First of all, my apologies. The piece under discussion today is, in fact, not poetry. I’ve been working with The Decameron lately, trying to summarize and explicate its stories for students who may not know very much about the Middle Ages, Boccaccio, Italy, or more importantly, a medieval Italian sense of humor. Today’s barrier to humor: the scoundrel Ser Cepperello/Ciappelletto receiving last rites so he can make sure that his kind hosts don’t have to dump his body in a moat after he’s dead. It is entirely possible that students can understand enough of the context to grasp the situation: a really awful man fakes a confession to a holy friar, making himself out to be a truly humble, saintly man thoroughly prepared to meet his Maker. But then Ciappelletto receives absolution and a blessing. Communion. Extreme Unction. Oy.
These are passing mentions, mere nothings to the members of the brigata because it is part of their daily lives. As a student, however, this is precisely the kind of thing that would have driven me insane (if I weren’t already a Catholic and didn’t know what these technical terms meant). So just in case there are still some students out there in the world who pay attention to such minutiae and need a quick and dirty on these terms, here we go…
You Say “Last Rites”, I Say “Anointing of the Sick”
The first problem you will have if you Google “last rites” or “last sacrament” is that it really isn’t properly called this anymore. In the modern Catholic Church (and since we’re dealing with Florence, Italy circa 1348, we are dealing with Catholicism), the rites of preparation for death are wrapped up in the final sacrament called the Anointing of the Sick. The reason for the name change? Nowadays, those who are ill or, say, having surgery, are encouraged to participate in these rites as an act of hope and healing: taking communion, receiving a blessing and anointing with chrism is meant to promote physical as well as spiritual health. So it’s not necessarily going to be the last time you go through these motions because you are actively dying. It’s more like hedging your bets so that you can be prepared if the worst does actually happen. Back in the day, however, the odds were that if you were receiving the Viaticum and Extreme Unction, you really were on your deathbed.
This sacrament has several components, but I will confine myself to the ones mentioned in I.1 of The Decameron:
- Liturgy of Penance (a.k.a. confession). Technically speaking, if Ciappelletto is going to make a good confession, he first needs to believe that God will forgive all his sins, no matter how big (he doesn’t believe this) and make a thorough inventory of all the stuff he shouldn’t have done in his life to report to the friar. Also, he needs to feel contrition for his badness, but it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t feel very sorrowful for having offended God by his behavior. At the end of this part of the sacrament, the friar offers absolution, which means he acts as a representative of Christ in extending forgiveness for the sins confessed. (Ciappelletto would then be required to make satisfaction or atonement for his sins, probably by saying a series of prayers, but this bit isn’t mentioned in the text).
- Liturgy of Viaticum (a.k.a. receiving communion). The concept of viaticum comes from a Greek tradition of preparing a supper or other necessary things for a traveler about to go on a journey. Translated into Latin, we get the term viaticus and the idea that if we’re going on that final journey, we’re going to need something to sustain us spiritually and physically. We’re told that after Ciappelletto makes his incredible confession, he receives this Communion. The Friar would have brought a consecrated host (communion wafer that had been blessed during Mass and believed to be the true flesh of Christ) with him to give to Ciappelletto.
- Liturgy of Anointing (a.k.a. Extreme Unction). This is the last part of the rite received by Ciappelletto. In it, the friar would have taken a special oil called chrism (special because it is blessed by a bishop and reserved for only three sacraments–baptism and holy orders are the other two) and anointed the five points on the body that are the five sense receptors: the eyes, ears, nostrils, lips and hands. There are prayers that accompany these actions as well.
As you can imagine, by the time Ser Ciappelletto finishes his astonishing confession and the friar has gone through all of these rites (and probably a few more), a good part of the day would have elapsed. For those who believe in it, it’s a pretty intense experience. For those who don’t, like Master Ciappelletto, keeping up such a lengthy pretense means one of two things. Either he’s really determined to put one over on a representative of Holy Church and cap his life of wickedness in the jolliest way he can imagine. Or perhaps Boccaccio’s bad boy had some kind of grace in him after all. He did put in a lot of effort to hoodwink the friar so that his rotting corpse wouldn’t plague his kind hosts.
If you require more detailed information about any of these components of the Anointing of the Sick, take a look here: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/ . You can type your query in the search box there.