In an age without television, radio, or video games, men and women of all classes entertained themselves through simpler and more wholesome means – storytelling. As illustrated in the numerous writings from the medieval era, people from all walks of life often had large collections of hagiographies, fables, and fabliaux that were stored in their memories and were ready to be told whenever people needed to be entertained and, of course, distracted from what was otherwise a difficult and agonizingly short life. Considering the importance of the tales and stories for the an average medieval European, it should not be at all surprising, therefore, that many authors chose to compile the various stories that they had come into contact with into a single collection. Even the best-educated of medieval writers lived in a society in which oral entertainment was one of the most common types of entertainment. Because of the fact that they heard stories that were both told and read aloud, they had a tendency to reword their written influences into a fashion that was more typical of how an oral storyteller would tell them, which means altering details and making use of styles that were appropriate not only to their own tastes but to those that would hear the story read aloud. Two of the most famous of these compilations, both set within the framework of a broader story, are Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Decamerone. Many literary historians consider it a given that Chaucer was greatly influenced by what he read in the Decameron: “Chaucer made early and precocious use of Boccaccio and was ultimately inspired to fashion a framed collection of his own” (Wallace, 2001, p. 36). Although it must also be considered that both Boccaccio and Chaucer were simply using the same preexisting tales, the parallels between Chaucer’s and Boccaccio’s works are too numerous to be simply discounted as coincidences. “Both of these 14th century stories, the Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio, and The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, are strikingly similar in many ways, leading the reader to notice a significant amount of “borrowing” from some tales of Boccaccio by Chaucer in select Canterbury Tales” (Smith, 2011). It is apparent, if not obvious, that Chaucer must have read Il Decamerone at some point before writing his Canterbury Tales.
Both Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) were noblemen with strong court connections; Chaucer was a courtier and a civil servant, while Boccaccio studied as a lawyer at the court of Robert the Wise. Their respective social backgrounds may have influenced their respective works: “Whereas Chaucer, the royal servant, imagines tale-tellers from a remarkable range of professions, Boccaccio (lifelong servant of the Florentine Republic) gives us a rotating monarchy governed by young aristocrats” (Wallace, 2001, p. 52). Boccaccio’s seminal work – The Decameron – was completed in 1353, while Chaucer probably began to work on the Canterbury Tales sometime in the 1380s. While it is tempting to state that Chaucer was completely inspired and influenced by Boccaccio, it is just as likely that the two literary geniuses simply used the same sources. In discussing Chaucer’s French influences, Ardis Butterfield notes, “if, turning to the source of Troilus and Criseyde, the early fourteenth-century poem Il Filostrato by Giovanni Boccaccio, we try to find out what Boccaccio’s sources were, we discover that several of them coincide with Chaucer’s. Boccaccio, like Chaucer, read French poets avidly” (p. 23-24). In some cases, Boccaccio’s influence on Chaucer, although present, was indirect: “the source of The “Clerk’s Tale” is Petrarch’s Latin story De Obedientia ac Fide Uxorial Mythologia. This, in turn, is a translation of the last story of Boccaccio’s Decameron” (Benson, 2008, p. 880). Occasionally, similarities between two tales can only be based on speculation, as the stories, in their journey from one end of Europe to another, may have been radically altered from their original form. After all, the more complicated the plot of a story is, the more likely that the two different versions have a common origin and were passed along in a chain from storyteller to storyteller. Despite these complications, however, Boccaccio’s influence on Chaucer’s Tales is readily apparent and is correctly assumed by most literary historians. “It is Boccaccio’s example, it would seem, that finally encourages Chaucer to organize a traveling company of tellers under a single narrative structure” (Wallace, 2004, p. 51).
Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale,” – probably one of the best-known narratives in The Canterbury Tales – is, as stated previously, drawn from one of Petrarch’s works (this is stated explicitly by Chaucer’s Clerk in the story’s prologue) (31-32). Petrarch (1304-1374), in turn, used the last story (10.10) from Boccaccio’s Decameron, which tells the tale of “the Marquis of Sanluzzo,” who, “in order to have his own way in the matter … chooses the daughter of a peasant and by her he has two children, whom he pretends to have put to death.” The story follows “The Clerk’s Tale” almost exactly, despite Petrarch’s De Obedientia ac Fide acts as something of a “buffer” between the two tales. “The goal of both stories in ‘The Decameron’ and ‘Canterbury Tales’ is to portray a female figure, named Griselda, who is able to bear tremendous and undeserved suffering caused by her partner as a test of her love and devotion, and this despite the fact that both women in the tales have been nothing but faithful, loving, and attentive” (Smith). The tale is another fine example of a medieval writer applying a circulating, preexisting, orally transmitted story. Historians believe it to be based on a Mediterranean folktale called “The Patience of a Princess” (Benson, 2008, p. 880).
