The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 3: Fourth Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Panfilo tells the next tale, which will illustrate a saying that many people accidentally send someone else to Paradise while they’re trying to get into heaven themselves.
Panfilo’s introduction picks up and plays with Filomena’s prayer that God would grant her a happy fate, noting that oftentimes people’s religious efforts and prayers have unintended consequences.
Themes
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When Puccio di Rinieri gets on in years, he becomes a Franciscan tertiary of great piety. Friar Puccio attends mass and recites his prayers faithfully, as well as fasting and performing self-discipline that may include flagellation. However, his young and pretty wife, Isabetta, suffers from his strict regimen, which frequently entails offering her a sermon when she would prefer to have sex. Things stand this way when Dom Felice, a handsome young monk, returns from Paris and begins to cultivate Friar Puccio’s friendship—mainly because Puccio feeds him well.
Tertiaries were not full monks or nuns but were laypeople who took simple vows and lived according to some parts of a monastic order’s rules, while still living outside of the monastery and conducting their own business affairs. In the 14th century, most tertiaries were attached to the Franciscan Order (a type of religious observance founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209), and many were involved in the flagellant movement—meaning that they practiced extreme forms of physical penance for their sins, most frequently whipping themselves. Friar Puccio’s piety seems to be sincere, in stark contrast to the hypocrisy and sinfulness that characterizes most agents of the Roman Catholic Church (monks, nuns, and priests) in the tales. Dom Felice’s interest in Friar Puccio’s generous meals illustrates this hypocrisy, suggesting that he’s prone to the sin of gluttony (excessive consumption of food or alcohol).
Themes
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Dom Felice soon notices Isabetta and, with meaningful looks, kindles her desire. But they’re prevented from acting on them because Isabetta will only agree to an assignation in her home, which Friar Puccio never leaves. After a great deal of thought, Dom Felice comes up with a plan.
Puccio and Isabetta’s January-May marriage (a mismatch between an old husband and a young wife) is a classic setup in fabliaux (short, funny stories of sexual tricks), as is the presence of a friendly religious figure—Dom Felice—who will provide the wife with the sex she craves.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Dom Felice takes Friar Puccio aside and praises him for his saintly aspirations. He offers to teach Puccio the secret method by which the Pope and other clergy achieve holiness. The knowledge is secret because if it leaked out and laypeople could easily become holy, the church would lose its main source of revenue—charitable donations from pious layfolk. After swearing Puccio to secrecy, Felice explains the method.
The secret knowledge that Dom Felice dangles in front of Friar Puccio is part of the tale’s anticlerical satire, suggesting that the clergy are more interested in keeping their revenue streams intact than they are in saving people’s souls, even though that’s their alleged mission in the world.
Themes
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
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The Decameron PDF
After confessing his sins, Friar Puccio will need to abstain from even touching his wife for forty days. During this time, he will spend the whole night propped against a plank with his arms outstretched (in imitation of the crucifixion) while looking into the heavens and praying 300 paternosters and 300 Hail Marys. Allowed only a short rest in bed, Puccio will then spend the rest of his day occupied in prayer.
It's convenient, of course, that Friar Puccio’s religious observance will require him to abstain from sex with his wife. Nor does this seem to be hard since he barely has sex with her already. The extremely difficult and uncomfortable nature of the penance Dom Felice describes seems to poke fun at the flagellant movement, which already encouraged its adherents to practice extremely painful and punishing physical acts.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Friar Puccio plans to start as soon as possible. When he explains the plan to Isabetta, she endorses it and agrees to join him in fasting. During Puccio’s long penance, Dom Felice comes by to share a lavish meal and spend the night in Isabetta’s bed.
Isabetta pretends to support her husband by joining him in fasting, although this is the easiest part of the punishing program of penance Dom Felice has imagined. However, she’s practicing a bunch of sins, including lying, gluttony, and lust. Friar Puccio’s humble, gullible willingness to fast and practice penance throws the immoderate feast and romping sex shared by Dom Felice and Isabetta into sharp relief, increasing the sting of the tale’s anticlerical satire.
Themes
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
One night when they’re particularly loud, Dom Puccio thinks he hears something through the wall, so he calls out to ask Isabetta what’s happening. Isabetta, maintaining her presence of mind even while riding Dom Felice, calls back that she’s shaking on account of the fast. Gullible Puccio accepts her at her word and returns to his prayers. Thus, all the while Puccio did penance, it was his wife and Dom Felice who were in Paradise.
Now the meaning of Panfilo’s proverb becomes clear, and it hinges on a literal meaning of “paradise” as heaven and a figurative meaning, where “paradise” indicates an extremely pleasant situation, such as the sex enjoyed by Dom Felice and Isabetta. Their ability to dupe the trusting Friar Puccio is a standard feature of fabliaux, as is the quick wit Isabetta displays in explaining the suspicious noises Friar Puccio hears. And Dom Felice’s willingness to use his piety as a cover for his gluttony and lust contributes to The Decameron’s ongoing criticism of clerical hypocrisy. This tale fulfils the day’s theme—perseverance—in two ways: despite his discomfort, Friar Puccio persists in his penance, and despite the difficulties posed in initiating the affair, Dom Felice persists until he has full enjoyment of Isabetta. 
Themes
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Intelligence Theme Icon
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Quotes