Wednesday’s flowers

cherry blossom creation

Gentile’s rejected love generates gift of Catalina to Niccoluccio

Men are creepy.  That’s a scientifically measured social valuation in late-twentieth-century America.  Biological anthropologists have established that males are demonic.  Moreover, according to medieval French literature, men’s genitals are ugly.  Not surprisingly, men experience much more frequently sexual rejection than women do.  Men must strive for the love to which women are naturally entitled.  In the context of this reality, Boccaccio’s Decameron tells the story of a gentleman named Gentile, the beautiful lady Catalina, and her husband Niccoluccio.[1]

Gentile became enamored of Catalina.  She did not requite his love.  In despair, Gentile left his home city, Bologna.  Catalina became pregnant.  After  a number of months, she suddenly became gravely sick.  In a short time, several doctors pronounced her dead.  Catalina was buried in a church in Bologna.

Gentile responded to the news of Catalina’s death with self-abnegation .  He was overcome with grief.  Then he said to himself:

So there you are, Madonna Catalina, you’re dead.  Well, I never managed to get as much as a single glance from you while you were alive, but now that you’re dead and can’t defend yourself, it’s only right that I should take a kiss or two from you.

The double assertion of “dead” underscores how Catalina defended herself in life.  Catalina refused to acknowledge Gentile’s presence.  The dead can also do that.  In life, Catalina’s defense against Gentile was her live threat of actively scorning him.  Social power, not physical power, is how women keep men subordinate.

Gentile dramatized men’s sexual interests being put to death.  During the night, he secretly journeyed to Catalina’s tomb.  He opened the tomb and went inside:

lying down beside her, he drew his face close to hers and kissed her again and again, all the while weeping profusely.

The narrative here injects, even for a deprived, weeping man within a tomb, the voice of social disparagement of men’s sexuality:

But as we know, men’s appetites — and especially those of lovers — are never content to stay within bounds, but always want to go further

That’s the same social voice that today suggests that nearly a quarter of men deserve punishment for rape, if enough prisons could be built to hold them.  Gentile vacillated, and then transgressed the suppressive moral bound:

just as he was deciding that it was time to leave, he said to himself: “Ah, why don’t I fondle her breast a little, seeing as how I’m in here?  I never touched her in the past, and I will never have the opportunity to do so again.”

Gentile’s pathetic, creepy acts within Catalina’s tomb symbolize men’s disenfranchised sexual desire.[2]

The transgression led to resurrection and new love outside of the established legal order.  In The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre, a young doctor’s masculine touch brought a beautiful woman back to life.  Gentile’s masculine touch also led to resurrection:

overcome by this desire, he placed his hand on her breast, and after keeping it there for some time, he thought he could sense her heart faintly beating.  Having subdued his fears, he began examining her with greater care and discovered that she was in fact still alive, although the signs of life in her were minimal and very weak.  Consequently, as gently as he could, he removed her from the tomb with the aid of his servant, and having set her across his horse in front of him, he carried her in secret to his house in Bologna.

Gentile didn’t carry Catalina secretly to his house in order to ravish her.  Gentile’s mother lived there.  She revived Catalina.[3]  Catalina subsequently gave birth to the son conceived before she was buried.  With a new orientation to love, Gentile declared to Catalina:

I propose to stage a solemn ceremony in which I will make a precious gift of you to your husband in the presence of all the leading citizens in the town.

The solemn ceremony enacted in allegory the Christian Holy Week, with Catalina as Jesus:

Little prized by her own people, she was thrown out, like something vile and worthless, into the middle of the street from which I retrieved her, and through my care, I saved her from death with my own hands. Recognizing my pure affection, God has transformed her from a fearsome corpse into the beauty you see before you.

By established legal reasoning, which Catalina’s husband Niccoluccio publicly endorsed, Catalina belonged to Gentile.  In Christian understanding, the law of God the Father is fulfilled in God’s loving gift of Christ.  Gentile gave Catalina and her newly born son back to Niccoluccio.  God’s gift of Christ is the higher meaning of Gentile’s gift.  Gentile saved Catalina “with my own hands,” with “pure affection.”  In all his masculine creepiness, Gentile acted as an earthly deputy of God the Father in the new Christian dispensation.[4]

The Decameron’s tale of Gentile, Catalina, and Niccoluccio isn’t just a love story.  It’s an allegory of the Christian Holy Week deliberately stretched against social disparagement of men’s love.  Gentile implicitly acknowledged this stretching.  To proclaim Catalina’s chastity, Gentile swore “by that God who perhaps made me fall in love with her so that my love might be, as indeed it has been, the cause of her salvation.”  The “perhaps” and “might be” signals questioning.  Uncertainty about the allegory is reasonable.  But the story is “as indeed it has been.”[5]

Christ rising from the dead

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 10, Story 4.  The story gives Gentile’s full name as Messer Gentile de’ Carisendi.  Niccoluccio is given as Niccoluccio Caccianemico.  Both Carisendi and Caccianemico were historically the names of noble families living in Bologna.  Rebhorn (2013) p. 937, n. 2.  The English form of the Bolognese name Catalina is Catherine.  The subsequent quotes are from the story as translated from Italian in id. pp. 771-8.  Here’s an online version of the story in Riggs (1903)’s English translation, with section links to the Italian text.  Boccaccio also used this story in his Filocolo in its thirteenth question of love.  There the story is oriented toward rhetorical debate.  In the Decameron, allegorical enactment trumps the forensic conclusion for the story.

