Boccaccio interrupts his narrators at the beginning of the fourth day with some of his own remarks. Although he used to think that only the powerful and popular were assailed by the winds of Envy, even his humble vernacular prose stories have critics. These people make five attacks: he’s too fond of ladies; it’s degrading for a wise man to indulge in feminine genres like vernacular romance; he should dedicate himself to the Muses; he should write what people will pay for; and his stories are factually inaccurate. He takes this “calmly and coolly” but thinks it necessary to offer a rebuttal before he goes any farther.
Giovanni Boccaccio was an important figure in the rise of vernacular literature—meaning things written in a language other than Latin—in the late Middle Ages. Because it could be read by women with basic literacy, vernacular literature was initially considered inferior to Latin writings, which only people (usually men) with many years of schooling could decipher. However, a burgeoning tradition of lyric poetry, popular romances, and texts like The Decameron began to challenge the supremacy of Latin. And vernacular masterpieces often translated stories and ideas directly from Latin texts into more widely available forms. The introduction to Day 4 is the second place where Boccaccio explains and defends his deep and abiding affection for women, although many of the tales told on the first three days have featured misogynistic, antifeminist stereotypes that were popular and widespread in the Middle Ages, and almost all of the women in Day IV’s tales will meet grisly ends. It’s also notable that Boccaccio’s aside begins with what readers today might call a “humblebrag”: people can criticize him only because his works are popular enough to have merited widespread attention. The Muses are figures from classical Greek mythology, where they are the nine goddesses of various forms of poetic inspiration.
Boccaccio offers a story to help rebut the first of these criticisms. A long time ago, a widower named Filippo Balducci fled Florence with his two-year-old to serve God as hermits. They went to Mount Asinaio, where they lived, fasting and praying, in a cave. Thus, Filippo’s Son grew up innocent of worldly things—when it was necessary, Filippo went to Florence for supplies alone.
Although it is abbreviated somewhat, Boccaccio’s tale in the introduction to Day 4 pushes the total number in the collection to 101. Prior to the late 20th century, editors and translators who were bothered by the pornographic nature of the last tale of Day 3 frequently substituted this tale for that one. Filippo and his son would have gone to Monte Senario, where many Florentine hermits lived in caves, but to add to the story’s humor, Boccaccio mispronounces the name to make it “Mt. Asinaio” or “Mount Donkeyman,” which hints at Filippo’s foolishness.
But when Filippo’s Son is 18, he offers to help Filippo Balducci with these errands. Relying on the strength of his son’s innocence and dedication to God, Filippo brings him to Florence, where he is amazed by the wealth, architecture, and grandeur of the city. When they pass some elegantly dressed ladies, Filippo’s Son is confused and asks what they are called. Grudgingly, Filippo identifies them as “goslings,” and even without previous knowledge of feminine charms, all Filippo’s Son now wants is a “gosling” of his own.
Unlike the hermit Rustico in the previous tale (III, 10), Filippo and his son live the way hermits ought to—humbly dedicated to a life of fasting and prayer. Their pious example, which directly contrasts with the portrayal of most of the monks, nuns, and priests in the tales, places value in true faith, rather than the trappings and appearance of medieval religion. The reaction of Filippo’s son to the Florentine ladies is meant to illustrate the power that a woman’s beauty holds over any man. Despite being so sheltered he doesn’t even know what a woman is, Filippo’s son is nevertheless naturally attracted to them. But, more subtly, the story aligns the women with the other fascinating sights of the city, reducing them to objects to be admired and possessed rather than allowing them full humanity. Thus, even as he uses this story to allegedly prove his devotion to ladies, Boccaccio reveals a superior, objectifying attitude towards them.
Filippo Balducci says that these “goslings” are evil, but Filippo’s Son maintains that they are lovelier than the images of angels that he’s seen. He promises to feed his new pet by hand. Filippo, regretting the trip, tells his son that these birds are evil and quips that women’s mouths aren’t where his son thinks they are, nor is their diet what he expects.
Even in a story designed to demonstrate affection for women, Boccaccio can’t escape misogynistic stereotypes of excessive female desire, which Filippo gestures to when he warns his son that these “birds” have a special diet (in other words, insatiable sexual appetites). And Filippo’s blanket statement that women are just “evil” is an overt example of the antifeminism that can be found in The Decameron.
At this point, Boccaccio cuts the tale short since it has already illustrated the overpowering nature of female beauty. Boccaccio freely admits his fondness of ladies and desire to please them. If a man yet unaware of the amorous kisses and “blissful embraces” that women can bestow were captivated by them, how could he resist? God, through Nature, has given men bodies to love women, so Boccaccio’s adoration is natural.
Boccaccio invokes Nature, a goddess-like figure in medieval society who was understood to fulfil God’s will that humans be fruitful and multiply by encouraging their sex drive. Although once again Boccaccio is claiming to be motivated by love and adoration for women, his excuses for himself come dangerously close to suggesting that women themselves are to blame for the attention he pays them.
As for his age, Boccaccio quips that the leek’s tail stays green even when its head is white, and history offers many examples of older men who pleased their ladies. The Muses are ladies, but they are too distant to inspire him, unlike the women he sees around him each day. He tells critics who mocked his poverty that he doesn’t want their money anyway, and he challenges those who complain about factual accuracy to point to specific mistakes. He promises to redouble his efforts to please readers, and then he returns to his story. On the morning of the fourth day, the companions arise and pleasantly while away the hours in the garden until Filostrato gathers them together and asks Fiammetta to tell the first tale.
Boccaccio’s comments about leeks play on the vegetable’s visual similarity to male anatomy, as well as playing with the contrast between its green leaves (where green represents youth and vigor) and white head (which, with its white, hair-like roots, resembles the head of an old man). This metaphor recalls the arguments made earlier by Master Alberto defending the affections of older men (I, 10), even as it pushes back against the consistent representation of old men as sexually impotent (for example, Ricciardo di Chinzica in II, 10 or Friar Puccio in III, 4).