The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 10: Second Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Elissa, not to be outdone by Neifile, proposes to tell a tale of generosity done by a clergyman who was less powerful and wealthy than a king, and who could have considered his recipient an enemy rather than a friend. Besides, despite sermonizing on generosity and turning the other cheek, everyone knows that priests are even more tight-fisted than women who “fight tooth and nail against every charitable instinct.” 
The tales of the final day are characterized by a rising sense of competition amongst the brigata to outdo and top each other’s stories, which begins as soon as Elissa begins the second tale. This recalls the friendly competition on Day 2, where the narrators increasingly emphasized the stark contrast of fortune’s reversals (from bad to good) for their characters. But before she begins, she offers general comments about generosity, which draw on both antifeminist stereotypes about women’s stinginess and greed and the stock complaints of anticlerical satire that neither charity nor forgiveness come easily to the clergy who preach the values of generosity and mercy.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
After Ghino di Tacco is banished from Siena, he rebels against the Church of Rome and begins to rob anyone who passes near his stronghold at Radicofani. During this time, the Abbot of Cluny—the richest monk in the world—visits the pope at Rome, “ruin[s] his stomach,” and is advised to visit the baths at Siena for treatment. Ignoring the danger that Ghino poses, he sets out in style with servants, horses, and luggage.
The situation this tale describes is based in events surrounding the historical figure of Ghino di Tacco. In rebelling against papal authority, Ghino places himself and his followers under interdict, meaning that the normal rites of the church couldn’t be celebrated in their territory. This places them outside of the practice of their faith, at least according to the worldly authority of the pope. The Abbot of Cluny appeared in an early story (I, 7), which emphasized his great wealth. This tale also suggests that he hasn’t been moderate in his lifestyle: he’s ruined his stomach after a visit to the pope, suggesting that he overindulged on rich foods and wines while at Rome to the point of making himself ill.
Themes
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Ghino di Tacco has his men ambush the Abbot of Cluny and his entire retinue, then escort them to the fortress as Ghino’s guests. The Abbot tries to refuse the dubious hospitality of a highwayman, but since theirs is a place where “except for the power of God, we fear nothing, and where excommunications and interdicts are entirely ineffectual,” the Abbot has no choice but to comply.
Ghino and his men demonstrate faith in God even while they reject the authority claimed by the Roman Catholic Church over its believers. Interdicts were the primary political tool the church had to influence secular politics, and Ghino represents a resistance to this imposition of authority, especially by a hypocritical and indulgent clergy.
Themes
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Ghino di Tacco has the Abbot of Cluny deposited in a “dark and uncomfortable” room. Then, posing as a servant, he speaks with the Abbot and learns that he was going to Siena for medical treatment, which Ghino decides to try to provide. In the morning, he brings the Abbot two slices of toast and a glass of wine for breakfast. While issuing cranky comments and advice (which Ghino tactfully ignores), the hungry Abbot eats the food. Ghino keeps the Abbot on this diet for a few days before treating him to a lavish banquet. Reunited with his company, the Abbot learns that they have received excellent hospitality, although they haven’t met their host.
Ghino and his men may be operating outside of the sanction of the Roman Catholic Church—a position which usually suggests, in the Middle Ages, the total rejection of all social boundaries—but he proves himself to be a morally upright man. He demonstrates kindness and patience towards the Abbot. He’s also a capable physician: having correctly guessed that excessive indulgence is to blame for the Abbot’s illness, he prescribes an austere diet meant to rebalance the Abbot’s system. Once the Abbot has sufficiently recovered, Ghino goes on to demonstrate his noble generosity with an excellent banquet. In hiding his identity for so long, Ghino ensures that he will be judged on his actions rather than on his reputation.
Themes
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
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Only after the Abbot of Cluny has fully recovered does Ghino di Tacco reveal his identity and explain that he turned to highway robbery because his exile and impoverishment prevented him from living a life befitting his noble rank. He declines to rob the Abbot, instead asking for a donation in recognition of his hospitality and medical care. Because he’s come to see the highwayman as a friend, the Abbot embraces him while cursing his bad fortune. He leaves everything but his bare necessities behind. Once he’s returned to Rome, the Abbot convinces the Pope to forgive Ghino and give him the means to live in a manner befitting his rank. The pope makes Ghino a Knight Hospitaller, then places him in charge of a priory, keeping him a friend and servant of the church for the rest of his days.
In contrast to his bad reputation, Ghino has treated the Abbot with kindness, generosity, and Christian charity. He thus proves that a person’s inherent character is more important in determining their worth than external appearances and titles, whether they are “nobleman” or “highwayman.” Nevertheless, this tale betrays its deep investment in traditional ideas about class when it allows Ghino to justify his crimes because they are the only way he can live the life appropriate to a man of his rank. Here, he clearly means his social status, rather than the merit he deserves because of his character. But by invoking fortune for his state, the tale absolves both the highwayman and the church hierarchy of any responsibility for the situation. The Abbot’s act of extreme generosity, leaving behind all the extra luxuries he brought with him, is meant to be the tale’s supreme example of munificence. But the tale obliquely uses even this to criticize the clergy, since entertaining the Abbot and his retinue during their stay required a larger commitment of goods from Ghino. The Abbot also orchestrates the rehabilitation of Ghino’s reputation (at no cost to himself, given his stature in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy). And—given that he cured the Abbot’s illness—it’s appropriate that he become a Knight Hospitaller. This was a Christian military order founded initially to care for and protect sick pilgrims in the Holy Land.
Themes
Class and Character Theme Icon