[2] For a violent approach to this text in the service of supporting dominant academic misandry, see Moe (1995).

[3] Gentile’s mother skillfully revived Catalina “with the aid of a series of warm baths and a good hot fire.”  Heat is a relatively simple treatment.  It’s also associated with love.  Other ancient, non-Christian accounts existed of physicians reviving the dead.  Upon reviving, Catalina begged Gentile “to do nothing to her in his house that would impair her honor or that of her husband.”  The revived young woman in Apollonius King of Tyre made a similar request.  Moe (1995) describes Gentile’s treatment of Catalina as “sexual aggression.”  That’s literally and literarily obtuse.  Hollander & Cahill (1997), p. 140, declare that Gentile “paradoxically ‘saved her {Catalina’s} life’ as a result of his necrophiliac exploitation of her.” Within the story, Gentile actually did save Catalina’s life.  Describing Gentile’s sexual creepiness as “necrophiliac exploitation” doesn’t provide a good starting point for understanding the significance of how Gentile saved Catalina’s life.

[4] In Isaiah 65:4, God, speaking through Isaiah, threatens just punishment for those “who sit inside tombs and spend the night in secret places.”  But then Isaiah 65:17-25 declares a new creation: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Failure to appreciate biblical allegory in the story of Gentile, Catalina, and Niccoluccio obscures a significant verbal play.  In giving Catalina back to Niccoluccio, Gentile described them as his comare and compare, respectively.  These Italian words mean both godmother and godfather and close, status-symmetric friends.  Gentile acted as a godfather for Catalina and Niccoluccio’s child.   Catalina and Niccoluccio are godparents to Gentile born again in Christian love.  Catalina is both godmother and friend — comare — to Gentile in the sense of John 15:15.  Cf. Rebhorn (2013) p. 777, note, which identifies the relevant meaning as only “close friend.”

[5] Boccaccio isn’t writing normal Christian allegory:

in our opinion, the work {Decameron} should not be read as an allegory that conforms to Christian exegetical norms.

Hollander & Cahill (1997), pp. 112-3.  Lauretta tells the story of Gentile, Catalina, and Niccoluccio.  As the example of Marie de France also illustrates, women have often appreciated men more than men have.

[image] Jesus emerging from the tomb.  From the Prayer Book of George II of Waldenburg. Waldburg-Gebetbuch, WLB Stuttgart, Cod. brev. 12, fol. 111v, dated 1486.  Thanks to Wikipedia and Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart.


Hollander, Robert, with Courney Cahill. 1997. “Day Ten of the Decameron: The Myth of Order.”  Pp. 109-168 in Hollander, Robert. 1997. Boccaccio’s Dante and the shaping force of satire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Moe, Nelson. 1995. “Not a Love Story: Sexual Aggression, Law and Order in Decameron X 4.” Romanic Review. 86 (4): 623-638.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.


political-natural records of Jesus in Syriac chronicle of Michael the Great

Syriac Patriach Michael the Great's world chronicle

In twelfth-century Syria, Patriarch Michael the Great wrote a massive world chronicle in Syriac.  That chronicle began with the creation of Adam and continued chronologically to Michael’s own time.  Michael didn’t create from events a story, a history.  Michael, as a Christian, believed in all-encompassing Christian history.  Michael the Great’s chronicle presented events in time for fellow learned clerics to study and ponder Christian history.[1]

Michael organized the pages of his chronicle to relate visually events.  Typically a chronicle page contains three vertical columns of text above a canon table synchronizing different calculations of years.  The sixteenth-century Syrian scribe who copied from Michael’s autograph stated:

{Michael} sorted out ecclesiastical events and, where possible, he gathered them in the superior column, just as we have written, and the succession of the kingdoms in the middle column, and the accidental things and miracles in the inferior column. He had great trouble with the separation, for the accounts were written helter-skelter [2]

The autograph apparently had columns arranged symmetrically about the book opening.[3] Superior columns meant the outer columns, and the inferior columns, the innermost columns. The Complutensian Polyglot Bible, completed in Madrid in 1517, used a three-column form for the Hebrew Bible.  The Complutensian Polyglot Bible placed the Hebrew text in the superior position.  It collated the Hebrew text with the Vulgate and the Septuagint.  Michael’s three columns collate sacred events, high-political events, and extra-institutional events (signs and wonders).  In Michael’s Christian understanding, these three columns presented different translations of God’s over-all plan in history.

