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From A Literary Source-book of the Italian Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 15-24.



Born in 1313, place of birth unknown; by some thought to be Paris, by others Certaldo. Was apprenticed for six years to a merchant, and for six years attempted the study of canon law. 1333 went to Naples on mercantile business, attached himself to the court of Robert of Anjou, and devoted himself to literary pursuits. Neapolitan period, 1333-1350, (except 1341-1344 spent at Florence); a period of romantic and poetical production: Filocopo, Teseide, Ameto, L’amorosa Visione, Fiametta, and Filostrato. 1350 entered the diplomatic service of the republic; met Petrarch, 1350; became interested in the discovery and preservation of classical manuscripts. Decameron published 1353. 1363-1373, Period of production of Latin works relating to the study of the classics: De Genealogia Deorum libri XV; De Montium, Silvarum, Lacuum, et Marium nominibus liber: De Casibus Virorum et Feminarum Illustrium libri IX; and De Claris Mulieribus. Also other lesser works and Rime in the vernacular. Occupied the chair for the interpretation of the Divine Comedy at Florence, 1373. Died at Certaldo, 1375.


In the year then of our Lord, 1348, there happened at 16 Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible plague; which, whether owing to the influence of the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sins, had broken out some years before in the Levant, and after passing from place to place, and making incredible havoc all the way, had now reached the west. There, spite of all the means that art and human foresight could suggest, such as keeping the city clear from filth, the exclusion of all suspected persons, and the publication of copious instructions for the preservation of health; and notwithstanding manifold humble supplications offered to God in processions and otherwise; it began to show itself in the spring of the aforesaid year, in a sad and wonderful manner. Unlike what had been seen in the east, where bleeding from the nose is a fatal prognostic, here there appeared certain tumours in the groin or under the arm-pits, some as big as an apple, others as an egg; and afterwards purple spots in most parts of the body; in some cases large and but few in number, in others smaller and more numerous, both sorts the usual messengers of death. To the cure of this malady, neither medical knowledge nor the power of drugs was of any effect; whether because the disease was in its own nature mortal; or that the physicians (the number of whom, taking quacks and women pretenders into the account, was grown very great), could form no just idea of the cause, nor consequently devise a true method of cure; whichever was the reason, few escaped; but nearly all died the third day from the first appearance of the symptoms, some sooner, some later, without any fever or other accessory symptoms. What gave the more virulence to this plague was that, by being communicated from the sick to the hale, it spread daily, like fire when it comes in contact with large masses of combustibles. Nor was it caught only by conversing with, or coming near the sick, but even by touching their clothes, or anything that they had before touched. It is wonderful what I am going to mention, and had I not seen it with my own eyes, and were there not many witnesses to attest it besides myself, I should never venture to relate it, however worthy it were of belief. Such, 17 I say, was the quality of the pestilential matter, as to pass not only from man to man, but what is more strange, it has been often known, that anything belonging to the infected, if touched by any other creature, would certainly infect, and even kill that creature in a short space of time. One instance of the kind I took particular notice of: the rags of a poor man, just dead, had been thrown into the street; two hogs came up, and after rooting amongst the rags and shaking them about in their mouths, in less than an hour they both turned round and died on the spot.

