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Day 1 Story 5 of the Decameron is about a King who visits the estate of a Marquis and Marchioness during the former's absence with the intent of wooing the latter. She understands his intent and prepares for him, with all due courtesy and respect, a many-course banquet where every dish is chicken. The King asks her about the food and she replies:

“ Madam, do hens grow in this country without so much as a single cock? ” The Marchioness, who perfectly apprehended the drift of the question, saw in it an opportunity, sent her by God, of evincing her virtuous resolution; so casting a haughty glance upon the King she answered thus: “ Sire, no; but the women, though they may differ somewhat from others in dress and rank, are yet of the same nature here as elsewhere. ” The significance of the banquet of pullets was made manifest to the King by these words, as also the virtue which they veiled. He perceived that on a lady of such a temper words would be wasted, and that force was out of the question.

The specific significance is lost on me, except for the obvious notion that she wanted him to feel welcome but not too welcome. The story seems to be implying some deeper connection between the nature of the banquet and the nature of the King's intentions, and also some deeper significance to the precise words of their exchange (or at least her reply). But I'm not getting it. Is there some double entendre in the original Italian, perhaps?

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First of all, as explained in the BUR version of the Decameron (Italian original), edited by Amedeo Quondam, Maurizio Fiorilla and Giancarlo Alfano,

i prodotti della caccia erano, e a lungo restarono, di esclusivo e distintivo impiego alimentare per la nobiltà;

that is,

the products of hunting were, and for a long time remained, of exclusive and distinctive food use for the nobility.

This is why the King is so surprised about the fact that the banquet consists only of hens. But, according to the same source, the first sentence of your quotation, that is, the question

Madam, do hens grow in this country without so much as a single cock?

that the King asks to the Marchioness is sexually suggestive, in the same way as it's the sentence that Masetto da Lamporecchio addresses to the abbess in Day 3 Story 1 ("Madam, I have understood that a cock may very well serve ten hens, but [...]"):

la domanda del re è sessualmente allusiva (come poi in III 1 37).

As said in the novella, the Marchioness understands perfectly the meaning of the King's question. For this reason, when answering to the King, she refers to women and not to chickens. This is the explanation about the response of the Marchioness to the King that can be read in the notes to the book cited above:

‘ma le donne (la pronta e arguta risposta è diretta e abbandona le galline), anche se sono diverse l’una dall’altra per vestiti e gradi d’onore (tornando alle galline: variamente cucinate), qui sono fatte esattamente come altrove’ (e quindi richiedono di essere trattate con onore).

Here is my translation:

'but women (the quick and witty answer is direct and abandons the idea of the hens), even if they are different from each other in clothes and degrees of honour (returning to the hens: variously cooked), here they are made exactly as elsewhere' (and therefore require to be treated with honour).

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  • I just came back to read this answer and I understand it more now, thanks! But "The significance of the banquet of pullets was made manifest to the King by these words" - as she abandons the metaphor of the hens to be more direct in her reply, how does it clarify to him the significance of the meal? Maybe I'm reading too much into it - I thought her comment was something deep and specifically suggestive of the purpose of the meal.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Mar 18 at 17:27

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