Michael recorded serially four contemporary political-natural accounts of Jesus.  The first account is via Tertullian, a Christian scholar who lived from about 160 to 225:

Tertullian says that Pilate informed Tiberius about the teachings of the Lord Jesus.  In turn, Tiberius informed the Senate.  He {Tiberius} did not accept the accusation about him {Jesus}, but determined to kill the slanderers. [4]

The point of this account seems to be Jesus’s status in the eyes of the Roman Emperor Tiberius.  That’s a matter of political chronology.  The second record is attributed to Phlegon of Tralles, a non-Christian writer who lived in the second century:

Phlegon, the heathen philosopher, says that the sun darkened, the earth trembled, and the dead resurrected and entered Jerusalem and heaped woe upon the Jews.  He says in Book Thirteen of his history concerning the Olympiads that, “In the fourth year of the 204th Olympiad, darkness occurred six hours on Friday.  The stars appeared and Nicaea and Bithynia trembled from quakes, and many regions were destroyed.” [5]

Michael didn’t include this account to prove that Jesus existed or that Jesus was God incarnate. He seems to have used this account to document natural phenomena that occurred during the time of Jesus’s death.  The third record apparently is attributed to Ursinus of Bourges:

In his Book Five, Ursinus says: “A terrible distress came upon us. We heard of horrible calamities in the Hebrews’ cities.  We have now known something about the letters sent by Pilate from Palestine to the heathen King Tiberius.  In these letters Pilate says, “Miracles happen upon the death of a man who was crucified by the Jews.  When Caesar heard of this, he relieved Pilate of his position because he succumbed to the Jews and connived with them.”

The Romans, not the Jews, crucified Jesus.  Ursinus of Bourges is a French saint who probably actually lived in the third or fourth century.  Michael apparently included Ursinus’s text because it was relevant political-natural record from a Christian authority credible in twelfth-century Syria.  The final account is from the first-century Jewish-Roman scholar Josephus:

In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus says, “There was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works — a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews and the gentiles.  It is believed that he was the Christ, and not as the leaders of the peoples say.  When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those who loved him from the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine  prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.”

This passage from Josephus, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, has been a subject of intense scholarly controversy since the sixteenth century.[6]  The controversy concerns the extent of Christian interpolations in the text.  Surviving manuscripts of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews date from the eleventh century and later.  In the place of “It is believed he was the Christ,” these manuscripts have “He was the Christ.”  A Jew surely would not have declared that Jesus was the Christ.  Michael’s source for Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews apparently pre-dated surviving manuscripts and is more textually credible.[7]  The credibility of the text attributed to Josephus wasn’t an issue for Michael.  Michael independently believed everything that Josephus stated about Jesus.  Michael cited Josephus not in Christian polemic, but as a record of political chronology.

Michael’s political-natural records of Jesus support the over-all structure of his chronicle.  Those records document that Jesus won the favor of his political ruler and extraordinary events marked Jesus’s death.  Michael the Great’s chronicle insists that sacred events, high-political events, and extra-institutional events are all the coherent history of the divine plan being realized through time.

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[1] The Hebrew Bible begins with the creation of the world.  Michael’s choice of beginning with Adam indicates that his chronicle concerns events in relation to humans.  Michael explicitly addressed readers of his Chronicle as brethren and scholars.  Within the text he recommended to readers further theological reading.  He used Greek technical terms without translation.  The implications:

we may safely assume Michael’s readers to be, like himself, well-trained clerics. It is therefore a work meant for “insiders”.

Weltecke (1997) p. 21.

[2] Michael the Great’s Chronicle, MS 377 (II, 357), from Syriac trans. Weltecke (1997) p. 27.  The scribe was Bishop Moses of Mardin.  On Moses of Mardin, see id. p. 7.  This text apparently is missing from Moosa (2014).  Id. does not preserve the three-column structure of the manuscript.  Many manuscripts exist in Armenian of abridgments of Michael the Great’s Chronicle.  See Bedrosian (2013).

[3] Weltecke (2000) pp. 185-6.  The scribe apparently mixed up the position of the columns on some pages.

[4] Michael the Great’s Chronicle, Bk. V, Ch. 10, from Syriac trans. Moosa (2014) p. 106.  The subsequent three quotes are from id.  A Letter of Pilate to Tiberius is thought to have been written in Renaissance Latin, perhaps in the 16th century.  Michael’s Chronicle indicates that the tradition of such a letter is much older.  The Gospels suggest that Pilate knew little about Jesus’s teachings.  The Roman Emperor Tiberius, who died 37 GC, surely did not threaten to kill those who disparaged Jesus.

[5] The passage from Phlegon of Tralles exists in Eusibius’s Chronicle, which Michael used as a source.

[6] Whealey (2003).   Prior to the sixteenth century, Christians in Europe probably viewed Josephus’s text much as Michael the Great did.

[7]  That some Christian interpolation exists in the Josephus passage was an easy claim for early textual scholars to make.  The extent of Christian interpolation is a much more difficult question.  Jerome’s De viris illustribus contains a Latin translation of the passage from Josephus and uses the phrase “credebatur esse Christus”  (he was believed to be the Christ).  The earliest manuscripts of that work date to the sixth or seventh century.  Syriac scholars typically didn’t read Latin works.  Whealey (2008) pp. 580-1.  Michael the Great’s version apparently represents text from before the sixth or seventh century.

[image] Composed photo by Anneli Salo, 2008.  Thanks to Anneli Salo and Wikipedia.


Bedrosian, Robert. 2013. The Chronicle of Michael the Great, Patriarch of the Syrians. Online at

Moosa, Matti, trans. 2014. The Syriac Chronicle of Michael Rabo (the Great): a universal history from the creation. Teaneck, N.J.: Beth Antioch Press.

Weltecke, Dorothea. 1997.  “The World Chronicle by Patriarch Michael the Great. (1126––1199): Some reflections.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 11 (2): 6–29.

