Boccaccio criticized Petrarch and Dante with Theophrastus

Petrarch teaching Boccaccio

In fourteenth-century Florence, Boccaccio worked in the shadow of his great predecessor Dante.  Boccaccio figured Dante as an excellent father who called Boccaccio “my son.”  Boccaccio also worked amid great regard for the European-wide celebrity Petrarch.  Petrarch, a classical humanist writing Latin poetry, was crowned a new poet laureate of Rome (the first since the fall of the Roman Empire) in a ceremony at the Roman Capitol in 1341.  Boccaccio referred to Petrarch as “my excellent and reverend teacher.”[1]  Despite his high regard for Dante and Petrarch, Boccaccio with subtle irony used Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage to criticize both.

Boccaccio ironically praised Dante for achieving literary greatness despite being married.  As imagined in his Vita Nuova, Dante at age nine fell madly in love with Beatrice.  He may not have seen her again for another nine years.  In any case, Dante’s parents arranged a marriage for him at age twelve to Gemma Donati.  Dante and Gemma had four or five children.  Beatrice died young.  Dante never mentioned his wife Gemma in his writings.  Beatrice, in contrast, was a major presence in Dante’s work, particularly his Commedia.  From a literary perspective, Dante might as well have been unmarried.

Boccaccio deployed Theophraastus’ Golden Book on Marriage in playful appreciation for Dante’s achievement.  Writing in praise of Dante in a literary construction of his life, Boccaccio declared:

Academic endeavors (and especially those of philosophy, to which our Dante, as has been shown, devoted himself), usually require solitude, freedom from anxiety, and tranquility of mind.  Instead of this serene retirement and quiet which Dante almost from the beginning of his life and up to the day of his death searched for, he had to endure an uncontrollable passion of love, a wife, familial and civic responsibilities, exile, and poverty, not to mention other special troubles which naturally arise out of these.  I will explain all of them one by one, so that their burden may become more evident. [2]

In describing the burden of having a wife, Boccaccio lifted text nearly verbatim from Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage.  Amid reciting from that well-known text, Boccaccio expressed concern about giving “too long a sermon.”[3]  Then he wittily expanded upon a point in Theophrastus’ Golden Book:

it is enough to discuss one matter that pertains to almost all women: they believe that doing a good job always keeps the lowliest servant in the household, while doing the opposite leads to dismissal.  As a result, they feel that if they themselves do their work well, they are simple acting like menials; they can remain great ladies only when they do their jobs poorly, but avoid the fate of the dismissed servant.

Boccaccio then winked at the reader:

But why should I want to keep on proving in detail what most of us already know?  I believe it is better to hold my tongue than to offend our lovely ladies by my talk.

Many men are deathly afraid of offending women.  Boccaccio wasn’t.  He went on to cite another point from Theophrastus’ Golden Book.  Boccaccio concluded with a classical invocation of the highest love:

Let no one believe that I am suggesting, from what I have stated, that men should not take wives.  In fact, I recommend this highly, but I must say that it is not for everyone.  Permit philosophers to leave marriage to wealthy fools, to noblemen and peasants, and let them take their delight with Lady Philosophy, who is a far better bride than any other. [4]

The list “wealthy fools, noblemen, and peasants” light-heartedly casts a net over the major classes of medieval society.  Philosophers, in contrast, remain apart from wealth, the world, and flesh-and-blood women.  Boccaccio in the outrageous comic realism of his Corbaccio mocked the courtly love fantasy of Dante’s Vita Nuova.  Boccaccio found inspiration in flesh-and-blood ladies, not the Muses on Mount Parnassus.  Boccaccio admired and valued Dante’s civic engagement.[5]  Boccaccio idealized the solitary, disengaged philosopher only to praise Dante’s achievement in real life.  That real life was not with Beatrice, but with his flesh-and-blood wife Gemma.

In emphasizing the burden of having a wife, Boccaccio elevated Dante relative to Petrarch.  Petrarch did not marry, stood apart from contemporary civic concerns, and took delight in Lady Philosophy and a Laura no more real that Beatrice.  Boccaccio wrote:

What will those say now whose houses are not sufficient for their studies and who thus seek solitude in the forests?  Or, those who have complete repose, and whose ample facilities without any anxiety are supported by every opportunity?  Or those who, free from wife and children, have as much leisure as they desire?  Many of those are such that, if they were not sitting in comfort, or if they were to hear a murmur, they would not be able to read or write, let alone reflect, if their elbows were not at rest. [6]

Scholars have suggested that, “whether deliberate or unintentional,” Boccaccio is describing Petrarch.[7]  Boccaccio was from the merchant class in which persons kept their elbows moving and sharp.  Men from that class also had wives and were aware of women’s guile.  Boccaccio followed Petrarch in recovering classical learning and creating new humanist literature in Latin.  At the same time, Boccaccio was critical of Petrarch’s disengagement from everyday life.

Boccaccio further used Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage to assert his own sense of humanism against Dante’s theological ascent and Petrarch’s classical models.  In Canto XVI of Dante’s Inferno, Jacopo Rusticucci, suffering in Hell, complained, “it is my fierce wife who pains me most of all.”[8]  Boccaccio provided a conventional literal exposition of that line: Rusticucci’s shrewish wife drove him to seek satisfaction in sodomy to his eternal perdition.  Then Boccaccio provided a round-about introduction to Theophrastus’ Golden Book:

St. Jerome writes in one of his books called Against Jovinianus the Heretic that Theophrastus, who was a venerable philosopher and student of Aristotle, composed a book that is called De nuptiis {On marriage}.  In a part of that work, he questions whether a wise man should take a wife. [9]

Boccaccio then copied into his work the text of De nuptiis (Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage), which he silently translated from Latin into Italian.  The only significant change Boccaccio made to De nuptiis was to excise these two outrageous sentences about the wife:

You have to show deference to her nurse and her maid, the servant from her father’s house, and her foster-child, and her handsome attendant and her curly-haired “assistant,” and her eunuch, gelded to prolong her pleasure and to make it safe: behind these titles there is an adulterer hiding.  Upon whomever she sets her heart, they must have her love though they want her not. [10]

Boccaccio wasn’t afraid to write about women’s sexual eagerness and women’s guile.  The problem with the above text for a learned, free-writing person is that eunuchs did not exist in Theophrastus’ Athens.  The eunuch reference signals to the learned that Theophrastus’ De nuptiis is a post hoc literary artifice.[11]  Boccaccio seems to have been in on Jerome’s ruse.  Boccaccio concluded his account of De nuptiis and its relevance to Dante’s account of Jacopo Rusticucci with artful, more general moralizing:

Let those who prepare to take a wife, then, be alert and let them keep an eye on others, for all too rarely does it happen that a man gets a Lucretia, a Penelope, or someone of like ilk.  As I have heard many men say, although they seem like angels in the daylight, they are devils in your bed at night. [12]

A woman who is a “devil in your bed at night” isn’t a conventional figure of a shrewish, domineering, selfish, and unsatisfying wife.  In the Decameron‘s story of Alibech and Rustico, Rustico urged Alibech to “put the Devil back into Hell” as means to have sex with her.  With sound literary insight, the translator of Boccaccio’s text noted that a woman who is a devil in your bed at night “may not seem in modern times to be so bad.”[13]  The classical heroines Lucretia and Penelope don’t represent true, humanistic understanding of men imagining wives.  “Oh, my little devil” is a universal fantasy of real men throughout history.  More in the fullness of the real world than his father Dante, Boccaccio outwitted his teacher Petrarch in humanistic understanding.

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[1] Filosa (2014) p. 220, citing Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium 8.16 and 9.23.7.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Trattatello in laude di Dante (Little Treatise in Praise of Dante, also know as Life of Dante), s. 3, from Italian trans. Bollettino (1990) p. 10, adapted slightly.  The text has survived in three version, which apparently do not differ in this passage.  In a letter on Dante to Boccaccio (Familiares 21.15), Petrarch declared:

my father, compelled by other matters and by concern for his family, resigned himself to exile, while his friend {Dante} resisted and began devoting himself all the more vigorously to his literary pursuits, neglecting all else and desirous only of glory.  In this I can scarcely admire and praise him too highly when nothing — not the injustice suffered at the hands of his fellow citizens, not exile, poverty, or the stings of envy, not his wife’s love or his devotion to his children — diverted him from his course once he had embarked upon it, when many other great talents, being weak of purpose, would be distracted by the least disturbance.

From Latin trans. Bernardo (2005) v. 3, p. 203.  Petrarch seems to have rewritten Boccaccio’s text into a veiled critique of Dante.  Cachey (2009) pp. 25-8.

[3] Expressing concern about prolixity follows Jerome’s rhetorical strategy in Adversus Jovinianum.

[4] Boccaccio, Trattatello in laude di Dante, trans. Bollettino (1990) pp. 16-7 (previous three quotes above).

[5] Houston (2010).

[6] Gloss that Boccaccio added to shortened Chigi version of Trattatello in laude di Dante.  From Italian trans. Filosa (2014) p. 219.

[7] Filosa (2014) pp. 219-20.

[8] Dante, Inferno, XVI.44-5, cited by Boccaccio, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 577.

[9] Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, “Canto XVI: Literal Exposition,” s. 28, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 578.

[10] Liber De Nuptiis (Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage), from Latin trans. Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 152, with amended as described in note [12] here.  Boccaccio replaced those two sentences with relatively bland sentiment:

indeed, more than any other person, he must show that the loves her father — and any other relative or person whom she holds dear.

Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, “Canto XVI: Literal Exposition,” s. 34, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 579.

