Dioneo declares his intention to tell a story on the day’s theme, about how a friar of St. Anthony neatly avoided a trap set by two youths. Each year, Friar Cipolla visits Certaldo to collect alms. He’s warmly welcomed, maybe because his name sounds like “onion” and the region is known for growing onions. Friar Cipolla is short, with red hair and a merry face, and although he’s illiterate, he talks up such a storm that people think he’s a rhetorical master—at least at first. During one visit, Friar Cipolla, after reminding everyone to make generous donations so that St. Anthony will watch over their livestock, says he has brought a special relic this year: a feather dropped by the Archangel Gabriel during the Annunciation.
The humor in Dioneo’s tale runs on two axes: one is class, and he pokes good-natured fun at the gullible and sheltered locals of the village (where Giovanni Boccaccio himself spent the final years of his life and where he was possibly born) and at the smooth-talking but illiterate monk. The book’s argument that nobility of spirit can be found among the good men and women of any class rarely applies in practice to its commoner characters (Simona and Pasquino, the doomed lovers of IV, 7, are a notable exception to this rule). The other axis of this tale’s humor is its anticlerical satire, which is aimed partly at undereducated huckster Friar Cipolla and partly at the booming late-medieval business of relic peddling. St. Anthony the Great, patron saint of Friar Cipolla’s order of monks, was known for leaving civilization and living an isolated life of extreme hardship and devotion in the desert (see Dioneo’s earlier tale of Alibech and Rustico in in III, 10 for other desert monks). The contrast between St. Anthony’s devotion and the modern monks, nuns, and priests who are satirized throughout The Decameron couldn’t be much bigger. Relics (remnants of the bodies or belongings of saints or Biblical figures, reputed to have miraculous, often healing properties) were a big business in the Middle Ages, and from the earliest decades of the Christian Church, people had been counterfeiting them. The idea that a humble, itinerant monk like Friar Cipolla would have such an important relic as an archangel’s feather with him on the road should make the citizens of Certaldo more suspicious than they are.
Giovanni del Bragoniera and Biagio Pizzini hear this and decide to play a prank on Friar Cipolla. While he dines with friends, they go to his inn with the intention of distracting his servant, Guccio Porco, and stealing the feather. They can’t wait to hear how he’ll explain away its absence.
Friar Cipolla claims to be in possession of powerful relics, yet Giovanni and Biagio decide to prank him by stealing one. This suggests that they are either not worried about offending God by stealing from a holy man, or that they suspect that the “relics” aren’t quite what Friar Cipolla claims they are.
Friar Cipolla frequently denigrates Guccio Imbratta (Guccio the Pig), listing his fatal flaws in a song: Porco is “untruthful, distasteful, and slothful; negligent, disobedient, and truculent; careless, witless, and graceless.” Cipolla mocks his desire to find a wife and his belief that his “greasy beard” is handsome. He also loves gossip. When Giovanni del Bragoniera and Biagio Pizzini arrive, Guccio is busy seducing an unattractive kitchen maid named Nuta, despite his stained, greasy, and torn clothes and ragged shoes.
Guccio Imbratta (“filthy Guccio”) appears in a bit role in the earlier tale of Simona and Pasquino (IV, 7). But unlike the unlucky lovers, he has no dignity or redeeming traits. The extremely long and detailed description Friar Cipolla has for his servant gives the audience a foretaste of his rhetorical style (which will be on brilliant display later in the tale). But it is also an extremely unflattering portrait of the sins and character flaws of the common or lowest classes of society. Friar Cipolla’s characterization of Guccio mixes a list of sins (lying, slothful, disobedient) with character flaws (witless, graceless), implying that the rude behavior of this rustic servant is as serious as sin.
Giovanni del Bragoniera and Biagio Pizzini head to the friar’s room and root though his luggage, where they find a small box wrapped in cloth, in which is a parrot’s tail-feather. Doubtless, Friar Cipolla would have gotten away with this “relic,” since the townsfolk are simple and not well-traveled. The young men remove it and put some coals in the box.
If there were any doubt that Friar Cipolla might be carrying false relics at the tale’s outset, they are put to rest now: the “angel” feather came from a parrot. The rustic, simple citizens of Certaldo would likely have believed Friar Cipolla’s story about it, but now he will have to explain how it’s been transformed into lumps of coal.
That afternoon, when the entire populace has gathered in front of the church, Friar Cipolla begins his sermon. But at the climactic moment when he opens the box, he finds coal instead of a feather. Without skipping a beat, he charges on, telling the audience how he traveled all over the world in his youth. He lists the places he visited, which include “Bordello,” “Bedlam,” and “Liarland” (where many friars live); places like Abruzzi where everyone loves to go clogging; and the Basque mountains, where water flows down.
Friar Cipolla’s speech is studded with malapropisms (the humorous misuse or distortion of a word) and false wonders. His ornate style informs The Decameron’s anticlerical satire, calling into question how readily anyone should believe a religious authority, no matter how impressive they sound. And, since the citizens of the village hang on his every word, it also carries a class-based criticism of commoners’ lack of education and judgment. Friar Cipolla’s itinerary passes through a mix of nonsensical, made-up places like Liarland, Bordello (a brothel), and Bedlam (a madhouse), and real places described as supposedly marvelous, including Abruzzi (where, following medieval implications of “clogging,” everyone is homosexual) and the Basque mountains where water flows downwards (as it does everywhere, thanks to gravity).
Eventually, in the Holy Land, Father Cipolla saw the vast relic collections of Father Besokindas Tocursemenot. These included the finger of the Holy Ghost and a phial of angel’s sweat. Tocursemenot gave Friar Cipolla “holes from the Holy Cross,” “sound … from Solomon’s Temple,” and Gabriel’s feather, among other things. He later traded one for coals over which “St. Lawrence was roasted.” And they may lack official paperwork, but his relics have already worked some miracles.
The high point of Friar Cipolla’s rhetorical style comes when he describes meeting Father Be-so-kind-as To-curse-me-not, a holy man he met in the Holy Land (areas of present-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria). This man’s relics are obviously ridiculous: ghosts can’t have fingers, sounds can’t be preserved in bottles, and holes can’t be carried about. The holes of the cross likely mock the proliferation of fragments of the true cross (on which Christ was crucified) across the Middle Ages. By the 14th century, good relics would have an origin story, a traceable history back to their original saint or Biblical character, and paperwork certifying their authenticity. Friar Cipolla’s relics have an absurd origin story and no paperwork, but the simple, gullible commoners in the village are willing to take him at his word. Friar Cipolla associates the lumps of coal left in his relic-box with St. Lawrence, a 3rd-century bishop who was martyred, according to legend, by being roasted over an open fire.
Friar Cipolla has the coals with him now because their box is identical to the feather’s box, and he sometimes grabs the wrong one. But anyone whom he marks with the coals can rest assured that for at least a year, they won’t be able to touch fire without being burned. The people press forward so Friar Cipolla can draw crosses on them. And this is how he turned the tables on Giovanni del Bragoniera and Biagio Pizzini, who tried to prank him, and who very much enjoyed his extemporaneous sermon.
Again, while Friar Cipolla’s language suggests something miraculous, he’s describing the way the world works: anyone who touches fire would, in the normal course of things, be burned—the miracle would be touching fire unharmed. In this way, although he’s a huckster, he is at least avoiding the serious sin of lying.