Weltecke, Dorothea. 2000.  “Originality and Function of Formal Structures in the Chronicle of Michael the Great.”  Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 3(2): 173-202.

Whealey, Alice. 2003. Josephus on Jesus: the Testimonium Flavianum controversy from late antiquity to modern times. New York: Peter Lang.

Whealey, Alice. 2008. “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic.” New Testament Studies. 54 (4): 573-590.

system, not signals, for biological analysis of communication

The world is filled with animals communicating.  Just listen:

It is early summer in the temperate zone, with concerts at dawn and at dusk. In the morning, a babble of sparrows, finches, starlings and warblers greets the early riser. The rich tapestry of sound woven around a late evening stroller is no less palpable: the eerie whine of katydids, the gentle chirping of crickets, the visceral croaking of frogs. [1]

Male birds and other male animals predominately generate those songs and sounds.  The males are seeking mates.  Females, in other words, generate those songs and sounds.

geese displaying wings

Symbolic communication involves a constructed relation between signifier and signified.  Humans pervasively engage in symbolic communication, e.g. speaking, reading, writing.[2]  Determining the meanings of symbols has been central to human understanding of human communication.

Study of animal communication has treated animal signals like symbolic communication, but simpler.  Signals can be understood as communication in which signifier and signified are rigidly and organically bound.  Animals pervasively engage in signaling.  That has created scholarly confusion:

there is widespread and often unrecognized confusion about the kinds of signals that exist, the mechanisms responsible for their evolution, and the terms to be used to describe them. [3]

Animal communication is often described as “animal signals,” and theoretical study of communication between animals, “signaling theory.”[4]  That’s an information-theoretic understanding of communication.

Communication among animals often consists of ongoing, highly interactive behavior.  Mate-seeking provides circumstances for such communication.  A study of mating communication in cowbirds reported:

We found that the non-singing females displayed two rapid responses to song, wing stroking and gaping.  Wing stroking is a rapid and silent response to song in which the female flicks her wing away from her body: when gaping, a female arches her head and quickly opens and closes her beak. … Females do other things as well, most noticeably, showing no change in behavior when a male sings, thus ignoring his overtures….  Males become very excited when the female departs from this demeanor and does something even so small as turning her head.  We have found that even brief wing strokes or gapes can lead a male cowbird to levitate off his perch, hop excitedly toward the female, and sing whatever song elicited the female’s movements.  Thus, the contrapuntal use of acoustics and visual signals between males and females may serve to orchestrate the sustained kinds of interaction necessary to each sex to profit from the encounter. [5]

Focusing on determining the meaning and reliability of particular signals can obscure systemic communicative effects.  A single signal in mating communication cannot be understood apart from the ongoing signals to which it is related.

Communication does not depend on organisms having highly developed brains.  Formal models demonstrate that information transfer and decision-making can occur “in the absence of explicit signals or complex mechanisms for information transfer.”[6]   Despite very small brains, tandem-running ants engage in teaching.[7]  Single-cell bacteria engage in communication:

Over the past two decades, our view of bacteria has dramatically changed.  Bacteria have often been studied as populations of cells that act independently, but it now seems that there is much interaction and communication between cells….

The realization that bacteria can communicate, cooperate and alter their behavior, according to changes in their social environment, has led to an explosion of research in this area….  Most studies have focused on the molecular aspects of cell-cell communication, and much less attention has been paid to the ecological context of why bacteria produce signaling molecules and respond to both intraspecific and interspecific signals. [8]

The literature on bacterial communication shows some concern to define what types of signals count as communication.[9]  Categorizing signals by their intentions or effects is not likely to be the best approach to understanding communication.  Communication between organisms typically involves ongoing interactions of a particular formal type.  A time frame of analysis, a form of behavior, and the organisms’ sets of feasible, conditional, state transitions within those bounds provides a reasonable scope for analyzing communication among organisms from bacteria to humans.[10]

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[1] Balaban (1994) p. 243.

[2] Some non-human animals, e.g. apes, are capable of symbolic communication.  Some appear to engage in such communication in the wild.  See Arnold & Zuberbühler (2006).

[3] Maynard Smith & Harper (2003) p. 1.

[4] Id.  Id., pp. 11-2, recognizes some major limitations of this perspective.

[5] West, King & Goldstein (2004) pp, 377, 378.  Such communication can evolve through pair interactions involving different partners over time and does not depend on the congregation of conspecifics.

[6] Couzin et al. (2005) p. 515.

[7] Franks & Richardson (2006).

[8] Keller & Surette (2006) p. 249.

[9] E.g. id. pp. 252-3; Redfield (2002).

[10] On a systems approach to animal communication, Owings & Morton (1998), Shanker & King (2002), and West, King & Goldstein (2004).

[image] White Fronted Geese.  Public domain image from the U.S. Fish and Wild Service National Digital Library.


Arnold, Kate and Klaus Zuberbühler. 2006. “Language evolution: Semantic combinations in primate calls.” Nature 441: 303.

Balaban, Evan. 1994.  “Sex differences in sounds and their causes.”  In Balaban, Evan, and Roger Valentine Short, eds. The differences between the sexes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Couzin, Iain D., Jens Krause, Nigel R. Franks and Simon A. Levin. 2005. “Effective leadership and decision-making in animal groups on the move.” Nature 433: 513-516.

