Confined to stay at home because of the Corona pandemic, one is tempted to take The Decameron back from the book shelf. After all, Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th century had not been too different than today. You probably know the frame story: During the Bucolic Plague ten young people lock themselves down in a villa outside Florence and while away their time with telling stories to each other. I was reminded that the tale of the Prince of Salerno who kills his daughter's lover and sends her the dead man's heart (Tale IV, 1) became the model for Child ballad #269, Lady Diamond or Lady Dysie. Incidentally, Scots folk singer Jim Malcolm has recorded the song on his new album, The Berries. (Walkin' T:-)M)
DAY THE FOURTH, THE FIRST STORY: TANCRED, PRINCE OF SALERNO, SLAYETH HIS DAUGHTER'S LOVER AND SENDETH HER HIS HEART IN A BOWL OF GOLD; WHEREUPON, POURING POISONED WATER OVER IT, SHE DRINKETH THEREOF AND DIETH
"Our king hath this day appointed us a woeful subject of discourse, considering that, whereas we came hither to make merry, needs must we tell of others' tears, the which may not be recounted without moving both those who tell and those who hearken to compassion thereof. He hath mayhap done this somedele to temper the mirth of the foregoing days; but, whatsoever may have moved him thereto, since it pertaineth not to me to change his pleasure, I will relate a piteous chance, nay, an ill-fortuned and a worthy of your tears.
Tancred, Lord of Salerno, was a humane prince and benign enough of nature, (had he not in his old age imbrued his hands in lover's blood,) who in all the course of his life had but one daughter, and happier had he been if he had none. She was of him as tenderly loved as ever daughter of father, and knowing not, by reason of this his tender love for her, how to part with her, he married her not till she had long overpassed the age when she should have had a husband. At last, he gave her to wife to a son of the Duke of Capua, with whom having abidden a little while, she was left a widow and returned to her father. Now she was most fair of form and favour, as ever was woman, and young and sprightly and learned perchance more than is required of a lady. Abiding, then, with her father in all ease and luxury, like a great lady as she was, and seeing that, for the love he bore her, he recked little of marrying her again, nor did it seem to her a seemly thing to require him thereof, she bethought herself to seek, an it might be, to get her privily a worthy lover. She saw men galore, gentle and simple, frequent her father's court, and considering the manners and fashions of many, a young serving-man of her father's, Guiscardo by name, a man of humble enough extraction, but nobler of worth and manners than whatsoever other, pleased her over all and of him, seeing him often, she became in secret ardently enamoured, approving more and more his fashions every hour; whilst the young man, who was no dullard, perceiving her liking for him, received her into his heart, on such wise that his mind was thereby diverted from well nigh everything other than the love of her.
Each, then, thus secretly tendering the other, the young lady, who desired nothing so much as to foregather with him, but had no mind to make any one a confidant of her passion, bethought herself of a rare device to apprize him of the means; to wit, she wrote him a letter, wherein she showed him how he should do to foregather with her on the ensuing day, and placing it in the hollow of a cane, gave the letter jestingly to Guiscardo, saying, 'Make thee a bellows thereof for thy serving-maid, wherewith she may blow up the fire to-night.' Guiscardo took the cane and bethinking himself that she would not195 have given it him nor spoken thus, without some cause, took his leave and returned therewith to his lodging. There he examined the cane and seeing it to be cleft, opened it and found therein the letter, which having read and well apprehended that which he had to do, he was the joyfullest man alive and set about taking order how he might go to her, according to the fashion appointed him of her.
There was, beside the prince's palace, a grotto hewn out of the rock and made in days long agone, and to this grotto some little light was given by a tunnel by art wrought in the mountain, which latter, for that the grotto was abandoned, was well nigh blocked at its mouth with briers and weeds that had overgrown it. Into this grotto one might go by a privy stair which was in one of the ground floor rooms of the lady's apartment in the palace and which was shut in by a very strong door. This stair was so out of all folk's minds, for that it had been unused from time immemorial, that well nigh none remembered it to be there; but Love, to whose eyes there is nothing so secret but it winneth, had recalled it to the memory of the enamoured lady, who, that none should get wind of the matter, had laboured sore many days with such tools as she might command, ere she could make shift to open the door; then, going down alone thereby into the grotto and seeing the tunnel, she sent to bid Guiscardo study to come to her thereby and acquainted him with the height which herseemed should be from the mouth thereof to the ground.
