The Medieval Story Collection

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The Medieval Story Collection

Resistance to Categorization.

A characteristically unique feature of medieval literature is its tendency to mix forms and styles. In the cases of the philosophical dream vision, the romance, and the allegory, individual medieval literary works often combine or incorporate several independently identifiable genres such as prose and verse, or comic and serious elements, within one work. This tendency makes it impossible to classify certain works in a single generic category. For example, the long, highly complex thirteenth-century poem Romance of the Rose combines dream vision, courtly romance, adventure quest, allegory, love poem, philosophical treatise, social satire, and more, within a vast plot that was begun by one author, Guillaume de Lorris, and completed a half century later by another writer of a completely different mindset, Jean de Meun. Similarly, Piers Plowman combines allegory, dream vision, philosophy, pilgrimage quest, social satire and other forms to such an extent that it is difficult to describe it by a more precise term than "dream vision."

Medieval Manuscript Miscellanies.

One of the more popular ways for medieval readers to obtain copies of literary works was to order manuscripts that collected a variety of kinds of genres and forms within the binding of a single book. Medieval audiences thus might receive a mixture of long romances, mid-length narratives, and short lyrics in manuscripts that were loosely organized "miscellanies" or anthologies containing a sampler of varied genres and modes. Paralleling this manuscript model of the "miscellany," medieval writers themselves were inclined to create what were essentially anthologies of different stories that circulated together in a reasonably coherent form. Sometimes these "story collections" were organized around a theme that provided a reason for a compiler to collect the tales. This variety would include collections of saints' lives like the enormously influential mid-thirteenth-century Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) by Jacob of Voragine; tales of remarkable people and events like the Gesta Romanorum (Deeds of the Romans); and the Breton lais and animal fables of Marie de France. However, the most formal and literarily self-conscious medieval story collections involved a framing device, a larger narrative that linked all the other stories through an author's invented occasion at which stories and exempla were exchanged. In some cases the stories were chosen to illustrate either a moral principle or its violation. Other story-collecting frameworks involve a group of people telling tales to one another as a social exercise, a game, or a way of passing what would otherwise be tedious travel time. Such storytelling "frame" situations were employed to organize several important landmarks of medieval literary culture in Continental Europe and England.

The Latin Story Collection in Italy.

The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) compiled several story collections, both in Italian and in Latin, although in his own lifetime the Latin works were more popular than the vernacular ones. One Latin collection, De casibus virorum illustrium (Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men; 1355), which was possibly a source for Chaucer's Monk's Tale, has no frame, and is almost exclusively didactic. It narrates the rise to fame and fall from fortune of various great men and several women in chronological order, starting with the biblical Adam and going to the middle of the fourteenth century. These tales, which seem overly similar to a modern audience, were enormously popular in Boccaccio's time, and the De casibus was the work for which he was then best known, judging from over eighty surviving manuscripts and numerous French translations in luxury illuminated editions. Each narrative offers the same pattern—the turning of Boethius's Wheel of Fortune, the foolishness of pride, and God's humbling of the proud. Boccaccio also wrote a similar Latin collection on women, De mulieribus claris (Concerning Famous Women; 1361–1362), which recounts the lives of over 100 mythological and classical women who became famous or infamous for various reasons. This work anticipates Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, which has an elaborate frame and prologue, and Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies, a collection structured around the building of an allegorical city comprised of the biographies of illustrious women.

The Decameron.

The work for which Boccaccio is now most famous, The Decameron (One Hundred Stories), is an Italian anthology organized within an elaborate fictive structural framework. It starts with a gruesomely graphic description of the physical symptoms of the Black Death, the pandemic outbreak of bubonic plague that swept across Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, killing off between one-third to one-half of Europe's entire population. If for no other reason than the fact that its opening offers one of the only written eyewitness accounts of the ravages of the Black Death, Boccaccio's Decameron would be a landmark of medieval literature. However, additionally, like Chaucer's similarly framed Middle English Canterbury Tales and Juan Ruiz's Spanish Book of Good Love, this Italian collection of stories serves as a sampler of the variety of types of literary forms available in the late Middle Ages. Like Chaucer's host, who stipulates that the pilgrims' tales must combine "sentence and solas" (moral instruction and enjoyment), Boccaccio's narrator dedicates his collection to the edification and pleasure of "ladies in love" who, confined to their sewing rooms, do not have the freedom of their male counterparts to escape the distress of being in love through outdoor physical activities, hunting, and business affairs.