Franks, Nigel R. and Tom Richardson. 2006. “Teaching in tandem-running ants.” Nature 439: 153.

Keller, Laurent and Michael G. Surette. 2006. “Communication in bacteria: an ecological and evolutionary perspective.” Nature Review | Microbiology 4: 249-258.

Maynard Smith, John and David Harper. 2003. Animal signals. New York, Oxford University Press.

Owings, Donald H. and Eugene S. Morton. 1998.  Animal vocal communication: a new approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Redfield, RJ. 2002. “Is quorum sensing a side effect of diffusion sensing?” Trends in Microbiology 10(8): 365-370.

Shanker, Stuart G. and Barbara J. King. 2002. “The emergence of a new paradigm in ape language research.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25: 605-656.

West, Meredith J., Andrew P. King and Michael H. Goldstein. 2004. “Singing, socializing, and the music effect.” In Marler, Peter, and Hans Willem Slabbekoorn. 2004. Nature’s music: the science of birdsong. Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic.

Wednesday’s flowers

Washington Monument surrounded by cherry blossoms

frame tales: comparison of Decameron and 1001 Nights

Boccaccio’s Decameron is a frame tale with death set outside the frame.  In the Decameron, seven women and three men (the brigata) leave plague-stricken Florence for country estates.  There they enjoy telling each other stories.  The transition from story to story is a matter of civilized, turn-taking within the brigata.  In 1001 Nights, Shahrazad tells the King stories to forestall being executed.   That’s similar to the Sindibad frame tale in which a king’s advisers tell stories to forestall the king from executing his son on a false rape charge.  Other ancient frame tales such as the Panchatantra and the Sukasaptati are not generated against the threat of death.  Story-telling creates imaginary lives.  The threat of death highlights the creativity of story-telling.  In contrast to the 1001 Nights’ frame, the Decameron’s frame doesn’t make the creativity of story-telling directly ward off death.  Story-telling in the Decameron shares pleasure in the face of death.

basmala in pear-shaped calligraphy

Both the 1001 Nights and the Decameron have highly conventional frames.  The 1001 Nights repeats day after day:

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence.  Then Dinarzad said, “Sister, what a strange and entertaining story!” Shahrazad replied, “What is this compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night if the king spares me and lets me live!”

The following night Shahrazad said: [1]

The continuing story indicates that the King has spared Shahrazad.  The Decameron repeats not frame text, but motifs.  Days begin with a description of the natural scenery, eating a meal together, singing and dancing.  From one story to the next within a day, the brigata reacts briefly to the story.  Then the King or Queen for the day instructs another to tell a story.  The day ends with appointing a new ruler, adopting a new theme, supper, more singing and dancing, and an elegiac love song explicitly set out in verse.  The conventions of the frames give the stories considerable independence.  In the 1001 Nights, the stories merely have to be good enough for the King to want them to be continued.  In the Decameron, stories subtly hint of interactions and characterizations among the brigata.  Those subtleties are submerged in the direct action of individual stories.

The Decameron’s stories are more regularly structured within the frame than are the stories of the 1001 Nights.  Days necessarily interrupt stories in the 1001 Nights, and the stories are many fewer than the days.  Stories get nested within stories and are continued with a statement of a narrative chain:

I heard, O happy King, that the Christian broker told the king of China that the young man said: [2]

The Decameron, in contrast, consists of ten days of story-telling, with exactly ten stories told on each day.   While characters in the stories manipulate and deceive each other with stories, characters don’t narrate stories.  The narrator is always implicitly a member of the brigata.  Unlike in the 1001 Nights, the frame participants in the Decameron are directly responsible for the surface meaning of the stories and their inner or allegorical meanings.

The Decameron’s ending gives its stories more independent social significance than the stories of the 1001 Nights.  The 1001 Nights, or more literally translated from the Arabic, a thousand nights and one night, is plausibly interpreted to mean an innumerably large number of nights.  The fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript of the 1001 Nights has no narrative ending.  The Egyptian recession published in the early nineteenth century ends with the King pardoning Shahrazad.  In either case, the stories have the effect of keeping Shahrazad alive.  The Decameron, in contrast, ends with no significance for the brigata.  For no good reason, the members of the brigata merely go home.[3]  Their lives don’t seem to be permanently affected by the stories they told.   Each story in the Decameron is prefaced with a plot summary positioned outside of the frame tale.  The significance of the Decameron‘s stories can be only for its readers.

Structural differences between the frame tales of the Decameron and the 1001 Nights plausibly relate to differences between oral tales and written literature.  The 1001 Nights seems to have arisen as a continually generated oral tale.  Its frame structure supports continual modification, elaboration, and extension.  The Decameron’s frame, in contrast, presents a regular, complete, encompassing order.  It presents the stories’ surfaces for literary interpretation and encourages allegorical interpretation of members of the brigata.  Boccaccio used the established oral tradition of frame tales in a new literary way.

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[1] From the 14th-century Syrian manuscript of 1001 Nights, 97th Night, trans. Haddawy (2010) p. 197.  Many other nights have the same text.

[2] 114th Night, id. p. 216.  Such chains are similar to isnad that support the authority of particular sayings in the Muslim world.

