In the Prologue to The Decameron, Boccaccio explains that he wrote it to entertain and teach the ladies to whom it is dedicated. Both the frame story—in which a group of ten young, noble Florentines flee to the country to escape the plague—and the tales they tell stress the importance of intelligence and wit. Despite its emphasis on love, intelligence may in fact be the highest and most powerful virtue in The Decameron, allowing characters to outwit rivals and avoid harm. The value that The Decameron places on having and using intelligence explains its somewhat incoherent or inconsistent moral system.
When intelligence is prized, the gullible and the credulous are punished. Florentine pranksters Maso del Saggio, Bruno, Buffalmacco, and Nello continually abuse the hapless painter Calandrino and dense doctor Simone da Villa. And the simple-minded piety of men like Friar Puccio and Ferondo make them vulnerable to manipulation by their wives and priests. Further, wit and guile frequently allow characters to access sex, or to avoid paying the consequences of adulterous affairs. Masetto pretends to be deaf and dumb to infiltrate a convent, where he ends up playing husband to all the Young Nuns and their Abbess, while King Agilulf’s Groom cleverly impersonates his master to slip into the queen’s bed, then thinks on his feet to avoid punishment. The Florentine Noblewoman, Zima, and Mazzeo’s Wife all use wit to gain or keep access to a lover, and the many tricks played by wives on their husbands in Day Seven’s tales and elsewhere allow or conceal their sexual dalliances. And intelligence can be used nefariously, as when two different Sicilian women use their sexual charms to defraud young and inexperienced merchants Andreuccio and Salabaetto.
At other times, however, quick thinking saves a tale’s protagonist from danger. The Marquess of Montferrat, Piccarda, and Francesca all employ wit to rid themselves of unwanted admirers. When Saladin threatens Melchizedek the Jew by asking him an impossible question, Melchizedek’s great wisdom protects him and earns the sultan’s respect. And when Chichibio steals a juicy bit of his master’s dinner, his quick, silly lie about cranes only having two legs in flight saves him from a beating. In a myriad of ways, the members of the brigata (the ten young people who tell The Decameron’s tales) and their tales’ characters both demonstrate the benefits of wit and use their own natural intelligence for entertainment and edification.
Intelligence Quotes in The Decameron
Swayed by this argument, and sparing no thought for anyone but themselves, large numbers of men and women abandoned their city, their homes, their relatives, their estates and belongings, and headed for the countryside, either in Florentine territory or, better still, abroad. It was as though they imagined that the wrath of God would not unleash this plague against men for their iniquities irrespective of where they happened to be, but would only be aroused against those who found themselves within the city walls; or possibly they assumed that the whole of the population would be exterminated and the city’s last hour had come.
Being an intelligent and judicious woman, she sent back a message to say that she was glad to have been singled out for this uniquely great favor, and that the king would be very welcome. She then began to wonder why such a great king should be calling upon her in her husband’s absence. Nor was she wrong in the conclusion that she reached, namely, that he was being drawn thither by the fame of her beauty. Nevertheless, with her habitual nobility of spirit she made ready to entertain him[.]
Just as the sky, worthy ladies, is bejewelled with stars on cloudless nights, and the verdant fields are embellished with flowers in the spring, so good manners and pleasant converse are enriched by shafts of wit. These, being brief, are much better suited to women than to men, as it is more unseemly for a woman to speak at inordinate length, when this can be avoided, than it is for a man. Yet nowadays, to the universal shame of ourselves and all living women, few or none of the women who are left can recognize a shaft of wit when they hear one, or reply to it even if they recognize it. For this special skill, which once resided in a woman’s very soul, has been replaced in our modern women by the adornment of the body. She who sees herself tricked out in the most elaborate finery, believes that she should be much more highly respected and more greatly honored than other women, forgetting that if someone were to dress an ass in the same clothes or simply load them on its back, it could still carry a great deal more than she could, nor would this be any reason for paying it greater respect than you would normally accord to an ass.
Meanwhile, with the matter proceeding along these lines, word had reached Marchese and Stecchi that the judge was giving him a rough handling and had already put him on the strappado. “We have made a fine mess of things,” they said, shaking with fright. “We have taken him out of the frying-pan and dropped him straight in the fire.” Being determined to leave no stone unturned, they tracked down their landlord, and explained to him what had happened. The landlord, who was highly amused at their tale, took them to see a man called Sandro Agolanti, a Florentine living in Treviso who had considerable influence with the ruler of the city.
