The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Decameron can help.

The Decameron: Day 1: Fourth Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As soon as Filomena finishes, Dioneo pipes up. Because the point of telling stories is to give each other pleasure, he thinks people should tell tales they think most likely to do that. His will show how a monk cleverly avoided a severe punishment.
Dioneo’s opening declares that his story will be of a different kind entirely. And throughout the book, he often fulfills the role of offering a funny story to offset the serious or sometimes even tragic tales told by his friends. His story looks back to the religious themes of Panfilo’s tale of Cepperello (I, 1).
Themes
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Dioneo’s tale takes place in a Tuscan monastery where a Young Monk goes for a country walk at noon one day. He finds a beautiful Country Girl—maybe a farmhand's daughter—collecting herbs. Overcome by lust, he invites her to his cell, where the pair “cavort” together quite noisily. The monastery’s Tuscan Abbot hears the commotion as he passes. Instead of confronting the Young Monk immediately, he decides to lay a trap.
This tale’s setting links it with the medieval pastourelle, a French genre concerned with the love lives of shepherdesses and other girls living in the country. Pastourelles had a deeply sexualized atmosphere, which contrasts with the monastic setting and already hints at the sexual deviance and humor that will characterize this tale (and all of Dioneo’s tales throughout the book). The monk’s dalliance with the girl both illustrates the power of love and sex over human beings—despite his monastic vows of chastity, the Young Monk has the same physical urges as anyone else—and contributes to the anticlerical satire of the book, since the monk doesn’t seem to feel guilty about betraying his vows. And, like the Holy Friar in Panfilo’s tale (I, 1), the Tuscan Abbot doesn’t make clear-headed or rational decisions about how to proceed.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Quotes
Thinking he heard a noise in the corridor, the Young Monk excuses himself from the Country Girl and sees the Tuscan Abbot through a hole in the wall. Expecting a punishment, the Young Monk quickly thinks up a trick. He leaves the girl in his cell, tells the Abbot that he needs to finish gathering logs from the woods, and turns over his key. The Abbot decides against calling witnesses when he enters the Young Monk’s cell in case the girl is a respectable or important person. 
As in many of the tales on this day and throughout the book, the actions of a character who believes themselves to be clever (the Tuscan Abbot, trying to lay a trap) are outmaneuvered by the truly clever (in this case, the Young Monk)—the proof of wit and wisdom is in the outcome. It’s important to note that part of the Abbot’s rationale for entering the room alone is that the girl might be “respectable”—a patriarchal obsession with female chastity ties concerns about gender (women should be virginal) and class (especially if they are aristocratic) together.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Intelligence Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
But when he goes in to confront the Country Girl, the Tuscan Abbot is overcome with lust. He justifies indulging his desires—he’s not likely to have another opportunity like this again!—and the girl readily accepts his advances. As they get busy, he lets her be on top. The Young Monk peers through the hole in the wall and watches before creeping away.
The Abbot is just as susceptible to fleshly desires as his charge. His hollow justifications simply underline the fact that the clergy are just as sinful—if not more!—than normal people, despite their ready willingness to call out and punish the sins of others. This is made even more apparent when he has sex with the girl, since he takes the bottom position; to a medieval audience, a man taking a subordinate/female position in sex suggests homosexuality. Throughout the tale, the Country Girl’s needs and desires aren’t really investigated, and her ready acceptance of the Abbot’s advances just after having sex with the Young Monk demonstrates medieval misogynistic beliefs about the excessive lustfulness of women.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Quotes
Get the entire The Decameron LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Decameron PDF
Once he’s had his fill of pleasure, the Tuscan Abbot calls the Young Monk and orders him into solitary confinement. But the young monk immediately apologizes for breaking the monastery’s rules, saying that he now understands that the proper way to be with a woman is to take the bottom position. He promises to follow the Abbot’s example in the future. Realizing he has been caught in the act, the Abbot pardons the monk, swearing him to secrecy. And, Dioneo adds, they probably bring the Country Girl back on a regular basis.
The sinfulness and hypocrisy of the clergy are on full display both in the Abbot’s attempt to punish the monk for a sin he himself shares and in their mutual agreement to continue to unrepentantly engage in sinful behavior while covering it up. However, the monk’s reply also recalls Melchizedek’s and demonstrates the same quality of wisdom: he recognizes the situation but addresses it tactfully enough to avoid angering the Abbot, even while pointing out the latter’s sin.
Themes
Intelligence Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon