Lauretta’s tale, told next, picks up on the theme of a supposedly resurrected man, but her protagonist isn’t as clever as Tedaldo. In Tuscany, a Womanizing Abbot with a reputation for holiness becomes acquainted with Ferondo, a wealthy but simple-headed man who happens to have a very beautiful wife. Ferondo’s Wife is quite lovely, and Ferondo is jealous and protective. The three often walk together in the monastery’s grounds, and eventually Ferondo’s Wife comes to the Abbot for confession.
Lauretta’s tale weaves together many threads from Day 3’s tales, in addition to Tedaldo’s evident resurrection (III, 7): it recalls Panfilo’s account of Friar Puccio, where a mismatched couple are befriended by a religious figure and the holy man gains access to the wife’s bed through trickery (III, 4), and it includes the theme of excessive jealousy first introduced by Fiammetta (III, 6). The triad of beautiful wife, sexy abbot, and dunderheaded husband is drawn from fabliaux (humorous stories about sexual tricks) with their inherent bias against hypocritical religious figures.
Ferondo’s Wife complains to the Womanizing Abbot about being married to a bumpkin like Ferondo and being subject to his jealousy. Seeing that fortune has given him an opportunity, the Abbot offers to teach Ferondo a lesson by allowing him to “die,” sending him to Purgatory to be cured of his jealousy, then resurrecting him with certain prayers. In exchange for these services, the Abbot asks for her love since he’s been burning and pining for her. Ferondo’s Wife is horrified at this request, especially since she’s always believed the Abbot to be very holy.
The concept of Purgatory—a place that is neither heaven nor hell, where people who don’t deserve eternal damnation in hell but who can’t gain immediate access to heaven because they have unconfessed or unrepented sins to work off—developed over the course of the 12th century. And, while Ferondo’s obtuseness is at the center of the story, his wife’s willingness to believe that the Abbot can send her husband to the afterlife and then bring him back suggests that she may not be so bright herself. It’s also not entirely clear whether her surprise at the Abbot’s indecent proposal is a result of naiveté or willful ignorance. The Decameron provides myriad examples of lustful priests, suggesting that common people in the Middle Ages understood that priests were prone to this type of sin.
The Womanizing Abbot answers that sex is only a sin of the body, and that saintliness resides in the soul; besides, Ferondo’s Wife should take it as an extreme compliment to her beauty that he, accustomed to seeing heavenly beauties, should find her so desirable. He also presents her with a magnificent ring, implying that he has more where that came from. Despite lingering uncertainty, the lady is eventually swayed by his compliments and gifts.
The Abbot’s comments here recall the hierarchy of “natural” sins that Tedaldo laid out in the previous tale (III, 7)—but in general, his arguments are overly legalistic and not very convincing. When reason fails, he falls back on gendered assumptions of feminine greed and vanity, offering the woman a beautiful ring. The gift demonstrates how lover’s tokens work: it is both a sign of the Abbot’s affection and a valuable object that creates a bond of obligation between its giver (the Abbot) and recipient (the woman).
When Ferondo visits the monastery a few days later, the Womanizing Abbot drugs him with a special powder he procured in the East. Ferondo falls unconscious to the floor and none of the monks can find his pulse. They call his family to the monastery and bury him. Later that night, the Abbot and a Bolognese Monk retrieve him from his coffin, dress him in monks’ robes, and hide him in a windowless cell to sleep off the drug’s effects.
In 14th-century Europe, the East was associated with exotic and secret knowledge, such as the Abbot’s sleeping powder.
The following day, the Womanizing Abbot visits Ferondo’s Wife to pay his respects—and to arrange to come by later. She readily accepts when she sees “another fine ring” on his finger. Later that night, dressed in Ferondo’s clothes, the Abbot returns to sleep with her. During the long time he keeps up this habit, people sometimes see him walking between the monastery and her house, but they assume he’s Ferondo’s ghost, doing penance for his sins.
Repeated references to the Abbot’s jewelry pointedly remind the audience of the way in which church officers hoard wealth despite their vows of poverty, forming part of the tale’s anticlerical satire. The fact that Ferondo’s Wife never fails to notice them suggests that she is prone to greed and vanity—two charges frequently made against women in antifeminist medieval writings. This focus on the exchange of goods and services also suggests prostitution or selling sex for money and places their affair outside of the aristocratic tradition of fin’amors (refined loving). The Abbot and his woman are debased by their affair rather than being ennobled by it.
When Ferondo comes to, the Bolognese Monk pretends they’re in Purgatory, beating him with sticks and scolding him for his jealousy towards his wife. The Monk claims that he is also condemned to a period in Purgatory along with other ridiculous things that Ferondo accepts at face value—namely, that the dead still need to eat, that Ferondo’s Wife makes offerings of food and wine to the church and that these offerings are brought to him in Purgatory, and that sometimes God sends people back to earth after they’ve worked off their sins.
Ferondo’s willingness to believe obviously ridiculous things illustrates the simplemindedness for which he’s punished by the tale’s logic.
The Bolognese Monk keeps up this charade—while the Womanizing Abbot continues his affair with Ferondo’s Wife—for ten months, until she realizes that she’s pregnant. They agree it’s time to recall Ferondo from Purgatory in enough time to think he’s fathered her child. That night, the Abbot disguises his voice to tell Ferondo that, on account of the prayers of the Abbot and his wife, God is returning him to earth and sending him a child that he should name Benedict. Ferondo is pleased by this good news.
Usually in fabliaux, there are no real consequences for sex; the person most likely to suffer is the duped husband. But in a nod towards the realism that threads through The Decameron’s tales—a sign of Giovanni Boccaccio’s mastery of his craft—nearly a year of sleeping with the Womanizing Abbot does leave Ferondo’s Wife pregnant. This necessitates the final trick, making Ferondo think that he is the child’s legitimate father. The “vision” in which the Abbot talks to Ferondo as if in the voice of God recalls the Biblical narrative of John the Baptist, whose birth was foretold to his father, Zacharias, in very similar terms in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke.
The Womanizing Abbot drugs Ferondo, dresses him in his own clothes, and puts him back in his coffin. He emerges the next day much to the surprise of the monks. He throws himself at the Abbot’s feet, grateful to have been resurrected because of his prayers. Pretending that it’s a miracle, the Abbot instructs him to run home and comfort Ferondo’s Wife. Barely nine months later, she gives birth to “his” son. Ferondo’s resurrection enhances his reputation, and he tells his neighbors all sorts of ridiculous stories about their dead relatives, as well as the revelations he received from “Arse-Angel Bagriel.” The miracle also enhances the Abbot’s saintly reputation, even as he continues to enjoy Ferondo’s Wife.
Although a pregnancy resulted from the Abbot’s illicit affair with Ferondo’s Wife, in true fabliaux fashion, there are no bad consequences. Ferondo deserved to be cuckolded thanks to his extreme lack of intelligence and common sense—illustrated humorously though his boasts that he spoke to the Archangel Gabriel, although he misremembers his name—and the jealousy with which he unfairly guarded his wife. The lack of punishment points to the competing value systems in The Decameron: although the logic of the tales is often organized around and expressed in the language of traditional Christian morality, in the end, few if any sexual sins are ever punished.