18.05.16, Biggs, Chaucer's Decameron

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Leonard Koff

The Medieval Review 18.05.16

Biggs, Frederick M. Chaucer's Decameron and the Origin of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer Studies. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017. pp. 275. ISBN: 978-1-84384-475-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Leonard Koff
UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies

This is a particularly focused book whose focus is finally its virtue: the book makes an insightful case for the nascent and then liberating presence of Boccaccio's Decameron in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a presence that, as Biggs intelligently puts it, is there in Chaucer "perhaps" before Chaucer developed the idea of a storytelling game on a pilgrimage to Canterbury (115), an idea that is complete as an idea, but not fully realized, as Donald R. Howard argued in The Idea of the Canterbury Tales. Biggs's assessment of Boccaccio's presence in the Canterbury Tales happily lets us see Chaucer's originality by imagining him as a reader of Boccaccio whom he met "in a text" in Italy, and then "took back with him" to his own workroom in London, not as a text, or texts, as far as we know now, though Biggs speculates about a possible text of the Decameron Chaucer may have used in Italy and then brought to England: if "Chaucer was offered or ordered a copy of the Teseida, might he not have asked for one of the Decameron as well? If so, manuscript 870 in the 1426 catalogue [of the books in the libraries of the Visconti brothers and co-dukes of Lombardy, Bernabò's library in Milan and Galeazzo II's in Pavia] is a possible candidate for its exemplar [probably in Galeazzo II's library in Pavia]" (9):

"A thick, one volume book on paper in Italian called the Decameron written by dottore Giovanni Boccaccio from the Florentine city Certalda, which begins 'Ogni cosa' and ends 'alcuna cosa giova laverlo leto Deo Gratias, amen.' With thick, flat clasps and fine bindings of rough, whitened red leather" (9).

As Biggs explains, "This speculation may help us to visualize Chaucer's Decameron":

"A thick book in Italian written on paper. Had Chaucer paid for it himself, he might well have economized by leaving it unbound or getting a limp binding. At the time of his death, such a volume would have been an anomaly in England where, unlike on the Continent, parchment continued to be the main writing surface, particularly for literary texts, through at least the mid-fifteenth century.

To speculate further: not realizing its "value Chaucer's executors might well have passed it on to an Italian merchant or allowed it to fall into disrepair" (9-10).

My desire to imagine what would be an extraordinary but private literary, indeed cultural moment, where Chaucer met Boccaccio in a text, is not just satisfying for giving us a seminal literary moment, but a moment important for imagining Chaucer in an Italian library and later in his workroom in England, seeing himself part of a discontinuous literary coterie. I have argued this elsewhere (in The Decameron and the Canterbury Tales: New Essays on an Old Question), and Biggs seems to have come to similar conclusions through identifying stories, and incidents in stories, that reveal Chaucer as working storyteller. But the heart and value of Biggs's argument for Boccaccio's presence in the Canterbury Tales does not rest on speculation about an actual text Chaucer may have used or had, but on the lines of connections between Boccaccio and Chaucer that Chaucer's close reading, at the inception of the idea of a book of "Canterbury" tales, reveals: first, on Chaucer's use of stories from Day 8 of the Decameron, sources of, and analogues for, the Shipman's Tale and, second, on a singular moment in the prologue to Day 6: Licisca's transgressive appearance before the day's storytelling officially begins, the idea for which Biggs collegially ascribes to Robert Hanning in the lecture Hanning gave at the 46th International Conference on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, and to Helen Cooper, who discusses Licisca's scene in Sources &Analogues as "an approximate parallel" for Chaucer's "interplay between the characters of his frame and their counterparts within the tales" (106 n. 1):

"The thesis...of this [Bigg's] book is that his [Chaucer's] use of 8.1, 8.2, and 8.10 points to both the conceptual and temporal origin of the Canterbury Tales. From them Chaucer learned a new way to write, not to retell the stories of others, but rather to create new narratives from disparate places that would allow him to develop complex arguments. His tales, moreover, would stand in dialogue with each other just as Boccaccio's novelle develop a more
complex discussion of the relationship between morality and class by telling the same story in different economic settings" (106).

