The company appreciates the pig prank but feels that the chickens go too far, and they pity Calandrino. Pampinea says that her tale will offer a warning about deceiving others. Sometimes the victim of a deception manages to get “just retribution” for it.
The brigata’s reaction to the extortion of the chickens, which takes the theft of the pig too far, points to an ongoing exploration of moderation and excess in this section of tales: which tricks are funny, and which are mean? Which are licensed and which are excessive? Pampinea claims that her tale will illustrate “just retribution,” or an exact repayment of a harm. Whether her tale will illustrate such moderation or not remains to be seen.
Just a little while before the company came together, a very beautiful, proud, and gently bred widow named Elena lives in Florence. Swearing to never remarry, she has taken a “charming young man” of her choice as her lover. Around the same time, Rinieri, a young Florentine nobleman, returns from his studies in Paris. He falls desperately in love with Elena when he sees her at a banquet. In her vanity, Elena notices and toys with his attentions, thinking Rinieri is a “simpleton” she can lead “by the nose.”
The similarities between this tale (which also happens to be the longest one in The Decameron) and a later, semi-autobiographical work of Giovanni Boccaccio called the Corbaccio, have led many scholars to interpret Rinieri as a thinly veiled avatar of Boccaccio himself. In this way, the tale might be interpreted as playing out an emotional fantasy the book’s author has about Elena—whose real-life identity remains a mystery. Like Piccarda (VIII, 4), Elena’s widowhood gives her a modicum of freedom within the patriarchal (controlled by men) system, and by delaying or avoiding remarriage entirely and taking a lover, she prevents herself from falling back under the control of male authority. Even though the tale’s narrator is a woman, Pampinea, and despite Elena’s claim of sexual freedom, this tale is deeply rooted in antifeminist, misogynistic stereotypes about women, beginning with their vanity. Elena leads Rinieri on because she’s vain and because she has an inflated sense of her own intelligence.
Believing Elena to be interested, Rinieri cultivates her maid as a go-between, and when the maid carries messages to her mistress, Elena wonders if Rinieri has left his wisdom in Paris. She toys with Rinieri, suggesting that his affections are returned but that she must be careful to protect her honor. While he sends gifts and she offers vague replies, she ridicules Rinieri to her lover. But her lover eventually becomes jealous of the scholar, which inspires Elena to play a particularly involved trick on Rinieri.
Rinieri is acting like a good lover according to the codes and expectations of fin’amors (refined loving). He sends messages and gifts to show his affection and intent. Yet, Elena hasn’t been operating in good faith, and has only allowed him to pay her attention because it suits her vanity and makes him look foolish. She is in violation of the cultural codes around love, which dictate that an honorable person only gives signs of interest when he or she is truly interested. In this way, Elena contrasts sharply with Piccarda from an earlier tale (VIII, 4), who found herself in a similar situation of receiving unwanted attention but who extricated herself honorably.
Elena invites Rinieri to visit her after dark on the day after Christmas, and the maid admits him to a courtyard where he is locked in to wait. He quickly becomes cold due to the thick blanket of snow on the ground. But he suffers in patience, believing that his lady will soon reward him. Meanwhile, Elena has also invited her lover, and they watch from a window as the maid explains to Rinieri that Elena’s brother visited unexpectedly and is delaying her. He accepts this and says he’ll wait until she can come to him.
The codes of fin’amors (refined loving) require a man to patiently suffer whatever his mistress (or fortune) throws at him. Rinieri, then, is operating in good faith as a potential lover. Elena, however, is the nightmare version of the “cruel” lady. Gendered expectations of women’s submission to men frequently allow any woman who rejects a man’s advances—for whatever reason, including preserving her chastity, fidelity to a spouse, or simple distaste—to be labeled as “cruel,” or inhumane in their treatment of their potential lovers (for example, Restituta’s refusal of Gianni in V, 6 or Madonna Giovanna’s refusal of Federigo in V, 9). In this tale, full reign is given to the misogynistic portrayal of the cruel lady’s excessive meanness as Elena toys with Rinieri’s affections explicitly for her own enjoyment.
