FREDERICK M. BIGGS. Chaucer’s Decameron and the Origin of the Canterbury Tales

FREDERICK M. BIGGS. Chaucer’s Decameron and the Origin of the Canterbury Tales What is at stake when a particular text is proposed as a source for the Canterbury Tales, and to what problem does the new source relationship offer a solution? The suggestion in Chaucer’s Decameron that Chaucer knew and used Boccaccio’s Decameron is hardly new; with many structural and narrative similarities, but little to no evidence of direct verbal translation from Italian to English, the relationship between the two fourteenth-century framed story collections nevertheless remains hotly debated among scholars. Some reject the notion that Chaucer knew the Decameron in any way; others suggest that he used it extensively but did not work with a text to hand; still others assert his knowledge—close or general—of parts of the work, with or without Boccaccio’s name attached. The solution offered by Chaucer’s Decameron involves a fundamental redefinition of the evidentiary basis for identifying a source. The study asserts the source relationship with several concatenated points: first, the origin of the Canterbury Tales is found in the Introduction to Day Six of the Decameron, where the servant Licisca’s outburst conveying her disdain towards male attitudes towards marriage, women, and power spills over from the frame to the stories told by the patrician members of the storytelling brigata; from this, Chaucer derived his idea for interchange between frame and stories, as well as his focus on gender and class in the Canterbury Tales. Second, Chaucer learned a specific compositional strategy from three tales from Day Eight: 8.1, 8.2, and 8.10, the last of which not having previously been suggested as a source. In these novelle, Boccaccio took a single basic story type—the Lover’s Gift Regained—and worked the changes on it by varying the setting from rural peasant village to urban middle-class city to international commerce. Chaucer, the study argues, used all three novelle to conceive the Shipman’s Tale, which moves from the village home shared by the monk and the merchant of the tale and the urban market town setting of St Denis, to the international commercial setting of the banking houses of Bruges and Paris, to depict the homologous circulation of money and sex in marriage. The three novelle are sources of not only the Shipman’s Tale but also Chaucer’s entire originality in the Canterbury Tales, for he learned from them a Boccaccian model of reading in which he amalgamated many sources, distilled an idea from the process rather than borrowing a narrative, and made the resulting new narrative his own. Finally, this source relationship contributes to an intricate argument about dating and compositional stages in the Canterbury Tales. According to the study, the collection originated with the tale now assigned to the Shipman, but originally The Wife of Bath’s Tale, paired with the Melibee, originally assigned to the Man of Law, so that the two tales counter one another on the subject of marriage and male domination of women. The third tale written, the Miller’s, caused Chaucer to reconceive the collection, so that The Miller’s Tale becomes the class-based response to the conservative The Knight’s Tale, and the Wife of Bath becomes a more powerful female character and gets a wholly new tale (and prologue)—which then becomes the source for Gower’s ‘Tale of Florent’ in the Confessio Amantis. All of this, the study argues, must have happened before 1390, for Gower’s rebuttal of The Wife of Bath’s Tale to provoke the much-debated quarrel between the two poets and the excision of Gower’s praise of Chaucer from the third recension of the Confessio. This study, then, seeks to wed