Sex Scenes: A 14th-Century Tale In Praise of Dumb Dick Energy
Medieval Italian erotica says that in love and sex, it’s better to let women lead the way.
A hot and heavy scene from The Decameron. Photograph courtesy of Christophel Fine Art via Getty Images.
In this installment of Sex Scenes, we turn to literature for an erotic story in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a fourteenth-century collection of stories. This sprawling work of fiction features 100 tales by ten different young narrators—seven women and three men—as they hide out in Florence to escape the Black Death. To entertain themselves, the group tell stories that are humorous, erotic, and romantic, playing off each other as they travel.
Boccaccio, according to his semi-ironic preface, intended for the book to be helpful to young women in the throes of love and wives without much to do, whom he wasn’t so interested in teaching morals to but in distracting. At the time, female literacy liwas spreading beyond the aristocracy and the clergy to the upper classes, creating concerns among men about the propriety of the reading materials at their disposal. Reading, in the secrecy of its silence, allowed women access to all sorts of subversive truths, erotic ones included. Boccacio’s dedication was a wink and a nudge, he loved the idea of women reading his stories and imitating their salaciousness.
The excerpt from The Decameron that catches our attention this week is told by an bawdy narrator who lavishes his raunchy prose on the tale of Masetto, a strong and handsome young man, who, pretending to be mute and deaf, becomes a gardener for a monastery of nuns who then have their way with him, reassured by the fact that he won’t speak of it. The story is a sort of ode to being simple and horny; to the base joys of sex without the baggage of relationship structure, without even language; it’s an ode to “dumb dick energy,” which is sometimes just what you need.
Masetto hears of the convent through the previous gardener, who explains that he left because he was so mistreated by the young nuns: The nine women bossed him around, snatched instruments from his hands, and incessantly told him how to do his job. But as Masetto listens to this story, he becomes incredibly horny, imagining life with the sisters, pining for them, and so he begins to scheme: He could try to work for the nuns but surely he would be deemed too favorable for the position, too young and handsome, to live among nine nuns. Then again, if he presented himself as a poor mute—perhaps these women of God would take pity on him.
Female pleasure is a constant presence in The Decameron. From the Middle Ages, Boccaccio had inherited the view that women were more lustful than men. Doctors at the time were insistent that for women sex was more pleasurable than for men; that women were passive but insatiable creatures, difficult to please. Boccaccio, through the narrator Filomeno, starts the tale by explaining that we shouldn’t assume that the nuns’ solitary and hardworking lifestyle led to the loss of their appetites.
Masetto reaches the nunnery and his ruse works. As he chops wood, two nuns hover nearby and begin to openly plot, wondering if they should try these “pleasures of the flesh” they’ve heard so much about and lose their virginity to a hired hand that can’t go on to tell about it. “He’s such a simpleton; surely he will do our bidding,” says one nun to the other.
The nuns weigh the consequences, worrying slightly about their virginity pact with God, though only momentarily: “Oh, but think about how many vows are made to Him all day along, and never a one performed…. Let Him find another to perform it.”
Making sure the coast is clear, the nuns lead Masetto into the hut, where he “need[s] no pressing to do what was desired of him,” and the sisters take turns, one keeping watch outside while the other fucks.
Modernity is riddled by the obsession with power, and the conviction that only the powerful are desirable.
Afterward, the women discuss the sex, agreeing that these pleasures of the flesh were more delightful than they’d imagined and that they should keep using Masetto. But in their fervor, gossip about the mute gardener spread and each nun decides to not rat out her fellow sisters to the Abbess, the head nun, but to give the young worker a try, all of them eventually making the trip to the hut a regular occurence.
By this time, Masetto is often exhausted during his work-day, but when the Abbess finds him sleeping nude beneath the almond tree one afternoon, she also gives in and begins to seduce Masetto. She brings him to her bedroom chamber, where she keeps him for days with sexual demands.
And it’s here, exhausted from all of the women, that Masetto finally breaks his cover, crying out: “Madam, I understand that a cock may well serve ten hens, but ten men are sorely tasked to satisfy a single woman! And I am expected to serve nine!” Remaining subservient, Masetto asks if they could find some means to make these matters more tolerable.
The Abbess is shocked by his ability to speak, which she takes as an act of God, and is doubly shocked that he’s been sleeping with the entire convent! But she also realizes she can’t let Masetto leave the nunnery now—he could tarnish their reputation! And so she meets with the nuns and they devise a plan, making a more suitable schedule of erotic tasks for the young man so that they may all share him.
Even if his ruse is over, Masetto’s cunning is in his understanding that being submissive can be a much more desirable trait than an asserted superiority. Modernity is riddled by the obsession with power, and the conviction that only the powerful are desirable. Masetto could keep his mouth shut for a long while, but every day one is surrounded by men who make themselves insufferable with constant silly attempts to prove their competence. Even the tropes of BDSM often position the male submissive as a perverse reversal or reenactment of a vulnerable scene from childhood. Only in comedies do we find women enjoying a bumbling idiot, a man who is not meant to be taken as anything other than ridiculous. Yet, as many of us know, sometimes we desire someone who is just simple and horny, who will screw us without complicating our lives, and shut the fuck up long enough to hear what it is we want.
The male narrator of the story seems to suggest that, at least in love and sex, it’s better to let women lead the way. It was a woman who chose the theme the narrator bases his story on—desire—so he’s taking orders to tell this tale from a woman. He will wait for the others who are hearing the story to take the lead, and he will know to be silent afterwards to see that everyone is pleased. After all, when you are in a villa with nine other friends, there is nothing else to do but to fuck.
The tale ends with Masetto old, the father of many nunlets and monklets, well off with the money he made in the convent. The narrator concludes, “and this is how God treats whomever cucks his head.” In other words, follow the given rules and have a shit life; one only gets rewarded by going against grain.