When I was living in Gafsa, back in 1964-66 on my first tour in Tunisia, I got a copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron. I got it because my French knowledge was still improving and the writing was reasonably easy to understand. I still have my copy.
Imagine my surprise when I came across this reference to Capsa:
I thought I would share that story because it shows a Tunisia that is totally different from the one we experienced. I’m also rather proud that “my town” is featured in the dirtiest story in the Decameron. You might enjoy it in this stressful time.
I found this translation here (PDF)
Alibech becomes a recluse, and after being taught by the monk, Rustico, to put the devil back in Hell, she is eventually taken away to become the wife of Neebal.
Dioneo had been following the queen’s story closely, and on perceiving that it was finished, knowing that he was the only speaker left, he smiled and began without waiting to be bidden:
Gracious ladies, you have possibly never heard how the devil is put back into Hell, and hence, without unduly straying from the theme of your discussions for today, I should like to tell you about it. By learning how it is done, there may yet be time perhaps for you to save our souls from perdition, and you will also discover that, even though Love is more inclined to take up his abode in a gay palace and a dainty bedchamber than in a wretched hovel, there is no denying that he sometimes makes his powers felt among pathless woods, on rugged mountains, and in desert caves; nor is this surprising, since all living things are subject to his sway.
Now, to come to the point, there once lived in the town of Gafsa,(1) in Barbary, a very rich man who had numerous children, among them a lovely and graceful young daughter called Alibech. She was not herself a Christian, but there were many Christians in the town, and one day, having on occasion heard them extol the Christian faith and the service of God, she asked one of them for his opinion on the best and easiest way for a person to “serve God’, as they put it. He answered her by saying that the ones who served God best were those who put the greatest distance between themselves and earthly goods, as happened in the case of people who had gone to live in the remoter parts of the Sahara.(2)
She said no more about it to anyone, but next morning, being a very simple-natured creature of fourteen or thereabouts, Alibech set out all alone, in secret, and made her way towards the desert, prompted by nothing more logical than a strong adolescent impulse. A few days later, exhausted from fatigue and hunger, she arrived in the heart of the wilderness, where, catching sight of a small hut in the distance, she stumbled towards it, and in the doorway she found a holy man, who was astonished to see her in those parts and asked her what she was doing there. She told him that she had been inspired by God, and that she was trying, not only to serve Him, but also to find someone who could teach her how she should go about it.
On observing how young and exceedingly pretty she was, the good man was afraid to take her under his wing lest the devil should catch him unawares. So he praised her for her good intentions, and having given her a quantity of herb-roots, wild apples and dates to eat, and some water to drink, he said to her:
“My daughter, not very far from here there is a holy man who is much more capable than I of teaching you what you want to know. Go along to him.” And he sent her upon her way.
When she came to this second man, she was told precisely the same thing, and so she went on until she arrived at the cell of a young hermit, a very devout and kindly fellow called Rustico, to whom she put the same inquiry as she had addressed to the others. Being anxious to prove to himself that he possessed a will of iron, he did not, like the others, send her away or direct her elsewhere, but kept her with him in his cell, in a corner of which, when night descended, he prepared a makeshift bed out of palm-leaves, upon which he invited her to lie down and rest.
Once he had taken this step, very little time elapsed before temptation went to war against his willpower, and after the first few assaults, finding himself outmanoeuvred on all fronts, he laid down his arms and surrendered. Casting aside pious thoughts, prayers, and penitential exercises, he began to concentrate his mental faculties upon the youth and beauty of the girl, and to devise suitable ways and means for approaching her in such a fashion that she should not think it lewd of him to make the sort of proposal he had in mind. By putting certain questions to her, he soon discovered that she had never been intimate with the opposite sex and was every bit as innocent as she seemed; and he therefore thought of a possible way to persuade her, with the pretext of serving God, to grant his desires. He began by delivering a long speech in which he showed her how powerful an enemy the devil was to the Lord God, and followed this up by impressing upon her that of all the ways of serving God, the one that He most appreciated consisted in putting the devil back in Hell, to which the Almighty had consigned him in the first place.
The girl asked him how this was done, and Rustico replied:
“You will soon find out, but just do whatever you see me doing for the present.” And so saying, he began to divest himself of the few clothes he was wearing, leaving himself completely naked. The girl followed his example, and he sank to his knees as though he were about to pray, getting her to kneel directly opposite.
In this posture, the girl’s beauty was displayed to Rustico in all its glory, and his longings blazed more fiercely than ever, bringing about the resurrection of the flesh.(3) Alibech stared at this in amazement, and said:
“Rustico, what is that thing I see sticking out in front of you, which I do not possess?”
“Oh, my daughter,” said Rustico, “this is the devil I was telling you about. Do you see what he’s doing? He’s hurting me so much that I can hardly endure it.”
“Oh, praise be to God,” said the girl, “I can see that I am better off than you are, for I have no such devil to contend with.”
“You’re right there,” said Rustico. “But you have something else instead, that I haven’t.”
“Oh?” said Alibech. “And what’s that?”
“You have Hell,” said Rustico. “And I honestly believe that God has sent you here for the salvation of my soul, because if this devil continues to plague the life out of me, and if you are prepared to take sufficient pity upon me to let me put him back into Hell, you will be giving me marvellous relief, as well as rendering incalculable service and pleasure to God, which is what you say you came here for in the first place.”
