In 1348, the Bubonic Plague ravages the city of Florence, turning society upside down. During these dark days, seven young women—Pampinea, Fiammetta, Filomena, Emilia, Lauretta, Neifile, and Elissa—run into each other at the church of Santa Maria Novella. Pampinea suggests they temporarily flee the city to escape the plague. They recruit three men, Panfilo, Filostrato, and Dioneo, to join them and (along with their servants) they leave the city. In the countryside, Pampinea suggests that they pass the hot afternoons telling each other tales in cool gardens. Over the next two weeks (taking a break on Fridays and Saturdays), the members of the group, or brigata, tell ten stories apiece. Each day, one member rules as sovereign, directing the day’s entertainment and setting the tales’ theme.
Pampinea rules Day I. Although the day doesn’t have an explicit theme, its tales all showcase human ingenuity and wisdom. Excessively wicked Cepperello cons his way into sainthood; Jewish Abraham’s intellectual curiosity leads to his Christian conversion; and another Jew, Melchizedek, wisely avoids a dangerous question about whether Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is the true faith. A Young Tuscan Monk cleverly implicates his Tuscan Abbot in his own sexual sins, while the Marchioness of Montferrat subtly rebukes King Philip II for his inappropriate desire to sleep with her. A blasphemous citizen exposes religious hypocrisy. Courtier Bergamino criticizes his sovereign’s stinginess with a parable, and Guiglielmo Borsiere criticizes Ermino de’ Grimaldi’s with a few words. A woman’s cutting censure over the failure of the King of Cyprus to protect his citizens transforms his character, and Master Alberto shames some young women for mocking him. At the end of the day, the brigata decides to set themes for the tales, and Dioneo successfully petitions to ignore the themes and tell the tales he wants as the last speaker of the day.
The theme of the second day, under the rule of Filomena, is Fortune. Martellino’s fortunes fall when it appears that he’s mocking a local saint, only to rise again when he’s saved from execution. After highwaymen rob Rinaldo d’Asti, he’s taken in, fed, and bedded by a fine lady. Alessandro secretly marries a princess, restoring his uncles’ twice-wasted fortunes. Merchant Landolfo Rufolo turns to piracy and although he’s shipwrecked, he does make a fortune with some priceless jewels he recovers from the vessel; likewise, a Sicilian Woman cons Andreuccio out of his cash, but he regains his wealth through the theft of a giant ruby. Beritola is separated from her sons in exile, but they are reunited and restored to their homeland after many years. Fortune sends Alatiel through the hands of seven men after her shipwreck. Count Walter and his children, unfairly exiled, are eventually reunited and returned to grace in France. Zinerva, suspected of cheating by her husband Bernabò, is cast out of her home, but her ingenuity protects her and allows her to recover her reputation, husband, and wealth. In Dioneo’s tale, sexual weakling Ricciardo di Chinzica loses his wife to the pirate Paganino.
Neifile rules Day III, which explores the theme of perseverance. Masetto follows through on his plan to infiltrate a convent and bed the nuns. King Agilulf and his Groom engage in a cat-and-mouse game after the Groom sleeps with the Queen. A conniving Florentine Noblewoman makes a Florentine Friar the unwitting go-between of her affair. Friar Puccio zealously pursues holiness while Dom Felice pursues Puccio’s Wife. Zima, undeterred by Francesco Vergellisi’s stumbling blocks, finds a way to declare his affections for Francesco’s Wife. Ricciardo Minutolo tricks Catella into sex, while Tedaldo’s cleverness saves his lover’s husband from execution. The Womanizing Priest imprisons simple-minded Ferondo, who believes that he’s persevering in Purgatory until he’s miraculously “resurrected.” Gilette’s unwavering intelligence, love, and honor eventually win her noble husband’s love. And Alibech pursues sex so whole-heartedly that she nearly exhausts her lover.
On Day IV, Filostrato commands the brigata to tell tales of unhappy lovers, since he himself is one. The day’s heartbreaking stories begin with Ghismonda’s suicide. And after the funny tale of Friar Alberto impersonating an angel to conduct an affair, the stories return to tragedy. Three sisters run away with their lovers, and all six end up dead or exiled; Gerbino’s attempt to kidnap the Tunisian Princess he loves leads to the death of both; Lisabetta dies of grief after her brothers steal the relics of her lover, whom they murdered. Andreuola’s secret husband, Gabriotto, dies tragically. Simona and Pasquino are accidentally poisoned. Guillaume de Roussillon serves his wife his best friend’s heart to punish her for their affair. Dioneo lightens the mood with the story of Ruggieri accidentally drinking a sleeping potion while visiting his lover.
Fiammetta balances out Filostrato with the theme of happy lovers on Day V. Cimon’s love for Iphigenia ennobles him. Separated couples, like Gostanza and Martuccio Gomito and Pietro Boccamazza and Agnolella are reunited and married. Ricciardo Manardi and Caterina’s night of lovemaking is followed by a shotgun wedding in the morning. The secret identities of Agnesa, Gianni and Restituta, and Teodoro are all revealed by their love affairs. After much grief and expense, Nastagio degli Onesti and Federigo degli Alberighi ultimately marry their ladies. And, while Pietro Vinciolo is upset about his wife’s lover, when they agree to share him, everyone spends the night happily.