To this end Guiscardo promptly made ready a rope with certain knots and loops, whereby he might avail to descend and ascend, and donning a leathern suit, that might defend him from the briers, he on the ensuing night repaired, without letting any know aught of the matter, to the mouth of the tunnel. There making one end of the rope fast to a stout tree-stump that had grown up in the mouth, he let himself down thereby into the grotto and there awaited the lady, who, on the morrow, feigning a desire to sleep, dismissed her women and shut herself up alone in her chamber; then, opening the privy door, she descended into the grotto, where she found Guiscardo. They greeted one another with marvellous joy and betook themselves to her chamber, where they abode great part of the day in the utmost delight; and after they had taken order together for the discreet conduct of their loves, so they might abide secret, Guiscardo returned to the grotto, whilst she shut the privy door and went forth to her women. The night come, Guiscardo climbed up by his rope to the mouth of the tunnel and issuing forth whence he had entered in, returned to his lodging; and having learned this road, he in process of time returned many times thereafter.
But fortune, jealous of so long and so great a delight, with a woeful chance changed the gladness of the two lovers into mourning and sorrow; and it befell on this wise. Tancred was wont to come bytimes all alone into his daughter's chamber and there abide with her and converse awhile and after go away. Accordingly, one day, after dinner, he came thither, what time the lady (whose name was Ghismonda) was in a garden of hers with all her women, and willing196 not to take her from her diversion, he entered her chamber, without being seen or heard of any. Finding the windows closed and the curtains let down over the bed, he sat down in a corner on a hassock at the bedfoot and leant his head against the bed; then, drawing the curtain over himself, as if he had studied to hide himself there, he fell asleep. As he slept thus, Ghismonda, who, as ill chance would have it, had appointed her lover to come thither that day, softly entered the chamber, leaving her women in the garden, and having shut herself in, without perceiving that there was some one there, opened the secret door to Guiscardo, who awaited her. They straightway betook themselves to bed, as of their wont, and what while they sported and solaced themselves together, it befell that Tancred awoke and heard and saw that which Guiscardo and his daughter did; whereat beyond measure grieved, at first he would have cried out at them, but after bethought himself to keep silence and abide, an he might, hidden, so with more secrecy and less shame to himself he might avail to do that which had already occurred to his mind.
The two lovers abode a great while together, according to their usance, without observing Tancred, and coming down from the bed, whenas it seemed to them time, Guiscardo returned to the grotto and she departed the chamber; whereupon Tancred, for all he was an old man, let himself down into the garden by a window and returned, unseen of any, to his own chamber, sorrowful unto death. That same night, at the time of the first sleep, Guiscardo, by his orders, was seized by two men, as he came forth of the tunnel, and carried secretly, trussed as he was in his suit of leather, to Tancred, who, whenas he saw him, said, well nigh weeping, 'Guiscardo, my kindness to thee merited not the outrage and the shame thou hast done me in mine own flesh and blood, as I have this day seen with my very eyes.' Whereto Guiscardo answered nothing but this, 'Love can far more than either you or I.' Tancred then commanded that he should be kept secretly under guard and in one of the chambers of the palace, and so was it done.
On the morrow, having meanwhile revolved in himself many and divers devices, he betook himself, after eating, as of his wont, to his daughter's chamber and sending for the lady, who as yet knew nothing of these things, shut himself up with her and proceeded, with tears in his eyes, to bespeak her thus: 'Ghismonda, meseemed I knew thy virtue and thine honesty, nor might it ever have occurred to my mind, though it were told me, had I not seen it with mine own eyes, that thou wouldst, even so much as in thought, have abandoned thyself to any man, except he were thy husband; wherefore in this scant remnant of life that my eld reserveth unto me, I shall still abide sorrowful, remembering me of this. Would God, an thou must needs stoop to such wantonness, thou hadst taken a man sortable to thy quality! But, amongst so many who frequent my court, thou hast chosen Guiscardo, a youth of the meanest condition, reared in our court, well nigh of charity, from a little child up to this day; wherefore thou hast put me in sore travail of mind, for that I know not what course to take with thee. With Guiscardo, whom I caused take197 yesternight, as he issued forth of the tunnel and have in ward, I am already resolved how to deal; but with thee God knoweth I know not what to do. On one side love draweth me, which I still borne thee more than father ever bore daughter, and on the other most just despite, conceived for thine exceeding folly; the one would have me pardon thee, the other would have me, against my nature, deal harshly by thee. But ere I come to a decision, I would fain hear what thou hast to say to this.' So saying, he bowed his head and wept sore as would a beaten child.
