The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 8: Fourth Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Emilia’s story, like Panfilo’s, describes a lustful cleric. Monna Piccarda, a young widow of noble birth, lives near Fiesole’s main church with her two brothers. There she catches the eye of the church’s Provost, who falls in love with her. Despite his mature age, he acts like a spoiled child, and everybody dislikes his pompous and tedious attitude; Piccarda “positively loath[es] him.”
Emilia invites direct comparison between her tale and Panfilo’s, in which a “worthy” priest started an affair with Belcolore in exchange for the gift of a fine cloak. In this tale, then, the audience should pay attention to how sexuality is valued in relationship to class. As a widow, Monna Piccarda is marginally in control of herself rather than under the authority of a husband, although she still lives with her brothers. The provost’s love is doubly inappropriate because he is a priest (in other words, he has taken a vow of chastity) and because he is old; as multiple stories have demonstrated, old men are mostly incapable of the physical performance necessary for pleasing a woman. Moreover, he is personally objectionable; the audience is primed to expect, on a day of tricks, that Piccarda will gain the upper hand and upset the provost’s plans.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Monna Piccarda very politely tries to appeal to his sense of virtue rather than reject his advances outright, but when the Provost refuses virtue and continues to pressure her, she resolves to teach him a lesson (with her brothers’ permission and participation). She tells the Provost that he has worn her down to the point of surrender, and she’s now willing to entertain him. But, in her small home, they will have to be completely silent and remain in the dark to avoid her brothers’ notice. The impatient Provost agrees to meet at her house, at least until he can think of a better place, starting that very night.
In addition to demonstrating her noble birth and polite upbringing, Piccarda’s gentle refusals illustrate the delicate position of women in a patriarchal society: she tries to indicate her disinterest obliquely rather than risk confronting him directly. Other tales in The Decameron have shown that women who directly reject a man’s advances are vulnerable to violence or sexual extortion, so her initial politeness seems to be warranted for her safety. Nevertheless, the provost operates under the assumption that, as a woman, she will give him what he wants. While Piccarda reverted to the authority of her brothers after her husband’s death, she is nevertheless able to demonstrate her own intelligence by hatching a plan in which they play a supporting role.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Intelligence Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
Quotes
Monna Piccarda has an old, unattractive maid called Cuitazza. Offering to give her the gift of a new smock for her troubles, Piccarda asks her to sleep with the Provost and Cuitazza readily agrees. When the Provost steals into the room after dark, he takes Cuitazza into his arms and possesses the “prize he had so long been coveting.” But while he’s in bed with the maid, Piccarda’s brothers happen to find the bishop in the piazza. They invite him to their home to enjoy some wine.
The tale considers Piccarda’s sexual virtue valuable, but neither the tale nor Piccarda herself extend the same consideration to the sexual virtue of Cuitazza. Because she is a servant and of lower class (and, the tale seems to suggest, also because she is physically repulsive), her virtue is cheap and unimportant. The gift implies that it’s not worth more than a servant’s apron. The language that communicates the provost’s excitement over his tryst not only uses objectifying language—reducing Piccarda from an autonomous human being in her own right to a “prize”— but it implicates him in two deadly sins: lust and covetousness (wanting something that belongs to someone else).
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
After the bishop has had some wine, the brothers say they want to show him something. They take him to Monna Piccarda’s room, where the light from their torches reveals the Provost, so spent from his furious riding that he’s fallen asleep, in Cuitazza’s arms. The unfortunate Provost, deceived and disgraced, is sent to the church for penance. After hearing the whole story, the bishop commends Piccarda and her brothers for giving the Provost his just deserts without staining their own honor.
The unfortunate provost wakes from his bliss to find that fortune’s wheel has turned on him and that he has been disgraced in front of his boss. The bishop commends the trick played by Piccarda and her brothers—which also fulfills the day’s theme—because it maintained their honor as a family. But he, too, doesn’t value Cuitazza’s honor or sexual virtue as important. The tale also suggests how vulnerable women were to sexual advances and dishonor; there was no real way for Piccarda to refuse him since he wouldn’t accept no for an answer, so her only option was to trick him.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
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The Decameron PDF