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Boccaccio's Decameron

This splendid medieval festival of storytelling is a collection of exactly one hundred novellas, ostensibly recounted by a group of lords and ladies who fled the city because of the plague and who passed the time by telling stories to each other. The following example of a successful springboard story is the Seventh Story of the First Day:

It is a matter of very common knowledge throughout the greater part of the world that Can Grande della Scala, upon whom Fortune smiled in so many of his deeds was one of the most outstanding and magnificent princes that Italy has known since the Emperor Frederick the Second.

He once arranged to hold a splendid and marvelous festival at Verona to which many people would be coming from all over the place, in particular court-entertainers of various kinds. But for reasons of his own, he suddenly changed his mind about it, offered token presents to those who had come, and sent them all packing. The only person to receive neither present nor other dispensation was a certain Bergamino, a conversationalist of quite extraordinary wit and brilliance, who lingered on in the hope that it would eventually turn out to his advantage. But Can Grande had the fixed idea that whatever he gave to this man would be more surely wasted than if he had thrown it into the fire. He did not, however, say anything personally to Bergamino about this, nor did he have him told by others.

Some few days being passed over, and Bergamino perceiving, that he was neither called, nor any account made of, notwithstanding many manly good parts in him; observing beside, that he found a shrewd consumption in his purse, his Inn, horses, and servants, being chargeable to him, he began to grow extremely melancholy, and yet he attended in expectation day by day, as thinking it far unfitting for him, to depart before he was bidden farewell.

Having brought with him there three goodly rich garments, which had been given him by sundry Lords, to improve his appearance at this great meeting; the importunate Host being greedy of payment, first he delivered him one of them, and yet not half the score being wiped off, the second must follow; and beside, except he meant to leave his lodging, he must live upon the third so long as it would last, till he saw what end his hopes would sort too. It happened, during the time of living thus upon his last refuge, that he met with Master Can one day at dinner, where he presented himself before him, with a discontented countenance: which Master Can well observing, more to distaste him, then take delight in any thing that could come from him, he said. Bergamino, how do you fare? Thou art very melancholy, I pray tell us why? Bergamino suddenly, without any premeditation, yet seeming as if he had long considered thereon, reported this Tale.

Sir, I have heard of a certain man, named Primasso, one skillfully learned in the Grammar, and (beyond all other) a very witty and ready versifier: in regard whereof, he was so much admired, and far renowned, that such as never saw him, but only heard of him, could easily say, this is Primasso. It came to pass, that being once at Paris, in poor estate, as commonly he could light on no better fortune (because virtue is poorly rewarded, by such as have the greatest possessions) he heard much fame of the Abbot of Clugni, a man reputed (next to the Pope) to be the richest Prelate of the Church. Of him he heard wonderful and magnificent matters, that he always kept an open and hospitable Court, and never made refusal of any (from whence soever he came or went) but they did ate and drink freely there; provided, that they came when the Abbot was set at the Table. Primasso hearing this, and being an earnest desirer to see magnificent and virtuous men, he resolved to go see this rare bounty of the Abbot, demanding how far he dwelt from Paris? Being answered, about some three Leagues thence. Primasso made account, that if he went on betimes in the morning, he should easily reach thither before therefore dinner.

Being instructed in the way, and not finding any to walk along with him; fearing, if he went without some furnishment, and should stay long there for his dinner, he might (perhaps) complain of hunger: he therefore carried three loaves of bread with him, knowing that he could meet with water every where, albeit he used to drink but little. Having aptly conveyed his bread about him, he went on his journey, and arrived at the Lord Abbots Court, an indifferent while before dinner time: wherefore entering into the great Hall, and so from place to place, beholding the great multitude of Tables, bountiful preparation in the Kitchen, and what admirable provision there was for dinner, he said to himself; Truly this man is more magnificent then Fame has made him, because she speaks too sparingly of him.

While thus he went about, considering on all these things very respectively, he saw the Master of the Abbots Household (because then it was the hour of dinner) command water to be brought for washing hands, so every one sitting down at the table, it fell to the lot of Primasso, to sit directly against the door, whereat the Abbot must enter into the Hall. The custom in this Court was such, that no manner of Food should be served to any of the Table, until such time as the Lord Abbot was himself set: whereupon, every thing being fit and ready, the Master of the Household went to tell his Lord, that nothing now wanted but his only presence.

The Abbot coming from his Chamber to enter the Hall, looking about him, as he was wont to doe; the first man he saw was Primasso, who being but in homely habitue, and he having not seen him before to his remembrance, a present bad conceit possessed his brain, that he never saw an unworthy person, saying within himself: See how I give my goods away to be devoured. So returning back to his Chamber again; commanded the door to be made fast, demanding of every man near about him, if they knew the base Knave that satebefore his entrance into the Hall, and all his servants answered no. Primasso being extremely hungry, with travailing on foot so far, and never used to fast so long; expecting still when meat would be served in, and that the Abbot came not at all: drew out one of his loaves which he brought with him, and very heartily fell to feeding.

My Lord Abbot, after he had stayed within an indifferent while, sent forth one of his men, to see if the poor fellow was gone, or no. The servant told him, that he stayed there, and fed upon dry bread, which it seemed he had brought thither with him. Let him feed on his one (replayed the Abbot) for he shall taste of none of mine this day. Gladly would the Abbot, that Primasso should have gone thence of himself, and yet held it scarcely honest in his Lordship, to dismiss him by his one command. Primasso having eaten one of his Loaves, and yet the Abbot was not come; began to feed upon the second: the Abbot still sending to expect his absence, and answered as he was before. At length, the Abbot not coming, and Primasso having eaten up his second loaf, hunger compiled him to begin with the third.

When these news were carried to the Abbot, suddenly he broke forth. What new kind of needy trice has my brain begot this day? Why do I grow disdainful against any man whatsoever? I have long time allowed my meat to be eaten by all commerce that did please to visit me, without exception against any person, Gentleman, Yeoman, poor or rich, Merchant or Minstrel, honest man or knave, never refraining my presence in the Hall, by basely contemning one poor man. Believe me, covetousness of one mans meat, does ill agree with my estate and calling. What though he appears a wretched fellow to me? He may be of greater merit then I can imagine, and deserve more honor then I am able to give him.

Having thus discoursed with himself, he would needs understand of whence, and what he was, and finding him to be Primasso, come only to see the magnificence which he had reported of him, knowing also (by the general fame noised every where of him) that he was reputed to be a learned, honest, and ingenious man: he grew greatly ashamed of his one folly, and being desirous to make him an amends, strove many ways how to do him honor. When dinner was ended, the Abbot bestowed honorable garments on him, such as seemed his degree and merit, and putting good store of money in his purse, as also giving him a good horse to ride on, left it at his own free election, whether he would stay there still with him, or depart at his pleasure.

Wherewith Primasso being highly contented, yielding him the heartiest thanks he could devise to do, returned to Paris on horse-back, albeit he came poorly thither on foot.

Master Can de la Scala, who was a man of good understanding, perceived immediately (without any further interpretation) what Bergamino meant by this moral, and smiling on him, aside: Bergamino, thou has honestly expressed thy virtue and necessities, and justly reproved mine avarice, niggardliness, and base folly. And trust me Bergamino, I never felt such a fit of covetousness come upon me, as this which I have dishonestly declared to thee: and which I will now banish from me, with the same correction as thou has taught em. So, having paid the Host all his charges, redeeming also his robes or garments, mounting him on a good Gelding, and putting plenty of Crowns in his purse, he referred it to his one choice to depart, or dwell there still with him.

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