Wednesday’s flowers

tulip landscape

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.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[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.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[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.


Saint Jerome’s obscene gesture for fellow theologian Jovinian

Saint Jerome as institutionalized scholar

Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, commonly known as Saint Jerome, was born in 347 in an obscure provincial town of the Roman Empire.  His family was neither wealthy nor prominent nor Christian.  Apparently ambitious and intellectual capable, Jerome received in Rome the finest education available in the Roman Empire.  There, probably in his late teens, he chose to be baptized as a Christian.  Jerome went on to become a highly learned scholar: “one of the most accomplished polymaths in all of Latin antiquity.”[1]  He is famous for translating the Christian bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.  Jerome’s translation, called the Vulgate, become the standard biblical text across western Europe in the Middle Ages.  In addition to that great achievement, Saint Jerome deserves to be more widely recognized for his vituperative skill and astonishing use of an obscene gesture.

In his treatise against Jovinian, Jerome mocks and censures his fellow theologian Jovinian.  Jerome describes Jovinian as “slippery as a snake” and his thoughts, “hissing of the old serpent.”  He disparages Jovinian’s name (“derived from that of an idol”) and suggests that Jovinian was “seized with madness and ought to be put into the strait jacket which Hippocrates prescribed.”  According to Jerome, Jovinian “with his usual stupidity” overlooks important passages and interprets others “with a shamelessness to which we have now grown accustomed.”  Jerome declares of Jovinian:

To understand him we must be prophets. We read Apollo’s raving prophetesses.  We remember, too, what Virgil says of senseless noise.  Heraclitus, also, surnamed the Obscure, the philosophers find hard to understand even with their utmost toil.  But what  are they compared with our riddle-maker, whose books are much more difficult to comprehend than to refute?  Although (we must confess) the task of refuting them is no easy one.  For how can you overcome a man when you are quite in the dark as to his meaning?  But, not to be tedious to my reader, the introduction to his second book, of which he has discharged himself like a drunk after a night’s debauch, will show the character of his eloquence, and through what bright flowers of rhetoric he takes his stately course. [2]

Returning to the figure of Jovinian vomiting “like a drunk after a night’s debauch,” Jerome subsequently declares that Jovinian is “the slave of vice and self-indulgence, a dog returning to his vomit.”[3]

One issue of dispute between Jerome and Jovinian is the relative merits of virginity and marriage.  Jerome thinks that as Christians “while we honor marriage, we prefer virginity.”[4]  Jovinian thinks that marriage and virginity are equally propitious for living the way of Christ.  Jerome’s arguments against Jovinian include an exegesis of Paul of Tarsus’s teachings to the early church at Corinth.[5]  Jerome also draws upon teaching across the Christian Old and New Testaments and examples of non-Christians from the history and literature of the Greco-Roman world.  While an advocate of ascetic living, Jerome makes voluminous, wide-ranging arguments from cosmopolitan learning.

Jerome sets the tone of his treatise against Jovinian with an outrageous declaration that more rigidly pious, more narrow-minded scholars have failed to appreciate.  Jerome declares:

Virginity is to marriage what fruit is to the tree, or grain to the straw.  Although the hundred-fold, the sixty-fold, and the thirty-fold spring from one earth and from one sowing, yet there is a great difference in respect of number.  The thirty-fold has reference to marriage.  The very way the fingers are combined—see how they seem to embrace, tenderly kiss, and pledge their troth either to other—is a picture of husband and wife.  The sixty-fold applies to widows, because they are placed in a position of difficulty and distress.  Hence the upper finger signifies their depression, and the greater the difficulty in resisting the allurements of pleasure once experienced, the greater the reward.  Moreover (give good heed, my reader), to denote a hundred, the right hand is used instead of the left: a circle is made with the same fingers which on the left hand represented widowhood, and thus the crown of virginity is expressed. [6]

Jerome’s reference to the different yields from sowing alludes to the parable of the sower in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark:

the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. [7]

Yet Jerome’s gestural figure is much more than just an allegory built upon a biblical parable.  Jerome signals explicitly, “give good heed, my reader.”  Immediately following his gestural figure, Jerome expresses misgivings:

In saying this I have followed my own impatient spirit rather than the course of the argument.  For I had scarcely left harbour, and had barely hoisted sail, when a swelling tide of words suddenly swept me into the depths of the discussion.  I must stay my course, and take in canvas for a little while; nor will I indulge my sword, anxious as it is to strike a blow for virginity.

