Boccaccio's "The Stupid Friar"

"Nothing is so indecent that it cannot be said to another person if the proper words are used to convey it."―Giovanni Boccaccio

Around the year 1340 a high-born lady of Florence fell in love with a gentleman who didn’t notice her. She had been looking for someone to fall in love with. Her husband, a rich wool merchant, was not high-born, and thought of nothing but weaving and carding and wool-combing. She despised him.

But the man she chose to fall in love with didn’t know she existed. Letters? Messengers? Too dangerous. She discovered however that he confessed regularly to a certain friar who was widely admired for his holy life although, like many friars, he was fat, stupid and vulgar.

She went to the church where he lived and asked if she could confess to him. Friars live on donations, and she was clearly a gentlewoman, so he agreed immediately. When she had unburdened her heart she confessed also that she had a problem. Her husband, a very rich man, indulged her every whim. She loved him more than she loved herself, and would never do anything to hurt or dishonor him. But.

“A gentleman whose name I don’t know,” she said, “but who seems to be a friend of yours—a tall handsome well-dressed man—has been stalking me! If I go to the window he’s there. If I go to the door he’s there. If I leave the house he follows me! I’d be surprised if he weren’t here right now!” She looked over her shoulder.

“I don’t want to tell my brothers. You know men—it might get violent. Do you think you could speak to him?” And she wept.

He praised her virtue, and incidentally reminded her of the beggar’s life a friar leads, at which she made a weighty contribution, and asked him to say masses for the dead in her family. And the next time the gentleman came to see him the friar introduced into the conversation, very politely, the problem the lady was having.

The gentleman paused. “What?”

“Don’t try to deny it. She told me herself. And she is not interested. This doesn’t look well on you. You’d better leave her alone.”

The gentleman thought for a moment. “Okay.” And when he left he went straight to the lady’s house and saw her standing at a window. She looked at him, and in her eyes was a certain merriment. After that he found occasion to pass that way again, and when they saw each other his eyes held a certain merriment.

That was all she needed. “It’s worse than ever!” she told the friar. “He won’t stop! He sent a girl to my house with a message, and gifts!—a sash and a purse!” She held them out. “What do I want with a sash and a purse? I almost gave them back to her but then I thought, no, she’ll just keep them for herself, so here, please return them to him. If this goes on I’ll have to tell my husband and my brothers, I don’t care what happens!”

“No no no, you mustn’t do that! Control your anger. No blame will fall on you, my child, your chastity is perfect, I’ll testify to that.”

She sighed. “I see my dead mother in dreams, and other dead members of my family. Please say the Forty Masses of Saint Grigorio so God will spare them from the flames.” And she gave him a gold florin!

“What are these?” demanded the friar, shaking the purse and the sash at the gentleman. “She told me to give them back to you! She threatens to tell her husband and her brothers!” The gentleman nodded, embarrassed.

“Promise me you won’t see her anymore!”

“I promise,” he said, and went straight to the lady’s street. Finding her in the window, he discreetly showed her that he had received the gifts. She smiled. He smiled. And when her husband rode off to Genoa on business she went back to the friar.

She said, “Father, I promised I wouldn’t do anything without telling you. I don’t know how this man found out my husband is in Genoa but this morning before dawn he entered the garden, climbed a tree to my bedroom window—which is the one in front that overlooks the garden—and was coming in when I woke and jumped out of bed nude! I was about to scream when he told me who he was and begged mercy for God’s sake and for yours! So I didn’t scream, but I slammed the window in his face. Because of you I’ve suffered along with this, but now I have to do something!”

The friar was very angry. He said, “Give me one more chance. I’ll deal with him.”

“Well,” she said, “I won’t come back again. I’ll act on my own.”

“Don’t worry.”

She stormed off, and very soon the gentleman appeared at the church. The friar took him aside and shouted at him, heaped abuse on him, called him names. 

The gentleman listened patiently. “What’s wrong?”

This drew forth new insults, and a description of what the gentleman had done that morning. “What are you going to do if she tells her brothers?”

“You’re right,” said the gentleman. “Your anger, your holiness, your harsh words, they guide me to heaven.”

And that night he was up the tree, through the window, and in heaven. And so were they both, for many a night, thanks to the stupid friar.

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