Illustration for Facetious Nights by E. R. Hughes

The Facetious Nights

Illustration for Facetious Nights by E. R. Hughes

The Facetious Nights

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Night the Ninth:
Fifth Fable:
The Florentines and the Bergamasques

The Florentines and the Bergamasques convoke their learned men for a disputation, whereupon the Bergamasques, by a certain astute trick, outwit the Florentines, their opponents.

I WOULD remind you, comely ladies, that, however great may be the difference between men of wisdom and letters and men who are gross-minded and sensual, it has now and then come to pass that sages have been worsted by men of small learning. Is not indeed a clear proof of this set forth in the Holy Scriptures, where we may read how the simple and despised apostles confounded the under standing of those who were full of knowledge and wisdom? Also I will strive to set this plainly before you in this little fable of mine.

In times long past (as I have often heard tell by my grandsires, and perchance you may have heard the same) it happened that a number of Florentine and Bergamasque merchants were travelling together, and (as it not seldom occurs) they fell to discussing many and divers matters. Now, as they were passing from one subject to another, a certain Florentine said: 'Of a truth you Bergamasques, as far as we can judge, are mightily stupid and thick-headed, and, were it not for the little traffic in merchandise which you exercise, you would be good for nothing on account of your coarse-grained tempers. It happens in deed that Fortune allows to you a certain degree of success as merchants, but this favour of hers is assuredly not granted to you by reason of your keen ness of intellect, or of any learning that you may have gotten, but rather because of your rapacity and avarice, which cause you to be very sharp-set to grasp the smallest gain. In good sooth I know no men who are more gross and ignorant than you.'

On hearing these words a certain Bergamasque came forward and said: 'Now I, for my part, maintain that we Bergamasques are worth more than you Florentines according to any reckoning you like to bring forward. For although you Florentines may be gifted with a smooth and wheedling speech, which delights more than our own dialect the ears of those who listen, still in every other respect you are a long way inferior to the men of Bergamo. If you will take the trouble to make candid observation, you will find there is no man amongst our people, whether of high or low degree, who has not contrived to acquire some knowledge of letters. Be yond this, we are all of us always ready and eager for the prosecution of any great-souled enterprise. No one can say that a disposition of this sort is commonly to be met with amongst you Florentines, except perhaps in the case of a few of you.' Hereupon there arose a great contention between one party and the other; the Bergamasques not being willing to give way to the Florentines, nor the Florentines to the Bergamasques, each one speaking up for his own side; until at last a Bergamasque merchant arose and said: 'What is the good of all these wrangling words? Let us put the matter to the proof and make due provision for the holding of a solemn discussion, for which we will, Florentines and Bergamasques alike, let come together the very flower of our learned men, and in this wise it may be clearly demonstrated which of us holds the first place.' To this proposition the Florentines forthwith gave their assent, but after this there still remained to he settled the question whether the Florentines should go to Bergamo, or the Bergamasques to Florence; wherefore, after much discussion, they agreed to settle the question by casting lots. So, having prepared two billets and put them into a vase, they drew one out, which drawing proclaimed that the Florentines should go to Bergamo.

The day for the discussion was fixed to be the kalends of May, and, this point having been decided, the merchants went back to their respective cities and referred the whole matter to their wise and learned townsmen, who, as soon as they heard what was proposed to be done, were greatly pleased thereanent, and set to work to prepare themselves for long and subtle disputations. The Bergamasques, like the astute and crafty folk they were, began to lay plans how they might best contrive to overreach the Florentines and to leave them covered with shame and confusion; thus, after having convoked all the learned men of the city, grammarians, rhetoricians, lawyers, canonists, philosophers, theologians, and doctors of every other faculty, they chose out of these the men of keenest wit, and bade them keep themselves in readiness at home, in order that they might do ser vice as the rock and fortress of the city's reputation in the forthcoming dispute with the Florentines. The rest of the learned doctors they caused to be dressed in ragged clothes, and then bade them go out of the city and bestow themselves at different places along the road by which the Florentines must pass, directing them to accost the strangers at every opportunity, and always to speak with them in the Latin tongue. Therefore these learned men of Bergamo, having dressed themselves in coarse clothes and gone down amongst the peasants of the plain, set themselves to work at divers sorts of labour - some dug ditches, others delved the earth with pickaxe and shovel, one man doing this thing, and another that.

While the Bergamasque doctors were labouring in this fashion, so that anyone would have taken them to be mere peasants, lo and behold! the chosen Florentines came riding past in great pomp and splendour, and when they marked how there were certain men working in the fields, they cried out to them: 'God be with you, good brothers!' Whereupon those whom they took to be peasants answered: 'Bene veniant tanti viri!'

