Chaucer,Boccaccio,and the debate of love

N.S. Thompson, Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Debate of Love: A Comparative Study of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996; 354pp.;
Nigel Thompson’s book resists alignment with current concerns in late-medieval studies: he has little or nothing to say about manuscripts and their dissemination; about the audiences, reception, and imitation of the works he treats; about gender and its representation; about contemporary social and political developments and how these works reflect and even affect them; or about nationalism and internationalism in both late-medieval writers and the twentieth-century study of their work. Instead, Thompson focuses his comparison on the claims for the purpose and value of their work that both Chaucer and Boccaccio make, taking them more seriously perhaps than any other reader of one or both authors ever has. He attempts to show us that the Pauline excuse that ‘all is written to instruct us’ can be applied fully and literally to the entirety of both works, because always and everywhere both these writers intended to instruct their readers in how to live well by observing a virtuous mean. Anything in these works that does not exemplify virtue must be read allegorically, or as a negative example, or both: fiction provides an autonomous ground, a labyrinth, even a ‘laboratory,’ where the reader may learn skills of discernment and interpretation.

Thompson’s book contains seven chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. The Introduction lays out the author’s general approach, which is defended in detail in Chapters One to Four. In Chapter One, Thompson shows by surveying a range of Latin and Italian poets that contrary to some previous claims, diversity was of aesthetic value in the Middle Ages. He claims that both Boccaccio and Chaucer construct their work with an aesthetic, but also an ethic, of diversity. They aim to present their readers with choices and thence to instruct them by instituting an internal moral debate. Although the aporia both writers present is the perilous moral state of society, Thompson claims that the focus for reform rests on individual choice: the reader judges the behaviour of the brigata or pilgrims, as well as the characters in their tales, against his own. Chapter Two counters the possible objection that medieval readers would be incapable of such sophistication in discerning ‘ethical irony’ through the development of a picture of medieval reading practices. Boccaccio and Chaucer expect or wish to encourage one particular kind of reading: in reaction to the totalizing vision of Dante, where all is explained to the reader, and the narrator, by an authoritative guide, they deliberately offer no supportive framework, and no normative structure. Chapter Three examines the debates about the function of literature – utile vs diletto, sentence vs solas – that appear in each text, to suggest that fiction need not be overtly didactic in order to be useful. After briefly treating how each text frames those terms – Boccaccio in his Proemio, Chaucer in the variety of views voiced by his pilgrims – Thompson focuses on Day VI as an extended treatment of the power of words, and Fragment VII (following Gaylord in labelling it the ‘Literature Group’) as a debate focusing on literature and its function. Chapter Four argues that both authors claim fiction has ‘autonomy,’ that is, that it can ‘create a moral space’ precisely by failing to insist on overt morals. Both authors thus divest themselves of interpretive authority in favour of investing it in their readers. In pursuit of this point Thompson returns in much greater detail to what the narrators (expecially Boccaccio) have to say about their aims: he discusses in great detail Boccaccio’s Proemium, the Author’s Defense in the introduction to Day IV, and the Author’s Conclusion.
Chapters Five, Six, and Seven examine and compare the tales in the Decameron and Canterbury Tales that are generally thought of as analogues. Chapter Five focuses on the ‘comic’ analogues – The Miller’s Tale and 3, 4, The Reeve’s Tale and 9, 6, The Shipman’s Tale and 8, 1- concluding that Chaucer’s comic tales should be viewed as belonging to the same genre as Boccaccio’s: they are novelle, not fabliaux. Both authors’ comic tales provide a “portrayal and critique of love in society,” revealing “society’s hypocrisy in the face of love” through their depictions of the disorder caused by imbalance in relationships. Chapter Six compares The Merchant’s Tale and 7, 9, The Franklin’s Tale and 10, 5, and briefly touches on The Clerk’s Tale and 10, 10. These tales, says Thompson, are investigations of how to conduct a moral life within marriage, the “fundamental testing ground for the moral life”. To back up his analyses he first provides an account of medieval marriage as a social institution and of literary antifeminism and its social effects. In keeping with his overall thesis, he concludes that medieval marriage when represented in literature focuses on issues of individual choice. He insists that Boccaccio and Chaucer aim to criticize not the institution, but the motives of individuals within it. This is perhaps the weakest section in the book: it shows clearly that Thompson has not thought through his ideas about the relationship between literary representations and the ways other forms of written record report and comment on social norms and behaviour. But if Thompson’s sociopolitical analysis is weak, his explanation of how these analogues manipulate generic expectations (combining for example romance and fabliau, courtly love and bawdy joking) is probably the best work in the book. Still, it would be intriguing to see Thompson’s conclusions taken further in the direction of more focused historical analysis. David Wallace in his new book on Chaucer and Boccaccio has some very interesting remarks on the differences between courtly/mercantile relations in the two countries which it would be fascinating to pursue in the light of Thompson’s work on genre (see D. Wallace, Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy Stanford UP, 1997, especially 205-11). Chapter Seven treats versions of the Griselda story, including Petrarch’s story and returning in more detail to the versions by Boccaccio and Chaucer. Thompson’s suggestions that Boccaccio and Chaucer skew the narrative so as to generate debate is helpful, and he sensitively explains how the “excess of meaning” in both versions produces more affect than can be comfortably accomodated within each tale’s provision of a solution to individual morality. But few readers will docilely follow him in his return to a very traditional interpretation of each tale, according to which The Clerk’s Tale is an allegory of redemption, however its meaning might be complicated by realistic pathos, and Boccaccio’s version is an allegory of the soul’s obedient love of God.
The Conclusion reiterates what has been Thompson’s theme throughout: that both these texts aim to inculcate practical virtue. It would be too easy to notice how closely Thompson’s method of deriving consistent messages from every story resembles the (once-fashionable, now nearly universally reviled) coercive interpretative paradigm of Robertsonianism,and consider that pigeonholing sufficient grounds to consider the possible merits of his book no further. D.W . Robertson’s notion, presented with great persuasive force in A Preface to Chaucer, was that all medieval literature aims to instill in its reader the New Testament precept of Charity toward God and man, and whatever in medieval writings does not seem to advocate this precept would have been interpreted allegorically or negatively by the medieval reader. Yet Thompson’s presentation of Boccaccio is likely to be very helpful to readers of Chaucer. He gives detailed accounts of the tales he examines, he is familiar with the history of Boccaccio criticism and argues with it intelligently when relevant. He is sensitive to Boccaccio’s use of the Italian language in a way that is likely to be particularly useful for those reading Boccaccio for the first time in English translation. His detailed comparative analysis of how both writers play with disparate generic expectations is particularly valuable, as is his careful avoidance of the temptation to claim one writer accomplishes some feat ‘better’ than the other. Although there are perhaps no readers of these works at any point in their histories who would agree with Thompson’s overall interpretation whole-heartedly, testing the overt claims of both writers to destruction as thoroughly as Thompson does provides many insights.