Essay on Chaucer,Boccaccio,and the debate of love

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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 'et...

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...hat all medieval literature aims to instill in its reader the New Testament precept of Charity toward God and man, and whatever in medieval writings does not seem to advocate this precept would have been interpreted allegorically or negatively by the medieval reader. Yet Thompson's presentation of Boccaccio is likely to be very helpful to readers of Chaucer. He gives detailed accounts of the tales he examines, he is familiar with the history of Boccaccio criticism and argues with it intelligently when relevant. He is sensitive to Boccaccio's use of the Italian language in a way that is likely to be particularly useful for those reading Boccaccio for the first time in English translation. His detailed comparative analysis of how both writers play with disparate generic expectations is particularly valuable, as is his careful avoidance of the temptation to claim one writer accomplishes some feat 'better' than the other. Although there are perhaps no readers of these works at any point in their histories who would agree with Thompson's overall interpretation whole-heartedly, testing the overt claims of both writers to destruction as thoroughly as Thompson does provides many insights.

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