Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pre-Printing Press Challenge: The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales

On a rainy, lazy Sunday it seems appropriate to group these two together for my last post in this challenge. And not too soon, either, as the challenge wraps up April 30.

I think I would have benefited from an educated guide to this work. No doubt there has been a lot of discussion in academia about the ongoing themes and variations of love, fidelity (and lack thereof), religious fervor (and lack thereof), class-consciousness, female power, and so on in these stories, all of which I missed by reading on my own. Even so, this collection of ten stories told by ten people over the course of ten days is very entertaining.

The set-up is that ten wealthy and educated young people have escaped to an isolated country house outside Florence to avoid catching the plague that is killing everyone in the summer of 1348. There they occupy themselves by appointing a king or queen for the day, whose main duties are to order the food and drink, choose the location for the day's storytelling, and name the theme of the stories they tell.

Each story has a nice little frame with the details on the refreshments, location, and agenda, and then many variations on themes such as "people who by dint of their own efforts have achieved an object they greatly desired, or recovered a thing previously lost" or "tricks which, either in the cause of love or for motives of self-preservation, women have played upon their husbands, irrespective of whether or not they were found out."

What are we talking about here? Sex, mostly. Sometimes sex and money, sometimes sex, money, and clergy, but always charmingly handled. In those days, nice girls did not laugh openly at amusing risque stories, however much they may have enjoyed them. So the tone is very delicate, very courtly, all in good fun. And as usual with classic literature, nothing much new under the sun.


Moreover, because a young man will cover more miles in a single day, he seems to you a better rider. But whereas I admit that he will shake your skin-coat with greater vigour, the older man, being more experienced, has a better idea of where the fleas are lurking. Besides, a portion that is small, but delicately flavoured, is infinitely preferable to a larger one that has no taste at all. And a hard gallop will tire and weaken a man, however young, whilst a gentle trot, though it may bring him somewhat later to the inn, will at least ensure that he is still in good fettle on arrival.

Chaucer uses much the same format, but takes it all a step further (although he is only writing about 50 years later, around 1400). Here the occasion for the stories is a religious pilgrimage to the Canterbury Cathedral, but the tellers are drawn from all walks of life and their identities as characters are more fully developed. Their tales are closely suited to their social status, some high, some low. They "argue" by telling tales in opposition to each other and interrupt each other's stories, sometimes because they are bored. I found the framing device to be much more in the foreground here, instead of merely a vehicle for the stories. The overall tone is more boisterous, much less refined.

I read some of these stories in school and was disappointed to discover that the reason I hadn't read more of them seems to be that the rest of them are rather uneven. In other words, I'd already read the best ones. Even so, this was a quick, enjoyable tour through the Middle Ages, and at its best, a robust, well-rounded work.

The Miller's Tale is still my favorite, although I was somewhat surprised to find that my favorite part is only about one line long. It looms much larger in my memory! Perhaps you will remember the saucy Alison, who hatches a plot with her lover to give them a good laugh and at the same time get rid of a pesky suitor whom she does not fancy? Let's see if I can frame this delicately. It's dark, right? She tells the pesky suitor she will lean out the window and give him a kiss. But instead she puts another part of her bare anatomy out the window, which he kisses enthusiastically. Then follows (this is my favorite part) a detailed list of all the things the pesky suitor wiped his mouth with . . . Too funny!

The women definitely seem to have the upper hand here, despite men's attempts to dominate and control. I'll leave it to the Wife of Bath to explain in the excerpt.

If you want to read something classic that is also a lot of good, semi-clean fun, you could do worse.


Why do you hide the keys of coffer doors?
It's just as much my property as yours.
Do you want to make an idiot of your wife?
Now, by the Lord that gave me soul and life,
You shan't have both, you can't be such as noddy
As think to keep my goods and have my body!
One you must do without, whatever you say.
And do you need to spy on me all day?
I think you'd like to lock me in your coffer!
"Go where you please, dear wife," you ought to offer,
"Amuse yourself! I shan't give ear to malice,
I know you for a virtuous wife, Dame Alice."
We cannot love a husband who takes charge
Of where we go. We like to be at large.


  1. Congratulations on finishing the challenge. Good reviews of both books too.

  2. I'm afraid I have very bad memories associated with The Decameron - shame because I enjoyed it when I read it. We read excerpts from it for a medieval literature seminar in college, and my only recollection of the ensuing discussion was that my professor asked - expecting unanimous consent in one direction - whether Patient Griselda was an idiot or a saint. And everybody said a saint, and then we had an hour-and-a-half discussion of whether women should stay with men who abuse them. Apparently (said these two girls, and nobody but me objected) yes, they should, because marriage is sacred and the abuse is just their cross to bear. *facepalm*

  3. Thanks, Elena!

    Jenny, I had a similar reaction to some of the stories. Much "old school" battle of the sexes stuff in there, and I always cheered for the women to "get even" one way or another. Maybe that's why I liked the Wife of Bath so much, once I got to her part. She's clearly in charge!


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