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Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Debate of Love

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N.S. Thompson, Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Debate of Love: A Comparative Study of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996; 354pp.;

Nigel Thompson's book resists alignment with current concerns in late-medieval studies: he has little or nothing to say about manuscripts and their dissemination; about the audiences, reception, and imitation of the works he treats; about gender and its representation; about contemporary social and political developments and how these works reflect and even affect them; or about nationalism and internationalism in both late-medieval writers and the twentieth-century study of their work. Instead, Thompson focuses his comparison on the claims for the purpose and value of their work that both Chaucer and Boccaccio make, taking them more seriously perhaps than any other reader of one or both authors ever has. He attempts to show us that the Pauline excuse that 'all is written to instruct us' can be applied fully and literally to the entirety of both works, because always and everywhere both these writers intended to instruct their readers in how to live well by observing a virtuous mean. Anything in these works that does not exemplify virtue must be read allegorically, or as a negative example, or both: fiction provides an autonomous ground, a labyrinth, even a 'laboratory,' where the reader may learn skills of discernment and interpretation. Thompson's book contains seven chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. The Introduction lays out the author's general approach, which is defended in detail in Chapters One to Four. In Chapter One, Thompson shows by surveying a range of Latin and Italian poets that contrary to some previous claims, diversity was of aesthetic value in the Middle Ages. He claims that both Boccaccio and Chaucer construct their work with an aesthetic, but also an ethic, of diversity. They aim to present their readers with choices and thence to instruct them by instituting an internal moral...