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The Inquisition Ridiculed
by Giovanni Boccaccio

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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As explained previously, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was the illegitimate son of a wealthy non-noble Italian banker. This tale from his best known work, The Decameron, provides commentary on corruption that was associated with the Catholic Inquisition.

Definitions

Background

Spain and Portugal had long been in the front line of the Catholic struggle against Islam, and as the challenges to Catholicism grew, their support became even stronger. The "Inquisition" was the name for church-sanctioned courts that sought to stop heresy and promote the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX granted the Dominicans (a monastic order) special authority to investigate heresy and ordered all Catholic bishops to cooperate.

In 1305, Philip IV of France (1285-1314) used the Inquisition to attack the Order of the Knights Templar, an organization which acted as a bank for the popes and to whom Philip owed money.

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Nude paintings on the roof of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel were covered up by order of the Roman Inquisition

In 1478, the monarchs of the newly formed Kingdom of Aragon and Castile (later Spain), Ferdinand and Isabella, granted control over the Inquisition to Dominican monks. They began to hold trials in 1478 and used them as a means to seize wealth from the Marranos -- former Jews who were accused of secretly practicing their old faith. By 1492, the Castillians and Aragonese had completed the conquest of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, and expelled all of the remaining Jews who they refused to convert to Christianity.

The Inquisition reappeared several more times in European history. A Dutch rebellion against the Spanish monarchy brought the Inquisition to the Netherlands in the late 16th century. The Inquisition was established in Portugal in 1536, and in Spanish America in 1569. In 1600, the Inquisition began in Rome, and authorized the burning of heretics as well as censorship of the nudes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. In 1633, an Inquisition court forced Galileo to deny his claim that Jupiter was circled by moons, because that contradicted the accepted view of the universe which placed the Earth at its center.

In this reading, the corrupt monk was a member of the Franciscan order. The Franciscans were founded about 1208 by Francis of Assisi, who convinced twelve others to take a vow of poverty in order to wander the countryside and preach. The order grew rapidly and by the sixteenth century, it was larger than all the other orders except the Dominicans. As their order grew, the Franciscans became divided between the largest group, which followed the example of Francis, and a smaller group of more worldly Franciscans who acquired property and lived like other monastic orders. The Franciscans also developed a reputation for learning and produced many important scholars including William of Ockham and Roger Bacon. They produced four popes: Sixtus IV, Julius II, Sixtus V, and Clement XIV; and one anti-pope (i.e. a pope located in Avignon during the Great Schism), Alexander V. Franciscans accompanied Christopher Columbus's fleet and obtained the first Christian converts in the New World. They continued to accompany other Spanish explorers and became the most important Catholic monastic order in the Americas.

Questions

  1. What was Boccaccio's opinion of the Inquisition?
  2. How did bribery influence the operation of the Inquisition?
  3. What would its readers have found entertaining about this story? Why?
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