The Decameron’s frame narrative begins in a church, where ten young noblemen and women decide to leave plague-ravaged Florence for the countryside. There, they tell one hundred tales that are firmly embedded in medieval literary and cultural contexts that, in turn, assume a nearly universal practice of Christianity. But although Christianity undergirds the work’s worldview, the members of the brigata (the ten storytellers) treat sincere faith as a separate entity from the religious and political Roman Catholic Church and its clergy, which are routinely mocked and denigrated. Most of the tales with monks, nuns, or priests include extensive anticlerical satire, criticizing the clergy for excessive appetites, sexual indulgence (both heterosexual and homosexual), and greed. The tales also mock and criticize the excessive gullibility of the faithful who allow themselves to be hoodwinked by impressive-sounding rhetoric or clearly fake relics, as Friar Cipolla’s audience does. The Abbot of Cluny demonstrates the hypocrisy of the clergy, who preach moderation and abstinence while indulging their own appetites, when he denies charity to Primas in one tale and ruins his stomach with an immoderate diet in another. And a sinner exposes the hypocrisy of the Inquisitor who shakes down the heretical for money while providing wastewater as charity to the poor. And, across the tales, many, many monks, nuns, and priests enjoy sex—both among themselves and with members of the laity. The few friars who aren’t inveterate sinners are gullible: the excessively sinful Cepperello convinces a Holy Friar that he’s led the life of a virtuous saint and the Florentine Noblewoman makes the Florentine Monk an unwitting go-between when she establishes her affair with the Florentine Nobleman.
Separately, however, the value of Christianity is affirmed at the beginning and end of The Decameron. In the collection’s second tale, the fact that the message of Christianity could withstand the sinfulness of the clergy convinces Abraham the Jew to convert. Although this is an example of a problematic medieval motif that tokenizes Jewish people to demonstrate the supposed superiority of Christianity, it nevertheless claims that the Christian faith can remain noble, despite the flaws of its earthly practitioners. Likewise, even when Ghino di Tacco is placed under interdict (denied access to church rites), he and his men still profess their fear of God.
Faith vs. Religion ThemeTracker
Faith vs. Religion Quotes in The Decameron
Swayed by this argument, and sparing no thought for anyone but themselves, large numbers of men and women abandoned their city, their homes, their relatives, their estates and belongings, and headed for the countryside, either in Florentine territory or, better still, abroad. It was as though they imagined that the wrath of God would not unleash this plague against men for their iniquities irrespective of where they happened to be, but would only be aroused against those who found themselves within the city walls; or possibly they assumed that the whole of the population would be exterminated and the city’s last hour had come.
Accordingly, whether I am here in church or out in the streets or sitting at home, I always feel ill at ease, the more so because it seems to me that no one possessing private means and a place to retreat to is left here apart from ourselves. But even if such people are still to be found, they draw no distinction, as I have frequently seen and heard for myself, between what is honest and what is dishonest; and provided only that they are prompted by their appetites, they will do whatever affords them the greatest pleasure, whether by day or by night, alone or in company. It is not only of lay people that I speak, but also of those enclosed in monasteries, who, having convinced themselves that such behavior is suitable for them and is only unbecoming in others, having broken the rules of obedience and given themselves over to carnal pleasures, thereby thinking to escape and have turned lascivious and dissolute.
“[Nobody in Rome] who was connected with the Church seemed to me to display the slightest sign of holiness, piety, charity, moral rectitude, or any other virtue. On the contrary, it seemed to me that they were all so steeped in lust, greed, avarice, fraud, envy, pride, and other like sins and worse (if indeed that is possible), that I regard the place as a hotbed for diabolical rather than devotional activities. As far as I can judge, it seems to me that your pontiff, and all of the others too, are doing their level best to reduce the Christian religion to nought [sic] and drive it from the face of the earth, whereas they are the very people who should be its foundation and support.”
