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  • Boccaccio Reading Old French:Decameron IX.2 and La Nonete1
  • Katherine A. Brown

The Old French fabliaux supply a high quotient of analogues to the hundred stories in Boccaccio's Decameron. Approximately one fourth of the novelle in the collection borrow from the fabliaux tradition. Marcus Landau cites several fabliaux in his study of sources for the Decameron, and Vittore Branca mentions about twenty-four fabliaux titles in the notes to his edition of the Decameron.2 More recently, Luciano Rossi has stated that twenty of the tales in the Decameron are demonstrably related to fabliaux sources, but Rossi does not provide a list of these fabliaux or their corresponding novelle.3 While the fabliaux's influence arguably extends beyond this figure, Decameron IX.2 is, nevertheless, an exceptional case among the novelle related to fabliaux, as it takes a single fabliau, composed by Jean de Condé, and entitled, La Nonete, as its primary source.

Scholars have long agreed that Boccaccio was in some way familiar with La Nonete. Branca cites two fabliaux as well known, Old French antecedents of novella IX.2: La Nonete and the anonymous Les Braies au cordelier.4 All three of these tales present the popular theme of [End Page 54] the brache del prete ("the priest's breeches"), a humorous motif suggesting the lasciviousness of the clergy that was common to a variety of genres in medieval literature.5 Landau, on the other hand, cites the miraculous tale "L'abbesse qui fu grosse" ("The Abbess Who Was Pregnant"), which vaguely resembles Boccaccio's story through its mention of hypocrisy among the clergy, but makes no use of the brache del prete topos.6 Since the topos is the same, Decameron IX.2 may be considered much more closely connected to one of the fabliaux than to the miraculous tale of the abbess.

Not included in the list enumerated by Branca is the thematically similar fabliau, Les Braies le priestre, which was also composed by Jean de Condé. Although this fabliau and the anonymous Les Braies au cordelier both make use of the theme of the brache del prete, they are not necessarily sources for Boccaccio's novella.7 This literary motif usually involves the theft or misplacement of a cleric's pants, with its implications of sexual relations. An example from the Legenda Aurea (number 146)—also cited by Branca—gives an anecdote from the life of St. Jerome whose clothes are stolen by his fellow monks and replaced by women's clothing. When he mistakenly dresses in these clothes, the other monks assume that he has been sleeping with a woman and that he erringly put on her clothing in the dark. There are, however, no breeches in this example of the topos. In Les Braies au cordelier, a man, having surprised his wife with a clerk, mistakes the clerk's pants for his own the next morning, and his delayed discovery of the mistake is the evidence of his wife's infidelity. Despite the similarities of dressing in the dark and mistaken clothing, these two examples in fact present two different types of stories: the former results in cross-dressing, while the latter involves a mere substitution of the cleric's pants for those of another man. The two distinct narratives which emerge from the theme of the brache del prete do not alter the implication of sexual (mis)behavior, but they do allow us to recognize that the anecdote about St. Jerome, which involves an example of cross-dressing, and Les Braies au cordelier, which consists of [End Page 55] a substitution, belong to two discrete narrative traditions. Decameron IX.2 represents a combination of these two traditions, a mixture of cross-dressing and mistaken breeches. Of the possible sources for Decameron IX.2, only La Nonete demonstrates the same combination of the two traditions. Thus, La Nonete and Decameron IX.2 share more than similar plots and structures, but in fact share the same "textual nucleus."8 For this reason, La Nonete is the most probable source for Boccaccio's novella.

The basic plots of Decameron IX.2 and La Nonete show a remarkable number of similarities. In both...


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