I was asked to write about whether Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where closer in outlook to the Greek, and Roman literature that I have read than to the Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature that I have read. My opinion is that the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales are much more similar to Greek and Roman literature than to Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature. In order to understand the differences more easily I am going to use five themes to compare these pieces of literature: sovereignty, authority, law, sanctions, and succession.
First we will discover who is the sovereign agent (who’s in charge) in the Decameron, the Canterbury Tales, Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature.
In the Decameron Boccaccio does not give a firm answer as to who is the sole sovereign agent in his stories, he gives both the Stars and God credit as sovereignties. In the Canterbury Tales sovereignty is also a matter of confusion. Tales such as the Prioress’ Tale, the Monk’s Tale, and the Physician’s Tale give credit to God, Fortune, and Nature as the sovereign agents.
Similarly, in Greek and Roman literature there are many sovereign agents such as Zeus, fate, and other gods. Whereas, Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature have only one sovereign agent who is God.
The matter of authority ranges widely between all of the literature mentioned as well.
In the Decameron authority was released to anyone who wished to have it. But authority wasn’t prized very much during the period of time the book was set in since there was so much tribulation caused by the Black Death throughout society. The people were more concerned about surviving the Black Death than being in authority during it.
In the Canterbury Tales Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a summoner were shown as figures of authority.
In Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature man had authority. In Greek and Roman literature gods, fate, and man all had authority during certain times.
Once again law is a confused subject in most of the literature.
In the Decameron and Canterbury Tales there was no real ethical law. The people in the stories did as they pleased and did not worry about what laws they had to uphold. In one of the Canterbury Tales a man got away with raping an innocent woman and lived happily ever after just because the Queen and her friends had favored him. In another tale a man murdered his daughter because he was accused of not being her father. The man did not receive any punishment for his violation of ethics, because there were no real ethics.
In Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature there are very pronounced laws that are seen as tests for man. The laws in these pieces of literature are to be taken very seriously.
Some Greek literature is a bit similar to Christian literature in terms of law because in Hesiod’s Works and Days Hesiod says not to steal or commit fraud and that if you seek justice you will find prosperity.
Roman literature that I read did not give any clear definition of what laws you were to obey, besides the obvious case that you should stay on the good side of the gods.
Ethical sanctions (consequences) are not very visible in the Decameron, the Canterbury Tales, Roman, and most Greek literature. Many accounts in those stories have examples of someone doing good but in the end the person gets rewarded with negative sanctions or often times when someone does bad they do not get punished for their actions. People’s decisions didn’t seem to have any ethical consequences.
In the Decameron there is an example of people praying and doing the right things to be saved from the Black Death, but their prayers seemed to not get answered, whereas other people lived lives of lust and were spared from the disease. In the Pardoner’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales the summoner who was a complete deceiver never got caught for the things he did to innocent people. In the Roman literature that I read there is no ethical cause and effect at all. In the Greek piece of literature, Works and Days, written by Hesiod, it is stated that justice leads to prosperity. Even some medieval and Christian literature didn’t seem to have visible sanctions.
The Bible seems to be a piece of literature where sanctions are more apparent. In some areas of the Bible if a person followed God’s path he may be rewarded with positive sanctions, whereas some people who did wrong may encounter negative sanctions. In any case, God showed His mercy and compassion throughout the Bible to many people, even if they didn’t deserve it.
In the way of succession (future and inheritance) the Decameron doesn’t really have any. The stories and characters in the Decameron were hopeless because so many people had died from the Black Death. With so many families down in number there often was not anyone to inherit the family wealth, in other words there was no future for the family name. The Canterbury Tales and Greek literature did not have much information on what the future held. Many pieces of Roman literature stated that mankind is in a dreary decline as it is becoming worse and worse.
Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature do volunteer information about the future. The literature said that there definitely will be inheritance, eternal life, and disinheritance for mankind according to how a person obeyed the law.
With the differences of the pieces of literature in terms of the five themes that we discussed above it is more apparent how the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales are more similar to the Greek and Roman literature than Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature.
What’s your opinion now that you know the facts better? Do you think the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales are more like Greek and Roman literature or Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature?
From what I have learned and observed I would have to say that the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales are by far much more similar to Greek and Roman literature. There is no doubt about it in my mind.
Picture Credit: Me.