[3] At the conclusion of the Decameron’s tenth day, the King said:

to keep things from becoming tedious because of an established custom too long observed, and to prevent people from being able to raise frivolous objections to our having stayed here all this time, I think it proper, since all of us have had a day’s share of the regal honour I still possess, that with your approval we should go back to the place from which we came.

That statement wasn’t mean to be reasonably convincing.  Ten days of story-telling hardly makes “an established custom too long observed.”  There’s no indication of persons objecting to the brigata’s presence at the country estates and no reason why the brigata should care if persons did object.   That each has been ruler for a day is irrelevant and ironic in the context of the ruler seeking everyone’s approval for his proposal.  The ruler goes on to declare:

Furthermore, if you examine the matter carefully, there is also the fact that our company has already become known to many people around here, with the results that our numbers could increase to such an extent that it would take away all our pleasure.

This concern runs opposite the concern that persons would object to the brigata‘s continuing presence.  That an onrush of persons would occur and prevent the brigata members from enjoying each other’s company cannot be taken seriously.  Like Boccaccio’s claim to have written the Decameron for women, the motivation for going home requires a literary rather than literal interpretation.  Quotes above trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 851-2.

[image] Basmala in pear-shaped calligraphy by Shaykh Aziz al-Rufai.  Thanks to Nevit Dilmen and Wikipedia.  The basmala is an Arabic text that can be translated as “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”  The basmala begins every sura of the Qur’an except Sura 9.  On the basmala in relation to the 1001 Nights, Saleem (2012) pp. 37-42.


Haddawy, Husain, trans. and Muhsin Mahdi, ed. 2010. The Arabian nights. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

Saleem, Sobia. 2012. “Never trust the teller,” he said. “Trust the tale”: Narrative technique from the “Arabian Nights” to postmodern adaptations by Rabih Alameddine and Pier Pasolini. Thesis (M.A.)–University of California, Santa Cruz, 2012.


Roman epitaph to Julia Galbina

Roman epitaph to Julia Galbina

Above is a photograph of a Roman epitaph from the second century GC.  Translated from Latin, it states: “To the sacred memory of Julia Galbina; she lived 45 years. Gnaeus Haius Iustus, to his most devoted wife.”

In the U.S. in 1790, expected lifespan at birth was 44 years for white females and white males.  Now it’s 79 years for females and 74 years for males.  You can now expect to live longer than Julia Galbina.  But will you be remembered 1800 years from now?

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[image] My photograph of marble stone on display at the Portland Art Museum.  Sally Lewis Collection of Classical Antiquities 26.68.


anisogamy and sex inequality: the communicative connection

Anisogamy — sex dichotomy in gamete size — does not imply that the sperm must assume responsibility for moving to the egg.  Evolution of sexual reproduction has consistently generated a size dichotomy in gametes.  The larger-size gamete (“egg”) is the female gamete.  The smaller-sized gamete (“sperm”) is the male gamete.[1]  Because sperm are typically much smaller than eggs, sperm are biologically less costly to produce and move.  Sperm typically are more numerous and more mobile than eggs.  However, reproductive competition generally is most significant at the level of the organism.  For organisms of different sexes (organisms differentiated by egg production and sperm production), relative organism value and relative mobility does not necessarily follow from the relative production costs and relative mobility of eggs and sperm.  Anisogamy is not destiny.

Communication has high value for sexually reproducing organisms.  Sexually reproducing organisms must solve the problem of getting male and female gametes physically together.[2]  Organisms must also solve other problems, such as securing food and avoiding predators.  In addition, the time and place of the union of the male and female gametes greatly affect the probably of generating reproductively successful offspring.  Behavior that brings male and female gametes together at a relatively good time and place, while imposing relatively weak constraints on solutions to other problems that organisms must solve, provides an evolutionary advantage.  Communication is a powerful tool for bringing male and female gametes together propitiously.  Sexual reproduction drives the development of communication capabilities.

sex differences in family portrait

Anisogamy provides little insight into sex differences in communication.  One scholar described the situation thus:

Sexual selection theory also teaches that because eggs are larger and more expensive to produce, females must conserve this resource by playing hard to get.  Conversely, because sperm are small and easy to manufacture, males can spread them around with little loss on investment.  But in fact, sperm are not cheap.  The relevant comparison is not between individual sperm and egg, but between ejaculate and egg.  An ejaculate often has a million sperm, making the mating investment of both male and female about the same. [3]

More broadly influential is a different view expressed in a recent scholarly review of sex in evolution:

At the biological heart of sex differences lies anisogamy – the vastly unequal size (and consequent energetic cost) of gametes contributed by male and female in sexual reproduction.  As Williams (1996, p. 118) points out, anisogamy marks the start of male exploitation of females.  “When egg-producers reproduce, they must bear the entire nutritional burden of nurturing the offspring.  By contrast, the sperm-makers reproduce for free.  A sperm is not a contribution to the next generation; it is a claim on contributions put into the egg by another individual.  Males of most species make no investments in the next generation, but merely compete with another for the opportunity to exploit investments made by females.”  When combined with internal fertilization, the stage is set for an even greater inequality in parental investment [4]

In the next paragraph of the quoted text, Williams, a leading evolutionary theorist, declared that ethnic and religious traditions, which are built upon human communication capabilities, reverse the ultimate sex inequality:

The biology of reproduction forms a basis for ethnic and religious traditions that facilitate the oppression of women by men and of children by both, with everything arranged so that the men end up the biggest losers. [5]

That’s an important insight.  Anisogamy and other figures of female disadvantage get magnified in social discourse to obscure the reality of over-all male disadvantage.  That explains lack of concern about the gender protrusion in mortality.  It explains why men have no reproductive rights and are incarcerated for having consensual sex and being poor.  It explains why enormous sex discrimination against men in child custody and child support attracts little concern.  Sex differences in communication, not anisogamy, are the biological root of sex inequality.

