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 14th 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 Boccaccio’s 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 Chaucer’s 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 Clerk’s Tale" from “The Canterbury Tales” reveals these similarities and helps one to understand their significance.
The first set of tales to be analyzed are Boccaccio’s “The Story of Patient Griselda," from Day Ten, Tale Ten in “The Decameron”, and from “The Canterbury Tales” Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s 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 Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s tales. Patient Griselda seems to be a role model for bearing up under inordinate suffering.
Another set of stories worth comparing is that of Boccaccio’s tale from Day Two, Tale Ten and Chaucer’s “The Miller’s 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 Boccaccio’s tale it is the younger woman who seeks a lover who is more compatible with her based on age. Both stories are risqué and play with words and symbols freely, exhibiting Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s cleverness and wit. Again, these stories, while dramatic contrasts—and indeed, diametric opposites—to 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 Boccaccio’s 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 Absoloun’s face, thus causing the naïve 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 Boccaccio’s Day Two, Tale Ten and Chaucer’s “The Miller’s 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 Miller’s 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 Miller’s 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 Miller’s Tale" in equal measure.
These two sets of tales are not the only similar pairs that can be identified in Boccaccio’s 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 Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s 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 reader’s 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.