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In the Decameron Day 2 Story 7, the protagonist is a princess of "Babylon" who has numerous sexual misadventures after getting shipwrecked on the way to be married. She is, I believe, suggested to be Muslim ("debarred by her law from the use of wine"), and at any rate certainly not Christian ("judging by what she observed of the customs of the people that she was amongst Christians"). Two passages in the story (emphasis mine below) refer to saints and crescents in a way that's opaque to me; I wonder if it refers to now-obscure saints or if there's some deeper symbolic or euphemistic meaning.

This new misadventure, following so hard upon the former, caused the lady no small chagrin; but Marato, with the aid of the good St. Crescent-in-hand that God has given us, found means to afford her such consolation that she was already grown so familiar with him as entirely to forget Pericone, when Fortune, not content with her former caprices, added a new dispensation of woe

The "consolation" here is presumably sexual, but is "the good St. Crescent-in-hand" also a euphemism? Or is it a real Christian saint, or an indirect/metonymous way of referring to one? Or is it an Islamic reference, via the crescent?

So, after long time conferring together, they set me on one of their horses and brought me to a house, where dwelt a community of ladies, religious according to their law; and what the men may have said I know not, but there I was kindly received and ever honourably entreated by all; and with them I did afterwards most reverentially pay my devotions to St. Crescent-in-Hollow, who is held in great honour by the women of that country.

This is part of the invented story that the princess tells her father at the end. Is "St. Crescent-in-Hollow" an entirely invented name for a Christian saint, or, again, does it refer to a real saint?

The original Italian for these phrases, as far as I can tell, is "santo cresci in man" and "san Cresci in Valcava".

2 Answers 2

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Although there is a real Saint Crescentius, and a real church of San Cresci in Valcava near Florence, Boccaccio is making a sexual pun. A crescent is so called because it is growing (crescere in both Latin and Italian), and the reference here is to the swollen penis held in the hand or vagina.

Other translators into English have rendered these names as

  • "Saint Grow-in-the-hand", "Saint Grow-in-the-hollow-valley" (Wayne Rebhorn)
  • "Saint Bird-in-the-hand", "Saint Hardon of the Caves" (Donald Beecher and Massimo Ciavolella)

Compare Nuto and Masetto on Day 3, where Nuto tells Masetto how the nuns are constantly saying "put this here", "put that there", and taking the hoe (zappa) from his hand saying "not like that!", until he gives up and leaves the garden. The garden and his tool are both literal and euphemistic. Equally, Caterina on Day 5 is found to have a "nightingale in her hand" (usignuolo) when Ricciardo is in her bed, having "made the nightingale sing several times" during the night. There are several other occasions where Boccaccio uses inventive metaphors of this kind: there is plenty of sexual activity, described indirectly when the action becomes more specific.

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Slightly to my surprise, there is a San Cresci in Valcava which features

frescoes depicting the History of the martyrdom of San Cresci.

The VillaCampestre website tells us in 'Local History' that:

Cresci arrived in Italy from Germany in the 3rd century A.D. and was shortly thereafter befriended by Minias. For practicing the emerging and as yet unrecognized Christian cult—and refusing to acknowledge the Roman gods—the two were arrested, with Minias put in the Florence arena to face the lions. According to legend, the lions left the devout Minias unharmed, and thus to satisfy the Roman audience, Minias was beheaded before the viewing public. Cresci, on the other hand, was placed in prison, where he encountered a guard named Ognone, whose sick child Cresci healed. Ognone converted, freed Cresci, and the two along another prisoner named Emptius escaped to the rural country outside Florence, specifically to a place known as Valcava, right here in the Mugello.

Cresci baptised a local woman and healed her child, which may account for his populatity with women, but alas his days of freedom were numbered.

As news about these events travelled, the Romans soon tracked down the escapees. Ognone and Emptius were promised reprieve if they acknowledged the Greek god of medicine and healing Aesculapius over Cresci (archaeological evidence such as Roman-era coins, carved stones, and animal bones found on the site suggest there was in fact a pagan temple here prior, perhaps one dedicated to the god of healing). Refusing, the two were whipped and stoned to death. Cresci was then taken and beheaded, his head mounted on a spike to be carried back to Florence.

The legend of Cresci does not end here, however. After travelling a short distance with Cresci’s head, the Roman soldier carrying it became exhausted from its inexplicable weight. The head fell to the ground and could not be moved. It was on this spot that Cresci, Ognone and Emptius were buried and afterwards the church built, one of the first in the Mugello.

So far so factual, or at least so far so 'not just invented for the Decameron'. But I think what that gives Boccaccio is plausible deniability on the 'santo cresci in man'. Saint Crescent in the Hollow sounds a bit rude on its own, it sounds a lot more rude if you also introduce a Saint Crescent in the Hand, and if you can have one, why not have both!

The euphemistic interpretation seems to be generally aknowledged, eg in 'Turpiloquium in Boccaccio’s Decameron', Catherine Baxter writes:

Naming the Genitalia

Whereas in the French fabliaux there clearly exists a “profuse celebration of the body, and especially the sexual organs,”28 there is no such celebration of the genitalia in Boccaccio’s oeuvre. In fact, the Decameron’s sexual vocabulary is significant for the lack of direct terms used to identify the sexual organs. Allusions to erect male members are relatively rare and are always expressed indirectly via circumlocution or metaphor. Hence, Boccaccio mentions “santo cresci in man” (2.7.37) and Alatiel refers figuratively to “san Cresci in Valcava” (2.7.109)

And in the Broadview Press 2017 edition of The Decameron: Selected Tales edited and translated by Don Beecher and Massimo Ciavolella the editors write that:

The joke is based on the relationship between Cresci and the verb crescere, to grow or swell. Thus Boccaccio’s “Santo Cresci in man,” relating to mano or hand, gives the translator a choice: play it straight or establish beyond doubt that it’s all about an erection. Later in the story comes mention of “San Cresci in Val Cava.” That is the name of the shrine: “val cava” means valley of the quarry or cave; the connotations are analogous.

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