Filomena speaks first, choosing Love as her topic, since the company couldn’t exhaust the subject if they talked about it every day for a whole year. Her tale will show how love can inspire lovers to feats as strange as entering tombs and dressing up as corpses. In Pistoia, a beautiful young widow named Francesca de’ Lazzari is courted by two refugees from Florence, Alessandro Chiarmontesi and Rinuccio Palermini. Because she incautiously humored each man in the past, she can’t easily extricate herself from their pursuits until she develops a plan to reject their advances on “plausible and legitimate grounds.”
Although Filomena claims that her tale illustrates the overwhelming power of love to cause lovers to do strange things, it also provides an example of a clever woman ridding herself of her unwanted lovers. It thus connects with tales of other women who find themselves in the same situation, whether they successfully extricate themselves, like Monna Isabella (VII, 6) and Monna Piccarda (VIII, 4), or not, like Elena (VIII, 7). The tale assigns at least some blame to Francesca for her situation: listening to or “humoring” each man’s suit in the past has generated an expectation that their courtship will continue until it is successful, unless there is a compelling reason for her to decline. This suggests that, as a woman, she doesn’t have full autonomy over decisions of love, but is beholden to the expectations of her suitors. The fact that both suitors are political refugees from Florence points to the political upheavals of the 13th and 14th centuries.
On the day of Francesca de’ Lazzari’s inspiration, a recently deceased man called “Scannadio” has been buried nearby. He was a notorious rogue and ugly enough to “frighten the bravest man in the land.” Francesca sends a message to Alessandro Chiarmontesi with a somewhat plausible scheme for sneaking him into her home: one of her kinsmen is planning (for unstated reasons) to take Scannadio’s body from his tomb and hide it in her house. She wants Alessandro to break into the tomb, put on Scannadio’s clothes, and impersonate his corpse. Then, she tells Rinuccio Palermini that if he steals Scannadio’s body (for reasons she’ll explain later) and carries it to her house, she will give him what he desires.
The situation Francesca engineers flirts with excess. Scannadio’s name literally means “slit God’s throat,” suggesting that he’s not just a bad guy but that he’s the worst of the worst. Emphasizing his evilness and his ugliness serves to increase the terror Alessandro must overcome to enter his tomb at night and take his place, and the fear and distaste that Rinuccio might feel over stealing his corpse. She’s clever enough to pick things that are just horrific enough to be off-putting but not so ridiculous that it will be clear that she’s trying to rid herself of either man. And she sweetens the deal with her sex appeal, implying that Alessandro will find himself in a position to visit her private quarters once he’s been carried into her house in disguise and frankly promising to sleep with Rinuccio in exchange for doing such a strange (not to mention illegal and immoral) task for her.
Alessandro Chiarmontesi and Rinuccio Palermini each say they’re ready to go into Hell itself for Francesca de’ Lazzari, who waits to see what will happen. Heading to Scannadio’s tomb, Alessandro is scared that Francesca’s relatives have discovered his love and concocted this strange scheme to murder him. If, on the other hand, they do want the corpse, he can only imagine they want to abuse it, so he fears he'll be beaten up either way. But his love makes “counter-arguments […] so persuasive” that he enters the tomb, dresses in the dead man’s clothes, and lays down despite his fear that Scannadio’s corpse will reanimate and slit his throat.
It turns out that Alessandro doesn’t fear the dead or divine judgement as much as he fears Francesca’s relatives. Nevertheless, he proves himself to be a faithful and brave lover by following through on Francesca’s request regardless of his worry. The fact that the tale doesn’t detail what counterarguments could possibly overcome the fear of being murdered or savagely beaten suggests the force of love, which can overpower common sense.
Likewise, as Rinuccio Palermini sets out to retrieve Scannadio’s corpse, he worries that he’ll be caught and punished either by the law or the man’s family. But he’s determined to honor this first request from Francesca de’ Lazzari, even if it means his death. At the tomb, he hoists Alessandro Chiarmontesi over his shoulders and sets off toward Francesca’s house, banging Alessandro into things in the dark. But before he can knock on her door, two night-watchmen intercept him. He drops Alessandro, and both lovers take off running.
Like his counterpart, Rinuccio worries over the legal and ethical implications of stealing a corpse, but his love for Francesca is so overwhelming that he ignores his fears and follows through on her request. In doing so, he represents the ability of love to overpower common sense and proves Rinuccio to be a faithful and true suitor.
Watching from a window, Francesca de’ Lazzari is somewhat impressed by each man’s bravery, but she also laughs when they run away from the guards. After escaping, Rinuccio Palermini tries to retrieve the “corpse” so he can complete his assignment, but it’s gone. Rinuccio and Alessandro Chiarmontesi return to their homes, heartbroken by their failures. In the morning, each tells Francesca how hard he tried, apologizes for his failure, and asks for “forgiveness […] and love.” But since they both failed, she cleanly rids herself of each.
Alessandro and Rinuccio proved themselves to be faithful and brave lovers, and according to the logic of many of the other tales, Francesca would owe them both her love for having proved themselves worthy. Yet, she had the foresight to concoct an impossible mission for each, and so she was able to rid herself of them both. But it’s important to remember that the ability of a woman to get away with turning down a man in The Decameron is very much dependent on the storyteller and the woman’s other circumstances: in other tales, women are punished or raped for denying a man. The feminine empowerment at the heart of this tale isn’t a foregone conclusion, because of the misogynistic and antifeminist gender stereotypes that inform the tales generally.