Sex, Floods, and a Learned Gloss: Reading Dante's Commentators within the Decameron

Simone Marchesi (Princeton University)

Dante Notes / January 19, 2019

~ In memory of Pier Massimo Forni

On January 18, 2014, David Silvester, Ukip Councillor from Henley on Thames (UK), wrote an open letter to the Henley Standard, in which he circumstantially linked the «serious storms and floods» that had recently plagued the country to the decision of the British government to legalize gay marriage. In his commentary, he pointed to the Prime Minister David Cameron as the prime responsible for the nation’s distress under bad weather: «It is his fault that large swathes of the nation have been afflicted by storms and floods». The response from tabloids was immediate and powerful, understandably, and similar more recent statements from similarly inspired political commentators as Silvester have been met with rebuffs ranging from outrage to ridicule in the US and abroad.[1]

However far-fetched, the argument connecting sexual behavior and climate, both in its moderate version of climate stress and its most extreme current formula of climate change, resonates deeply with cultural (and perhaps anthropological) chords. Several studies have investigated the causal connections linking these two aspects of life on the planet. Quite understandably, in scientific research, the causal relation linking sexuality and climate change moves from the latter to the former. Climate change affects sexuality, and not vice versa.[2] As David Silvester’s concerned note suggests, however, alongside with a scientific discourse framing the interplay between sexual mores and climate patterns as one of effect and cause, there is another discourse, which appears to do the opposite.

This note is devoted to the medieval antecedents of the discourse linking the trope of ‘perverse’ sexuality and the flood, as it manifests itself in the dense constellation of texts formed by Dante’s Commedia, its surrounding glosses, and Boccaccio’s Decameron. I believe that the interconnection of the two co-numerary stories starring Calandrino in Days VIII and IX may be shown to rely precisely on a such constellation of ideas, articulated at the imaginary rather than (pseudo-)political level.

I. Flood and Sex: Calandrino in Decameron VIII.3 and IX.3

«There is a different body of evidence, intertextual evidence,
which it would be unwise to ignore». (Adventures in Speech, 123)

Just about fifteen years ago, in Chapter 4.4 of my Stratigrafie decameroniane bookI advanced the hypothesis that Filostrato and Elissa, narrators of the two interconnected stories in which Calandrino is first stoned by Bruno e Buffalmacco and then made to bear an imaginary child, were converging in the allusion to a common set of texts. The intertexts I proposed ranged from after-the-flood rebirth myth narrated in the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha throwing stones behind their backs to repopulate the world, to the Christian (biblical, Pauline, eventually patristic) discourse on time-bound erotic choices encapsulated in the verse from Ecclesiastes III.5: «Tempus spargendi lapides et tempus colligendi; Tempus amplexandi et tempus longe fieri ab amplexu» (There is a time to cast stones and a time to gather them; A time to embrace and a time to abstain from embraces).

The relation between Boccaccio’s childless couple of Calandrino and Tessa, I argued in that context, involved both the husband’s inappropriate symbolic behavior (he was gathering stones, loading himself with them, at a time in which, judging from the more sympathetic reaction elicited by his tormenters, a casting was to be considered more appropriate) and the wife’s carnal predilection for assuming a ‘dominant,’ woman-on-top position during intercourse. In an attempt to provide possible classical antecedents establishing the relatively smaller degree of fertility in the ‘unnatural’ position for which Calandrino blamed Tessa, I tentatively pointed to Lucretius (De rerum natura IV.1265-79) and Horace (the vulgate glosses to Epods 12.7-12). The traditional association of the so-called scortum position and potential infertility was admittedly thin, but it could be used to establish Tessa’s behavior as inappropriate qua pleasure-driven (rather than ‘utility,’ that is ‘fecundity’ based), in an argument that aimed at projecting such debate on the hermeneutic attitudes recommended alternatively by the two narrators.[3]

Though not completely satisfactory in the cultural (and textual) underpinnings it proposed, my argument sufficed to establish a link between the two Calandrino stories, making them differently but coherently involved in a reflection on the appropriate action to take in the sphere of generation (and world-repopulation) after a socially devastating, mass-mortality event. At the time of that essay and in the economy of that book, making this point seemed sufficient, but something remained, at least in my mind, inchoate about the argument I was advancing there. The distance between the reading community of those precise Decameron stories –utterly Florentine, contemporary, and comic– and the antecedents I had suggested –classical, canonically marginal, and quite difficult to access– was especially unsettling. Fifteen years later, following Pier Massimo Forni’s magisterial invitation to substantiate critical claims through philologically available and culturally pertinent texts, I would like to reopen the dossier and point to a precise strain in the tradition of commentaries on Dante’s Commedia as a textual space in which the cultural connection of flood and sexuality had been explicitly posited. This is a tradition that, both in terms of the audience addressed and the mental library presupposed in the Decameron, I now can say, possesses an appealing intermediary quality.