This correctio describes hoisting and swelling, leading to the comic declaration “nor will I indulge my sword, anxious as it is to strike a blow for virginity.”  Sword seems to function here as a figure for Jerome’s penis.  In a thorough critical study of one of Jerome’s letters, a leading scholar of Jerome noted “his dirty mind” and “the note of prurience that pervades the work.”[8]  Earthy sexual plays are plausible in Jerome’s work.

Saint Jerome's obscene gesture in Adversus Jovinianus

In light of Jerome’s transgressive urbanity, Jerome’s description of finger gestures is best understood as representing his view of placing marriage/widowhood alongside of virginity.  Marriage is the index and middle finger, held up together, two as one.  The widow is the index finger (upper finger) hold alone.  On the other hand, the index finger wrapped in a circle represents virginity.  Holding these finger gestures next to each other suggests a contextually meaningful interpretation.[9]  Jerome represents Jovinian’s position with respect to virginity as an obscene gesture.  One should turn away from it.

Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum was too much for Jerome’s contemporaries.  It encountered a “universally hostile reception”:

The Roman priest Domnio sent him {Jerome} a letter with an attached list of controversial statements made in the work that he wanted Jerome either to clarify or to correct.  The senator Pammachius, Paula’s son-in-law and Jerome’s long-time acquaintance from his student days in Rome, also was put off by the writing and demanded that his old condiscipulus explain or retract portions of it. … As far as most of his contemporaries were concerned, Jerome had stepped over the line in Adversus Iovinianum, and they accordingly set out to correct some of the more outlandish assertions he had made in it. [10]

Pammachius personally attempted to remove all available copies of Adversus Jovinianum from circulation.  The issue wasn’t substantive.  A synod in Rome condemned Jovinian.  When Jovinian fled to Milan, the Bishop there also condemned him.[11]  Contemporary readers turned away from Adversus Jovinianum not because of its substance, but because of its tone and expression.  At least at the level of Adversus Jovinianum as whole, contemporary readers perceived Jerome’s obscene gesture.

Jerome became famous and revered as a saint in the European Middle Ages.  Yet many readers have not fully appreciated Jerome’s expansive mind and expressive creativity.  Saint Jerome’s obscene gesture indicates his under-appreciated brilliance.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Cain (2013) p. 407.  Jerome’s “immense erudition … was unrivalled, by a wide margin, in Latin Christian antiquity.” Id. n. 3.

[2] The previous quotes in this paragraph are all from Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892), with a few minor clarifications:  2.21 (p. 886, snake); 1.4 (p. 782, hissing); 2.38 (p. 907, idol); 1.3 (p. 781, madness); 1.25 (p. 811, stupidity); 1.26 (p. 813, shamelessness); 1.1 (p. 780, prophets).  Virgil describes senseless noise: “insubstantial speech … sound without mind.” Aeneid 10.640.

[3] Id 1.40.  p. 837.  A dog returning to his vomit is a figure from Proverbs 26:11 and 2 Peter 2:22.

[4] Id. 1.3 (p. 781).

[5] 1 Corinthians 7.  On the theological and institutional aspects of the dispute between Jerome and Jovinian, Hunter (2007).

[6] Adversus Jovinianum, 1.3, trans. Freemantle (1892) pp. 781-2.

[7] Matthew 13:23.  Cf. Matthew 13:8, Mark 4:8.  The parable of the sower was included in the eighth-century Arabic life of Buddha.

[8] Adkin (2003) pp. 230, 17.  Jerome’s gesture plausibly represents copulation.  In the context of interpreting 1 Corinthians 7, Jerome declares:

Here our opponent goes utterly wild with exultation: this is his strongest battering-ram with which he shakes the wall of virginity.

Adversus Jovinianum, 1.12, trans. Freemantle (1892) pp. 795.  Here too Jerome seems to be evoking sexual ardor.

[9] Jerome seems to have enjoyed his gestural representation so much that he reproduced it nearly verbatim in his Letter 48 (To Pammachius), s. 2.  An abbreviated form occurs in Jerome, Letter 123 (To Ageruchia) s. 9.  At the former occurrence, Freemantle (1892) notes:

From this passage compared with Ep. cxxiii. 9, and Bede De Temporum Ratione, c. 1. (De Loquetâ Digitorum), it appears that the number thirty was indicated by joining the tips of the thumb and forefinger of the left hand, sixty was indicated by curling up the forefinger of the same hand and then doubling the thumb over it, while one hundred was expressed by joining the tips of the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. See Prof. Mayor’s learned note on Juv. x. 249.

