Madonna Filippa ridiculed moralizing formalists

portrait of Italian noblewoman imaginatively representing Madonna Filippa

In Boccaccio’s Decameron, the story of Madonna Filippa explicitly sets up righteous smugness.  The story begins with a description of a legal statute.  Such descriptions have been fodder for moralizing formalists from the enactment of Hammurabi’s code to the present.  The male story-teller declares the statute to be “no less reprehensible than harsh.”  Then, from his position of moral superiority, he describes it:

A statute … that condemned women taken in adultery to be burned alive, making no distinction between one whose husband caught her with her lover and one who was doing it with somebody for money. [1]

The story itself begins with Madonna Filippa’s husband Rinaldo having discovered her in their bedroom in the arms of a man from an enemy family.  Rinaldo didn’t kill either Madonna Filippa or the man: “it would have been unlawful for him to kill her.”  Laws have commonly allowed a husband to kill a man having sex with the husband’s wife if caught in the act.[2]  Killing men is of much less public concern than is killing women.  The story of Madonna Filippa ignores the fate of the man committing adultery with Madonna Filippa.

Law in action cannot be understood merely by quoting statutes.  Rinaldo denounced Madonna Filippa.  He had her summoned to court.  Her friends advised her to dodge the law:

Though many of her friends and relations discouraged her from doing so {obeying the summons}, she was firmly resolved to appear in court, confess the truth, and die bravely rather than flee like a coward and live in exile because she had defied the law.

Exile apparently was an alternative to being burned alive under law.  Exile isn’t currently offered as an alternative to the death penalty in U.S.  Between 1973 and 2010, the U.S. executed 1,220 men and 12 women.[3]  Men  in practice have always been much more likely to be subject to the death penalty.  A woman being executed under law is a sensational story.  A man being executed under law is normal practice.

The judge felt pity for Madonna Filippa.  He counseled her about how to avoid the death penalty under the adultery statute:

My lady, as you can see, your husband Rinaldo is here, and he’s lodged a complaint against you, alleging that he caught you committing adultery with another man.  Consequently, he’s demanding that I punish you according to the requirements of a statute that’s in force here and have you put to death.  I can’t do that, however, unless you confess.  So, be very careful now about how you reply, and tell me if what your husband accuses you of is true.

The judge obviously was encouraging Madonna Filippa to lie.  Instead, she truthfully confessed that she had committed adultery.  She rejected the usual law in action for women.

Madonna Filippa instead presented formal arguments.  She declared:

Laws should be impartial and should only be enacted with the consent of those affected by them.  In the present case, these conditions have not been met, because this law applies only to us poor women who are much better than men at giving satisfaction to a whole host of lovers.  Moreover, when it was passed, not only were there no women present to give their consent to it, but since then, not once have they ever been consulted about it.  And that’s why, for all these reasons, it could with justice be called a bad law. [4]

Madonna Filippa was a noblewoman and well-known in her city.  Across medieval Europe, most men were peasants, day labors, and vagabonds.  Property and criminal law was not impartial between nobles and peasants.  Most men had no opportunity to consent to the laws that applied to them, nor were they ever consulted about those laws.  Madonna Filippa’s invocation of “us poor women” should generate derisive laughter.  Yet such remarks don’t do so even in similar circumstances today.

Perhaps frustrated with those too obtuse to recognize the joke, Madonna Filippa turned to a more outrageous joke.  Madonna Filippa declared that she had always fully satisfied her husband sexually.  In response to the judge’s inquiry, her husband affirmed that fact.  Madonna Filippa then declared:

If he’s always obtained what he needed from me and was pleased with it, what was I supposed to do — in fact what am I to do now — with the leftovers?  Should I throw them to the dogs?  Isn’t it much better to serve some of them up to a gentleman who loves me more than his very own life than to let them go to waste and have them spoil? [5]

Madonna Filippa’s argument quotes in Italian translation the first part of Matthew 7:6, “Do not give what is holy to dogs.”  In the Latin Bible pervasive in fourteenth-century Europe, the relevant text is “Nolite dare sanctum canibus.”  In the context of elite theological discourse or courtly love, “sanctum” was a term used for a woman’s body.[6]  In addition, Madonna Filippa’s argument resonates with Jesus mocking his disciples in Matthew 15:21-28.  That joke also has largely been lost.  At a cruder level, serving up Madonna Filippa’s leftover sexuality to dogs suggests bestiality.  The celebrity Madonna of the late twentieth-century U.S. seems to have understood the outrageous sexual suggestion of Madonna Filippa better than have learned Boccaccistas.[7]

In a pattern popular from ancient times to the present, Rinaldo leaves the courtroom “utterly abashed” and Madonna Filippa returns home “in triumph.”  The large crowd at the trial rose in unison to support the woman:

They immediately shouted in one voice that she was right and that it was all well said.  Then, at the suggestion of the podéstà {judge}, before they left, they modified their cruel statute, restricting it so that it only applied to those women who betrayed their husbands for money.