[11] Scholars who have discussed the reference to eunuchs have rationalized it as later interpolation.  The truth seems to be simpler: Jerome brilliantly created Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage.

[12] Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, “Canto XVI: Literal Exposition,” s. 46, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 580.

[13] Id., notes, n. 16, p. 707.   That text adds a cautionary reference to Boccaccio’s exposition of Canto XV (15.83).  There Boccaccio refers to the sin:

committed when a man and a woman (even a husband and a wife) come together in a fashion that is less than moral or against the rule of Nature or, indeed, against canon law.

Trans. id. p. 568.  That’s the literal level of understanding “my little devil.”  It’s inner meaning in life can be recognized in the sly gusto of Decameron 9.10 and innuendo Boccaccio made in the conclusion to the Decameron.  See note [4] in post on masculine love.  While devilish behavior has its attractions, medieval men also considered heterosexual intercourse preoccupied with intercourse of non-reproductive type to be oppressive, demoralizing, and wrong.

[image] Petrarch teaching Boccaccio, illumination in Giovanni Boccaccio, De casibus virorum illustrium in French translation (Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et femmes), translated by Laurent de Premierfait, France, Central (Paris?), 1st quarter of the 15th century.  British Library, Royal 20 C IV f. 269.


Bernardo, Aldo S., trans. 2005. Francesco Petrarca. Letters on familiar matters = Rerum familiarium libri. New York: Italica Press.

Bollettino, Vincenzo Zin, trans. 1990. Giovanni Boccaccio, the life of Dante (Tratatello in laude di Dante). New York: Garland.

Cachey, Theodore J. “Between Petrarch and Dante: Prolegomenon to a Critical Discourse.” Pp. 3-49 in Zygmunt G. Barański and Theodore J. Cachey. 2009. Petrarch & Dante: anti-Dantism, metaphysics, tradition. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Filosa, Elsa, 2014.  “To Praise Dante, To Please Petrarch (Trattatello in laude di Dante).” Pp. 213-220 in Victoria Kirkham, Michael Sherberg, and Janet Levarie Smarr, eds. 2014. Boccaccio: a critical guide to the complete works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hanna, Ralph and Traugott Lawler, eds. 1997. Jankyn’s book of wikked wyves. Vol. 1: The Primary Texts (with translations). Walter Map’s Dissuasio; Theophrastus’ De Nuptiis; selections from Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. University of Georgia Press: Athens.

Houston, Jason M. 2010. Building a monument to Dante: Boccaccio as Dantista. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Papio, Michael, trans. 2009. Boccaccio’s Expositions on Dante’s Comedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

virilocality & polygyny in evolution of communicative sex differences

wedding party at wife's family's home: no virilocality

Virilocality and polygyny probably have been common features of human groups across evolutionary time.  Virilocality means heterosexual mates tend to establish a home near the man’s kin.  Uxorilocality is the corresponding term for locating near the woman’s kin.  Polygyny means one man tends to have concurrently either no or multiple heterosexual mates.  Polyandry is the corresponding term for women.  Among about 330 societies that European anthropologists have described at early dates of European contact, 70% were virilocal, 10% bilocal, and 20% uxorilocal.  About 80% practiced polygyny to some extent.[1]  Among societies classified as foragers, residence patterns have been summarized as flexible.[2]  The independence and representativeness, over an evolutionarily relevant time scale, of the data points underlying these statistics are highly problematic.[3] The expansion of agricultural societies has strongly affected the distribution and ecology of hunter-gatherer societies and plausibly their residence arrangements as well.[4] More sophisticated phylogenetic comparative analysis indicates that Proto-Indo-European social organization was virilocal and Proto-Malayo-Polynesian, uxorilocal.  Virilocality appears to be more stable than is uxorilocality.[5]

More interpretive social-geographic analysis associates key developments in human communication with virilocal and polygynous societies.  Research systematically analyzing ethnographic data from around the world for patterns in social structure identified Middle Old World social structure:

The Middle Old World includes North and Northeast Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, most of China, and the Vietnamese. … for most of history the economic center of Eurasia was in this region. … The Middle Old World has a combination of two kinds of constraints – it is constrained both to being unilineal and to being patricentric.

The ecology of the Middle Old World favored competition for assets – domesticated animals, pasture land, and other capital and land associated with capital-intensive agriculture.  Probably driven by the interests of dominant, asset-rich men, social life in the Middle Old World strongly limited men’s and women’s freedom of association and freedom of sexual interaction:

the Middle Old World shows a strong tendency for women to be restricted from public roles, with little political or economic autonomy. Purdah, veiling of women, foot-binding, infibulation, the suttee, and the honor-shame complex, all originated within the Middle Old World.

The Middle Old World also was the locus of significant developments in human communication:

Most of the earliest Eurasian civilizations are in the Middle Old World – Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China. Most of the important empires of Old World history were in the Middle Old World, and all of the major world religions originated in this region, as did many of the world’s writing systems.[6]

Significant communicative developments thus occurred in social environments favoring virilocality and polygyny.

Virilocality and polygyny bias men’s communication toward kin and women’s communication toward non-kin.  Virilocality implies men’s continuing communication with kin.  Women, in contrast, under viriloclity have to establish intensive communicative relationships with new, non-kin.  Under polygyny, men’s mate-typical communication occurs across multiple mates.  Those mates, living in a common familial space, have more complex communicative relationships among each other.  The human evolutionary history of virilocality and polygyny together suggests that social communication has been more evolutionarily significant for women than for men.

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[1] Based on data and coding for Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, as reported in Burton et al. (1996), Table 1.  Number of societies: 311 coded for marital residence, 348 coded for mating (marriage) type.  The societies are almost exclusively non-European societies that European-oriented anthropologists described at early dates of European contact.

[2] Alvarez (2004) and Marlowe (2004).

[3] Marlowe (2004) uses the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS), which he describes as “186 societies with good ethnographic coverage that have been chosen to create an unbiased sample of the world’s societies with respect to geographic region, language family, and cultural area.”  However, the definition of society is highly problematic and not external to the SCCS.  In addition, geographic region, language family, and cultural area do not together define a consistent, well-defined sampling frame that would make the statistical concept of “unbiased sample” meaningful.  Id. p. 278,  ft. 4, notes:

North America is overrepresented among foragers (83% in the EA {Ethnographic Atlas}, 50% in the SCCS {Standard Cross-Cultural Sample}) because there were many foragers there when ethnographies were first written, while the Circum-Mediterranean region is completely absent because foragers had disappeared there before ethnographies were written.

Even in geographic regions where foraging societies exist, the advance of agricultural societies has strongly affected the distribution of foraging societies.  Alvarez (2004) analyzes fifty hunter-gathering societies selected from the Ethnographic Atlas.  The relevance of this sample to general patterns of human social organization is unclear.

[4] For example, starting from about 4000 years ago, Bantu farmers from southern Cameroon spread across sub-equatorial Africa and displaced foragers living in locations propitious for agriculture.  Wood et al. (2005).  The social organization of ethnographically described hunter-gather societies may not be more evolutionarily relevant than the social organization of non-human great apes, or the social organization of ethnographically described humans in non-hunter-gatherer societies.  Given human-Neandertal interbreeding, dispersed development of agriculture prior to 11,000 years ago, and relatively rapid genetic evolution, significant human evolution may have occurred in social circumstances different from those of current (marginalized) human foraging societies.

[5] Fortunato & Jordan (2010).  Copeland et al. (2011), using much different methods, finds evidence of virilocality in ancient hominin species.

[6] Burton et al. (1996) pp. 100-1 (previous three quotes).

[image] wedding of Miss Watts of Bonmahon, Co. Waterford, Ireland, on 29 Apr. 1907 at Watts family home.  From original glass plate negative. Thanks to National Library of Ireland and flickr Commons.


Alvarez, Helen Perich. 2004. “Residence Groups Among Hunter-Gatherers: A View of the Claims and Evidence for Patrilocal Bands.” Pp. 420-441 in Bernard Chapais and Carol M. Berman, eds. Kinship and behavior in primates. Oxford: Oxford University Press: .

Burton, Michael L., Carmella C. Moore, John W. M. Whiting and A. Kimball Romney. 1996. “Regions Based on Social Structure.” Current Anthropology 37(1): 87-123.

Copeland, Sandi R., Matt Sponheimer, Darryl J. de Ruiter, Julia A. Lee-Thorp, Daryl Codron, Petrus J. le Roux, Vaughan Grimes, and Michael P. Richards. 2011. “Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins.” Nature. 475 (7357): 532.

Fortunato Laura, and Fiona Jordan. 2010. “Your place or mine? A phylogenetic comparative analysis of marital residence in Indo-European and Austronesian societies.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences. 365 (1559): 3913-22.

Marlowe, Frank W. 2004. “Marital Residence among Foragers.” Current Anthropology 45(2): 277-284.

Wood, Elizabeth T., Daryn A. Stover, Christopher Ehret, Giovanni Destro-Bisol, Gabriella Spedini, Howard McLeod, Leslie Louie, Mike Bamshed, Beverly I. Strassmann, Himla Soodyall and Michael F. Hammer (2005). “Contrasting patterns of Y chromosome and mtDNA variation in Africa: evidence for sex-biased demograhic processes.” European Journal of Human Genetics 13: 867-876.


