At the very beginning of the pandemic last year, when the virus was still largely constrained to China, I started reading Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron in English translation, specifically the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Guido Waldman (1993). A classic work of medieval Italian literature inspired by plague, it seemed semi-topical and was a welcome diversion from work — and although it wasn’t my main aim in reading it, I also hoped to find some references to Indonesian commodities in the text, like those in the works of Chaucer, Dante, and Villon. Find them I did, albeit in only one of the hundred stories included in Boccaccio’s sprawling collection.

In this post we’ll have a look at this reference — a mention of clove-scented soap in one of the later tales. As in other posts in my Indonesian-commodities-in-medieval-Europe series, I’ll introduce the text in question, transcribe a section from a suitably ancient manuscript, and translate it, although in this case I doubt I can improve on the World’s Classics version. I’ll add a few comments about cloves and their uses at the end as well.

The Decameron was written in around 1351. The book’s simple frame story is as follows: Ten young Florentines — three men (Dioneo, Filostrato, and Panfilo) and seven women (Elissa, Emilia, Fiammetta, Filomena, Lauretta, Neifile, and Pampinea) — leave the city for a villa in the country to escape the Black Death. To amuse one another they tell funny or moralising stories, one per person per day for ten days, for a total of 100 separate tales. The subjects of the stories vary widely, although they’re all earthy and (somewhat) realistic and take place in a range of settings, from Italy and England to Cyprus and Egypt. Some are gently subversive or satirical but most are simply good fun. Or full of bonking. Or all of the above.

The stories are grouped into days, so that the stories on the first day form one chapter of the book, sort of, and those on the second day form the next chapter, and so on. In most manuscripts of The Decameron the day is indicated in Roman numerals at the top of the page, as is the case with the manuscript I’m using here (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, italien 482, about which more below [Figure 1]). This feature seems to have been one of Boccaccio’s own designs; he appears to have actively managed the design of manuscripts of his work until late in his life.

Fig. 1 — The Roman numeral <VIII> at the top of the page in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, italien 482, f.172v.

As I said, I’ve only come across one reference in The Decameron to commodities from the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. This is a reference to soap perfumed with musk and cloves (or more literally been ‘musked and cloved’) in the last story of the eighth day, told by Dioneo (Figure 2). This is the tale of Salabaetto, a Tuscan merchant in Sicily.

Fig. 2 — Dioneo, the teller of the tale of Salabaetto and Jancofiore on the eighth day. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Holkham misc. 49, f.105r.

Here’s a brief summary of the story (Figure 3):

Salabaetto is a good-looking young lad from Tuscany. He travels to Palermo in Sicily with a significant amount of woollen cloth, hoping to sell it there. He leaves his wares at the customs house and wanders into town, and while there he notices a beautiful and apparently well-bred woman named Jancofiore. He sets about trying to attract her attention, but he doesn’t have to try hard because she’s already looked into the logbooks of the customs house and knows just how much his cargo’s worth. Jancofiore is a con-artist, in fact, and an apparently practised one. (Dioneo/Boccaccio implies that swindlers of this sort were particularly common around the customs houses of cities like Palermo.)

Fig. 3— A short summary of Dioneo’s tale on the eighth day from a fifteenth-century manuscript of The Decameron (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Holkham misc. 49, f.3v — copied in Ferrara, 1467). These summaries are found in nearly all manuscripts of the work and vary little.

Salabaetto’s a handsome fellow, so he naturally believes that Jancofiore’s into him because of his looks. He’s not even a little suspicious of her advances. Anyway, she sends an old maid to tell him to meet her at a bathhouse in town. At this meeting Jancofiore goes to great lengths to appear rich: She has gone so far as to rent the entire bathhouse. Her slave-girls tend to the pair’s needs, including bringing in a mattress and bedding; they even scrub the bath down prior to Jancofiore’s arrival. She’s brought along some fancy dresses. Aloeswood incense is smoldering in the background. There’s rosewater and orange oil in silver vessels, and — significantly for our purposes — soap scented with clove and musk. Salabaetto’s very impressed by all of this, and assumes that Jancofiore really is as rich as her over-the-top display suggests.

