Week 10: Boccaccio's Decameron

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Filomena: The Pot of Basil, cont.

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 1000 words.

The story so far - lover murdered by brothers, dead lover appearing in a dream - can be found in many such stories, but what happens next is especially gruesome, and makes this story especially memorable! When you compare Filomena's version of the story with the ballad, you can see how confusing ballads can be. If you have never heard the story of the "pot of basil," you can learn everything you need to know from Filomena's narrative. In the ballad, it is almost as if you have to know the story already in order to follow the words of the ballad.

And so, saddest of women, knowing that she might not bewail him there, she would gladly, if she could, have carried away the body and given it more honourable sepulture elsewhere; but as she might not so do, she took a knife, and, as best she could, severed the head from the trunk, and wrapped it in a napkin and laid it in the lap of her maid; and having covered the rest of the corpse with earth, she left the spot, having been seen by none, and went home.

There she shut herself up in her room with the head, and kissed it a thousand times in every part, and wept long and bitterly over it, till she had bathed it in her tears. She then wrapped it in a piece of fine cloth, and set it in a large and beautiful pot of the sort in which marjoram or basil is planted, and covered it with earth, and therein planted some roots of the goodliest basil of Salerno, and drenched them only with her tears, or water perfumed with roses or orange-blossoms. And 'twas her wont ever to sit beside this pot, and, all her soul one yearning, to pore upon it, as that which enshrined her Lorenzo, and when long time she had so done, she would bend over it, and weep a great while, until the basil was quite bathed in her tears.

Fostered with such constant, unremitting care, and nourished by the richness given to the soil by the decaying head that lay therein, the basil burgeoned out in exceeding great beauty and fragrance. And, the girl persevering ever in this way of life, the neighbours from time to time took note of it, and when her brothers marvelled to see her beauty ruined, and her eyes as it were evanished from her head, they told them of it, saying:—"We have observed that such is her daily wont." Whereupon the brothers, marking her behaviour, chid her therefore once or twice, and as she heeded them not, caused the pot to be taken privily from her. Which, so soon as she missed it, she demanded with the utmost instance and insistence, and, as they gave it not back to her, ceased not to wail and weep, insomuch that she fell sick; nor in her sickness craved she aught but the pot of basil.

Whereat the young men, marvelling mightily, resolved to see what the pot might contain; and having removed the earth they espied the cloth, and therein the head, which was not yet so decayed, but that by the curled locks they knew it for Lorenzo's head. Passing strange they found it, and fearing lest it should be bruited abroad, they buried the head, and, with as little said as might be, took order for their privy departure from Messina, and hied them thence to Naples. The girl ceased not to weep and crave her pot, and, so weeping, died.

Such was the end of her disastrous love; but not a few in course of time coming to know the truth of the affair, there was one that made the song that is still sung: to wit:—

A thief he was, I swear, A sorry Christian he,
That took my basil of Salerno fair, etc.

This Sicilian folk-song, of which Boccaccio quotes only the first two lines, is given in extenso from MS. Laurent. 38, plut. 42, by Fanfani in his edition of the Decameron (Florence, 1857). The following is a free rendering:

A thief he was, I swear,
A sorry Christian he,
That took my basil of Salerno fair,
That flourished mightily.
Planted by mine own hands with loving care
What time they revelled free:
To spoil another's goods is churlish spite.

To spoil another's goods is churlish spite,
Ay, and most heinous sin.
A basil had I (alas! luckless wight!),
The fairest plant: within its shade
I slept: 'twas grown to such a height.
But some folk for chagrin
'Reft me thereof, ay, and before my door.

'Reft me thereof, ay, and before my door.
Ah! dolorous day and drear! Ah! woe is me!
Would God I were no more!
My purchase was so dear!
Ah! why that day did I to watch give o'er?
For him my cherished fere
With marjoram I bordered it about.

With marjoram I bordered it about
In May-time fresh and fair,
And watered it thrice ere each week was out,
And marked it grow full yare:
But now 'tis stolen. Ah! too well 'tis known!

But now 'tis stolen. Ah! too well 'tis known!
That no more may I hide:
But had to me a while before been shewn
What then should me betide,
At night before my door I had laid me down
To watch my plant beside.
Yet God Almighty sure me succour might.

Ay, God Almighty sure me succour might,
So were it but His will,
'Gainst him that me hath done so foul despite,
That in dire torment still I languish, since the thief reft from my sight
My plant that did me thrill,
And to my inmost Soul such comfort lent!

And to my inmost soul such comfort lent!
So fresh its fragrance blew,
That when, what time the sun uprose, I went
My watering to do, I'd hear the people all in wonderment
Say, whence this perfume new?
And I for love of it of grief shall die.

And I for love of it of grief shall die,
Of my fair plant for dole.
Would one but shew me how I might it buy!
Ah! how 'twould me console!
Ounces an hundred of fine gold have I: (*)
Him would I give the whole,
Ay, and a kiss to boot, so he were fain.

(*) The "oncia" was a Sicilian gold coin.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what part of Lorenzo's body did Lisabetta bring home? what did she do with it?
  • why did the brothers steal the pot of basil?
  • what did the brothers discover when they examined the pot of basil? what did they do?

Source: Decameron, by Boccaccio: Book 4, Novel 5. Translation by J.M. Rigg (1903). Website: Decameron Web. Volume 1 (= Days 1-4) available at Project Gutenberg.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM