romance of rescuing damsel imprisoned in tower, transgressed

Bringing joy to a tearful damsel imprisoned in a tower by a bad man is an archetypal masculine hero-fantasy. Such a story occurs in many variations in medieval literature. The mid-sixteenth-century story-collector Straparola, who popularized fairy-tales, created in contrast a witty story that transgressed gender and the conventional tower romance.

In Straparola’s story, King Galafro of Spain appears to be the typical bad man. He was a fierce warrior. As an old man, he married a beautiful young woman named Feliciana. Age difference doesn’t necessarily prevent a happy marriage. But King Galafro wasn’t a strong, independent husband:

Because of her gentleness and gracious manner, the king loved his queen exceedingly, taking thought of nothing else than how he might please her.

{ e per la sua gentilezza e maniere accorte, era sommamente amata dal Re, nè ad altro pensava che compiacerle. }

After examining the king’s hand, a chiromancer told him that his wife would cuckold him. The king thus resolved to keep his wife in a strong, carefully guarded tower.

Gender inequality in parental knowledge creates the gender-distinctive issue of men being cuckolded. Modern DNA-based paternity testing could eliminate this gender inequality. However, social forces under gynocentrism suppress routine DNA paternity testing. A historical alternative has been for husbands to attempt to guard their wives to prevent them from secretly having sex with another man. Medieval literature documents that such mate-guarding frequently fails. In Straparola’s story-collection, the knowing lady Lionora declared to her woman-friends:

Again and again, loving and gracious ladies, I’ve heard it said that the cleverest stratagems of art and science are helpless when pitted against the shrewdness of women. The reason for this is that at her creation, woman sprang not from the dry, barren earth, but from the ribs of Adam our first father. Thus, from the beginning women were made of flesh and not of dust, even though in the end their bodies, like men’s, inevitably are reduced to ashes.

{ Più e più volte, amorevoli e graziose donne, ho udito dire, non valer scienza nè arte alcuna contrar astuzia delle donne, e questo prociede perchè elle non dalla trita e secca terra sono prodotte, ma dalla costa del padre nostro Adamo; e così sono di carne e non di terra, ancor che i loro corpi al fine in cenere si riducano. }

Lionora naturalized women’s superiority in guile. Rationalizations for gender inequality in parental knowledge are now much different. The specifics of oppressive rationalizations have little significance to possibilities for social change. As Straparola’s story shows, invention and ingenuity can overcome natural gender differences.

Saint George kills a dragon and saves a damsel in distress

Galeotto, the son of the king of Castille, heard that King Galafro was strictly guarding his queen Feliciana. With men’s usual compassion for women, Galeotto resolved to bring joy to Feliciana. He first gathered many luxury items. Then, dressed as a merchant, he hawked his precious wares throughout the city where Feliciana was imprisoned in royal ease.

The oppressed queen’s servant-women told her that a merchant was selling luxury goods, including cloth embroidered with silver and gold. Acquiring additional luxuries might lift the spirit of an oppressed woman of privilege. The queen thus pleaded with the working men guarding her tower to allow the merchant to enter. A married king is merely nominal ruler of the realm. Despite the king’s order to the guards, the queen persuaded them to allow the merchant to visit her.

Galeotto disguised as the merchant acted with consummate guile. He made simultaneous offers:

Having first made the due and customary obeisance to the queen, the merchant spread out his rich wares. The queen, who was sprightly and rather bold, noticed that the merchant was handsome and had a kindly nature. She began to shoot darts from the crossbows of her eyes so as to arouse his amorous feelings. This trader, who kept his eyes wide open, showed that he wanted the same and would give love for love.

{ Il qual, prima fatta la debita e convenevole riverenza, la salutò; indi mostròle le nobili sue merci. La Reina, che era festevole e baldanzosa, vedendolo bello, piacevole e di natura benigno, incominciò ballestrarlo con la coda dell’occhio e accenderlo del lei amore. Il mercatante, che non dormiva, dimostrava nel volto corresponderle in amore. }

The queen became most interested in a particular item:

After the queen had looked at a great number of his things, she said, “Master, your wares are truly very fine. That no one can deny. But among them all, this one pleases me most. I’d be happy to know the price you want for it.”

{ Vedute che ebbe la Reina molte cose, disse: Maestro, le cose vostre sono bellissime, nè hanno opposizione alcuna; ma tra tutte questa molto mi aggrada. Io volontieri saprei quello l’apprecciate. }

One must appreciate the female gaze to understand the item she sought to buy. This merchant understood that prostitution is less satisfying than freely given love:

The merchant responded, “Lady-lord, no sum of money is sufficient to purchase these things. But seeing that you nourish such great desire to possess them, rather than sell them to you, I’m willing to give them to you if by such means I could be certain of winning your grace, which I value far above all other things.”