Once the slave-girls have left the room, Jancofiore apparently subjects Salabaetto to the kind of sex that causes a person to make poor life choices. They meet several times after this, giving Salabaetto little cause for concern, until one day Jancofiore weepily tells him a concocted story that makes him hand over almost all of his profits — 500 gold florins — leaving little for himself (Figure 4). He expects that she will be able to pay him back (see: the aforementioned display of wealth), and when it becomes clear that isn’t what she intends to do, he cons her back and doubles his earnings. Dioneo concludes the tales by having Jancofiore say (in Guido Waldman’s translation):

‘Florentine merchants are dealers in lies,
To bargain with them takes a sharp pair of eyes.’

Fig. 4 — Depictions of Salabaetto handing the money over to Jancofiore (L) and the two bathing together (R) in an early-fifteenth-century manuscript of The Decameron once owned by Charles VIII of France (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, italien 63, f.256v). Ludovico Ceffini (1396–1424) copied and illustrated this manuscript (which incidentally is lacking numerals to indicate the day at the top of the page).

Naturally, here I’m most interested in the reference to cloves and their use as symbols of wealth and decadence.

The spicy section I have transcribed below is taken from BnF italien 482, a fourteenth-century manuscript, probably copied c.1360, that shows evidence of adjustments in Boccaccio’s own hand (Figure 5). (You can find the entirety of The Decameron in modernised Italian on Wikisource, incidentally.) This is generally considered the second-most-important of the surviving manuscripts of The Decameron after Berlin State Library, Hamilton 90, which was copied in around 1370. (Italien 482 is actually the older of the two, and — luckily for us — has been completely digitised.) Here’s the text, in any case:

Fig. 5— The soap (‘sapone moscadato ⁊ cõ garofanato’) in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, italien 482, f.172v.


[…] Appresso questo come
allej piacque ĩgnud(i) amẽdunj senẽtra-
rono nelbagno ⁊ cõloro due delle schia-
ue, quiuj sença lascíargli por mano
(addosso) adaltruj ella medesima cõsapone mosc-
adato ⁊ cõ garofanato, marauígliosamẽte

e bene tutto lauo salabaetto · ⁊ appresso sefe-
ce e lavare e stropicciare alle schiaue.
⁊ fatto questo recaron leschíaue due lẽçu-
olj biãchíssímj ⁊ sottilj dequalj ueníua sigrã-
de odor dirose checió cheuera pareua ro-
se · ⁊ nelluno ĩuíluppò luna salabaetto
⁊ laltra nellaltro la doña, ⁊ ĩcollo leuatig-
lisí amẽdunj nelletto fatto negli portaro-
no, ⁊ quiuj poj chedi sudare furono restatj
dalle schiaue fuorj dique lẽçuolj trattj ⁊
rimasono ĩgnudj neglaltri, ⁊ tratti delpa-
níere orícanni dariento bellíssímj ⁊ pienj qu-
aldacqua rosa qual dacqua difiordarancj
qualdacqua difior di gíessomíno ⁊ qual
dacqua namfa · tutti costoro diqueste acqu-
e sprucçarono, ⁊ appresso tírate fuori sca-
tole dicõfettí ⁊ pretiosíssimj vinj alquãto
sicõfortarono Ad Salabaetto pareua essere ĩ
paradiso, ⁊ mille uolte aueua ríguardata
costej laquale era ᵱcerto bellíssima ⁊ cẽto
añj gli pareua cíaschuna hora chequeste
schiaue senãdassero, ⁊ che egli nelle bracc-
ia dicostej sírítrovasse Lequalj poj che
ᵱ comãdamẽto della doña lascíato un to-
rchietto acceso nella camera andate sen-
e fur fuorí costej abbraccio salabaetto ⁊ e-
gli lej · ⁊ cõ grãdissimo piacer di salabaetto
alquale pareua che costej tutta si struggesse
ᵱsuo amore dimorarono una lũga hora ·


