The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 1: First Tale  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Panfilo remarks that it’s appropriate to invoke God at the beginning of a project, so he will relate one of God’s miracles. Things on earth are temporary and troublesome, but God’s grace strengthens and enlightens people—not as a reward, but through God’s mercy and the saints’ intercession. Because human wisdom can’t penetrate heaven, it’s possible that some of those venerated as saints are, in fact, in hell. But God honors a supplicant’s motives, even if the “saint” in question is bad, as the tale will demonstrate.
Panfilo’s mention of the temporary nature of things on earth recalls the plague and its graphic reminder that human life is fleeting. The framework of his story draws on the Roman Catholic conception of saints, miracles, and intercession. Saints are people who lived particularly holy lives, are thought to have gone to heaven after death, and are believed to have the power to intercede with God—in other words, to ask for things on behalf of the living. Their special heavenly status is often proved through working miracles on earth.
Themes
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An Italian merchant who needs to settle his affairs, including collecting loans made in Burgundy, secures the help of Sir Cepperello, a fellow Italian who is so dishonest that he would be offended if any of the legal papers he’d drawn up were accidentally truthful. He lies for fun, delights in causing discord among friends and relatives, cheerfully commits crimes (including murder!), blasphemes, loses his temper, hires male and female sex workers, drinks, and gambles.
Because the Italian merchant needs to settle loans he made to people in France, he represents the increasingly international practices of trade in the late Middle Ages. He—and Cepperello—also represent the upwardly mobile merchant and banking class that was coming into power and wealth in the 14th century. Cepperello is also the exact opposite of a virtuous person, and his sins are another example of excess and immoderation.
Themes
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Cepperello agrees to collect the merchant’s loans because he is unemployed. The French don’t know him, so he hides his wicked ways. But he falls ill in the home of two Italian moneylenders, who worry that if he dies and they can’t give him a proper Christian burial, they will be run out of town. This is a likely scenario: if Cepperello refuses to confess, the local priests won’t bury him; if he does confess, the priests may refuse to absolve his terrible sins or bury him at their church. Cepperello, overhearing them, declares that another sin won’t change his fate, and he asks for a friar to hear his confession.
Cepperello’s hosts are doubly vulnerable since they are foreigners living in France and they are moneylenders—an almost universally reviled occupation in the Middle Ages. To receive a Christian burial, a medieval person had to be in good standing with the church, by making a confession of all their sins and receiving absolution—a formal pronouncement that their sins have been acknowledged and addressed in life and won’t keep them from heaven. Cepperello’s willingness to lie while he’s confessing indicates a profound lack of concern for Roman Catholic beliefs.
Themes
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Although they don’t trust Cepperello’s plan, his hosts bring him a respected Holy Friar, who leads him through confession sin by sin. Cepperello denies lust, claiming to be a virgin. He admits gluttony because he pigs out on bread and water; he admits greed because he desires to make money to give to the poor; he admits anger because he hates when he sees other people sin; and, finally, he admits to thievery, saying that he once accidentally gave someone incorrect change. He wails about his sinfulness, and the Friar maintains that even if he’d committed all the sins in the world, he's so contrite that God would forgive him. The Friar isn’t even bothered to learn that Cepperello cursed his own mother, since God will certainly forgive him.
The Holy Friar leads Cepperello through a full confession, examining his conscience and past actions as they relate to the seven deadly sins. This classification system arose in the early centuries of the Christian Church and was standard by the 13th century. The seven deadly sins are pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. In his confession, Sir Cepperello not only denies having sinned but claims a level of holiness that’s humorously unbelievable. The Holy Friar’s willingness to take Cepperello’s words at face value is part of the book’s anticlerical satire, suggesting that many members of the clergy are gullible and lack critical thinking skills.
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While his eavesdropping hosts can barely contain their laughter, the Holy Friar absolves Cepperello and offers to bury him in the convent. When Cepperello dies, the Friar’s sermon on his virtues inspires the rest of the monks and the townsfolk to venerate him as a saint, even claiming that he has worked miracles. This proves either that God, in his infinite mercy, forgave him in the end, or that he hears prayers even when they’re made through the wrong channels.
The Holy Friar buys Sir Cepperello’s story, indicating his gullibility and critiquing church leaders who don’t think critically. Yet, Cepperello nevertheless appears to be a successful saint. This either shows God’s infinite mercy or suggests that the religious structures set up by the Roman Catholic Church—confession, absolution, sainthood, intercession—are themselves at least faulty, if not totally ridiculous. This introduces a theme that runs throughout the tales of Day I and the book as a whole: the belief and actions of the faithful are admirable and are often rewarded by God, while, at the same time, questions are raised about organized religious structures that would allow such an incredible sinner to be named a saint.
Themes
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