traditional source study with the workshop approach to the composition and revision of the Canterbury Tales to account for the striking originality it attributes to a reading method Chaucer learned from Boccaccio. The proposition that Chaucer based The Shipman’s Tale on all three novelle from the Eighth Day of the Decameron is plausible, but here it suffers from circular logic: after the initial assertion, it is repeatedly treated as already proven. The study, in essence, is premised on the validity of its conclusion. There is no answer to the objection that, for a text to be identified as a source for another (rather than an analogue or even a ‘hard analogue’), one must show specific verbal transfer. Acknowledging the absence of such transfer, the study nevertheless argues that Chaucer not only knew the Decameron generally but also studied it intimately. The evidence cited to support close study, however, is usually not very distinctive, as in the treatment of social settings in the Shipman’s Tale. Such reliance on a level of detail less specific than verbal texture is typical of the more flexible evidentiary criteria for intertextuality or translation, both of which have proven very productive in other studies of Chaucer’s relationship to the Decameron. The close readings offered to support the claim that Chaucer learned to derive the idea of a tale from reading three tales from Day Eight also yield undistinctive and thus unconvincing evidence, since they show no more than general topical similarities. The rest of the argument does not, in fact, depend on having established a source relationship, however defined, rather than intertextuality or translation; thus, it is not clear why the study insists on its redefinition of evidentiary standards. And insist it does: the pervasive method throughout the study involves an exhaustive trek through the analogues assembled in both the 1941 Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales and the revision of this basic research tool completed in 2005, so as to distinguish between genuine sources and mere analogues. This method carries the study far afield from its main argument about the relationship of the Canterbury Tales to the Decameron. Closer textually (although not argumentatively), other points also rest on overly general and thus unconvincing evidence. In arguing that Gower’s treatment of alchemy (Confessio IV) provided the source for the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, for instance, the study adduces several passages to show that, more than parallels, they are instead related by Gower’s influence on Chaucer (pp. 32–41). None of them convincingly shows influence, in either direction; a shared conversation is certainly plausible given the known relation between the two poets, but the topical similarities in the passages analysed here are simply too general to support the argument for influence. Chaucer’s Decameron is an immensely learned study, an omnium gatherum full of rewarding nuggets; for example, its comparison of the domestic architecture in the Miller’s Tale and its Dutch analogue, Heile van Beersele—derived from Chaucer’s tale, according to the argument here—contributes to a richer understanding of John the Carpenter’s social standing. Although its main argument for an intimate source relationship between the two tale collections is plausible as speculation, however, the study offers neither convincing proof of it nor any persuasive reason that we should overthrow the evidentiary standard for source study so as to accommodate its speculative case. Whether the Decameron is a source for the Canterbury Tales may no longer be the right question. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Review of English Studies Oxford University Press

