Decameron's self-government confronts sex differences in guile

US Capitol, seat of self-government

Boccaccio’s Decameron presents a self-governing society of seven women and three men.  They, the brigata, tell each other stories of deception, sex, and violence.  Those stories are merely entertainment, like singing and dancing, and generate only laughter or a few evaluative comments.  The persons of the brigata self-consciously act toward each other with honesty, chastity, and harmony.  Their ideal self-government encounters serious conflict only when brigata member Dioneo proposes telling stories about women’s superiority in guile.  That conflict leads to the pretense that sex differences in guile don’t exist.

Dioneo is the brigata member most critical of the brigata’s facade of self-government and persons’ underlying personal desires.  After being chosen ruler for the day, Dioneo declares:

tomorrow I want us to talk about the tricks that women, either for the sake of love or for their self-preservation, have played on their husbands, whether those tricks were ever discovered by them or not. [1]

That’s a courtly, pedestalizing formulation.  Love and self-preservation are surely not the only interests that women pursue with guile.  Nonetheless, for the first time, members of the brigata rebel against their ruler:

Speaking about such a subject seemed quite unsuitable to some of the ladies, and they asked him to change the topic he had proposed.

Women naturally prefer to keep men ignorant about paternity and other issues of particular interest to men.  Yet ignorance is inconsistent with a reasoned foundation for self-government.

With sophisticated arguments, Dioneo manages to overcome the women’s objections to stories about women’s guile.  Dioneo appeals to the cataclysmic times as justifying free discussion:

the times we are going through permit all subjects to be freely discussed.  Are you not aware that since everything has been turned upside down nowadays, judges have forsaken their tribunals, the laws, divine as well as human, have fallen silent, and everyone has been granted ample license to preserve his life however he can?  Consequently, if you go somewhat beyond the bounds of decorum in speaking, not with the intention of behaving indecently, but only of providing pleasure for yourselves and others, I do not see what plausible argument anyone in the future could make to criticize you.

Dioneo equates preserving life with providing pleasure.  That’s a narrow, reductivist view of life.  Free discussion beyond the bounds of stale decorum can strengthen truthful self-government in times of collapse.  But beyond the sign of reason, appeals to pleasure make a better argument.

Dioneo also reformulates the threat of exposure.  Men aware of women’s guile can respond appropriately.  Women thus might prefer for men to remain ignorant. Yet suppressing discussion raises suspicions:

The truth of the matter is that if anyone were to discover that you had refrained at some point from talking about these trifles, he might suspect that you did not want to discuss them because you were actually guilty of having misbehaved.

Wives’ sexual fidelity to their husbands is no trifling matter.  That’s particularly true within legal regimes that attribute paternity to men in denial of the obvious.  Stories of strong, independent women tricking their husbands now tend to be condemned as being antifeminist.  Calling those stories trifles works to undercut suppression of them.

Dioneo, with extraordinary masculine guile, supports in other sophisticated ways free discussion of women’s guile.  Dioneo appeals to the women’s social persona:

is there anyone who is unaware of your virtue?  I doubt that even the fear of death, let alone these pleasant discussions of ours {about women’s guile}, could ever shake it.

Dioneo insinuates that the women would be insulting him as ruler if they rejected his proposal for stories about women’s guile.  He further declares that scruples about such stories are “more appropriate for the wicked than for us.”

After listening to Dioneo’s arguments, the women relent.  They accept Dioneo’s proposal to tell stories about women deceiving and abusing their husbands.  That’s a remarkable achievement in medieval Europe.  After all, such stories are now on the verge of being banned in liberal democracies.