One day, about noon, when all the other monks were asleep, he chanced to be taking a solitary stroll round the walls of the monastery, which lay in a very lonely spot, when his eyes came to rest on a strikingly beautiful girl, perhaps some local farmhand’s daughter, who was going about the fields collecting wild herbs. No sooner did he see her than he was fiercely assaulted by carnal desire.
The girl, who was not exactly made of iron or of flint, fell in very readily with the Abbot’s wishes. He took her in his arms and kissed her a few times, then lowered himself on to the monk’s little bed. But out of regard, perhaps, for the weight of his reverend person and the tender age of the girl, and not wishing to do her any injury, he settled down beneath her instead of lying on top, and in this way he sported with her at considerable length.
Meanwhile, with the matter proceeding along these lines, word had reached Marchese and Stecchi that the judge was giving him a rough handling and had already put him on the strappado. “We have made a fine mess of things,” they said, shaking with fright. “We have taken him out of the frying-pan and dropped him straight in the fire.” Being determined to leave no stone unturned, they tracked down their landlord, and explained to him what had happened. The landlord, who was highly amused at their tale, took them to see a man called Sandro Agolanti, a Florentine living in Treviso who had considerable influence with the ruler of the city.
Excellent ladies, if the ways of Fortune are carefully examined, it will be seen that the more one discusses her actions, the more remains to be said. Nor is this surprising, when you pause to consider that she controls all the affairs we unthinkingly call our own, and that consequently it is she who arranges and rearranges them after her own inscrutable fashion, constantly moving them now in one direction, now in another, then back again, without following any discernable plan. The truth of this assertion is clearly illustrated by everything that happens in the space of a single day, as well as being borne out by some of the previous stories.
But knowing her to be a woman of gentle birth, doing penance for another’s sin through no fault of her own, the Lord above, who rewards all according to their deserts, arranged matters otherwise. One must in fact conclude that He alone, out of His loving kindness, made possible the train of events which followed, in order to prevent this nobly-born maiden from falling into the hands of a commoner.
Come, Love, the cause of all my joy,
Of all my hope and happiness,
Come let us sing together:
Not of love’s sighs and agony
But only of its jocundness
And its clear-burning ardour
In which I revel, joyfully,
As if thou were a god to me.
Love, the first day I felt thy fire
Thou sett’st before mine eyes a youth
Of such accomplishment
Whose able strength and keen desire
And bravery could none, in truth,
Find any complement.
With thee I sing, Lord Love, of this,
So much with him lies all my bliss.
The sight of this garden, and the perfection of its arrangement, with its shrubs, its streamlets, and the fountain from which they originated, gave so much pleasure … that they all began to maintain that if Paradise were constructed on earth, it was inconceivable that it could take any other form, nor could they imagine any way in which the garden’s beauty could possibly be enhanced … [And] the garden was liberally stocked with as many as a hundred different varieties of perfectly charming animals […] Here were some rabbits emerging from a warren, over there hares were running, elsewhere they could observe some deer lying on the ground, whilst in yet another place young fawns were grazing. And apart from these, they saw numerous harmless creatures of many other kinds, roaming about at leisure as though they were quite tame, all of which greatly added to their already considerable delight.
Thus it was that Masetto, now an elderly and prosperous father who was spared the bother of feeding his children and the expense of their upbringing, returned to the place from which he had set out with an axe on his shoulder, having had the sense to employ his youth to good advantage. And this, he maintained, was the way that Christ treated anyone who set a pair of horns on His crown.
The story I propose to relate […] should prove more agreeable to a lay audience inasmuch as the priesthood consists for the most part of extremely stupid men, inscrutable in their ways, who consider themselves in all respects more worthy and knowledgeable than other people, whereas they are decidedly inferior. They resemble pigs, in fact, for they are too feeble-minded to earn an honest living like everybody else, and so they install themselves wherever they can fill their stomachs.
