Chaucer and Boccaccio: Antiquity and Modernity

By Robert Edwards | Go to book overview

3
The ‘confusioun of gentil wemen’: Antiquity and the Short Side of History

In the narratives of Thebes and Troy, Chaucer displays antiquity from a dominant position. Virtually all his characters are noble; the common story they enact is the fall of an ancient city; the themes that organize their thoughts and actions are necessity and choice. Above all, the predicaments his poems explore with extraordinary subtlety are those of male aristocratic subjects facing the convergence of history and desire. 1 What lends a tragic, exemplary, and moral dimension to these poems is the element of human agency, which holds out the possibility of resisting necessity. At one level, this resistance portrays antiquity heroically and nobly at its limit, as reason and human abilities encounter history and destiny. At another, the gestures of resistance preserve the ideological fiction that necessity finally bears down on ancient heroic culture and, by extension, on medieval chivalric culture. The alternative raised in the historiographical tradition behind Chaucer's poems of antiquity – namely, that catastrophe is not external but at least partly generated from within – is thus obscured or aestheticized. The discourse of antique epic and tragedy drives from consciousness the very agency that Gower acknowledges in Chaucer's contemporary moment: ‘For man is cause of that schal falle’ (Confessio Amantis Prologue 528). 2

The characters who most fully register alternatives to the dominant view of antiquity are the aristocratic women subordinated to historical necessity in the heroic narratives of Thebes and Troy. Emily scarcely speaks in the Knight's Tale; her Amazon sisters, living under authority delegated to Hippolyta, have been left behind in Boccaccio's preamble to the story of Arcita and Palemone. Anelida articulates the question

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