Filomena, sighing over the fate of Gerbino and the Tunisian Princess, begins the story of Lisabetta next. Because Lisabetta’s Brothers inexplicably failed to arrange a proper marriage for her after their father’s death, she falls in love with one of their employees. The handsome Lorenzo reciprocates her feelings, and all goes well for them until the oldest brother happens to see Lisabetta visiting her lover under the cover of darkness. He keeps his silence until he and the others can figure out how to end the affair without bringing discredit on the family’s name.
Like other women in the day’s tales (for example, Ghismonda in IV, 1), Lisabetta is under the authority of the men in her family and is therefore at the mercy of her brothers’ delay in finding her a suitable husband. Because The Decameron accepts the human sex drive as natural and appropriate, the tale places more blame on the brothers for failing to give Lisabetta an appropriate sexual outlet (marriage) than it does on her for finding an illicit one with Lorenzo. The fact that Lorenzo is their employee, not their social equal, emphasizes their blame—if they had acted, they could have found a suitable match. Unlike Tancredi (IV, 1) and more like the wise King Agilulf who appeared on Day 3 (III, 2), although Lisabetta’s brothers are distressed to discover her affair—since female honor equals family honor—they try to preserve her reputation and their own by keeping it quiet.
Lisabetta’s Brothers invite Lorenzo on a pleasure trip to the country, then murder him and bury his body. Back at home, they say that he’s off on a trading mission. Lisabetta becomes increasingly miserable and starts to pester her brothers about his continuing absence, and they warn her that if she keeps poking, she might find “the answers that [she] deserve[s].”
To preserve their family’s honor, which would be ruined if Lisabetta’s sin (having sex outside of marriage) were discovered, the brothers commit the sin of murder. Lisabetta’s increasingly desperate questions about Lorenzo risk betraying the affair (since she doesn’t yet know that her brothers already discovered it). Yet they refuse to acknowledge that the affair happened, and they threaten her into silence.
One night after she’s cried herself to sleep, Lorenzo appears to Lisabetta in a dream. He tells her that Lisabetta’s Brothers murdered him and describes where they buried him. Without mentioning the dream to her brothers, Lisabetta gets permission for her own vacation and makes a beeline for the area Lorenzo described. There, she finds his body “showing no sign as yet of decomposition or decay.” Since she can’t carry his whole body back, she severs his head, which she brings home and buries in a pot of basil.
While Lisabetta’s dream seems like it could simply be her subconscious working out of her brothers’ threats to get the “answers she deserves,” it is better understood as a miraculous vision, since it contains information that only Lorenzo and the brothers would know. The miraculous preservation of Lorenzo’s body, which is still intact when Lisabetta finds it, is the first and most common sign of sainthood, and so the tale suggests that he is a kind of martyr to love.
Lisabetta lavishes care on her basil, watering it with expensive essences or her tears. Due to her care—and Lorenzo’s decomposing head—the basil grows luxuriantly, but Lisabetta’s strange behavior attracts the attention of her neighbors. At first, Lisabetta’s Brothers just chide her for being strange, but when she continues, they steal the pot, dig up the basil, and discover Lorenzo’s head. Fearful that their crime will be exposed, they rebury Lorenzo’s head, wrap up their affairs, and skip town. Lisabetta incessantly asks where her pot of basil has gone. Eventually, she cries herself to death and inspires a song that the ladies of the company have heard many times before.
Despite their best efforts, Lisabetta’s strange behavior threatens to expose not only her affair but also her brothers’ murder of Lorenzo. When they steal Lorenzo from her a second time and then leave Lisabetta behind, they completely abdicate their responsibility for their sister. In a world where women like Lisabetta are reliant on men for safety, shelter, and even to arrange their marriages, it’s not surprising that she follows her lover in death so quickly.