Juvenal x.249 refers to a person with a long lifespan counting years with his right hand.  In the context of a technical presentation of “calculating or speaking with fingers,” the English monk Bede, writing about 700, quotes Jerome and interprets his gestures as representing numbers.  Wallis (1999) pp. 9-10.  In a technical context, finger gestures for counting are plausible.  That’s not the relevant context for the finger gesture in Adversus Jovinianum.  Bede had much more institutionally disciplined rhetoric than did Jerome.  Bede not recognizing Jerome making an obscene gesture is plausible.

[10] Cain (2009) pp. 138-40.  Paula was a a close friend to Jerome.

[11] Id. pp. 136-7.

[image] Saint Jerome in the scriptorium, Master of Parral, c. 1485, Spain. Museum of Lazaro Galdiano, inv. 2797.  Thanks to Museum of Lazaro Galdiano, Google Cultural Institute, and Wikipedia.


Adkin, Neil. 2003. Jerome on virginity: a commentary on the Libellus de virginitate servanda (Letter 22). Cambridge: Francis Cairns.

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.

Cain, Andrew. 2013. “Two allusions to Terence, Eunuchus 579 in Jerome.” Classical Quarterly. 63 (1): 407-412.

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.

Hunter, David G. 2007. Marriage, celibacy, and heresy in ancient Christianity: the Jovinianist controversy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wallis, Faith trans. 1999. Bede. The reckoning of time. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.


Wednesday’s flowers

bee in yellow-center flower

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.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[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.


rape of men about as prevalent as rape of women

The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) found that 1.1% of non-incarcerated men were forced to have sex with another person in the past year.  Defining rape victimization with the gender-neutral concept of being forced to have sex (including being “made to penetrate”), NISVS found that 1.1% of men and 1.1% of women were raped in the past year among persons outside of jails and prisons.[1]  When is the last time you heard that roughly equal numbers of non-incarcerated men and women are raped?  When is that last time you heard any concern about rape of men?

tree rotten to core

Men being forced to have sex by being forced to penetrate sexually is scarcely recognized.  Before 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) definition of rape explicitly limited rape to rape of females.  The UCR apparently now includes as rape men being made to penetrate.  Making that inclusion explicit is clearly needed for clarification.  The major, annual, government-administered National Crime Victimization Survey doesn’t ask about men being forced to penetrate.  NISVS asked men about being forced to penetrate, but NISVS didn’t include men being forced to penetrate under the category rape.  NISVS pretended that men being forced to have sex with their penises isn’t real rape.  That’s gender bigotry like surveys labeling men, and only men, as rapists in circumstances of true love.

NISVS buried the facts about rape of men.  The executive summery of NISVS’s summary report listed as its first key finding:

Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration. [2]

These statistics don’t include men “made to penetrate” sexually another persons.  NISVS found a lifetime prevalence of men raped in that way to be 4.8%.[3]  Moreover, NISVS asked participants to recall sexual victimization across their whole lifetime and across the past year.  Lifetime recall is much more likely to be faulty and biased than past-year recall.  For example, regretted sex can be rationalized over time in memory as drunken sex.  NISVS classifies drunken hetero-sex as rape of the woman.  The best, non-gender-biased rape measure from NISVS is that 1.1% of women and 1.1% of men were raped in the past year.  Those key statistical findings are nowhere compellingly communicated in the NISVS summary report.  The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administered NISVS and publicly reported its results.  Burying the facts about rape of men shows anti-men bias shaping public communication of an expert, government agency.

Anti-men bigotry combines with farce in a recent scholarly article.  The scholarly article, entitled “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions,” was published in the prestigious American Journal of Public Health.  It begins thus:

The sexual victimization of women was ignored for centuries.  Although it remains tolerated and entrenched in many pockets of the world, feminist analysis has gone a long way toward revolutionizing thinking about the sexual abuse of women, demonstrating that sexual victimization is rooted in gender norms and is worthy of social, legal, and public health intervention. [4]

This article doesn’t begin with concern about sexual victimization of men in America.  It begins gynocentrically.  A similar rhetorical strategy shapes the introduction to a scholarly article exploring the much neglected topic of men suffering much higher injury mortality than women, including men suffering a death rate from violence 4.1 times higher than that of women.  Here, the scholarly article’s first sentence is simply preposterous.  Sexual victimization of women has been of intense concern across all of recorded history.  False accusation of rape has been of intense concern across all of recorded history until recent decades.  The history of concern about false accusations of raping a woman makes no sense without parallel concern about raping women.