These facts, and others of the like sort, occasioned various fears and devices amongst those who survived, all tending to the same uncharitable and cruel end, which was, to avoid the sick and everything that had been near them, expecting by that means to save themselves. And some holding it best to live temperately, and to avoid excesses of all kinds, made parties and shut themselves up from the rest of the world, eating and drinking moderately of the best, and diverting themselves with music, and such other entertainments as they might have within doors, never listening to anything from without to make them uneasy. Others maintained free living to be a better preservative, and would baulk no passion or appetite they wished to gratify, drinking and revelling incessantly from tavern to tavern, or in private houses (which were frequently found deserted by the owners, and, therefore, common to every one), yet strenuously avoiding, with all this brutal indulgence, to come near the infected. And such, at that time, was the public distress, that the laws, human and divine, were no more regarded; for the officers to put them in force being either dead, sick, or in want of persons to assist them, every one did just as he pleased. A third sort of people chose a method between these two, not confining themselves to rules of diet like the former, and yet avoiding the intemperance of the latter; but eating and drinking what their appetites required, they walked everywhere with odours and nosegays to smell to, as holding it best to corroborate the brain, for the whole atmosphere seemed to them tainted with the stench of dead bodies, arising partly from the distemper 18 itself and partly from the fermenting of medicines within them. Others, with less humanity, but perchance, as they supposed, with more security from danger, decided that the only remedy for the pestilence was to avoid it; persuaded, therefore, of this, and taking care for themselves only, men and women in great numbers left the city, their houses, relations and effects, and fled to the country, as if the wrath of God had been restrained to visit those only within the walls of the city, or else concluding that none ought to stay in a place thus doomed to destruction.

Thus divided as they were in their views, neither did all die, nor all escape; but falling sick indifferently, as well those of one as of another opinion, they who first set the example by forsaking others now languished themselves without pity. I pass over the little regard that citizens and relations showed to each other, for their terror was such that a brother even fled from his brother, a wife from her husband, and what is more uncommon, a parent from his own child. Hence, numbers that fell sick could have no help but what the charity of friends, who were very few, or the avarice of servants supplied; and even these were scarce and at extravagant wages, and so little used to the business that they were fit only to reach what was called for, and observe when their employers died, and this desire of getting money often cost them their lives.


Abraham the Jew, at the instigation of Jeannot de Chivigni, goes to the court of Rome, and seeing the wickedness of the clergy there returns to Paris, and becomes a Christian.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

At Paris there lived, as I have been told, a great merchant and worthy man called Jeannot de Chivigni, a dealer in silk, and an intimate friend to a certain rich Jew, whose name was Abraham, a merchant also, and a very honest man. Jeannot, being no stranger to Abraham’s good and upright intentions, was greatly troubled that the soul of so wise and well-meaning a person should perish through his unbelief. He began, therefore, in the most friendly manner, to entreat him to renounce 19 the errors of Judaism, and embrace the truth of Christianity, which he might plainly see flourishing more and more, and as being the most wise and holy institution, gaining ground, whereas the religion of the Jews was dwindling to nothing. Abraham answered, that he esteemed no religion like his own; he was born in it, and in it he intended to live and die; nor could anything make him alter his resolution. All this did not hinder Jeannot from beginning the same arguments over again in a few days, and setting forth, in as awkward a manner as a merchant must be supposed to do, for what reasons our religion ought to be preferred: and though the Jew was well read in their law, yet, whether it was his regard to the man, or that Jeannot had the spirit of God upon his tongue, he began to be greatly pleased with his arguments; but continued obstinate, nevertheless, in his own creed, and would not suffer himself to be converted. Jeannot, on the other hand, was no less persevering in his earnest solicitations, insomuch that the Jew was overcome by them at last, and said: “Look you, Jeannot, you are very desirous I should become a Christian, and I am so much disposed to do as you would have me, that I intend in the first place to go to Rome, to see him whom you call God’s vicar on earth, and to consider his ways a little, and those of his brother cardinals. If they appear to me in such a light that I may be able to comprehend by them, and by what you have said, that your religion is better than mine, as you would persuade me, I will then become a Christian; otherwise I will continued a Jew as I am.”

When Jeannot heard this he was much troubled, and said to himself: “I have lost all my labor, which I thought well bestowed, expecting to have converted this man; for should he go to Rome, and see the wickedness of the clergy there, so far from turning Christian, were he one already, he would certainly again become a Jew.” Then addressing Abraham, he said: “Nay, my friend, why should you be put at the great trouble and expense of such a journey? Not to mention the dangers, both by sea and land, to which so rich a person as yourself must be exposed, do you think to find nobody here 20 that can baptize you? Or if you have doubt and scruples, where will you meet with abler men than are here to clear them up for you, and to answer such questions as you shall put to them? You may take it for granted that the prelates yonder are like those you see in France, only so much the better as they are nearer to the principal pastor. Then let me advise you to spare yourself the trouble of this journey, until such time as you may want some pardon or indulgence, and then I may probably bear you company.”

