Madonna Filippa (VI.7): Feminist Mouthpiece or Misogynistic Tool?

On the sixth day of the Decameron, reigning queen Elissa declares that discussion shall turn "upon those who, on being provoked by some verbal pleasantry, have returned like for like, or who, by a prompt retort or shrewd maneuver, have avoided danger, discomfiture or ridicule." When Filostrato is called upon to recount the seventh story of the day, he proceeds to embarrass, then delight, the ladies of the group with the story of Madonna Filippa, a woman of exceptionally independent spirit and strong presence of mind. Heroically, she puts her own instincts of self-preservation aside to make a stand against injustice, and in doing so she succeeds in improving the legal status of all women in her society.

The story contains many elements which allow for its interpretation as a feminist treatise. Madonna Filippa is, after all, strong-willed and independent, hesitant neither to choose a lover nor to reveal her choice publicly. She has a voice that is both articulate and witty and she is able to use it skillfully not only to sway public opinion but also to effect societal reform. In a relative sense, her views on female sexuality can be considered "liberal," since she both affirms and justifies a woman's right to seek fulfillment of her sexual needs. Moreover, she is a triumphant victor, winning her case and the respect of the townsfolk at the expense of her cuckolded husband. But despite these apparently feminist aspects, this type of strict reading of the text must be considered suspect when viewed in the greater context of the narrative frame. The story is, after all, told by Filostrato, the narrator "frustrated by love," who, during his own reign (Day IV), imposed the theme of "those whose love ended unhappily." As the reader of the Decameron has thus far not been presented with any indication of events or circumstances that may have motivated Filostrato to change his way of thinking, it is inconsistent to believe that he has suddenly "jumped ship" and become a proponent of feminism. More likely, Filostrato's story is yet another veiled attack against the female gender, and within his praise of Madonna Filippa there lurks a tacit rebuke.

Within the story there is only one clear loser - Madonna Filippa's husband, Rinaldo, who "after making such a fool of himself (in court) ... departed from the scene feeling quite mortified." Rinaldo endures the double embarrassment of having his cuckoldry exposed and being forced to submit to a public vindication of his wife's actions in light of his perceived sexual inadequacies. He is effectively emasculated and it is perhaps upon this humiliating defeat that the message of Filostrato, a man "frustrated in love," can be best understood. From Rinaldo's point of view, Madonna Filippa is far more dangerous than valorous. Her unchecked sexual appetite transgresses marital boundaries and subverts male/female power relations. The fault, however, rests not with Madonna Filippa but with Rinaldo for having failed to exercise proper control over the woman who, by law and by social convention, belongs to him. It is most telling that Filostrato, in assuming the voice of Madonna Filippa, chooses the word "surplus" to describe her excessive sexual desire. The use of this distinctly economic term in the context of the Decameron, replete as it is with the values of the burgeoning mercantile class, strongly suggests that female sexuality is here being viewed as a commodity. Rinaldo, the businessman, has either ineptly or insufficiently tended to his investment, leaving it vulnerable to a competitor's hostile takeover. And Filostrato, the narrator, far from defending women, is denouncing their subversive nature and calling upon his fellows to be better businessmen by exercising greater control over their affairs.

It is interesting to note that the law against which Madonna Filippa was defending herself is in the end modified such that only women who "took payment" for being unfaithful to their husbands would be "burned alive." The allusion to prostitution indicates that the husband/wife relationship is based upon possession and control which social norms clearly defined as resting in the hands of the husband. The wife's body, through the marriage contract, belonged to her husband and thus it was a highly subversive act for her to market it for independent gain.

Madonna Filippa may appear "in triumph" at the end of the story, but the lady narrators react by being "scarcely able to contain their laughter." Since laughter is most often directed at people or situations which one perceives as separate and apart from oneself, perhaps Madonna Filippa's victory is here being framed as an amusing anomaly, the transgressive implications of which are not to be taken seriously.

(C. Si.)

Other Pages in Literature: Narratology and Structural Exegesis