Seeing Rinieri left outside to freeze to death nearly convinces Elena’s lover that she doesn’t care for the scholar at all. While they’re having sex all through the night, they mock the scholar. Meanwhile, Rinieri waits, becoming colder all the time. By the early morning hours, Elena’s cold treatment towards Rinieri has dispelled the chill of jealousy in her lover’s heart. They creep to the courtyard door to mock him further.
Although Elena initiated the trick to soothe her lover’s jealousy and show him that she has no amorous feelings for Rinieri, she doesn’t drop the trick once she’s accomplished this. Her excessive pleasure in treating Rinieri cruelly subverts normal gender hierarchies (since she’s in power over him) and contradicts the rules of fin’amors, according to which she should reward him for his patience rather than continue to punish him. It also contributes to the antifeminist feeling of the tale, which holds her in great contempt for her cruel behavior.
Elena calls Rinieri through a crack in the door. He gratefully expects to be allowed in so he can warm up. But Elena says he should be used to the snow from his time in cold Paris. She answers his pleas to warm up inside with a claim that opening the door would alert her brother, who she says is still there. Rinieri asks her to prepare a nice big fire so he can warm up, but she retorts that she doesn’t understand how he can be cold now, since his love letters always claimed that he was burning up with passion. She returns to having sex and mocking Rinieri with her lover.
The reasons Elena gives Rinieri for keeping him in the courtyard are mixed: the claim that letting him in risks discovery by her brother sounds legitimate, but the rest of her reasons betray the truth, that this is an inhumane trick and that she’s making a mockery of him for his love. If any doubt remained, it’s gone by the time she mockingly says that his burning passion should be keeping him warm in the snow. As the story pushes Elena’s malicious behavior to the limit, it paints a starkly antifeminist portrait of the cruelty women can inflict on men when they deny them their love.
Finally understanding that he’s been tricked, Rinieri tries to escape, but every door is locked. During the cold night, his “longstanding love [is] transformed into savage and bitter hatred” and he indulges in elaborate revenge fantasies. At dawn, the maid allows him to leave, maintaining the story about the brother’s visit. Rinieri hides his seething anger while he stumbles home, nearly paralyzed with cold. He nearly succumbs, but milder weather and the ministrations of physicians restore his strength.
Romantic love and hate, both strong emotional states, are closely linked in the fin’amors tradition, and other lovers in The Decameron have undergone similar transitions (for example, Guillaume de Roussillon in IV, 9 or Ninetta in IV, 3). Rinieri’s hatred is magnified, however, by the truly horrific treatment Elena subjected him to. When he's locked in the courtyard, his physical state is a metaphorical representation of his internal state: trapped by his affection for a woman who is icy cold towards him.
After some time, fortune gives Rinieri a chance to enact his revenge. Elena’s lover leaves her for another woman, and she’s heartbroken. Her maid thinks Rinieri may know some magic spells (thanks to his Parisian education) that would help her regain his affection. Without pausing to consider that if he did know any spells, Rinieri would have used them before, Elena asks for his help. Praising God that he now has a chance to “punish the wicked hussy,” Rinieri agrees to meet with her.
Fortune, in this tale, allies itself with Rinieri, almost as if in apology for the harsh treatment he received from Elena. When Elena loses her lover, it suggests the limits of her freedom: by choosing a lover instead of a husband (in other words, by choosing to retain her freedom rather than submit herself to male authority), Elena has chosen autonomy but sacrificed security. She has also become, in Rinieri’s words, a “wicked hussy,” although presumably if she had returned his affection, he would not have considered her extramarital sexuality deviant. Because of the misogynistic character of the tale, losing her lover is cast as punishment for claiming a widow’s freedom. But it also illustrates the narrow range of options available for women in a patriarchal society (controlled by men). When she appeals to Rinieri’s help, Elena continues to conform to misogynistic stereotypes of women as stupid and gullible.
Elena, forgetting how badly she mistreated him, pours out her troubles to Rinieri. Although magic displeases God and Rinieri vowed to avoid it, he pretends that his love for her outweighs his concern for sin. But he warns that she will have to be brave and secretive for the charm to work. “More a slave to love than a model of common sense,” Elena is willing to do anything.
