Neifile begins her story with a comment about the importance of humility and wisdom, calling to account those who think they know more than they do and who are foolish enough to set their own wisdom against nature. Nothing is as resistant to reason as love, as her tale will illustrate.
Neifile’s comments at the beginning of her tale emphasize humility, a trait that she exemplifies herself. She also invokes nature, a goddess-like figure in medieval conceptions of the world that was responsible for procreation. For this reason, nature was strongly associated with love and sexual urges, and this tale will show how her power, combined with the power of love, are more than sufficient to overcome human wisdom.
In Florence, Girolamo is the son of a wealthy merchant, whose father dies shortly after his birth. He grows up under the watchful care of his mother and guardians, but he still falls in love with a neighborhood girl. Salvestra is the daughter of a tailor, and Girolamo’s Mother scolds him for his inappropriate affection. Afraid that he will marry the poor girl secretly, she decides that the best course of action is to send Girolamo away. Other options, like making sure Salvestra married someone else, might backfire, causing Girolamo to die of love.
Girolamo falls in love with his childhood playmate, Salvestra, even though they belong to distinct social classes. The story’s premise thus recalls other tales, specifically Jacques’ love for Jeannette in II, 8 and Gilette’s love for Bertrand in III, 9. And, as other tales have also demonstrated, his mother’s fear that he will secretly (and irrevocably) marry the undesirable girl are well-founded. Although she’s intelligent enough to recognize that the situation must be handled carefully, Neifile’s comments about the power of nature and love foreshadow the failure of any of her plots with the not-noble woman. In fact, her fear that he will waste away and die is almost too prophetic.
Girolamo’s guardians try to send him to Paris to oversee business affairs there, but he categorically refuses. Girolamo’s Mother is livid, but she eventually gets him to agree to go for just one year, after which she and the guardians detain him for two years more.
Romantic love is stronger than familial affection, and Girolamo resists his guardians’ suggestion that he go to Paris where he would take over his dead father’s business affairs. However, drawing on antifeminist stereotypes about female deviousness, Girolamo’s mother eventually tricks him into going and staying away for long enough (she hopes) to extinguish his love.
When Girolamo returns to Florence after three years, he is still completely in love with Salvestra, who has married another man in his absence. She ignores him when he wanders in front of her house like the lovelorn youth he is. Finally, he sneaks into her house and hides in her bedroom. Later, when he’s sure that her husband is asleep, he wakes her. She whispers that the time for their love has passed; her marriage is calm, and she won’t resume their relationship.
However, true love is steadfast, and absence did not make Girolamo’s heart grow cold. Unfortunately, Salvestra has married in his absence, and when he renews his wooing of her, she rejects his advances since she is content within her practical marriage. One way to interpret Salvestra’s coldness is through misogynistic stereotypes about the fickleness of women or through an assumption that lower-class individuals can’t truly understand love. But it also illustrates a pragmatism necessary for women who weren’t wealthy and cared for by their bourgeoise or aristocratic families. Moreover, since his family was so set against their relationship, her choice to stay with her husband also seems to show her awareness that her future with Girolamo would be unstable and risky, especially compared to her respectable marriage.
This drives Girolamo to the brink of despair, and he longs to die. Saying that he’s become cold in the night air, he begs Salvestra to allow him to warm up next to her in the bed, promising to avoid talking to or touching her. Taking pity, Salvestra allows it, and he lies down next to her, resolves to die, and holds his breath until he has expired.
Girolamo’s death illustrates the exceptionally, excessively strong power of love, and the power of his own will despite his mother’s strategies and his former sweetie’s rejection.
After a while, Salvestra wonders why Girolamo hasn’t left. On discovering that he is dead, she wakes her husband and asks what they should do. Although he’s flustered to find a dead man in his bed, he rationally decides to carry Girolamo back to his own house before any rumor or resentment can attach itself to Salvestra.
The moment in which Salvestra reveals to her husband that her dead former suitor is lying dead in their bed is horrifying, but also a rare moment of humor on a day of tragic tales. Their concern to get him out of the house as quickly as possible before his death is discovered and rumors start to fly shows the potentially disastrous intersection of female vulnerability with the vulnerability of the lower classes.
Because no blow can be found on the body, the doctors correctly hypothesize that Girolamo has died of love. Salvestra and her husband attend his funeral to see if anyone has connected her to the tragedy. When she looks at Girolamo’s corpse, the flames of her love rekindle. With a scream, she throws herself onto his body and instantly dies of grief. The story of the preceding night—which her husband tells—only increases everyone’s sorrow. The people prepare Salvestra for burial and place her in Girolamo’s tomb. Thus, those who love failed to join in life are eternally joined in death.
Although it’s a standard figure of speech to claim that one will die from unreturned love (Filostrato himself makes this claim in his response to the tale of Ghismonda and Guiscardo in IV, 1), very few literary lovers actually do. Girolamo’s death humbles his mother, who thought she could overpower nature by stifling his love for Salvestra. And Salvestra’s sudden grief and shocking death illustrate the power of love, which reclaims her despite her pragmatic choice to stay with her husband.