On hearing these words, the King immediately came to the conclusion that the Queen had been taken in by an outward resemblance to his own physique and manner. But he was a wise man, and since neither the Queen nor anybody else appeared to have noticed the deception, he had no hesitation in deciding to keep his own counsel. Many a stupid man would have reacted differently, and exclaimed “It was not I. Who was the man who was here? What happened? Who was it who came?” But this would only have led to complications, upsetting the lady when she was blameless and sowing the seeds of a desire, on her part, to repeat the experience. And besides, by holding his tongue his honor remained unimpaired, whereas if he were to talk he would make himself look ridiculous.
“Sire,” said Bertrand, “you have the power to take away everything I possess, and hand me over to anyone you may choose, for I am merely your humble vassal. But I can assure you that I shall never rest content with such a match.”
“Of course you will,” said the King, “for she is beautiful, intelligent, and deeply in love with you. Hence we are confident that you will be much happier with her than you would ever have been with a lady of loftier birth.”
“Now we shall discover whether the wolf can fare any better at leading the sheep than the sheep have fared in leading the wolves.”
On hearing this, Filostrato laughed and said: “Had you listened to me, the wolves would have taught the sheep by now to put the devil back in Hell, no less skillfully than Rustico taught Alibech. But you have not exactly been behaving like sheep, and therefore you must not describe us as wolves…”
“Allow me to tell you, Filostrato,” replied Neifile, “that if you men had tried to teach us anything of the sort, you might have learned some sense from us, as Masetto did from the nuns, and retrieved the use of your tongues when your bones were rattling from exhaustion.”
On perceiving that the ladies had as many scythes as he had arrows, Filostrato abandoned his jesting and turned to the business of ruling his kingdom.
In the course of my lifelong efforts to escape the fierce onslaught of those turbulent winds, I have always made a point of going quietly and unseen about my affairs, not only keeping to the lowlands but occasionally directing my steps through the deepest of deep valleys. This can very easily be confirmed by anyone casting an eye over these little stories of mine, which bear no title and which I have written, not only in the Florentine vernacular and in prose, but in the most homely and unassuming style it is possible to imagine. Yet in spite of all this, I have been unable to avoid being violently shaken and almost uprooted by those very winds, and was nearly torn to pieces by envy.
Excellent ladies, to my way of thinking there are those who imagine that they know more than others when in fact they know less, and hence they presume to set this wisdom of theirs against not only the counsels of their fellow men, but also the laws of Nature…Now, there is nothing in the whole of Nature which is less susceptible to advice or interference than Love, whose qualities are such that it is far more likely to burn itself out of its own free will than to be quenched by deliberate pressure. [So I will] tell you a story about a lady who … sought to be wiser than she actually was, and by flaunting her cleverness in a matter that was beyond her competence, succeeded at one and the same time in driving both Love and life from the body of her son.
Whereupon this worthy knight, whose swordplay was doubtless on par with his storytelling, began to recite his tale, which in itself was indeed excellent. But by constantly repeating the same phrases, and recapitulating sections of the plot, and every so often declaring that he had ‘made a mess of that bit,’ and regularly confusing the characters, he ruined it completely. Moreover, his mode of delivery was completely out of keeping with the characters and the incidents he was describing, so that it was painful for Madonna Oretta to listen to him. She began to perspire freely, and her heart missed several beats, as though she had fallen ill and was about to give up the ghost.
Hence, albeit we have referred many times to the doings of Calandrino, they are invariably so amusing, as Filostrato pointed out a little earlier, that I shall venture to add a further tale to those we have already heard about him. I could easily have told it in some other way, using fictitious names, had I wished to do; but since by departing from the truth of what actually happened, the storyteller greatly diminishes the pleasure of his listeners, I shall turn for support to my opening remarks, and tell it in its proper form.
“What I want is this,” replied the lady, “In the month of January that is now approaching, I want a garden, somewhere near the town, that is full of green plants, flowers, and leafy trees, exactly as though it were the month of May. And if he fails to provide it, let him take good care never to send you or anyone else to me again. For if he should provoke me any further, I shall no longer keep this matter a secret as I have until now, but I shall seek to rid myself of his attentions by complaining to my husband and kinsfolk.