Acknowledging the reality of rape apparently isn’t possible without working earnestly to support entrenched discursive interests.  The scholarly article observes:

The survey {NISVS} found that men and women had a similar prevalence of nonconsensual sex in the previous 12 months (1.270 million women and 1.267 million men).  This remarkable finding challenges stereotypical assumptions about the gender of victims of sexual violence.  However unintentionally, the CDC’s publications and the media coverage that followed instead highlighted female sexual victimization, reinforcing public perceptions that sexual victimization is primarily a women’s issue. {bolding added to original text} [5]

Highlighting female sexual victimization was no more unintentional than is marketing stories with understanding of market demand.  Female victimization attracts massive attention.  No one wants to hear about male victimization.

Entrenched discursive interests are readily apparent in the scholarly article.  With standard academic cant, the article declares:

We have interrogated some of the stereotypes concerning gender and sexual victimization, and we call for researchers to move beyond them.  First, we question the assumption that feminist theory requires disproportionate concern for female victims. [6]

The article’s first concern is what feminist theory requires.  Why should anyone care about requirements of feminist theory, as defined by the ruling feminist theoreticians?  Elites today care, because if they don’t confirm their allegiance to feminist theory, they will be expunged from mainstream public discourse.  The article concludes with a declaration worthy of feminist theory:

Finally, a gender-conscious analysis of sexual victimization as it affects both women and men is needed and is not inconsistent with a gender-neutral approach to defining abuse.  Indeed, masculinized dominance and feminized subordination can take place regardless of the biological sex or sexual orientation of the actors. [7]

Biological sex or sexual orientation shouldn’t be relevant to concern for human suffering.  While discounting those irrelevant factors, the article maps sexual victimization onto “masculinized dominance” and “feminized subordination.”   The difference between hating men and hating masculinity is worse than splitting hairs.  It’s chopping penises.  “Masculinized dominance” and “feminized subordination” are worse abstractions than “feminized dominance” and “masculinized subordination.”  The latter provides a better metaphor for reality today.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Basile et al. (2011) pp. 18-9, Tables 2.1 and 2.2.  These results are based on non-incarcerated persons’ statements about sexual victimization in response to survey questions.  They are not findings of rape under criminal law.  Rape in NISVS includes “completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.”  The statistics cited above add to the NISVS “rape” category the sexual violence of men “made to penetrate” sexually another person.

[2] Id. p. 1.  NISVS did not survey incarcerated persons.  Men are highly disproportionately represented among incarcerated persons.  Incarcerated persons suffer a much higher prevalence of sexual violence.  If incarcerated men are appropriately recognized as “men in the United States,” rape of men is considerably higher than the NISVS statistics indicate.

[3] Id. p. 19, Table 2.2.

[4] Stemple & Meyer (2014) p. e19.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. p. e20.

[7] Id. p. e25.  The article pursues “intersectional approaches.”  Intersectional approaches detract attention from the fact that black men, Hispanic men, low-income men, mentally ill men, gay men, disabled men, and homeless men are all men.  Consider, for example, this statement:

Because the United States disproportionately incarcerates Black, Hispanic, low-income, and mentally ill persons, accounting for the experience of the incarcerated population will help researchers and policymakers better understand the intersecting factors that lead to the sexual victimization of already marginalized groups.

Id. p. e25.  The article thus fails to mention that men are highly disproportionately incarcerated.  About ten times more men are currently held in U.S. prisons and jails relative to women there.  Gender-biased understandings of crime, such as gender-biased understanding of the crime of rape, contribute to the highly disproportionate incarceration of men.


Basile, Kathleen C., Michele C. Black, Matthew Joseph Breiding, Jieru Chen, Melissa T. Merrick, Sharon G. Smith, Mark R. Stevens, and Mikel L. Walters. 2011. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010 summary report. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention.

Stemple, Lara, and Ilan H. Meyer. 2014. “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions.” American Journal of Public Health. 104 (6): e19-e26.


