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Boccaccio's The Decameron: Day 4, Story 1 (Summary)

Summary of Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron Day 4 Story 1

Fiammetta told the first story of the fourth day.

There once lived a man named Tancredi, who was the Prince of Salerno. He had a daughter by the name of Ghismunda, whom he loved so much that he didn't give her a husband until long after she had reached marriageable age. He gave her in marriage to the son of the Duke of Capua, but the marriage didn't last long due to the Duke's son dying. Ghismunda went back to living with her father. She knew that her father had no interest in finding another husband for her, so she decided to find herself a worthy lover.
Ghismunda observed the men of her father's court carefully, and finally settled on a valet of her father's by the name of Guiscardo. He was of humble birth, but what he lacked in status he made up for in virtues and noble bearing. She soon fell passionately in love with him. The valet soon picked up on her affections towards him and he began to feel those same feelings for her. Since their love had to be kept secret, she didn't dare tell anyone. She devised a plan to let Guiscardo know how they could be alone together. She wrote him a letter telling him where and how to meet her the following day, and then then she put it into the hollow of a reed. She then gave the reed to him in jest, saying "make a bellows of this tonight for your serving girl to keep the fire burning," and then walked away (295). That night he opened up the reed and found the letter, and was very happy.

"Near the Prince's palace was a cave hollowed out of a hill a long time before, and it was lit by a small opening in the side of the hill; the cave had been abandoned for so long that the opening was almost covered over by brambles and weeds. One could reach this cave by a secret stairway blocked by a strong door which led from one of the rooms on the ground floor of the palace which the young lady occupied" (295). There were few people left who remembered that this passage existed.
Guiscardo prepared a rope that had many knots and loops in it so that he could climb up and down it. He then wrapped himself in a leather skin, so that the brambles didn't cut him. That night he went down into the cave and waited for the lady to come get him. The following day, Ghismunda pretended to be tired, and sent away all of ladies-in-waiting. Once she was alone, she opened the stairway door and descended into the cave. They were both so happy to see each other. Finally, they ascended the stairs to the lady's bed chamber and there they enjoyed each other fully. They were together most of the day, and before he left they made arrangements to keep seeing each other secretly. Guiscardo then went back into the cave, and Ghismunda went to join her attendants. When it was dark, Guiscardo climbed back up the rope and went home.

They spent many days together like that first day, but like all good things; it wasn't meant to last forever, especially when Fortune becomes jealous of your happiness. Tancredi would sometimes visit his daughter's room to spend a little time with her. One day, he entered her bedroom and sat down on a stool at the foot of her bed, he then leaned back to rest his head on her bed, and pulled the bed curtain around himself to wait for her to return from her garden. He ended up falling asleep. Ghismunda had sent for Guiscardo that day, so she left her ladies-in-waiting in the garden and went to her room. She didn't notice her father in the room, because he was concealed by the bed curtain. She went over to the cave door and let her lover in and they immediately went to bed. Her father happened to awaken while they were enjoying themselves, but he did not say anything. When the couple was done with their amorous activities for the day Guiscardo went back into the cave and Ghismunda went back to her friends. Tancredi, despite being an old man, climbed through a window and down to the garden unseen and went back to his room completely grief-stricken.
When night came Guiscardo climbed back up his rope only to find two of Tancredi's guards were waiting for him. They took him to Tancredi, who was in tears. Guiscardo only said in his defense that "love is more powerful than either you or I" (297). He was then taken to a nearby by room and guarded secretly while Tancredi decided what to do with him.

The next day, Tancredi went to Ghismunda's room and had her summoned to him. When she arrived he began to tearfully lecture her on how improper of her it was to take a lover, especially one of such a low birth. He told her that he had Guiscardo imprisoned and that his fate was sealed, but that he still didn't know what to do with her. On the one hand, he loved her so much that he wanted to just forgive her, but on the other hand, his anger made him want to punish her. Ghismunda wanted to cry, but her pride kept her stoic. She told her father that she would not waste her time by begging for forgiveness, because she had done nothing wrong; it was his fault that she turned to Guiscardo, because he had failed as a father to provide her with another husband. Furthermore, she had not chosen Guiscardo at random; instead she gave careful thought to finding a lover. Guiscardo is of more noble character than any of the nobles are. "Poverty does not diminish anyone's nobility, it only diminishes his wealth!" (300). She then told him that he should do to her what he had done or had planned to do to Guiscardo, or she would do it for him.

Tancredi didn't believe Ghismunda's threat, so that night he had the guards strangle Guiscardo and then cut out his heart. The next day, Tancredi sent for a gold goblet; he put Guiscardo's heart in the goblet and gave it to one of his most trusted servants to give to Ghismunda. When the servant gave the goblet to Ghismunda he recited the words he had been instructed to say to her: "your father sends you this to console you for the loss of that which you loved the most, just as you have consoled him for the loss of what he loved the most" (301). She took the goblet and said that there was no better burial place for such a worthy heart than in a gold tomb. She told the servant to thank her father for her. She kissed Guiscardo's heart countless times, and wept into the goblet. She took out the phial of poison that she had prepared the previous day after her father had left her, and poured it into the goblet and then drank it all down. She lay down on her bed and arranged herself as modestly as possible. She put Guiscardo's heart against her own and waited for death. Those around her didn't understand what was going on, so they sent for Tancredi, who came immediately. She asked Tancredi to bury her publicly next to Guiscardo anywhere he chose, and then she died. Tancredi repented his cruelty, and had them buried honorably together in one tomb.


Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. New York: Signet Classics, 1982.

Published on March 20, 2016 by Sophia Brookshire © All Rights Reserved

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