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The World of Chaucer homepage


Case 1:
Chaucer and his Works

Case 2:

Case 3:

Case 4: Medicine, Magic & Monks

Case 5:
Leisure, Law and Learning




Introduction to Influences | Descriptions of books with images

I wol yow telle a tale which that I
Lerned at Padow of a worthy clerk,
As preved by his wordes and his werk …
Fraunceys Petrak, the lauriat poete,
Highte this clerk, whos rethorike sweete
Enlumyned al Ytaille of poetrie

The Clerk’s Prologue (l. 26-33)

Chaucer spent most of his life living in and around London, but he was European in outlook. He travelled to France, Italy and Spain for months at a time, both as a soldier and as a diplomat entrusted with the ‘king’s business’. He was certainly fluent in French and probably conversant in Italian and Latin. As such, he was open to the rich literature of fourteenth-century Europe. His early works reflect his wide reading of and admiration for French courtly verse. The leading French author Eustache Deschamps in turn referred to that ‘great translator, noble Geoffrey Chaucer’ as praise for his work in making the French favourite Le Roman de la Rose accessible to readers in English. From the 1370s on, Italian poetry became the overriding influence for Chaucer’s work. Obviously familiar with the writings of Dante and Petrarch, Boccaccio especially was a major source. Amongst other influences, Troilus and Criseyde is indebted to Il Filostrato, Il Teseida is a source for the Knight’s Tale, and the story of Menedon in Il Filocolo is a model for the Franklin’s Tale. Chaucer, however, never mentions Boccaccio by name, and nor does he quote directly from his most celebrated work, the Decameron, even though The Canterbury Tales’ similarities with it strongly suggests that he had at least some access to a copy of it.

Stories from the classics were well known and loved in the medieval period, even though their overt paganism often resulted in Christianised retellings by ‘mythographers’. Chaucer evidently knew the Latin writings of Ovid, Cicero, Virgil, Macrobius, and Boethius, and he probably learned Latin at school. The House of Fame is one example of a poem in which stories from Virgil and Ovid are alluded to and adapted, along with a host of other classical and medieval writers. This writing is so imbued with references to the classics and its mythology that it could be assumed that Chaucer read the original texts widely. However, it is more likely that much of his knowledge came from compilations and anthologies of choice excerpts from the classical authors, as well as via translations. That Chaucer aimed to emulate the great poets of the past in his vernacular writings is quite clear from his line at the end of Troilus and Criseyde where he consciously places himself in the grand line of ‘Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan and Stace’.

Page with woodcuts depicting Venus in her chariot and the assault on the Castle of Jealousy (folio t3r)

Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun Le Roman de la Rose
Paris: printed by Antoine Vérard, c.1505
Hunterian Bw.3.6

This is an early printed copy of one of France’s most important medieval vernacular poems, an allegorical dream vision about love. Attributed to two thirteenth-century authors, nothing is known about the writer of the first part, Guillaume de Lorris. The Parisian intellectual Jean de Meun was responsible for its continuation; he expanded it into a satire of contemporary society. Much of the poem’s appeal lies in the tantalising question of its allegorical meaning. It has been subject to divergent interpretations ever since it was written and such debate quickly established its cultural importance. Chaucer was more deeply influenced by the Roman than by any other French or English work. As well as partly translating it for The Romaunt of the Rose, he drew upon it in The Book of the Duchess, The Parliament of Fowls, the prologue to The Legend of Good Women and even in the famous opening of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.

This edition of Le Roman de la Rose was published in about 1505 by Antoine Vérard (fl. 1485-1512) in Paris. Fine woodcuts adorn many of his productions. Shown to the left are depictions of Venus in her dove-drawn chariot, and the assault on the Castle of Jealousy.

For more information about this book (with further images), see the February 2000 book of the month article featuring it.

