There are relatively few people presented as magicians in the Decameron compared with the number who use magical trickery or encounter the supernatural. These profiles will attempt to shed light on a few of them.
These magicians practice magic as their profession, sometimes for hire, and sometimes in the service of the nobility. Saladin, for instance, "enjoined one of his magicians, with whose skill he was already well acquainted, to seek out a way of transporting Messer Torello on a bed to Pavia, in the space of a single night." These magicians perform seemingly impossible wonders and create astounding illusions, such as bringing the dead to life. The magician of X.5 likewise makes a blooming May garden appear for Madonna Dianora in the middle of January.
The scholar Rinieri, having attended the university in Paris, could have been introduced to the vast store of magical knowledge preserved in the clerical underworld in the Middle Ages. This is the assumption of Elena and her maid when they turn to him for assistance in regaining Elena's departed lover by magical means.
Her assumption was not too far off the mark in that students in medieval universities would be ordained to lower orders as a matter of course. Many of these minor clerical orders taught exorcism techniques to combat the evil works of necromancers (echoed in the feats performed by Rinieri) and students would certainly have known much about them. Necromancers were able to affect other people's minds and wills. Rinieri certainly does this in teaching Elena a lesson, although he does not work love magic for her. They could also "lead to discomfort that is physical as well as mental." The belief in their power to rob someone of his ability to sleep, eat or drink will was widespread. Like the anonymous magicians, necromancers could also create illusions and discern secret things, whether past, present or future.
In VIII.9, Bruno describes Michael Scot as the necromancer who trained the two founders of his magical society. In actuality, he was a Scottish philosopher who lived from 1175 to 1234 and who later in life was supported both by popes and emperors. He held degrees from Oxford and Paris and devoted his career mainly to the natural sciences. In Toledo he translated from Arabic many works of natural history and mathematics, including those of Aristotle. While at the court of Frederick II of Sicily, he turned his attention toward astrology. His books on alchemy, astrology, palmistry and physiognomy contributed to his legendary reputation as a master of the occult sciences. Dante (Inferno 20) places him with the sorcerers in the lower depths of hell, saying he "truly knew every trick of the magical arts." While this may be somewhat of an exaggeration, he did in fact make several accurate prophecies.
Although not a magician, per se, she is associated with the fantastic and her mystic visions have become the subject of recent scholarship. She was born in Germany in 1210 and lived for some forty years in a Beguine of Magdeburg. Frances Beer describes the Beguines as "an idealistic association of religious women, living communally" who were sometimes "adopted by a neighboring religious order." The Dominicans, who controlled the church of Santa Maria Novella, put stock in her visions. Her major work, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, describes these ecstatic visions. She reputedly had left her body and beheld God, or even realized a union with Him. Her revelations have a lyric tone and convey intense emotions about God, communion, nature, the Virgin, saints, and Christ's suffering, among other themes.
Her strain of mysticism can be traced to Dionysius the Areopagite whose De mystica theologia depicts the mystical union of the soul with God as an irrational process. Despite her mystical tendencies, she always remained wary of the devil's attempts to trick humans and seduce their souls. The "laud of Lady Matilda," mentioned in VII.1, may have run something like this: Great is the overflow of Divine Love which / pours forth, so that our little vessel is filled to the brim and overflows / Lord! Thou art full, and fillest us also with Thy gifts / Even though we are as a small vessel, yet Thou hast filled it / We must pour out what we have received with holy desire on sinners / Again the little vessel is filled. Again we pour in out on the needs of the poor souls who suffer in Purgatory (The Flowing Light, 7.55).
Although Boccaccio himself would become devout and spiritual later in life, when writing the Decameron, he saw Matilde's work as one of the many inspired texts capable of influencing a "simple sort of fellow" like Gianni.
(A.B.) Frances Beer. Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1992. 78-108.