ingegno and romance: tale of a wool-whacking pirate

ingegno doesn't make love

In the last story of Decameron Day 2, Dioneo fakes a fight about sexual symmetry.  Sexual symmetry characterizes ancient Greek romances.[1]  Championing sexual symmetry, Dioneo disparages the day’s previous story and objects to men pedestalizing women.  He points out:

the stupidity of Bernabò and of all those other men who believe the same thing that he apparently did, namely, that when they go about the world, enjoying themselves with one woman here and another there, they imagine that the wives they left at home are just sitting on their hands.  Albeit things turned out well enough for Bernabò, we, who are born and grow up and live our lives surrounded by women, know what it is they really hanker for. [2]

Shrewdness, opportunism, and guile in pursuing earthly desires (ingegno) is prevalent throughout the DecameronIngegno figures importantly in both the story involving Bernabò and the story Dioneo tells.  Rather than presenting a dispute about sexual symmetry, together those stories burlesque sexual symmetry as a generic convention.

In the day’s previous story, Bernabò and other Italian merchants were on a business trip in Paris.  Some of the merchants rationalized having extra-marital sex by believing that while they were on business trips, their wives similarly played around.  Bernabò did not express interest in an opportunistic sexual affair.  Moreover, he declared his wife’s virtue and her manly merits:

{Bernabò said his wife} possessed not just all the virtues that any woman should have, but even many of those that knights and squires must have. … it was impossible to find a squire or servant, as we would put it, who could wait at a gentleman’s table better or more skillfully than she could, for she was a model of intelligence, discretion, and good manners.  After this, he praised her for being better than any merchant at riding a horse, and at reading and writing and doing accounts.

Bernabò’s wife Madonna Zinevra was in fact chaste.  Moreover, she proved true Bernabò’s praise of her manly virtue.  In cross-dressed disguise, she distinguished herself in high-level manly service to the Sultan of Egypt.

The story involving Bernabò differs from an ancient Greek romance only in a few, significant details.  The story is largely derived from the literary tradition of romance and involves a typical courtly recognition scene.[3]  Boccaccio, however, substituted merchant men for the noble men in romance.[4]  In Boccaccio’s version of the tale, Bernabò’s fellow merchant Ambruogiuolo questioned Bernabò’s belief in his wife’s virtue.  Bernabò got angry.  His anger prompted him to accept a commercial deal. Ambruogiuolo proposed that he would attempt to seduce Bernabò’s wife.  If he succeeded, Bernabò would pay him 5000 gold florins.  If he failed, he would pay Bernabò 1000 gold florins.  They wrote up a formal contract to this effect and signed it.  Tests of fidelity are common in romance.  But in romance, those tests never entail a monetary exchange written up in a commercial contract.  Ingegno inserted into romance is a distinctive feature of the story involving Bernabò.

Dioneo’s story is generically a mirror image of the story involving Bernabò.  Dioneo’s story turns on a beautiful young woman being abducted at sea by a pirate.  That is a typical plot element of romance.  The rest of the story, however, is completely unlike romance except for a narrow aspect of sexual symmetry.

Dioneo’s story emphasizes the understanding of chivalry before the rise of European romances.  Before European romances turned chivalry into men’s self-debasement and self-harm in service to women, chivalry meant a man always being ready and capable of satisfying his wife sexually.  In Dioneo’s story, a beautiful, young woman named Bartolomea was married to wealthy old man, Messer Ricciardo.  Messer Ricciardo was a judge and a scholar.  He lacked virility and only barely managed to consummate his marriage.  He used honoring saints as an excuse to shirk his chivalric duty to his wife.

After the pirate Paganino abducted Bartolomea, he easily gained her warm affection with his sexual vigor.  Paganino, whose name suggests pagan, treated Bartolomea honorably, like a wife.  He lived with her in his home in Monaco.  Paganino evidently was a pirate who enjoyed ordinary domestic life.  One day Messer Ricciardo appeared in Monaco to attempt to ransom his wife.  Bartolomea espied him and informed Paganino of how she planned to deal with her husband.  Bartolomea, like Bernabò’s wife, could deal with difficult circumstances.