Biggs says that if his claim is correct about what Chaucer recognized in stories from Day 8 of the Decameron, then it "seems likely that Chaucer would have paid attention to the cornice, Boccaccio's framing of the tales through their telling by the brigata...Indeed, the three novelle of the Eighth Day are tied through Dioneo back to one of the most dramatic moments in the Decameron, Licisca's outburst at the start of the Sixth Day" (106). As Biggs puts it, "Licisca's account of her friend's wedding night is a striking example of the kind of intertwining of a frame narrative into the themes of individual stories in a collection that becomes a defining feature of the Canterbury Tales" (106).

What Licisca's sudden presence among the brigata--the amusing outburst of a servant--tellingly imagines for Chaucer, as Biggs argues, is that Licisca as a storyteller--she tells a story in miniature--in breaking class boundaries gives Boccaccio's aristocratic storytellers a storytelling theme related to themes of other stories, a theme (about "virgins" on their wedding nights) that amplifies but does not change, indeed does not transgress, the larger trajectory of Boccaccio's amused examination of social structures revealed in stories that are set in wide cultural and national contexts--within religious institutions and communities, for example, within configurations of rule, within the family, within the self whose desire and identity have their own politics. Aristocrat and servant, without reference to class, imagine, if I can put it this way, a "brave old world," pre-plague Florence, their nostalgia for which lets any real moral or social critique of pre-plague Florence fall by the wayside. Biggs adds that it is "specifically relevant for my argument [about Chaucer's paying attention to the cornice in the Decameron] that an early example of this strategy is the Miller's drunken insistence that he be allowed to respond to the Knight. Chaucer's move beyond Boccaccio is to allow the Liciscas to keep talking, and so it supports my [Biggs's] interpretation that prominent, indeed chief, among these voices is the Wife of Bath's" (106-107). Biggs also argues for Chaucer's presence through Licisca's outburst in Gower's Tale of Florent, which puts Gower as storyteller in a position analogous to Chaucer's position with respect to Boccaccio.

"To claim that Chaucer created the Wife of Bath's Tale to

embody what he [Chaucer] saw as Licisca's challenge to the patriarchal assumption of his society only to have it rewritten
Gower to express traditional views on the subject of marriage provides a new starting point for understanding the now usually discounted theory of a falling-out between these two authors" (213).

Biggs's arguments for the importance of Licisca's outburst for Chaucer point to literary connections in the fourteenth century that help us see working writers working; we are in this way close the genesis of texts.

Biggs makes important distinctions with respect to "sources," "analogues," "allusions," and "verbal echoes" of Boccaccio in Chaucer, and such distinctions clarify how Chaucer met Boccaccio textually. On this point, however, Biggs has not put his case in ways that reflect clearly, and that should reflect clearly, his own insights. Biggs argues that Boccaccio and, as a consequence, Chaucer create "narratives from ideas" (228), which is unfortunately misleading. Neither Boccaccio nor Chaucer writes stories that embody in narrative ideas that exist, or that existed, in the abstract. Rather Boccaccio and Chaucer think ideas through stories. They imagine narrative entanglements through which social, amatory, and self-identifying gestures present themselves. "Canterbury" tales are not, for Chaucer, allegories to be read through, but parables, as I have argued in Chaucer and the Art of Storytelling, where ideas cannot be disentangled from their complex social, familial or personal narrative places. Boccaccio and Chaucer engage with ideas--ideas about gender and class, as Biggs correctly argues--by recognizing them in contexts, by seeing them anatomized in contexts, and responded to--answered, as it were--in other contexts; even ideas about heaven, for example, or values considered absolute, are known through the context in which they reveal themselves. "Canterbury" tales send the reader into the world to understand values for which one constructs reasons and justifications.

