The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 8: Ninth Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Before beginning her tale, Lauretta notes that some people’s ignorance means that they’re practically begging to be pranked. Tricksters who return tit for tat or who prank gullible people shouldn’t be judged too harshly. Master Simone da Villa is one of those gullible people. After studying medicine at Bologna, he moves to Florence grandly dressed but not very wise. Among his eccentricities, he shows a great deal of curiosity about his neighbors and is always asking questions about everyone, especially Bruno and Buffalmacco.
Lauretta’s tale critiques an educated—yet still unwise—man. It thus participates in The Decameron’s argument about merit, proving that personal characteristics (like intelligence and common sense) are stronger indicators of a person’s worth than markers of their status, like titles (such as “Doctor”) or wealth. As soon as she introduces the names of Bruno and Buffalmacco (in this, their third appearance in the tales), the audience is primed to expect hijinks and trickery.
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Noting that Bruno and Buffalmacco are always happy and carefree, despite being poor painters, Simone da Villa concludes that they must have a secret source of money. He cultivates Bruno’s friendship, and Bruno is delighted by the doctor’s evident gullibility. After hosting Bruno for breakfast a few times, Simone asks how he and his friend support themselves, and Bruno reveals that they, unable to live on their work alone, obtain the “pleasures and necessities of life” by “go[ing] the course.”
Simone cannot see the irony of the situation when, in trying to figure out how Bruno and Buffalmacco always seem to be happy despite their lack of income, he becomes their frequent host. In contrast, the clever and wily Bruno makes a quick mark of Simone and creates a trick designed to bilk him of as many of the pleasures and necessities of life—money, food, and wine—as he can. His suggestion of secret knowledge, as in other tales, provides cover for his trick, since it suggests something a person would want or need to keep quiet to avoid the attention of the church or secular authorities.
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Simone da Villa begs to know what “going the course” means. Bruno is reluctant to share the secret for fear of being punished. But he so respects the physician’s “ineptitude” that he will risk it if Simone promises absolute secrecy. He tells the doctor that he and Buffalmacco are members of a secret society, formed some years ago when a group of Florentine nobles persuaded the great Scottish necromancer Michael Scott to leave behind two of his disciples to minister to their needs. The company, made of men “rich or poor, patrician or plebian,” meets twice a month to grant the wishes of its members.
Much of the humor in this tale derives from Simone’s evident inability to understand the words that Bruno uses when talking with him. Thus, instead of praising the doctor’s “aptitude,” he cites his “ineptitude”—but Simone can’t tell the difference. Michael Scott was a famous Scottish philosopher who lived at the court of King Frederick of Sicily during the 13th century. His connection with occult magic was legendary in the later Middle Ages, and in Dante’s Divine Comedy, he’s consigned to hell as a sorcerer. The makeup of the secret society is a clear comment on class and merit: anyone and everyone can be a member, despite their social status. But just as the society can elevate a humble man, the tale also implies the reverse: even an educated and wealthy doctor can be gullible and act foolishly.
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The secret society has banquets in beautiful rooms served by handsome servants; the plates, silverware, and cups are made of silver and gold; the food and wine are rich, delicious, and never-ending; and everyone wears fine and rich clothing. But the highlight is the beautiful women who are magically provided for the members from the four corners of the world. Many of them are powerful queens, who cavort with society members in splendid beds after dinner. Buffalmacco prefers the Queen of France, while Bruno likes the Queen of England. These rich ladies are happy to give the painters a few thousand florins now and then.
The vision of the secret society that Bruno paints is suspiciously tempting. In part, it draws on descriptions of noble entertainments that filled medieval literature (especially romances). But even in the context of a secret society, the idea that the fine queens of the world willingly come to Florence to have sex with lowly painters strains credibility. The queens also show that no woman is free from patriarchal (controlled by men) desires: even the highest and most powerful women in the world become tokens to be collected by men.
