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A Jew Converts to Christianity by
Giovanni Boccaccio

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was born in central Italy in the 14th century, just as the Renaissance was getting underway. He was an illegitimate child of a bourgeois (i.e. non-noble) manager of the Bardi Bank of Florence, and after his father was transferred to Naples in 1327, Boccaccio followed him there. His father tried to get Boccaccio to study law, but he switched to literature and eventually found work as a scribe and chronicleer in the court of the Angevin kings of France. In 1341, he returned to Florence where he experienced the Black Death of 1348-1349. Later in his life, he was strongly influenced by Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), a famous Renaissance humanist.

Boccaccio's background was bourgeois and his writing shows it. His most famous work, The Decameron, was written a decade after the plague and contains one hundred short stories framed within a larger story about young Italian nobles who escape the plague by going to a country estate. They amuse each other by telling stories that covered a broad range of ideas that interested educated Italians in the late 15th century. This reading contains the story of a Jew who converted to Christianity despite witnessing corruption in Rome.

Definitions

Background

After the disasters of fourteenth century in Europe, things began to improve a bit in the fifteenth century, especially in towns. In troubled times, people in the towns had fewer problems than nobles because they made their money by manufacturing or trade. That meant they could react with greater flexibility to changing market conditions than the nobles, whose wealth depended on seasonal farming. In northern Germany, merchants in port cities formed the Hanseatic League which reduced competition and eventually gained control over the grain trade in the Baltic and North Seas as far west as England. The North Sea was located at one end of a trade route that followed the Rhine River to the Alps and crossed the mountains into Italy. At the southern end of that route, Mediterranean port cities like Genoa and Venice controlled the trade in spices from Asia, while Milan dominated the production of weapons.

Florence, Boccaccio's birthplace, was a trading town in the Margravate of Tuscany, an administrative unit created by Charlemagne in the 8th century and headed by a noble called a Margrave. By the end of the 12th century, Florence's population had grown to about 30,000 and its citizens were wealthy enough to make themselves independent of the local nobility. They had their own government, which was dominated by the members of the major guilds, which included goldsmiths and bankers among other occupations.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
Even a northern city like Paris could afford to construct opulent buildings like the Cathedral of Notre Dame
Cathedral in Florence
The cathedral in Florence, one of the wealthiest
towns in Renaissance Italy, was completed in 1434
Interior of St. Peter's Cathedral at the Vatican
The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul at the Vatican was one of the most luxurious buildings ever constructed

As the wealth of towns increased, a new class of people called the bourgeoisie developed. Some owned businesses that engaged in manufacture or trade, while others worked for nobles or town governments as lawyers, clerks, scribes and other kinds of non-manual workers. Meanwhile, business practices improved with the invention of insurance, bookkeeping and banking. Banks began as a way to move wealth across borders, either to keep it safe from war or to finance large projects (like the Crusades). At first, there was little profit in banking because the Bible prohibited the collection of interest, but as international trade developed, the popes modified their position. That enabled wealthy families to loan money at interest to traders who then used it to finance voyages. Thanks to their location on routes between the Muslim world in the eastern Mediterranean and Christian northern Europe, wealthy residents of Italian cities like Florence, Genoa, Lucca, Pisa, and Venice established a large number of private family banks.

The bank where Boccaccio's father worked was founded by the Bardi family of Florence in the 12th century. In addition to making loans to nobles, the Bardi bank also collected taxes for the papacy and financed manufacturing activities in Florence, especially wool processing. The Bardi bank opened branches in other places including England, where they made large loans to King Edward III to finance his wars against Scotland and France. Those loans led to the bank's failure in 1344 after the king defaulted on his payments.

Who were the Angevins? The introduction to this reading mentions that Boccaccio was employed by the Angevin kings of France after spending time in Naples. The "Angevin kings" were from the Anjou region of northwestern France, and were descended from William the Conquerer, the Norman king who conquered invaded England in 1066. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Angevin kings ruled over territory in both England and France, producing claims that led to the Hundred Years' War of the 14th and early 15th centuries. Another branch of the Angevins acquired control over Naples and Sicily (southern Italy) in the 13th century, and while they lost Sicily to Aragon (Spain) in 1282, they retained control over Naples until the 15th century. Finally, a third branch of the Angevins established a dynasty in Hungary for most of the 14th century.

Questions

  1. How could one travel from Paris to Rome in the mid-14th century? What problems did a traveller face?
  2. Once Abraham decided to convert to Christianity, what else did he have to do? Was it any different than what Clovis had to do?
  3. This piece by Boccaccio is a work of fiction rather than a historical account. How does that affect its value to a historian? Does it affect the way that a historian should read it?
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