Filomena prefaces her tale with an acknowledgement that it is more suitable for a lay audience than a clerical one, since it shows how most priests are extremely ignorant and greedy.
While several of the preceding tales have flirted with or included elements of anticlerical satire—literature criticizing the priests, monks, nuns, and leaders of the medieval church for their hypocrisy and sinfulness—Filomena’s tale is a classic, fully articulated example of the genre in which the greed and stupidity of the Friar not only allows but helps the Florentine Noblewoman to conduct an affair behind her husband’s back.
A Florentine Noblewoman deeply resents her marriage to a wealthy but bourgeoise wool merchant. She avoids his “beastly caresses” as much as possible and resolves to take an attractive Florentine Nobleman as a worthier lover. Noticing that he was on friendly terms with a Florentine Friar, she hatches a plan to use the holy man as a go-between to establish their affair.
This tale also engages directly with class commentary. Although many of the stories feature merchants and engage with the concerns of the merchant/middle class (as trade was the foundation of the Florentine economy and politics in the 12th and 13th centuries), the Florentine Noblewoman has great disdain for her nouveau riche (new money) husband—a disdain that also attaches itself to other men whose wealth has allowed them access to the better rungs of society like Arriguccio Berlinghieri (VII, 8) and Nicola da San Lepidio (VIII, 5). Her attitude suggests that wealth and class are distinct. Although she disparages her husband, this is in line with The Decameron’s ongoing argument that character, attitude, and behavior, rather than wealth or social status, confer nobility on a person. It’s also notable that while she can’t control her marriage, she can exert control over her sexuality, depriving her husband of sex and giving it to a man that she thinks is worthy.
The Florentine Noblewoman approaches the Florentine Friar, who happily agrees to hear her confession since she’s clearly rich. At the end, she expresses deep love for her husband and complains that the Florentine Nobleman has been stalking her. She’s telling the Friar in the hope that he can handle the situation quietly, but if not, she threatens to get her husband and brothers involved. The Friar promises her help in exchange for which she gives him a large charitable donation.
The Florentine Friar’s eagerness to gain a rich client betrays greed—one of the seven deadly sins in the Christian tradition. He’s also gullible and open to the Noblewoman’s deft manipulation. Her threat of involving her male relatives—which would bring scandal if not outright violence—reminds the audience of how deeply male honor was wrapped up with female sexuality.
The Florentine Nobleman is somewhat surprised when the Florentine Friar reproaches him for stalking the Florentine Noblewoman, but because he’s perceptive he realizes something is afoot. He begins to walk past her house frequently and comes to reciprocate her feelings of attraction.
The Nobleman is as intelligent and quick as the Friar is gullible and stupid; in a book that celebrates human intelligence in many forms, it isn’t surprising that a lack of wit would be a key criticism of the clergy.
The Florentine Noblewoman takes a purse and belt to the Florentine Friar, claiming that the Florentine Nobleman sent them to her as a gift and she doesn’t know how to return them. The Friar again excuses his friend, promising to return the gifts and set him straight. At his next confession, the Nobleman is delighted to receive expensive lover’s tokens from his lady. Finally, the Noblewoman goes to the Friar claiming that, in her husband’s absence, the Nobleman entered her garden, climbed a tree near the wall, and tried to get into her bedroom. Of course, the Nobleman wastes no time in following her instructions and “before you could say knife,” the two are enjoying each other’s embraces while laughing at the friar’s ignorance and the wool merchant’s lack of class. Filomena prays to God that she and all “like-minded Christian souls” might have a similarly enjoyable fate.
An important part of courtship rituals in the Middle Ages, the exchange of lover’s tokens often cements a romantic partnership—just as gifts more generally cement relationships between people throughout The Decameron. It’s also notable that the gifts are expensive—she punishes her uncouth husband not only by cheating on him, but also by stealing from his wealth. When the Nobleman climbs into the room as fast as saying “knife,” the pun is describing his speed while at the same time making a joke, since knives are often symbolic of male anatomy. The consummation of the affair also fulfils the day’s theme—perseverance—since it took such careful planning and work for the Noblewoman to fully communicate her plan to her potential lover. Filomena’s prayer at the end is challenging, since she seems to be praying that God would help people find lovers—which is contrary to Christian morality and religious teaching. While it’s possible that her prayer is simply blasphemous and indicates a late-medieval, humanistic turn away from traditional Christianity, there are other potential interpretations. For example, the Noblewoman and her lover are equally matched through their wit and intelligence (as well as their class), and well-matched, mutually satisfactory romantic relationships are a frequent theme of the tales, so it’s possible that this is the fate for which Filomena prays.