Juvenal’s Satire 6 is no longer laughing matter

In his Satire 6, the Roman poet Juvenal (sounds like juvenile) criticizes marriage and women.  Even worse, he’s an extremist.  Juvenal ridicules marriage and women extremely.  Juvenal’s Satire 6 has nothing like the personal abuse that Warner heaps on the monk Moriuht in an eleventh-century Norman Latin text (“you plant kisses on  her buttocks. … keep your gums moist with shit.”).  Juvenal’s Satire 6 doesn’t describe vicious physical violence like the violence against men in medieval French fabliaux.  Juvenal’s Satire 6 doesn’t disparage women’s genitals like fabliaux disparage men’s penises.  The main point of Juvenal’s Satire 6 is to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying.  Juvenal declares early in the satire:

And yet, in our day and age, are you preparing an agreement and contract and wedding vows?  Are you already having your hair combed by a master barber and have you perhaps already given her finger your pledge?  Well, you used to be sane, all right.  Postumus, are you really getting married? [1]

The satire ends with references to how wives kill their husbands — double-headed axes, knives, poisons, etc.  Juvenal failed to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying.  Postumus (sounds like posthumous) apparently died.  Today readers tend to be more comfortable with men’s deaths than with Juvenal’s satire of marriage and women.

old hinny (offspring of female donkey and male horse)

Juvenal’s Satire 6 begins with an ironic description of a primitive, golden age.  It’s a time of pastoral cold, constraint, stink, gloom, viciousness, and ugliness:

the era when a chilly cave provided a tiny home, enclosing the fire and hearth god and herd and its owner in communal gloom, when a mountain wife made her woodland bed with leaves and straw and the skins of her neighbors, the beasts. … she offered her paps for her hefty babies to drain, and she was often more unkempt than her acorn-belching husband. [2]

At least that acorn-belching man wasn’t dead or forcibly separated from his children.  Moreover, the mountain woman didn’t rape the man like the mountain woman did the Archbishop of Hita, lost and looking for directions in the countryside.  And even if she had raped him, he probably wouldn’t have had to pay child support like raped men do today.

Juvenal had great appreciation for women’s strong, independent sexuality.  From the introductory theme of chastity, Juvenal moves on to describe the “moment of pure Woman”:

The shout is repeated in unison from the entire grotto: “Now’s the time! Send in the men!”  If her lover’s asleep, she’ll tell his son to put on his hood and hurry along.  If that’s no good, there’s an assault on the slaves.  If there’s no prospect of slaves available, they’ll pay the water delivery man to come in.  If they can’t find him and there’s a deficit of humans, not a moment passes before she voluntarily offers her arse to be tupped by a donkey. [3]

Juvenal’s reference to a donkey reconfigures the donkey figure in Semonides of Argos’ bestiary of women, written more than 2500 years ago:

Another type is from a drab, gray ass;

She’ll do her work all right, and won’t complain;
but then she eats all day, all night — she eats
everything in sight, in every room.
And when it comes to sex, she’s just as bad;
she welcomes any man that passes by. [4]

While male donkeys readily mate with female horses to produce mules, female donkeys are much less willing to mate with male horses.  But human sexuality is socially constructed to be different from animal sexuality.  Any statement indicating, by what is said or what is not said, that male sexuality is different from female sexuality is essentially sexist and must be forcefully suppressed.  Female sexuality should be understood as the same as male sexuality, only stronger and more independent, because it’s always been suppressed.

While men’s sexuality has never been suppressed, men have had their testicles cut off.  Some men today geld themselves in the hope that doing so will make today’s ideal woman favor them more.  Juvenal indicates that such a strategy worked for some men in ancient Rome:

Some women are delighted by un-macho eunuchs with their ever gentle kisses and their unfulfilled beard — and there’s no need to use abortion drugs.  The height of their pleasure is when a crotch that’s already ripe with the blood of youth and its black quill is taken to visit the surgeons.  So it is that the testicles are allowed to drop and told to grow first and then, once they make two pounds in weight, Heliodorus {a surgeon} tears them off, to the loss of the barber and no one else.  … You can let him sleep with his mistress, Postumus, but don’t entrust your Bromius to a eunuch when he’s no longer soft and needs a haircut. [5]

The mature eunuch with the heavy equipment would be too big for Postumus’ boy-friend Bromius, but not too big for Postumus’ wife, who probably also enjoys donkeys.  Men, unless you are gifted with two-pound testicles and hung like a donkey, don’t allow your testicles to be torn off to satisfy women’s demands for un-macho eunuchs.

