Boccaccio, The Decameron    Day 5, Story #8

Story of Nastagio degli Onesti: Summary

Nastagio degli Onesti, loving a damsel of the Traversari family, is unable to gain her love despitelavish expenditure. At the suggestionof his kinsfolk he goes to Chiassi, where he sees a knight hunt a damsel and slay her and cause her to be devoured by two dogs. He then asks his kinsfolk and the lady that he loves to breakfast. During the meal the same damsel is torn in pieces before the eyes of the lady, who, fearing a like fate, takes Nastagio as her husband.

Lauretta was no sooner silent than thus at the queen's behest began Filomena [note the female narrator]

Sweet ladies, as in us pity is always praised, even so Divine justice does not allow our cruelty to escape severe punishment. To assist you utterly to banish that passion [cruelty] from your souls, I am minded to tell you a story no less touching than delightful.

In Ravenna, that most ancient city of Romagna, there dwelt in times past many noblemen and gentlemen, among whom was a young man, Nastagio degli Onesti by name, who by the death of his father and one of his uncles inherited immense wealth. Being without a wife, Nastagio, as is the way with young men, became enamoured of a daughter of Messer Paolo Traversaro, a damsel of much higher birth than his, whose love he hoped to win by gifts and such modes of courting. But allthough they were excellent and fair and commendable, not only were these actions to no avail, but seemed rather to have the contrary effect. So harsh and ruthless and unrelenting did the beloved damsel show herself towards him; whether it was her uncommon beauty or her noble lineage that puffed her up, she was so haughty and disdainful that she had no pleasure either in him or in anything that pleased him.  

Nastagio found her disdain a hard burden to bear, and many a time, moaning, he longed to make away with himself. However he refrained from this, and many a time resolved to give her up altogether, or, if so he might, to hold her in contempt, as she did him:But this effort was all in vain, for it seemed as if, the more his hope dwindled, the greater grew his love. And, as thus he continued, loving and spending inordinately, certain of his kinsfolk and friends, being apprehensive about his wasting both himself and his fortune, counselled and beseeched him to leave Ravenna, and go spend some time elsewhere, that so he might at once cool his flame and reduce his expenses.For a long while Nastagio answered their admonitions with banter; but as they continued to urge him to leave, he grew weary of saying no so often, and promised obedience. Whereupon he equipped himself as if for a journey to France or Spain, or other distant parts, got on horseback and left Ravenna, accompanied by not a few of his friends. 

Having come to a place called Chiassi, about three miles from Ravenna, he halted,  sent for tents and pavilions, and told his companions that there he meant to stay, but  they could go back to Ravenna. So Nastagio pitched his camp, and there began to live after as fine and lordly a fashion as did ever any man, asking various of his friends from time to time to breakfast or sup with him, as was his habit. Now around the beginning of May, the season being very fine, he fell to brooding on the cruelty of his mistress, and, that his meditations might be the less disturbed, he told all his servants to leave him, and sauntered slowly, wrapt in thought, as far as the pinewood.

He had walked for a good half-mile, when, the fifth hour of the day being well-nigh past, yet he thought neither of food nor of anything else, when he heard a woman wailing exceedingly and uttering most piercing shrieks.  The train of his sweet melancholy being broken, he raised his head to see what was happening, and suprised to find himself in the pinewood. Moreover, he saw before him running through a grove, close set with underwood and brambles, towards the place where he was, a damsel most comely, stark naked, her hair dishevelled, and her flesh all torn by the briers and brambles, who wept and cried piteously for mercy. At her flanks he saw two mastiffs, exceeding great and fierce, that ran hard upon her track, and not seldom came up with her and bit her cruelly. In the rear he saw, riding a black horse, a knight badly dressed, and very wrathful of face, carrying a rapier in his hand, and with spiteful, blood-curdling words threatening her with death.

He was at once amazed and appalled, and then filled with compassion for the hapless lady, and so was bred a desire to deliver her, if so he might, from such anguish and peril of death. As he was unarmed, he ran and took instead of a cudgel a branch of a tree, with which he prepared to encounter the dogs and the knight. The knight observed this, and called to him before he was come to close quarters, saying: "Hold off, Nastagio, leave the dogs and me alone to deal with this vile woman as she has deserved." And, even as he spoke, the dogs gripped the damsel so hard on either flank that they stopped her flight, and the knight, being come up, dismounted. Nastagio approached him , saying: "I know not who you are, who seem to know me so well, but thus much I tell you. It is a gross outrage for an armed knight to go about to kill a naked woman, and set his dogs upon her as if she were a wild beast. Rest assured that I shall do all I can to protect her." "Nastagio," replied the knight, "You are of the same city as was I, and were still a little lad when I, Messer Guido degli Anastagi by name, being far more enamoured of this damsel than you are now of her of the Traversari, was by her haughtiness and cruelty brought to so woeful a pass that one day in a fit of despair I slew myself with this rapier which you see in my hand; for which cause I am condemned to the eternal pains.