“Oh, Father,” replied the girl in all innocence, “if I really do have a Hell, let’s do as you suggest just as soon as you are ready.”
“God bless you, my daughter,” said Rustico. “Let us go and put him back, and then perhaps he’ll leave me alone.”
At which point he conveyed the girl to one of their beds, where he instructed her in the art of incarcerating that accursed fiend.
Never having put a single devil into Hell before, the girl found the first experience a little painful, and she said to Rustico:
“This devil must certainly be a bad lot, Father, and a true enemy of God, for as well as plaguing mankind, he even hurts Hell when he’s driven back inside it.”
“Daughter,” said Rustico, “it will not always be like that.” And in order to ensure that it wouldn’t, before moving from the bed they put him back half a dozen times, curbing his arrogance to such good effect that he was positively glad to keep still for the rest of the day.
During the next few days, however, the devil’s pride frequently reared its head again, and the girl, ever ready to obey the call to duty and bring him under control, happened to develop a taste for the sport, and began saying to Rustico:
“I can certainly see what those worthy men in Gafsa meant when they said that serving God was so agreeable. I don’t honestly recall ever having done anything that gave me so much pleasure and satisfaction as I get from putting the devil back in Hell. To my way of thinking, anyone who devotes his energies to anything but the service of God is a complete blockhead.”
She thus developed the habit of going to Rustico at frequent intervals, and saying to him:
“Father, I came here to serve God, not to idle away my time. Let’s go and put the devil back in Hell.”
And sometimes, in the middle of their labours, she would say:
“What puzzles me, Rustico, is that the devil should ever want to escape from Hell. Because if he liked being there as much as Hell enjoys receiving him and keeping him inside, he would never go away at all.”
By inviting Rustico to play the game too often, continually urging him on in the service of God, the girl took so much stuffing out of him that he eventually began to turn cold where another man would have been bathed in sweat. So he told her that the devil should only be punished and put back in Hell when he reared his head with pride, adding that by the grace of Heaven, they had tamed him so effectively that he was pleading with God to be left in peace. In this way, he managed to keep the girl quiet for a while, but one day, having begun to notice that Rustico was no longer asking for the devil to be put back in Hell, she said:
“Look here, Rustico. Even though your devil has been punished and pesters you no longer, my Hell simply refuses to leave me alone. Now that I have helped you with my Hell to subdue the pride of your devil, the least you can do is to get your devil to help me tame the fury of my Hell.”
Rustico, who was living on a diet of herb-roots and water, was quite incapable of supplying her requirements, and told her that the taming of her Hell would require an awful lot of devils, but promised to do what he could. Sometimes, therefore, he responded to the call, but this happened so infrequently that it was rather like chucking a bean into the mouth of a lion, with the result that the girl, who felt that she was not serving God as diligently as she would have liked, was found complaining more often than not.
But at the height of this dispute between Alibech’s Hell and Rustico’s devil, brought about by a surplus of desire on the one hand and a shortage of power on the other, a fire broke out in Gafsa, and Alibech’s father was burnt to death in his own house along with all his children and every other member of his household, so that Alibech inherited the whole of his property. Because of this a young man called Neerbal who had spent the whole of his substance in sumptuous living, having heard that she was still alive, set out to look for her, and before the authorities were able to appropriate her late father’s fortune on the grounds that there was no heir, he succeeded in tracing her whereabouts. To the great relief of Rustico, but against her own wishes, he took her back to Gafsa and married her, thus inheriting a half-share in her father’s enormous fortune.
Before Neerbal had actually slept with her, she was questioned by the women of Gafsa about how she had served God in the desert, and she replied that she had served Him by putting the devil back in Hell, and that Neerbal had committed a terrible sin by stopping her from performing so worthy a service.
“How do you put the devil back in Hell?” asked the women.
Partly in words and partly through gestures, the girl showed them how it was done, whereupon the women laughed so much that they are laughing yet; and they said:
“Don’t let it worry you, my dear. People do the job every bit as well here in Gafsa, and Neerbal will give you plenty of help in serving the Lord.”
The story was repeated throughout the town, being passed from one woman to the next, and they coined a proverbial saying there to the effect that the most agreeable way of serving God was to put the devil back in Hell. The dictum later crossed the sea to Italy, where it survives to this day.
And so, young ladies, if you stand in need of God’s grace, see that you learn to put the devil back in Hell, for it is greatly to His liking and pleasurable to the parties concerned, and a great deal of good can arise and flow in the process.
Gafsa An inland town in Tunisia, known to Italians of B.’s day chiefly for its monastery.
the Sahara A literal translation of B.’s text here would read “the Theban desert.” In the fourteenth century, the region around Thebes, in Upper Egypt, was noted for the large number of hermits who had settled there.
the resurrection of the flesh The profane sexual metaphor had first appeared in The Golden Ass, written in the second century AD by Lucius Apuleius. This paragraph of B.’s text and all subsequent narrative details up to the outbreak of the fire in Gafsa were a notorious stumbli ng-block to B.’s English translators for over 500 years. Until the end of the nineteenth century, they omitted the story altogether or resorted at this point to either the original Italian or one of the French versions. Pornography, it seemed, was permissible provided it appeared in a language that only a minority of one’s readers could understand. Edward Gibbon had used the same device in his autobiography: “My English text is chaste, and all licentious passages are left in the decent obscurity of a learned language.”