Pirro learned from Lidia in Decameron 7.9

Samson and Delilah, foremother of Lidia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] John 15:11.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

sex differences: indirect aggression through social communication

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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[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. Finger gestures. Douglas Galbi’s photograph.


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.

bad metaphor: Neifile and Filostrato on wolves and sheep

wolf on the prowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Id.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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