The Decameron was a work of literature written after the Black Death in the mid-14th century by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). It told the story of seven ladies and three men who fled the city of Florence during the plague and took up residence in an abandoned mansion. There they told each other stories to amuse themselves. They each told ten stories, or novels, a day for ten days, ending up with 100 (hence “decameron”). These stories reflected many ideas of the Renaissance, being very anticlerical and primarily concerned with humanity. In the very first novel, Boccaccio had the story-teller invoke the greatness of God. This may seem out of place in a secular work of literature. Its purpose was to establish the legitimacy of the following story, which was an attack on the Church.
Novel I told the story of a wealthy man who had debtors in Burgundy. He hired an evil man named Ciapolletto to collect his money, and it was said that “he was, perhaps, the worst man ever to be born”. While abroad, Ciapolletto fell ill, and owners of the house he was staying in feared he would die, because he was such a sinner that he would not have a Christian burial. This would bring great disgrace unto them. So Ciapolletto said that he would use deception to trick people into believing he was a holy man. On his deathbed, he confessed to a Friar, saying many minor sins with great pretended piety and sorrow. The Friar went away believing this great sinner to be an extremely holy person. After his death, Ciapolletto was declared a saint, and was revered by the people. The whole story was an attack on the veneration of saints, and on the system of the Catholic Church.
So why did Boccaccio have the story-teller invoke God in what would be an attack on the Church? The reason was to establish the story’s religious legitimacy, while still attacking the Church. Boccaccio was not attacking the Catholic religion, he was attacking the Catholic Church and its clergy. Without an invocation of God, this piece of literature may have been viewed as a criticism of something far more serious, and may have brought down sanctions against Boccaccio. The Invocation of God was to make sure that Boccaccio’s audience knew what he was attacking, and provided an escape hatch in case he came under persecution.