Fortune Is a Pirate: The Second Day

June 1, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

The second day’s tales are devoted to the theme of “those who after suffering a series of misfortunes are brought to a state of unexpected happiness.”  Fortune leads the ten’s protagonists to the bottom of her wheel, and back up again.  What forms does Fortune take, in these stories?  Let’s see, a la those creepy “Love Is” comics:

Fortune is a fickle mob.

Fortune is a jolly nobleman.

Fortune is a band of robbers.

Fortune is an absent lover.

Fortune is unexpected war.

Fortune is a disguised princess.

Fortune is a pirate (repeatedly).

Fortune is a storm at sea (also repeatedly).

Fortune is a counterfeit sister.

Fortune is a greedy priest.

Fortune is beauty.

Most of all, fortune is lust.  An interesting feature of this day is that Boccaccio seems to insist on the prerogatives of the body.  Chastity is depicted as a rarity, unrealistic (and perhaps undesirable) for the vast majority of both sexes.  Panfilo’s story, the seventh, is interesting in the lengths to which it goes: the daughter of the Sultan of Babylon is caught in a sea-storm on her way to her promised husband.  She is incredibly beautiful, and claimed as a wife or mistress by nine men in four years, all attracted to her beauty, and frequently killing off her previous lover to claim her.  With the help of an advisor, she’s returned to her father.  Of course, the sultan demands to know how she’s survived; prepared by the advisor, she concocts a story of how she’s protected her virginity for four years.  The joke is that he buys it.

In the ninth story, Filomena (queen of the day) tells of a merchant, Bernabo, who is so confident that his wife remains true to him while he’s away on business that he bets a huge amount of money that a more cynical merchant cannot seduce her in six months.  He doesn’t (he sneaks into her room in a chest to steal proof instead), but Bernabo believes that he has, and orders his wife killed for her betrayal.  Later, having disguised herself as a man and become a powerful advisor to a sultan, she gets the liar to admit the true story and is restored to her husband.

All of this sounds very traditional, but it is instantly rebuked by Dioneo.  (Dioneo, it’s become clear, is the Dionysus of the group.)  He changes his planned story to illustrate “the stupidity of Bernabo” in thinking that wives remain chaste while their husbands are away.  As he says in his introduction: “I shall show the even greater foolishness of those who, overestimating their natural powers, resort to specious reasoning to persuade themselves that they can do the impossible, and who attempt to mould other people in their own image, thus flying in the face of nature.”  He tells of a woman who, married to an old, impotent man, is kidnapped by a horny pirate and discovers the joys of getting it on every day.  It’s a funny story, full of puns and witty devices.

Another note: for the time, Boccaccio seems remarkably sympathetic to women.  The stories his people tell can contradict or support this thesis to varying degrees, but it especially shows up in his framing narrative: he seems to have genuine affection for his women as well as his men, to a degree I did not sense in, say, Dante.  After all, even though Dioneo receives his privilege, he receives it from a woman; and the first three rulers are women.  He also has already shown a remarkably progressive attitude toward Jews and Muslims for the time, although I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop on that.

Things Get Weird Past Cathay

April 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Mandeville’s been in cartographic/touristic/historian mode for a while, but he really lets it all hang out near the end of the book. After he’s described the Mongol lands and China, he just starts repeating whatever he’s heard (or embellishing whatever he’s read, perhaps). A couple of choice examples from chapter 29:

Maybe the most famous cock-and-bull story here is the one which the editor speculates might be hearsay about Korea: “There there grows a kind of fruit as big as gourds, and when it is ripe men open it and find inside an animal of flesh and blood and bone, like a little lamb without wool. And the people of that land eat the animal, and the fruit too.” Even weirder, Mandeville gets all world-weary and says it’s no big deal, since in England they have trees whose fruits bear geese if they fall on water. Uh, yeah, sure.

An interesting apocalyptic story, too: according to Mandeville the Gog and Magog references in Revelation are to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, which are trapped in a mountainous land. When the Antichrist appears, a fox will dig a hole into this land from just outside the gates that were built by Alexander the Great to hold these Jews in, and since they don’t have foxes there they’ll be so intrigued that they will chase him and dig after him and thereby escape their prison. It’s got a very old, very Freudian, very ugly-early-medieval-folklore feel, this story.

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