Saint Jerome’s corpus of letters shows concern for women

Saint Jerome was a leader in orienting his life toward women.  Of Jerome’s 123 surviving letters, 36% are addressed to women.  Jerome in his surviving letters addressed by name 20 different women.  Jerome’s letters to women have less diverse types and are more personal than his letters to men.[1]  In a scholarly letter to the learned woman Principia, Jerome stated that he was censured by many for writing to women and preferring women to men.[2]

Jerome wrote many more letters to women than have survived.   In one of his works, Jerome referred to “volumes of letters which I have written to Paula.”  He also noted, “how many letters I have written to Paula and Eustochium I do not know, for I write daily.”[3]

Jerome closely associated with women.  In Rome, Jerome was frequently surrounded by women. Women and Jerome were comfortable discussing scripture and Christian living with each other.  Jerome observed of his relationship with women:

Study had brought about constant companionship, companionship comfortableness, and comfortableness a sense of mutual trust. [4]

The patrician Roman women Fabiola, Paula, and Eustochium followed Jerome from Rome to Jerusalem.   Jerome toured monasteries in Egypt with Paula in the winter of 386/6.[5]  Both Paula and Eustochium financially supported Jerome and lived next to him in Bethlehem.   Jerome eulogized Lea, Blesilla, Fabiola, Paula, and Marcella after their deaths.[6]  They probably would have done the same for him.

two women, Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium, with Saint Jerome

Because Jerome loved women, he told them what they needed to know, not what men thought women wanted to hear.  Jerome was far from the self-abasing, desperately love-seeking man of Roman love elegy.  Rather than keeping women ignorant, Jerome told women directly what men want.  Men debated among themselves about whether men should marry.  They assumed that women should marry.  Jerome, in contrast, strongly supported women not marrying.  Few men have cared as much for women as Jerome did.  Only persons who don’t understand women and don’t truly love them cannot understand why women loved Jerome.

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Data: Letters of Jerome Dataset (Excel version)

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[1] See the summary statistics sheet in the Letters of Jerome Dataset.  Saint Jerome is also known as Jerome of Stridon and as Hieronymus.  His full Latin name is Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus.

[2] Jerome, Letter 65 (to Principia, dated 397), from Latin trans. by Medieval Women’s Latin Letters.  In this letter, Jerome refers to women as the “weaker sex.”   That was a conventional term associated with women’s less powerful physical stature and more powerful communication capabilities.  Jerome uses that conventional term in high rhetoric replete with irony.  A simpler presentation is in Jerome’s Letter 126.  Freemantle (1892), p. 601, describes that letter as addressed to “Marcellinus, a Roman official of high rank, and Anapsychia his wife.”  Jerome addresses the husband of high public rank and his wife equally as students of scripture:

Our reverend brother Oceanus to whom you desire an introduction is a great and good man and so learned in the law of the Lord that no words of mine are needed to make him able and willing to instruct you both and to explain to you in conformity with the rules which govern our common studies, my opinion and his on all questions arising out of the scriptures.  In conclusion, my truly holy lord and lady, may Christ our God by his almighty power have you in his safekeeping and cause you to live long and happily.

Letter 126, s. 3, trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 602.

[3] Jerome, De viris illustribus (On Illustrious Men, dated 393), s. 54, 135.  Cain (2009), p. 220, observes:

Considering Jerome’s otherwise prolific literary output and the size of his social network, his 123 extant letters are bound to represent only the tiniest fraction of all of the letters he wrote during his long career.

[4] Jerome, Letter 45 (to Asella, dated 385) s. 2, from Latin trans. Cain (2009) p. 107.  Freemantle (1892) provides an alternate translation of the full letter.

[5] Cain (2009) p. 155.

[6] Lea (Letter 23), Blesilla (Letter 39), Fabiola (Letter 77), Paula (Letter 108), and Marcella (Letter 127).  Freemantle (1892) has English translations.

[image] Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium with Saint Jerome, Francisco de Zurbarán and Workshop, c. 1640/1650, oil on fabric, Samuel H. Kress Collection, U.S. National Gallery of Art, 1952.5.88, thanks to Wikipedia.


Cain, Andrew. 2009. The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford University Press.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.


men’s position in social communication in human evolution

coal miner

Human societies typically prefer to sacrifice men’s lives relative to women’s lives.  A scholarly analysis explained:

It is morality that enables us to shame our males into putting their lives on the line for the group, while it is innate altruistic propensities that help to motivate those males to suffer and die in the interest of the rest of the group.[1]

Both morality (social values) and innate altruistic propensity of individuals evolve through time with the differential reproductive success of humans and human groups.  The evolved social preference for sacrificing men’s lives is more complex than simply sex differences in parental investment, sex differences in the operational sex ratio, sex differences in potential rates of reproduction, or anisogamy.[2]  Men’s relative disposability developed in human evolution through mutual re-enforcement between social values and sex differences in social communication.

Consider the relationship between parents and their biological children.  Parental support for children depends on the combination of many different factors – biological capabilities (gestation, lactation, etc.), behavioral patterns (feeding, protecting, and teaching young), social resources (availability of social substitutes for parental roles) and other aspects of the environment (such as the prevalence of food and predators, which determine the survival value of different parental activities).  Suppose that all these factors combine to produce an observable effect: if a father dies, his offspring is more likely to survive than if the mother dies.   Such an effect favors social communication valuing fathers as being more disposable than mothers.

Dependence relations are a general feature of social groups.  Men’s and women’s contributions to the average reproductive success of all group members depend on a variety of factors.  A small number of men can provide sperm to a large number of women, and thus, apart from other considerations, additional men are a cost to the average reproductive success of the group.  But many other group effects also are relevant.  For example, in small, technologically primitive human societies, the meat that male hunters secure is typically shared among the whole group.[3]  In such circumstances, the value of men to the group depends on the value of this common food provision.  Similar considerations apply to men’s contribution to territorial defense, defense from predators, and to reproductively harmful within-group behaviors such as intrasexual and intersexual hostility and violence.  Suppose that all these factors combine to produce a commonly recognized effect: the death of a man reduces the expected reproduction of the group by less than does the death of a woman.  Such an effect favors social communication valuing men as more disposable than women.[4]

Socially constructed, sex-biased morality connects social values to individual behavior.  Humans plausibly evolved in circumstances in which, among breeding pairs, fathers have had less reproductive value than mothers, and, within groups, men have had less reproductive value than women.[5]  These social values suggest that, in competition to acquire resources and avoid harm, a woman can more effectively make claims in social communication than a man can.  That makes social communication more valuable to women than to men.[6]  Human evolution has thus favored women’s social communication capabilities over those of men.  That sex difference in turn supports lack of social concern about men’s lives.

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[1] Boehm (1999) p. 254.

[2] For an example of simplistic evolutionary-psychological reasoning justifying men’s relatively high death rate from violence, see Daly & Wilson (1988).

[3] E.g. Woodburn (1998) and Hawkes (2001).

[4] See, e.g. Hawkes (2004), pp. 464-5, which emphasizes infanticidal males, the dangers of male mating competition, and the relative unimportance of males’ contributions to group reproductive success.

[5] These social values do not necessarily imply that men maximize their inclusive fitness by being more aggressive, taking more risks, and committing more crimes than women.  Arguments that higher male reproductive variance explains male risk-taking are remarkably ad hoc. See, e.g. Daly & Wilson (1988) Ch. 7.  Social life enables and shapes possibilities for behavioral exchanges.  The price of mates, like the price of food, is part of an aggregate budget constraint.  Suppose prices are measured in energy expenditure.  A fitness-maximizing response to a higher price of mates might be substitution into more food collection and less risk of harm to self.  On biological markets, see Noë (2001).

[6] This is a general implication of cooperative game theory.  In cooperative game theory, payouts are typically directly related to expected marginal contributions averaged across a large number of possible coalitions. Roughgarden et al. (2006) forcefully advocates the importance of such models.  Criticisms of id. have focused on whether Darwin’s theory of sexual selection needs to be replaced.  The argument here is that the cooperative distribution of fitness benefits determines the individual value of communication capabilities.

[image] Harry Fain, coal loader. Inland Steel Company, Wheelwright 1 & 2 Mines, Wheelwright, Floyd County, Kentucky.  Thanks to the National Archives and Wikipedia.


Boehm, Christopher. 1999. Hierarchy in the forest: the evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Daly, Martin and Margo Wilson. 1988. Homicide. New York, A. de Gruyter.

Hawkes, Kristen. 2001. “Is meat the hunter’s property? Ownership and explanations of hunting and sharing.” Pp. 219-236 in C. Stanford and H. Bunn, eds. Meat-Eating and Human Evolution.  Oxford: Oxford University Press: 219-236.

Hawkes, Kristen. 2004. “Mating, Parenting, and the Evolution of Human Pair Bonds.”  Pp. 443-473 in Bernard Chapais and Carol M. Berman, eds. Kinship and behavior in primates.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Noë, Ronald. 2001.  “Biological markets: partner choice as the driving force behind the evolution of mutualisms.” Pp. 93-118 in Ronald Noë, Jan A.R.A.M. von Hooff and Peter Hammerstein, eds. Economics in nature: social dilemmas, mate choice and biological markets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roughgarden, Joan, Meeko Oishi and Erol Akçay. 2006. “Reproductive Social Behavior: Cooperative Games to Replace Sexual Selection.” Science 311: 965-969.

Woodburn, James. 1998. “Sharing is not a form of exchange: an analysis of property sharing in immediate return hunter-gatherer societies.” Pp. 48-63 in C.M. Hann, ed. Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition.  Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.


