Filomena begins her tale with its intended lesson: just as women’s pity is praised, so too will their cruelty be subject to divine punishment. To illustrate this, she tells the story of Nastagio degli Onesti, an incredibly wealthy young gentleman from Ravenna. He falls in love with the daughter of Paolo Traversari, whose lineage is more noble than his own. Nastagio woos Paolo’s Daughter with “considerable, and splendid, and laudable” deeds, but she is “persistently cruel, harsh, and unfriendly towards him.” Nastagio’s friends and relatives, concerned about his fruitless and expensive courtship, beg him to leave Ravenna. Pretending to agree, Nastagio makes a great show of leaving, only to camp out in the woods about three miles away.
Filomena’s tale revisits the misogynistic idea of female “cruelty,” which is the way a woman’s refusal to have sex with a particular man (for whatever reason) is characterized in the tales. (Compare this to Restituta’s initial treatment of Gianni in the day’s sixth tale.) The dictates of fin’amors (refined loving), which emphasize lovers demonstrating their personal worth and valor, in combination with gendered expectations of female subjection to male authority and rule intersect here. The idea of feminine cruelty illustrates the dilemma posed to women in a patriarchal culture that also idealized fin’amors: extramarital sex was generally condemned, and women caught in the act were liable to punishment at the hands of either husbands and male relatives or civil authorities. Yet, the tales also condemn “cruel” women, occasionally punishing or tricking them for their refusal (for example, Catella, who in III, 6 was tricked and then blackmailed into sex with Ricciardo Minutolo). In this context, Nastagio participates in a common antifeminist line of thought in assuming that his love and valorous deeds require Paolo’s daughter to love him in return. In terms of the narrators, this sentiment is particularly rich coming from Filomena, who is generally understood to be Filostrato’s “cruel” love interest.
One May morning, Nastagio degli Onesti wanders the woods, lost in thought about Paolo’s Daughter’s cruelty. Suddenly, he hears screams; soon he sees a naked woman running through the woods, pursued by a pair of fierce dogs and a wrathful knight on a black horse. She begs for mercy while the knight threatens to kill her. To protect her, Nastagio grabs the only available weapon—a tree branch—but the knight addresses him by name and tells him to mind his own business. As the dogs seize the woman and the knight dismounts, Nastagio expresses outrage over hunting a woman like an animal.
In medieval literature, May is strongly associated with both lovers and with visions, making the time doubly appropriate for Nastagio’s otherworldly experience in the woods. What he sees is a vision on the theme of the cruel woman’s punishment, which is a common theme in antifeminist writings but which can also be found in fin’amors literature and theory. In the vision, begging for mercy, is the mirror image of Nastagio, who wanted Paolo’s daughter to take pity on his love-longing. But just as she cruelly rejected him, so too the angry knight ignores the woman’s pleas. Nastagio’s initial outrage seems to stem from the knight’s excessive violence, and his willingness to protect her even though he hasn’t got an appropriate weapon demonstrates his personal courage and courteousness.
The knight identifies himself as Guido degli Anastagi, a fellow man from Ravenna who fell in love with his lady when Nastagio degli Onesti was just a child. The pride and cruelty of Guido’s lady ultimately led him to suicide, for which he was sent to Hell. Later, when she died, his lady was also damned because of her pride, cruelty, and the pleasure she felt in his death. In Hell, their punishments are intertwined: she flees, he must catch and kill her, cut her open, tear her cold, hard heart from her breast, and throw it to the dogs. They repeat this drama daily, at various locations where she was cruel towards him in thought and deed; on Fridays they are always in this wood.
The literature of fin’amors treats love as a secular religion. In this context, the lady’s refusal to acknowledge or return Guido’s love is understood as a sin, so she is punished by the Christian God for her role in Guido’s suicide. Suicide, in the medieval church, was a sin that automatically damned a person’s soul to hell, since one’s life is a gift from God that one is supposed to protect and cherish, not destroy. But, although Guido committed the mortal sin, and his lady only “caused” it second hand, his punishment in the afterlife seems much less horrific than hers. Although he suggests that it's hard to kill someone you love, it’s notable that the lady’s punishment is both frightening and painful, and involves the mutilation of her body. The line between extreme love and extreme hate seems to be particularly thin in this tale. The vision’s misogyny is rendered even more stark when we learn that the lady is punished not only for her cruelty in deed—those times she actively repudiated Guido to his face—but in thought as well.
This account horrifies Nastagio degli Onesti, as does watching Guido degli Anastagi butcher the woman. But after a few minutes, she gets to her feet and runs away again, pursued by the hounds. After a while, he realizes how useful this apparition can be. He has friends invite Paolo Traversari and his family—including Paolo’s Daughter—to breakfast in the woods with him on the following Friday. The tables are arranged around the clearing where he witnessed the drama, and the food is splendid. As the meal is ending, the guests begin to hear agonized screams and soon the lady, dogs, and knight burst into the clearing.
Nastagio initially felt compassion for the lady, who seemed so vulnerable to the knight’s anger. But by the end of the vision, he’s solidly on the knight’s side and has realized how he can use this vision to scare Paolo’s daughter into returning his love. Like the rest of the women in The Decameron, she is vulnerable to male authority and occasional violence. The tale’s strong implication is that, if earning a lady’s love fails, it’s perfectly acceptable to blackmail and force her into capitulation.
Guido degli Anastagi repeats his story to the guests. Many are related to him or to the lady, and most remember his great love and pitiable death. But Paolo’s Daughter is the most alarmed of all, since she realizes that the show was for her; she can already feel dogs nipping at her heels. Out of fear, she quickly “convert[s] her enmity into love,” and that same day she sends Nastagio degli Onesti a message telling him that she’s “ready to do anything he desire[s].” He offers to combine his pleasure with the “preservation of her good name” by proposing a marriage to which she consents, to the great joy of Nastagio and her own parents.
Paolo’s daughter takes the vision as it is intended: as a direct warning to her that if she doesn’t return Nastagio’s love, she faces a dire fate. Through her quick change of heart, the tale suggests that her reasons for denying Nastagio were illegitimate—if she’d had a real reason to dislike him, she may not have been able to turn her hate into love within a few hours. But the example of gruesome violence she’s just witnessed suggests that her response may have been out of fear more than an unacknowledged love. Although Nastagio’s offer of honorable marriage rather than a simple affair is offered to show his good character, it also emphasizes her vulnerability: her choices have been reduced to risking her reputation in the here and now or risking gruesome punishment in the afterlife. In choosing the lesser of two evils, she seems to illustrate female vulnerability more than the ennobling and overpowering force of true love.
Nor is this marriage the only happy result of the “horrible apparition”: the ladies in the town are so terrified by it that, in general, they become far more cooperative with men than they ever had been before.
The fact that the vision not only has its intended effect on Paolo’s daughter but on other ladies in the town suggests that its power comes from emotional blackmail, preying on the vulnerability of women to coercion and violence.