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Although Simone da Villa’s medical wisdom is great (or great enough to treat a baby’s thrush, at least) he is stunned to learn about “going the course,” and he wants to join the secret society himself. But he decides to first curry Bruno’s favor with more hospitality. He invites Bruno for breakfast and supper regularly and displays “boundless affection” for him. In gratitude, Bruno paints several murals—including a chamber-pot over the front door—for Simone.
Thrush is a fungal infection common in babies; the implication is that Simone’s medical knowledge extends about as far as that of any medieval mother, who would have treated her baby’s thrush with home remedies. Even as he’s giving them free meals, Simone still can’t see that he’s solved the mystery of how the painters live so well: they are constantly feeding themselves at the expense of wealthier men. The chamber pot is both a sign foreshadowing the filthy ending of the tale and a legitimate advertisement for Doctor Simone’s services. Because an important diagnostic tool in medieval medicine was urinalysis, or diagnosis by examining a patient’s urine, chamber pots were often used on doctors’ signs.
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Every so often, Bruno describes a society meeting, stringing Simone da Villa along with tidbits about the women he calls for. When Simone feels that Bruno is “sufficiently in his debt,” he asks to be initiated. He plans to wish for “the comeliest serving wench you’ve seen,” whom he met a year ago in “Cacavincigli.” Although he offered her money at the time, she turned him down. He also has a lot to offer the company: not only is he a doctor, but he’s handsome, and an excellent singer. He bursts into song to prove it, and Bruno compliments his “cacophonous voice.” The doctor goes on to point out that he’s a nobleman (although his parents both came from the country), with a fine collection of books and nice clothes.
If further indications of Simone’s poor taste were necessary, he has set his romantic sights comically low, on a commoner who may even be a prostitute (since he offered her money for sex). And while his wealth and education qualify him as a solidly middle-class medieval gentleman, the tale continues to mock his ineptitude. It suggests that a gentleman in the country is the same as a rube in the city.  
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Bruno would comply with Simone da Villa’s request—both because he loves him “as a brother” and because his words are “seasoned with so much wisdom”—if he could. If he gives his word “as a gentleman and a moron” to keep it secret, Bruno will tell him how to get in. Simone must befriend Buffalmacco, since he is the next captain, and his opinion on new members will hold greater weight. Buffalmacco is already “dying to meet [Simone].” In his ridiculous eagerness, Simone loses no time in meeting Buffalmacco, and the painters stuff themselves “like princes” at his table.
Yet again Bruno’s speech mocks the doctor who can’t hear or understand the hidden insults in it. Simone’s assent to the pledge confirms that he is, as Bruno says, an airheaded gentleman. Bruno also extends the con to benefit his friend Buffalmacco. And still, Simone cannot see that the painters are dining in the exact way they describe as “going the course” (like princes) at his own table and expense.
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When Simone da Villa asks Buffalmacco for admittance into the secret society, he offers so many “pearls of wisdom” that Buffalmacco tells him that it seems more like he studied how to “capture men’s minds…with [his] wisdom and…singular ways” than medicine in Bologna. Simone replies that he was very popular in Bologna where he “made everybody laugh because [he] was very popular” every time he opened his mouth. Eventually, Buffalmacco offers Simone his “equivocal promise” to enroll him in the company.
Obviously, Simone’s “pearls of wisdom” aren’t particularly wise. But by pretending to have been swayed by the doctor, the painters draw him further into the con by gaining his trust. Simone also continues to demonstrate his total lack of self-awareness when he describes his popularity in Bologna: his comments (in conjunction with what he’s already said to Bruno and Buffalmacco) suggest that people were more likely to have been laughing at him than with him. And Buffalmacco also teases the silly physician with his intentional malapropisms, asking for an “equivocal” (uncertain or confusing) rather than an “unequivocal” (clear and certain) promise.
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Buffalmacco also promises Simone da Villa the “Countess of Cesspool” as his mistress; she will help him forget his serving wench. He explains that she is a great lady who makes her presence known everywhere in the world; even monks honor her with their “big bass drum.” Her symbols are the rod and bucket, and her vassals include “Baron Ffouljakes, Lord Dung, Viscount Broomhandle…and the Earl of Loosefart.” Simone doesn’t catch exactly what he's saying because he was raised in Bologna.