The idea that Roman men enjoyed reading to each other work like Juvenal’s Satire 6 is laughable.  Juvenal probably wrote his satires about the year 100, but they were largely unknown until the fourth century.[6]  Work like Juvenal’s Satire 6 discomforts men much more than it does women.  Juvenal wrote:

I’m making all this up, am I, letting satire put on tragic high heels?  I’ve exceeded the legal limits of my predecessors and I’m ranting with rotundity worthy of Sophocles a grand song that’s new to the Rutulian hills and the Latin sky?  If only this were really nonsense! [7]

Juvenal’s Satire 6 became widely read only with historical distance.  That Juvenal’s Satire 6 isn’t widely read today is deeply troubling.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 25-8, from Latin trans. Braund (2004) p. 235.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are trans. id.  Translations of Juvenal’s Satire 6 are available online by A.S. Kline (2011) and by G.G. Ramsay (1918).  Courtney (1980), a massive commentary on Juvenal’s satires, is fully available online.  Braund (1992) points out that Juvenal’s primary orientation in Satire 6 is dissuading men from marriage, not attacking perceived faults of women.  Augustus’ laws encouraging marriage suggests that elite Roman men were reluctant to marry.

[2] Id., ll. 2-7, 11-13.

[3] Id. ll. 328-334.

[4] Semonides of Argos, Catalog of Women, ll. 42, 45-9, from Greek trans. Diane Arnson Svarlien (1995).   Here’s an alternate translation by Wm. Blake Tyrrell.  With an insightful analysis of this poem, Konstan (2014) concludes:

Semonides’ poem is less a critique of the vices of wives than a satire on the fatuousness of husbands.

That understanding is similar to one wave of literary analysis of Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

[5] Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 366-78.

[6] Braund (2004), introduction, p. 29.

[7] Id. ll. 634-8.  After much academic posturing and positioning, Toscano (2013) challenges the “settled view of Attic Greek male homosociality that was entirely blind to or unmoved by female desire.”  If only this wasn’t really nonsense!  Id., p. 35, romantically concludes:

Though it is difficult to penetrate the inscrutable gazes of the figures in Attic vase paintings, nevertheless, in the spaces in between them — in the gap between possibility and fulfillment — may be caught a fleeting glimpse of female desire.

In more enlightened times, female desire was well-recognized.

[image] Old hinny (offspring of female donkey and male horse) in Oklahoma, U.S.  Thanks to Ragesoss and Wikipedia.


Braund, Susanna H. 1992. “Juvenal — Misogynist or Misogamist?” The Journal of Roman Studies. 82: 71-86.

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Courtney, Edward. 1980.  A Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal. California Classical Studies 2 (2013 reprint). Berkeley, CA.

Konstan, David. 2014. “Laughing at Ourselves: Gendered Humor in Classical Greece.”  In Anna Foka and Jonas Liliequist, eds. Humour, Gender and Laughter Across Times and Cultures. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

Toscano, Margaret M. 2013. “The Eyes Have It: Female Desire on Attic Greek Vases.” Arethusa. 46 (1): 1-40.

Wednesday’s flowers

flower stuck in fence

Frate Alberto, Filostrato, and Mary: ways of love

In Day 4 of the Decameron, the story of Frate Alberto displays extraordinary viciousness.  Filostrato in the preface to that story complained, “every hour of my life I die a thousand deaths without ever having received even a tiny morsel of pleasure.”[1]  He ordered Pampinea to tell “some savage tale that partly resembles my own predicament.”  Pampinea prefaced her story with a savage attack on the clergy.  She concluded her attack by declaring “may it please God that what happened to a Franciscan should happen to them {the clergy} on account of all their lies.”  The Franciscan, Frate Alberto, suffered brutalization.  He was smeared with honey, covered with feathers, had a chain put around his neck, and was publicly displayed for verbal and physical abuse.  He then was incarcerated.  Frate Alberto spent the rest of his life in utter misery.  Pampinea proclaimed that it will give her “the greatest pleasure” to tell the story of Frate Alberto.[2]  She concluded her story of Frate Alberto with a curse, “May it please God that the same thing should befall all the others like him.”

angel Gabriel greets Mary

The story of Frate Alberto, like many stories in the Decameron, describes guile and deception in sexual activity.  Hearing the confession of the married woman Madonna Lisetta, Frate Alberto asked her, unprompted, whether she had a lover.  That’s improper.  Madonna Lisetta responded with a declaration of chastity supported by extreme vanity:

Hey, Messer Friar, don’t you have eyes in your head?  Do you think my charms are just like everybody else’s?  I could have lovers to spare if I wanted, but my kind of beauty is not something for just anybody who happens to be attracted to it.  How many women have you seen whose good looks are anything like mine?  Why, I’d be counted a beauty even in Paradise.

Frate Alberto’s response figured passionate love as inversely related to personal merit:

Frate Alberto saw immediately that this one {Madonna Lisetta} was something of an idiot, and since she seemed like good soil for him to plow, he fell passionately in love with her then and there.

