In the first story of the Third Day of Bocaccio’s Decameron, we find the tale of a fourteenth-century plebian named Masetto. This fellow manages to get a job as the handyman or groundskeeper of a convent in Italy. He is soon importuned by a young nun into satisfying her romantic – or perhaps merely her more immediate — inclinations. He does so, and before he knows it, he becomes the desideratum of all the sorority’s more wayward and wanton sisters.
Eventually, the abbess herself discovers Masetto’s charms, and from that point on he finds himself run ragged by ladies who had sworn themselves to chastity. At the same time he must continue janitorial chores and tasks of a less intriguing nature, all of which soon reduces the poor man to – well, to a certain measure of impairment. Not desuetude, mind you, but near-depletion. Happily, though (as far as our hero is concerned), Masetto has years in which to recover and to more wisely and sparingly schedule his unofficial duties. Many years later, our protagonist feels the pull of his old hometown, and decides to retire while he can still do so on steady legs. He moves back home and spends his twilight days congratulating himself on having spent a life of pleasure. Bocaccio appears to congratulate him as well.
Towards the end of the story a brief mention is made concerning all the illegitimate children Masetto fathered at the convent. He had brought into the world – however briefly – many “little nuns”, we are told. The author of the tale is tightlipped and evasive concerning the fate of these children: were they aborted? Were they stillborn? Did many of them die young? Did many survive? We are not told. The saga recalls those old rumors and possible anticlerical slanders about secret graveyards reputedly found beneath medieval nunneries, where the bodies of murdered or sickly “love babies” were buried. It’s more likely that conventual cemeteries full of young skeletons simply means that those institutions often took in poor, abandoned, orphaned children, who frequently died on the grounds.
In Masetto’s fictional case, however, there appears to have been a more serious amount of skullduggery going on. Whether actual murder occurred we do not know. Perhaps the ancient practice of “exposure” took place. At any rate, Masetto prides himself on having enjoyed all the thrills of fathering without having to be a father. He seems to be immensely satisfied with the fact that he escaped paternity while having indulged in endless acts of procreation.
I remember Ruskin’s old adage that the only true wealth is Life. And children are the surest means, and signs, of continuing life.
On reading this I found myself experiencing an undertow of uneasiness. The tale is patently bawdy, and lighthearted fun is supposed to be the keynote here, as in all genuinely bawdy. Apparently we are meant to envy Masetto’s “success” in life, and to grin with approval at the sly old dog. But something seems wrong. Something is missing – something, I mean, besides Masetto’s many children. I sense a vacuum at the heart of the story’s denouement, and almost a sense of sadness for the old bachelor as he sits alone in his peasant hut. One has only to contrast Masetto’s lonely situation with the following scene, from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe:
Lucy thought the Beavers had a very snug little home … there were bunks, like on board ship, built into the wall. And there were hams and strings of onions hanging from the roof … And the cloth on the table, though very clean, was very rough.
Just as the frying-pan was nicely hissing Peter and Mr Beaver came in with the fish … You can think how good the new-caught fish smelled while they were frying and how the hungry children longed for them to be done and how very much hungrier still they had become before Mr Beaver said, “Now we’re nearly ready.” Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range while Lucy was helping Mrs Beaver to dish up the trout, so that in a very few minutes everyone was drawing up their stools … and preparing to enjoy themselves. There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes … And when they had finished the fish Mrs Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle on to the fire, so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out. And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool so as to be able to lean against the wall and gave a long sigh of contentment.
I’ve quoted the passage at length in order to convey some of the homey, cozy, joyful, familial atmosphere of the scene. Here is a richness and quality of warmth that comes about only in a full domestic setting. And though the four children in the novel are not related (obviously) to the Beavers, the effect is of a big happy family enjoying the bustling fireside bliss — not just of hospitality — but of philia too. One can imagine all of them surging into song after the clattering, chattering glories of their wholesome feast.
This contrast – this vast tonal discrepancy – between the two huts, is what we invariably discover when we are told to admire the doubtful achievements of the self-absorbed. This goes beyond the biblical warnings that we should never envy the riches of the wicked. It goes to the heart of genuine wealth, of profusion, of abundance, of plenty. All the Cratchit children gathered around a loaded Christmas table (featuring Scrooge’s turkey), singing and toasting one another with tears of joy in their eyes, shows us a Plenitude that makes rich every aspect of human life. By its side, Masetto’s solitary contentment, turning in memory the pages of his salacious past, appears a bit paltry, and a bit sad. One imagines him wandering his small town, knowing he cannot boast of his venereal conquests to everyone, and buttonholing forever the few coarse men he can regale. Pace Bocaccio, this is not enviable. I remember Ruskin’s old adage that the only true wealth is Life. And children are the surest means, and signs, of continuing life.