Decameron X.3: horrible generosity of Nathan and Mithridanes

The price of material goods relative to self-esteem and social status has fundamental economic importance.  That price structures the macroeconomics of persons’ self-interest.  In Decameron X.3, Boccaccio imagined a society in which material goods were cheap, while self-esteem and social status were dear.  Competition in generosity reached a horribly high level.  This story provides a critical perspective on the Arabic tradition of hospitality, the Christian understanding of salvation, and the role of media, particular social media, in serving self-esteem and social status.

Portrait of a Bolognese Gentleman in a Fur-lined Coat

Boccaccio ironically distanced Decameron X.3 to the realm of fantasy.  The story’s narrator presented it as being from a far-away land:

It is beyond doubt, if the reports of various men from Genoa and elsewhere who have been to those parts may be trusted, that in the region of Cathay there once lived a man of noble lineage named Nathan who was rich beyond compare. [1]

Cathay is northern China, far from Boccacio’s Florence.  Travelers’ reports commonly contain stories of wondrous sights, beasts, and events.  The clause “it is beyond doubt” is immediately qualified with reason for doubt.  It should be interpreted ironically.  The two main characters in the story are named Nathan and Mithridanes.  Nathan is a Jewish name.  Christians in medieval Europe stereotyped Jews as being ungenerous.[2]  Mithridanes is a name associated with pre-Christian Roman cultic belief.[3]  Christian nobles and merchants in fourteenth-century Florence would understand Decameron X.3 to be fantastical.

In Decameron X.3, Mithridanes sought to surpass Nathan’s fame for generosity.  Nathan lived in a huge, luxurious palace next to a main thoroughfare.  For many years, everyone who passed by Nathan hosted “in a most agreeable and festive manner.”  Nathan thus acted as the proprietor of a bizarre combination of a motel and a country estate.  Nathan’s renown spread throughout the East and the West.  Mithridanes, another rich man who lived near Nathan, grew envious:

he resolved that through an even greater display of liberality he would either obliterate the old man’s renown or overshadow it.  And so, after having had a palace built similar to Nathan’s, he began to bestow the most extravagant courtesy ever seen on everyone who passed by, going in either direction, and there is no doubt that in a short time he became very famous.

One day, a little, old, poor woman begging for alms from Mithridanes happened to remark that Nathan was more generous than he.  Her remark ignited Mithridanes to raging fury:

How can I ever match Nathan’s greatest acts of generosity, let alone surpass him as I’ve sought to do, when I can’t come close to him in the smallest things?  All my efforts will truly be in vain unless I wipe him off the face of the earth, and since old age isn’t carrying him away all by itself, I’ll have to do the job with my own hands, and that without delay.

Competition in generosity thus led to intent to murder.

Nathan subsequently offered Mithridanes horrible generosity.  Traveling to Nathan’s palace to fulfill his plan to murder him, Mithridanes encountered an old man.  Mithridanes asked the old man for directions to Nathan’s palace.  Mithridanes also requested that, “if possible, he did not want Nathan to see him or to know that he was there.”  The old man was actually Nathan.  He cheerfully and deceptively agreed to Mithridanes request.  Claiming to be one of Nathan’s menial servants, Nathan led Mithridanes to the palace.  There Nathan arranged with his servants not to reveal his identify.  Acting as a menial servant, he won the confidence of Mithridanes.  Mithridanes then told him of his plan to murder Nathan and sought his help.  Nathan agreed to help to arrange for his own murder.

With this horrible generosity, Nathan prevailed over Mithridanes.  Nathan strolled by himself in the woods.  That was the opportunity that Nathan had offered to Mithridanes to murder him.  Mithridanes jumped him, seized him by the turban, and exclaimed, “Old man, you’re as good as dead.”  In a parody upon a parody of Christian self-abnegation, Nathan responded only, “Then I must deserve it.”  Immediately events turned in a different direction:

Upon hearing his voice and looking him in the face, Mithridanes instantly recognized him as the man who had received him with such kindness, had kept him company like a friend, and had advised him so faithfully.  Consequently, his fury immediately subsided, and his anger was transformed into shame.  Hurling away the sword, which he had already drawn out in order to strike his adversary, he dismounted and flung himself down in tears at Nathan’s feet.

Nathan absolved Mithridanes of any wrong-doing in pursuing his murderous scheme:

call it evil or not as you will, there’s no need to ask for my forgiveness or for me to grant it, because you didn’t pursue it out of hatred, but in order to be held in greater esteem. … you have dedicated yourself not to the amassing of wealth, which is what misers do, but to spending what you have accumulated.

That’s a ridiculous justification, made from the perspective of nobles and courtiers looking down on merchants.  With further sarcasm, Boccaccio has Nathan expand upon this justification:

In order to increase their realms, and thus their fame, the most illustrious of emperors and the greatest of kings have practiced almost no art other than killing, not just one man as you wanted to do, but an infinite number of them, as well as putting entire countries to the torch and razing cities to the ground.  And so, if, to achieve renown, I was the only person you wanted to kill, you were not doing anything extraordinary or unusual, but something actually quite commonplace.

Citing his desire to preserve his unblemished record for generosity, Nathan then implored Mithridanes to kill him.  Mithridanes refused.  Nathan’s concern to be generous generated his grotesque devaluation of his own  life.  Only Mithridanes lack of generosity saved Nathan’s life.

Nathan further underscored the perversity of social status-seeking.  In gratitude to Nathan for not condemning his evil intent, Mithridanes offered the platitude that he would like to give years of his life to Nathan.  Nathan, greedy to add to his public record of generous acts, proposed a mechanism to effect that gift.  Nathan proposed that Mithridanes subsequently pretend to be Nathan, and Nathan pretend to be Mithridanes.  The young man Mithridanes could then deceptively add many more years of deeds of generosity to Nathan’s public record.  Mithridanes refused that absurd scheme only out of appreciation for his own inferiority in generosity:

If I knew how to comport myself as well as you do now, and as you’ve always done, I”d take your offer without giving it a second thought, but because I feel quite certain that my actions would only serve to diminish Nathan’s fame, and because I have no intention of marring in another what I cannot make perfect in myself, I won’t accept it.

This isn’t just a story of two gentlemen donkeys stuck at a door, insistently saying to each other, “No, please, you first.”  The story of Nathan and Mithridanes describes perverse effects of social status being much more dear than material goods.[5]

Arabic culture has a deep tradition of hospitality as measure of social status.  Hatim Tai, a Christian Arab who lived in the sixth century, became a focal point for stories about generosity in Arabic culture.  In a book by Saadi, a major Persian poet writing in the thirteenth century,
Hatim Tai is the renowned generous person in a story much like that of Decameron X.3.[4]  Another story about Hatim Tai is preserved in Arabic in the 1001 Nights.  That story places Hatim Tai’s generosity squarely within pre-Islamic Arabic culture.  Travelers at the top of a mountain came across Hatim Tai’s grave.  One traveler said mockingly, “We are your guests tonight, Hatim, and we are hungry.”  After falling asleep for the night, the traveler had a dream:

I saw Hatim approaching me with a sword.  “You have come to me,” he said, “but I have no provisions.”  He then struck my camel with his sword [6]

The traveler’s own camel thus provided the meat that the host offered.  Slaughtering a camel for a shared meal is a typical feature of a pre-Islamic ode.[7]  Hatim Tai’s slaughter of the traveler’s camel, like Decameron X.3, shows a perverse effect of intense concern for maintaining social status of generosity.[8]

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches extreme generosity.  Jesus declares:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. [9]

From a Christian perspective, Jesus realized God, love, and salvation for humanity by allowing himself to be crucified.  Jesus’ words “love one another as I have loved you” mean love one another with complete self-giving, even to the point of death:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [10]

Like the Decameron‘s story of Frate Alberto, Decameron X.3 superficially looks like a parody of Christian scripture.  But Christian extreme generosity isn’t about social status.  Jesus was the son of a carpenter from a provincial town of Judea.  Crucifixion was a degrading means of execution.  Jesus frequently disparaged prayers and pious acts intended to garner social acclaim.[11]  The distinction between outer and inner generosity is crucial in Christian understanding.  That distinction is also crucial for fully understanding Decameron X.3.

Accumulating material wealth, dissipating human sense of divine favor, and powerful new communication technologies are increasing the price of self-esteem and social status relative to material goods.  The dehumanization of materialism and consumerism is becoming less of a personal risk.  The social position of nobles and courtiers is being democratized.  Competition for social status encourages disconnection between the outer and inner person.  Decameron X.3 provides a critical perspective on new personal risks in the Facebook-Twitter-smartphone social economy.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 10, Story 3 (story of Nathan and Mithridanes), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 763.  The narrator is Filostrato.  In Boccaccio’s text, Mitridanes represents Mithridanes.  All subsequent quotes are from id., unless otherwise noted.

[2] The southwestern Eurasian tribal value of generosity is not surprisingly an aspect of Jewish tradition.  The prophet Isaiah in Hebrew scripture expressed that value:

All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
Come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!

Isaiah 55:1.  The underlying idea is that the Lord is a good (generous) host.

[3] The Roman deity Mithras was the focus of a popular Roman cult.

[4] Saadi Shirazi, Bustan, ll. 306-342, from Persian trans. Clarke (1879) in Crane (1921) pp. 212-14, and Edwards (1911) Ch. II (Concerning Benevolence), “Story of Hatim and the Messenger Sent to Kill Him.”  Hatim Tai is more properly transliterated as Ḥātim al-Ṭāʾī.  It is found variously transliterated as Chatemthai, Chatemtai, and Hatam Taei.  Hatim was of the Tayy tribe of Arabia.

