While it's probably been far too long since my last Decameron post here, rest assured that Boccaccio continues to push the envelope of good taste! The Third Day's set of stories, ostensibly a series of tales on the theme of "people who by dint of their own efforts have achieved an object they greatly desired, or recovered a thing previously lost" (189), is actually primarily concerned with lampooning the sexual misdeeds and hypocrisy of the clerical class. The ten storytellers go into attack mode from the outset, launching the satiric barrage with a story about an enterprising young man who pretends he's a deaf-mute to gain employment as a gardener at a nunnery. Once installed in the new position, he immediately begins to receive non-stop sexual attention from eight nuns and eventually even the abbess herself, all nine of whom feel that their secret is safe with the hunky gardener on account of his feigned disability. In a later story, the amusing tone of the gardener piece gives way to a spirited dissertation on the friars' dissolute ways in a speech that runs a full six or seven paragraphs in duration. Although the speaker who chides the friars for desiring "riches and women" (243) is actually a fake "pilgrim" who derides the clergy as part of an elaborate scheme to win his ex-lover back, it's quite a hoot to see his laundry list of anticlerical sentiments aired out with such gleeful proficiency.
Naturally, this is all just a set up to the closing story in the sequence, a raunchy episode in which a desert hermit teaches a naive, non-Christian girl that the proper way to serve God according to the Christian faith is by helping the hermit put the devil back into hell. Since the girl, Alibech, doesn't know what the hermit, Rustico, means by all this, the formerly ascetic Rustico decides that this is a concept perhaps best explained while both are naked!
" 'Rustico, what is that thing I see sticking out in front of you, which I do not possess?'
'Oh, my daughter,' said Rustico, 'this is the devil I was telling you about. Do you see what he's doing? He's hurting me so much that I can hardly endure it.'
'Oh, praise be to God,' said the girl, 'I can see that I am better off than you are, for I have no such devil to contend with.'
'You're right there,' said Rustico. 'But you have something else instead, that I haven't.
'Oh?' said Alibech. 'And what's that?'
'You have Hell,' said Rustico. 'And I honestly believe that God has sent you here for the salvation of my soul, because if this devil continues to plague the life out of me, and if you are prepared to take sufficient pity upon me to let me put him back into Hell, you will be giving me marvelous relief, as well as rendering incalculable service and pleasure to God, which is what you say you came here for in the first place.' (277)"
If you'll forgive the lack of exegesis here, suffice it to say that the two characters spend much of their time thereafter in bed--practicing "the art of incarcerating that accursed fiend" (277) until Alibech becomes so fond of punishing the devil that the hermit has to send her away to get any rest.
Laugh out loud as I did throughout this latest batch of stories (I have to say that the last one had me in tears!), I should note that translator G.H. McWilliam actually brings up a serious point about The Decameron's morally casual prose in a footnote. Referring to Boccaccio's use of "the resurrection of the flesh" as a euphemism for an erection (277), McWilliam notes that this "profane sexual metaphor," first used by Apuleius in The Golden Ass, led to a situation in which English translators of The Decameron either "omitted this story altogether or resorted at this point to either the original Italian or one of the French versions" until the end of the 19th century. "Pornography, it seemed, was permissible provided it appeared in a language that only a minority of one's readers could understand" (825). Say what you will about these translators' ethics, I'd love to know what the typical medieval readers must have thought of Boccaccio's combination of religious and sexual imagery. Were there "typical" readers, in fact? And would they have laughed like me at the union or would they have given it the Florentine equivalent of an NC-17 rating? For one possible answer, I'll soon be turning to Guido Almansi, whose 1975 The Writer as Liar: Narrative Technique in the "Decameron" includes a promising chapter on the novel's "erotic episodes." And for a Spanish parallel, we can always turn to Juan Ruiz' Libro de Buen Amor [Book of Good Love] (c. 1343), a long narrative poem from Castile that sports some religious verses comparing "adoring the cross" to oral sex (LBA 121c). Ok, so maybe you're not ready for that kind of medieval verbal wordplay just yet--but extra points if you are!