The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 6: Seventh Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Filostrato notes that while being able to say the right thing is generally good, it’s even more impressive under duress, as the heroine of his story will prove.
Filostrato’s introductory comments suggest the spirit of good-natured competition among the members of the brigata that occasionally rises during a day’s storytelling (it is particularly notable on Day 10). And indeed, his tale switches from the largely humorous and harmless examples offered thus far to focus on a far more serious scenario.
Themes
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In Prato, the law says that any woman caught by her husband in adultery—whether she’s being paid for it or not—will be burned at the stake. When Rinaldo de’ Pugliesi discovers his wife Madonna Filippa in the arms of Lazzarino de’ Guazzagliotri, he invokes this statute. Love makes Madonna Filippa fearless; despite being advised to flee, she resolves to answer the summons and defend herself in court.
The law which sentences women to death for adulterous sex dramatically points to the vulnerability of women under a patriarchal system (controlled by men) that considers personal and familial honor to be closely tied to female sexuality. It also points to a sexual double standard, since the punishment applies only to the woman, not to her sexual partner in adultery. To add insult to injury, Rinaldo’s wife has taken her lover from a rival family. Madonna Filippa’s courage suggests that her feelings for her lover are not only steadfast and refined (following the outlines of fin’amors, or refined loving) but that, somehow, her love is right and good, despite flying in the face of religious and cultural standards.
Themes
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The magistrate is impressed with Madonna Filippa’s beauty, breeding, and fortitude. He hopes she won’t confess so he can avoid sentencing her to death, but he still asks if her husband’s accusation is true. Filippa admits that Lazzarino de’ Guazzagliotri is her lover and that they’ve slept together many times. But, she maintains, laws should apply to everyone equally and should have the consent of those whom they govern. The present statute applies only to women, and they didn’t consent when it was written. 
In Madonna Filippa, Filostrato offers the portrait of an exemplary woman, whose merit and dignity are evident to everyone around her. She also avoids stereotypical displays of overwrought feminine emotion, approaching her court case with the focus and steely determination of a lawyer. Although her argument is logical, neither of its two components characterized law in the Middle Ages, which often distinguished between people based on their gender, creed, or social status. Moreover, laws were not generally subject to popular consent—much less the opinions of women. So, while her arguments might strike modern readers favorably, they are academic rather than applicable.
Themes
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If the court insists on prosecuting her by this unfair law, Madonna Filippa wants it to ask her husband if she ever denied him when he asked for sex. Rinaldo de’ Pugliesi says that she hasn’t. If her husband is satisfied, Filippa demands to know, what should she do with the excess? Isn’t it better to give it to a man who values it than to waste it? Everyone is charmed by her speech, declaring in unison that she is correct. The magistrate frees her and changes the statute so that only women who accept money for adultery will be punished in the future. 
The more convincing part of Filippa’s  argument follows her general dismissal. Medieval theology considered sexual satisfaction an important part of marriage and held both a husband and wife responsible to fulfill each other’s sexual needs within the bounds of reason and respect for social conventions. This concept is called the marital debt. Frequently in the tales, the combination of sexuality and commercial language indicates an objectification or commodification of women, but in the case of the marital debt, responsibility extends to both partners. In this context, Filippa claims that she would be cheating on her husband only if she deprived him of something she owed him, and since she meets his sexual needs, she hasn’t wronged him in this way. While her argument is connected to misogynistic ideas about excessive female sex drives (since she has enough to satisfy her husband and her lover), this tale avoids engaging in those fears. Instead of punishing Filippa, it rewards her for her cleverness and bravery in the face of an unjust law. In contrast, Rinaldo is punished for making their private quarrel public. This makes him more like Roussillon (IV, 9) or Arriguccio Berlinghieri (VII, 8) who bring scorn on themselves for their attempts to punish their wives’ infidelity, than like the wise King Agilulf (III, 2). Finally, it’s notable that the changed statute retains the death penalty for women engaged in prostitution (trading money for sex). While this generally aligns with fears about prostitution expressed in other tales (see, for example, VIII, 1 and 2), it’s also a class-based distinction, since well-off noble and middle-class women were less likely to be engaged in prostitution than common, low-class women.
Themes
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Men and Women Theme Icon
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