The present essay proposes a solution to the long-standing enigma of Chaucer’s unacknowledged debt to Boccaccio by way of a reexamination of the Monk’s Tale in its relation to Boccaccio’s Latin “history” De casibus viro- rum illustrium. It will argue that, following the precedent of the Knight’s Tale and its imitation—reduction of the Teseida, the Monk’s Tale represents a miniature imitation of Boccaccio’s vast tract, which inscribes the Italian’s authorial signature into the medium of Chaucer’s English poem.
In making such a case for De casibus—and secondarily for De claris mulieribus—the present essay supports the thesis developed in the other essays in this volume. It demonstrates Chaucer’s knowledge of Boccaccio, the literary figure with a broad range of interests and the writer of literary works reflecting these interests.1 Moreover, like the Decameron, De casibus and De claris mulieribus may be said to belong among their author’s more sardonic, ironic, even subversive productions, applying especially that last adjective to their extensive satire of the Christian church and religion. Various affinities between the two Latin works and the vernacular masterpiece have been noted by commentators,2 and I am tempted to propose that between them they represent a Latin counterpart to the Decameron, something like a prose epic whose mini-novellas recall those of the Commedia.
The appearance of De casibus and De claris mulieribus as extended catalog or encyclopedic compilation is, in other words, strictly deceptive. Their narratives, far from being straight-faced “historical” accounts, are characterized by a sublime freedom in mingling fact and fiction and by a rhetorical playfulness and satiric incongruity so characteristic of the Decameron’s style. Given his appreciation of this Latin Boccaccio, it is hard to imagine that Chaucer would not have discovered his Italian counterpart.
In “theatrical” terms, it is Chaucer’s pilgrim-narrator, the worldly Monk, who is recognizable as Boccaccio’s ironic double. In this the Monk is, I
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Publication information: Book title: The Decameron and the Canterbury Tales: New Essays on An Old Question. Contributors: Leonard Michael Koff - Editor, Brenda Deen Schildgen - Editor. Publisher: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. Place of publication: Madison, NJ. Publication year: 2000. Page number: 247.
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