Friar Puccio thought he could detect a certain amount of vibration in the floorboards. When […] he had recited a hundred of his paternosters […] without leaving his post, he called out to his wife and demanded to know what she was doing.
His wife […] who at that moment was possibly riding bareback astride the nag of Saint Benedict or Saint John Gaulbert, replied:
‘Heaven help me, dear husband, I am shaking like mad.’
‘Shaking? … What is the meaning of all this shaking?’
His wife shrieked with laughter […] ‘What,’ she replied, ‘You don’t know its meaning? Haven’t I heard you saying, hundreds of times: “He that supper doth not take, in his bed all night will shake”?’
‘Wife,’ he replied […] ‘I told you not to fast, but you would insist. Try not to think about it. Try and go to sleep.’
Tedaldo began to reflect how fatally easy it was for people to cram their heads with totally erroneous notions. His thoughts turned first of all to his brothers, who had gone into mourning and buried some stranger in his own stead, after which they had been impelled by their false suspicions to accuse this innocent man and fabricate evidence so as to have him brought under sentence of death. This in turn led him to reflect upon the blind severity of the law and its administrators, who in order to convey the impression that they are zealously seeking the truth, often have recourse to cruelty and falsehood to be accepted as proven fact, hence demonstrating, for all their proud claim to be the ministers of God’s justice, that their true allegiance is to the devil and his iniquities.
“Ferondo, be of good cheer, for God has decreed that you should go back to earth, where, after your return, your wife will present you with a son. See that the child is christened Benedict, for it is in answer to the prayers of your reverend Abbot and your wife, and because of His love for Saint Benedict, that God has done you this favour.”
This announcement was received by Ferondo with great glee.
“I am very glad to hear it,” he said. “God bless Mister Almighty and the Abbot and Saint Benedict and my cheesy-weesy, honey-bunny, sweetie-weetie wife.”
When certain galleys arrived from the Levant belonging to Genoese pirates, who had captured a great many children along the Armenian coast, he purchased a number of them, believing them to be Turkish. For the most part, they appeared to be of rustic, shepherd stock, but there was one, Teodoro by name, who seemed gently bred and better looking than any of the others […] as he grew older, being prompted by his innate good breeding rather than by the accident of his menial status, he acquired so much poise and so agreeable a manner that Messer Amerigo granted him his freedom […] had him baptized and re-named Pietro, and placed him in charge of his business affairs, taking him deeply into his confidence.
Her name was Monna Belcolore, she was married to a farmworker called Bentivegna del Mazzo, and without a doubt she was a vigorous and seductive-looking wench, buxom and brown as a berry, who seemed better versed in the grinder’s art than any other girl in the village. When […] she had occasion to play the tambourine, and sing […] and dance a reel or a jig […] she could knock the spots off every single one of her neighbors. Master Priest was so enthralled by all these talents of hers that he was driven to distraction […] Whenever he caught sight of her in church on a Sunday morning, he would intone a Kyrie and a Sanctus, trying very hard to sound like a master cantor when in fact he was braying like an ass, whereas if she was nowhere to be seen he would hardly open his lips.
“Heaven be praised!” said the Provost, who could scarce contain his joy. “To tell you the truth, madam, I am amazed that you should have held out for so long, seeing that this has never happened to me with any woman before. And in fact, I have sometimes had occasion to reflect, that if women were made of silver you couldn’t turn them into coins, as they bend too easily. But no more of this, when and where can we be together?”
I confess that I do have weight, and in my time I have been weighed on numerous occasions; but I assure those ladies who have never weighed me that I have little gravity. On the contrary, I am so light that I float on the surface of the water. And considering that sermons preached by friars to chastise the faults of men are nowadays filled, for the most part, with jests and quips and raillery, I concluded that the same sort of thing would not be out of place in my stories, written to dispel the woes of ladies. But if it should cause them to laugh too much, they can easily find a remedy by turning to the Lament of Jeremiah, the Passion of Our Lord, and the Plaint of the Magdalen.