Ghismonda, hearing her father's words and seeing that not only was her secret love discovered, but Guiscardo taken, felt an inexpressible chagrin and came many a time near upon showing it with outcry and tears, as women mostly do; nevertheless, her haughty soul overmastering that weakness, with marvellous fortitude she composed her countenance and rather than proffer any prayer for herself, determined inwardly to abide no more on life, doubting not but her Guiscardo was already dead. Wherefore, not as a woman rebuked and woeful for her default, but as one undaunted and valiant, with dry eyes and face open and nowise troubled, she thus bespoke her father: 'Tancred, I purpose neither to deny nor to entreat, for that the one would profit me nothing nor would I have the other avail me; more by token that I am nowise minded to seek to render thy mansuetude and thine affection favourable to me, but rather, confessing the truth, first with true arguments to vindicate mine honour and after with deeds right resolutely to ensue the greatness of my soul. True is it I have loved and love Guiscardo, and what while I live, which will be little, I shall love him, nor, if folk live after death, shall I ever leave loving him; but unto this it was not so much my feminine frailty that moved me as thy little solicitude to remarry me and his own worth.
It should have been manifest to thee, Tancred, being as thou art flesh and blood, that thou hadst begotten a daughter of flesh and blood and not of iron or stone; and thou shouldst have remembered and should still remember, for all thou art old, what and what like are the laws of youth and with what potency they work; nor, albeit thou, being a man, hast in thy best years exercised thyself in part in arms, shouldst thou the less know what ease and leisure and luxury can do in the old, to say nothing of the young. I am, then, as being of thee begotten, of flesh and blood and have lived so little that I am yet young and (for the one and the other reason) full of carnal desire, whereunto the having aforetime, by reason of marriage, known what pleasure it is to give accomplishment to such desire hath added marvellous strength. Unable, therefore, to withstand the strength of my desires, I addressed myself, being young and a woman, to ensue that whereto they prompted me and became enamoured. And certes in this I set my every faculty to the endeavouring that, so far as in me lay, no shame should ensue either to thee or to me through this to which natural frailty moved me. To this end compassionate Love and favouring Fortune found and showed me a very occult way, whereby, unknown of any, I won to my desire, and this, whoever it be198 discovered it to thee or howsoever thou knowest it, I nowise deny.
Guiscardo I took not at hazard, as many women do; nay, of deliberate counsel I chose him before every other and with advisement prepense drew him to me and by dint of perseverance and discretion on my part and on his, I have long had enjoyment of my desire. Whereof it seemeth that thou, ensuing rather vulgar prejudice than truth, reproachest me with more bitterness than of having sinned by way of love, saying (as if thou shouldst not have been chagrined, had I chosen therefor a man of gentle birth,) that I have committed myself with a man of mean condition. Wherein thou seest not that thou blamest not my default, but that of fortune, which too often advanceth the unworthy to high estate, leaving the worthiest alow.
