Chaucer's Italian Tradition

By Warren Ginsberg

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2001University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11234-0

Chapter One

Introduction: Chaucer's Italian Tradition

* * *

Perhaps the two most significant literary events in Chaucer's career were his reading of French and Italian poets. Certainly Boethius was a long-standing influence; Ovid, Virgil, and Statius were all important authors for him. But the contours of Chaucer's verse, its soil, atmosphere, and climate, were formed from vernacular rather than from Latin texts.

Chaucer's experience of French poetry, however, had to have differed greatly from the way he engaged Italian works. Guillaume de Lorris, Jeun de Meung, Machaut, Froissart; in the last half of the fourteenth century, these were the writers whose language and style gave literature its complexion and carriage in the sophisticated courts of England. Fashionable and authoritative, they were the literary forebears Chaucer claimed to secure his standing in aristocratic culture. They were, as Charles Muscatine has famously put it, a tradition, an "��cole des textes," so to speak, in which Chaucer learned the techniques and the ideology of poetic refinement.

Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, however, were another matter entirely. Although England maintained economic, political, and intellectual contact with Italy throughout the Middle Ages, Chaucer was the only poet who was well acquainted with works by these writers. As controller of the wool custom at the port of London, Chaucer inevitably dealt with merchants from Liguria, Lombardy, and Tuscany on a regular basis; he likely had many opportunities to meet diplomats and soldiers at court as well. These Italians may have proved valuable ciceroni; nevertheless, both the country Chaucer visited twice and the literature he acquired there probably always retained some sense of remoteness for him. A land without a ruling sovereign, in which independent cities, each differently governed, fiercely competed with one another (and with the pope) for hegemony, surely was unfamiliar terrain. Genoa and Florence, where Chaucer conducted the king's business in 1373, and Milan, where he went with Edward Berkeley in 1378 to discuss "aucunes busoignes touchantes lexploit de nostre guerre," were all larger than London; not only did complex municipal, social, and cultural institutions vary from city to city, their forms had been determined by histories and principles that an Englishman, even if he had ample opportunity to observe them, may still have found peculiar or baffling. In Florence, to let one instance serve for a host of dissimilar practices, powerful aristocrats had long been active participants in trade and commerce; indeed, since 1293, the equally active role they played in communal government depended not only on their membership in one of the city's guilds but on their having relinquished their title as magnates. No doubt the civic structures Chaucer knew afforded some insight into those he observed; Florence's sesti and arti certainly could be compared to London's wards and misteries. But the scope and the pace of political life in Florence would have amazed any English visitor. The chief executive officer of the commune, the podest��-a nobleman from a different city!-was chosen every year. The Signoria, with its eight priors and Gonfaloniere of Justice, was elected every two months. The two colleges that advised them stood for election almost as often: the sixteen standard bearers of the guilds were chosen every three months; the College of the Twelve every fourth month. Twice a year three hundred citizens were elected to the Council of the "Popolo," two hundred to the Council of the Commune. One wonders whether Chaucer, after learning of such activity, returned to England with newfound respect for London's biennial wardmotes, or whether he came to regard the less frenetic selection of the mayor, aldermen, sheriffs, and councillors as quaintly provincial. What is clear is that a city in which butchers and noblemen legislated not only the affairs of their guilds but domestic and foreign policy was not a place where Chaucer would immediately feel at home.

No less important than administrative differences such as these are the cultural differences that attended them. Even a century before Chaucer's journeys a fully developed intellectual class comprised of jurists, notaries, doctors, merchants, and bankers had emerged throughout Italy. These citizens frequently justified their "dignity and their social motivation" by the relation their professions bore to the welfare of their cities. Often poets or chroniclers, they were, as Franco Cardini has said, in many ways "the creators of urban cultural self-consciousness." By the late fourteenth century, literate Florentines of both the greater and lesser guilds were similarly civic-minded, as were a growing number of wellborn who determined their allegiances on political or economic grounds rather than on familial ties. When an educated poet wrote in his own tongue, it was increasingly this enfranchised polity that he addressed. Though the relations that determined Chaucer's varying station as an esquire in King Richard's affinity were similarly contractual, though the circle of friends whom Paul Strohm has identified as his core audience were equally intellectual, Chaucer's Londoners do not represent themselves in such terms. Indeed, as David Wallace has noted, London is chiefly conspicuous in Chaucer's works by its absence; it is a city still in search of a civic discourse. Far more than France, then, Italy was a "someplace else"; in all probability the hierarchic and associational forms of polity that Chaucer observed in Italian city-states were an education in chiaroscuro, where the light of what he found familiar was given depth by the shadows of what remained strange.

Another way to say this is that Chaucer's Italy was a translation. As Rita Copeland has shown, the medieval translatio was both a hermeneutic and a cultural dialectic: the authority of the source was simultaneously acknowledged and displaced by the copy that made it available for appropriation by different social groups. Throughout this book I will argue that similar negotiations shaped Chaucer's reception of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch; in this case, however, these negotiations will need to account not only for Chaucer's adaptations of his "originals" but for the considerable perplexity they almost certainly caused him as well.

