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Chaucer’s Decameron and the Wife of Bath’s Tale: Why Do Literary History?

Chaucer’s Decameron and the Wife of Bath’s Tale: Why Do Literary History?

Paper given by Frederick Biggs

Delivered at the University of Oxford on 21 February 2018

A possible direct link between the two greatest literary collections of the fourteenth century, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, has long tantalized readers because these works share many stories, which are, moreover, placed in similar frames. And yet, although he identified many of his sources, Chaucer never mentioned Boccaccio; indeed when he retold the Decameron’s final novella, his pilgrim, the Clerk, states that it was written by Petrarch. For these reasons, most scholars now believe that while Chaucer might have heard parts of the earlier collection when he was in Italy, he did not have it at hand as he wrote. More important than the narratives that Chaucer borrowed is the literary technique that he learned from Boccaccio – to make tales from ideas. This technique, moreover, links the “Shipman’s Tale” to the “Miller’s Tale” and the new “Wife of Bath’s Tale”.


Frederick Biggs is a Professor in the Department of English at the University of Connecticut.

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