Elena’s belief that Rinieri will help her emphasizes her vanity and shallowness (allegedly female qualities often emphasized in antifeminist literature) and her inability to perceive how her actions affect those around her. It’s worth noting that Rinieri’s earlier, lovestruck behavior also classified him as a slave to love, willing to do anything (even freeze nearly to death) for the chance to see his mistress. Yet, his servitude is presented as noble while hers is excessive, pointing to the misogynistic framing of the tale, which belittles and punishes Elena on Rinieri’s behalf.
Rinieri describes the ritual. He will make a tin figure of her lover. Elena must wait for a dark night, then hold the figure in her hand while she undresses and immerses herself seven times in a flowing stream. Still naked, she must climb to a high, deserted place, then repeat a magic spell that he will give her. Two ladies will appear, and after she tells them her wish, she can descend, dress, and go home. By the next night, her lover will have returned. Elena plans to do the ritual at a remote farm she owns where there is a flowing stream and an abandoned tower. Although he claims ignorance, Rinieri recognizes the farm she describes.
The ritual Rinieri describes sounds just legitimate enough to be believable. It also isolates and makes Elena vulnerable, since it must be performed in a remote place in the middle of the night, and she must be naked. In a religiously-oriented society, magic and the devil’s work need to be done in secret, so the idea of esoteric, possibly dark knowledge lends itself to tricks and pranks (for example, the secret penance Dom Felice describes to Friar Puccio in III, 4 or the trick Bruno and Buffalmacco will play in VIII, 9).
Delighted at the thought of his impending revenge, Rinieri makes the tin figure and writes out some nonsense spell words, sending both to Elena. Then he takes a servant with him to a friend’s house near Elena’s farm. Elena also takes her maid to the country. Without telling the maid her plans, she steals out of her house at midnight. She undresses, dips into the stream, and walks to the tower. Hidden nearby, Rinieri is nearly overcome by the allure of her naked body when she passes by. Feeling pity and arousal, he wants to “seize her in his arms and take his pleasure of her, ” but he strengthens his resolve by recalling her cruel treatment of him.
Rinieri’s revenge plot involves isolating Elena and making her vulnerable, and he takes advantage of this by hiding in the bushes to leer at her naked body. The power of feminine beauty over male willpower is a frequent concern in misogynistic literature; and at the sight of Elena, Rinieri is overcome with desire to the point that he nearly forgives her and abandons his revenge. Yet, even this moving “power” of her beauty is based in vulnerability, because what he wants to do is rape her, even though she is still in love with the man who abandoned her. But then he remembers how she objectified him and made him the butt of her mockery.
Elena climbs to the top of the tower and recites the spell while Rinieri silently dismantles the ladder. After the magical maidens fail to appear, she begins to suspect that he wants “to give [her] a night like the one [she] provided for him,” and she discovers that she is trapped when she prepares to descend, and the ladder is gone. Weeping and wailing, she repents of the trick she played on Rinieri and curses her fate. When people learn that she was found naked on the tower, they’ll reconsider her reputation. If she makes an excuse, she fears that Rinieri will expose her affair.
Rinieri’s revenge illustrates the concept of “contrapasso” which Dante (whom Boccaccio admired and emulated) employed in the Divine Comedy. It is when the punishment is exactly correlated with the sin, but enacted with excessive force. In this case, Elena trapped Rinieri in a cold courtyard, behind the walls of the house and where only she (and her lover) could witness his humiliation. He, in turn, has trapped her in a high, exposed place where anyone might see her nakedness exposed. Her repentance can’t save her because it comes too late and because it’s not the result of genuine remorse, but rather of fear for her own impending dishonor. Moreover, the bind in which she finds herself illustrates the vulnerability and constriction of women, because Rinieri has blackmailed her into accepting her punishment without blaming him: if she tries, he can expose her earlier affair.
By the time the sun rises, Elena is so desperate she’s nearly suicidal. While searching around for help, she sees Rinieri. Lying down on the roof and putting her head through the trapdoor so he can’t see her nakedness, she chastises him for his trick, says that she’s learned her lesson, and appeals to his gentlemanly nature to end her sufferings. She took from him something that she can now return (her affections), but if he takes away her good name, he won’t be able to restore that to her. Her tears inspire sorrow in Rinieri, but he also feels pleasure in his revenge, and since “his passion [is] unequal…to his craving for revenge,” he refuses to help her.