Frate Alberto subsequently told Madonna Lisetta that the angel Gabriel appeared to him, declared her “celestial beauty,” and ordered him to convey a message to her:

he’s sent me to inform you that he wants to come one night and spend time in your company, and because he’s an angel and you would not be able to touch him in that form, he says that for your pleasure he would like to come in the form of a man.  Therefore, you should let him know when you want him to be here and in whose shape, and he’ll do it.

Angels typically act as God’s messengers.  In this story, Madonna Lisetta employed Frate Alberto to send a message to the angel Gabriel about how he could best serve her sexual preferences.  Emphasizing her estrangement from personal reality, she expressed no preferences about the male body angel Gabriel will incarnate for her.  Frate Alberto then reasoned about costs and benefits to her:

you can do me a great favor that will cost you nothing, namely, you should have him use this body of mine when he comes to you.  Let me explain how you’ll be doing me a favor: the moment he enters my body, he’s going to remove my soul and place it in Paradise, where it will remain for as long as he’s down here with you.

Madonna Lisetta readily agreed to that favor.  Frate Alberto, dressed in angelic gewgaws, thus repeatedly enjoyed carnal intercourse with Madonna Lisetta.

The story leads to an extremely unhappy end for Frate Alberto.  Although she had promised secrecy, Madonna Lisetta eventually bragged to a lady friend about her affair with the angel Gabriel.  The lady friend spread that amusing gossip around town.  Madonna Lisetta’s in-laws soon caught her and Frate Alberto in bed.  Frate Alberto escaped with a leap from a high window into a river.  However, subsequently duped into playing the part of a wild man in a carnival, Frate Alberto was exposed, brutalized, and incarcerated.  The story describes no punishment for Madonna Lisetta.  Frate Alberto’s crime was having sex by means of an absurd delusion, like the delusion that a woman will stay young and beautiful forever, without makeup.

The story of Frate Alberto is more than just a story of sexual deception and vicious punishment of the man.  The story of Frate Alberto reconfigures the Christian story of incarnation.  In the Christian story of incarnation, the angel Gabriel came to Mary, who was engaged to Joseph.  The angel Gabriel told Mary that she had found favor with God.  The angel Gabriel told her that God would come to her and impregnate her.  She would become pregnant with a son.[3]  Is Frate Alberto’s story more ridiculous than the Christian story of Mary of Nazareth?  Was Boccaccio formally ridiculing a fundamental Christian belief?

Boccaccio wasn’t the first to present a story like the Christian story of incarnation.  The historian Flavius Josephus told the story of Mundus and Paulina.  Carrying out a scheme for Mundus, the eldest priest of the Temple of Isis in Rome informed Paulina that the god Anubis had fallen in love with her and wanted to have sex with her.  She came to the temple and had sex with Mundus, disguised as the god Anubis.[4]  In the Alexander romance, the last Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo fled Egypt and came to Macedonian.  He told Alexander the Great’s mother Olympias that she must have sex with the god Ammon incarnated as a serpent.  Disguised as that incarnation of Ammon, Nectanebo repeatedly had sex with Olympias.[5]  Boccaccio apparently read Josephus in Latin translation.[6]  He also knew the Alexander romance.  Boccaccio wrote that Alexander would have been more admirable if he hadn’t claimed that his mother had sex with “Jupiter” disguised as a serpent.[7]

Attending to the narrative framework transforms understanding of the story of Frate Alberto.  Filostrato ruled Day 4.  His name has the Greek etymology “lover of war.”  Frustrated with his rejection in love, Filostrato ordered stories of love leading to unhappiness.  To his companions, gathered in a refuge from the plague to enjoy imaginative pleasure, Filostrato explained:

Loving ladies, ever since I could distinguish good from evil, it has been my misfortune, because of the beauty possessed by one of your number, to be perpetually enslaved to love.  I have been humble and obedient and followed his rules, to the extent that I understood them, but all to no avail, for first I would be abandoned for another lover, and then things would always go from bad to worse for me — and I think they will continue to do so from now on until the day I die.  Consequently, it is my pleasure that the subject for us to talk about tomorrow should be none other than the one that fits my situation best, namely, those whose love came to an unhappy end.  For I myself expect a most unhappy one in the long run, and that is the reason why the name you use to address me was conferred on me by someone who certainly knew what it meant.[8]

Filostrato is an Ulrich von Liechtenstein, a Suero de Quinones, and an Elliot Rodgers, all of whom needed professional helpTrue love doesn’t lead to slavery, violence, and an unhappy end.