That odd, remaining second provision of the statute encourages more thoughtful interpretation.  What’s the difference between a married woman betraying her husband without monetary return and a married woman betraying her husband for money?  A married woman might commit adultery for money because she loves her husband and her husband desperately needs money.[8]  That’s love in the mercantile spirit of the Decameron.  She might also commit adultery for her own personal, material interests.  That’s simply the mercantile spirit of the Decameron.

The story of Madonna Filippa evokes superficial moralizing for rich humor.  A leading male professor of Romance literature, introducing in 1982 what became the most popular English translation of the Decameron, declared:

if they {readers of the Decameron} want to hear a true spokeswoman of “women’s lib” avant la lettre, let them attend to saucy Filippa of Pisa (VI, 7). [9]

Many readers have followed that line.  Madonna Filippa, in arguing before the judge deciding her fate, was more funny, more crude, and more sophisticated than many readers in our enlightened age.  The interpretive history of the story has augmented its humor.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 6, Story 7, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 494.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 494-6.

[2] Under the Roman law of Augustus, a husband catching his wife in the act of adultery with a man could kill the man, but not his wife.  Similar statutes persisted in U.S. states until the 1970s.  Punishment for adulterous wives in Boccaccio’s time was typically much less severe than death.  Pennington (1977) p. 902.

[3] Streib (2010) p. 3.

[4] Knowledgeable persons in medieval Europe recognized women to be sexually more capable than men.

[5] Chaucer’s Wife of Bath offers an alternative, non-rival view of her sexuality:

He is too great a miser that would refuse
A man to light a candle at his lantern;
He shall have never the less light, by God.
If thou have enough, thou need not complain.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, ll. 333-6, in Benson’s modernized English version. Madonna Filippa and the Wife of Bath’s contrasting analyses of a woman’s sexual economics highlights that they both are rationalizing.

[6] Rebhorn (2013) notes,  n. 3, p. 907.

[7] The singer Madonna’s 1992 book Sex included a photograph suggesting Madonna positioning herself to have a dog lick her vagina.

[8] A wife makes such a suggestion in the Old French fabliau Le sacristain ou Du segretain moine (The Sacristan Monk).  For discussion and references, see note [1] discussing that fabliau.

[9] Introduction by Thomas G. Bergin, Sterling Professor of Romance Languages Emeritus, Yale University, in Musa & Bondanella (1982) p. xxx.  The introduction subsequently appeared in Signet Classics editions of 2002 and 2010.  Boccaccio’s text of the story contains three instances of “Madonna Filippa.”  It never uses the name “Filippa of Pisa.”  At the time of the story, Madonna Filippa lived in Prato.  A scholar has recognized common misunderstanding of the story:

Most importantly, although Madonna Filippa has become famous as an example of Love giving courage and bravery to a woman, Boccaccio used her only as a vehicle: the joke is the important element of the tale, not the characters.

Pennington (1977) p. 905.  The joke goes beyond the tale.  Consider Brown University’s Decameron Web.  It features a page entitled, “Madonna Filippa (VI.7): Feminist Mouthpiece or Misogynistic Tool?”  Many academics today seem oblivious to alternatives to such a dichotomy.  The story of Madonna Filippa has serious points: gynocentrism and social rationalization.

[image] Portrait of a Woman, c. 1590, painting by Alessandro Allori, Italian (Florence, Italy 1535 – 1607 Florence, Italy), thanks to Harvard’s Fogg Museum.


Musa, Mark and Peter Bondanella, with an introduction by Thomas G. Bergin. 1982. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York: New American Library.

Pennington, Kenneth. 1977. “A Note to Decameron 6.7: The Wit of Madonna Filippa.” Speculum. 52 (4): 902-905.

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

Streib, Victor,  2010.  “Death Penalty for Female Offenders, January 1, 1973, through October 31, 2010.”  Death Penalty Information Center website.

COB-96: Cobra Effect highlights Bureaucratic Golden Rule

British civil servants in colonial India were troubled by the prevalence of cobras.  Without drawing up a strategic plan or having a series of meetings to begin asking questions about possibilities for reducing the cobra population, some renegade British bureaucrats established a bounty for every dead cobra.  The industrious Indians began turning in to the British bounty-payers a large number of dead cobras.  The enterprising Indians did so by establishing cobra farms to raise a large number of cobras.  Without proper meetings and document production, the British then decided to stop paying bounties on cobras.  So the cobra farmers shut down their operations and released all their cobras into the wild.  The net effect of the British program to reduce the cobra population was to greatly increase the cobra population.  This story generated the term “Cobra Effect.”  However, some doubt whether the story of the Cobra Effect is true, because no documentary evidence exists of the British cobra bounty program.

