Religious Attitudes in The Decameron
The Decameron comprises a set of at least 100 tales narrated to each other by a cohort of
10 individuals, three men, and seven women, for ten days. The relation of the stories authored by
Giovanni Boccaccio occurred during the 14th century by the ten individuals who sought
seclusion in a villa located on the outskirts of Florence with the primary aim of evading the
wrath of the Black Death that invaded the city. Originally written in the Florentine semantic
vernacular, Boccaccio’s works in The Decameron provide an array of tales that address issues
that range from sex, religion, wit, to life lessons. For this reason, the collection was reputed as a
classical masterpiece of Italian literature during the medieval Europe period.
Specifically, Boccaccio addresses the theme of religion particularly in concern to
Catholicism in a manner that depicts mockery. In the novellas, the clergy is portrayed as
characters who embrace the application of trickery in a bid to satisfy their sexual, financial, or
other needs. In this regard, the priests, nuns, abbots, and friars who were expected to observe the
values of Catholicism entirely, as an institutional church seemed to contradict its expectations.
Conversely, the pursuit of individual expression of piety arises as the tales unmask the reactions
of the Jews and Muslims on Catholicism in medieval Europe. Thus, this paper seeks to analyze
Boccaccio’s approach towards Christianity and the influence of the Jews and Muslims in
comprehending religious beliefs in medieval Europe.
The Catholic Church in Medieval Europe
Boccaccio’s works in The Decameron portrays Catholicism as a religious denomination
in several perspectives that reveal its strengths and weaknesses during in the 19th Century.
Evidently, the ten narrators, in different instances, apply satire to criticize the undertakings of the
clergy at the time when the majority needed them most after the plague struck. The mastery of
Boccaccio in addressing the religious issues gains better revelation when he applies mockery to
depict how the clergy gets tricked into actions regarded as immoral.
Since the institution of religion, specifically the Catholic Church, was expected to offer
hope during the Black Death period. Nevertheless, the religious leaders pursued their individual
needs thereby necessitating the ten storytellers to articulate their vices every night, for ten days.
The Catholic doctrines uphold strict provisions that seek to control the sexual behavior of the
believers. The religious institution advocates categorically against issues like fornication, lust,
adultery, and other sexual vices with the aim of instilling moral values among Christians. Thus,
Boccaccio affirms that the Church had values that sought to foster moral conduct with regards to
issues like sexuality.
Contrarily, the Catholic nuns, priests, abbots, monks, and friars engaged in corruption,
lust, and drunkard behavior thereby raising eyebrows concerning the relevance of the Church
towards the modernization of medieval Europe. In response, the clergy associated its lascivious
conduct to the natural craving for a man to satisfy his sexual needs implying that it is acceptable
to give in to such passions regarded as natural (Boccaccio 87). In this sense, the individual
expression of piety among the Catholic faithful besides other believers could be considered thus
justified because the clergy undermined the teachings of Catholicism. A converse example is
evidenced during the medieval times of war when King Phillip II of Spain joined arms with the
Catholic forces led by the papacy to defeat the Ottoman Turks showing the strength of the
religious institution (Luladi et al. 454). Therefore, analyzing the attitudes of Boccaccio
concerning religion during the medieval period would be vital at this juncture.
Boccaccio’s attitude towards religion
Boccaccio, in several tales, reveals situations in which the clergy was taken advantage of
so as to depict its weaknesses. The first Novell of the First Day, narrated by Panfilo explained the
trickery applied by Ciapelletto, an evil person, to be canonized as a saint following his demise.
Ciapelletto after falling ill lied to a friar about his pure life thereby seeking to be regarded as a
saint after he dies. The friar believed Ciapelleto’s sentiments and proceeded to preach a sermon
on Ciapelletto’s pure life and considered him for sainthood after his death (Boccaccio 8). In this
case, Boccaccio paints the Church as an institution that lacked measures to ascertain the validity
of some crucial religious aspects. Therefore, since the clergy's portrayal as a weak feature in
Catholicism supported the individual manifestation of piety as underscored by Boccaccio in The
Additionally, Boccaccio’s attitude towards religion during the 14th Century in Europe
shows that it took advantage of the people even in the time of adversity as manifested by the
plague attacks. The Eighth tale of the Third Day narrated by Lauretta unearths the evil
undertakings of the clergy as they used religious ideas like the issue of purgatory for self-benefit.