To illustrate what I mean, let me compare apprehending Chaucer's Italian Tradition as a kind of hermeneutic and cultural translation to Hans Robert Jauss's notion of a horizon of expectations and the role it plays in his theory of Rezeption��sthetik. For Jauss, no work is singular in itself; it gains individuality only in relation to an undifferentiated background of prevailing conventions and ideologies. This horizon of expectations consists of "pre-understandings of the genre ... the form and themes of already familiar works, and ... the opposition between poetic and practical language." Jauss constructs his horizon in this way because he wants it to serve two masters, one phenomenological, the other cultural. He believes that the historical consciousness of a given period never exists as a set of propositions that can be openly stated. The new work for Jauss is therefore like a question, but one that achieves its interrogative status not through its own syntactic structure but from the free-floating set of received ideas against which it is silhouetted. At the moment of its inception, the new work and the preexisting conditions that are its setting are connected only by their contemporaneity; through its reception, however, the work will, to a greater or lesser extent, alter the contextual environment, just as a question can disrupt answers that have become common knowledge by making us aware that they were once questions, discrete responses to an earlier, collective answer. By charting the ways successive readings of a work make it part of a revised horizon of expectations, against which new works will subsequently stand out, Jauss constructs a theory of tradition that he can claim comprehends both aesthetic perception and social history.

There is much that is useful in Jauss's conception of the way a work queries its horizon. In the end, however, the epistemology that underwrites his theory is dubious. As Paul de Man has said, Jauss posits "the condition of existence of a consciousness" that "is not available to this consciousness in a conscious mode." In effect, the name Jauss gives this unavailability that darkens knowledge is history, which he constitutes as the retrospective marking of a text as a query to preconditions that, paradoxically, will have changed the moment the new work is recognized to have interrogated them. Jauss insists, in other words, that the recovery of medieval texts is a historical process, but one that depends on a transcendental state of mind, which acts in a timeless time where things no longer are what they were but are not yet what they will be. This etiolation of temporality clearly concerns Jauss; he attempts to restore the bulk and heft of social experience to literature by viewing the horizon of expectations as if it were the genre that the work joins by means of its reception at various historical moments. But the law of genre, Derrida says, unmarks the texts that participate without belonging to it. Ultimately, Jauss's Erwartungshorizont and his notion of consciousness remain metaphysical inventions; because they are, they hobble his program to historicize aesthetic production and perception.

Perhaps, then, rather than entirely dismissing the notion of a horizon, we should instead release it from the burden of expectations, generic or otherwise. If we do, however, we then are obliged to reconsider its composition and how we say we understand it. Certainly the backdrop that enabled Chaucer to pose the Troilus as a question to the land he visited and the literature he acquired there was not limited to an unstructured collection of preunderstandings of standard commonplaces and accepted ideologies. We cannot even say it was a cultural or historical interpretation of such conventions (for all horizons, I would contend, are always interpretations) that a London-based court poet, heavily influenced by his reading of French literature, might have arrived at in the last decades of the fourteenth century. The horizon of the Troilus was these things in conversation with Italian literary and cultural formations such as the stil novo that themselves were part of traditions Chaucer did not know well, if at all. Within its precincts we have to include the strangeness of the history of the vernacular that Dante had foregrounded in the Commedia, that Boccaccio had responded to in the Filostrato and Teseida, that Petrarch had addressed in the preface to his translation of the story of Griselda.

Chaucer's Italian experience, then, is not circumscribed by one but by two horizons, both of which I propose to construct as intertextual dialogues. The first of these consists of the insights Chaucer gained by reading the three Italian writers not as separate texts but in the light one could throw on the other. For when he could, Chaucer, I will argue, turned to Boccaccio to gloss what was odd in Dante, just as he used Dante to supplement Boccaccio. The second voice in this dialogue gains its tonality from the differences between Chaucer's customs and conventions and those he encountered in Florence and Milan. By establishing a colloquy between these literary and social configurations we can map the aesthetic and cultural topography of the Italian tradition Chaucer made.

To mark the boundaries of this dialogue, however, we have to articulate a different horizon, one that will allow us to ask how Chaucer did not read Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch in addition to how he did. This horizon entails our construing these Italian authors in their "native" state, so to speak, by reading Dante as he read himself as well as by reading him as Boccaccio read him. Largely a contest between Latin and vernacular eloquence, this Italian tradition starts with Dante's rejection in the Vita nuova of Sicilian and Tuscan attenuations of the manner and matter of Proven��e and the startling metaphysical claims he advances for his new poetry of the mind in love. It then moves to Dante's reformation of this "new style" and its triumph over Virgilian Latin in the Comedy. From there it passes to the early poems of Boccaccio, who subjected the high-minded conceits of "stilnovism" to a rhetorical inquiry into the ethics of motive and agency. Once Boccaccio fell under Petrarch's sway, however, Dante became the Galeotto through whom he attempted, with a spirit that grew more crabbed as he grew older, to reconcile his vernacular works with the Latin humanism of his master. For his part, Petrarch forged a style that also moves along the doubled trajectories of originality and revision; as we shall see, these trajectories form the context of his translation into Latin of Boccaccio's Griselda, the last tale of the Decameron.

This literary-cultural history is, as it were, the "original" that the Italian tradition Chaucer made translates. When we read it, models of interpretation are revealed-Boccaccio's rhetorical ethics, for instance, or Petrarch's historical hermeneutics-that illuminate the modes of intertextuality Chaucer deployed in adaptations like the Troilus or "The Clerk's Tale." By charting Dante's conversion of the scholastic epistemology of the stil novo into his poetics of being, we gain a sense of the Comedy's alterity-how Chaucer's representation of character and selfhood belongs to a different aesthetic synthesis even when Dante's influence is strongest. By examining why Boccaccio used Dante in the ways he did, we can see how social ideology might shape the qualities of fiction one way in Florence and another in London. We install Chaucer as a historically situated reader of the trecentisti only when we acknowledge these differences.


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