[5] Readers can easily interpret this story superficially.  Crane (1921) called it a “noble story.” F.W.V. Schmidt, writing in Berlin in 1818, declared:

The sentiment in this divine story so far exceeds all the bounds of the most daring fancy of our ancient and modern times, that one cannot help thinking that this work of fiction had its source in the sunny plains of the Orient, and was the offspring of a bright and peaceful mind.

Cited in id. pp. 196-7.

[6] 1001 Nights, Night 271, from Arabic trans Lyons (2008) vol, 1, p. 885.  The text is Calcutta 1839-42 (Calcutta II, also called Macnaghten).  According to Geert Jan van Gelder, earlier versions of the story are found in Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889), al-Shi`r wa-l-shu`ara’ (ed. Shakir, 249), in al-Mas`udi (d. 956), Muruj al-dhahab (ed. Charles Pellat, ii, 298-99 = para. 1213-14), and a little later, with two versions, in Abu l-Faraj al-Isfahani, al-Aghani (ed.Cairo) xvii, 374-75, 392.

[7] Examples of pre-Islamic odes (qasā’id) that describe killing a camel and sharing a meal of its meat are the Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays and the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab.

[8] Abū l-Ḥakam al-Maghribī, Maʿarrat al-bayt (The Domestic Scandal), written in twelfth-century Damascus, provides a light-hearted view of the hardships of a hospitable host.  In the penultimate line, the host concludes:

At other people’s places drinking
Is better, in my way of thinking.

From Arabic trans. van Gelder (forthcoming).

[9] John 15:12.

[10] John 15:13.

[11] E.g. Matthew 6:1-18, Mark 12:40.

[image] Portrait of a Bolognese Gentleman in a Fur-lined Coat, c. 1523-25, by Giuliano Bugiardini (Italian, 1475-1554).  The Walters Art Museum, 37.1101.  Special thanks to the Walters for their leadership in making art accessible worldwide on the Internet.


Crane, Thomas Frederick. 1921.  “The Sources of Boccaccio’s Novella of Mitridanes and Natan (Decameron X, 3).”  The Romanic Review 12(3): 193-215.

Edwards, A. Hart, trans. 1911. The Bustān of Sadi. London: J. Murray.

Gelder, Geert Jan van. “Abū l-Ḥakam al-Maghribī, Maʿarrat al-bayt (‘The Domestic Scandal’).”  Forthcoming in A Literary History of Medicine: “The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians” by Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah (d. 1270).  University of Oxford & University of Warwick.

Lyons, Malcolm C. 2008. The Arabian nights: tales of 1001 nights. vols. 1-3. London: Penguin.

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


William, Nastagio, Federigo: ignorant men in love

Before the scientific advances of sexual selection field reports, men in love lived in ignorant self-abasement.  Many men still do.[1]  Empirical science alone cannot produce loving enlightenment.  To move beyond the dark ages of chivalric self-abasement, men must understand the stories of William, Nastagio, and Federigo.

William, said to be a bright, young man, desired his master’s wife.  She was beautiful:

She was exceeding beautiful.
The wild flowers blooming on the hill,
The lily flower, the rose of May –
She was more beautiful than they.

The narrator, undoubtedly like William, let her bodily beauty lead to where a beautiful women’s beauty naturally leads men:

For when her hair was left untied,
It shone so bright that anyone
Who saw would swear that it was spun
From purest gold.  Her forehead shone
Like finely cut and polished stone,
Her eyebrows brown and widely spread,
Her eyes were laughing in her head,

{continuing down through nose, mouth, chin, throat}
Her breast were round as little apples,
Firm and small with little nipples,
There’s nothing more for me to say:
To lead men’s hearts and minds astray [2]

Men who aspire to be better than beasts understand and respect their own sexuality.  Appreciating a young, beautiful woman’s physical attractiveness doesn’t require a man to be subjugated by it.

William was both stupid and timid.  He stayed in his beloved’s household for seven years, pining away in love for her, never saying a word to her.  Finally he accosted her:

William looked long and longingly
Upon her, then he said, “Hello.”

No, no, no.  “Lady, go make me a sandwich” would have been better.  Even worse, William then deployed a stock tactic of a lovestruck adolescent:

Lady, I beg of you, pay heed
To what I ask of you.  I need
Your counsel.  Tell me what you’d say ….”
– “Of course I’ll give it.  Ask away.”
– “If clerk, or knight of high degree,
Or someone from the bourgeoisie
Should fall in love — or even a squire –

What would your opinion be
If he has loved her seven years
And kept it hidden and he fears
Still to tell her anything –
What martyrdom he’s suffering –
And yet he still could tell his love
If only he were brave enough
And the occasion would appear
To open up his heart to her,
And what I really wish I knew
Is what you think he ought to do
And whether he does right or wrong
To keep his love from her so long.”

She declared that the hypothetical lover should bravely tell his love.  She also said of the beloved:

She’d have to pity the poor man.
It would be very foolish of her
Not to accept the love he’s offered
And one day wish to God she had. [3]

William moaned and sighed and then said, “Lady, behold the man.”[4] The lady asked if he were joking and then told him to shut up and get out.  The lady was false to her counsel.  She was true to human nature.  Women naturally don’t desire sexually pathetic men.

William nearly killing himself stirred the lady’s desire.  William announced a starvation strike for love:

Kill me and get it over with.
Listen, I asked for your love.
I beg a gift, and I will prove
My need for it.  I will not eat
Until the day that you see fit. [5]

Since pathetically abasing himself didn’t work to stir the lady’s love, William resolved to abase himself even further.  He refused to eat until the lady acknowledged his love.  That’s not a rational response to the lesson of experience.  Only within the conventions of chivalric fiction is such a tactic ever successful.  So it was here.  The lady and his master implored William to eat.  Without acknowledgement of his love, William resolutely refused to eat, sweating and trembling, with every limb filled with pain, potentially facing death at the hand of his master for desiring his wife should she acknowledge his love.  His suffering and bravery stirred the lady’s sexual desire.

falcon with kill

The lady arranged to cuckold her husband with doublespeak.  She said that William was sick to death with desire for his master’s faucon.  The master readily granted his faucon to William to save his life.  Faucon is Old French for falcon.  Faucon can also be interpreted as “false cunt.”  The lady understood faucon to mean both falcon and false cunt.  Her husband gave his falcon to William, and she gave herself to William.  William instantly became well.  In representing herself as a false cunt, she made effective for William the counsel that she had betrayed.

Boccaccio, who was keenly concerned about men in love, seems to have responded to William of the Falcon with two adjacent stories in the Decameron.  In Decameron 5.8, Nastagio degli Onesti nearly squandered his fortune unsuccessfully seeking the love of a beautiful, young woman.  At times Nastagio was so filled with despair about his unrequited love that he wanted to commit suicide.  Lost in a pine forest, Nastagio had a Dantesque vision of a beautiful, young women, completely naked, running from two ferocious dogs and a knight.  Nastagio intervened to defend the woman.  The knight explained that both he and the woman were spirits undergoing God-ordained punishments:

I, who once loved her so dearly, was to pursue her as my mortal enemy rather than the woman I once loved.  And every time I catch up to her, I kill her with this same sword with which I slew myself {in love suicide}. Then I rip open her back, and as you are about to see for yourself, I tear from her body that cold, hard heart of hers, which neither love nor pity could ever penetrate, and together with the rest of her inner organs, I give it to these dogs to eat.  In a short space of time, as the justice and power of God ordain, she rises up as if she never died and begins her woeful flight all over again, with the dogs and me in pursuit. [6]

Nastagio, although full of pity and fear from the vision, realized that it could be useful to him.  He arranged to have the woman he loved see the vision.  Realizing the lady’s words to William in William of the Falcon, the lady in Boccaccio’s story understood:

She’d have to pity the poor man.
It would be very foolish of her
Not to accept the love he’s offered
And one day wish to God she had. [7]

She thus agreed to marry Nastagio.  They lived happily ever after.  In William of the Falcon, the bravery of a man enduring extreme, self-imposed suffering stirred the lady to sexual desire.  In Boccaccio’s more humane story, the lady’s vision of her own future suffering from rejecting a man’s love stirred her to accept his love.

In the subsequent story in the Decameron, the man in love gives up his falcon but gets the false cunt.  Filomena, who narrates this story, declares that it “partly resembles the preceding one.”  Like Nastagio, Federigo was a rich young man profligately and futilely courting a beautiful woman.  Federigo was in love with Monna Giovanna, who was married to a rich man.  Federigo’s courtship left him with nothing but a falcon:

As Federigo continued to spend money well beyond his means, while acquiring nothing from his lady in return, he went through his entire fortune, as can easily happen, and wound up a poor man, left with nothing except a tiny little farm, the income from which was just enough for him to live very frugally, and a single falcon, which was among the finest in the world. … There he would go hunting with his falcon, whenever he could, and without asking assistance from anyone, he bore his poverty with patience. [8]

Monna Giovanna’s husband died.  While spending the summer at their country estate, her son became acquainted with Federigo and his falcon.  The boy happened to fall ill.  He told his mother that he would get better if she would get for him Federigo’s falcon.  Monna Giovanna had never paid any attention to Federigo’s love for her.  But now that she needed a falcon, she decided to visit him personally, invite herself to have dinner with him, and ask him for his falcon.

Federigo responded to Monna Giovanna’s visit with self-abasement and extravagance.  Surprised and delighted by her visit and her self-invitation to dinner, Federigo wanted to “honor the noble lady” with a worthy meal.  But he had nothing suitable, except for his falcon.  He cooked his falcon and served it as dinner for the lady.  That extravagant charity is as false to reason and nature as the rich lady’s surprise visit and self-invitation to dinner at her spurned lover’s poor home.  It’s as false to reason and nature as the son’s claim that getting Federigo’s falcon would cure his illness.