Providing a shining counterpoint to Filostrato, Boccaccio inserted in the introduction to Day 4 a vigorous, first-person affirmation of true love.  The imagined author of the Decameron declared:

no one can justly say anything about me or any of the others who love you except that we are acting naturally.  In order to oppose the laws of Nature, one has to have exceptional powers,and they are often employed not only in vain, but to to the greatest harm of the person who makes use of them.  Such strength I confess I lack, nor do I have any desire to acquire it for such a purpose.  In fact, even if I did possess it, I would lend it to others rather than use it myself.  Therefore, let my detractors be silent, and if they cannot find any warmth in themselves, let them live in their cold rancor, and while they pursue their own delights, or rather, their corrupt appetites, may they allow me to pursue mine during the brief life that is granted to us.[9]

Frate Alberto and Madonna Lisetta incarnated narrow, selfish love: corrupt appetites.[10]  Their story is narrated via Pampinea’s and Filostrato’s cold rancor.  The Christian story of Mary describes love incarnate joyously making God greater.  That, for Boccaccio, was love according to the laws of Nature.

*  *  *  * *

Read more:


[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 4, story 2, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 319.  All subsequent quotes from the story of Frate Alberto are from id. pp. 319-329.

[2] Pampinea included nasty characterizations not necessary to carry the plot.  She referred to Madonna Lisetta as a “frivolous, empty-headed young lady.”  She also called Madonna Lisetta names: Lady Pumpkinhead, Madonna Simple, and Madonna Noodlepate.  She described Frate Alberto as “a pimp, a forger, and a murderer.”  That’s characterization far beyond the story of a guileful seducer.  She declared that Berto della Massa, who became Frate Alberto, moved to “Venice, that receptacle of every sort of filth.”

[3] Luke 1:26-38.

[4] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.4.  The context in Josephus (immediately following his account of Jesus) and a fourth-century description of the text suggests that Josephus was mocking the Christian story of incarnation.  Bell (1976).

[5] Alexander Romance, Bk I.1-7, from Greek trans. Stoneman (1991) pp. 35-41.  A story of a man pretending to be an eminent religious figure in order to be accepted as a woman’s lover exists in an early eighteenth-century collection of Persians tales translated into French.  See François Pétis de La Croix, Les Mille et un jours (1710-1712), Days 109-115 (Historie de Malek).  In that story, the man pretends to the be the prophet of Islam.  A nineteenth-century English translation of the story (“The story of Malek and the Princess Schirine”) changed the religious figure to the King of the Genii.

[6] Kirkham, Sherberg & Smarr (2013) pp. 334, 340.

[7] Id. p. 243, citing Boccaccio, Genealogia deorum gentilium (On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles) 13.7.

[8] Decameron, Day 3, Conclusion, trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 296-7.  Id, note, and id. p. lxxviii states that Boccaccio thought that Filostrato means “he who is cast down or overcome by love.”  In the broad context of the Decameron, Boccaccio seems to me to have only pretended to be certain of that wrong etymology.

[9] Decameron, Day 4, Introduction, trans. id. p. pp. 306-7.

[10] Marcus (1979) focuses on Frate Alberto’s transgression:

Frate Alberto’s transgression is more than sexual. … When we examine the particular mode of the friar’s misconduct, we learn that his crime is a literary one — that he has appropriated for his own selfish uses the unique poetic strategies of Scriptures.

Separating “unique poetic strategies of Scripture” from myth-making generally is inconsistent with Boccaccio’s general approach to myth.  Gittes (2008).  In addition to uncritically accepting the story’s sexual balance of fault, Marcus (1979) doesn’t recognize the broader narrative connections of the story of Frate Alberto within and beyond the Decameron.

[image] Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo, Annunciation (angel Gabriel’s message to Mary), Spain, 1655.  Held in Hermitage Museum.  Thanks to Enrique Cordero and Wikipedia.


Bell, Albert A. 1976. “Josephus the Satirist? A Clue to the Original Form of the ‘Testimonium Flavianum.’” The Jewish Quarterly Review. 67 (1): 16-22.

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

Kirkham, Victoria, Michael Sherberg, and Janet Levarie Smarr, eds. 2013. Boccaccio: a critical guide to the complete works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Marcus, Millicent. 1979. “The Accommodating Frate Alberto: a Gloss on Decameron IV, 2.” Italica. 56 (1): 3-21.

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

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 1991. Pseudo-Callisthenes. The Greek Alexander Romance. London, England: Penguin Books.


« Previous PageNext Page »