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Comparison of The Decameron and The

Canterbury Tales : Common Themes in


Boccaccio and Chaucer
Posted by Nicole Smith,Dec 6, 2011FictionComments ClosedPrint

Despite huge differences in plot and subject matter, there are many striking
similarities between The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron by Geoffrey
Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio respectively. Both of these 14 th century stories, The
Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio, and The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey
Chaucer, are strikingly similar in many ways, leading the reader to notice a
significant amount of borrowing from some tales of Boccaccio by Chaucer in select
Canterbury Tales. The degree of influence that Boccaccios work may have exerted
over the literary production of Chaucer has been contested for many years in the
scholarly literature (Thompson 1-2); however, some critics contend that this debate
is irresolvable and readers should focus instead on the works themselves to the
exclusion of personal considerations about the authors (Edwards 11). When the
reader follows this advice, he or she is able to identify at least three similarities in
these authors stories, which may be attributable as much to the historic moment in
which they lived and the literary standards of the day rather than any alleged
plagiarism on Chaucers part. The similarities in each of these works of medieval
literature that are identified include both authors concern with representing the
temporal setting of the stories, the use of the frame narrative technique (Gittes 77) in
both tales, and the authors clever use of morality and its opposite in order to convey
messages and meaning about their society and time. A comparative analysis of two
sets of tales from The Decameron by Bocaccio and The Canterbury Tales, The
Story of Patient Griselda from The Decameron by Bocaccio and The Clerks Tale
from The Canterbury Tales reveals these similarities and helps one to understand
their significance.
The first set of tales to be analyzed are Boccaccios The Story of Patient Griselda,
from Day Ten, Tale Ten in The Decameron, and from The Canterbury Tales
Chaucers The Clerks Tale. There is very little to distinguish these stories from one
another. Indeed, as Edwards notes, the source of inspiration for both men appears to
have been a bard of a preceding generation, Petrarch (11). The narrators of both tales
are entertaining because they have engaging stories to tell about a Marquis, in
Boccaccio, and a squire, in Chaucer; both characters have more than their fair share
of negative traits, and Dioneo and the Clerk do not refrain from their narrative duty
to enumerate these. Chaucer, however, seems to emphasize the negative traits both
earlier and more forcefully than Boccaccio. While this fact is not particularly
significant in and of itself, it does reflect a general trend with respect to the difference

between The Decameron by Bocaccio and The Canterbury Tales, namely that
Chaucer was slightly more bold and daring than Boccaccio in going to extremes.
The goal of both stories in The Decameron and Canterbury Tales is to portray a
female figure, named Griselda, who is able to bear tremendous and undeserved
suffering caused by her partner as a test of her love and devotion, and this despite the
fact that both women in the tales have been nothing but faithful, loving, and
attentive. While neither story by Chaucer or Boccaccio may seem to have anything to
tie it directly to its sociohistorical moment, Thompson argues that both stories were
intended to suggest the notion of an ideal love (280), which might inspire or
encourage people who were suffering from the psychological impact of the plague.
Indeed, the plague is the ever-present but rarely spoken about backdrop to both
Boccaccios and Chaucers tales. Patient Griselda seems to be a role model for bearing
up under inordinate suffering.
Another set of stories worth comparing is that of Boccaccios tale from Day Two, Tale
Ten and Chaucers The Millers Tale. Both tales show the authors at their bawdy
best, revealing schemes of love and sex that play on significant age differences, as
well as more subtle differences between social classes. In both stories, a younger
woman married to an older man is the subject of the tale. The main difference
between the two tales is that in Chaucer story, a young scholar wishes to bed the
young woman, while in Boccaccios tale it is the younger woman who seeks a lover
who is more compatible with her based on age. Both stories are risqu and play with
words and symbols freely, exhibiting Boccaccios and Chaucers cleverness and wit.
Again, these stories, while dramatic contrastsand indeed, diametric oppositesto
the previous tales analyzed, could have provided much needed comic relief for
readers who had little but distress on their minds with the plague ravaging Europe.
From the opening lines of Boccaccios tale, in which the narrator observes that
women, in one of the important quotes from The Decameron, suffer not their hands
to stray from their girdles (para. 3), to the closing image of Nicholas farting in
Absolouns face, thus causing the nave John to fall from his tub on the roof, the
reader is treated to constant entertainment, albeit of a vulgar sort.
At the same time, both Boccaccios Day Two, Tale Ten and Chaucers The Millers
Tale provide a means for the authors to reflect on distinctions between morality and
immorality. While both authors provoke thought about issues of love, marriage, and
sex through humorous repartee, they are far from advocating promiscuity or
infidelity. Boccaccio and Chaucer, though, use their narrators to advance their
individual perspectives about fidelity and infidelity, which differ significantly.
Boccaccio, for instance, using Dioneo to specifically state, in one of the important
quotes from The Decameron, I purpose at one and the same time to shew you how
great is the folly of all such [behavior], and how much greater is the folly of those
deeming themselves mightier than nature (para. 4). In fact, Dioneo opens Day Two,

