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Jack’s Naughty Bits: Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

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Jack's Naughty Bits


The

intelligence of Plato, the humanity of

Dante, the imagination of

Shakespeare, the virtuosity of Donne

and the wit of Boccaccio: a decent set of

wishes for an aspiring writer lucky enough to stumble on a pair of genie lamps. But to

pick only one — and any one is certainly enough — that’s a tough call. Unless, of course,

it’s not fame but fun that you’re after, in which case Boccaccio is the only way to go.

Boccaccio was the most spirited writer of the Middle Ages — and among the most

spirited of any age — and he’s still the unrivalled master of saucy plots and mischievous

characters, guaranteed to please.


    

Last year, when I wrote about Boccaccio

for banned books week, I

commented on the meritocracy of ingenuity in his stories: the crafty and clever

always win out, and the story below is no exception. A woman is entertaining her lover

when suddenly her husband returns unannounced, but by an ingenious scheme she

manages to keep them both — and herself — happy. This is why I’d rather live in

Boccaccio’s world than any other, for intelligence works in the service of play, and

morality means that the quick-thinking get their just desserts.



* * *



From The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

Translated by John Florio (1620), modernized and amended by Jack Murnighan



Dear Ladies, the deceits used by men towards your sex, but especially husbands, have been so

great and many as when it hath sometime happened, or yet may, that husbands are repaid in

the self-same manner, you need not find fault . . . but rather you should refer it to general

publication so that immodest men may know . . . that women are in no way inferior to them . . .

Mine intent therefore is to tell you, what a woman, though but of mean quality, did to her

husband all of a sudden, and in a moment for her own safety.


    

Not long ago, there lived in Naples an honest mean man, who did take to wife a fair

and lusty young woman, being named Peronella. He professing the trade of a mason, and she

of carding and spinning, maintained themselves in a reasonable condition, abating and

abounding as their fortunes served. It came to pass that a certain young man, well observing

the beauty and good parts of Peronella, became much addicted in affection towards her: and

by his often and secret solicitations, which he found not to be unkindly entertained, his

success proved answerable to his hope . . .


    

Now, for their securer meeting, to stand clear from all matter of scandal or detection,

they concluded in this order between themselves. Lazaro, for so was Peronella’s husband

named, being an early riser every morning, either to seek for work or to effect it being

undertaken — this amorous friend being therewith acquainted, and standing in some such

convenient place, where he could see Lazaro’s departure from his house, and yet himself no

way discerned. Poor Lazaro was no sooner gone, but presently he enters the house, which

stood in a very solitary street called the Avorio. Many mornings had they thus met together,

to their no small delight and contention, till one particular morning among the rest, when

Lazaro was gone forth to work, and Striguario, so was the amorous young man named,

visiting Peronella in the house. Upon a very urgent errand, Lazaro returned back again, quite

contrary to his former wont, keeping forth all day, and never coming home till night.


    

Finding his door to be fast locked, and he having knocked softly once or twice, he

spoke in this manner to himself: “Fortune I thank thee, for albeit thou hast made me poor, yet

thou hast bestowed a better blessing on me, in matching me with so good, honest, and loving a

wife. Behold, though I went early out of my house, her self hath risen in the cold to shut the

door, to prevent the entrance of thieves, or any other that might offend us.” Peronella having

heard what her husband said, and knowing the manner of his knock, said fearfully to

Striguario: “Alas, dear friend, what shall we do? I am little less than a dead woman. For

Lazaro my husband is come back again, and I know not what to do or say. He never returned

in this manner before now, doubtless he saw when you entered the door. For the safety of

your honor and mine, creep under this brewing pot, till I have opened the door and

know the reason of his so soon returning.”


    

Striguario made no delaying of the matter, but got himself closely under the pot, and

Peronella opening the door for her husband’s entrance, with a frowning countenance, spoke

thus unto him: “What meaneth this so early returning home again this morning? It seemeth

thou intends to do nothing today, having brought back thy tools in thy hands? If such be

thine intent, how shall we live? Where shall we have bread to fill our bellies? Dost thou think

that I will allow thee to pawn my gown and other poor garments, as heretofore thou hast

done? I that card and spin both night and day till I have worn the flesh from my fingers will

hardly find oil to maintain our lamp. Husband, husband, there is not one neighbor dwelling

by us but makes a mockery of me, and tells me plainly, that I may be ashamed to drudge and

moil as I do, wondering not a little how I am able to endure it; and thou returnest home with

thy hands in thy hose, as if thou hadst no work at all to do this day.”


    

Having thus spoken, she fell to weeping, and then thus began again: “Poor wretched

woman as I am, in an unfortunate hour was I born, and in a much worse one when I was made thy

wife. I could have had a proper, handsome young man — one that would have maintained me

brave and gallantly, but, beast as I was, to forgo my good and cast myself away on such a

beggar as thou art, and whom none would have had, but such an ass as I. Other women live at

heart’s ease and in jollity, have their amorous friends and loving paramours, yea, one, two,

three at once, making their husbands look like a moon crescent whereon they shine sun-like

with amiable looks because they know not how to help it, when I, poor fool, live here at

home a miserable life, not daring once to dream of such follies, an innocent soul, heartless

and harmless.


