Jews, like Arabs, were widely considered to be enemies of Christians by virtue of the fact that they did not subscribe to Christian doctrine. Indeed, they were also held to resemble heretics and lepers in being associated with filth, stench and putrefaction, in exceptional sexual voracity and endowment, and in the menace which they consequently presented to the wives and children of honest Christians. They were thought by some to have, through sorcery, been responsible for the plagues of the late 14th century and were alleged to have poisoned the wells of France in 1321. For all imaginative purposes, heretics, Jews and lepers were interchangeable figures. They had the same qualities, from the same source, and they presented the same threat: through them the Devil was at work to subvert the Christian order and bring the world to chaos.
Notably, Boccaccio does not attribute such loathsome characteristics to the Jewish characters of the first Day. As early as his second tale, Boccaccio shows great sympathy for the Jew, Abraam, on whom the author lavishes such adjectives as diritto, leale, valente, savio and buono. In the very next tale, we meet another noble and worthy Jew, Melchisedech, a character already known to Europe through the Cento novelle antiche (73) and other medieval works. Boccaccio's admirable lack of prejudice, especially encouraging given the cultural climate and the considerable effect of the plague on the Tuscan countryside, was the exception to the rule.
There are, however, ample examples of negative treatments of Jews in other comparable works. In a vein reminiscent of the unforgiving tone of some of the verses of Gonzalo de Berceo's (c.1198-c.1264) Milagros de Nuestra Señora, Chaucer shows contempt for the Jews (Prioress' Tale) in his story of the martyrdom of a pious little boy at their hands. The principal source for Shakespeare's Shylock is to be found in the Pecorone (IV.1) of Ser Giovanni Fiorentino (c. 1390) in which a Jewish moneylender would rather receive his payment in a "pound of flesh" than in money. Sacchetti, who in most other respects follows the Decameronian example with great care, also stoops to the presentation of the Jew as a simple object of humor (Trecentonovelle tales 24, 190, 218 and 219).
(M.P. & G.M.) Anatomy of the Novella: The European Tale Collection from Boccaccio and Chaucer to Cervantes. Eds., Robert J. Clements and Joseph Gibaldi. New York: NYUP, 1977; R. I. Moore. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1987.