Dioneo, noting that love’s urgings can be felt in the rugged wilderness as much as in a dainty bedchamber, prepares to teach the company how to put the devil back into Hell.
The preceding story’s plot was based on aristocratic concerns for wealth and status and featured a persistent woman. In his typical fashion, Dioneo will take these themes and use them as an excuse to tell a raunchy tale.
In Gafsa, a 14-year-old girl named Alibech begins a spiritual quest. Although she herself is not Christian, she asks one of the town’s many Christians how to best “serve God” and is told that it is to flee earthly goods, like the ascetic holy men in the desert. Being a literal-minded adolescent, Alibech heads straight for the desert.
Like Alatiel (II, 7), Alibech isn’t a Christian, and this is an important early clue that her adventures are going to take place outside of traditional Christian moral paradigms. The advice of the Christian sends her into the desert to live like the Desert Fathers—early Christian hermits whose lives of privation and prayer in the North African deserts paved the way for the development of monasticism. Although these men were generally considered very holy, and the setup of this tale echoes Neifile’s first tale (in which a virtuous “pagan” converted to Christianity), because this is Dioneo’s tale, readers should be ready for a sudden shift of register.
Several days later, nearly dead, Alibech stumbles upon the hut of one of these holy men. The hermit gives her food and water, but (mindful of sexual temptation) sends her on her way. She passes from one hut to another until she meets Rustico, a young hermit who wants to test his willpower and who therefore invites Alibech to stay with him.
The first few desert hermits Alibech encounters provide her Christian charity but quickly send her on her way, since they’re wise enough to understand that no amount of fasting or holiness can completely quench the human sex drive. Rustico, however, is young and arrogant enough to believe in the strength of his virtue. This setup also draws on the stories of Desert Fathers who were visited and tested by the Devil in the guise of a beautiful woman.
Unfortunately, Rustico’s faith in his ability to resist temptation was unfounded, and he is soon plotting for a way to subtly seduce Alibech. He realizes that he can take advantage of her complete innocence of sexual knowledge. After delivering a long sermon about the devil’s power and the importance of helping God by casting him back into Hell, he undresses and has Alibech do the same. They kneel as if for prayer, and looking at Alibech’s naked body causes the “resurrection” of Rustico’s flesh. Confused by his erection, she asks what is sticking out in front of his body, and he tells her that it’s the devil attacking him. He then explains that although she doesn’t have a devil, she does have Hell, and if they can put the devil there, maybe he will stop attacking Rustico.
No sooner has Rustico realized that his faith in his own willpower was too generous than he’s planning what is essentially rape. His willingness to take advantage of her naiveté—highlighted by the innocence she displays when she is confused by his erection—makes their initial sexual encounter very uncomfortable for the audience and highlights the vulnerability of women that reappears throughout the tales. In addition to saying something about the power of lust generally, it also contributes to the tales’ anticlerical satire, since this man who has devoted himself to extreme asceticism not only coerces a young woman into having sex, but he uses a sermon about resisting the Devil to do so and lies to her when he describes sex as a religious practice.
Because she is a virgin, Alibech complains that it hurts when Rustico first puts the devil back in Hell, but the more they put the devil back, the more she comes to enjoy the practice. She thinks she understands why the holy men of Gafsa told her that serving God was extremely satisfying. Unfortunately for Rustico, Alibech demands to “serve God” by “put[ting] the devil back in Hell” so frequently that he becomes entirely depleted of vital energy. Feeling that she’s not serving God as much as she would like, Alibech complains that since she helped Rustico tame his devil, the least he can do is help her quiet her Hell. Although he tries, he has become so feeble that it’s like “chucking a bean into the mouth of a lion.”
Although Alibech’s subsequent pleasure in sex seems to invite the audience to excuse the initial deception, the uncomfortable fact that she was tricked at first remains—again recalling the story of Alatiel in II, 7 and highlighting both medieval misogynistic stereotypes about insatiable female lust and the inherent vulnerability of women, especially young and inexperienced girls like Alibech. Because the desert hermits made extreme fasts, Rustico doesn’t have the energy reserves to satisfy the young and healthy Alibech, and so his inability to control or moderate his lust is punished through an excessive amount of sex. The metaphor of the bean in the lion’s mouth both expresses a belief about excessive female desire, which is as alarming as a fierce lion, and humorously describes Rustico’s insufficient stamina.
At this point, a fire breaks out in Gafsa, killing Alibech’s entire family. A young man named Neerbal, wanting to inherit her wealth, tracks her down in the wilderness. Much to her consternation but Rustico’s relief, Neerbal brings her home and marries her. Before their marriage is consummated, the village women ask Alibech what it was like to serve God, and she describes—with words and gestures—putting the devil back in Hell, all the while complaining that Neerbal has done God a disservice by keeping her from this work. The women, laughing, tell her that people in Gafsa also put the devil back in Hell and that Neerbal will be more than happy to help her.
The fire is an example of fortune at work: it rescues Rustico from the hole he dug for himself while also giving Neerbal a chance to increase his wealth, and giving Alibech—although she’s reluctant to leave Rustico—the opportunity to have a sexual partner who could satisfy her needs. But because Neerbal marries Alibech as a means to access her familial wealth, it offers a pointed reminder that women were often considered or treated as property and traded between men for wealth and social status.