Bartolomea behavior was a model of ingegno.  When her husband Messer Ricciardo appeared, Bartolomea pretended not to recognize him.  Messer Ricciardo then asked Paganino for permission to speak with her in private.  Paganino granted that request on the condition that he “not try to kiss her against her will.”  Messer Ricciardo, judge and scholar, addressed his wife in the style of a man with his head in his chest:

“Oh, sweetheart, my soul mate, my angel, do you still not recognize your Ricciardo now, your Ricciardo who loves you more than life itself?  How is it possible?  Can I have changed so much?  Oh, light of my life, just take another little look at me.”

The lady started laughing and cut him off.

Bartolomea told him how much more active she and Paganino were:

we’re always at work together, giving the wool a good whacking day and night.  In fact, from the time matins was rung early in this morning, I can’t begin to tell you how much wool we’ve whacked since we did it the first time. … Paganino holds me in his arms all night long, hugging me and giving me little love bites, and God alone can tell you how he services me.

She ridiculed Ricciardo’s sexual inadequacy and his promises to do more:

You say you’ll make a really big effort.  But how?  By coming up empty after three feeble bouts and having to give it quite a whacking to make it stand up?  … Go away, and put all that energy of yours into just staying alive, for it seems as if you’re barely hanging on there, that’s how run-down and droopy you look to me.  … if you were squeezed till you were dry, they couldn’t get a spoonful of sauce out of you.  My life with you amounted to nothing but one giant loss, including both principal and interest, so next time I’ll go looking somewhere else for my profit.

That’s the mercantile mentality closely associated with ingegno.  Bartolomea then told her husband to get out and threatened to falsely accuse him of rape:

good-bye, and go away as quickly as you can, because if you don’t, I’m going to scream that you’re trying to rape me. [5]

False accusations of rape have long been a highly threatening tactic.  Messer Ricciardo left.  He shortly thereafter died from resulting sorrow and madness.  Paganino and Bartolomea then wed and continued to whack wool vigorously.  They had “a jolly life together, working away at it as long as their legs could support them.”

Paganino and Bartolomea’s relationship highlights sexual symmetry in sexual desire.  But their relationship isn’t romantic in the sense of the medieval literary genre of romance.  The story of Paganino and Bartolomea reconfigures the merchant-romance of Bernabò.  It also does more than that.  Like the Arabic tale of Aziz and Aziza, it burlesques ancient Greek romance.

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[1] Konstan (1994).  In recent decades, scholars have disparaged sexual symmetry, particularly with respect to domestic violence.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 2, Story 10, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 188.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 188-195.

[3] At the Sultan’s court, Madonna Zinevra, who had been pretending to be the man Sicurano, bared her breast to show that she is a woman.  Ambruogiuolo had hidden in a chest placed in her bedroom.  He collected a few things as evidence that he was there.  He also uncovered her naked in bed and observed “a mole under her left breast.”  The mole was “surrounded by a few strands of fine, golden blonde hair.”  Using these artifacts and observations, Ambruogiuolo falsely claimed to have seduced Madonna Zinevra.  Shakespeare used a similar device in his romance Cymbeline.

[4] Id. notes, p. 881, n. 1.  Id. notes Boccaccio’s “celebration throughout the Decameron of the ingegno of his heroes and heroines.”

[5] Writing in the medieval genre of moralists supporting dominant social values within a uniform, universal narrative, Grudin & Grudin (2012), p. 40, declares:

The story of Ricciardo’s rebellious wife is the crowning example of the ingegno that has occupied Boccaccio’s attention since Day I.  Here for the first time, in the abducted wife’s brilliantly reasoned attack on cultural taboos, ingegno is allied with ragione (reason), a normative concept that figures importantly in the Decameron.

Rationalization also figures importantly in the Decameron.  Id., p. 38, declares that Bartolomea “diametrically reverse the conventional understanding of right and wrong.”  In Decameron 2.9, the merchants set out a long-established conventional understanding of right and wrong:

It’s a matter of tit for tat: when an ass bumps into a wall, the wall bumps him right back.

Trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 175.  As Dioneo’s burlesque of ancient Greek romances suggests, Boccaccio didn’t present Greco-Roman morality in the manner of a medieval moralist working for Cicero and the Emperor.

[image] Master of Guillebert de Mets (Flemish, active 1415-1460), c. 1425-30, Ghent, Belgium.  Walters Art Museum, W.166.118R.  The Walters Art Museum deserves high praise for its leadership in making art available to everyone on the web.


Grudin, Michaela Paasche, and Robert Grudin. 2012. Boccaccio’s Decameron and the Ciceronian Renaissance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Konstan, David. 1994. Sexual symmetry: love in the ancient novel and related genres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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

authors beware: 80% of books sell less than 100 copies

pile of books

Most published books sell few copies.  According to BookScan data:

79 percent of all new books sold in the United States in 2004 sold fewer than 99 copies, with 16.91 percent of all books selling between 100 and 999 copies.[1]

In 2004, BookScan covered about 70% of all U.S. book sales.[2]  The book industry today, like other industries marketing symbolic works, is based on hugely popular blockbusters.  Most authors, even authors of published books, earn nothing for all their work.

Books that sell less than 100 copies are not a waste.  An author may have enjoyed writing a book.  A few readers may value the book greatly. Of course, authors, like everyone else, need some way to support themselves.  A book that sells less than 100 copies is not likely in itself to provide significant financial benefit to the author.  A reasonable strategy for such books is to make them freely available to everyone on the Internet.  On the Internet, such books potentially can remain economically accessible to billions of persons forever.  Together they can greatly enrich the public landscape of human creativity and knowledge.

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[1] Greco, Rodríguez & Wharton (2007) p. 212.

[2] Id.

[image] pile of Nordic books.  Thanks to Johannes Jansson and Wikipedia.


Greco, Albert N., Clara E.  Rodríguez and Robert M.  Wharton. 2007. The culture and commerce of publishing in the 21st century. Stanford, Calif., Stanford Business Books.

Gualtieri & Giannetta: virtue triumphs over rationalization

In Boccaccio’s Decameron, Pampinea chartered the brigata for enjoyment “without ever trespassing the sign of reason in any way.”[1]  Pampinea thus presented reason as a external, public constraint.  Human reason, however, can function merely to rationalize a desired path.  The sign of reason significantly governs desire only in conjunction with virtue.  In Decameron 2.8, Gualtieri and his daughter Giannetta repel reason that serves only as rationalization.  Their actions demonstrate virtue and are highly rewarded at the end of the story.[2]

reason with virtue sets the world aright

Gualtieri, the Count of Antwerp, was governing the Kingdom of France while the King and the King’s son were fighting in Germany.  The wife of the King’s son fell in love with Gualtieri.  She summoned Gualtieri on the pretext of having matters to discuss with him.  She had him sit down on a sofa next to her.  He asked her why she summoned him.  She remained silent.  He asked again.  Again,  she didn’t answer.  Finally, her love for Gualtieri prompted her to speak:

Sweet friend and lord, O my dearest, since you are wise, you surely understand how frail men and women are ….  in my opinion, the advantages the rich woman possesses should go a long way toward excusing her, should she, by chance, slip and fall into love.  And if, in addition, she chose a wise and valiant lover on whom to bestow her favors, then she would need no excuse whatsoever.  Now, in my opinion, I meet both of these requirements, and since I have other reasons as well for falling in love, such as my youth and my husband’s absence, it is only fitting that these things should come to my aid and defend my burning love in your sight. [3]

The lady’s formally structured reasoning is rationalization of her desire for a love affair.  She continued with further rationalization (“as long as it remains hidden, I don’t think there’s any harm in it”) and finally concluded by declaring that the object of her desire is none other than Gualtieri.  Then she burst into tears:

These words produced such an abundance of tears that even though she intended to go on pleading with him, she no longer had the ability to speak.  Instead, very nearly overcome by emotion, she bowed her head, and still weeping, allowed it to rest on his breast.

