Literature Study GuidesThe DecameronFirst Day Third Story Summary

The Decameron | Study Guide

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron | First Day, Third Story | Summary

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Summary

Filomena narrates the third story of the first day. Saladin, the sultan of Babylon, discovers he needs money and goes to a Jewish man named Melchisedech to see about borrowing the money. Concerned Melchisedech might offer unfair terms, Saladin comes up with an idea to trick him, so Saladin has cause to seize the assets rather than borrow them.

Saladin summons Melchisedech and asks which of the three faiths—Christianity, Islam, or Judaism—is the true faith. Melchisedech sees this question for the trap it is, and he tells a story to illustrate his answer.

A wealthy man had a beautiful ring he passed to his son so everyone would know this was his true heir. This continued down the family line until one man had three worthy sons. He loved them equally, and did not know whom he should leave the ring to. So he had two other rings made in secret, nearly identical to the first ring. On his deathbed he gave each of his sons a ring. After he died each son attempted to collect his inheritance only to find the others had the same claim. When they examined the rings, they were unable to tell which ring was the true ring. They then put off the question of which son was the true heir.

Melchisedech offers the same counsel regarding the three faiths. Each follower believes they follow the true faith, but the matter is still undecided. Saladin is so impressed with Melchisedech's answer he asks him for the money, which Melchisedech gladly loans him. Saladin repays him and they become good friends.

Analysis

Saladin makes his first appearance in the narrative. Saladin was a famous figure during the Third Crusade in the late 12th century. Historically, he was a Muslim military and political leader who led the Islamic forces against the West. He managed to wrest control of most of the Holy Lands away from crusader control, and even though he did not defeat King Richard I of England, he retained control of Jerusalem. He was noted for his generosity, his religious practice, and his honor.

Melchisedech is another Jewish character, this time a moneylender. Jewish people were commonly moneylenders, as their religion did not prohibit such a practice. Because of this, non-Jewish people often harbored a great deal of resentment toward them, and this colored portrayals of them in fiction (see the character "Shylock" in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice). Boccaccio did not fall into that later trope—instead, Melchisedech is portrayed as wise and fairly rendered. Both this story and the one before it posit the equality of all of the "Big Three" religions rather than placing Christianity above the others, which was a rare view during the medieval period.

The story of the three rings made the rounds throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Boccaccio certainly would have heard of it or read it. It was also called "Tale of the Three Rings" or "The Legend of the Three Rings."

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