The Florentines, thinking they were making some joke, said: 'How many miles have we yet to cover before we shall come to the city of Bergamo?' And to this the Bergamasques answered: 'Decem vel circa.' When the Florentines heard this reply they said: 'Brethren, we address you in the vulgar tongue, whence comes it that you answer us in Latin?' The Bergamasques replied: 'Ne miremini, excellentissimi domini. Unusquisque enim nostrum sic, ut auditis, loquitur, quoniam majores, et sapientiores nostri sic nos docuerunt.' Having left these men behind, the Florentines, as they continued their journey, saw other peasants who were digging ditches beside the high road, and, coming to a halt, they spake to them thus: 'Ho, friends! ho, there! may God be with you!' To which greeting the Bergamasques answered: 'Et Deus vobiscum semper sit!' 'How far is it to Bergamo?' inquired the Florentines; whereupon the others answered: 'Exigua vobis restat via.' And after this reply they went on from one manner of discourse to another, till at last they begun to dispute together on questions of philosophy, concerning which these Bergamasque peasants argued with such weight and subtlety that the Florentine doctors were hard pressed to answer them. Then, struck with astonishment, they said one to another, ' Of a truth it is a marvellous thing that these clownish fellows, who must spend all their time labouring at all manner of rural tasks, should be thus excellently instructed in polite letters.' Then they rode on towards a neat and well-kept hostelry, standing at no great distance from the city; but, before they had come thither, a stable varlet advanced to meet them, and invited them to alight at the inn, saying: 'Domini, libetne vobis hospitari? Hic enim vobis erit bonum hospitium.' And, for the reason that the Florentines were already wearied from the long journey they had made, they gladly dis mounted from their horses, and, when they would have gone upstairs to go and repose themselves, the innkeeper came forward and spake thus, 'Excellentissimi domini, placetne vobis ut praeparetur coena? Hic enim sunt bona vina, ova recentia, carnes, volatilia, et alia hujusmodi.' Hereupon the Florentines were filled with greater amazement than be fore, and knew not what to say, for as much as all the people with whom they had conversed spoke Latin as if they had studied it from their earliest days.

A little after this there came into the room one in the guise of a serving-maid, who was, in sooth, a certain nun, a woman of great knowledge and learning. She had been well instructed as to how she should bear herself at this juncture; wherefore she addressed them saying: 'Indigentne dominationes vestrae re aliqua? Placet, ut sternentur lectuli, ut requiem capiatis?' The Florentines were utterly overcome with astonishment at these words of the serving-woman, and straightway began to talk with her, and she, after she had discoursed on many matters, using always the Latin tongue, brought forward for debate the subject of theology, and spake thereanent with such universal knowledge that every one of those who heard her was constrained to give her the highest praise. While she was thus holding dispute with the Florentine doctors there entered one dressed as a furnace-man, and swart with coal dust, and he, hearing the discussion which was going on between the serving- maid and the strangers, contrived to interpose a speech of his own, and put forth an interpretation of the Holy Scriptures so learned and erudite that all the Florentine doctors declared that they had never before listened to any discourse which excelled it.

When this controversy had come to an end the Florentines withdrew to get some rest, and the next day they took counsel amongst themselves whether they should return to Florence at once or go on to Bergamo. After much wrangling they came to the decision that it would be wiser to go back straightway. 'For,' said they, 'if such deep learning is found amongst field-labourers and innkeepers, and male and female servants, what must we expect to meet in the city itself, where men are always more accomplished than in the country, and given to nought else than the prosecution of learning from one year's end to another?' As soon as they had come to this decision, with out hesitating further, and without having ever seen the walls of the city of Bergamo, they mounted their horses and rode back to Florence. In this wise the Bergamasques, on account of this wily stratagem of theirs, contrived to outwit the Florentines, and ever since that time the Bergamasques have enjoyed a privilege, granted to them by the emperor, to travel securely in all parts of the world without hindrance.

As Signor Ferier brought his story to an end, all the listeners laughed heartily, praising the astuteness of the Bergamasques, and casting blame and contempt on the cowardice of the Florentines. But because the Signora imagined that such discussion must needs redound to the dishonour of the Florentine doctors, for whom she had no small regard, she gave command that everyone should be silent, and that Signor Ferier should go on with his enigma. But he, turning towards Fiordiana, said,' Signora, you have laid upon me the burden of telling a fable which can have given but small pleasure to any of the listeners, so it would be only right and just that you should take upon yourself the task of setting an enigma. Do not, I pray thee, ask of me any such undertaking, seeing that I am no way practised or expert therein.' Fiordiana, who never lacked courage, spake boldly thus: "Signor Ferier, I will not refuse this duty, and at the same time I will thank you very heartily for all you have done for me." And then, with a merry face, she set forth the enigma:

I know not why, unfortunate,
I meet with such an evil fate,
That, though a valiant male I'm born,
Into a female all forlorn
I soon am turned. To work this change
Men fall on me with working strange.
With grievous heavy blows I'm wrought
And made almost a thing of nought;
And next, a lot more painful yet,
In burning fiery furnace set,
To cruel men a boon to give.
And thus I die that they may live.

Because the hour was now late, and the grasshoppers had ceased their screeching, and the brightness of the dawn was beginning to shine in the east, the Signora gave the word that Fiordiana should forthwith tell the meaning of her riddle, and that after this everyone should go home, but not omit to return on the following evening, according to the established use. Whereupon the damsel in graceful and pleasing style thus cut the knot of her ambiguous enigma: "The enigma I lately gave you to guess in sooth means nothing else than wheaten corn, the name of which is of the masculine gender, but after it has been ground it changes its style and becomes feminine, to wit, flour. Then, after sore beating, it is made into dough, and finally is baked by fire to serve for the nutriment of man."

Then after all the company had warmly praised the solution given by Fiordiana, they rose from their seats, and having taken leave of the Signora, they went their several ways with eyes heavy with sleep.

(In the edition of 1556 the Ninth Night ends with this fable.)

Next: Night the Ninth: Sixth Fable

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.


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