The story ends with intimations of falsity.  Having failed to acquire Federigo’s falcon other than as a piece of dead, cooked meat, Monna Giovanna returned “utterly despondent” to her son.  Her son then died.  That actually was in Monna Giovanna’s material interests, for when her rich husband died:

he left his entire estate to his son, who was still a growing boy, and since he also loved his wife very dearly, he made her his heir in the case that he son would die without lawful issue. [9]

Monna Giovanna wanted to remain a rich widow.  But her brothers pressured her to remarry.  Mona Giovanna recalled “Federigo’s great worth and his last act of generosity, that is his having killed such a splendid falcon in her honor.”  She might more realistically have recalled Federigo as a foolish, self-abasing man who had caused her utter despair.  Monna Giovanna and Federigo married.  Federigo reportedly lived happily ever after:

Federigo, finding himself not just married to the great lady he had loved so dearly, but a very rich man to boot {through his share in Monna Giovanna’s inherited wealth}, managed his fortune more prudently than he had before and lived with her happily to the end of his days. [10]

A profligate man doesn’t plausibly become prudent by marrying a rich widow.  Monna Giovanna treated Federigo selfishly and instrumentally.  Read against William of the Falcon, Monna Giovanna seems like the false cunt, and Federigo, the foolish, self-abasing man.  That doesn’t suggest a happy end for Federigo.

Everyone in the brigata “praised God for having given Federigo the reward he deserved.”[11]  In truth, Federigo undoubtedly received the reward he deserved.  To move beyond self-abasement, men must understand.

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[1] Societies have always required men to sacrifice their lives in group-structured men-on-men violence (war).  That discourse colonizes men’s personal lives.  Men come to believe that they must desperately fight for love, rather than be loved for who they are.

[2] Guilluame au Faucon (William of the Falcon), fabliau, 1st half of the 13th century, from Old French trans. Duval (1982) p. 92 (inc. previous quote).  For alternate English translations, see the Fabliaux English Translation Index.

[3] Id. pp. 94-5 (previous three quotes).

[4] Cf. John 19:5. That parallel suggests that William feels he isn’t guilty of any offense.  He is guilty of fearing to give offense.

[5] Id. p. 97.

[6] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 5, Story 8 (story of Nastagio degli Onesti), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 448.  The story of Nastagio degli Onesti is the subject of four paintings that Sandro Botticelli produced in the 1480s.  Botticelli’s paintings focus on the woman.

[7] Guilluame au Faucon, trans Duval (1982) p. 95.

[8] Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 5, Story 9 (story of Federigo degli Alberighi), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 453.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. p. 458. The Bustan of Saadi (written in Persian in 1257) includes a story with some similar features.  The Sultan of Turkey decides to ask Hatim Tai, an Arab renowned for generosity, for his fabulous horse.  But before the messenger conveyed the Sultan of Turkey’s request, Hatim slaughtered his horse because it was all he had to provide a meal for the messenger.  Trans. Edwards (1911) Ch. II (Concerning Benevolence), “Story of Hatim Taei.”  The additional context of courtly love in the Decameron‘s story of Federigo degli Alberighi highlights the sexed structure of self-abasement in generosity.

[11] Introductory sentences to Decameron, Day 5, Story 10, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 459.


DuVal, John, trans. and Raymond Eichmann, text, notes, intro. 1982. Cuckolds, clerics, & countrymen: medieval French fabliaux. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Edwards, A. Hart, trans. 1911. The Bustān of Sadi. London: J. Murray.

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

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strong reciprocity depends on communication

Humans frequently behave cooperatively.  Human cooperation is obvious to ordinary persons in everyday life.  In laboratory experiments, a large share of humans cooperate according to social norms if others cooperate likewise, even if not cooperating offers a higher, immediate objective reward.  Similarly, a large share of humans also punish others who do not cooperate according to social norms, even if punishing has immediate, objective net cost to the person who does the punishing.  These two patterns of behavior together are called strong reciprocity.[1]

Strong reciprocity is sensitive to subtle aspects of communication.  The social norms that are the reference points for strong reciprocity are products of social communication.[2]  In laboratory experiments, participants who engage in relevant pre-play verbal communication, who engage in oblique eye gaze, who tap each other lightly on the shoulder or arm, or who use a computer displaying eyespots, behave more cooperatively.[3]  Given the importance of human cooperation for humans’ ecological position relative to other animals, humans have likely undergone natural selection for effectively signaling cooperation.

Experimental work on strong reciprocity hasn’t adequately accounted for individual differences. Experiments have found that, among persons in common cultural circumstances, a sizable share of persons act according to strong reciprocity, and a sizeable share do not.[4]  Experiments have found that demographic characteristics, including sex, do not significantly differentiate between these two groups of persons.[5]  The existence of considerable individual differences in strong reciprocity within a culture isn’t well explained.

elephant herd

Experimental findings of the insignificance of demographics for strong reciprocity concern demographics of individual participants who understand themselves to be playing with anonymous others.  Such demographic information is not ecologically relevant.  Moreover, abstracting from the demographics of opponents or assuming that the demographics of opponents are irrelevant to participants is not consistent with testing the significance of participants’ demographics.[6]  Demographics, in particular sex, may in fact be highly relevant to propensity to engage in strong reciprocity.

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[1] For differing perspectives on strong reciprocity, see Bowles & Ginis (2011) and Guala (2012).

[2] On subtle aspects of social circumstances, see, e.g. Bardsley (2005) and Bardsley (2008).  The issues are not limited to whether persons who interact with participants understand the structure and purpose of the experiments.   What participants understand themselves to be doing can depend on where the experiment takes place, differences in status between participants and non-participants with whom the participants interact, participants’ sense of the specific circumstances of interaction (e.g., via computer terminals in a relatively quiet and barren room), and other subtle aspects of participants’ full sense of their circumstances. Controlling vocal communication with participants is a weak control on communication with participants.

[3] See Valley et al. (2002), Kurzban (2001), and Haley & Fessler (2005).  Kurzban (2001) found effects of eye gaze and touch only for male subjects:

This finding is alarming in that it seems that males are ready to accept extremely scant evidence that they are in a meaningful group capable of cooperating. If indeed male psychology is well designed for cooperating because of adaptations for intergroup conflict, then the ease with which males form cooperative associations is also the ease with which males can form groups for the purpose of intergroup conflict {references omitted}.

Id. pp. 256-7.  The risk of males cooperating to address the demonization of males and the social disposal of males in intergroup conflict seems remote.

[4] The split is close to equal:

Taken together, the fraction of subjects showing strong positive reciprocity is rarely below 40 and sometimes 60 percent whereas the fraction of selfish subjects is also often between 40 and 60 percent.

Fehr, Fischbacher & Gächter (2002) p. 8.  This remarkable division has attracted relatively little attention in scholarship on cooperation.

[5] Henrich et al. (2001) p. 76. Using subjects from U.S. universities, Cox & Deck (2006) found in laboratory behavioral experiments that women’s behavior was more sensitive to the costs of generosity than was men’s.   That result is consistent with more developed social intelligence in women.

[6] In experimental games testing cooperation among nonhuman animals, ensuring that animals sense that they are playing against another animal is in tension with preventing communication between the animals. Noë (2006), pp. 11-12, provides an insightful discussion of this problem. Because humans have a more developed capacity to make sense of human presence, this problem is less significant in experiments involving humans. Nonetheless, the issue of sense of presence in anonymous human cooperation experiments deserves further consideration.

[image] Elephant herd at Ambroseli National Park (Kenya), with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.  Thanks to Amoghavarsha and Wikipedia.  Elephant herds consist of adult females and young of both sexes.  Male elephants are forcibly excluded from herds at puberty.


Bardsley, Nicholas. 2005. “Experimental Economics and the Artificiality of Alteration.” Journal of Economic Methodology. 12: 239-251.

Bardsley, Nicholas. 2008. “Dictator game giving: altruism or artefact?Experimental Economics. 11 (2): 122-133.

Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 2011. A cooperative species human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Cox, James C. and Cary A. Deck. 2006. “When are Women More Generous than Men?Economic Inquiry. 44(4): 587-598.

Fehr, Ernst, Urs Fischbacher and Simon Gächter. 2002. “Strong reciprocity, Human Cooperation and the Enforcement of Social Norms.” Human Nature. 13: 1-25.

Guala, Francesco. 2012. “Reciprocity: Weak or strong? What punishment experiments do (and do not) demonstrate.”  With discussion and response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 35 (01): 1-15.

Haley, Kevin J. and Daniel M.T. Fessler. 2005. “Nobody’s watching? Subtle cues affect generosity in an anonymous economic game.” Evolution and Human Behavior. 26: 245-256.

Henrich, Joseph, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis and Richard McElreath. 2001. “In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies.” American Economic Review. 91(2): 73-78.

Kurzban, Robert. 2001. “The Social Psychophysics of Cooperation: Nonverbal Communication in the Public Goods Game.”  Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 25(4): 241-259.

Noë, Ronald. 2006. “Cooperation experiments: coordination through communication versus acting apart together.” Animal Behaviour. 71: 1-18.

Valley, Kathleen, Leigh Thompson, Robert Gibbons and Max H. Bazerman. 2002. “How Communication Improves Efficiency in Bargaining Games.” Games and Economic Behavior. 38: 127-155.