Gualtieri would have none of the lady’s rationalizations:

{he} began to upbraid her sternly for her insane passion, pushing her away as she tried to throw her arms about his neck.  With many an oath, he swore that he would sooner allow himself to be drawn and quartered than permit such harm to be done to his lord’s honor, either by himself or by anyone else.

The lady, furious, responded with a false rape accusation:

No sooner did the lady hear this than she instantly forgot all about love, and burning now with savage fury, she said to him: “So, base knight, this is how my desire is going to be flouted by you?  Since you want to be the cause of my death, I’ll be the cause of yours, so help me God, and I’ll have you driven from the face of the earth.”  Having said this, she tore at her hair with her hands until it was completely disheveled, ripped apart her clothes at her breast, and began screaming out loud:  “Help, help! The Count of Antwerp is trying to rape me!” [4]

Gualtieri (the Count of Antwerp) recognized what has long been a common position for men facing a false rape accusation: “he feared that they would sooner believe the lady’s wickedness than his claims of innocence.”  Gualtieri, who was a widower, wisely gathered his children and fled with them.  He had to flee quickly:

At the sound of the lady’s screams, many people came running and when they saw her and heard what she was shouting about, not only did they believe everything she said, but they were now convinced that the Count had been using his charm and his refined manners all along for just this purpose.  In a fury they rushed to his residence in order to arrest him, but failing to find him there, they ransacked the place and then razed it to the ground. [5]

Gualtieri’s rejection of the lady’s rationalizations and her proposition for an affair caused great harm to him.  His action in light of an assessment of possible consequences might be judged unreasonable.  But he acted virtuously, as he understood virtue and right conduct.

Gualtieri’s daughter Giannetta similarly acted virtuously.  Having fled to England, the now destitute Gualtieri placed his daughter as a servant in a noble home.  He counseled his daughter not to tell anyone of her noble parentage and desperate flight.  That was a wise precaution to avoid further persecution.  The noble family that Giannetta was serving had a son.  The son fell in love with the servant Giannetta.  That was not a match his parents would approve.  The son thus fell gravely ill with lovesickness.  A wise doctor, noticing changes in the son’s pulse when Giannetta appeared, correctly diagnosed that the son was lovesick for Giannetta.[6]  The mother contrived to have the son confess to her his love for Giannetta.  She then promised to try to get for him Giannetta’s love.

The mother schemed in various ways to procure Giannetta as a lover for her son.  The mother suggestively asked Giannetta whether she had a lover.  Giannetta replied that for her to take a lover would not be proper.  The mother not only approved of Giannetta taking a lover, but also proposed to provide her with one.  The mother told Giannetta:

Well, if you don’t have a lover, we’d like to give you one, a man with whom you’ll lead a merry life and enjoy your beauty even more.  It’s just not right for a lovely young lady like you to be without a lover.

Giannetta balked:

I really should do whatever you wish.  But in this case not only will I never oblige you, but I think I am right in refusing to do so.  If it’s your pleasure to present me with a husband, then that’s the man I intend to love, and no one else.  For the only thing I have left that I’ve inherited from my ancestors is my honor, and I’m determined to safeguard and preserve it for as long as I live.

Pressing her case with a hypothetical, the mother asked Giannetta if she would deny the King if he wanted to take her as a lover.  Giannetta responded:

The King could take me by force, but he would never get my consent unless his intentions were honorable.

Giannetta’s reference to rape apparently inspired the mother.  She told her son that she would put Giannetta in a bedroom with him and “he could do his best to have his way with her.”  The son, like most men, was not interested in raping a woman.  His lovesickness worsened to the point of death.  His parents then realized that they could save their son only be allowing him to marry Giannetta.  Giannetta was very happy to marry the son.  He instantly recovered, and they lived happily as a married couple.

