Lauretta agrees with Filomena and Pampinea about the importance of wit as a skill for ladies, noting that it must stay gentle enough to avoid being considered abuse. However, when someone has been “bitten by a dog” (so to speak), an in-kind answer is appropriate.
While the examples of wit in the first two tales were gentle and genteel, Lauretta’s tale suggests that sometimes more caustic replies are appropriate. This is aligned with The Decameron’s emphasis on balance and moderation: sharpness can avoid being characterized as meanness or excess in some circumstances.
When Antonio d’Orso is bishop of Florence, a Catalan nobleman named Dego della Ratta visits the city. A ladies’ man, he desires a woman who is related to Antonio. Her notoriously greedy husband agrees to let Dego sleep with her—despite her protests—in exchange for 500 gold florins, but he cheats by paying with small change painted gold. This story eventually becomes common knowledge.
In this example, the bishop’s relative is presented as a literal piece of property, the rights to which her husband sells for the right price. In response to this debasing and dehumanizing treatment, her powerful relative looks away, and even cultivates a friendship with her abuser. This is also a denunciation of excess, since her sad fate is at the confluence of Dego’s excessive lust and dishonesty and her husband’s excessive greed.
Later, when Antonio d’Orso and Dego della Ratta ride through the streets during St. John’s festival, Antonio points out Nonna de’ Pulci, a new bride living in the neighborhood (who’s since sadly died in the recent plague), to Dego. Calling to her, Antonio asks if she could “make a conquest” of Dego herself.
The moment where Lauretta reminds members of the brigata that they may have known Nonna de’ Pulci in her old age is the only direct reference to the plague in The Decameron after the group leaves Florence. It’s hard to emphasize just how inappropriate the Bishop’s off-the-cuff comment to Nonna is: not only is a leader of the local church suggesting that one of the Christian souls in his care commit herself to sin, he’s doing it publicly, in a context where the mere hint of impropriety could compromise her honor.
Nonna de’ Pulci, worried about her reputation in the face of Antonio d’Orso’s public words, swiftly retorts: “In the unlikely event” that she would, she would want Dego della Ratta to pay her “in good coin.” Her reply stings Dego for its indictment of his dishonesty, and Antonio for its implication about his relative. They ride away ashamed. And, because they bit first, Lauretta believes her “equally biting retort” wasn’t wrong.
Nonna recognizes that this is a moment in which her reputation—dependent as it is on the opinion of her friends and neighbors—could be permanently damaged by a powerful man’s offhand remark to his friend. These are the stakes that license a retort that would, in other circumstances, be considered excessive. In pointing to the story of the other unlucky woman whose husband became her pimp, she demonstrates a biting wit and shames both men: Dego for cheating on the payment, and the bishop for turning the other way.