Chaucer and Boccaccio: Antiquity and Modernity

By Robert Edwards | Go to book overview

6
Rewriting Menedon's Story: Decameron 10.5 and the Franklin's Tale

Despite its pseudo-antique setting among ‘[t]hise olde gentil Britouns’ (V.709), the Franklin's Tale seems to be Chaucer's most modern narrative. Its celebration of mutual love and reciprocity within marriage finds confirmation at the end of the tale as each of the male characters demonstrates his ‘fredom’ by resigning a claim over his fellow. George Lyman Kittredge famously opined of the resolution, ‘A better has never been devised or imagined.’ 1 Love and freedom, as Kittridge's confident pronouncement indicates, exactly match our expectations of the values that should attend marriage and social relations. If we look to the literary context and sources of Chaucer's story, however, a different sense of modernity emerges, one that depends more on poetic revision and cultural translation than on moral themes and timeless values. In the Franklin's Tale, Chaucer adapts his source from Boccaccio and resituates it in a different social sphere. This dual process – at once aesthetic and historical – joins him still closer to Boccaccio, for in the Canterbury Tales and the Decameron the two writers share the common project of revising a story from Boccaccio's earlier writings. Their revisions follow the protocols enunciated in medieval literary theory for rewriting an antecedent text, but they do not produce merely a formal reconfiguration of the basic narrative. Boccaccio's revision moves the tale from a feudal, aristocratic milieu to an urban, civic locale, and it shows how new bonds of solidarity, expressed through the metaphor of charity, can replace traditional class identity. Chaucer's tale looks back nostalgically to a mythologized feudal world, while the defining terms of social relations in his story belong to an emergent mercantile culture. The modernity both writers portray and enact in their revisions is a

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