FREDERICK M. BIGGS. Chaucer’s Decameron and the Origin of the Canterbury Tales

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved
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0034-6551
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Abstract

What is at stake when a particular text is proposed as a source for the Canterbury Tales, and to what problem does the new source relationship offer a solution? The suggestion in Chaucer’s Decameron that Chaucer knew and used Boccaccio’s Decameron is hardly new; with many structural and narrative similarities, but little to no evidence of direct verbal translation from Italian to English, the relationship between the two fourteenth-century framed story collections nevertheless remains hotly debated among scholars. Some reject the notion that Chaucer knew the Decameron in any way; others suggest that he used it extensively but did not work with a text to hand; still others assert his knowledge—close or general—of parts of the work, with or without Boccaccio’s name attached. The solution offered by Chaucer’s Decameron involves a fundamental redefinition of the evidentiary basis for identifying a source. The study asserts the source relationship with several concatenated points: first, the origin of the Canterbury Tales is found in the Introduction to Day Six of the Decameron, where the servant Licisca’s outburst conveying her disdain towards male attitudes towards marriage, women, and power spills over from the frame to the stories told by the patrician members of the storytelling brigata; from this, Chaucer derived his idea for interchange between frame and stories, as well as his focus on gender and class in the Canterbury Tales. Second, Chaucer learned a specific compositional strategy from three tales from Day Eight: 8.1, 8.2, and 8.10, the last of which not having previously been suggested as a source. In these novelle, Boccaccio took a single basic story type—the Lover’s Gift Regained—and worked the changes on it by varying the setting from rural peasant village to urban middle-class city to international commerce. Chaucer, the study argues, used all three novelle to conceive the Shipman’s Tale, which moves from the village home shared by the monk and the merchant of the tale and the urban market town setting of St Denis, to the international commercial setting of the banking houses of Bruges and Paris, to depict the homologous circulation of money and sex in marriage. The three novelle are sources of not only the Shipman’s Tale but also Chaucer’s entire originality in the Canterbury Tales, for he learned from them a Boccaccian model of reading in which he amalgamated many sources, distilled an idea from the process rather than borrowing a narrative, and made the resulting new narrative his own. Finally, this source relationship contributes to an intricate argument about dating and compositional stages in the Canterbury Tales. According to the study, the collection originated with the tale now assigned to the Shipman, but originally The Wife of Bath’s Tale, paired with the Melibee, originally assigned to the Man of Law, so that the two tales counter one another on the subject of marriage and male domination of women. The third tale written, the Miller’s, caused Chaucer to reconceive the collection, so that The Miller’s Tale becomes the class-based response to the conservative The Knight’s Tale, and the Wife of Bath becomes a more powerful female character and gets a wholly new tale (and prologue)—which then becomes the source for Gower’s ‘Tale of Florent’ in the Confessio Amantis. All of this, the study argues, must have happened before 1390, for Gower’s rebuttal of The Wife of Bath’s Tale to provoke the much-debated quarrel between the two poets and the excision of Gower’s praise of Chaucer from the third recension of the Confessio. This study, then, seeks to wed traditional source study with the workshop approach to the composition and revision of the Canterbury Tales to account for the striking originality it attributes to a reading method Chaucer learned from Boccaccio. The proposition that Chaucer based The Shipman’s Tale on all three novelle from the Eighth Day of the Decameron is plausible, but here it suffers from circular logic: after the initial assertion, it is repeatedly treated as already proven. The study, in essence, is premised on the validity of its conclusion. There is no answer to the objection that, for a text to be identified as a source for another (rather than an analogue or even a ‘hard analogue’), one must show specific verbal transfer. Acknowledging the absence of such transfer, the study nevertheless argues that Chaucer not only knew the Decameron generally but also studied it intimately. The evidence cited to support close study, however, is usually not very distinctive, as in the treatment of social settings in the Shipman’s Tale. Such reliance on a level of detail less specific than verbal texture is typical of the more flexible evidentiary criteria for intertextuality or translation, both of which have proven very productive in other studies of Chaucer’s relationship to the Decameron. The close readings offered to support the claim that Chaucer learned to derive the idea of a tale from reading three tales from Day Eight also yield undistinctive and thus unconvincing evidence, since they show no more than general topical similarities. The rest of the argument does not, in fact, depend on having established a source relationship, however defined, rather than intertextuality or translation; thus, it is not clear why the study insists on its redefinition of evidentiary standards. And insist it does: the pervasive method throughout the study involves an exhaustive trek through the analogues assembled in both the 1941 Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales and the revision of this basic research tool completed in 2005, so as to distinguish between genuine sources and mere analogues. This method carries the study far afield from its main argument about the relationship of the Canterbury Tales to the Decameron. Closer textually (although not argumentatively), other points also rest on overly general and thus unconvincing evidence. In arguing that Gower’s treatment of alchemy (Confessio IV) provided the source for the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, for instance, the study adduces several passages to show that, more than parallels, they are instead related by Gower’s influence on Chaucer (pp. 32–41). None of them convincingly shows influence, in either direction; a shared conversation is certainly plausible given the known relation between the two poets, but the topical similarities in the passages analysed here are simply too general to support the argument for influence. Chaucer’s Decameron is an immensely learned study, an omnium gatherum full of rewarding nuggets; for example, its comparison of the domestic architecture in the Miller’s Tale and its Dutch analogue, Heile van Beersele—derived from Chaucer’s tale, according to the argument here—contributes to a richer understanding of John the Carpenter’s social standing. Although its main argument for an intimate source relationship between the two tale collections is plausible as speculation, however, the study offers neither convincing proof of it nor any persuasive reason that we should overthrow the evidentiary standard for source study so as to accommodate its speculative case. Whether the Decameron is a source for the Canterbury Tales may no longer be the right question. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

The Review of English StudiesOxford University Press

Published: May 11, 2018

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