The tale takes a definite turn toward the scatological (drawing its humor from excrement) when Buffalmacco describes the mistress the alleged secret society has found for Simone; this also foreshadows the tale’s dirty ending. Again, Simone isn’t clever enough to be suspicious at being paired with a woman whose name is, essentially, “Lady Toilet,” and whose coat of arms is decorated with the tools of an outhouse. And the drums announcing her presence and the names of her courtiers evoke the sounds of farts. Only at this point does the tale suggest that part of Simone’s difficulty understanding the painter arises from the differences in dialect between different areas of Italy. By waiting until now, the story suggests that Simone’s stupidity is more to blame for his misunderstandings than his lack of Florentine slang vocabulary.  
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Within a few days, Bruno and Buffalmacco explain to Simone da Villa how he will be inducted. That night, after dark, he must put on his best clothes—because the Countess of Cesspool wants to make him into a Knight of the Bath—and wait on Santa Maria Novella’s crypts. A black, horned creature will come to fetch him. He must not let it frighten him, though it will try. When it comes to him, he will climb on its back, but he must not hold on with his hands or call on God or the saints. Breaking any of these rules will land him “in a stinking mess.” Simone recounts two anecdotes to demonstrate his bravery: once he carried a girl to bed despite her protests, and once he passed a fresh grave without fear.
The church where Simone is to wait, Santa Maria Novella, is the same church where the brigata gathered at the beginning of The Decameron. The alarming description of the demonic creature that comes to convey him to the secret society’s meeting both sets up the parameters for the prank and stresses the occult, even satanic atmosphere of the society. And although the pair’s warning that failure to observe the rules will land the doctor in a stinking mess sounds like a general caution, their intensifying potty humor foreshadows a rather more specific mess.
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As darkness falls, Simone da Villa gives his wife an excuse for going out. Tall, sturdy Buffalmacco disguises himself as the demonic creature and goes to the church square where he leaps about and hisses in an alarming way. When he approaches Simone, the doctor is “terrified out of his wits,” but he manages to climb onto Buffalmacco’s back, whispering “God preserve me.”
When Buffalmacco dresses himself as the beast, readers understand why Simone can’t touch him with his hands—too much contact might betray the trick. Despite his big talk of bravery, Simone is alarmed by the appearance of a demonic creature. And when he predictably whispers a short prayer, he gives the painters all the excuse they need to dump him in a stinking mess.
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Buffalmacco carries Simone da Villa through the city and along ditches where “farmers…pour the offerings of the Countess of Cesspool” to fertilize their fields. He suddenly seizes one of Simone’s feet and throws him into the ditch, snarling and leaping around before running back to Bruno, who is hidden nearby. Simone climbs out of the ditch with great difficulty, scrapes off as much ooze as he can, and goes home, where Bruno and Buffalmacco eavesdrop on his wife’s reception. While Simone tries to clean up, she says he deserved it for going to see another woman.
When the tale describes the sewage ditches along the road as the offerings to Simone’s alleged mistress, the audience knows to expect what happens next: Simone is dumped into the raw sewage as repayment for his kindness and hospitality to the two painters and his gullibility. Nor does poor Simone’s trial end when he climbs out of the muck, since his wife immediately suspects him of cheating on her (which, in fairness, was his initial intent). 
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The next morning, Bruno and Buffalmacco paint bruises on their chests and visit Simone da Villa, who still reeks. They complain that they were mercilessly beaten after their nominated member failed the initiation. Their informant told them that Simone trembled like a leaf when he climbed on the beast and that he invoked God’s name. He apologizes profusely and (to keep his misadventure quiet) he entertains them more lavishly than before.
In a day dedicated to tricks, it’s not surprising that Bruno and Buffalmacco get away with this one without being punished. And, because Simone’s greediness for secret knowledge and an exclusive lover went before his downfall, the trick seems relatively harmless. Yet, it doubles down on punishing Simone for his stupidity, since Bruno and Buffalmacco are able to continue to swindle him of hospitality on the implicit threat of blackmail.
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