The title of Biggs's book, Chaucer's Decameron, identifies in witty and apt ways the origins of Chaucer's capaciousness, that is, his work's frames of reality whose truths are situated in stories of social place and desires revealed, truths tied to the logic of the world, to moral, immoral, and amoral assessments of reality. Biggs's title postulates the idea of Chaucer creating his own figurative collection of stories from Boccaccio without, of course, reference to Boccaccio's specific plague context. Nonetheless, the idea of a frame narrative in which to present stories has for both Boccaccio and Chaucer a certain similarity of purpose. Boccaccio's storytelling is set in a nostalgic circumstance where pre-plague Florence is imagined in its full moral complexity, though readers are invited to choose to read and judge individual stories and to think of them as commenting on each other. If we imagine the brigata as readers and listeners, their assessments of stories take the form of other stories that respond to--that affirm, for example, or deny or parody or transform--specific social or personal conditions. Boccaccian capaciousness does not establish salvific hierarchies of values, though the Decameron as a structure--ten stories over ten days--consciously teases us with the possibilities of evaluative categories. If there is a moral value one can draw from Boccaccian storytelling, it is that it's impossible to know or project or control what others, or the world, may do. This returns to the world its freedom and its mysterious nature: unpredictable, independent of the human intellectual grasp, human power, maddening and comic and irresistible.

In this context, for example, Griselda in Decameron 10.10 is wise--she cannot know Gualtieri's motives, his obsessions; her only recourse is to endure them and they, when they have inexplicably satisfied Gualtieri, cease. We can, of course, ascribe to Griselda coherent behavior, socially or morally or existentially conscious or unconscious behavior, and we are free to do so--and in fact do so. Indeed Chaucer does so, too, in the Clerk's Tale. In this way the Decameron works against our hubris: the idea that mind can know and manage the world. Boccaccio's storytelling capaciousness is celebratory and this is, for Boccaccio, a species of redemption from the socially and morally devastating world of the plague. Chaucer's storytelling, equally capacious, is set on a religious pilgrimage to a site where storytellers seek "The hooly blissful martir.../ That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke." This suggests that at Canterbury there will be some kind of healing, perhaps the renewal of health in a figurative sense for storytellers and their values, some kind of clarity, perhaps some kind of judgment that is a reward for tales "of best sentence and moost solaas" (General Prologue 798); these are the Host's storytelling terms that at Canterbury will presumably be resolved--"The blissful martir quite yow youre meede!" (770). Since the pilgrim company doesn't arrive a Canterbury, but only projects final storytelling distinctions, "Canterbury" storytelling has a complex, suggestive, and indeed unfinished celebratory and redemptive consequence, one that entails an assessment of values in the real world analogous to their clarification in Decameron. There, of course, redemption occurs: in the hills above Florence, a place not endangered by the plague, the brigata abandons Dantean strictures for the conceptual victory of moral and social freedom. For Chaucer's storytellers, we are asked to imagine a less definitive clarification of values than for the brigata, but a clarification nonetheless, although "Canterbury" storytellers on their way to Canterbury continuously, even joyfully foreground the difficulty of settling issues.

All this gets at what is, for me, implicit in Biggs's argument about the presence of Boccaccio in Chaucer at the inception of the idea of a "Canterbury" frame, though Biggs has not articulated this at the conceptual level I am offering here. Biggs has, however, recognized Boccaccio in Chaucer as the idea of a Canterbury pilgrimage began to take definitive shape; tales whose source is Boccaccio become stories of Canterbury pilgrims as the idea of a pilgrimage assumes degrees of finality. Biggs has opened an early window on the genesis of Chaucer's idea of a narrative frame with multiple and incomplete structures of play and evaluation. Moreover, both Boccaccio and Chaucer invite readers, as Chaucer puts it in the "wordes bitwene the Hoost and the Millere," to "Turne over the leef and chese another tale." Such an invitation reveals readers to themselves--"For he shal fynde ynowe, grete and smale, / Of storial thing that toucheth gentilesse, / And eek moralitee and hoolynesse"--and when readers find they like stories that come up against one another, they are reminded to "Blameth nat me [as Chaucer says, speaking in his own work (3177-3181)] if that ye chese amys." This is, I think, a celebratory and redemptive, a morally revealing, a value-revealing, consequence of a frame narrative.

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