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ArribaAbajo Cervantes and the Decameron: A Note on the Sources and Meaning of Don Quijote's Prototypical Chivalric Adventure (I, 50)

Donald McGrady

University of Virginia

Para probar ante el Canónigo de Toledo la historicidad de los libros de caballerías, don Quijote inventa una aventura caballeresca prototípica, en que un paladín se arroja a un lago hirviente y en su fondo encuentra una tierra maravillosa; allí el caballero es acogido por unas doncellas que lo llevan a un castillo, donde la más hermosa de ellas lo desnuda y lo baña. Roger M. Walker ha demostrado que la mayoría de este episodio proviene del Caballero Zifar, pero la sección sobre el baño, con la evocación de un lujoso ambiente oriental, con doncellas desvestidas que lavan al desarropado héroe, parece derivar del episodio del Salabaetto e Iancofiore en el Decamerón (VIII, 10). Claro está que tal aventura realmente prueba todo lo contrario de lo sostenido por don Quijote, o sea, que los libros de caballerías eran fantásticos y no históricos, mas el relato también sirve para recalcar la innata sensualidad de su añoso narrador.

The reader of Don Quijote has at his disposition a veritable banquet of delights, for beneath the surface of almost any of its episodes there lies a wealth of literary allusion, as well as implicit observations about the human condition in general and that of the novel's protagonist in particular. A case in point is the prototypical adventure that Don Quijote improvises as a reply to the Canon of Toledo, who, to the hidalgo's infinite chagrin, professes not to believe in the historicity of books of chivalry (Part I, chapters 47-50). It will be remembered that, to substantiate his claim for the truthfulness of romances, Don Quijote relates (I, 50) an adventure that actually illustrates precisely the opposite, because it epitomizes the most fantastic elements of the genre:

A knight standing near a boiling lake hears a woman's voice calling to him from the middle of the mere, praising his valor. He accepts her challenge to plunge into the roiled waters, and at their bottom finds an Other-Worldly realm, placed in an eerie but beautiful landscape; in this setting there arises a marvelous castle overlain with all manner of jewels, including emeralds and rubies. A group of persons issues forth to welcome the intrepid knight, and to lead   —142→   him into the palace; there the hero is entertained by music, and served a lavish banquet by beauteous maidens dressed in stunning attire, but who remain utterly mute all the while.

To be sure, such descriptions of a Nether World abound in the romances of chivalry as in few other literary genres,91 but all the features just enumerated in Don Quijote's account proceed directly from a similar episode in the Libro del caballero Zifar.92 But there is more here: taking the adventure of the Caballero Atrevido in the Zifar as his basic text, Don Quijote then goes on to embroider additional decorative motifs upon its fabric, using odd bits taken from other chivalric descriptions. To cite one such example, the notion of having serpents swimming around in the frightful lake may well derive from Feliciano de Silva's Amadís de Grecia Part II, chap. 47.93

However, by far the most striking modification made by him of the Rueful Countenance to his basic Zifar model is the following passage:

Y ¿hay más... que ver salir por la puerta del castillo un buen número de doncellas, cuyos galanos y vistosos trajes, si yo me pusiese ahora a decirlos... sería nunca acabar, y tomar luego la que parecía principal de todas por la mano al atrevido caballero... y llevarle, sin hablarle palabra, dentro del rico alcázar o castillo, y hacerle desnudar como su madre le parió, y bañarle con templadas aguas, y luego untarle todo con olorosos ungüentos, y vestirle una camisa de cendal delgadísimo,   —143→   toda olorosa y perfumada, y acudir otra doncella y echarle un mantón sobre los hombros, que... dicen que suele valer una ciudad, y aun más?

(p. 386; emphasis added).                

