Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Not a Love Story: Sexual Aggression, Law and Order in Decameron X 4 *

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Not a Love Story: Sexual Aggression, Law and Order in Decameron X 4 *

Article excerpt

In the fourth novella of the Tenth Day of the Decameron, Boccaccio reworks a tale which had originally formed part of the thirteenth "Question of Love" in his Filocolo. (1) This essay focuses on Boccaccio's reformulation of the socio-ethical significance of the act of sexual aggression which, in different ways, is the focal point of both versions of the tale. (2) In particular I investigate a crucial aspect of the Decameron revision that has gone unobserved in the scholarship to date: its transformation of a tale of passion into a tale of property; a tale of one man's love for a woman into a tale of his exchange of her with another man so as to impose his order and consolidate his power in the community of men. In the context of this transformation I discuss the extensive use of legal discourse in the Decameron revision which serves as the prism through which an illicit act of passion is simultaneously elided and legitimated.

Let me begin by offering a brief summary of the tale, at least insofar as the two versions of it correspond to one another. A beautiful, young lady married to a rich, noble man is loved by a knight. She, however, has no interest in requiting the knight's love, and he goes off in despair to a nearby city to serve as podesta, or chief magistrate. During his tenure there news reaches him of the lady's death who, it happens, was pregnant at the time. In a brief interior monologue the knight resolves to go to the tomb where she is buried and have that kiss that was denied him while she was alive. He does just that, but gets carried away and begins to fondle her as well. In the process he detects signs of lire and takes her away to his home, where, with the help of his mother she is revived. At the knight's request she remains at his home, soon giving birth to a son. Immediately thereafter the knight invites the lady's husband and many others to a sumptuous banquet where he gallantly presents the lady and child to her husband.

This then is the basic plot of the tale, remarkably similar in both versions. (3) The differences between them, which are great, involve instead such aspects as characterization, discursive style, ideological content, and the narrative context in which the tale is told. As is well known, the episode of the Questions of Love in the Filocolo occupies an important place in the textual prehistory of the Decameron, not only because of the link formed by the two versions of the tale under consideration here, but because the narrative frame--or cornice--of these questions anticipates that of the later work. (4) Like the liera brigata in the Decameron, the young men and women in the Filocolo decide to pass the hottest hours of the day in a cool, shady garden, telling each other stories. There is however an essential difference between these two settings. Whereas the Filocolo episode is inspired by the rhetoricolegal form of the quaestio, each tale being a pretext for the disputatio between one member of the group and the queen, in the Decameron this disputational frame is replaced by a thematic one: except for the first and ninth days, and except for Dioneo who is allowed to recount ad libitum, the tales must address a specific theme--fortune, human ingenuity, tragic and happy loves, etc.

Thus in the Filocolo the tale serves as pretext for this question posed by the narrator, Messallino: "Per che si dubita quai fosse maggiore, o la lealta del cavaliere o l'allegrezza del marito, che la donna e 'l figliuolo, i quali perduti riputava si come morti, si trovo racquistati, priegovi che quello che di cio giudicherete ne diciate" (IV 67, 23). (5) Within the context of the Questions' overarching theme of love, the two sub-themes of the knight's loyalty and the husband's joy are applied in retrospect to the tale.

In the Decameron the overarching theme of the day is not love but "those who have performed liberal or munificent deeds, be it in the cause of love or otherwise. …

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