Comedy in Chaucer and Boccaccio

By Ginsberg, Warren | Medium Aevum, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Comedy in Chaucer and Boccaccio


Ginsberg, Warren, Medium Aevum


Carol Falvo Heffernan, Comedy in Chaucer and Boccaccio (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009). xi + 151 pp. ISBN 978-1-84384-201-9. £45.00/$90.00.

No medieval authors make readers laugh more than Boccaccio and Chaucer. Yet, as Carol Falvo Heffernan says, few studies have direcdy addressed the comic in their works. She therefore examines tales that bear some relation to fabliaux in the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Instead of a philosophically inflected, sociologically nuanced comparison of their humour, however, Comedy in Chaucer and Boccaccio is fundamentally a slim, debatable examination of sources and influence. Like many others, Heffernan believes Chaucer knew the Decameron; more than most, she lets speculation pass as evidence. In her first two chapters, Heffernan wants to establish the comic literary tradition Boccaccio and Chaucer shared. She begins, though, by tracing Chaucer's fortuna in Italy. This history is interesting, but the only way Heffernan can connect it to her real subject, Chaucer's reception of Italy and its writers, is to imagine that he brought his poems on his journeys. In Milan, Chaucer left them to the Visconti libraries; in Florence, he gave them to Boccaccio. Complete lack of evidence hardly deters these flights of fancy; neither do facts or geography. The Apennines notwithstanding, we read, for instance, that Chaucer could have met Petrarch at Padua on his way from Genoa to Florence (p. 10); Dante comes onstage as a Ghibelline exile (p. 18)! Heffernan goes on to gather ancient and medieval ideas about comedy, which she uses to situate her readings of parallel tales.

After preliminary remarks about the fabliaux, Chaucer's use of them, and an unnecessarily circuitous argument that Boccaccio knew them (something few doubt), Heffernan turns to Canterbury tales that have analogues in the Decameron. Unlike Peggy Knapp, Heffernan does not analyse the aesthetic, ethical, and social effects of laughter in these tales; she tries instead to show that Chaucer incorporated details from the novella of Pinuccio (IX.6) in the Reeve's Tale, Dom Felice (??.4) in the Miller's, Lidia (VII. 9), via Vendome's Comedia Lydie, in the Merchant's, and Gulfardo (VIII. 1) and Monna Belcolore (VIII. 2) in the Shipman's. …

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