Emilia relates the story of a Franciscan Inquisitor whose zeal is directed by his greed. A wealthy citizen boasted in a drunken state that some of the wine in his cellar was so delicious that even Jesus Christ would have enjoyed drinking it. Because the Blasphemous Citizen is very rich, and because the Inquisitor, like many clergy members, suffers from “Golden-Mouth” sickness, or a greedy desire for wealth, he pressed charges. The cure for his sickness is “St. John Golden-Mouth’s ointment”—donations—of which the Blasphemous Citizen applies a liberal amount.
Emilia’s tale is a biting anticlerical satire against the Franciscans, a monastic order founded on an ideal of poverty by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209. Yet, by the 14th century, some branches of the order had become quite wealthy and powerful, especially in their association with the Inquisition—a movement to combat heresy and dissent in the Roman Catholic Church that began in the 1100s. Inquisitors were basically church police, with the power to fine, imprison, or otherwise punish people deemed to have heretical (unorthodox) religious beliefs. The Franciscan Inquisitor, by reducing the Blasphemous Citizen’s penance in direct relationship to the size of his monetary donations, is practicing simony, or the selling of church benefits for money. This was a serious concern for church leaders and laypeople by the 14th century, and it contributes to making the Franciscan Inquisitor a villain in this tale. Although the Blasphemous Citizen’s boast is a minor example of excess, the excessive punishment and excessive greed of the Inquisitor are far more serious offenses against order.
The generosity of the Blasphemous Citizen’s donation reduces his punishment to wearing a pilgrim’s badge, attending daily mass, and reporting to the Inquisitor about it. One day, the Citizen reports that he feels sorry for the Franciscan monks. He’s heard the Gospel message that whatever one gives away for God in life will be returned—multiplied by a hundred—in heaven. Each day, the Franciscans give away the water from preparing their vegetables as alms for the poor. Multiply each day’s “offering” by a hundred and add them together, and the Citizen worries that the Franciscans will drown in vegetable water in heaven.
The Blasphemous Citizen’s rebuke of the Franciscan Inquisitor and his brothers is disguised as a very simple-minded and literal understanding of a Biblical text. In fact, the citizen has understood the lesson better than the religious “authorities,” who offer what is essentially refuse and trash as “charity.” The Franciscan friars have much more that they could give away to earn their reward in heaven, but they live lives of worldly greed.
While the other Franciscan friars sitting with the Inquisitor burst out laughing—understanding the Citizen’s mockery—the Inquisitor himself flies into a rage and is only prevented from adding on to the Citizen’s sentence because he realizes that his greedy handling of this situation has already damaged his reputation.
Although all the friars realize they’re being judged and mocked, their responses vary. While most seem to take the rebuke with good humor, the Inquisitor (whose immoderate greed began the story) flies into an immoderate rage. His concern for his reputation motivates him, rather than concern for Christian ideals like forgiveness, adding to the anticlerical indictment of his sinful and base behavior.