Dioneo prefaces his tale with a warning. People are more likely to laugh at scandal than at virtuous deeds, and his goal is to make everyone laugh, so his tale is going to be a bit unseemly.
At the halfway mark of The Decameron’s 100 tales, Dioneo has already demonstrated his sense of humor and his willingness to tell obscene tales. The fact that he attaches a warning to this one hints that it will portray behavior that is even more vulgar than his usual, graphically sexual fare.
In Perugia, Pietro di Vinciolo is a man whose heart is “anywhere but the right place,” and to disguise this fact, he marries a buxom young woman. Unfortunately, Pietro’s Wife is a passionate redhead whom two husbands would have a hard time pleasing, much less one uninterested one. Realizing that he isn’t “fond of the kind of thing that other men like,” and that he finds women “repugnant,” she decides to take a lover to fill her own needs.
Dioneo’s comment about Pietro’s misplaced heart suggests that Pietro is gay. Medieval culture (both in terms of sacred and secular codes) had no tolerance for same-sex sexual activity (and didn’t really have a category for sexual orientation or identity). In modern terms, Pietro’s wife is frankly his beard (a heterosexual partner meant to deflect suspicions about a person’s sexual orientation). Unfortunately, he’s chosen the worst kind of woman for the role, since his wife is young, pretty, and lustful (drawing on a longstanding association between redheads and passion that persists into the 21st century). Like many a fabliaux wife (and many other women in The Decameron), she decides to take matters into her own hands after she realizes that her husband can’t stand the thought of having sex with her.
Refusing to waste her youth, Pietro’s Wife secures the services of a Beldam with a saintly reputation, who agrees that the Good Lord wouldn’t want her to waste her youth in celibacy. She points out that women exist for two reasons: having sex with men and having babies. This is evident because, while men must be in the mood to perform, a woman is always available for sex. Moreover, women are much more lustful than men. And, because women’s sexual desirability is so fleeting, it’s even more important that they take advantage of their youths.
The Beldam, or “goodwife,” has a holy reputation that covers her sinful behavior. Her rationale for helping Pietro’s wife find a lover is, however, deeply rooted in antifeminist sentiments rather than any sense of sexual liberation. Women, in this misogynistic view, are good only for making love with men and having babies, and their worth is directly dependent on their sexual attractiveness and beauty, which fade as their youth ends. This is one of many moments in The Decameron that contradicts Boccaccio’s claims that the work is intended for women and that he has deep love and respect for ladies. Yet, Pietro’s wife takes her sexual satisfaction into her own hands and isn’t punished or criticized for it, pointing to the complicated nexus of beliefs nested in the tales.
Pietro’s Wife enjoys many young men behind her husband’s back. One night, when Pietro plans to eat with his friend Ercolano, she arranges for a lover to visit. When Pietro comes home early, she hides the man under a chicken-coop in the yard. Pietro’s dinner ended early because Ercolano’s wife had a lover over, whom she hid in a closet where she was fumigating her veils with sulfur. The sulfur made her lover sneeze, allowing Ercolano to find him. Pietro prevented Ercolano from killing the man, who escaped. Perceiving how similar her own situation is, Pietro’s Wife protests her own innocence by heaping abuse on the other woman. Then, remembering that her own lover is still hiding, she tries to coax Pietro to go to sleep.
Pietro’s wife was driven to her secret sex life because of her husband’s own sexual appetites; yet an antifeminist double standard applies to their relationship. While she has relatively little power in the face of his affairs, hiding her lover is a sign that she recognizes the potential consequences (violence, repudiation and divorce, loss of reputation) if he finds out about hers. Her critical stance towards Ercolano’s wife (when she finds herself in the same situation) draws on misogynistic beliefs that regard women as hypocritical and deceitful.
Unfortunately, before she succeeds, a donkey that’s loose in the yard steps on the lover’s hand, and when he screams, Pietro quickly finds him. He criticizes his wife for indicting other women for her same sins, but she hits back with an attack on his unwillingness to attend to her sexual needs. Pietro, tired of listening, silences her and asks her to prepare some food for the three of them, none of whom have eaten yet. Afterwards, they arrange matters “to the mutual satisfaction of the three parties,” although the next day the dazed young lover can’t say if he spent more time with the husband or the wife.
Both Pietro and his wife have legitimate complaints in this moment. Pietro is bothered to discover that his wife has been cheating, and he’s rightfully annoyed that she criticized another woman for doing the same thing she herself has done. But medieval conceptions of marriage held that husbands and wives were responsible to care for each other’s sexual needs, so Pietro’s wife is also correct to point out that he has failed to hold up his end of the bargain. Pietro acknowledges this impasse when he backs down. But his wife’s ability to get away with her affairs without punishment draws both on a cultural antipathy for Pietro’s homosexuality and on the fabliaux tradition, where clever wives are never punished for pulling one over on husbands who deserve it for failing to meet their wives’ sexual needs.