But now let us leave this and look somewhat to the first principles of things, whereby thou wilt see that we all get our flesh from one same stock and that all souls were by one same Creator created with equal faculties, equal powers and equal virtues. Worth it was that first distinguished between us, who were all and still are born equal; wherefore those who had and used the greatest sum thereof were called noble and the rest abode not noble. And albeit contrary usance hath since obscured this primary law, yet is it nowise done away nor blotted out from nature and good manners; wherefore he who doth worthily manifestly showeth himself a gentleman, and if any call him otherwise, not he who is called, but he who calleth committeth default. Look among all thy gentlemen and examine into their worth, their usances and their manners, and on the other hand consider those of Guiscardo; if thou wilt consent to judge without animosity, thou wilt say that he is most noble and that these thy nobles are all churls. With regard to his worth and virtue, I trusted not to the judgment of any other, but to that of thy words and of mine own eyes. Who ever so commended him as thou didst in all those praiseworthy things wherefor a man of worth should be commended? And certes not without reason; for, if mine eyes deceived me not, there was no praise given him of thee which I saw him not justify by deeds, and that more admirably than thy words availed to express; and even had I suffered any deceit in this, it is by thyself I should have been deceived. An, then, thou say that I have committed myself with a man of mean condition, thou sayst not sooth; but shouldst thou say with a poor man, it might peradventure be conceded thee, to thy shame who hast so ill known to put a servant of thine and a man of worth in good case; yet poverty bereaveth not any of gentilesse; nay, rather, wealth it is that doth this. Many kings, many great princes were once poor and many who delve and tend sheep were once very rich.
The last doubt that thou broachest, to wit, what thou shouldst do with me, drive it away altogether; an thou in thine extreme old age be disposed to do that which thou usedst not, being young, namely, to deal cruelly, wreak thy cruelty upon me, who am minded to proffer no prayer unto thee, as being199 the prime cause of this sin, if sin it be; for of this I certify thee, that whatsoever thou hast done or shalt do with Guiscardo, an thou do not the like with me, mine own hands shall do it. Now begone; go shed tears with women and waxing cruel, slay him and me with one same blow, an it seem to thee we have deserved it.'
The prince knew the greatness of his daughter's soul, but notwithstanding believed her not altogether so firmly resolved as she said unto that which her words gave out. Wherefore, taking leave of her and having laid aside all intent of using rigour against her person, he thought to cool her fervent love with other's suffering and accordingly bade Guiscardo's two guardians strangle him without noise that same night and taking out his heart, bring it to him. They did even as it was commanded them, and on the morrow the prince let bring a great and goodly bowl of gold and setting therein Guiscardo's heart, despatched it to his daughter by the hands of a very privy servant of his, bidding him say, whenas he gave it her, 'Thy father sendeth thee this, to solace thee of the thing thou most lovest, even as thou hast solaced him of that which he loved most.'
Now Ghismonda, unmoved from her stern purpose, had, after her father's departure, let bring poisonous herbs and roots and distilled and reduced them in water, so she might have it at hand, an that she feared should come to pass. The serving-man coming to her with the prince's present and message, she took the cup with a steadfast countenance and uncovered it. Whenas she saw the heart and apprehended the words of the message, she was throughly certified that this was Guiscardo's heart and turning her eyes upon the messenger, said to him, 'No sepulchre less of worth than one of gold had beseemed a heart such as this; and in this my father hath done discreetly.' So saying, she set the heart to her lips and kissing it, said, 'Still in everything and even to this extreme limit of my life have I found my father's love most tender towards me; but now more than ever; wherefore do than render him on my part for so great a gift the last thanks I shall ever have to give him.'
Then, bending down over the cup, which she held fast, she said, looking upon the heart, 'Alack, sweetest harbourage of all my pleasures, accursed be his cruelty who maketh me now to see thee with the eyes of the body! Enough was it for me at all hours to behold thee with those of the mind. Thou hast finished thy course and hast acquitted thyself on such wise as was vouchsafed thee of fortune; thou art come to the end whereunto each runneth; thou hast left the toils and miseries of the world, and of thy very enemy thou hast that sepulchre which thy worth hath merited. There lacked nought to thee to make thy funeral rites complete save her tears whom in life thou so lovedst, the which that thou mightest have, God put it into the heart of my unnatural father to send thee to me and I will give them to thee, albeit I had purposed to die with dry eyes and visage undismayed of aught; and having given them to thee, I will without delay so do that my soul, thou working it, shall rejoin that soul which thou erst so dearly guardedst. And in what company could I betake me more contentedly or with better assurance to the regions unknown than with it? Certain am I that it abideth yet herewithin and vieweth the seats of its delights and mine and as that which I am assured still loveth me, awaiteth my soul, whereof it is over all beloved.'
