Salabaetto & Madama Iancofiore revised Exemplum de decem cofris

Venus and Mars in bed

Early in twelfth-century Spain, Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis brought stories from Jewish and Arabic culture into Latin literature. One of those stories is the Exemplum de decem cofris (Instructive story of ten chests). That exemplum concerns persons aspiring to holiness overcoming unjust commercial trickery with their own commercial guile. In the Decameron, Boccaccio transformed that exemplum into the love-seeking Salabaetto overcoming Madama Iancofiore’s financial exploitation of his love affair with her.

In the Exemplum de decem cofris, a Spaniard was initially defrauded of 1000 talents. The Spaniard was traveling to Mecca. In Egypt, he decided that he wanted to cross into the desert. Traveling to Mecca is a holy obligation of Muslims. Going into the desert is a common figure of ascetic spiritual-seeking. Before the Spaniard went into the desert, he entrusted his wealth of 1000 talents to a reputably trustworthy local businessperson. When the Spaniard return to reclaim his deposit, the local businessperson denied receiving any deposit.

With the help of an old woman, the Spaniard recovered his money. The old woman was a charitable, God-praising, holy hermit. She devised a ploy for him. They arranged to have a confederate ask the businessperson to hold a luxurious chest. The confederate claimed that the chest held part of his wealth. He claimed that another nine similar chest would soon arrive. Before the deposit arrangement was concluded, the Spaniard showed up and demanded his money. Not wanting his confiscation of the deposit to become known, the businessperson returned the money to the Spaniard. The confederate then concluded his deposit deal. But the one chest he placed on deposit contained only stones. The other nine he never sent. The commercial trickster was thus in turn commercially tricked, not by more roguish characters, but by persons with high spiritual aspirations.[1]

Boccaccio’s version replaced the generic personal framework of high spiritual aspirations with Salabaetto’s natural desire for enjoyable sex with the lovely Madama Iancofiore. Salabaetto arrived in Palermo, Sicily, with a shipment of wool cloth. Madama Iancofiore received word of Salabaetto’s wealth. She began to give him amorous looks. He fell in love with her. Her maidservant go-between contacted Salabaetto:

she told him, her eyes practically brimming over with tears, that her mistress was so taken with his good looks and his pleasant manners that she could find no rest, day or night, and that it was her most ardent desire that he should meet with her in secret at some bathhouse whenever it would please him to do so. [2]

Salabaetto eagerly agreed to such a meeting.

The bathhouse meeting had exotic, erotic arrangements. Salabaetto arrived at the bathhouse at the appointed time. Then two slave girls with a mattress arrived. They covered the mattress with fine silk sheets and exquisitely embroidered pillows. The slave girls then took off all their cloths and scrubbed down the bath. Salabaetto probably enjoyed watching them work. Then the lady herself arrived with two more slave girls. Madama Iancofiore passionately greeted Salabaetto, hugging and kissing him. She told him:

Except for you, there’s no other man in the world who could have led me to do this, my darling Tuscan. You set my soul on fire.

Then, at Madama Iancofiore’s request, she and Salabaetto took their clothes off and entered the bath naked. The two slave girls attended them:

Refusing to allow either one of them to lay a hand on him, she {Madama Iancofiore} herself washed Salabaetto from head to foot with marvelous care, using soap scented with musk and cloves, after which she had the slave girls wash her and rub her down. When they {the slave girls} were done, they fetched two finely woven sheets, brilliantly white, which emitted such an odor of roses that it seemed as if the entire room were filled with them. After wrapping Salabaetto in one of the sheets and the lady in the other, they lifted them up and carried them to the bed that had been prepared for them. When the couple had finished perspiring, the sheets wound about them were removed, and they found themselves lying naked on the ones covering the bed. Beautiful little vials of silver were then taken from the basket, some filled with rose water, others with the water of orange blossoms and jasmine flowers, and yet others with the oil of oranges, which the slave girls sprinkled all over them. Finally, boxes of sweets and the most precious wines were produced, with which the couple refreshed themselves for a while.

Men’s fantasies are easy to ridicule. Yet Salabaetto seemed to be experiencing a fantasy realized:

Salabaetto was convinced he was in Paradise, and as he looked the lady up and down a thousand times — for she was certainly very beautiful — every hour seemed like a hundred years to him until the slave girls would go away and he might find himself in her arms. When, at the lady’s command, they finally withdrew, leaving a little light burning in the room, she and Salabaetto embraced one another passionately. And there the two of them passed a very long hour together, to Salabaetto’s immense delight, for he imagined that she was being utterly consumed by her love for him.