Anisogamy does not necessarily imply the social devaluation of men.  A leading biological anthropologist has declared:

our species possesses the capacity to carry sexual inequality to its greatest known extremes, but we also possess the potential to realize an unusual social equality between the sexes should we choose to exercise that potential. [6]

Another scientist concerned about sex inequality has pointed out:

the most distinctive genetic trait of homo sapiens – the source of their greatest evolutionary advantage – is their ability to intentionally and radically change their environments. [7]

Overcoming sex inequality requires changing the environment of social communication.  Men need to start speaking up about the reality of their lives as demonized men.

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[1] The primary advantage of combining DNA from separate organisms via sexual reproduction is an issue of lively research and debate.  By creating genetic diversity across offspring, sex might allow better exploitation of different local resources.  It might limit the effects of harmful genetic mutations.  Alternatively, genetic diversity might produce faster adaptation to changing environments or to rapidly evolving parasites and diseases.  Among multi-cellular organisms, sexual reproduction is much more common than asexual reproduction.

[2] Bringing male and female gametes together doesn’t necessarily require bringing male and female organisms together.  For example, marine broadcast spawners use water current to carry sperm to eggs.

[3] Roughgarden (2005) p. 3.

[4] Campbell (2006) p. 70, quoting from the original British edition of Williams (1997).  The original British edition was published in 1996 and entitled Plan and purpose in nature.

[5] Williams (1997) p. 84.

[6] Hrdy (1981) p. 14.

[7] Alison Gopnik, comments, in Re: The Science of Gender and Science — Pinker vs. Spelke — A DebateEdge: The Reality Club, 2005.

[image] McGinnis famly in Laird, Colorado, 1899.  Thanks to the Denver Public Library.


Campbell, Anne. 2006. “Feminism and Evolutionary Psychology.” Pp., 63-100 in J.H. Barkow, ed. Missing the revolution: Darwinism for social scientists. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The woman that never evolved. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Roughgarden, Joan.  2005.  “The Myth of Sexual Selection.” California Wild. Summer edition.

Williams, George C. 1997. The pony fish’s glow: and other clues to plan and purpose in nature. New York, NY: BasicBooks.

Wednesday’s flowers

cherry blossoms blossoming

Teodoro sets men free and returns them home happily

Boccaccio’s Decameron tells the epic history of Teodoro.  That history combines strands from the life of Joseph, as reported in the biblical book of Genesis; the union of Dido and Aeneas, from Virgil’s Aeneid;, and recognition scenes from ancient Greek novels.  The history of Teodoro creates a new future.  Men will be freed from brutal captivity and will live long, happy lives in love with women.

Teodoro overcomes punishment for sex

Teodoro was born of high parentage among an ancient Christian people living in Cilicia, just north of the Holy Land.  Italian pirates captured Teodoro and sold him into slavery to the wealthy Amerigo household in the Sicilian town Trapini.  As a slave, Teodoro was renamed Pietro.  Teodoro experienced personally the institutional capture of god’s service by corrupt successors of Peter, the first bishop of Rome.  Yet hope remained for Teodoro, because what happened to him was like what happened to Jacob’s son Joseph, sold into slavery and taken west to Egypt.  Amerigo freed Pietro and put Pietro in charge of all Amerigo household’s affairs.  God was with Teodoro as he followed the experience of Joseph.

Through the happy fault of Amerigo and the actions of Fortune, Pietro secured the love of Amerigo’s beautiful young daughter Violante.  Amerigo did not hurry to arrange a marriage for Violante when she became eligible.  As a result, Violante happened to fall in love with Pietro.  Pietro was already in love with her.  Fortune acted according to the plot that brought together Dido and Aeneas in the Aeneid.  While Pietro and Voilante were out in the countryside, a sudden, heavy storm compelled the pair to take shelter in an old, abandoned church.  Huddling together there under a roof, they expressed their love to each other and became physically intimate.

Violante and Pietro’s love led to the threat of violent death.  The natural effect of sex became a serious problem:

things went on until the girl became pregnant, much to the dismay of both parties, and although she took a number of measures to resist the course of Nature and produce a miscarriage, none of them had any effect.

Afraid for his life, Pietro made up his mind to flee and told her so.  But on hearing this, she said, “If you leave, I’m going to kill myself for sure.”

To this remark, Pietro, who was deeply in love with her, replied: “O my lady, how can you possibly want me to stay here?  Your pregnancy will reveal our offense, and although you may be easily forgiven for it, I’m the poor wretch who’ll have to pay the penalty for both your sin and my own.”

