The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 1: Third Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Filomena speaks next. She thinks it’s time to turn to the adventures of humans. Her tale will teach her friends to be careful in answering questions because wisdom protects a person from peril while foolishness brings misery.
The stories of Day I don’t have an assigned theme, but they still follow a few threads, one of which is the exercise of wisdom. Abraham was presented as wise both in general and in his conversion to Christianity, and Filomena will tell another tale about a wise Jewish person.
Themes
Intelligence Theme Icon
Saladin, the Muslim leader of a great and successful empire, needs some quick cash. He turns to an unfortunately tightfisted Jewish moneylender named Melchizedek. Saladin doesn’t want to take his money by force, so he covers his motives with a clever strategy. Saladin invites Melchizedek to visit his court, then asks whether he thinks Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is the true religion.
This story takes place entirely outside of the European setting of the book, with its setting in Egypt and its focus on a Muslim ruler (Saladin) and Jewish moneylender (Melchizedek). There were significant, visible populations of Jewish people throughout Europe and the Middle East by the 13th century. They frequently filled an important role as moneylenders to merchants and kings, but their marginal status (as both a religious minority and practitioners of a reviled profession) made them susceptible to individual and communal acts of expulsion and violence. In this tale, Melchizedek initially fulfills the stereotype of the miserly Jewish moneylender, who was happy to receive excessively expensive interest payments but significantly less willing to lend his money out to others.
Themes
Intelligence Theme Icon
Melchizedek sees that Saladin is trying to bait him into an argument, but he is wise and quick-witted. He tells a parable about a man who leaves his incredibly precious ring to his heir. It passes through generations until it comes to a man with three equally splendid and beloved sons. Unable to pick, the father secretly commissions a jeweler to make two copies, and he gives one ring to each son. Each desires his father’s estate and title, using the ring to prove his rights. But because it’s impossible to differentiate the rings, the matter of the inheritance is never settled.
Saladin’s question is obviously a trap and a threat: if Melchizedek answers that Islam is the true religion, he will have betrayed his own people; if he answers that Judaism is, he will have angered his Muslim ruler and patron. However, he displays his powerful intelligence through the parable of the nearly identical rings. The story is especially pleasing for being a story-within-a-story within the book’s frame.
Themes
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Likewise, Melchizedek tells Saladin, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all think that they possess the correct laws and observe the correct commandments of God. The question of primacy remains unresolved because their claims are so similar. Recognizing that Melchizedek has ingeniously avoided the trap, Saladin admits his strategy and then asks Melchizedek outright for a loan, which he receives. After he pays the money back, the men remain lifelong friends.
In contrast to the previous tale, Melchizedek doesn’t recognize the superiority of Christianity and convert. The potential blasphemy of the claim that it’s impossible to tell which religion is right (in the context of Christian-majority medieval Europe, the correct answer would be, of course, Christianity) is softened by putting the answer into the mouth of a Jewish man. And at the end of the story, Melchizedek has changed from fulfilling the stereotype of the miserly Jew to the stereotype of the wise Jew. In this capacity, he demonstrates that wisdom is the ability to recognize a situation and handle it with tact and grace.
Themes
Intelligence Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
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