Pirro learned from Lidia in Decameron 7.9

Samson and Delilah, foremother of Lidia

Boccaccio’s Decameron 7.9 seems like just another story about the deception and abuse of men.  In that story, Nicostrato was a rich and noble elderly man living in the ancient Greek city Argos.[1]  He had a young and beautiful wife named Lidia.  To win the love of Pirro, a young retainer in their household, Lidia killed Nicostrato’s treasured hawk, pulled out a tuft of hair from his beard, and yanked out one of his healthy teeth.  To further display her mastery of Nicostrato, Lidia arranged to have sex with Pirro while Nicostrato watched.[2]  This horror story highlights the importance of men’s ability to perceive the truth and adapt to women’s dominance.

Lidia rationalized extra-marital sex within her privileged life.  Lidia explained to her chambermaid-confidante:

I’m young and vigorous, as well as being abundantly supplied with everything a woman could desire.  In short, I have nothing to complain about, with one exception, which is that my husband is too old for me, so that I have been getting too little of that which gives young women the greatest pleasure. [3]

She meant the sex that a truly chivalrous husband provides.  Lidia decided to “try to find another way to obtain my happiness and my salvation.”  Lidia sought that “my enjoyment in this should be as complete as it is in everything else.”  From a Christian perspective, sex is necessary neither for happiness nor salvation.  Jesus said that he offered his teaching so that “your joy may be made complete.”[4]  Lidia’s way to happiness, salvation, and complete joy is a parody of the Christian way.  Lidia’s way is also a parody of reason through her assumption of sexual entitlement.[5]

Lidia sought extra-marital sex as a ruler relating to a servant.  She was the lady of the house.  Pirro was a servant.  She told her chambermaid:

I’ve decided that our Pirro is the one to take care of my needs with his embraces, for he is worthier in this regard than any other man, and such is the love I bear him that I feel sick whenever I’m not gazing at him or thinking about him.  In fact, unless I can be with him very soon, I truly believe I’m going to die.  Therefore, if you value my life, you must acquaint him with my love for him in whatever way you think best, and beg him on my behalf to be so good as to come to me whenever you go to fetch him.

Lidia thus sought to expand Pirro’s responsibilities as a servant to servicing her sexually.

Pirro at first gave priority to Nicostrato’s interests.  Pirro abruptly rejected the proposition that the chambermaid conveyed from Lidia.  He told the chambermaid, “never talk to me about such things again.”  The chambermaid made clear to Pirro that Lidia’s interests ruled:

 if my lady orders me to speak to you about this, or about anything else, I’ll do so as often as she tells me to, whether you like it or not.  But you now, you really are an ass!

Pirro was an ass because he didn’t understand who really ruled the house.

The chambermaid subsequently brought the matter up again to Pirro.  She explained to him that he should be grateful for Lidia’s proposition.  She pointed out the material benefits and status promotion Lidia would provide him if he sexually serviced her.  She argued that Nicostrato really wasn’t loyal to him.  She also suggests that he would be responsible for Lidia’s death from lovesickness if he didn’t acquiesce to her sexual demands.  In short, Decameron 7.9 depicts a classic case of workplace sexual harassment.  But just as for rape, that offense attracts much less public concern (and interest from literary critics) when the victim is a man.

After mulling the matter over for a long time, Pirro recognized reality and also verified it.  Pirro told the chambermaid to tell Lidia that he would “do whatever she wishes without a moment’s hesitation” if she first killed Nicostrato’s treasured hawk in his presence, plucked a tuft of hair from his beard, and pulled out one of his healthy teeth.  Lidia agreed to these conditions.  She gratuitously added that she would arrange for them to have sex in front of Nicostrato.  Then she would convince Nicostrato that the sex he saw didn’t actually happen.  With boldness and guile, Lidia promptly accomplished all these mock-chivalric feats.

Boccaccio adapted Decameron 7.9 from Lidia, a twelfth-century Latin elegiac poem.  The summary that prefaces Lidia declares:

I have shown all that a woman is capable of
so you may flee forewarned: after all,
you too may have a Lidia in your life. [6]

The Decameron’s account of Lidia’s domestic violence against her husband concludes more subtly:

so, the wretched, deluded husband returned with his wife and her lover to the palace, where from that time on, it became much easier for Pirro to get together with Lidia at frequent intervals for their mutual pleasure and delight.  And may God grant as much to all of us. [7]

The difference between fleeing from Lidia and having sex with her is the difference between Nicostrato, her husband, a rich noble, and Pirro, her lover, their household retainer.  Nicostrato lost faith in his ability to perceive the truth.  Pirro recognized the truth that women are superior to men in guile and that women’s interests dominate men’s interests.[8]  Pirro made the best of that situation.  In their own way, men today must do likewise.

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[1] In adapting the twelfth-century Latin elegiac poem Lidia, Boccaccio changed the husband’s name from Decius to Nicostrato and located his house in “Argos, that most ancient Greek city.”  See Elliott (1984) pp. 126-46.  Argos might be an allusion to the mythic, 100-eyed giant Argos.  Ovid wrote:

We always strive for what’s forbidden: want what’s denied:
so the sick man longs for the water he’s refused.
Argus had a hundred eyes, at front and back –
but Love alone often deceived them

Ovid, Amores, Book III, Elegy IV.  This passage was well-known in the European Middle Ages.  Forbidden love and deception are central themes of Decameron 7.9.

[2] Variants of this tale exist across central and western Eurasia.  The claim of an enchanted tree (the pear tree) and the issue of seeing the truth connect these tales to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.  See Wicher (2013).  One literary critic declared that the tale of Lidia “pleases because it is so amusing … {it} teaches as well as delights.”  Kuhns (1999) pp. 724, 726.  Boccaccio, who wrote the Decameron for men, describes the ladies’ response to Decameron 7.9: “mourning for the innocent pair tree that had been chopped down.”  See introductory text for Decameron 7.10.  Boccaccio’s satire on misandry remains vibrant and unrecognized among literary critics.

[3] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 7, story 9, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 573.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the Decameron’s story of Lida (Decameron 7.9), id. pp. 572-82.

[4] John 15:11.

[5] A literary critic described Lidia’s speech to her chambermaid as “a fine example of forensic oratory justifying her adulterous appetite.”  He also noted, “She {Lidia} is reminiscent of Madonna Filippa, whose eloquent defence of her rights to adultery is a high point of Decameronian rhetoric.”  Usher (1989) p. 344, inc. n. 15.  This critical analysis reflects the social dynamics and quality of reason well-represented in the medieval French work 15 Joys of Marriage.

[6] From Latin trans. Elliott (1984) p. 146.  The summary prefacing the poem is known as the argumentum.

[7] In Rebhorn’s translation above, I’ve replaced “poor, deluded husband” with “wretched, deluded husband.”  The original Italian is “misero marito schernito.”  Given that the husband is rich and the group is returning to their palace, “wretched” rather than “poor” seems to me a clearer translation for “misero.”  “Poor” has a polysemous irony that could cause confusion.

[8] Panfilo tells the story of Lidia.  He prefaces that story with incoherent self-assurance:

I do not believe, esteemed ladies, that there is any enterprise, no matter how difficult or dangerous, that someone passionately in love would not dare to undertake. … In it {the story of Lidia} you will hear about a lady whose deeds were far more favored by Fortune than guided by reason, which is why I do not advise any of you to risk following in her footsteps, because Fortune is not always so well disposed, nor are all the men in the world equally gullible.

His first sentence above describes the ideal behavior of the conventional chivalrous man.  The second sentence describes risks that the first sentence has dismissed for women and men.  Moreover, the story doesn’t indicate that Lidia’s deeds were favored by Fortune.  All men in the world need not be equally gullible for men in general to be subordinate through women’s guile.

[image] Samson and Delilah, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar) , ca. 1528-30, oil of wood.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976.201.11.  Bequest of Joan Whitney Payson, 1975.


Elliott, Alison Goddard, trans. 1984. Seven medieval Latin comedies. New York: Garland.

Kuhns, Richard Francis. 1999. “Interpretative Method for a Tale by Boccaccio: An Enchanted Pear Tree in Argos (Decameron VII.9).” New Literary History. 30 (4): 721-736.

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

Usher, Jonathan. 1989. “Rhetorical and Narrative Strategies in Boccaccio’s Translation of the Comoedia Lydiae.” The Modern Language Review. 84 (2): 337-344.

Wicher, Andrzej. 2013. “Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Tale of the Enchanted Pear-Tree, and Sir Orfeo Viewed as Eroticized Versions of the Folktales about Supernatural Wives.” Text Matters – A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture. 3 (3): 42-57.


indirect aggression through social communication

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

From an evolutionary perspective, sophisticated social communication plausibly has been more significant for woman than for men.  Among non-human primates, both females and males compete physically and aggressively with other group members.  Among humans, physical aggression is more characteristic of men than of women.[1]  That sex difference doesn’t mean that women are essentially more peaceful and cooperative than men.  Aggression can be indirect:

just like the other primates, coalitional relationships among women also function to facilitate aggressive within-group competition for valuable, monopolizable resources; unlike other primates, this aggression {women’s aggression} relies not on physical but informational capabilities. [2]

Arguments that physical aggression is more costly for women than for men indicate that, all else equal, indirect aggression is relatively more valuable for women than for men.[3]

According to scholarly research, women collect, analyze, and disseminate information to attack the reputations of other women in competition for material and social resources.  Indirect aggression is much more characteristic of adolescent girls than of adolescent boys.[4]  Human evolution plausibly has generated greater capabilities for indirect aggression in women than in men:

Because gossip is an excellent strategy for the high within-group competition females face, and because it is effective in attacking and defending difficult-to-assess aspects of reputation, gossip may have been a more effective weapon in female intrasexual competition than it was in male intrasexual competition, increasing selection for psychological adaptations for informational aggression in females. It follows that women should be better than men in using informational aggression, and that women should be more sensitive than men to threats of informational aggression. [5]

Women are intelligent organisms whose purposeful activities have evolutionary significance.[6]  Human communication capabilities affect not only humans’ success in competition with other species, but also competition among humans.  Indirect aggression or informational aggression and attacks on reputation makes sense within social-evolutionary understanding of humans.

