English II: Western Literature to 1492 was an enlightening course filled with early Christian mysticism, intriguing dialogues and a valuable insight into the lives and culture of the ancient and early Christian world. As a completion for this course, I was asked to write a term paper on this topic: “Are Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales closer in outlook to Greek and Roman literature than they are to Hebrew, Christian and medieval literature?”
Boccaccio’s Decameron was the story of the Black Death, a plague that swept through Europe multiple times, destroying over two-thirds of the population. In this book, Boccaccio constantly pointed fingers at the clergy and the Church. He demeaned the friars and the priests, accusing them of immoral practices. He didn’t focus at all on the glory of God and man’s inability to accomplish anything without him.
This was completely contrary to the view that was portrayed in medieval literature, which focused on God far more that any Renaissance work ever did.
As far as it goes compared to Hebrew and Christian literature, it’s night and day. Boccaccio expressed a view of Man vs. the Church, something completely contrary to the Christian and Hebrew texts. And instead of a focus on the intense, immovable piety of man through the Church, it focused on individualism and the nit-picking of everyday life.
It spoke of the eternal corruption in the monasteries and ecclesiastical offices, a fact which had been very present in medieval and Christian literature.
As compared to Greek and Roman literature, it was far more similar. Among the many differences between Christianity and Greek and Roman religion, chiefest was the lack of a condemnation of a sinner. Christians were, generally speaking, bowed down by the threat of eternal damnation and of the lack of ability to change one’s fate. Greeks and Romans were much freer in that sense. They did not have to deal with the weight of eternal condemnation and irremovable sin.
In this way, the Decameron was far closer to the Greek and Roman literature in that it did not have the gloom-and-doom of the medieval literature, but more of the spirit of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
As for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, they were very similar to the Decameron in the sense that they were closer, ideologically, to Greek and Roman literature than to medieval, Hebrew and Christian literature. Of course, it had the undeniably Christian aspect of the 15th century, but the manner in which the stories were related and the outlook that the protagonists had was far from the conservative, medieval style.
Not only was God not given the credit for what happened in these stories, as unavoidably happens in medieval, Hebrew and Christian literature, but the topics of the stories were very similar to Greek and Roman ideas.
Boccaccio and Chaucer were both very much in keeping with the spirit of the Renaissance, the age of rebirth, the age that would change the world from the slightly more gloom-and-doom period of the Middle Ages to a new world—an age of discovery, vitality and freedom. The Middle Ages were past. It was time for the world to begin anew.