II. Tessa’s Indiscretion: A Discursive Context

«The story functions on two levels […]: a level for the access of general readers,
and a level for the ‘intendenti,’ the readers who can read beneath the surface» (p. 126).

Let us begin with the text of the Decameron novella. As Calandrino himself put it, the alleged pregnancy of which he had progressively become convinced was only his wife’s fault, and he did not hesitate to point to a specific sexual habit of hers. When Maestro Simone diagnosed him with this specific ailment, Calandrino exclaimed in desperation: «Tessa, questo m’hai fatto tu, che non vuogli star altro che di sopra!» (Decameron IX.3.21). Tessa’s reaction –she blushes and immediately leaves the room, offering no retorts– both confirms the honesty the narrator attributes her («assai onesta persona era» IX.3.22) and indirectly also the actuality of Calandrino’s indiscreet outburst. Notwithstanding the positive characterization Filostrato gives of Tessa and the certainly comic tone in which the episode is recounted, based as it is on the absurdity of the its central claim, the sexual indiscretion of which she is charged is no laughing matter –at least in the culture surrounding the Decameron.[4] Tessa’s favorite position is recorded, in fact, in connection with the sin of sodomy in several patristic and scholastic sources as well as a significant cross-section of coeval commentaries to Dante’s Inferno. It is this later corpus of texts that is of interest here, in particular for their treatment of sodomy as a complex sin, one involving familial as well as social structures.

What makes this set of texts particularly interesting as a gloss to Boccaccio’s story is not so much the potential echo of the complaints lodged by Dante’s character Iacopo Rusticucci, who accuses his wife for his placement in hell «la fiera moglie più ch’altro mi nuoce» (v. 45), which may be reverberating on Tessa in Filostrato’s story. Tessa is hardly a ‘fiera moglie’ herself. Rather, what is striking is the compact front formed by Dante’s commentators in establishing a causal relation between a ‘perverse’ sexual position as the one Calandrino accuses Tessa of favoring in this story and God’s punishment of humanity by way of the flood, one of the underlying themes of its co-numerary in Day VIII. The mention of women’s transgressive sexual behavior as one among the sins that caused the Flood is actually present, in formulations that repeat one another almost verbatim, both in a patristic source, the De causis diluvii of the Saint and Bishop Methodius, and in a series of glosses, both in Latin and the vernacular, that cite Methodius in the context of Inferno XVI.[5] Guido da Pisa appears to be the first to associate to male homosexual desire the abuse and ‘madness’ in which women have fallen when they ‘overstep’ (or, better, climb on top) their men, and both ‘perversions’ to the punishment of sodomy via the flood:

Istud enim peccatum [contra naturam], quod in utroque sexu invenitur, est abominabile et detestabile principaliter propter duo: Primo propter ipsius fetorem.  …. Secundo, est abominabile et detestabile istud vitium ipsius multiplici considerata vindicta. Multipliciter enim istud vitium legimus esse punitum. Et primo per diluvium, quia secundum quod ait Methodius mulieres in tantam vesaniam erant verse quod supergresse viris abutebantur; homines etiam exarserunt in alterutrum coeuntes.

 [This sin [against nature], which is found in both sexes, is abominable and detestable mainly for two reasons. First for its disgusting quality […] Secondly, this vice is abominable and detestable on account of the manifold vengeance it received. One finds this vice being punished in several ways in literature. The first was through the flood, since, according to what Methodius states, women had become so deranged that they abused their men, climbing on top of them. Men too burned with it, copulating with one another. (Guido da Pisa, ad Inferno XVI.70)]

As is to be expected in the highly repetitive commentary tradition, Guido is not alone in making this point. The Ottimo commento insists on the same constellation of notions and sources, deftly translating Guido (and Methodius) into the vernacular:

Circa la gravità di questo peccato [Sodomia] scrive che «si puote mostrare la sua grandezza per la vendetta che Dio fece di questo peccato. Methodio dice che entra le cagioni del diluvio fue una la vendetta di quessto peccato però che le femmine pervertite in furore male usavano li huomini. Et che li huomini s’accendeano in luxuria l’uno coll’altro.

