Panfilo’s “tale of country love” will teach the useful moral that one shouldn’t believe everything a priest says. In Varlungo, a barely literate Worthy Priest entertains his parishioners with “holy aphorisms” on Sundays. In their husbands’ absence, he “blesses” the parish wives. He especially likes Monna Belcolore, the wife of Bentivegna del Mazzo, a “seductive-looking” and “buxom” woman “better versed in the grinder’s art than any other girl” in the hamlet. When she dances and plays her tambourine, she drives everyone wild.
As soon as Panfilo invokes “country love,” he’s put readers on notice that his tale’s humor will arise from mockery of lower-class characters. The priest who isn’t very good at his job (thanks to his incomplete education) and who seduces his parishioners between Sundays is a figure of anticlerical satire, since Roman Catholic priests take vows of celibacy. Belcolore and her husband have literal names: hers means “well-colored,” indicating her beauty, while his means “may you have joy of the rod,” crudely reminding the audience that this tale isn’t going to be about refined, aristocratic love, but plain old sex.
The Worthy Priest tries to attract Monna Belcolore’s attentions, singing in church to impress her (he sounds like a donkey) and giving her tokens of his affection like garlic and onions. When he meets Bentivegna del Mazzo on his way to Florence to answer a court summons, he sends the man off with his blessing and runs to Belcolore’s home. Monna Belcolore expresses surprise that priests “do that sort of thing” which the Priest claims to do particularly well. He offers her a small gift, but she wants money to retrieve some pawned items.
The portrait of the Worthy Priest is as unflattering as it is humorous, and in the context of The Decameron’s larger anticlerical satire, the Priest’s braying songs certainly suggest an affinity between hypocritical clergy and asses generally. His gifts suggest that rustic peasants are undiscerning, smelly, or both. Not only are his onions and garlic the kind of common crops grown everywhere, but he also doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that they will make Belcolore herself stinky. While he offers her a gift—an object whose exchange creates a bond between giver and recipient—she would prefer money. Money is less romantic, but far more practical in a small rural economy, where she has already had to pawn some of her nicer belonging for cash.
The Worthy Priest promises to pay Monna Belcolore within a week, but she refuses “to do his bidding without a quid pro quo,” especially because he has ruined other girls’ reputations already. Desperate and “rearing to get on with the job,” he offers her his fine woolen cloak as a surety, so she allows him to give her kisses and more in the barn. Only afterwards does he consider the difficulty of coming up with the five pounds he promised her.
The inclusion of Latin legal language both suggests Belcolore’s mercenary attitude towards sex (treating it as a business transaction instead of as an overpowering, almost religious force) and injects humor into the tale by its contrast with the simple lives and needs of the characters, none of whom would probably have understood what “quid pro quo” meant. The “worthy” priest not only seduces the girls, but he’s got a reputation for ruining theirs, adding to the anticlericalism in his description. His impatience to get down to business suggests a tendency towards excess in his character that it seems he will be punished for since he knows he won’t be able scrounge up the money to get his cloak back from her later.
But being a “crafty […] fellow,” the Worthy Priest comes up with a plan to retrieve his cloak for free. The next day, he borrows Monna Belcolore’s mortar and pestle to make a sauce. Then, just as she and Bentivegna del Mazzo are sitting down to breakfast, he sends his sacristan to return it and ask her to return the cloak he had given her against its loan. On hearing that she’d asked the Priest for a surety, Bentivegna angrily tells her that the priest should have what he wants without charge or surety required.
By sending the sacristan (the church officer in charge of the tools and robes used in services) to retrieve his cloak in Bentivegna’s presence, the priest prevents Belcolore from implicating him in her sins. The double entendre in Bentivegna’s command that his wife give the priest what he wants serves to retroactively excuse her dalliance with the priest as well as to emphasize her role as the subject of male authority and desire. It’s also funny, since the audience knows what Bentivegna doesn’t—that the priest wants things Bentivegna might not be so happy to give.
Monna Belcolore sends the cloak back to the Worthy Priest with her own message: he “won’t be grinding any more of [his] sauces in her mortar.” She refuses to talk to him for the rest of the summer, but eventually he wears through her resistance with the threat of hellfire. Eventually, she makes peace with him, allowing him to repay her in other ways.
The household implement that the priest borrowed—a mortar and pestle, used to prepare ingredients for sauces—underwrites her message, since the mortar (bowl to hold ingredients) and pestle (the club-shaped implement to grind them) have visual associations with male and female sex organs. And, while Belcolore briefly asserted ownership over her body and her sexual partnerships—first by charging the priest for sex, then by refusing to see him after he cheats her of the payment—in the end she succumbs to his masculine authority. Because she is afraid of going to hell, the priest is able to blackmail her into having sex with him again.