‘After this, in accordance with her wish, they both stepped naked into the bath, with two of the slave-girls. Here she would not let any but herself touch him as she soaped him and gave him a good wash all over with a soap scented with musk and clove, after which she had her slave-girls wash and massage her. This done, the slaves brought two of the whitest, gauziest sheets that were so impregnated with attar of roses the whole place smelt of roses; one slave wrapped Salabaetto in one sheet while the other wrapped Jancofiore in the other, then they lifted them up and carried them over to the ready-made bed. When the pair had had enough of perspiring, the slaves pulled those sheets off them to leave them lying naked in the other set, while they took out from the basket the most exquisite silver flasks filled with various perfumes — rose-water, orange-flower water, scent of jasmine, orange oil — and sprinkled them all over with them. Next they unpacked boxes of sweetmeats and some of the choicest wines and they took some refreshment. Salabaetto was in his seventh heaven; he could not take his eyes of Jancofiore, who was undoubtedly a beauty, and he was counting the hour-long minutes until the slave-girls withdrew and left him in the arms of his beloved. Eventually the lady ordered them out, leaving a lighted candle in the room, whereupon she and Salabaetto embraced and enjoyed a good hour’s dalliance, he in a state of utter bliss as she appeared to be completely devoured with love for him.’
(trans. Guido Waldman — p.543–544 in my 2008 reprint of the 1993 Oxford World’s Classics text)

Fig. 6— The musk- and clove-scented soap (‘sapone moscoleato ⁊ cõ garofanato’) in a fifteenth-century manuscript of The Decameron (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Holkham misc. 49, f.135v).
Fig. 7— The references to Cypriot incense and aloeswood (legno aloe) in the two manuscripts referenced above (top: Bodleian MS. Holkham misc. 49, f.135vb, bottom: BnF italien 482, f.173r).

After this Salabaetto and Jancofiore retire to a bedroom scented with ‘Cypriot incense’ (duccelletti cipriani) and aloeswood — i.e. Aquilaria malaccensis, a Southeast Asian tree whose mold-infected heartwood has long been one of the pricier types of incense, marketed under the names ‘lignaloes/lignum aloe’ (as in medieval Europe), ‘agarwood’, ‘eaglewood’, ‘gaharuwood’ (from the Malay/Indonesian name gaharu), and others (Figure 7).

All of this deceives Salabaetto into thinking he is dealing with an independently wealthy lady. Here’s Waldman’s translation:

…all of which taken together — as well as severally — led him to the conclusion that the lady must be extremely wealthy and well connected. Whatever he had heard rumoured about her lifestyle that might have contradicted this appraisal, he refused to believe it; even if he was ready, up to a point, to accept that she had deceived other men, he was never going to believe that she would ever do so to him.’

It seems that Boccaccio is using cloves here as metonyms for wealth and hedonism, a use somewhat paralleled in the sole reference to cloves in Dante’s Inferno. In the Inferno an overly decadent use of the clove (garofano) condemns one Niccolò Bonsignori to Hell — a little more moralising than in Dioneo’s story but essentially the same idea.

I don’t think I’ve come across clove-scented soap in a medieval European text before. Clove-scented soaps can still be purchased, of course, although they’re probably not quite as expensive as they were in fourteenth-century Italy. Like some of the uses of cloves documented in other medieval texts, the reference here shows that spices were not valued in Europe (or elsewhere in Afro-Eurasia) simply for their capacity to mask the smell of rotten meat, as popular lore has it. (In fact they probably weren’t used for this purpose at all.) Spices had a wide range of uses and were valued for many reasons, particularly for their purported medicinal powers. Cloves and other spices could be found in foodstuffs of all kinds, as well as in medicines (for both humans and animals) and, indeed, toiletries across the medieval world.

If you have followed this blog for a while, or even if you haven’t, you will probably already know that cloves are the dried flowers of a tree (the clove tree, Syzygium aromaticum) which at the time Boccaccio was writing grew on only five small islands (Ternate, Tidore, Bacan, Moti, and Makian) in what is now the Indonesian province of North Maluku. All the cloves in the medieval world came from these islands — a good 12,000 kilometres from Palermo, closer to Australia and New Guinea than even to India or China (Figure 8). The fact that an Italian writer in the fourteenth century could make a past participle (garofanato) from the name of the flower of an eastern Indonesian tree and expect his readers to understand and be familiar with it is an undeniably remarkable thing.

Fig. 8— A little map showing the distance between Palermo, where Boccaccio set his tale, and Ternate, where cloves grew and were harvested.

I don’t know if I will be updating the blog much in the coming months but you never know. My Ph.D defence is on Thursday (20th May) and it’s entirely possible my head will be clearer when it’s done. I certainly have some ideas for topics to write up here. I don’t really have a conclusion to this post so this will have to do.

A. J. West — Leiden 2021

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.