Madama Iancofiore then decided it was time for them to get up and leave the bathhouse. They got up, dressed, and took some more sweets and wine. Before they left the bathhouse, Madama Iancofiore invited Salabaetto to her house that evening for dinner and to spend the night.

Salabaetto’s night with Madama Iancofiore convinced him that she would take care of him completely, both sexually and financially. Madama Iancofiore arranged for a lavish dinner. She put on display in her room an array of her gowns and other expensive goods. All the appearances were compelling to Salabaetto:

All of these things, both taken together and considered individually, convinced him that she had to be a great lady with a substantial fortune, and although he had heard rumors quite to the contrary about the life she led, there was nothing in the world that would make him believe them. Furthermore, even if he did lend some credence to the suspicion that she had tricked others in the past, nothing in the world could persuade him that such a thing might happen to him.

They passed a fiercely passionate night together. In relation to a woman, every man relishes believing that he is truly, uniquely loved. Every man yearns to believe that his beloved woman has the means and the will not to treat him like a wallet.

Like most men, Salabaetto was willing to do anything for a woman who seemed to love him. When Salabaetto sold his stockpile of wool cloth for 500 gold florins, an informant told Madama Salabaetto of the transaction. She then arranged to deceive him:

one evening when he had gone to her place, she began to joke around and romp with him, hugging and kissing him with such a show of being on fire for him that it seemed as if she were going to die of love in his arms. Furthermore, she kept insisting that he accept two exquisite silver goblets of hers, which he refused, since on more than one occasion he had received things from her worth a good thirty gold florins without ever being able to get her to take anything from him that was worth so much as a tiny silver coin. At last, when she had gotten him absolutely red hot with her show of passion and generosity, one of her slave girls called her away from the room, as she had been ordered to do earlier. After a long while, the lady returned, and weeping, threw herself facedown on the bed, where she began to give vent to the most pitiful lamentation a woman has ever uttered.

When Salabaetto sought to comfort her and understand the cause of her lamentation, she explained that she had received a letter from her brother in Messina. She had to send him 1000 gold florins within a week, or he would have his head cut off. Salabaetto offered to lend her the 500 gold florins he had received if she would pay him back within two weeks. She promised to do so. Salabaetto gladly lent her all his money without any written contract.

After Madama Iancofiore had acquired all of Salabaetto’s money, she pushed away from him. She began making excuses for not spending the night with him. Months went by without her repaying the money he had lent her. Salabaetto realized he had been duped:

There was nothing he could say against her, however, unless she were willing to confirm it, for he had no written evidence of their arrangement, nor had there been any witnesses to it. Moreover, he was ashamed to go and complain about her to anyone, not just because he had been warned about her beforehand, but also because of the well-deserved ridicule he expected to be exposed to because of his stupidity.

Salabaetto’s business superiors instructed him to return with the money from the sale of the wool cloth. Instead of returning home to Pisa, Salabaetto absconded to Naples.

Salabaetto found help not from a holy person, but from a smart, shrewd public administrator who was his close personal friend. That friend was Pietro dello Canigiano, the treasurer to Her Highness the Empress of Constantinople. With Canigiano’s advice and help, Salabaetto returned to Palermo with a large shipment of bales and twenty oil casks. Salabaetto declared that shipment to be worth more than 2000 gold florins. Moreover, Salabaetto informed the customs officer than another shipment worth more than 3000 gold florins would soon be arriving. Madama Iancofiore covertly received information about his new business. She concluded that she had closed her game too early and extracted much less from Salabaetto than she could have.

This time, Salabaetto gamed Madama Iancofiore’s game. When Madama Iancofiore sent for him and received him warmly, Salabaetto pretended to forgive her. He claimed that he had come to start a business in Palermo so that he could be always near her. Madama Iancofiore lovingly apologized for the times when she had refused to get together with him and for not paying him back his money within the promised time. Madama Iancofiore told Salabaetto of personal difficulties and the hardships of women in general:

You must know how terribly sad and deeply distressed I was at the time, and that for a person in such a condition, no matter how much she may love another, there is no way she can put on as cheerful a countenance and be as attentive toward him as he would like her to be. Furthermore, you must know how difficult it is for a woman to find a thousand gold florins, for all day long people tell us lies and fail to keep their promises to us, so that we, too, are forced to lie to others. And it was for this reason alone, and not because of some other failing on my part, that I didn’t pay you back.