Tale Ten by pointing out that he has decided to change the order of his tales because
something in the preceding story provoked his need to address the subject that will
be explored in the present tale.
Chaucer, on the other hand, seems to simply acknowledge that immorality exists,
that it is, in fact, an ineradicable part of human existence. While he does not
encourage infidelity overtly in the didactic way that Boccaccio does, he is less
judgmental about it. In The Millers Tale, the narrator reveals his own opinion
about the events that will be told to the pilgrims when he says that he himself is
married but cares not whether his wife sleeps with another man, as it is not his
business. There is a sort of moral neutrality that this statement sets up, and which is
reinforced with the conclusion of the Millers tale. While Nicholas and Alisoun have
succeeded in tricking John the carpenter and spending the night together, everyone
is ultimately embarrassed and shamed, or even physically hurt, because of their
collective lack of good judgment. It is not so much infidelity, then, or even
immorality that Chaucer holds in low esteem. Rather, Chaucer mocks the extreme
naivete of the characters and their failure to exercise good judgment, which is
demonstrated by all of the characters in The Millers Tale in equal measure.
These two sets of tales are not the only similar pairs that can be identified in
Boccaccios and Chaucer s works, but they are illustrative of some of the basic
themes and narrative strategies that are common to both texts. Both The
Decameron and The Canterbury Tales are set up as frame narratives; the multiple
stories within a larger narrative allow a wide range of experiences, perspectives,
themes and opinions to be explored. There are even contradictory ideas that are set
up. While Boccaccio tends to be more direct in his opinions, Chaucer more frequently
leaves the final decision up to the reader; even though his tale-telling contest is
supposed to be judged by the Host, no one story is the clear winner. Psychologically
speaking, both Boccaccios and Chaucers tales likely served crucial social functions
as a welcome distraction for a society that was plagued, quite literally, by hardship.
Finally, both sets of stories explore various facets of human nature and present moral
issues for the readers reflection. The moral lessons, which are ultimately to be
decided upon by the reader, are just as likely to be buried in the bawdier tales as they
are in the more sober ones.
f the reader of both works can disengage from the persistent debates about influence
and possible plagiarism, he or she will be rewarded, for The Decameron and The
Canterbury Tales are entertaining and thought-provoking narratives that give the
reader a window into the Medieval Period, as well as into the very heart of human
relationships. The fact that both of these texts endure in the literary canon centuries
after they were written seems to suggest that their themes are universal and timeless;
thus, both can continue to be instructive and entertaining for the contemporary
reader.

You might be interested in other essays and articles in the Literature Archives here,
including,Analysis & Summary of the Canons Yeomans Tale Analysis of the Wife
of Baths Tale Representation of Women in Medieval Literature
Works Cited
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Retrieved March 31, 2007
fromhttp://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/decameron
Edwards, Robert. Chaucer and Boccaccio: Antiquity and Modernity. New York:
Palgrave, 2002.
Gittes, Katharine S. Framing the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame
Narrative
Tradition. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Thompson, N.S. Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Debate of Love: A Comparative Study of
The
Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.