The Decameron’s day of stories about women’s guile in deceiving and abusing their husbands presents little new to the knowledgeable.  In the stories, wives guilefully contrive to have extra-marital sex.  Such stories are common in the ancient Sanskrit work Shuka Saptati, the ancient, widely dispersed Sindibad / Seven Sages corpusmedieval French fabliaux, and medieval Latin literature.  In some of the Decameron’s stories, husbands are not merely cuckolded, but also physically beaten.  In one story, a wife falsely accused her husband of coming home drunk every night and lying about her actions.  The wife’s family then “beat him until he was completely covered with bruises.”[2]  In another story, after having sex with her lover, the wife sent her lover to beat her husband “black and blue with a stick.”[3]  In yet another story, to prove her love to her lover, a wife contrived to yank out a perfectly healthy tooth from her husband’s mouth.  As a final tour de force, she had sex with her lover right in front of her husband’s eyes and convinced him not to believe what he saw.[4]

Brigata member Lauretta responds to these stories by obscuring sex differences in guile.  Lauretta was appointed ruler for the Decameron’s next day of stories.  She declared:

Yesterday, Dioneo proposed that we talk today about the tricks that women play on their husbands, and if it were not for the fact that I do not want to be thought of as belonging to that breed of snapping little curs who immediately retaliate for everything, I would insist that tomorrow we talk about the tricks that men play on their wives.  But letting that go, I want each of you, instead, to think up a story about the tricks women are always playing on men, or men on women, or men on other men.  This, without a doubt, will be a topic just as pleasing to talk about as the one we had today. [5]

Lauretta obscures sex differences in guile within marriage.  She pretends that sex differences in guile have no social significance.  She positions herself as morally superior.  That’s a guileful discursive move.

Women’s superiority in guile is a pillar of gynocentric human society.  Rightful aspirations for gender equality and reasoned self-government must confront the challenge of sex differences in guile.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 6, Conclusion, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 512.  All the subsequent quotes, except the final one, are from id. pp. 512-3.  Dioneo proposes the story topic for Day 7.

[2] Decameron, Day 7, Story 4, id. p. 541.  Elissa tells this story of the wife being locked out, threatening suicide, and throwing a stone in a well to fake suicide.  A earlier, similar story in the Seven Sages / Sindiad corpus is known as Puteus.  The tale also exists in Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis (fable 14).  A similar story from Shuka Saptati (tale 16) doesn’t include the wife summoning her family and their beating her husband.  Instead, the Shuka Saptati tale ends harmoniously, “The couple agreed that they would never again speak against one another.”  From Sanskrit trans. Haksar (2009) p. 65.

[3] Decameron, Day 7, Story 7, id. p. 561.  Filomena tells this story.

[4] Decameron, Day 7, Story 9.  Panfilo tells this story. Day 7 also includes an adaptation of the Tale of the Wife’s Tub in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (story 2); a faked religious ritual that successfully serves the interests of the deceiving wife (story 3);  the failure of husband’s attempt to trick his wife into revealing to him her infidelity and the wife’s success in further tricking him (story 5); a version of a faked rescue known in the Sindibad corpus as Gladius (story 6); and a wife who ties a string to her toe to enable her to signal to her lover and who gets her brothers to threaten her husband for his attempt to uncover her trick (story 8).  Dioneo, who concludes with story 10, states, “I cannot think of anything on the particular topic that would stand in comparison with the things you have already said.”  Id. p. 583.  Dioneo tells the story of two Sienese men who loved a married woman.  One, the godfather of her child, managed to have sex with her.

[5] Decameron, Day 7, Conclusion, id. p. 588.  Four stories in Day 8 involve men playing tricks on women, all of whom are not their wives.  In two stories, men trick women into having sex with them without paying the women the money they demanded for having sex (stories 1 and 2).  Two other stories involve men successfully retaliating with tricks on women who tricked them (stories 7 and 10).  The other stories on Day 8 involve men tricking men.

[image] U.S. Capitol, thanks to Martin Falbisoner and Wikipedia.


Haksar, A. N. D. 2009. Shuka Saptati: seventy tales of the parrot. New Delhi: Rupa Co.

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

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