Panfilo’s tale is about a woman who played the biggest trick of all, with the aid of fortune. In Argos, the most ancient city in Greece, an old nobleman named Nicostratos lives with his much younger wife, Lydia. Nicostratos is fond of hunting and owns many hawks and hounds for the purpose. Among his servants, he loves and trusts Pyrrhus the most. Because her husband is old and Pyrrhus is both handsome and accomplished, Lydia falls so desperately in love with him that she can’t think of anything else, day or night. She’s sure she will die if he doesn’t reciprocate her love. She asks her maid Lusca to carry her love messages to Pyrrhus.
The setup of Panfilo’s tale, with the January-May marriage between Nicostratos and Lydia, calls to mind the “senex amans” or “old lover” stereotype that pops up throughout medieval literature. The senex amans is a figure of mockery, since his age and lack of stamina mean that he is unable to fulfill the sexual needs of his much younger, beautiful wife. In this tale, Nicostratos’s fondness for hunting suggests a certain amount of neglect towards his wife that might help to explain why her attention wanders to the handsome and young Pyrrhus. While her attraction crosses class lines, the tale carefully protects her from too much censure by pointing out Pyrrhus’s manners and accomplishments, suggesting that he is a noble in character, if not in title. This tale also gender-swaps the traditional fin’amors (refined love) roles, where the man pines away and becomes ill from unreciprocated love, since it's Lydia who falls in love with Pyrrhus first.
But Pyrrhus suspects that Lydia is testing his loyalty. Swearing that he’d never dishonor Nicostratos, he sends Lusca back to her mistress. His repudiation makes Lydia want to die, but after a few days, she tries again. Lusca tries to talk some sense into Pyrrhus, in addition to chastising him for his cruelty. She points out that Lydia offers him a chance at riches as well as love, and if fortune offers blessings like this, he should take them. Also, he shows greater loyalty toward Nicostratos than his master would show him if the tables were turned. If he doesn’t keep Lydia from dying of love, the guilt he feels will be unbearable.
Continuing with the gender-swapped roles, it’s Pyrrhus who is criticized for his “cruelty” towards Lydia. This charge is based in the idea that the affection of a desired partner can be earned through a lover’s devotion alone. In this paradigm, if Lydia loves Pyrrhus nobly and there’s no reason why she’s not herself worthy of love, he owes her affection. Refusing thus constitutes cruelty or excessive and inhumane treatment. In other stories, this paradigm has been used to coerce lovers, and in this one Lusca makes the extortion clear: if Pyrrhus doesn’t return her love, Lydia will die, and it will be his fault. However, Pyrrhus’s actions are based in a wily sense of self-preservation, because if his mistress and master were testing him, showing any interest in sleeping with Lydia could be very dangerous for him.
Pyrrhus had already decided to accept Lydia’s love—as long as he can be sure that she’s not testing him. He wants her to prove her motives by completing three tasks: kill Nicostratos’s favorite bird before his eyes, send him a tuft of Nicostratos’s beard, and then give him one of Nicostratos’s best teeth. Although these tasks seem almost impossible, Lydia draws inspiration from her love, and she informs Pyrrhus that she’ll do these and contrive to have sex with him in front of her husband Nicostratos.
The tasks Pyrrhus sets Lydia aren’t just hard, they are designed to make her demonstrate greater loyalty to him than her husband. They are also increasingly intimate and painful. But, since love’s power over human behavior is irresistible in The Decameron, Lydia not only promises to fulfil the conditions but to top them by betraying her husband to his face.
A few days later, while Nicostratos is hosting a dinner party, Lydia dresses up, saunters into the hall, and smashes his favorite bird against the wall. When asked why, she claims that it deprived her of her husband’s attention. She’s longed to kill it for some time, only waiting for a chance to take her revenge in the presence of his guests, who would impartially judge her actions. Pyrrhus, having watched, is pleased to see her working on his tasks.