So saying, no otherwise than as she had a fountain of water in her head, bowing herself over the bowl, without making any womanly outcry, she began, lamenting, to shed so many and such tears that they were a marvel to behold, kissing the dead heart the while an infinite number of times. Her women, who stood about her, understood not what this heart was nor what her words meant, but, overcome with compassion, wept all and in vain questioned her affectionately of the cause of her lament and studied yet more, as best they knew and might, to comfort her. The lady, having wept as much as herseemed fit, raised her head and drying her eyes, said, 'O much-loved heart, I have accomplished mine every office towards thee, nor is there left me aught else to do save to come with my soul and bear thine company.' So saying, she called for the vial wherein was the water she had made the day before and poured the latter into the bowl where was the heart bathed with so many of her tears; then, setting her mouth thereto without any fear, she drank it all off and having drunken, mounted, with the cup in her hand, upon the bed, where composing her body as most decently she might, she pressed her dead lover's heart to her own and without saying aught, awaited death.
Her women, seeing and hearing all this, albeit they knew not what water this was she had drunken, had sent to tell Tancred everything, and he, fearing that which came to pass, came quickly down into his daughter's chamber, where he arrived what time she laid herself on her bed and addressed himself too late to comfort her with soft words; but, seeing the extremity wherein she was, he fell a-weeping grievously; whereupon quoth the lady to him, 'Tancred, keep these tears against a less desired fate than this of mine and give them not to me, who desire them not. Who ever saw any, other than thou, lament for that which he himself hath willed? Nevertheless, if aught yet live in thee of the love which once thou borest me, vouchsafe me for a last boon that, since it was not thy pleasure that I should privily and in secret live with Guiscardo, my body may openly abide with his, whereassoever thou hast caused cast him dead.' The agony of his grief suffered not the prince to reply; whereupon the young lady, feeling herself come to her end, strained the dead heart to her breast and said, 'Abide ye with God, for I go hence.' Then, closing her eyes and losing every sense, she departed this life of woe. Such, then, as you have heard, was the sorrowful ending of the loves of Guiscardo and Ghismonda, whose bodies Tancred, after much lamentation, too late repenting him of his cruelty, caused honourably bury in one same sepulchre, amid the general mourning of all the people of Salerno."
Translation by John Payne.
FOOTNOTES:  Or airshaft (spiraglio).  Lit. introduced him to me (a me lo 'ntrodussi); but Boccaccio here uses the word introdurre in its rarer literal sense to lead, to draw, to bring in.  i.e. thou being the means of bringing about the conjunction (adoperandol tu).  i.e. Guiscardo's soul.  i.e. in the heart.
Frankie Armstrong sang Lady Diamond in 1975 on her Topic album Songs and Ballads and in 1997 on her Fellside CD Till the Grass O'ergrew the Corn.
A.L. Lloyd commented in the Topic album's sleeve notes: »The brutal story of the king who kills his daughter’s low-born lover and sends her his heart in a golden cup, was on the go in the Middle Ages. Boccaccio re-tells it in his tale of Ghismonda and Guiscardo, and in later years it was several times made into a play in England and elsewhere. Versified into a ballad, it was widely known throughout Western Europe and Scandinavia. The version here is mainly that sung by Mary Johnston, ‘dairymaid at Hoddam Castle,’ and printed in C. K. Sharpe’s Ballad Book (1823). The song is savage, but as Frankie Armstrong remarks, such savagery is hardly a thing of the past. “As often with old ballads, the moral is not drawn; we experience through the action the consequences of possessiveness and jealousy. How better can we learn?”«