“I believe it is as you say,” replied the Jew, “but the long and short of the matter is, that I am fully resolved, if you would have me do what you have so much solicited, to go thither, else I will in no wise comply.”

Jeannot, seeing him determined, said: “God be with you!” and, supposed that he would never be a Christian after he had seen Rome, gave him over for lost. The Jew took horse, and made the best of his way to Rome, where he was most honorably received by his brethren, the Jews; and, without saying a word of what he was come about, he began to look narrowly into the manner of living of the pope, the cardinals, and other prelates, and of the whole court; and, from what he himself perceived, being a person of keen observation, and from what he gathered from others, he found that, from the highest to the lowest, they were given to all sorts of lewdness, without the least shame or remorse; so that the only way to obtain anything considerable was, by applying to prostitutes of every description. He observed, also, that they were generally drunkards and gluttons, and, like brutes, more solicitous about their bellies than anything else. Inquiring further, he found them all such lovers of money, that they would not only bury and sell man’s blood in general, but even the blood of Christians and sacred things of what kind soever, whether benefices, or pertaining to the altar; that they drove as great a trade in this way as there is in selling cloth and other commodities at Paris; that to palpable simony they had given the plausible name of procuration, and debaucheries they called supporting the body; as if God had been totally unacquainted with their wicked 21 intentions, and, like men, was to be imposed upon by the name of things. These and other things, which I shall pass over, gave great offense to the Jew, who was a sober and modest person; and now thinking he had seen enough, he returned home.

As soon as Jeannot heard of his arrival he went to see him, thinking of nothing so little as of his conversion. They received one another with a great deal of pleasure, and in a day or two, after the traveler had recovered from his fatigue, Jeannot began to inquire of him what he thought of the holy father, the cardinal, and the rest of the court? The Jew immediately answered: “To me it seems as if God was much kinder to them than they deserve; for, if I may be allowed to judge, I must be bold to tell you, that I have neither seen sanctity, devotion or anything good in the clergy of Rome; but, on the contrary, luxury, avarice, gluttony, and worse than these, if worse things can be, are so much in fashion with all sorts of people, that I would rather esteem the court of Rome to be a forge, if you allow the expression, for diabolical operations than things divine; and, for what I can perceive, your pastor, and consequently the rest, strive with their whole might and skill to overthrow the Christian religion, and to drive it from off the face of the earth, even where they ought to be its chief succor and support. But as I do not see this come to pass, which they so earnestly aim at; on the contrary, that your religion gains strength and becomes everyday more glorious, I plainly perceived that it is upheld by the Spirit of God, as the most true and holy of all. For which reason, though I continued obstinate to your exhortations, nor would suffer myself to be converted by them, now I declare to you that I will not longer defer being made a Christian. Let us go then to the church, and do you take care that I be baptized according to the manner of your holy faith.”

Jeannot, who expected a quite different conclusion, was the most overjoyed man that could be, and taking his friend to our Lady’s Church at Paris, he requested the priests there to baptize him, which was done forthwith. Jeannot being 22 his sponsor, gave him the name of John, and afterwards took care to have him well instructed in our faith, in which he made a speedy proficiency, and became, in time, a good and holy man.


Melchizedeck, a Jew, by the story of three rings, escapes a most dangerous snare, which Saladin had prepared for him.

This novel having been universally applauded, Filomena thus began: Neiphile’s story put me in mind of a ticklish case that befel a certain Jew; for as enough has been said concerning God and the truth of our religion, it will not be amiss if we descend to the actions of men. I proceed, therefore, to the relation of a thing, which may make you more cautious for the time to come, in answering questions that shall be put to you. For you must know that as a man’s folly often brings him down from the most exalted state of life to the greatest misery, so shall his good sense secure him in the midst of the utmost danger, and procure him a safe and honorable repose. There are many instances of people being brought to misery by their own folly, but these I choose to omit, as they happen daily; what I purpose to exemplify, in the following short novel, is the great cause for comfort to be found in the possession of a good understanding.

