Chaucer,Boccaccio,And The Debate Of Love Essay

1374 words - 5 pages

N.S. Thompson, Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Debate of Love: A Comparative Study of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996; 354pp.;

Nigel Thompson's book resists alignment with current concerns in late-medieval studies: he has little or nothing to say about manuscripts and their dissemination; about the audiences, reception, and imitation of the works he treats; about gender and its representation; about contemporary social and political developments and how these works reflect and even affect them; or about nationalism and internationalism in both late-medieval writers and the twentieth-century study of their work. Instead, Thompson focuses his comparison on the claims for the purpose and value of their work that both Chaucer and Boccaccio make, taking them more seriously perhaps than any other reader of one or both authors ever has. He attempts to show us that the Pauline excuse that 'all is written to instruct us' can be applied fully and literally to the entirety of both works, because always and everywhere both these writers intended to instruct their readers in how to live well by observing a virtuous mean. Anything in these works that does not exemplify virtue must be read allegorically, or as a negative example, or both: fiction provides an autonomous ground, a labyrinth, even a 'laboratory,' where the reader may learn skills of discernment and interpretation.
Thompson's book contains seven chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. The Introduction lays out the author's general approach, which is defended in detail in Chapters One to Four. In Chapter One, Thompson shows by surveying a range of Latin and Italian poets that contrary to some previous claims, diversity was of aesthetic value in the Middle Ages. He claims that both Boccaccio and Chaucer construct their work with an aesthetic, but also an ethic, of diversity. They aim to present their readers with choices and thence to instruct them by instituting an internal moral debate. Although the aporia both writers present is the perilous moral state of society, Thompson claims that the focus for reform rests on individual choice: the reader judges the behaviour of the brigata or pilgrims, as well as the characters in their tales, against his own. Chapter Two counters the possible objection that medieval readers would be incapable of such sophistication in discerning 'ethical irony' through the development of a picture of medieval reading practices. Boccaccio and Chaucer expect or wish to encourage one particular kind of reading: in reaction to the totalizing vision of Dante, where all is explained to the reader, and the narrator, by an authoritative guide, they deliberately offer no supportive framework, and no normative structure. Chapter Three examines the debates about the function of literature - utile vs diletto, sentence vs solas - that appear in each text, to suggest that fiction need not be overtly didactic in order to be useful. After briefly...

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