An abstract concept of reputation, however, does not relate well to empirical knowledge about actual practices of communicative competition.  Consider this hypothesis:

Compared to men, a greater fraction of female reputation depends on difficult-to-confirm dimensions of reputation [7]

Because reputation has many possible dimensions, evidence relevant to this hypothesis isn’t easy to assess.  Moreover, the implications of different dimensions of reputation depend on the particular circumstances under consideration.  A woman’s reputation for being easily sexually accessible might have positive value in competition among women for copulations with males, but negative value in competition among women for male parental investment.  Competition among daughters for maternal resources is one possible type of competition.  Competition among daughters for life-long male mates is another.  The balance between these two forms of competition and the distribution of resources between women and men affects whether a reputation of loyalty to one’s mother has positive or negative overall reproductive value for women.

Indirect aggression is becoming more important with the expansion of communication networks.   Competition among women and men is primarily intrasexual.  Women’s indirect aggression is primarily directed at other women.  Yet women increasingly believe that their most important rivals are men.  Greater indirect aggression in the context of intersexual competition is likely to contribute to women’s dominance.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Archer (2004) pp. 302-5.

[2] Hess & Hagen (2006) p. 112.

[3] Campbell (2002) and Taylor et al. (2000) emphasize the cost of physical aggression to women.

[4] Archer & Coyne (2005) pp. 223, 225. 226.  Sex differences in indirect aggression among adults aren’t well-documented.  Hess & Hagen (2006) found that, compared to young men, young women expressed a stronger desire to aggress indirectly.  Women’s indirect aggression can be seen, for example, in scholarly work concerning the French Revolution, evolutionary psychology, violence against men, and rape of men.

[5] Hess & Hagen (2006) p. 66.  See also Hess & Hagen (2003).

[6] Exposition of this obvious point is central to the work of the influential scholars Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Anne Campbell.

[7] Hess & Hagen (2006) p. 60.  See also Hess & Hagen (2003).

[image] Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French, c. 1880.  In The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.  Thanks to Google Art Project and Wikipedia.  The sex differences in social communication depicted in this painting differ from general patterns of sex differences in communication found in social-scientific studies.


Archer, John. 2004. “Sex Differences in Aggression in Real-World Settings: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Review of General Psychology 8(4): 291-322.

Archer, John and Sarah M. Coyne. 2005. “An Integrated Review of Indirect, Relational, and Social Aggression.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 9(3): 212-230.

Campbell, Anne. 2002.  A mind of her own : the evolutionary psychology of women. Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.

Hess, Nicole H. and Edward H. Hagen. 2006. “Informational Warfare.”

Hess, Nicole H. and Edward H. Hagen. 2006. “Sex Differences in indirect aggression: Psychological evidence from young adults.” Evolution and Human Behavior 27: 231-245.

Taylor, Shelley E., Laura Cousino Klein, Brian P. Lewis, Tara L. Gruenewald, Regan A.R. Gurung and John A. Updegraff (2000). “Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, not Fight-or-Flight.” Psychological Review 107(3): 411-429.


bad metaphor: Neifile and Filostrato on wolves and sheep

wolf on the prowl

At the conclusion of the Decameron’s Day 3, Neifile, the ruler for the day, selects Filostrato as the ruler for the next day.  Neifile then declares to Filostrato:

We will soon see if the wolf knows how to guide the sheep better than the sheep did the wolves. [1]

The wolf and wolves in this metaphor are, respectively, Filostrato and the men of the group (the brigata).  The sheep are the women.  Neifile’s metaphorical mixing is pure in abasement.  In the Decameron, wolves are vicious, and sheep are stupid and in need of guidance.[2]  Neifile’s quip spurs jousting between Neifile and Filostrato over whether men’s or women’s sexuality is more wolfish.  Neifile triumphs with the claim that women’s sexuality is more wolfish.

Neifile seems to be taunting Filostrato with his hunger for love.  Filostrato understands himself to be enslaved in unhappy, unrequited love for an unidentified woman of the brigata.  An unidentified man of the brigata loves Neifile.[3]  Filostrato’s passion may be for Neifile.  Neifile orders stories on the theme “people who have relied on their resourcefulness to acquire something they really desired or recover something they had lost.”  Filostrato rigidly adheres to gynocentric rules for love and fails to recognize better ways for men.  In his misery, he orders stories on the theme “those whose love came to an unhappy end.”

Filostrato’s response to Neifile begins with braggadocio and ends in whining.  In response to Neifile’s remark reversing the metaphorical guidance of wolves and sheep, Filostato laughs and says:

Had they listened to me, the wolves would have taught the sheep how to put the Devil in Hell no worse than Rustico did with Alibech.  But you should not call us wolves, since you have not been acting like sheep. [4]

Filostrato is a complete failure in love.  If the other men of the brigata listened to Filostrato’s love advice, which they didn’t, they too would be bitter and frustrated in love.  Dioneo, who lived his life surrounded by women, understands much better how to seduce women.  Moreover, Neifile’s metaphor of wolves and sheep is poorly made.  Filostrato adds to the metaphorical muddle (wolves teaching sheep?) and then complains about the inaptness of the metaphor.

Neifile silences Filostrato with her retort.  She says to him:

if you men had tried to teach us to put the Devil in Hell, you might have learned a lesson from us the way Masetto da Lamporecchio did from the nuns, for you would have recovered your ability to speak at just about the time when the wind would have been whistling through your hollow bones. [5]

In Day 3, Story 1 of the Decameron, Masetto sought a job as a gardener at a convent.  He pretended to be deaf-mute.  Recognizing a good opportunity, all the nuns and the Abbess secretly contrived to have sex repeatedly with Masetto.  Exhausted and unable to satisfy so many women, Masetto broke his silence and begged for a reduction in his sexual work.  Neifile’s retort suggests both that Filostrato wouldn’t have sought relief from continual sexual activity and that he wouldn’t have been able to endure in the flesh such activity.  Filostrato doesn’t respond to Neifile’s figure of women’s wolfish sexual nature.  In that sense, Neifile triumphs in their flyting.[6]

Christian metaphors of wolves and sheep don’t favor wolfish nature.  Being sheep among wolves requires extraordinary behavior:

I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Persons with the inner nature of wolves are dangerous and to be avoided:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

Jesus was the good shepherd who protected the sheep from wolves:

The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me … I lay down my life for the sheep. [7]

Men figured as wolves are ravenous and dangerous.  Those aren’t good qualities for a guide.[8]  Figuring women as sexually ravenous makes women no better than men.

Women are no better and no worse than men.  With a bad metaphor and sexual antagonism, neither Neifile nor Filostrato understands that inner truth.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 3, Conclusion, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 296.

[2] Decameron, Day 5, Story 3, id. p. 411 ( “wolf seizing her and ripping open her throat”); Day 9, Story 7, id. p. 730 (“wolf rips up his wife’s throat and face”); Day 3, Story 3, id p. 224 (“dumb sheep of a friar”); Day 6, Story 8, id. p. 498 (“no more understanding … than a sheep would have”);  Day 3, Story 7, p. 257 (“as if constancy and steadfast behaviour came more easily to the sheep than to their shepherds”).

[3] Decameron, Day 3, Conclusion, id. p. 297 (Filostrato loves); Day 1, Introduction id. p. 18 (Neifile is loved).

[4] Decameron, Day 3, Conclusion, p. 296.

[5] Id.

[6] Literary critics working as earnest apparatchiks have failed to recognize Boccaccio’s linguistic game with the bad metaphor of wolves and sheep:

Rather than being taken aback by his {Filostrato’s} innuendo, Neifile outdoes him by suggesting that he needs to be taught a lesson. … Neifile shows that she is a force to be reckoned with because she is in full possession of knowledge that would allow her to resist men’s advances.  By implication, she has overturned the paradigm of male mastery and female tutelage by informing him that women are not men’s pupils, eagerly awaiting their instruction. Neifile’s witty retory is so effective that she literally silences him, causing him to desist from his lecture

Perfetti (2003) pp. 93-4.  You go girl!

[7] Matthew 10:16, Matthew 7:15, John 10:12-15 (previous three quotes).  John 10:9 depicts the good shepherd lying down in the sheepfold gate to prevent wolves from entering and taking sheep. A medieval Latin proverb warned of sheep with wolfish minds: pelle sub agnina latitat mens saepe lupina (under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind).

[8] While figuring Filostrato as a wolf, Neifile selects him as ruler for Day 4.  In Day 4, Story 2, Pampinea ironically describes Berto della Massa as having “changed from a wolf into a shepherd” in becoming Frate Alberto.  Frate Alberto preyed on the persons he pretended to shepherd.

[image] Wolf in a zoo in Stockholm, Sweden.  Thanks to Daniel Mott and Wikipedia.


Perfetti, Lisa Renée. 2003. Women & laughter in medieval comic literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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


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