Saladin was so brave and great a man, that he had raised himself from an inconsiderable station, to be Sultan of Babylon, and had gained many victories over both Turkish and Christian princes. This monarch, having in divers wars, and by many extraordinary expenses, run through all his treasure, some urgent occasion fell out that he wanted a large sum of money. Not knowing which way he might raise enough to answer his necessities, he at last called to mind a rich Jew of Alexandria, named Melchizedeck, who let out money at interest. Him he believed to have wherewithal to serve him; but then he was so covetous, that he would never do it willingly, and Saladin was loath to force him. But as necessity has no law, after much thinking which way the 23 matter might best be effected, he at last resolved to use force under some color of reason. He therefore sent for the Jew, received him in a most gracious manner, and making him sit down, thus addressed him: “Worthy man, I hear from divers persons that thou art very wise and knowing in religious matters; wherefore I would gladly know from thee which religion thou judgest to be the true one, viz., the Jewish, the Mahometan or the Christian?” The Jew (truly a wise man) found that Saladin had a mind to trap him, and must gain his point should he exalt any one of the three religions above the others; after considering, therefore, for a little how best to avoid the snare, his ingenuity at last supplied him with the following answer:

“The question which your Highness has proposed is very curious; and, that I may give you my sentiments, I must beg leave to tell a short story. I remember often to have heard of a great and rich man, who among his most rare and precious jewels, had a ring of exceeding beauty and value. Being proud of possessing a thing of such worth, and desirous that it should continue for ever in his family, he declared, by will, that to whichsoever of his sons he should give this ring, him he designed for his heir, and that he should be respected as the head of his family. That son to whom the ring was given, made the same law with respect to his descendants, and the ring passed from one to another in long succession, till it came to a person who had three sons, all virtuous and dutiful to their father, and all equally beloved by him. Now the young men, knowing what depended upon the ring, and ambitious of superiority, began to entreat their father, who was now grown old, every one for himself, that he would give the ring to him. The good man, equally fond of all, was at a loss which to prefer; and as he had promised all, and wished to satisfy all, he privately got an artist to make two other rings, which were so like the first, that he himself scarcely knew the true one. When he found his end approaching, he secretly gave one ring to each of his sons; and they, after his death, all claimed the honor and estate, each disputing with his brothers, and producing 24 his ring; and the rings were found so much alike, that the true one could not be distinguished. To law then they went, as to which should succeed, nor is that question yet decided. And thus it has happened, my Lord, with regard to the three laws given by God the Father, concerning which you proposed your question: every one believes he is the true heir of God, has his law, and obeys his commandments; but which is in the right is uncertain, in like manner with the rings.”

Saladin perceived that the Jew had very cleverly escaped the net which was spread for him; he therefore resolved to discover his necessity to him, and see if he would lend him money, telling him at the same time what he had designed to do, had not that discreet answer prevented him. The Jew freely supplied the monarch with what he wanted; and Saladin afterwards paid him back in full, made him large presents, besides maintaining him nobly at his court, and was his friend as long as he lived.


*  From Kelly’s translation in the Bohn edition.

[The last story of Saladin and the Jew is taken from the Novelle Antiche or Il Novellino, see the translation of this, as Novel LXXIII, and the rest of the text by Edward Storer, on this site. — Elf.Ed.

[For more of Boccaccio’s life and other tales, including another translation of Novel III, on this site, see The Italian Novelists, translated by Thomas Roscoe, also you may wish to see some of his poems in both Italian and English, translated by Lorna de’ Lucchi, on this site, and to see what a later humanist, Paolo Giovio, has to say about him see An Italian Portrait Gallery, translated by Florence A. Gragg, also on this site. — Elf.Ed.]

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