The story ends with great rewards for the virtuous Gualtieri and Giannetta.  In her deathbed confession, the wife of the King’s son revealed that she had falsely accused Gualtieri of rape.  Much less harm would have been done if the wife had confessed her lies much sooner, or if people hadn’t been so willing to believe her lies.  Nonetheless, Fortune favored the virtuous Gualtieri and Giannetta.  The King established a large reward for anyone who could find Gualtieri and his children.  Through a highly improbable chain of events, Gualtieri and his children were reunited.  Giannetta’s husband collected the rich reward for finding them.  Although his house had been ransacked and razed, Gualtieri somehow “recovered everything he had once possessed.”  Moreover, he was “raised to a rank far higher than the one he used to hold.”  Gualtieri “spent the rest of his days in Paris, leading a life there more glorious than ever before.”

The story of Gualtieri and Giannetta doesn’t end realistically.  Being falsely accused of rape is realistic.  Hope that virtue will truly be rewarded remains to the end of the age.  So be it.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 1, Introduction.  On “the sign of reason,” Kirkham (1993) intro.

[2] The name Gualtieri re-appears in Decameron 10.10.  There it’s the name of the Marquis of Saluzzo.  The Marquis of Saluzzo establishes his wife’s good character with inhumane tests.  The failure of reason in that story is much more stark than rationalization.

[3] Decameron, Day 2, Story 8, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 157-173.  All subsequent quotes are from id.  The purported reason that a rich woman is less culpable for having an affair is that she “has ample leisure and possesses everything she needs to gratify her desire.”  Contemporary social critics describe such reasoning as the wheel-spinning of the rationalization hamster.

[4] Here’s more on false rape accusation culture.

[5] This type of “damsel in distress” response in common in gynocentric societies.  Other examples are the Archpriest of Talavera’s medieval account of a woman inciting her lover to attack another man, the medieval Greek story of a wife punishing her husband for improper talk, and another medieval story of cuckolding obscured through women’s social communication.

[6] A similar account of a physician detecting a case of lovesickness exists in Valerius Maximus’s story of King Seleucus I’s son Antiochus.  Galen told a similar story about his own skill.  See discussion in note [7] in lovesickness post.

[image] photograph from Joan and Elmer Galbi’s climb of Dog Mountain.


Kirkham, Victoria. 1993. The sign of reason in Boccaccio’s fiction. Firenze: L.S. Olschki.

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

Asaph, the writer and historian of the Hebrews

Asaph sucked into black hole

A text probably authored before the fourth century GC refers to “Asaph the writer and historian of the Hebrews.”  The text is preserved in a Syriac translation of a Greek text attributed to “Andronicus the Wise, the Philosopher, and the Learned.”  That Andronicus cannot be confidently identified.  The text concerns the naming of the signs of the Zodiac:

The impression that one gathers from the wording of the translation is, however, that Andronicus was a Christian writer speaking of olden Pagan times of Greece.  He relates how before his time a certain literary man called Asaph, a Jew and a “historian of the Hebrews,” had given to the twelve signs of the Zodiac the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. [1]

Here’s the key text related to Asaph:

Asaph the writer and historian of the Hebrews explains and teaches clearly the history of all these, but does not write and show them with Greek names, but according to the names of the sons of Jacob.  As to the effect and influence of these στοιχεíα {signs of the Zodiac} he, too, enumerates them fully without adding or diminishing anything, but in simply changing in a clear language their names into those of the Patriarchs.  He begins them in the Aramaic language and puts at the head Taurus, which he calls “Reuben.” [2]

The phrase “without adding or diminishing anything” signals a central concern in Syriac translations from Greek in the sixth and seventh centuries.  Ancient Hebrew scholars, like everyone else, were interested in astrology despite its precarious theological status.  Asaph the writer and historian of the Hebrews, as described in this text, is a plausible historical figure from before the fourth century.

The Syriac Chronicle of Michael the Great, written in Damascus late in the twelfth century, supports the existence of Asaph the writer and historian of the Hebrews.  In the context of political chronicle, Michael the Great refers to Asaph as a historical source consistent with other, non-Jewish histories:

The history of the Magian Menandros and the second book of Asaph say the following … Sarug began to teach Nahor the worship of the Chaldeans, namely magic and astrology, as Asaph says in his book, which is in agreement with the table of the generations.  … This account is confirmed by Asaph who says, “The Egyptians learned astrology from the Chaldeans in the time of Terah. They erected an image of Ninos made of gold.” [3]

Michael the Great also refers to the first book of Asaph and the seventh book of Asaph.[4]  Asaph seems to have been a significant Jewish writer and historian known at least from about the third century to the twelfth century.