[About the grave nature of this sin [Sodomy], he writes that ‘one may prove its greatness for the vengeance that God exacted of this sin. Methodius states that among the reason for the flood one was the revenge for this sin, since women, perverted by madness, abused their men. And that men were also burning with lust for one another. (Ottimo Commento ad Inferno XV.intro)]

The gloss returns, with some variations and a larger spectrum of sources, now ranging from the biblical (Leviticus 20, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 1.26) to the legal (the Decretum Gratiani II.32, Quaest. vii, cc. 11-15) in the second and third redaction of Pietro Alighieri’s commentary. Bridging the biblical and the legal, one finds again the voice of Methodius. I quote here the gloss according to Pietro’s second redaction:

Item etiam commictitur talis libido contra naturam cum femina nubit iniurium, ut dicit lex. Quod fit, dicit Glosa ibi, cum se supponit officio feminili. Quod valde displicet Deo et nature, adeo quod Methodius dicit quod talis libido fuit causa diluvii, scilicet dum mulieres superegresse viris abutebantur.

[One may act upon such kind of lust against nature, when a woman marries a man who is outside the law, as stated in the codes of law. And this happens, as the Gloss notes ad loc., when he subjects himself in the role of the woman. An action that is so displeasing to both God and nature, that Methodius states that this kind of lust was the cause of the flood, which is to say when women, climbing on top of them, were abusing men. (Pietro Alighieri, ad Inferno 16.Proemio)][6]

Two details are worth noting about the references all commentators make to Methodius’ authority. The first is their derivative quality. More than directly from Methodius, the material at stake here reached the early generation of Dante’s commentators through an intermediary. The best candidate is, to my knowledge, Pietro Mangiadore’s Historia Scholastica. In the Liber Genesis section of the Historia, Peter states: «Sexcentesimo vero anno mulieres in vesania verse supergresse viris abutebantur» (Caput XXXI De causa diluvii, as in Migne, PL 198, col. 1081), using specific language that we have observed ricocheting through Dante’s commentaries. The second element of note is the limited lifespan of the gloss. Pietro appears to be the last among Dante’s exegetes to avail himself of Methodius in glossing the sections in Inferno devoted to violence against nature. Indeed, his commentary is the last one in the Dartmouth Dante Project corpus that uses Methodius at all. While the direct or indirect influence of this particular source may have dissipated in a short while, and Boccaccio himself in his Esposizioni to Inferno XVI does not travel the interpretive route of his early antecedents, the close chronological range in which the gloss appears to have been fashionable is notably the same in which the Decameron was being composed and set into circulation.


Now, knowing this, what do we know? Having explored the possible resonances in Decameron IX.3 of a discourse that connected sexuality (in particular female and conjugal sexuality) with specific positional ‘perversions’ (classed under the wide but not unspecific rubric of sodomy) and both with a tradition (patristic as well as scholastic) that insisted on the biblical flood as a punishment of precisely such sexual perversion, we are in a position to see a further element that configures Filostrato’s novella about the pregnant Calandrino as a response to Elissa’s novella about his stoning. We are also, I believe, in a better position to see next to the mosaic of sources which Branca surveys for the doctor’s tendentious diagnosis (sources «mitiche e culturali» as well as «nella letteratura classica e romanza») a similarly complex design of intertexts for the patient’s imaginative etiology of his condition and with it a perhaps subtle but no-less productive interpretive path.[7]

[1] See, for the UK narrative: and . For US equivalents, see also, for instance: or . While not limited to the Christian camp (instances of similar finger-pointing about natural disasters from Jewish and Muslim leaders have made their way into the news as well), the deep resonance of Jonathan Edwards’ theology throughout this discourse would be a valuable study, which extends beyond the scope of this essay.

[2] A useful document can be read in the report Psychology and Global Climate Change of the American Psychological Association (, which appointed a task force to investigate the interface between psychology and global climate change. A different side of the question is investigated in the political and social spheres in Angela Oels’s article Rendering Climate Change Governable (, where significant attention is paid to the discursive framing of the link between shifts in the human environment and reproductive patterns.

[3] See Simone Marchesi, Stratigrafie decameroniane (Florence: Olschki, 2004), pp. 130-136.

[4] On Calandrino’s imaginative power, as both source of laughter and reflection for the narrators, see Giuseppe Mazzotta, The World at Play in Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 192-199.

[5] For a solid, theoretical treatment of the ethical ramifications associated to the patristic tenets defining ‘proper’ (natural) and ‘improper’ (unnatural) positions in coitus, see Karma Lochrie, Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), pp. 178-185. For scholastic sources commenting on the lower degree of fertility connected with the woman ‘mounting’ the man, see also John T. Noonan, Contraception: A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 238-246.

[6] All commentaries are cited according to the editions present on the Dartmouth Dante Project. Translations are mine.

[7] See Vittore Branca’s introductory note to Decameron IX.3 in Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, a cura di Vittore Branca (Turin: Einaudi,1992), p. 1046.