Day VI begins with an argument among the servants about how frequently women go to their weddings as virgins. After Dioneo settles the question (answer: practically never), Elissa guides the company into their tales of retort and riposte. Madonna Oretta rebukes a knight’s poor storytelling; Cisti rebukes a rich man’s apparent greediness; and Nonna de’ Pulci claps back at the Bishop of Florence and his lustful friend. Chichibio’s quick answer saves him from a beating. Forese da Rabatta and Giotto tease each other over their ugliness, while Michele Scalza “proves” that the Baronci are famously ugly because God made them before he knew what he was doing. Madonna Filippa’s cleverness averts her execution for adultery. Fresco caustically criticizes his shallow niece, while Guido Cavalcanti hints at the empty heads of members of the Florentine nobility. Finally, with a clever pivot, Friar Cipolla hides the theft of his alleged relics.
The servants’ argument on the previous day inspires Dioneo’s theme for Day VII, the tricks women play on their husbands. Monna Tessa convinces her husband that her lover is a werewolf; Peronella convinces her husband that hers is buying their tub, then has sex with the lover while the husband cleans the tub. Surprised by her husband’s return home, Madonna Agnesa pretends that her lover was doctoring their sick child. Tofano locks his cheating wife out of the house, but she tricks him into running outside and locks him out. A lonely wife sees through her jealous husband’s disguise as her confessor, but he misses the clever strategy by which she sees her lover. Quick thinking allows Madonna Isabella to save her lover and rid herself of an unwanted admirer. Madonna Beatrice doesn’t only cheat on her husband but tricks him into a position where her lover can beat him for her entertainment. Madonna Sismonda both escapes her husband’s punishment for an affair and successfully makes him look like a fool. Lydia has sex with her lover in front of her husband, while convincing him he’s seeing a magical vision. And two Sienese men discover that the taboo against sleeping with a godchild’s mother doesn’t mean anything in Purgatory.
Lauretta continues the fun on Day VIII, with stories about tricks played by men and women. Gulfardo tricks Guasparruolo’s Wife out of a payment for sex, as the Worthy Priest also does to Belcolore. Bruno and Buffalmacco convince Calandrino he’s discovered a magical stone. Piccarda rids herself of an unwanted admirer by tricking him into sleeping with her ugly maid. Three Florentine pranksters publicly pull down a judge’s breeches. Bruno and Buffalmacco steal Calandrino’s pig. A scholar in love with the widowed Elena viciously punishes her for tricking him into spending the night waiting for her in a snowy courtyard. Zeppa di Mino has sex with his friend’s wife after he discovers Spinelloccio Tavena has been having sex with his own. Bruno and Buffalmacco get free meals from Simone da Villa, then dump him in a cesspit. And after a Sicilian conwoman scams Salabaetto, he tricks her in the exact same way.
On Day IX, Emilia allows her companions to tell tales of their choice. Although there isn’t a set theme, each of the day’s tales recalls or builds on a previously told story. Like Piccarda, Francesca frees herself from unwanted lovers. Joining other lustful monks and nuns, Sister Isabetta’s indiscretions lead to the discovery of Abbess Usimbalda’s. Bruno, Buffalmacco, and Simone da Villa convince Calandrino that he’s pregnant. Cecco Fortarrigo cheats Cecco Angiulieri of his worldly possessions. Bruno and company are at it again when they encourage Calandrino to pursue an affair with a prostitute, then reveal his actions to his wife. Two young gentlemen, staying in the home of a generous Host, hop in and out of beds all night, sleeping with the Host’s Wife and daughter, Miss Niccolosa. Female stubbornness (previously demonstrated by Elena) reappears in the character of Margarita, who ignores her husband’s prophetic dream and is mauled by a wolf. Biondello and Ciacco, professional mooches, play reciprocal tricks on each other (like Zeppa and Spinelloccio). And Solomon teaches Joseph how to properly beat his wife into submission, unlike Margarita. The day’s final tale sees a priest using a magical “ritual” to have sex with his friend’s wife right in front of him (like Lydia).
The tales of generosity on the final day, under the rule of Panfilo, evolve as the company members compete amongst themselves to come up with the most extreme example of generosity. King Alfonso rewards Ruggieri de’ Figiovanni despite his bad luck. Ghino di Tacco generously cures the Abbot of Cluny, so the Abbot generously repairs Ghino’s rift with the papacy. Nathan is willing to give Mithridanes his very life. Gentile de’ Carisendi, despite feeling that he deserves to keep Madonna Catalina after rescuing her from death, nevertheless generously returns her to her husband. Gilberto, Ansaldo, and the Magician all try to outdo each other’s generosity after a rash promise nearly forces Dianora to sleep with Ansaldo against her will. King Charles overcomes his lust for Ginevra and Isotta, generously providing them dowries and husbands. King Peter likewise rewards Lisa’s noble sentiments with a husband, riches, and a noble title. Friendship inspires Gisippus to offer his fiancée to Titus, and Titus to risk his life to save Gisippus from execution. Torello and Saladin compete fiercely to be the most generous host. And finally, Gualtieri offers an antithetical portrait of extreme and unjustified meanness in his torturous tests of his wife’s obedience.
As the tales of Day X end, Panfilo suggests that the company return to Florence before they attract any unwanted visitors or fall victim to rumors of sexual impropriety, although they’ve lived a moderate, balanced, and moral life in the countryside. The members of the company return to the city and disperse to their own homes. And in an Epilogue, Boccaccio has the last word in The Decameron, as he refutes any claims that his tales are improper.