References to Asaph have been difficult to situate historically.  According to the Hebrew Bible, King David appointed Asaph son of Berechiah as a singer before the tabernacle.[5]  Another Asaph, Asaph the Chronicler, apparently lived about twelve generations later.[6]  About a thousand years ago, both Hebrew and Arabic texts described Asaph as the vizier of King Solomon.[7]  The Hebrew Book of Medicine attributed to Asaph the Physician is documented from about 1200 GC.  It contains a wide range of material, including astrology.  The tradition of Asaph as the vizier of King Solomon and material in the Book of Medicine attributed to Asaph the Physician may have been based in part on a lengthy historical work of Asaph, writer and historian of the Hebrews.  Although Asaph’s work apparently was well-known for nearly a millennium, few traces of it now remain.

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[1] Mingana (1918) p. 86.  The manuscript is in The John Rylands Library, cataloged as Cod. Syr. 44.  The manuscript dates to not later than the fifteenth century.  The copyist was “an extremely bad Syriac scholar” and the Syriac has been corrupted in a variety of ways.  Id. p. 80.

[2] Id. p. 89.  From the fourth to the seventh centuries, Greek words were frequently included in Syriac translations.  Brock (1982) p. 18.

[3] Syriac Chronicle of Michael the Great, from Bk. 2, Ch. 3-5, from Syriac trans. Moosa (2014) pp. 40, 41, 42 ).  In French translation, Chabot (1899) vol. 1, pp. 22, 23, 26.

[4] Syriac Chronicle, from Bk. 2, Ch. 7, trans. Moosa (2014) pp. 43, 45; Chabot (1899) vol. 1, pp. 28, 29.  Note that Moosa’s organization of chapters differs slightly from Chabot’s.  The latter attempts to preserve the tripartite page layout of the original manuscript, which creates ambiguity in chapter identifications.  The Syriac Chronicle contains some references to Asaph the singer whom David appointed.  See Bk. 2, Ch. 10, trans Moosa (2014) p. 60; Chabot (1899) vol. 1, p. 60.  No other references to Asaph exist in the whole Syriac Chronicle.

[5] 1 Chronicles 6:39; 15:17, 19; 16:5, 7, 37; 25:1.

[6] 2 Kings 18:18, 37.  Asaph the Chronicler lived under King Hezekiah of the Davidic line.

[7] Mingana (1918) p. 86-7 (Jewish legends).  Asaph (Asaf) son of Barkhiya is identified at Solomon’s vizier in the 1001 Nights, nights 3, 571, 759, Macnaghten Calcutta II text.  Trans. Lyons (2008) vol. 1, p. 22; vol. 2, p. 530; vol. 3, p. 97.

[image] Simulated view of a black hole in front of the Large Magellanic Cloud.  Thanks to Alain r. and Wikipedia.


Brock, Sebastian. 1982. “From Antagonism to Assimilation: Syriac Attitudes to Greek Learning.”  Pp. 17-34 in Nina G. Garsoïan, Thomas F. Mathews, and Robert W. Thomson, eds., East of Byzantium: Syria and Armenia in the Formative Period. Dumbarton Oaks Symposium 1980. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1982.  Reprinted in Brock (1984), Syriac Perspectives on Late Antiquity, Ch. V.

Chabot, Jean-Baptiste, trans. 1899. Chronique de Michel le Syrien, patriarche jacobite d’Antioche (1166-1199), éditée pour la première fois et traduite en français par J.-B. Chabot. Paris: E. Leroux.(vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4)

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

Mingana, Alphonse.  1918. “Some Early Judaeo-Christian Documents in the John Rylands Library.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 4 (1): 59-118.

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