Tedaldo—still impersonating the friar—extols the virtues of Ermellina’s lost lover and condemns women’s cruelty towards their lovers. She’s paying for this sin, and her penance is to take Tedaldo back as her lover if he were ever to reappear. Ermellina swears that she would do so happily. Tedaldo throws off his costume. At first, she thinks she’s seen a ghost, but she is jubilant when she realizes that her lover has indeed returned.
Medieval theology did indeed hierarchize sins in the way Tedaldo suggests—for example, homosexual sex was considered far more sinful than extramarital sex; because the former couldn’t have any procreative purpose, it was considered less “natural” than the latter. In his disguise as a friar, Tedaldo is playing the role of a priest and guiding Ermellina through a confession—only it’s a confession focused on the codes and morals of fin’amors. In this way, he recreates and corrects the original confession that scared her into breaking off the affair. Importantly, her most serious sin, attempted murder, is the result of “cruelty,” which is the charge made against any woman who spurns a man’s romantic advances, regardless of her reasons. The sexual double standards at play in the book and its culture claim to elevate women but in reality often punish them for failing to follow men’s desires.
Hurrying to Aldobrandino, Tedaldo promises to secure his release if he will pardon Tedaldo’s brothers for accusing him and fabricating evidence. Aldobrandino says it’s hard to ask a man to forego his revenge, but he will since he wants liberty and to preserve his soul for heaven. Next, Tedaldo goes to the court and explains the truth. The actual murderers—the innkeepers and a servant—readily confess to the murder (which they did after “Tedaldo” attempted to rape one of their wives) rather than undergo torture. Tedaldo, assured that Aldobrandino will be released in the morning, returns to Ermellina, gives her the good news, and spends the night with her.
It is in the context of a work that is heavily influenced by the development of humanism—a precursor to the Renaissance and a line of thought that placed more emphasis on human behavior and choice than on religious commandments and observance—that Aldobrandino’s choice of mercy over vengeance is motivated both by religious reasons (to avoid hell) and worldly ones (to get out of jail, to avoid being executed). Fortune’s wheel, which earlier brought Tedaldo low by separating him from his lover, continues to revolve, and his luck improves while murderers who thought they would get away with their crime find themselves caught.
When Aldobrandino is released, he and Ermellina invite the “pilgrim” (Tedaldo) to stay with them. When Tedaldo hears that his brothers are being mocked, he decides it’s time to set everything straight, and he asks Aldobrandino to publicly forgive them. Aldobrandino invites the brothers, still in mourning, to a great feast, where Tedaldo throws off his disguise and reunites with his family and (publicly, at least) with Ermellina.
Fortune has many victims in this tale: Tedaldo, Aldobrandino, and even Tedaldo’s brothers. But because her wheel continually turns, everyone is restored as quickly as they were oppressed.
Many people, including Tedaldo’s brothers, harbor a faint suspicion that he’s not really Tedaldo until they solve the mystery of the murdered man. One day, a group of soldiers mistakes Tedaldo for their friend Faziuolo, as the two men are nearly identical. Confirming his identity puts the story to an end, and everyone lives happily ever after.
It's hard for people to accept that Tedaldo’s not a ghost—at least until a logical and rational explanation is discovered. The contrast between humanistic rationality and superstitious belief aligns with the earlier differentiation between rationality and religion demonstrated in Aldobrandino’s various motives for displaying mercy. In terms of the day’s theme, perseverance, it’s the steadfast nature of Tedaldo’s love that fortunately brings him back to Florence at the exact moment necessary to save the lives and reputations of his lover, her husband, and his brothers.