Neifile, seated next to Panfilo, tells the next tale, about how God’s mercy can even overcome the shortcomings of the people who should most confess it but refuse to accept it.
Neifile is talking about Jewish people, whom medieval Christians tended to judge harshly for stubbornly “refusing” to accept the Christian faith even though Jesus Christ was himself Jewish.
Neifile’s tale concerns Jehannot de Chevigny, a Parisian merchant, and his friend, a Jewish moneylender called Abraham. Jehannot worries that upright and honest Abraham will be dammed for his incorrect religious beliefs. He tries to convert Abraham, but he clings to the Jewish faith. After some debate, Abraham decides that he will go to Rome. If the behavior of the Pope and cardinals confirms Jehannot’s arguments, he'll convert.
As groups, both moneylenders and Jewish people were marginalized and stigmatized in medieval society. Because some interpretations of the Bible indicated that Christians shouldn’t make loans to other Christians, Jews often filled the commercial void by becoming the main moneylenders in medieval communities and kingdoms. Although medieval Jews in Europe commonly faced religious persecution and racism, the friendship between Jehannot and Abraham appears to be true, based in each man’s recognition of the other’s good character and wisdom. However, rather than being interpreted as faithfulness, Jehannot interprets Abraham’s persistent Jewish faith as stubbornness—and the book’s original medieval audience would have understood it this way, too.
Since Jehannot knows that the clergy in fact lead wicked lives, he tries to dissuade Abraham. But Abraham insists, and when he arrives in Rome, he discovers that almost all church dignitaries indulge in sex with men and women. They also engage in immoderate consumption of food and wine, money-grubbing (asking the faithful to donate more money than they truly need), and lying. As a sober and honest man, he’s deeply offended by their behavior.
What Abraham witnesses in Rome is a strong indictment of the behavior of Roman Catholic church leaders, who don’t live the very values of chastity, moderation, poverty, and honesty that they profess. Although he is from the “wrong” faith (Judaism), Abraham possesses a superior moral compass to the leaders of the “right” one (Christianity). This contributes to the book’s anticlerical sentiment, as another criticism of the church and its leaders for failing to live up to the moral standards of the faith.
Back at home, Jehannot asks Abraham what he found, and Abraham doesn’t hold back: he thought the papal court was a hotbed of wickedness, and that the clergy are trying to destroy the reputation and honor of Christianity with their sinfulness. But, since it is flourishing nevertheless, Abraham now believes that it must be the true faith. Jehannot sponsors his baptism at Notre Dame, Abraham changes his name to John, and he becomes a learned and devout Christian.
Abraham’s conversion despite the sinful behavior he witnessed in Rome differentiates faith in Christian doctrines from mindlessly following the Roman Catholic Church, just like Panfilo’s story (I, 1). Moreover, stories like Abraham’s, in which a Jewish person converts to Christianity when they look at the faith objectively, were common in the Middle Ages and were used to criticize the stubbornness and reticence of Jews who refused to convert.