Nor was it long after my death that she, who exulted over this beyond measure, also died, and for that she repented her not of her cruelty and the joy she had of my sufferings, for which she was likewise condemned to the pains of hell. Nor had she sooner made her descent, than for her pain and mine it was ordained, that she should flee before me, and that I, who so loved her, should pursue her, not as my beloved lady, but as my mortal enemy, and so, as often as I come up with her, I slay her with this same rapier with which I slew myself, and having ripped her up by the back, I take out that hard and cold heart, to which neither love nor pity had ever access, and therewith her other inward parts, as thou shalt forthwith see, and cast them to these dogs to eat. And in no long time, as the just and mighty God decrees, she rises even as if she had not died, and recommences her sad flight, I and the dogs pursuing her. And it so happens that every Friday about this hour I here come up with her, and slaughter her as you shall see; but think not that we rest on other days; for there are other places in which I overtake her, places in which she used, or devised how she might use, me cruelly. In this manner, changed as you can see from her lover into her foe, I am to pursue her for years as many as the months during which she showed herself harsh to me. Therefore leave me to execute the decree of the Divine justice, and presume not to oppose that which you may not be able to withstand."

Frightened by the knight's words, so much that there was scarce a hair on his head but stood on end, Nastagio shrank back, still gazing on the hapless damsel, and waited all a tremble to see what the knight would do. Nor had he long to wait; for the knight, as soon as he had done speaking, sprang, rapier in hand, like a mad dog upon the damsel, who, kneeling, while the two mastiffs gripped her tightly, cried him mercy; but the knight, thrusting with all his force, struck her between the breasts, and ran her clean through the body. Thus stricken, the damsel fell forthwith prone on the ground sobbing and shrieking. Then the knight drew forth a knife, and having opened her in the back, took out the heart and all the surrounding parts, and threw them to the two mastiffs, who, being famished, forthwith devoured them. And in no long time the damsel, as if none of this had happened, started to her feet, and took to flight towards the sea, pursued and bitten, by the dogs, while the knight, having gotten him to horse again, followed them as before, rapier in hand; and so fast sped they that they were quickly lost to Nastagio's sight.

Long time he stood musing on what he had seen, divided between pity and terror, and then it occurred to him that, as this passed every Friday, it might be somewhat useful him. So, having marked the place, he rejoined his servants, and in due time thereafter sent for some of his kinsfolk and friends, and said to them: "'It is now a long while that you have urged me to give up loving this lady that is no friend to me, and make an end of my extravagant way of living; and I am now ready so to do, provided you procure me one favour. That is, that next Friday Messer Paolo Traversaro, and his wife and daughter, and all the ladies, their kinswomen, and as many other ladies as you may be pleased to bid, come here to breakfast with me: when you will see for yourselves the reason why I so desire." A small matter this seemed to them; and so, on their return to Ravenna, they lost no time in conveying Nastagio's message to his intended guests: and, albeit she was hardly persuaded, yet in the end the damsel that Nastagio loved came with the rest.

Nastagio caused a lordly breakfast to be prepared, and had the tables set under the pines about the place where he had witnessed the slaughter of the cruel lady; and in ranging the ladies and gentlemen at table he so ordered it, that the damsel whom he loved was placed opposite the spot where it should be enacted. The last course was just served, when the despairing cries of the hunted damsel became audible to all, to their no small amazement. Each one was asking, and none knowing, what it might mean, and they were all intent to see what was happening, and perceived the suffering damsel, and the knight and the dogs, who were suddenly in their midst. They called out to dogs and knight, and not a few advanced to help the damsel. But the words of the knight, which were such as he had used to Nastagio, caused them to fall back, terror-stricken and lost in amazement. And when the knight proceeded to do as he had done before, all the ladies that were there, many of whom were kin to the suffering damsel and to the knight, and called to mind his love and death, wept as bitterly as if were their own case.

When it was all over, and the lady and the knight had disappeared, the strange scene set those that witnessed it pondering many and diverse matter. But among them all none was so appalled as the cruel damsel that Nastagio loved, who, having clearly seen and heard all that had passed, and being aware that it touched her more nearly than any other by reason of the harshness that she had ever shown to Nastagio, seemed already to be fleeing from her angered lover, and to have the mastiffs on her flanks. And so great was her terror that, lest a like fate should befall her, she converted her aversion into affection, and as soon as occasion served, which was that very night, sent a trusty chambermaid privately to Nastagio with a request that he would be pleased to come to her, for that she was ready in all respects to pleasure him to the full. Nastagio made answer that he was greatly flattered, but that he was minded with her consent to have his pleasure of her in an honourable way, to wit, by marrying her. The damsel, who knew that none but herself was to blame that she was not already Nastagio's wife, made answer that she consented. Wherefore by her own mouth she acquainted her father and mother that she agreed to marry Nastagio; and, they heartily approving her choice, Nastagio wedded her on the ensuing Sunday, and lived happily with her many a year. Nor was it in her instance alone that this terror was productive of good. On the contrary, it so wrought among the ladies of Ravenna that they all became, and have ever since been, much more compliant with men's desires than they had been before.