A dispute having arisen between three sisters of a convent as to which of them should fill the post of abbess, the bishop's vicar decides that the office shall fall to the one who shall give the most eminent proof of her worthiness.
HOWEVER great may be the charm which modesty lends to people in general, I, nevertheless, rate it far higher, dear ladies, when one meets it in a man who knows his own self. Wherefore, with the good leave of the gracious ladies around me, I purpose to tell a story no less cleverly put together than pleasant, which, though it may prove somewhat overcharged with ridicule and wanting in decency, I will do my best to relate to you in modest and seemly terms, such as are due and proper. And if perchance at any time my narrative should affront your chaste ears, I would now forestall your pardon for the offence, entreating you to hold back your censure till some future season.
In the noble city of Florence there is a certain convent with an illustrious reputation for holiness of life and for religion; the name of it I will not give just now, for fear of marring its fair fame by any spot of scandal. It happened that the abbess of this house, who was afflicted by many and heavy infirmities, came to the end of her days and rendered up her soul to her Creator. Wherefore, she being dead and her body buried with all the solemn rites of the Church, the surviving sisters caused a meeting of the chapter to be summoned by the ringing of the bell, so that all those who had a voice therein might be called together. The vicar of monsignor the bishop, a prudent man and a learned, and one moreover who desired that the election of the new abbess should be carried out according to the strict letter of the law, gave the word to the assembled sisters to be seated and spake thus to them : c Most respected ladies, you know well enough, I conclude, that the sole reason why you are gathered together here to-day is in order that you may make choice of some one who shall be the head over you. If this be so, at the bidding of the conscience which is in each of you it behoves you to elect the one who appears to you all the best fitted for the office.' And all the sisters made answer that this was the course they were minded to follow.
Now it happened that in the convent there were three nuns betwixt whom there sprang up a very keen contention as to which of the three should be the new abbess, because each one had a certain following amongst the sisters, and had the reputation of being held in honour by other superiors, wherefore all three of these greatly desired the title of abbess. While the sisters were getting ready for the election of their new head, one of the three nuns just mentioned, named Sister Veneranda, rose from her seat, and turning towards the other sisters, addressed them: 'My sisters, and my children, whom I hold in such high affection, you can understand well enough with what loving zeal I have ever given my best energies for the service of the convent, so that I have not only grown old therein, but am become veritably decrepit. Therefore, on account of my long service and of my advanced age, it seems to me only just and proper that I should be elected as your head, and if my long-continued labours and the vigils and prayers of my youth fail to persuade you to choose me, at least let my infirm old age appeal to your consideration; for to this, above every other thing, your reverence is due. It must be apparent to you that I can reckon on only a very short span of further life. Wherefore you may be sure that I shall, before long, make way for some other of you. For this reason, my well-beloved daughters, I beg that you will give me this brief season of ease and pleasure, and keep well in your hearts all the good counsels which I have ever given you.' And Veneranda, having finished her speech, weeping the while, was silent.
The appeal of the first sister being finished, Sister Modestia, a woman of middle age, rose from her seat and spake in this wise: 'Mothers and sisters mine, you have heard without concealment, and you must have clearly understood the claims put forward by Sister Veneranda, who happens to be the most advanced in age of any of us; but this fact, in my estimation, gives her no special claim to be chosen as our abbess, inasmuch as she is now come to such a time of life that, through senility, she has too much of simplicity and too little of counsel, and before long will herself require to be con trolled and cared for, in lieu of controlling us. But if you, in your mature judgment, give due consideration to my good estate, and to the trust that is due to me, and remember of what ancestry I come, you cannot, of a surety, for the debt each of you owes to conscience, choose any other one but me to be your abbess. Our convent-as every one of you must know-is greatly vexed with processes and suits at law and has much need of support and protection, and what greater defence could you furnish to the monastery against its adversaries than the countenance and patronage of my family, who would give-supposing that I am elected your head-not merely their wealth and goods in your defence, but even their lives.'
Scarcely had Sister Modestia resumed her seat when Sister Pacifica rose to her feet, and, with the guise of deep humility, spake as follows: 'I am well assured, most honoured sisters, nay, I may take it for certain that you, prudent and well- advised ladies as you all are, will feel no little astonishment that I, who came as it were yesterday to abide amongst you, should desire to put myself on an equality with, or even to supersede the two most honoured sisters who have already spoken. These ladies, both on the score of age and of experience, are far above me; but if, with the eyes of the under standing, you come to consider carefully how many and how great are my qualifications, of a surety you will rate more highly my fresh youth than the decrepit age of the one and the family claims of the other. I - as all of you must know quite well - brought with me hither a very rich dowry, by the aid of which your convent, which had fallen wellnigh to ruin through the lapse of time, has been reconstructed from roof to foundation. I say nought about the houses and the farms which have been bought with the money of my dowry, from which every year the house gains a great sum in the shape of rent. Wherefore, on account of these and of other qualifications of mine, and as a recompense for the many and great benefits you have received from me, it is your duty to choose me as your abbess, seeing that your food and your raiment depend (under God) upon my bounty,' and having thus spoken she sat down.