Storytelling in The Decameron.

Boccaccio's fictive frame has ten young Florentines (seven ladies and three men) fleeing from plague-ridden Florence to various estates outside the city to escape infection in the more healthful air of the countryside. They agree to a story-telling game to pass their time pleasantly, with the rule that a queen or king is to be selected daily to determine the theme for that day's ten tales. The assigned themes include positive reversals of fortune; recovery of losses; unhappy love affairs; successful love affairs; clever verbal maneuvers; treachery of wives against their husbands; tricks played by both sexes; the performance of generous deeds; or free topics—in short, the full range of life experiences. After ten days of story telling, the participants return to Florence and go their separate ways. Unlike the other story collections Boccaccio wrote, this group foregoes didacticism for the sheer pleasure of telling and hearing tales. The possibility of complete disorder in so many stories is precluded by the announced themes, which help give the stories coherence. Here, as in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the sheer abundance and variety of tale-types—ranging from moral tales to romances, to bawdy fabliaux (for which Boccaccio is probably most famous)—ensure that all readers will find stories to amuse, provoke, and enlighten them. Moreover, as in Chaucer's Canterbury story collection, the delightful interplay between the tellers within the framework of the contest provides additional human interest.

A Literary Miscellany in Medieval Spain.

One of the landmarks of literary culture in medieval Spain was the 1350 Book of Good Love by Juan Ruiz, otherwise identified as the "Archpriest" of Hita, a town north-east of Madrid. Although not a formally framed story collection like Boccaccio's Decameron or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Ruiz's Book, a meandering, episodic series of accounts of the Archpriest's fourteen attempted (and sporadically successful) adventures in love, incorporates many literary genres and a wide spectrum of tones, ranging from the academically serious and religiously pious to the satirical and nearly blasphemous. Narrated by a priest who in one episode woos a nun by means of a bawd-like go-between named Convent-hopper, Ruiz offers a scathing treatment of contemporary clergy and religious life. Ruiz parodies the pastourelle in the narrator's encounters with the aggressive, ugly Wild Woman-like "mountain girls" who physically overpower the Archpriest, forcing him to have sex in exchange for dinner and a place by the fire. The Archpriest also creates an Ovidian "art of love" similar to Andreas Capellanus's Art of Courtly Love in which Sir Love and Lady Venus teach the narrator how to court women. The many allegories include a mock joust between a personified Sir Carnival and the pilgrim-attired Lady Lent (using meat and sardines as cannon balls), an allegory of the seasons and months, an allegory of the arms of a Christian, and an allegory of the seven Vices of Love illustrated by beast fables. Ruiz includes a dream vision in which Sir Love appears to the Archpriest, exempla, fables, fabliaux exchanged between the nun and the go-between, and other genres.

Allegory and Ambiguity in Ruiz 's Book of Good Love.

Whereas the intended meanings of other story collections are more obvious, the ultimate signification of Ruiz's complexly woven, tapestry-like collection is equivocal. He repeatedly reminds his audience of the metaphor of the "husk and the kernel," suggesting that the work (or parts of it) may be understood as an allegory meant to convey meaning(s) beyond its sometimes outrageous literal level. Like Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy, the narrator's opening prayer indicates that he is writing from prison. But by "prison," does he mean a literal jail cell, the "prison" of corporeal flesh, or the "prison" of the experience of love? Even the work's title, which initially implies that its subject will be erotic love, proves to be ambivalent, for eventually Ruiz distinguishes between "good love" (defined as love of God and obedience to His Commandments) and "foolish love of this world," which many of the Archpriest's adventures illustrate, though it is uncertain whether anything is learned from his described experiences. One thing is clear—in a period of extreme antifeminism, the narrator admires and philosophically supports women in all their infinite variety. If the Archpriest's persona remains flat and undeveloped, the characters of several of the eccentric women he woos (or is wooed by) remain unforgettable: the physically grotesque and sexually voracious "mountain girls," the ever-present and ever-faithful "Convent-hopper," and the two women with whom the narrator has most success in love, the widow Lady Sloeberry and


introduction: Dame Sirith [Siriz] (from a manuscript made between 1272 and 1283) is the only known English fabliau besides several of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Probably Oriental in origin, the story of Dame Sirith and the Weeping Bitch offers an attack on bourgeois materialism, hypocrisy, and complacency. At the same time, it satirizes courtly love with masterful irony in a complex stanza form typical of popular romances. The story recounts the passion—complete with the pangs of love sickness—of a young clerk, Willikin (a diminutive of William), for a smug married woman, Margery. All of the protagonists are villagers of the lower middle class, but Willikin's language employs many of the conventions of aristocratic courtly love, which lend an improbable and comic note to the poem. The clerk one day visits the woman when her merchant husband has gone to a fair, revealing that he has loved her for many years and would like her to be his "leuemon" or beloved (a term from courtly love lyrics). But the lady rejects his advances, citing the respectability of her life and the virtues—and wealth—of her husband. Willikin then addresses himself to a go-between, Dame Sirith, a bawd on the order of the woman charmingly called "Convent Hopper" in Juan Ruiz's Book of Good Love. Through a clever trick, Dame Sirith convinces Margery to cooperate, and at the end of the tale, she brings Willikin back to Margery with the admonition that he "plow her well and stretch her thighs wide apart," which Willikin, with the now eager Margery, proceeds to do. In the passage modernized here, Dame Sirith prepares for her visit to Margery by feeding her small dog pepper and mustard until it weeps, then goes to see Margery with the weeping dog under her arm. Complaining to Margery of her poverty, she gets her sympathy and attention, as well as food and drink. Margery asks Dame Sirith what has brought her to this miserable condition. The following excerpt is her response.

[Dame Sirith]: "I have a daughter fair and free
No man might find one fairer.
She had a husband great and rich
And generous as well.
My daughter loved him all too much,
Which is why I am so sad.
On a certain day he was out of the house—
Which is why my daughter is ruined.
He had an errand out of town;
A tonsured clerk came by
And offered my daughter his love.
But she would not do as he said—
He might not have his way with her,
No matter how great his desire.
Then the clerk began casting spells
And turned my daughter into this bitch
You see here in my arms.
My heart breaks for her!
See how her eyes run
And how the tears flow down.
Therefore, lady, it's no surprise
That my heart is breaking in two.
And any young housewife cares little for her life
If she refuses a clerk her love,
And doesn't give in to him."—
"Oh my god," said Margery, "what should I do?
The other day a clerk came to me
And bade me love him in just this way,
And I refused him. Now I fear
He will transform me too.
How can I escape?"—
"May God Almighty keep you safe
From becoming a bitch or a puppy!
Dear lady, if any clerk offers his love,
I think you should grant his wish
And become his sweetie straightaway.
And if you don't, a worse fate will befall you."—
"Lord Christ, woe is me
That that clerk went away
Before he had won me.
I wish more than anything
That he had lain with me
And done it right away!
Dame Sirith, evermore I will be in your debt
If you will fetch me Willikin,
That clerk I'm speaking of—
And I will give you gifts
So that you will be better off
Forever, by God's own bell.
Unless you bring me Willikin,
I will never laugh or sing
Or be happy ever again."

source: Dame Sirith and the Weeping Bitch, in Middle English Humorous Tales in Verse. Ed. George H. McKnight (Boston and London: D. C. Heath, 1913): 16–18. Text modernized from the Middle English by John Block Friedman and Kristen Figg.

the nun Garoça (with whom he enjoys a platonic relationship).

The Story Collection in England: Chaucer.

In addition to his more famous Canterbury Tales—within which is included another incomplete collection, the Monk's Tale (consisting of "tragedies" of men's diminished fortunes)—Geoffrey Chaucer also wrote another unfinished collection, The Legend of Good Women (1389), his third-longest work, created shortly after Troilus and Criseyde. Like Christine de Pizan's French allegory Book of the City of Ladies and Boccaccio's Latin collection Concerning Famous Women, the Middle English Legend provides a story collection about various (sometimes questionably) "saintly" females who were victims of love. Chaucer's female figures were selected from the annals of antiquity and classical myth, including Ariadne, Cleopatra, Medea, Dido, Lucretia, Philomela, and others. The Legend's prologue sets the stories within the framework of a dream vision in which the narrator is harassed by Cupid, the God of Love, and his queen, the daisy-like Alceste, for writing literary works that defame women, such as the Romaunt of the Rose (Chaucer's translation of the thirteenth-century French dream vision) and Troilus and Criseyde, in which Criseyde betrays her lover Troilus. To rectify this literary "sin" against the fair sex, the narrator of Legend is issued the "penance" of writing a collection of stories lauding the more than twenty thousand "good women" whose stories he has neglected. However, the legends that follow only tell of ten women. Whether Chaucer tired of this literary exercise and voluntarily abandoned the project or decided to express an ironic view of womanly virtue through the very brevity and inconclusiveness of the collection is impossible to tell.