    

“Many times, sitting and sighing to my self, ‘Lord,’ think I, ‘of what metal am I made?

Why should not I have a friend in a corner, as well as others have? I am flesh and blood as

they are, not made of brass or iron, and therefore subject to women’s frailty.’ Would thou

should know it husband, and I tell it thee in good earnest, that if I would do ill, I could

quickly find a friend at a need. Gallants there are in good store, who, of my knowledge, love

me dearly, and have made me very large and liberal promises, of gold, silver, jewels and gay

garments, if I would extend them the least favor. But my heart will not suffer me, I never was

the daughter of such a mother, as had so much as a thought of such matters. No, I thank our

blessed Lady, and Saint Friswid for it. And yet thou returnest home again, when thou shouldst

be at work.”


    

Lazaro, who stood all this while like a well believing logger-head, demurely thus

answered: “Alas good wife! I pray you be not so angry, I never had so much as an ill thought

of you, but know well enough what you are, and have made good proof thereof this morning.

Understand therefore patiently, sweet wife, that I went forth to my work as daily I use to do,

little dreaming, as I think you do not, that it had been a holiday. Wife, this is the feast day of

Saint Galeone whereon we may in no ways work, and this is the reason of my so soon

returning. Nevertheless, dear wife, I was not careless of our household provision, for, though

we work not, yet we must have food, which I have provided for more than a month. Wife, I

remembered the brewing pot, whereof we have little or no use at all, but rather it is a trouble

to the house. I met with an honest friend, who is standing outside the door; to him I have sold

the pot for five gigliatoes, and he is waiting to take it away with him.


    

“Husband, what do you mean?” replied Peronella, “Why now I am worse offended

then before. Thou that art a man, walkest every where, and shouldst be experienced in worldly

affairs: wouldst thou be so simple, as to sell such a brewing pot for five gigliatoes? Why, I that

am a poor ignorant woman, a house dove, seldom going out of my door have sold it already

for seven gigliatoes to a very honest man, who, even a little before thy coming home, came to

me. We agreed on the bargain, and he is now underneath the pot, to see whether it be sound

or no.”


    

When credulous Lazaro heard this, he was better contented then ever, and went to him

that tarried at the door, saying, “Good man, you may go your way, for, whereas you offered

me but five gigliatoes for the pot, my loving wife hath sold it for seven, and I must maintain

what she hath done.” So the man departed, and the conflict ended.


    

Peronella then said to her husband, “Seeing thou art come home so luckily, help me

to lift up the Pot, that the man may come forth, and then you two end the bargain together.”

Striguario, who though he was mewed up under the tub, had his ears open enough, and

hearing the witty excuse of Peronella, took himself free from future fear. And having come

from under the Pot, pretending as if he had heard nothing nor saw Lazaro, looking round

about him, said, “Where is this good woman?”


    

Lazaro stepping forth boldly like a man, replied, “Here am I, what would you have Sir?”


    

“Thou?” quoth Striguario, “what art thou? I

ask for the good wife, with whom I made my match for the pot.”


    

“Honest gentleman,”

answered Lazaro, “I am that honest woman’s husband, for lack of a better, and I will maintain

whatsoever my wife hath done.”


    

“I ask your mercy Sir,” replied Striguario, “I bargained with your wife for this brewing

pot, which I find to be whole and sound: only it is unclean within, hard crusted with some dry

soil upon it, which I know not well how to get off. If you will do the work of making it clean,

I have the money here ready for it.”


    

“For that, sir,” quoth Peronella, “do not worry. Though

we had not agreed on it, what else is my husband good for, but to make it clean?”


    

“Yes,

forsooth Sir,” answered silly Lazaro, “you shall have it neat and clean before you pay the

money.”


    

So, stripping himself into his shirt, lighting a candle and taking tools fit for the

purpose, the pot was placed over him, and he being within it, worked until he sweated with

scraping and scrubbing. This way the lovers could finish that which earlier had been

interrupted. And Peronella, looking in at the vent-hole where the liquor runneth forth for the

meshing, seemed to instruct her husband in the business, as espying those parts where the pot

was foulest, saying, “There, there Lazaro; tickle it there. The Gentleman pays well for it, and is

worthy to have it. But see thou do thyself no harm good husband.”


    

“I warrant thee wife,”

answered Lazaro, “hurt not yourself with leaning your stomach on the pot, and leave the

cleansing of it to me.” To be brief, the brewing pot was neatly cleansed, Peronella and

Striguario both well pleased, the money paid, and honest meaning Lazaro not discontented.