It is decidedly shocking that an elderly and apparently staid gentleman such as Don Quijote should indulge his imagination in a scene as salacious as this, in which a knight errant allows himself to be bathed nude by a young maiden, who then anoints him with fragrant unguents. This highly erotic description is redolent of Oriental sybaritism, calling to mind the perfumed bedrooms of the Song of Songs, or the baths administered by slaves of the opposite sex (eunuchs, in the case of males) in the Arabian Nights. It seems likely that Don Quijote has suppressed here the sexual licence that probably would have been present in his source of inspiration -only in a work as unrealistic and imaginative as Don Quijote's could a vigorous young warrior be laved by a young girl without any sensuous ideas passing through his mind. But what would have been those pieces that provided Don Quijote a model for the epicurean washing accorded to his prototypical cavalier?

First of all, it is apparent that Don Quijote has introduced the present bathing scene to replace a segment of the Zifar episode from which he takes his entire tale. In the latter book, the Caballero Atrevido, after attending the sumptuous banquet in the enchanted palace, is invited to participate in yet another pleasurable diversion:

Quando anochesçió fuéronse todos aquellos cavalleros de allí e todas las donzellas que allí servían, salvo ende dos, que tomaron por las manos la [una] al cavallero, e la otra a la señora, e laváronlos a una cámara... E echáronlos en una cama noble... e salieron luego de la cámara e çerraron las puertas. Así que esa noche fue ençinta la dueña

(p. 217).                

Later on, the Bold Knight once again lives up to his name, making another amorous conquest; however, upon returning to the presence of his irate lady, he is informed by her that she knows of his infidelity, and expels him from her realm.

It is highly understandable that Don Quijote should want to change the unedifying end of his source tale: the conduct of the Caballero Atrevido is at opposite poles from that of the Manchegan hidalgo's ideal, the chaste Amadís.94 Don Quijote's point of departure, then, was to replace the Bold Knight's two amorous escapades with a less indecorous action, avoiding unseemly philandering. His solution was the bathing scene, which retains all the sensuousness of his   —144→   model -indeed, Don Quijote's description is far more suggestive than any in the Zifar- but without the sex act as its culmination. This attitude of have-but-have-not parallels exactly Don Quijote's earlier deportment in his adventure with Maritornes at the inn (I, 16). In this episode the old gentleman had worried about «el peligroso trance en que su honestidad se había de ver», and yet «a pesar de sus bizmas y con dolor [de] sus costillas, tendió los brazos para recebir a su fermosa doncella... tirándola hacia sí... la hizo sentar sobre la cama. Tentóle luego la camisa...» (I, 429, 431). As is this were not enough, he had then stated that if he did not owe allegiance to Dulcinea, «no fuera yo tan sandio caballero, que dejara pasar en blanco la venturosa ocasión en que vuestra gran bondad me ha puesto» (I, p. 433). In other words, despite the idealized image created by Romantics (the poets of the nineteenth century, and numerous critics of the twentieth), Don Quijote most certainly is a sensualist,95 although his libido is held in check by devotion to his lady.

The problem now arises of where in his readings Don Quijote would have encountered the bathing scene that served as inspiration for the passage cited above.96 A priori, the most likely possibility would of course seem to be one of the innumerable books of chivalry that our hidalgo so loved; however, no specialist in that area -Diego Clemencín among them- has ever proposed a source or analogue from the genre. A model does exist, nonetheless, and in a work so widely read that Don Quijote -as well as his creator- can plausibly be assumed to have known it: the Decameron.97

Story VIII, 10 of Boccaccio's masterpiece relates how the young merchant Salabaetto is at first fleeced by the clever and attractive courtesan Iancofiore, and then wreaks his revenge upon her. The only part that concerns us here is the lovers' initial tryst:


Iancofiore instructs Salabaetto to meet her at the public baths, and the merchant there sees two female slaves arrive, bearing a fine mattress, sheets, a quilt, pillows and assorted foodstuffs. The servants -apparently in total silence- proceed to make the bed and then undress to scrub the bath. At this point Iancofiore enters with two more slaves; she bids Salabaetto to disrobe, does likewise herself, and they enter the water together with the two naked maid servants. Iancofiore next bathes Salabaetto with perfumed soap, and in turn is washed and rubbed down by her slaves. The sweethearts are then wrapped in scented sheets by the maids, carried to the bed, sprinkled with fragrant waters, served delicious confitures and wines, and finally are left alone to enjoy the fruits of love.