Just as the social punishment for the pregnancy would be directed at Teodoro, so too today the socially constructed punishment for unplanned parenthood falls heavily on men.  Violante promised not to reveal that Teodoro was the father of the child.  Fictional claims about fatherhood have long been socially sustained.  In response to Violante’s promise, Teodoro agreed to stay.

Violante’s mother accepted her fictional story of fatherhood, but Violante’s father reacted violently.  When Violante began to show her pregnancy, she told her mother “a tall tale containing a disguised, garbled version of the truth.”  Her mother accepted that tale and hid Violante away in a country estate for the remaining duration of her pregnancy.  Just as Violante was about to give birth, her father happened to stop at the estate.  Her mother told her father the pregnancy tale and tried to persuade him to believe it.  But her father, enraged by the fictional story, demanded to know the truth:

Drawing out his sword, he rushed over in a towering rage toward the girl, who had, in the meantime, while her mother was talking with her father, given birth to a baby boy.  “Either tell me who fathered this child,” he exclaimed, “or you’re going to die right now.”

Violante told of her affair with Pietro.  Because Pietro had the status of a freed slave, Violante’s father, the noble Amerigo, did not want Pietro to marry Violante.  Pietro having sex with Violante was socially interpreted as a crime that Pietro committed against Amerigo.  Amerigo immediately reported that crime to the head of the local militia.  That official tortured Pietro and extracted a full confession.  He sentenced Pietro “to be whipped through the city and then hanged by the neck.”

Having Pietro executed wasn’t enough to satisfy Amerigo.  He ordered that his daughter Violante choose suicide by dagger or by poison, or be publicly immolated.  Amerigo also ordered one of his servants to “take the child she gave birth to a few days ago, smash its head against a wall, and throw it away to be eaten by dogs.”  This extravagant, fanciful brutality came with the new ending.

Pietro being recognized by his true, long-lost father saved him and Violante from violent deaths.  Pietro’s father Fineo, traveling to Rome as an ambassador from the Armenian King of Cilicia, just happened to be in Trapini.  Fineo recognized the red birthmark on Pietro’s chest as Pietro walked by being whipped.  Fineo called out to him, “O Teodoro!”  After a brief exchange in Armenian, the two were certain that they were father and son.  That was a recognition scene like recognition scenes in ancient Greek novels.  Overjoyed to find his son who had been lost, Fineo took off his silk cloak and wrapped it around Pietro.  That was just as the father had done upon the return of the prodigal son.  Fineo went to the official who had sentenced Pietro and declared:

the person you’ve condemned to death as a slave is actually my son, a free man, and he’s ready to marry the girl he is said to have robbed of her virginity.  Therefore, I beg you to delay his execution until we can find out whether she’ll accept him as her husband, because that way, if she does want him, you won’t find that you yourself have gone and broken the law.

Pietro apparently was falsely accused of raping Violante, just as Joseph was falsely accused of raping Potiphar’s wife.  Teodoro’s re-union with Fineo encompassed more human difficulties than the prodigal son’s re-union with his father in the Gospel of Luke.  The re-union of Teodoro and Fineo was also more conditional.  Fineo said to Amerigo:

I fully intent to have my son marry your daughter.  And if he doesn’t want to, then let them carry out the sentence that has been passed upon him.

Teodoro wanted to marry Violante.  Violante wanted to marry Teodoro.  Fineo’s recognition of Teodoro enabled Teodoro and Violante to marry within the prevailing social order.  Amerigo reversed his order of death for Violante and her son, and gave Violante in marriage to Teodoro.  Along with their newly born son, Teodoro and Violante returned to Cilicia with Fineo.  Using the happy ending of recognition plots in ancient Greek novels, there they lived in peace and tranquility for the rest of their days.

Joseph did not return alive to the Holy Land.  Dido did not enjoy a long, happy marriage with Aeneas.  Ancient Greek novels weren’t historical.  The epic history of Teodoro solved those historical problems.

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The history of Teodoro occurs as Day 5, Story 7 (told by Lauretta) in the Decameron.  All the quotes above are from that story, as translated in Rebhorn (2013) pp. 437-44.  Teodoro is a Greek name meaning “gift of God.”  The life of Joseph is in Genesis 37-50.  The story of Dido and Aeneas’ union is in Virgil’s Aeneid, 4.105-172.  The most famous identifying bodily mark in Greek literature is Odysseus’s scar in Homer’s Odyssey, Bk. 19.  Recognition scenes are common in the ancient Greek novels.  For analysis, Montiglio (2013).  On Boccaccio’s knowledge of myths and his use of them in constructing new social understanding, see Gittes (2008) and Lummus (2012).

[image] Virgil and Dante entering the eighth circle, holding adulterers, seducers, and flatterers.  Illustration of Dante’s Commedia, Inferno, Canto XVIII.  Painted by Priamo della Quercia between 1442 and 1450 in north Italy for an edition of Dante’s Commedia. Folio 32, Yates Thompson 36, held in the British Library.


Gittes, Tobias Foster. 2008. Boccaccio’s naked muse: eros, culture, and the mythopoeic imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lummus, David. 2012. “Boccaccio’s Poetic Anthropology: Allegories of History in the Genealogie deorum gentilium libri.” Speculum. 87 (03): 724-765.

Montiglio, Silvia. 2013. Love and providence: recognitions in the ancient novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.


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