{ Rispose il mercatante: Signora, non è danaro che sofficiente sia a sodisfamento di lei. Ma quando vi fosse in piacere, io più presto ve la donerei che venderla: pur ch’io fosse sicuro di ottener la grazia sua, la qual io reputo maggiore che ogni altra robba. }

The merchant offered himself, with all his masculine marvels, to the queen for free. The queen was delighted with this extraordinarily generous merchant. She exclaimed:

Master, what you have said shows that you aren’t a low-born man, or one who is dedicated to the search for profit, but with your presentation you demonstrate the magnanimity that reigns over your kindly heart. So, however unworthy I may appear to be, I offer myself to you so that you may use me according to your pleasure.

{ Maestro, quello che voi dite, non è atto di uomo vile, che è più delle volte dedito all’ingordo guadagno; ma con effetti dimostrate la magnanimità che nel cor vostro ben disposto regna. Io, quantunque indegna, mi offero a’ piaceri e comandi vostri. }

That’s a counter-offer similar to the merchant’s offer of all of himself in exchange for her love. He in response gave a speech of pure courtly love:

Lady-lord, most truly you are the one firm and enduring support of my life. Your angelic beauty, joined to the sweet and kindly welcome that you have extended to me, has bound me with so strong a chain that I find it vain to hope that I shall ever again be able to free myself. I’m all afire with love for you. All the water in the world could never extinguish the ardent flames that consume my heart. I am a wanderer come from a distant land with no other purpose than to look upon that rare and radiant beauty that raises you far above every other living lady. As kindly and courteous as you are, if you would take me into your favor, you would thereby gain a devoted servant whom you may employ as though a part of yourself.

{ Signora, vera e salda colonna della vita mia, l’angelica bellezza vostra, congiunta con quelle dolci e benigne accoglienze, mi ha sì fortemente legato, che io non spero potermi mai più da lei dissogliere. Io per voi ardo, nè trovo acqua che estinguer possa sì ardente fuoco in cui mi trovo. Io da lontani paesi sono partito, e non per altro se non per veder la rara e singolar bellezza, la quale ad ogni altra donna vi fa superiore. Se voi, come benigna e cortese, nella grazia vostra mi accetterete, arrete un servo di cui potrete disporre come di voi stessa. La Reina, udite tai parole, stette sopra di sè, e prese ammirazione non picciola che ’l mercatante avesse tanto ardire; ma pur vedendolo bello e leggiadro, e considerando l’ingiuria che le faceva il marito tenendola chiusa nella torre, dispose al tutto seguire il piacer suo. }

Women, like men, should realize that courtly love is utterly unrealistic and profoundly false to the mud-made nature of women and men. But the queen, knowing that in courtly love men are effectively sexual serfs to lordly women, sought to exploit her gender privilege. She imposed as an additional condition for her love that he give her all the luxury wares that he had brought with him. What he had previously given her was all of himself. That wasn’t enough for this acquisitive queen.

The merchant gave the queen all his material goods. Then she led him into a bedroom. There he “took the ultimate fruit of love {prese gli ultimi frutti d’amore}.” So too did she.

Man kills another man to become hero to damsel in distress

After they finished enjoying sex, Galeotto demanded that the queen give him back his merchandise. He thus ironically insisted on the value of his masculine sexual gift. The queen chided him for allegedly acting juvenile:

Surely it does not become a noble-minded and liberal gentleman to demand the return of anything that he has faithfully bestowed upon another. This is the way of children, who in their tender ages lack sense and understanding. But to tell you frankly, since you are a man wise and understanding and have no need of a guardian, I do not intend to return your wares.

{ Non conviensi ad uomo magnifico e liberale addimandare in dietro la cosa lealmente donata. Questo fanno i fanciulli, che per la tenella età sono di senno e d’intelletto privi. Ma a voi, uomo savio e accorto, a cui non fa bisogno curatore, io la robba restituir non intendo. }

Galeotto declared that if she didn’t return his wares, he would remain there until the king returned. Then he would ask the king to administer justice. Recognizing Galeotto’s clever move, the queen returned his wares. This is the lover’s gift regained, a gender-transgressive motif in folklore.

Galeotto happily left the queen’s tower. He passed through the streets proclaiming loudly:

I know it, and I don’t want to tell it. I know it, and I don’t want to tell it!

{ Io il so, e non lo voglio dire: io il so e non lo voglio dire! }

King Galafro, returning from hunting, heard Galeotto’s cries and was amused. When he entered his wife’s tower, he said to her in jest, “Madame, I know it, and I don’t want to tell it {Madonna, io il so, e non lo voglio dire}.” Mistakenly thinking that her husband spoke in earnest, she fell at his feet, confessed her sexual infidelity, and begged him for forgiveness.