Madama Iancofiore then returned to Salabaetto his 500 gold florins. They both continued their love affair as if there had never been a breach of faith.

Salabaetto, however, wasn’t satisfied just to get the money he was due and to resume regularly having sex with Madama Iancofiore. One day, arriving at Madama Iancofiore’s house for dinner and to spend the night with her, Salabaetto presented himself as distraught and melancholy. He explained that pirates had captured the ship bringing his additional merchandise. He needed 1000 gold florins to pay his share of the pirates’ ransom for the ship. Madama Iancofiore suggested that he borrow that sum from a moneylender that she knew. The moneylender, who was actually a confederate of Madama Iancofiore, charged a 30% fee and required a substantial pledge of goods as a guarantee. Salabaetto agreed to the exorbitant terms and secured the loan with the goods he had brought. The deal was sealed with a formal written contract.

Salabaetto left on the next ship to Naples. He held the 500 gold florins that Madama Iancofiore had returned to him, plus the 1000 gold florins he had borrowed from her confederate, who had actually gotten that sum from her. Salabaetto never returned to Palermo and Madama Iancofiore. When she and her confederate opened the storeroom to seize Salabaetto’s forefeited guarantee, they found that almost all the bales contained merely rough, cheap fibers. All the casks, which they thought were filled with oil, had only a small amount of oil at the top. The casks contained mainly seawater. The guarantee for the 1000 florin loan turned out to be worth no more than 200 florins. Madama Iancofiore, a woman who regularly fleeced men in love with her, was herself fleeced.

Boccaccio ingeniously personalized the Exemplum de decem cofris. Rather than the generic figures in that exemplum, Boccaccio gave characters names. Rather than abstract holiness, Boccaccio’s Salabaetto aspired to the passionate love of worldly, ordinary men. Madama Iacofiore was the human, worldly woman that many men, blinded by ideology, refuse to recognize. Boccaccio filled his story with realistic detail. In his astonishingly daring work, Boccaccio brought medieval didactic literature generically to the Gospels.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Petrus Alfonsi, Disciplina Clericalis Ch. 15 (Exemplum de decem cofris). A translation from the Latin into English is available in Hermes & Quarrie (1977) pp. 128-30. Here’s the Latin text.

A nearly identical version of the story appears as Gesta Romanorum Tale 118 (De fallacio et dolo), Latin text Oesterley (1872) pp. 461-3, English trans. Swan & Hooper (1877) pp. 210-2. In Gesta Romanorum, the Spaniard becomes a generic knight, the knight seeks to go on pilgrimage from Egypt without specific reference to Mecca, and the knight moves stones from the path of the old woman, rather than her performing that deed for all. The old woman was a vetula pannis heremitalibus (“old woman wrapped in the clothes of a hermit”). For chests, Gesta Romanorum uses cophinos rather than cofris.

Exemplum de decem cofris is a prevalent tale type. It also exists in Jacob de Cessolis’s late thirteenth-century work, Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum (Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles and the game of chess), section “The Fifth Pawn (Merchant).” That book and Gesta Romanorum were two of the most popular books in medieval Europe.

In the Aarne-Thompson classification, Exemplum de decem cofris is AT 1617: “Unjust Banker Deceived into Delivering Deposits by making him expect even larger.” Folktale motifs J1141.6 and K455.9 are also associated with the tale. Aarne & Thompson (1961), Thompson (1955).

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 8, Story 10, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 679.  Subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 680-6. The storyteller is Dioneo. Id. p. 929, n. 2, observes that the opening paragraph contains several words of Arabic origin. A European sense of the exotic coexists in the story with personal and commercial realism.

[image] Venus and Mars in bed, while Vulcan looks on. Illumination of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean le Meung’s Roman de la Rose. Manuscript from central France, c. 1380. British Library, Egerton 881, f. 141v.


Aarne, Antti and Sith Thompson. 1961. The Types of the folktale: a classification and bibliography. Antti Aarne’s “Verzeichnis der Märchentypen” (FF Communications. °N 3) Translated and enlarged by Stith Thompson. 2nd revision. Helsinki: Suomalainen tiedeakatemia.

Hermes, Eberhard and P. R. Quarrie, ed. and trans. 1977. Petrus Alfonsi. The Disciplina clericalis of Petrus Alfonsi. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Oesterley, Hermann, ed. 1872. Gesta Romanorum. Berlin: Weidmann.

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

Swan, Charles, trans. and Wynnard Hooper, ed. 1877. Gesta Romanorum. London: George Bell & Sons.

Thompson, Stith. 1955. Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *