Emilia’s tale begins with an explanation of women’s place in the world. By custom and law, women are subservient to and governed by men, so a woman who wants a happy life should be “humble, patient […] obedient, [and] virtuous.” Nature, in making women “fragile…timid, and fearful,” and “compassionate and benign of disposition,” also proves their secondary status. The female body and temperament demonstrate a need to be governed by others; the governed ought to be obedient and deferential to their rulers. Disobedient women deserve not just censure but harsh punishment, as her disfigurement punished Margarita in Pampinea’s tale. The proverb that says spurs are necessary for good and bad horses and “the rod” is necessary for good and bad women is true, and not just in the frivolous interpretation. Women who exceed “permitted bounds” should be punished.
If the preceding tale rebuked the excessive punishment the scholar Rinieri took on Elena in one of The Decameron’s most virulently antifeminist tales (VIII, 7), Emilia’s tale in turn argues that women are subject to male authority, guidance, and punishment. Her tale also goes back over some of the ground Pampinea covered in her tale illustrating the dangers of disobedience in wives (IX, 7). The introductory comments invoke antifeminist tropes and recall other statements made about feminine excesses, weakness, and sinfulness: in addition to the two tales already mentioned, Lauretta claimed that women were prone to outbursts of excessive rage (IV, 3). The language of female subjugation in this (and other antifeminist) tales is grounded in medieval ideas of physiology, which held that women were incomplete specimens of humanity compared to perfected men. But nature alone isn’t responsible for women’s inferior position, which is also confirmed by law and custom: in other words, Emilia describes a patriarchal system (controlled and organized by men). When Emilia invokes the proverb that “rods” are good for women and horses, she means sticks used for corporal punishment. But since “rods” can also indicate penises, the proverb is a double entendre that also indicts women for their excessive lustfulness in its suggestion that women would like the proverb to mean they should have lots of sex instead of deserving punishment for their disobedience.
In Solomon’s day, two people seeking his wisdom meet on the road to Jerusalem. Melissus, a rich nobleman who entertains others lavishly but has no friends, wants to know what he must do to be loved. Joseph wants to know what to do with his “most perverse and stubborn” wife, since his “entreaties, endearments, and everything else” have failed to improve her. Solomon gives Melissus one word: “Love,” and Joseph three: “Go to Goosebridge.” Puzzling over these answers, the two men turn homewards, feeling more than a little foolish.
This tale invokes Solomon as the arbiter of truth since the Biblical king was famous for his wisdom. Joseph’s wife (like Margarita in IX, 7) conforms exactly to the antifeminist stereotype of the shrewish or disobedient wife. And, in a nod to the necessity of rods, the tale is careful to point out that Joseph has already tried gentler forms of correction that haven’t worked.
After some travel, they reach a bridge, where they must wait for a train of mules and horses to cross. One of the last mules, frightened, refuses to go forward. The driver begins to beat it “quite unmercifully,” and when Joseph and Melissus ask why he can’t lead it gently, he retorts “I know my mule…Just you leave him to me.” And, indeed, the mule eventually crosses the bridge. On the far side, Melissus and Joseph learn that the bridge is called “Goosebridge,” and Joseph understands the meaning of Solomon’s advice: he has “never known how to beat his wife properly,” but the mule driver has shown him the way.
The tale portrays the mule driver’s vicious beating of his animal as necessary, if uncomfortable. Joseph betrays his inability to “properly” discipline his wife (through beatings) when his initial response to the sight is to beg for mercy on the animal’s behalf. If mercy worked, the mule driver implies, he would have used it. This is the lesson Joseph needs to learn, according to Solomon: the mule driver uses the correct tool, and the distress and discomfort caused to the animal pale in comparison to the good results of the punishment (the mule finishes crossing the bridge for its own good and the good of its owner).
Joseph invites Melissus to stay with him for a few days on his way home, and they get an icy reception from Joseph’s Wife, who not only ignores their requests for dinner but seems to do the exact opposite of what she’s asked. She even tells Joseph “I shall do as I think fit, not as I am told.” Asking Melissus to observe him putting Solomon’s advice to use, Joseph takes a stout stick to the bedroom, where he beats his wife—despite her cries and pleas for mercy—until every bone and muscle in her body is “rent asunder.”
Joseph’s wife describes autonomy—doing things according to her own decisions, rather than according to his orders. But according to the patriarchal and antifeminist logic of the story, her claim to autonomy is bad. As a woman, she is meant to be subject to her husband’s authority and desires. When she refuses to conform willingly, Joseph abandons his former mercy and beats her savagely to show her that he is in charge.
The next morning, when Joseph’s Wife asks what Joseph would like for breakfast, she follows his and Melissus’s instructions exactly. Now that they understand it, the men praise Solomon’s wise advice. Once Melissus has returned home, a wise man shows him how he has dispensed favors and hospitality out of pride; as he learns to love others, others will love him.
Joseph’s wife has taken the threat of the beating seriously and now is as obedient as she was previously perverse. If she began as the misogynistic vision of a bad wife, she is now performing the role of a good one. Yet, other tales in The Decameron trouble the easy assertion that physical violence is always salutary or necessary for women: in an earlier tale, Calandrino beat his wife, Tessa, for allegedly ruining his magic stone, even though she was not at fault (VIII, 3). This complicates attempts to read the tales as empowering women generally—despite Boccaccio’s claims of love for the fairer sex and the number of female narrators and protagonists.