After Ferondo had consumed a certain powder, he sought help from an abbot to prevent his
imminent death. The abbot sent Ferondo to prison with the claim that it was purgatory. The abbot
engaged in adulterous behavior with Ferondo’s wife only for him to find a boy begotten by the
clergyman after his reincarnation (Boccaccio 278). Further, this exposes the wickedness of the
religious personalities in medieval Europe who were expected to set a splendid example that
would be embraced by the believers. For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church as a religious
institution that had significant influence in Europe failed to underscore its importance as
unearthed by the vicious undertakings of the friars and abbots among other religious characters.
Moreover, the tales in The Decameron divulge the involvement of the reputed Catholic
Church personalities in adultery and sex. Boccaccio discloses the real character of the clergymen
and women by ridiculing how they went against the doctrines of Catholicism. In the Third Tale
of the Seventh Day, Elissa tells a story concerning a situation whereby Friar Rinaldo cheated
with the mother of his godchild before the husband found them in a room. The adulterous parties
justified their action by convincing the husband that they were applying a charm to cure the
grandson (Boccaccio 165). In this respect, the depiction of the moral decay characterizes the
Catholic Church, therefore, making it complicated for the believers to understand its actual
doctrines. Sleeping with the parent of a godchild could further be regarded as incest thereby
stressing Boccaccio’s point on the issue of sex and adultery with concern to the Catholic Church
in the 14th Century.
Evidenced by the various tales that unmask the evil doings of the clergy, Boccaccio’s
attitude towards religion takes a negative approach that integrate satire and ridicule as artistic
devices. In this case, understanding Christianity in medieval Europe requires the incorporation of
the ideas of Judaism and Islam in a comparative manner. However, its integration could
complicate the understanding of Christianity owing to the different doctrinal values practiced by
Islam and Judaism in The Decameron
The Third Tale of the First Day presents a situation where the religion of Islam is
mentioned. Saladin, an authoritative Sultan, noticed that his Treasury was operating on a deficit
before deciding to trick Melchizedek, a Jew, in a bid to seize his wealth for loan repayment.
However, the intelligence of Melchizedek rescued him after he told the tale of the three rings
(Boccaccio 78). Therefore, the Sultan that ought to uphold Islamic values diverged from the
teachings by pursuing personal interests through trickery. For this reason, the Sultan depicted
similar behavior to that of the clergy by this means evidencing the wickedness that was inherent
in both Islam and Catholicism during the 14th Century.
Furthermore, the Jew, Melchizedek upheld the individual expression of piety by
intelligently narrating the tale of the three rings. In so doing, he showed that Christianity,
Judaism, and Islam doctrines collectively spread the word of God in an equal manner (Boccaccio
79). In the Medieval East, the rise of Byzantium and Islam shaped up the modernization of the
Europe with respect to religious beliefs that unmasked the disunity of the monotheistic Islam
religion resulting in the emergence of the Sunnites, Shi'ites, and Sufis (Luladi et al. 237).
Therefore, individual behavior shapes up the image of the religious institution of one’s
affiliation. The tales in The Decameron unearth the similarities and differences inherent in
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in a style that complicates the understanding of the true religion
since the religious characters and believers reacted differently to the individual doctrines.
The Decameron presents an array of tales that explain the religious sentiments and
attitudes of the people of medieval Europe. The 100 novellas contain some instances where the
Catholic clergy engage in corruption, sex, alcoholism, and other vices thereby raising suspicion
over the validity of the Catholic religious doctrines. The association of the vices to natural
passions questioned the relevance of religious attitudes, especially on Catholicism. The presence
of Jews and Muslims further complicated the understanding of the true religion since it depicted
compatibilities and inconsistencies concerning the values practiced by Christians in medieval
Boccaccio, Geovanni. The Decameron. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014. Print.
Luladi, Katherine, Lyn Hunt, Thomas Martin, Barbara Rosenwein, R. Po-chia Hsia, and Bonnie
Smith. Sources of The Making of the West, Volume I: To 1740: Peoples and Cultures.
Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010. Print.