Indian cobra

The bureaucratic lesson is obvious.  No new initiative should take place without a formal strategic plan, a large number of meetings, and the creation of an extensive documentary record.  More generally, an action can bring about the opposite result from the intended effect of the action.  That’s why world-class bureaucrats avoid doing anything if at all possible.  If you do something, the results could be worse than doing nothing.  If there’s any possible doubt about the effects of action, don’t do anything.  That’s the Bureaucratic Golden Rule.  The Bureaucratic Golden Rule is much more practically important than the Cobra Effect.

In other bureaucratic issues this month, Dick Lipton found a mistake on the wall of a Bell Phone Company exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  The Bell exhibit was entitled “From Drumbeat to Telstar.”  It took visitors on a narrated, moving-chair ride through communications history from drumbeats and smoke signals to the Space-Age present.  While traveling through this exhibit, Lipton saw on the wall a part of the quadratic formula with a missing superscript for squaring b.  The letter is the first letter in bureaucracy.  The Bell System, a leading bureaucracy, forgot to square the b.  Is it any wonder that the Bell System’s Picturephone, displayed at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, was a flop?

Parker Higgins received a copyright take-down notice for his use of the famous “Houston, we have a problem” line from the Apollo 13 flight.  As a US government work, that recording is public domain.  Hence the copyright take-down notice looks like an instance of copyfraud.  Higgins observes:

The real problem is that we’ve bought into the rhetoric and the arguments that an unauthorized use is an unacceptable use. As a result our online services have looked less like the public platforms we want, and more like policed spaces where any activity can be interrogated for its papers, please.

Bureaucrats are against violations of rules.  Copyfraud violates rules, so bureaucrats are against it.  But bureaucrats need to have rules for everything so that they can figure out if something is against the rules.  Unauthorized use reduces the importance of producing documents, lowers the employment of bureaucrats, promotes innovation, encourages change, and reduces the number of meetings people have to attend.  Unauthorized use should not be authorized.

Kevin Poulsen reports that a guy has a trademark including the symbol pi.  The trademark owner had his lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter to a t-shirt seller who was selling t-shirts containing the letter pi.  The t-shirt seller then banned the use of the symbol pi on any t-shirt it sells.  If such actions continue, the effects on mathematics journals could be devastating.  The Carnival of Bureaucrats calls on a committee to be formed to study the question of the legal status of common use of the mathematical symbol pi.  Since trademark law is extremely complex, the committee should include leading bureaucratic lawyers from the trademark bar.  It should study the issue for a few years and produce detailed recommendations on how to deal with trademarks on pi and other mathematical symbols.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

human vocal communication and humpback whale songs

The social environment is highly relevant to the evolution of human communication capabilities. Human communication evolved through primates living in groups.  Living in groups creates opportunities for synchronized physiological states, cooperative predator defense, coordinated food acquisition, diffusion and inheritance of behavioral innovations, and exchange of goods such as food, sexual activity, and grooming.  Living in groups also creates opportunities for individual and coalitional action to shift the distribution of food, mating, and physical risks among group members.[1]  Communication capabilities have evolutionary significance both for cooperation and competition within social groups.

15 humpback whales bubble-net fishing

Relative to other animals, humans have greater social complexity and engage in more complex communication.  Consider, for comparison, humpback whales.  Humpback whales work together in role-differentiated teams to feed upon schools of fish.[2]  Male humpback whales also engage in behaviorally elaborate mating competition that includes complex vocalizations (songs).[3]  The coding bandwidth required to communicate a male humpback whale song, however, is roughly fifty times less than the coding bandwidth required to communicate spoken English.[4]  Many organisms are social and communicate with each other in a variety of forms.  Humans form intricate social groups and communicate with each other vocally at a much higher coding complexity per unit time than do other animals.

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[1] Mitani (2006) describes the importance of differences in group demographics for differences in chimpanzee behavior.  He notes that demographic context has often been overlooked as a cause of intraspecific behavioral variation.  Laskowski & Pruitt (2014) recently established the importance of group demographics for spider personality.

[2] Such behavior is called bubble-net fishing.

[3] For a review of knowledge about humpback whale song, see Parsons, Wright & Gore (2008).

[4] Humpback whales on the Hawaiian breeding ground communicate in song at 0.6 bits/unit, with 2.5 seconds/unit, giving 0.24 bits/second. Suzuki (2006) pp. 1860, 1862. Australian humpback whales migrating away from their breeding ground had coding bandwidth about a third less than the Hawaiian whales.  Miksis-Olds et al. (2008) p. 2391.  I calculate the bandwidth of spoken English as 69 bits/second, based on 1 bit/letter, 5 letters/word, and 200 words per minute.  These figures should be understood as rough approximations.

[image] 15 humpback whales bubble-net fishing off the coast of Alaska on 18 August 2007.  Thanks to Evadb and Wikipedia.


Laskowski Kate L., and Jonathan N. Pruitt. 2014. “Evidence of social niche construction: persistent and repeated social interactions generate stronger personalities in a social spider.” Proceedings. Biological Sciences / The Royal Society. 281 (1783).

Miksis-Olds Jennifer L., John R. Buck, Michael J. Noad, Douglas H. Cato, and M. Dale Stokes. 2008. “Information theory analysis of Australian humpback whale song.” The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 124 (4): 2385-93.

Mitani, John C. 2006. “Demographic influences on the behavior of chimpanzees.” Primates 47: 6-13.

Parsons, E.C.M., A.J. Wright, and M.A. Gore.  2008. “The Nature of Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Song.”  Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology 1 (1): 21-30.

Suzuki, Ryuji, John R. Buck and Peter L. Tyack. 2006. “Information entropy of humpback whale song.” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 119(3): 1849-1866.

hair samples from first 14 US presidents thanks to John Varden

hair samples from first 14 US presidents, collected by John Varden

Hard-headed practical types tend to question the value of work such as an analysis of the twelfth-century Syriac Book of Medicines.  What’s the point?  Who cares?  Of what use is that knowledge?  Enlightened persons know that pursuit of knowledge is based on faith.  True scholars must have faith in the value of knowing.

Consider the work of John Varden.  Varden was a leading nineteenth-century American promoter of public knowledge.  In 1836, he opened the Washington Museum, a one-room museum in his own home in Washington, DC.  Varden invited the public to view his collection of thought-inspiring artifacts such as ostrich eggs, the jaw bone of a porpoise, a stone in the shape of a potato, winged insects from India, etc.  In 1841, to gain the support of a much larger institution, Varden sold his collection to the National Institute for the Promotion of Science.  The National Institution for the Promotion of Science displayed its collection to the public at no charge in the palatial National Gallery of the US Patent Office.  Varden became an employee of the National Gallery of the US Patent Office.  Varden’s job title has been variously described as curator and janitor.[1]  Titles don’t matter to true scholars.

While working to maintain the collection at the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, Varden in 1850, on his own initiative, established a hair collection.  He collected hair samples from “persons of distinction,” including US presidents.  Varden’s hair collection includes hair from the first 14 US presidents, as well as hair from Senators Henry Clay and Jefferson Davis, Generals Winfield Scott and Sam Houston, Professor Samuel F.B. Morse, a telegraph pioneer, and sculptor Clark Mills.[2]  Others collected hair less systematically.  An author recently noted:

On one occasion in 1842, for example, {former President Andrew Jackson} entertained some two hundred schoolgirls, who according to one reporter, “procured so many of his snow white locks as to give his head the appearance of having just passed from the hands of the barber.” [3]

Most such hair samples probably have been lost.  Moreover, hair samples from historically important, well-defined populations are rare.

Varden’s collection of hair samples can now be recognized to be potentially an enormous contribution to knowledge.  With advances in molecular analysis, hair can provide important biological information.  Varden’s hair collection may enable study of the health of the first 14 US presidents.  Moreover, DNA may exists in small skin fragments attached to the hair.  Varden’s collection may enable DNA typing of the first 14 US presidents.  In addition, technologies for DNA transfer are advancing rapidly.  In the difficult and uncertain future that the US faces, bringing back to life George Washington may become feasible for next-generation US leadership.

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[1] Bird (2013) p. 19.  Other information about Varden in the above paragraph is from id. pp. 19-27.

[2] The hair of the presidents was originally included with the hair of persons of distinction.  On the back of a separate display of hair samples of persons of distinction is a note:

Hair of Presidents of the United States with other Persons of Distinction / Prepared and arranged by John Varden, February, 1853 / N.B. Those having hair of Distinguished Persons / will confere a Favor by adding to this Collection.

Id p. 173, note for p. 130.  Varden was thus a pioneer in crowd-sourcing.

[2] Id. p. 130 (doesn’t provide a specific reference for the quotation).  A framed lock of Andrew Jackson’s hair from 1845 exists.  Its provenance is better documented than Varden’s sample. Id. pp. 128-9.  A lock of Sir Walter Scott’s hair in 1832 is also available with specific information about provenance.  Id. pp. 94-5.

[image] Hair of the Presidents, Washington D.C., 1855, from the collection of the U.S. National Museum of American History.


Bird, William L. 2013. Souvenir nation: relics, keepsakes, and curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. New York: Princeton Architectural Press in association with National Museum of American History (U.S.).