John Gower 's Story Collection, Confessio Amantis.

In Confessio Amantis (Confession of the Lover; 1390–1393), containing over 30,000 lines of narrative verse, Chaucer's English contemporary John Gower presents a collection of biblical, classical, legendary, and popular narratives, recounted by Genius, priest of Venus, as he hears the confession of Amans ("the lover"). The narrative voice represents John Gower, who poses as an elderly lover. The structure of Confessio is organized as if Amans confesses to his priest the various sins committed against love in seven books of stories organized according to the Seven Deadly Sins—Pride, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, Lechery, Gluttony, and Sloth—with one book assigned to each mortal sin. For Genius and the Lover, Gower obviously is indebted to the same figures in Jean de Meun's continuation of the Romance of the Rose as well as Jean's source, Alan of Lille's Complaint of Nature. Before the confessions proper start, there is a Prologue narrated by "John Gower" as well as another book summarizing Aristotelian lore at the lover's request. Even though both Gower and Chaucer sometimes tell analogous stories—for example Gower narrates stories that parallel those of the Man of Law's Tale of Constance and the Wife of Bath's Tale of a rash promise to a loathly damsel—readers today generally favor the psychological complexity of Chaucer's rendition over Gower's more prosaic version. Gower, however, was a prolific writer, composing thousands of lines of verse in Latin, French, and Middle English, for which he had a large audience in his time.

The Fabliau.

This brief type of tale, also known as the short conte, was predominantly a French form, the earliest examples dating from 1200. The term is the Old French diminutive for "little fable" and its plural is fabliaux; no equivalent name exists in Middle English. Unlike the romance, which often takes place in the far away and long ago Celtic Other World or in some idealized version of Camelot, the fabliau is set in the everyday world of the present. Its characters are bourgeois: peasants, clerks, lecherous clergy, oversexed wives, artisans, and cuckolded husbands. Despite its bourgeois or lower-class subject matter, the fabliau is not a bourgeois phenomenon, and, indeed, examples of the genre or texts in related forms occur alongside romances and in such important works as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio's Decameron, and Juan Ruiz's Book of Good Love. The genre may have been an aristocratic form that mocked middle-or lower-class pretensions or the lack thereof. Its clever, complicated plots, often love triangles, are concerned more with cunning and folly than with virtue and evil, and generally concern humankind's most basic functions—mostly sex, sometimes excretion. Little descriptive detail is given and characterization is usually minimal, reducing people to stock character types: the stupid cuckold, the venal woman, and the lecherous clerk. Sometimes, as in an exemplum or fable, there is a moral, usually a satirical spoof of the character and his or her "sins." Essentially, however, the whole point of the form is amorality. The fabliau expresses the non-official culture of carnal, almost carnival, irreverence, of those feelings suppressed by courtly politeness or religious asceticism.


Larry D. Benson and Theodore M. Andersson, The Literary Context of Chaucer's Fabliaux: Texts and Translations (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971).

Robert J. Clements and Joseph Gibaldi, Anatomy of the Novella: The European Tale Collection from Boccaccio and Chaucer to Cervantes (New York: New York University Press, 1977).

Thomas D. Cooke and Benjamin L. Honeycutt, eds., The Humor of the Fabliaux: A Collection of Critical Essays (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1974).

Robert S. Dombroski, ed., Critical Perspectives on the Decameron (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1977).

A. J. Minnis, ed., Gower's Confessio Amantis: Responses and Reassessments (Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1983).

Kurt Olsson, John Gower and the Structures of Conversion: A Reading of the Confessio Amantis (Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1992).

Dayle Seidenspinner-Núñez, The Allegory of Good Love: Parodic Perspectivism in the Libro de Buen Amor (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1981).

N. S. Thompson, Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Debate of Love: A Comparative Study of the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Anthony N. Zahareas, The Art of Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita (Madrid, Spain: Estudios de Literatura Española, 1965).

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The Medieval Story Collection

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