The “Man of Law’s Tale” is another tale with numerous similarities to The Decameron. It is well known that “Chaucer’s principal source for this tale is a lengthy section of an Anglo-Norman chronicle of world history that was written around 1334 by the Dominican friar Nicholas Trevet” (Benson, 2008, p. 857). However, there are two very similar tales in Boccaccio’s work as well. The tale that was told by Boccaccio’s Elissa on the fifth day describes a princess named Agnolella who, in the process of eloping with her lover, Pietro, is separated from him and forced to seek refuge at a castle. After a long period of searching, Pietro finally finds her, marries her, and takes her to Rome (Decameron, 5.3). However, there is an earlier story in The Decameron, which is told by Panfilo on the second day. It describes Alatiel, the virginal daughter of the Sultan of Babylon, who, on her way to marry a foreign nobleman, is caught in a series of misadventures that exposes her love affairs with several men in different lands before she is finally returned to her father (Decameron, 2.7). While Chaucer’s Custance does not have an adventure of quite this magnitude, the idea of a ruler’s daughter being lost at sea and seeing exotic (or, in Chaucer’s case, familiar) lands is a prevalent one. “The Man of Law’s” tale is a good example of indirect unintentional similarities between the works of Chaucer and Boccaccio.
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Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale” is one of his most famous fabliaux (a fabliau is a bawdy tale that is usually intended to be the opposite of the more traditional romantic tale). Once again, Boccaccio’s Decameron depicts an almost identical tale being told on the ninth day. Both stories are “based on a traditional fabliau story (the “cradle-trick”)”; however, Larry Benson, although acknowledging the “close similarities with Boccaccio’s Decameron, Ninth Day, 6,” claims that “no precise source has been found.” (p. 849). Derek Pearsall emphasizes the differences between the two tales when he notes the differing depictions of the wife’s supposed promiscuity: “the wife of the [original] fabliaux is not, it must be stressed, promiscuous, and there is no suggestion that the affair in which she is engaged is a matter of regular occupation. This is not because Chaucer is mealy-mouthed where Boccaccio is (quite often) frank, but because he can, thereby, increase the amount and quality of the intrigue” (p. 164).
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“The Miller’s Tale,” which equals “The Reeve’s Tale” in bawdiness and vulgarity, also has its origins in the Decameron, namely, the second day’s tenth story.
In both stories, a younger woman married to an older man is the subject of the tale … Both stories are risqué and play with words and symbols freely, exhibiting Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s cleverness and wit. Again, these stories, while dramatic contrasts—and indeed, diametric opposites—to the previous tales analyzed, could have provided much needed comic relief for readers who had little but distress on their minds with the plague ravaging Europe (Smith, 2011).
These stories give the authors a chance to consider morality (and immorality), and it is unclear as to whether the reader is meant to sympathize with the gullible characters or their lecherous foils or not. While it is possible to view the women in these stories as being representative of the concept of sexual freedom, it is more likely that medieval audiences would have strongly disapproved of their antics. The older husband in both tales is representative of medieval society’s derivation of amusement from the act of cuckoldry.
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It is apparent that the tradition of oral storytelling in medieval society makes tracing the origins of recurring tales difficult. While it may be tempting to point to every similarity between the Canterbury Tales and the Decameron as evidence of Boccaccio’s tremendous influence on Chaucer, it must be remembered that popular tales and literary themes that traveled all around Christendom and beyond, as they passed from generation to generation. Literary historians must always question whether a particular similarity between the two compilations is a result of the direct influence (as in “The Knight’s Tale”, which is based on Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato), indirect influence (as in “The Clerk’s Tale”), or simply similar origins (as in “The Man of Law’s Tale”). That is not to say, however, that the “Boccaccian” influence on The Canterbury Tales has been somehow exaggerated (there are some who theorize that the two literary geniuses may have met at some point). As David Wallace points out, “It is not difficult to see why Chaucer made more use of Boccaccio than of any other writer. Boccaccio shares Chaucer’s ambition of establishing himself as a poet of European stature who, in company with a few Continental contemporaries, joins hands across the centuries with the great authors of antiquity” (Wallace, 2004, p. 52).