Elena’s desperate attempts to negotiate with Rinieri illustrate the helplessness of her position and show how little bargaining power she has in their relationship, which is unbalanced by a patriarchal gender hierarchy. But her offers are based in antifeminist stereotypes, too, since she tries to leverage her body and sexual access to it to gain the upper hand against Rinieri. Thus, when he refuses to cave into his pity and abandon his revenge, his choice can be interpreted as a victory for masculine willpower in the face of feminine manipulation and sex appeal. But on the other hand, he also demonstrates excessiveness when he refuses to relent, even after Elena points out the essential imbalance in their positions: at no point was his public reputation at risk in her trick, although his revenge hinges entirely on making his punishment of her public in some way.
Rinieri tells Elena that she could have expected some compassion from him now if she had shown him any on that winter night. He mocks her concern for her good name now, since she didn’t care enough to avoid taking her lover before. Maybe, he suggests, she should ask the man in whose hands she’s already placed her reputation (her lover) to rescue her. Rinieri himself no longer wants the sexual favors she offers. And if he did, he would take them by force before she could offer them freely.
As the tale progresses, it becomes increasingly unclear what Rinieri is punishing Elena for, and in this passage he cites three related but competing reasons: her lack of compassion, the lack of sexual self-restraint she demonstrated in taking a lover, and, by implication, sleeping with another man while rejecting Rinieri himself. This adds to the antifeminist mood of the tale: Rinieri’s anger extends beyond Elena’s trick on him to anger that she had another man as her lover and anger that she felt free to pick and choose her sexual encounters. His frequent reminders of his power over her also highlight the vulnerability of women. She is powerless and has nothing to offer him, because he can take whatever he wants from her.
Rinieri resents Elena’s attempt to avoid punishment “for [her] wickedness” by appealing to his “better nature.” Even if he were a charitable man, she isn’t the kind of woman who deserves it. And he disagrees that his trick is revenge (which exceeds the original wrong). He thinks that it is punishment for her attempt to murder him; taking her life or the lives of another hundred “foul and wicked” women wouldn’t be as bad as that. Although she’s pretty, she’s nothing more than a “miserable little whore” and her life is worth much less than his, since he’s a “gentleman…who can bring more benefit to humanity in a single day” than she could in thousands of years.
Elena appeals to Rinieri’s better nature and to ideas like compassion and nobility. This is nearly successful, but it also pushes him to even more extreme positions. To continue with what he feels is fair punishment, he has to thoroughly dehumanize her. In doing so, he draws on and repeats the kind of virulent and violent language that characterizes antifeminist literature. He even puts exact numbers on the relative value of men and women: his life is worth as much as the lives of a hundred women.
If Elena is so anxious to descend the tower, Rinieri suggests that she make him happy by committing suicide. She tries to argue that putting aside her initial hatred and confiding in him should have earned her some mercy. She tries to thank him for teaching her the error of her ways. She begs for his forgiveness, promises to forsake her lover, and submits herself to him as her “lord” even if he no longer wants her love. She also chastises him for criticizing her beauty, since “beauty…brings sweetness, joy, and solace to a man’s youth.”
Elena, who formerly abused the power she had over Rinieri, now tries to demonstrate that she’s willing to take her “proper” place under his authority. However, she demonstrates lingering vanity when she defends beauty as that which has its own value.
Rinieri retorts that Elena confided in him out of desperation, not respect. He brags that he could have punished her in a thousand other ways, although he’s glad she fell into this trap, because her shame and suffering are enhancing his pleasure. If she eluded all his traps, he could have punished her by publicly writing about her sins. He tells her that he doesn’t want her love since he has a better lady now, and he criticizes women generally for preferring young and handsome men to older, wiser, and more experienced ones. This is to their detriment—her lover left her because young men are never content with one woman. He implies that her lover hasn’t kept quiet about their affair, so her reputation is already lost.
Not content with her submission, Rinieri continues to debase and condemn Elena. He even admits the excessive, masochistic pleasure of punishing her in this way, which he gets to witness firsthand. And he describes his predatory role: although she could have escaped this specific punishment, there was no way for her to avoid any punishment at his hands. As soon as she tricked him, she placed herself in his power, because from that moment he held the power to expose her sins publicly through writing if nothing else. Furthermore, he repeats gender-based critiques of women as shallow, since they prefer handsome young men to more experienced lovers.
