Are the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales closer in outlook to Greek and Roman literature than they are to Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature?

The Black Death was a deadly outbreak of the plague that arrived in Europe in the mid 14th century. The Black death impacted Medieval society immensely, and the outlook of the people was changed permanently. In the words of Boccaccio in his Decameron that: “…practices contrary to the former habits of the citizens would hardly fail to grow up among the survivors”. There was a breakdown of morality, law, order, and even of hope in the future. Family lines ended, and many people belonging to the lower classes of society took over the city.

The Black Death was the turning point of the transition from the Medieval period to the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a time in which there was a self-conscious attempt to restore classical culture in Medieval society. Many people in the Renaissance revolted against the Catholic tradition dominant during the Middle ages and turned to secular humanism. Many humanists believed that the Greek and Roman cultures of the past were better than the Catholic civilization they were living in in their time. They called for a restoration of Greek rationalism. But, at the same time, many figures promoted an emphasis on Greek and Roman superstition and magic, including astrology.

The occurrence of the black death led people to conclude that God was either absent or discriminate. For many, the church lost it’s legitimacy and moral law was called into question. To many, life and death appeared random. Because of this, they attributed historical sanctions to fortune or chance. To many, humanism appeared to be a possible option instead of Catholicism. Scholasticism was likewise replaced by pragmatism, and a mindset of present-orientation became widespread.

Historians have discovered that the Middle ages had many contributions to science. The Medieval scholastics had a extensive and sophisticated commitment to science. The period known as the dark ages Some of the humanists wanted study of the classical literary works, rather than just the scientific works. They referred to the Middle ages as “the dark ages”. They used this as a weapon to combat the Catholic medieval tradition and to portray the Middle ages as a time in which progress stagnated under Christian dominance. It also implied that classical Greece and Rome were civilizations that prospered apart from Christian influence.

Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are two examples of Renaissance literature in the decades following the Black Death. In the Decameron there is a ridicule of the practices and actions of the clergy. God is mentioned, but is not said to be sovereign over history. Fortune or chance unseats God from his position in the stories and fortune is said to control the events in the lives of people. In his stories, relative morality is praised and morals are downplayed. In the Canterbury Tales, Fortune is said to control people’s lives. God is mentioned in some cases, especially when addressing biblical figures in the stories, but Fortune seems to be given the greater influence. God is a somewhat distant figure in these stories. Neither book offers a program of social or individual redemption.

The worldview taught in Hebrew, Christian, and Medieval literature was very different than the pieces of Renaissance literature mentioned above. Hebrew literature, notably the Old Testament, said that God was sovereign over events in history, and that Man was God’s agent under him. God’s law tested man and told him what God’s commandments were. The sanctions in life are said to be predictable, and in Hebrew literature, God punishes evil and rewards good. It is not said that the sanctions will be executed instantly, but that in due time God will punish the wicked. The issues of life are ethical.

Christian literature, like Hebrew literature, claims that God is sovereign. It declares that Jesus, God’s son, is also sovereign. Man has authority under God and can be used by God as an instrument to do his will. Christians are also instructed by the writers of this literature to follow God and to obey him. God is the judge of the world, and heaven and hell are mentioned as the two possible destinations for mankind after death. In later Christian literature, starting about 200 years after the birth of Jesus, there does seem to be a view that a third place, called purgatory, exists as well. But, In the first Christian documents, especially the New Testament, we do not see evidence of purgatory or any intermediate place between heaven or hell. Those who believe in Jesus receive eternal life with Christ in heaven.

Christian writings from the second century until the early Middle ages also express the view that God is sovereign in history. It is opposed to the view that the gods of Rome have sovereignty over the universe. Some later writers, particularly in the early Middle ages, portray certain saints as sovereign or as having immense power in the world as well. However, progress in history is underplayed and world’s blessings are said to be not worthy of pursuing. They say that the church will last until the end of time and that there will be a final judgment of mankind.

Late Medieval literature also said that God was sovereign over the universe. It also said that historical sanctions are the work of God. They did not have much to say about the content of God’s law, and glorified those who were seen to be extra spiritual without addressing the spiritual needs of the common man. In The Song of Roland, the knights fighting the Saracens in Spain were portrayed as holy men who fought for God in a crusade-like situation. The poem was a recruiting document for the crusades. In The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis and the friars of the Franciscan order were said to be extremely godly men. They were portrayed as holier than the rest of society, but, aside from becoming a friar in the order, it was not clear what the common people would have to do to be saved. In fact, many of the friars were said to go to hell or purgatory. A common person listening to these stories would conclude that if most of the friars probably would not go to heaven, then it would be impossible for a common man to do so.

Greek literature had a completely different outlook than the Hebrew, Christian, and Medieval writings. Their worldview did not have a single being in control of everything. They had a plethora of gods and goddesses who were said to control over one or more aspects of life. Zeus was said to be the most powerful of the gods, but many other lesser gods can stop him. The Greek gods were not necessarily good, as God is said to be in Christian, Hebrew, and Medieval literature. Men are decision-makers under the gods’ authority. Men need to decide which gods’ laws to obey, as the gods contradict and have conflicts with each other. Men are portrayed as the plaything of the gods. Revenge is also central a central aspect of Greek society, as seen in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Ethics is important, otherwise Zeus might impose negative sanctions on you.

Roman literature was derived from Greek literature. In Roman literature, Jupiter has great, but not absolute, power. Other gods can thwart the wishes of Jupiter. Roman literature was similar to Greek literature in that it expressed a polytheistic worldview. Fortune is said to play games with men, and the Fates have laid out history. It says that the gods have more power than men, but political rulers can become gods through their own merits. The gods in Roman literature were, like the Greek gods, fickle and evil. Even Jupiter, the chief of the Roman gods, was an adulterous rapist. In a story by Ovid, another god named Apollo flayed Marsyas, a satyr, alive for simply losing a flute contest. Innocent people received cruel sanctions from the gods for doing nothing at all.

There is a pessimistic view of the future in Roman literature. Livy had the opinion that the world is in moral decline and would continue to be that way. Political decline was believed to be a result of moral decline. Dead people went to Pluto’s realm in the underworld, unless they had become gods through their own merits. The earlier ages of man, which were said to be better, would not be restored. The only hope was to stop time, and that meant empire.

Renaissance literature focused more on Fortune than on God. Greek and Roman literature believed similarly, but had multiple other gods as well. Both emphasized the ability of man. For example, Roman and Greek literature, the ability of a political ruler to become a god was a widely accepted theme. Christian literature also believed that man could become great, but only with the help of God. Roman, Greek, and Renaissance literature did not acknowledge God as necessary for man to achieve great things. Renaissance literature was pessimistic in outlook and focused on the present rather than the future. Classical literature was also pessimistic in outlook, reflecting hopelessness that the previous ages of men would never return to earth and that everything was inevitably in decline. Roman literature focused on the past and the present, but Christian literature added the dimension of a hopeful future as well.

My opinion is that Renaissance literature was closer in outlook to classical literature than Hebrew, Christian, and Medieval literature. The view of Renaissance literature exhibits a departure from the Medieval tradition in a striking way by introducing a rival worldview dedicated to restoring the principles of classical Greece and Rome over the previous Medieval tradition.


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