The presence of the slave-girls (doubtless of Eastern origin), the nudity, the copious use of perfumes, the luxury of bedclothes and dainty refreshments, the nearly total silence in which everything transpires, and submissiveness and desire to please of the wealthy and beautiful lady, all this combines to produce an ambience that is at once Oriental in savor and reminiscent of the Nether World. Indeed, the narrator emphasizes the unreality of the episode by remarking that Salabaetto has the sensation of being in Paradise.98 Although the rest of the tale is realistic in tone, the otherworldliness of this section would have served to connect it in Don Quijote's mind with similar descriptions from books of chivalry, and in particular, that of the Zifar.

Let us now turn to that portion of Boccaccio's tale that appears to have inspired Don Quijote:

Appresso questo, come a lei [Iancofiore] piacque, ignudi ammenduni se ne entraron nel bagno e con loro due delle schiave. Quivi, senza lasciargli por mano addosso a altrui, ella medesima con sapone moscoleato e con garofanato maravigliosamente e bene tutto lavò Salabaetto, e appresso sé fece e lavare e stropicciare alle schiave. E fatto questo, recaron le schiave due lenzuoli bianchissimi e sottili, de' quali veniva sì grande odor di rose, che ciò che v'era pareva rose; e l'una inviluppò nell'uno Salabaetto e l'altra nell'altro la donna...99

(p. 766, §§16-17).                


The crucial coincidence between this text and that of Don Quijote cited at the beginning of course lies in the key detail of the young lady who, having just met the youthful hero, proceeds to have him undress, and then bathes and rubs him with perfumes. But there are other minor coincidences as well: the «buen número de doncellas» that accompany Don Quijote's heroine could be seen to correspond to Iancofiore's four slave-girls, the maidens' «galanos y vistosos trajes» may be compared to the precious bedclothing in Boccaccio's story,100 the «templadas aguas» used to wash the knight may recall the variety of waters sprinkled upon Boccaccio's lovers,101 and the perfumed shirt and the mantle so carefully described by Don Quijote have their counterparts in the scented sheets in which the Italian lovers are draped after their bath. Thus, given the complete agreement between the central situation in the Decameron tale and Don Quijote's story, plus the general resemblance of several accompanying particulars, it seems safe to assume that the Spanish knight did indeed incorporate part of Boccaccio's narrative into the account which he took chiefly from the Caballero Zifar.

No less interesting than the fact that Don Quijote borrowed a motif from the Decameron, is the light that his imitation throws on his own character: upon deciding that the Bold Knight's amorous triumphs were inappropriate for his rendition of an ideal chivalric adventure, Don Quijote could easily have omitted all sexual   —147→   references from his story. That he chose to insert a toned-down version of another lustful episode from the Decameron says much about his own suppressed libido. This important aspect of his character was perceived by some of the earliest readers of Part I of Don Quijote -those in Part II: when the invincible knight arrives at the palace of the Duke and Duchess, in chapter 31 of Part II, «seis doncellas le desarmaron y sirvieron de pajes» (VI, 16); then, doubtless recalling and imitating Don Quijote's own chivalric tale, «pidiéronle que se dejase desnudar para una camisa...» (VI, 17). However, the gentle knight refuses, showing much more modesty than the hero whom he himself had created: «nunca lo consintió, diciendo que la honestidad parecía tan bien en los caballeros andantes como la valentía».

What are we to make of this? Are we to understand that already «en los nidos de antaño no hay pájaros hogaño» (VIII, 257)? No, not that, but probably that our knight, despite his reiterated contentions that his beloved books of chivalry were but truth incarnate, was quite capable of appreciating the difference between life and fiction, long before his final defeat and disenchantment.