Seizing on his new love, Elena asks Rinieri to pity her for the sake of his lady, and he pretends to go off to find her clothes. But, leaving his servant to guard the tower, he goes back to his friend’s house for a siesta. Elena tries to hide from the blazing sun in the insufficient shelter of the parapet wall. The sun burns her until her skin splits into “tiny cracks and fissures” and she can’t move without great pain. To make things worse, flies swarm around her bleeding flesh, further tormenting her. No one is around to help her since the day is so hot and no one is in the fields. Helpless, Elena turns into “the ugliest thing in the world” while she waits on the tower.
Rinieri’s disregard for Elena’s appeal to his new lady suggests not so subtly that this other woman is a lie invented to make Elena feel jealous or to keep her in a vulnerable spot by preventing her from trying to use her sex appeal to soften Rinieri’s heart. He demonstrates callous cruelty when he abandons her in the heat of the day to take a nap. And while her physical discomfort in the burning sun mirrors his in the snowy courtyard, the tale describes her pain in exquisite detail, making it feel more excessive than his. Moreover, the vanity that caused her to lead Rinieri on is punished when her extreme sunburn turns her from extremely pretty to incredibly ugly and deformed.
Late in the afternoon, Rinieri returns. A weakening Elena bursts into tears and begs him in God’s name to end his unreasonably severe revenge, either with rescue or by killing her. At the very least she asks for some water. Rinieri feels a “modicum of pity” but doggedly sticks to his revenge, telling the “vile strumpet” that he will give her as much water to restore her from the heat as she gave him fire to restore him from the cold. He complains that fragrant waters cure burns while his hypothermia required being packed in animal manure. Elena wonders what punishment he could have imagined for even greater sins, like murdering his family and all his friends.
In comparison to Rinieri’s night in the courtyard, which is covered in a few paragraphs, pages are lavished on describing Elena’s punishment. This contributes to the antifeminist feeling of the tale, since the level of detail suggests that the tale’s pleasure is to be found in the example of a scornful and cruel women being punished with a painful and humiliating torture. Rinieri’s frequent pangs of pity point to his humanity and to an awareness that this punishment is somehow excessive, yet his feelings of rage over having been tricked and sexually humiliated by a woman are not yet quieted. At this point in the tale, it’s hard to imagine what will please him, and it has begun to feel like Rinieri plans to leave Elena up there to die.
Finally, as evening approaches, Rinieri feels that his revenge is complete—although he would like to punish her maid, too. He brings Elena’s clothes to her maid and has his servant take her to Elena. The maid arrives just as a swineherd has finally heard Elena’s cries. He reassembles the ladder, and after the maid brings Elena her clothes and the welcome news that no one knows about her trials, he carries Elena down. The maid unluckily misses the ladder and falls from the tower, breaking her leg. When Elena returns to Florence, she “[weaves] a completely fictious account” of the affair and successfully claims that her injuries and her maid’s are the work of evil spirits.
The tale’s antifeminist bent is confirmed when the maid—who helped Elena pull her earlier prank on Rinieri—gets her own painful punishment, even though it’s in fortune’s hands instead of Rinieri’s when she happens to fall from the tower and break her leg. There is also misogyny inherent in the suggestion that, despite Rinieri’s best efforts, Elena is able to manipulate her friends and family in such a way that she saves her reputation, despite deserving to be known to the world as a vile strumpet.
Elena undergoes a lengthy and painful recuperation from her burns, shedding her skin several times over because it keeps sticking to her sheets. She doesn’t miss her lover, play tricks, or fall in love again. Rinieri, hearing that the maid broke her leg, considers his revenge complete and goes “happily about his business.” Thus, ladies should know to think twice before playing tricks, especially on scholars.
Yet despite escaping the dishonor of having her affair revealed, Elena is still punished severely for crossing Rinieri, and the tale’s final moments detail the ongoing torment of the treatment for her extreme sunburns. In the end, she is chastised and takes her rightful place as a virtuous and submissive woman.