Lydia ironically plays the role of jealous wife while laying the groundwork for her own infidelity. But in suggesting that he’s incapable of fulfilling her sexual needs—since he pays more attention to his hobbies than to her—she’s also subtly disparaging their sex life in front of her husband’s friends.
One day, when Lydia and Nicostratos are together, she starts to caress and tease him. When he gently pulls her hair, she gives his beard such a tug that she pulls out a tuft. She prevents him from getting too upset by continuing to jest and play, and then she sends the tuft to Pyrrhus. The tooth is harder, but eventually Lydia convinces Nicostratos’s serving-boys that they have bad breath and must turn their faces away when serving him. She then tells Nicostratos that he has bad breath. Examining his teeth, she swears that he has a rotten one, and—promising to take much better care of him than any brutal old surgeon—she and Lusca extract it and send it to Pyrrhus, who declares himself convinced of her love.
Lydia’s increasingly painful assaults on Nicostratos foreshadow her willingness to hurt him by her affair with Pyrrhus. They also assert a position of dominance (in contrast to the usual gender hierarchy of female submission) in the relationship, since she’s doing things to his body. Her strategy with the tooth-pulling is both clever and humorous and it ratchets up the tension in the tale: Nicostratos’s willingness to believe her in the face of contrary evidence (if his tooth was indeed rotten, he would have felt pain) suggest that she can, indeed, get away with her incredible promise to have sex with her lover—without consequences!—in front of her husband’s very eyes.
But Lydia won’t be content until she’s fulfilled her own condition. Pretending to be ill, she asks Nicostratos and Pyrrhus to take her to the garden, where she sits at the foot of a pear-tree and asks Pyrrhus to climb up and get her a pear. While he’s in the tree—having previously learned what to say from her—he begins to complain about having to watch Nicostratos make love to his wife under the tree, although Nicostratos swears that he’s just sitting next to his wife. When Pyrrhus comes down, he continues to swear that he saw them making love. Nicostratos becomes so astonished that he decides to climb up in the tree to see what’s going on.
Lydia plans to play her final trick in a garden, and in The Decameron, gardens are often places where the normal rules of the world are suspended. Pyrrhus pretends that it looks like Nicostratos and Lydia are having sex when Nicostratos knows that he’s just sitting next to his wife, thus priming him to distrust what he sees when he himself climbs up into the tree.
As soon as Nicostratos is in the tree, Pyrrhus and Lydia start to make love, but as soon as he starts to climb down, they resume sitting side-by-side. Pyrrhus apologizes for arguing with his master, since the tree gave each a “similar illusion” of Lydia making love with the other. If Nicostratos doubts that it was an illusion, he must only consider common sense, which would prevent him from making love to his master’s wife literally under his nose.
While the power of love has made Lydia and Pyrrhus bold beyond all reasonable explanation (thus demonstrating its power over human behavior), their trick also depends on the irrational love Nicostratos has for a wife who keeps hurting him and the trust he holds for his handsome young servant. Thus, despite appeals to his common sense, Nicostratos is shown to be foolish for believing what he’s told instead of what he can see with his own eyes.
Lydia interrupts Pyrrhus to express her annoyance that Nicostratos would really believe she’d cheat on him in this way. Nicostratos, still amazed, can only mumble about the strange visions the tree causes. Lydia has Pyrrhus fetch an axe and cut the tree down, although she thinks Nicostratos deserves to be punished instead for believing his eyes instead of his reason. With the tree felled, Lydia forgives him for his distrust. And, having earned his trust, it’s much easier for Pyrrhus and Lydia to get away with meeting each other from that day forth.
Having the tree cut down suggests that Lydia has metaphorically castrated Nicostratos, and indeed her romp with Pyrrhus has completely inverted all the normal social hierarches, in which a servant must respect his master and a wife must be faithful to her husband. While Panfilo suggests that Lydia is able to pull off her trick thanks to the aid of fortune, it seems to have little role in the tale other than bringing Pyrrhus to her attention. The trick is entirely of her own creation, and it demonstrates something that could generously be called cleverness, which also demonstrates the deviousness of women.