King Galafro, the typical bad man of medieval romance, revealed himself to be a good man. He told his wife:

Madame, be of good cheer. Don’t torment yourself. Whatever Heaven wills, so that will come to be.

{ Madama, sta di buona voglia, nè ti smarrire; perciò che quello che vuole il cielo, convien che sia. }

The king ordered that the tower imprisoning his wife be demolished. He gave his wife complete freedom to do whatever she desired. She and her husband then lived together joyfully. Some might think that with her freedom she engaged in polyamory. In the context of Straparola’s story, almost surely she was faithful to her husband.

damsel in distress chained to a railroad track

Let us count the ways that Straparola’s story transgresses gender and romance stereotypes. The lovely young woman Feliciana fails to gain material goods in exchange for having sex with a man. She is also revealed to be inferior in guile to Galeotto. Moreover, Galeotto, who pretended to be a merchant, enacted the lesson that men’s sexuality is a highly beneficial gift beyond any material price. In addition, the stereotypical bad man King Galafro becomes a good man who graciously forgives his wife. He essentially communicates to her that he doesn’t care if she has sex with other men. This is a story that women and men today should tell and retell to liberate themselves from gender and romance stereotypes.

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The quotes above are from Giovanni (Zoan) Francesco Straparola, The Pleasant Nights {Le Piacevoli Notti}, Italian text from Rua (1899), English translation (modified) from Beecher (2012). All the quotes above except one are from Night 9, Story 1 (“King Galafro’s Vain Precautions”). The lady Diana tells this story. Lionora’s naturalization of women’s superiority in guile comes from the introduction to Night 12, Story 1 (“How Florio’s Wife Cures His Jealousy”).

While this story includes well-recognized motifs in folklore, its over-all structure is unique. Beecher observed:

The creative agency responsible for putting them together may have been Straparola himself, or more probably the collective oral tradition from which the tale was surely derived.

Beecher (2012) vol. 2, p. 269. The deliberate transgression of gender and romance conventions seems to me to point to Straparola himself as the creative agency. Beecher further observed:

Either this story is thematically savvy and self-aware, deconstructing its own romantic facade through mutual exploitation and trickery brought to situational blackmail amid hollow and bankrupted sentiments, or the tale, in its impromptu combination of motifs, simply lost track of itself.

Id. p. 270. The story seems to me surely thematically savvy and self-aware. It’s like the thirteenth-century Old Occitan Romance of Flamenca, which has long been under-appreciated.

A central motif of this story is a husband’s mate-guarding. An influential instance of this motif is the “confined woman {inclusa}” story in The Romance of the Seven Sages of Rome {Le roman des Sept Sages de Rome}. In Inclusa, a knight out of jealousy keeps his wife imprisoned in a tower. Another knight feels compassion for the wife’s plight. He builds a tower next to hers and then a tunnel connecting the two towers. The wife and knight secretly cuckold the husband using this tunnel of love. They ultimately flee from the “bad man” husband. The thirteenth-century Old French romance Joufroi de Poitiers tells a structurally similar story.

Medieval literature documents a variety of means by which men are cuckolded. Beecher observed:

Nearly all the conventional means are represented in Straparola’s own stories: digging underground from castle to castle (‘Erminione and Filenia,’ IV.2), the lover transformed into a bird who then flies in through the window (‘Fortunio, the King’s Daughter, and the Mermaid,’ III.4), an intruder disguised as a merchant in the manner of Doralice’s father — a potential model for the lover in the present story — or entry to the lady’s chamber inside a coffer or large work of art (‘Doralice,’ I.4); or carried out (as in ‘The Physician’s Wife,’ IV.4).

Beecher (2012) vol. 2, p. 271. Progress in science (DNA paternity testing) and public policy (reproductive rights for men) could make the large corpus of stories about men being cuckolded into mainly a historical curiosity. In contrast, not only does cuckolding continue, but stories and discussion about cuckolding are now sternly repressed through institutions of censorship.

[images] (1) Saint George kills a dragon and saves a damsel in distress. Painted by Paolo Uccello from 1456 to 1460. Preserved in the Musée Jacquemart-André (Paris, France). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Man kills another man to become hero to damsel in distress. Painted by Frank Bernard Dicksee in 1885. Image via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Damsel in distress chained to a railroad track. Photo still from the 1917 silent film Teddy at the Throttle (directed by Clarence G. Badger). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Beecher, Donald. 2012. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Pleasant Nights. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rua, Giuseppe. 1899. Le piacevoli notti di M. Giovanfrancesco Straparola da Caravaggio nelle quali si contengono le favole con i loro enimmi da dieci donne e duo giovani raccontate. 2 vols. Bologna: Romagnoli-Dall’ Acqua. Alternate presentation of 1927 edition.

Waters, W.G., trans. 1894. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Nights. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. London: Lawrence and Bullen. Alternate presentation: vol. 1, vol. 2.

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