Brian Pearson commented in the Fellside album's sleeve notes: »The story of Lady Diamond descends from Guiscardo and Ghismonda's tale in Boccaccio's renaissance best-seller The Decameron. The tragedy of those ill-matched lovers was translated into English in 1566, giving rise to several poems and plays, and there is still a kind of Elizabethan quality to the quick and vivid emotions of the actors here. In typical ballad fashion, no one stops for a moment to consider their course of action, and this headlong rush to disaster somehow mobilises our compassion, not only for the unfortunate lovers, but also for the murderous king. Frankie has been singing this song for 25 years or so and still finds its power to move her undimmed. The words she sings are mostly those of Child's C text, collected from Mary Johnson, a dairy maid at Hoddan Castle. Not having a tune, Frankie made this one up while flying the Atlantic at 35,000 feet, so it can probably claim the world altitude record for a ballad melody.«
Lady Dysie There once was a king and a very great king And a king o’ muckle fame He had a bonny dochter fair Lady Dysie was her name And word’s gane up and word’s gane doon And word’s gane tae the king Lady Dysie she gans richt roond aboot And tae wha they dinna ken. When bells were rung and Mass was sung And they’ve all gan tae their rest The king’s gane tae Lady Dysie’s bower But he wasnae a welcome guest He’s pu’d the curtains roond and roond And there he sat him doon “Oh tell tae me Lady Dysie he said Wha gars ye gan sae roond? “Is it tae a lord or tae a laird Or a Baron o’ high degree? Oh tell tae me, Lady Dysie, he said And I pray ye dinna lee.” “Oh it’s nae tae a lord and it’s nae tae a laird Nor to ony barony Oh it’s tae Robin the kitchie boy Wha calls sae aye tae me.” He’s called his merry men oot by ane By ane by twa by three At last came Roger the kitchie boy And he’s dashed him tae a tree He’s taken oot that bonnie boy’s heirt Put it in a cup o’ gold And sent it tae Lady Dysie’s bower Because she’d been sae bold. “Farewell faither farewell mither Farewell tae pleasure and joy He died for me I’ll die for him Though he was but a kitchie boy. Farewell faither farewell mither Farewell my brothers three For ye thought ye had ta’en the life o ane But you’ve ta’en the life o three.”
»I plucked this tragic ballad from the singing of Jean Redpath. It starts badly and spirals downhill into a puddle of blood.«
The Tannahill Weavers recorded Lady Dysie in 1984 on their album Passage. They commented in their sleeve notes: »It is a little difficult to categorize this song. Probably the easiest way out is to call it a song of medieval Scottish birth control. There were two methods of this – the first, very safe, was abstention; the second, not safe at all due to it’s occurance after the deed was done, was to kill the man involved. This ensured he didn’t do it again. Strangely enough, this song comes from a region of Scotland where the population has remained the same for 200 years. Every time a child is born, a man leaves town.«
Alasdair Roberts sang Lady Eliza on the Furrow Collective's 2018 album Fathoms. They noted: »Alasdair learnt this ballad, which features in Child's collection under the title Lady Diamond, from the singing of Winnie Campbell, as featured on the 1965 Topic Records LP The Singing Campbells: Traditions of an Aberdeen Family. The tune used is one of two collected by the Aberdeenshire folklorist Gavin Greig. Apparently the story recounted in the song has mediaeval roots; it forms the basis of the tale of Ghismonda and Guiscardo in Boccaccio's Decameron.«
»A ballad about what happens when the daughter of a king falls in love with a kitchen boy. Another gem from Frankie Armstrong.«
Listen to Lady Diamond / Dysie from: The Long Hill Ramblers, Jim & Susie Malcolm, The Outside Track, Anne Price Watch Lady Diamond / Dysie from: Frankie Armstrong (1), Frankie Armstrong (2), Dorain, The Furrow Collective, Jim Malcolm, Rachel Newton, Anne Price, Jean Redpath, Steeleye Span, Steeleye Span (Live), Tannahill Weavers Lyrics (© Mainly Norfolk): Lady Diamond
Photo Credits: (1) John William Waterhouse: A Tale from the Decameron (1916), (2) Paul Fürst: Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom (c.1660), (3) William Hogarth: Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo (1759), (4) Joseph Edward Southall: Sigismonda Drinking the Poison (1897), (5) Mario Balassi: Ghismonda with the Heart of Guiscardo (1650), (6) Francesco Furini: Sigismunda (c.1640), (7) Bernardino Mei: Ghismunda (c. 1655), (8) Frankie Armstrong , (9) Jim & Susie Malcolm, (10) Tannahill Weavers, (11) Alasdair Roberts (The Furrow Collective), (12) Anne Price (unknown/website).