Ports of Call: Boccaccio’s Alatiel in the Medieval Mediterranean

Ports of Call: Boccaccio’s Alatiel in the Medieval Mediterranean

By Sharon Kinoshita and Jason Jacobs

Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Vol. 37:1 (2007)

Introduction: Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron II.7 recounts the adventures of Alatiel, the beautiful daughter of the sultan of Babylon (Cairo). Dispatched from Alexandria to be wed to the Muslim king of Algarve (southern part of current-day Portugal), she is shipwrecked on the island of Majorca. There she is rescued by a nobleman, Pericone of Visalgo, who, taken with her beauty, quickly seduces her. Pericone, however, is soon stabbed by his own brother, who wants Alatiel for himself. This inaugurates a string of adventures in which Alatiel passes from one man to another — including two Genoese shipowners, the prince of Achaea, the duke of Athens, the prince of Constantinople, the Turkish emir of Smyrna, and a Cypriot merchant — the strange power of her beauty driving each to murder or other acts of malfeasance in order to possess her. Eventually, in Famagusta, she is recognized by one of her father’s former retainers, who returns her to the sultan and supplies her with a cover story to explain away her long absence. Restored to her rightful rank, Alatiel is once again dispatched to marry the king of Algarve, presumably to live happily ever after.

Typically, this astonishing tale has been read for the ways it exemplifies the theme of the Decameron’s Second Day (those who attain unexpected happiness after suffering a series of misfortunes); for its thematics of silence (the way Alatiel, unable to communicate with her Christian captors, conceals her identity in order to protect her reputation); and, recently, for its representation of female agency (particularly around questions of sexuality) or its lack.

This essay, in contrast, seeks to recontextualize Alatiel’s adventures in the medieval Mediterranean. Historicizing readings of the Decameron tend to contextualize it in the Black Death of 1348 and, more broadly, “the mercantile world of fourteenth-century Tuscany.” Yet as is well-known, Boccaccio spent a formative part of his youth in Angevin Naples: “without Boccaccio’s experience of Naples,” as David Wallace has observed, the Decameron

would certainly have been a more limited and sombre affair, lacking those aspects of romance and courtly fantasy which nineteenth- century readers . . . found so congenial. It would also have missed that remarkable imaginative openness to the greater Mediterranean (Greek and Arab) world, which in Naples formed part of everyday life.

Building on this insight, we begin from the assumption that, for Boccaccio’s audience, the place names and historical actors populating the tale of Alatiel would have evoked powerful political, economic, and cultural associations all but lost to us today.

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