When the three sisters had thus brought their discourses to a conclusion, the vicar of the lord bishop summoned all the nuns into his presence one after another, and bade them write down the name of the sister whom, upon their conscience, they wished to be raised to the dignity of abbess. When this had been done, and when all the sisters had recorded their votes, it was found that all the three were equal as to the number of votes given for each, nor was there any difference between them. On this account there arose amongst all the sisters a very acrimonious dispute, and some wished to have the first named, and some the second, and some the third, for their head; nor could there be found any way of pacifying the contention. Whereupon the bishop's vicar, perceiving how dogged was the obstinacy of each faction, and bearing in mind that each one of the three sisters might well be promoted to the honourable office of abbess for the special qualifications duly cited, cast about in his mind to devise a way and means whereby one of the three might retain the post of abbess without giving any cause of offence or disaffection to the others. He ordered the three sisters who sought the office to be summoned into his presence, and thus addressed them: 'Well-beloved sisters, I comprehend fully your many virtues and your many qualifications, and I cannot but say that either one of you would be in the highest sense worthy to be chosen as abbess of this convent. But between you three honourable sisters the contest for election has been amazingly severe, and the votes given for each of you have proved to be equal in number. On this account-in order that you may continue your peaceful lives in love and quietness-I hereby propose to you to employ in the election of your abbess a method which- as I hope-shall lead to the contention being brought to an end to the satisfaction of you all. The method which I suggest is this: each one of you three sisters, who have put forth your claims to succeed to the office of abbess, shall exercise herself for the next three days to perform in our presence some special feat which shall be praiseworthy in itself and worthy of being held in remembrance, and whichever of these three sisters shall show herself able to perform the feat the most capable and most worthy of future fame shall be, by the good consent of all the sisters, duly chosen abbess, and to her shall be accorded all the honour and reverence which of right belong to her.'
This proposition of the bishop's vicar won the approbation of the three sisters, on which account they all with one voice promised to observe the conditions laid down. And when the day appointed for the trial had come, and all the nuns be longing to the convent were gathered together in the chapter house, the vicar caused to be brought before him the three sisters who aspired to mount up to the high post of abbess, and questioned them severally as to whether they had given due thought to their affairs in the matter of performing some note worthy feat as he had ordained, and they all gave answer that they had.
Pages 357-359 have been omitted at this time. These pages were printed in French due to the graphic nature of the material. When the book was printed 1901, the publisher decided readers who were fluent in French as well as English would be sophisticated enough not to be easily offended by the material. I have not transcribed them at this time due to the labour required to do so.
The vicar, who was a man sage and well-advised, began forthwith to confer with the sisterhood and to give mature consideration to the amazing feats per formed by the three competing sisters, and when, after a time, he perceived that there was little prospect of coming to a decision, he took time to deliberate as to what the final judgment should be. And, forasmuch as he was not able to find in his learned books'aught which might guide him in deciding this matter, he let it go as a thing not to be solved, and even to this our day the dispute is still pending. Wherefore I call upon you, most learned and prudent ladies, to disentangle this question, which, on account of its importance, I should not venture myself to approach.
This story of Bembo's proved to be more a source of mirth to the men than to the ladies, seeing that the latter for very shame hid their faces in their laps and did not dare to look up. But the men discussed now one incident and now another of the story they had just listened to, and gathered no little diversion therefrom, till at last the Signora, noticing that their laughter was some what unbecoming, and that the ladies sat as though they had been changed into so many marble statues, commanded silence and put an end to the unseemly laughter, in order that Bembo might follow the accustomed rule by giving his enigma. But he, who had already spoken as much as was meet, turned towards the fair Lauretta and said: "It is now your turn, Signora Lauretta, to set an enigma. I may in deed have satisfied you in one matter, but that is no reason why I should satisfy you in another." And the lady, who had no wish to make delay by her refusal, thus began in order to relieve herself of her obligation:
A riddle I would have you guess;
Everyone declared that the enigma proposed by Lauretta was fully as interesting as the story of Bembo, and, because it seemed as if few or any of the company could fathom its meaning, the Signora directed her to give the interpretation thereof. Then Lauretta, so as not to interpose any further de lay, spake thus: "My riddle means that there were two men who set to work to saw in pieces a huge beam of wood. One of these took in his hand the saw, which is a very hard thing, and went up above, while the other remained in the saw-pit beneath. The first then smeared the saw with oil, and placed it in the fissure of the beam, and then the two companions working together handled the saw up and down in order to accomplish their task."
The ingenious interpretation of this enigma gave the greatest pleasure to all the company, and, after the talk had ceased, the Signora gave command to Eritrea to begin the telling of her fable, and she straightway spake as follows.
Straparola, Giovanni Francesco. The Facetious Nights by Straparola. W. G. Waters, translator. Jules Garnier and E. R. Hughes, illustrators. London: Privately Printed for Members of the Society of Bibliophiles, 1901. 4 volumes.