Page with woodcuts (folio a3r)

Page with woodcuts (folio o5r)

Page with woodcuts (folio e6r)

Beginning of text (folio 1r)

Petrarch De Patientia Griseldis
Italy: Fourteenth/Fifteenth Century
MS Hunter 480 (V.7.7)

Francis Petrarch (1304-74) was the most distinguished literary author of his time. Regarded by Boccaccio as his ‘revered teacher, father, and master’, he was crowned poet laureate in 1341. Petrarch was as celebrated for his Latin works as for his Italian writings by his contemporaries. Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale closely follows this work, Petrarch’s elegant Latin adaptation of the last tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron. It is the terrible story of Patient Griselda, who meekly endures appalling suffering and humiliation inflicted by her husband in order, ultimately, to prove her obedience and loyalty. Although an extreme example, it is a chilling reminder that in medieval society a wife was completely subordinate to her husband, with no right to property or anything else.

This manuscript is a fairly utilitarian compilation of works by Petrarch, probably written in Florence. It also includes copies of his untitled book of epistles, the Secretum, and the Itinerarium.

Continuation of text (folios 1v - 2r)

Fortune and her wheel (vol. 1: folio 1r)

Boccaccio De Casibus Virorum Illustrium
Paris: 1467
MSS Hunter 371-372 (V.1.8-9). Two volumes.

The De Casibus Virorum Illustrium consists of a series of moral stories about the falls of famous men. This manuscript is a copy of the 1409 translation of the work into French, by Laurent de Premierfait, secretary to Jean, Duc de Berry. The work was also translated into English by Lydgate.

The opening picture shows Boccaccio pointing to the goddess Fortune who stands beside a wheel upon which her victims rise and fall. Fortune, who dominates the second book of Boethius’ work, De Consolatione Philosophiae, was one of the central images of medieval culture. Traditionally depicted as a woman, she personifies the medieval belief that personal misfortune was less the result of individual action than a reflection of the inevitable turning of her wheel. In the Fall of Princes tradition, Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale is subtitled ‘De casibus virorum illustrium’. It relates a series of seventeen tragedies that tell of the unhappy ends of famous men: ‘For certein, whan that Fortune list to flee, / Ther may no man the cours of hire withholde.’

Two other illustrations from the first volume are shown below. In the first, Nimrod gives instructions to his master of works, while workmen flee the Tower of Babel as angels destroy its pinnacle; the second illustration is found athe beginning of Book 2 and it depicts the fate of Marcus Manlius. Three miniatures from the second volume are also displayed.The opening illustration at the start of Book 6 shows Boccaccio and Fortune in an interior while outside Saturnus' army approaches the Capitol. The middle illustration of Boccaccio's vision of Petrarch is placed at the beginning of Book 7. In the upper compartment of the final picture Boccaccio addresses Manutius; in the lower compartment Phocinus murders Manutius.

Nimrod and the Tower of Babel (vol. 1: folio 5r)

The fate of Marcus Manlius (vol. 1: folio 109r)

Boccaccio and Fortune, and Saturnus' army (vol 2: folio 1r)

Boccaccio’s vision of Petrarch (vol 2: folio 65r)

Boccaccio addresses Manutius, and Phocinus murders Manutius (vol 2: folio 104v)

Miniatures of Boethius teaching students and in prison (folio 4r)

Boethius On the Consolation of Philosophy (with commentary by Nicholas Trivet)
Italy: 1385
MS Hunter 374 (V.1.11)

The Consolation of Philosophy was the most important and influential philosophical treatise of the Middle Ages. A great scholar, Boethius (c.480-524) was an important government official for the Ostrogoth king Theodoric in Rome. He was accused of treason in 522 for defending the rights of the Senate too strenuously, imprisoned, and executed in 524. He wrote the De Consolatione Philosophiae while in custody. In it, the allegorical figure Philosophia converses with Boethius, leading him from self pity to an enlightened, rational view of the human condition. Chaucer translated the work in his Boece, and it also pervades both The Knight’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, enriching them with a philosophical gravity.

In this manuscript, each of the five books of the Consolation is introduced by a beautifully floreated and gilt initial. The initial ‘C’ of Book I, shown to the left, incorporates a scene of Boethius instructing his students; below is a depiction of the author in his prison at Pavia. The volume was written for one Gregorius of Genoa. The scribe, Brother Amadeus, signs the work in two places; while modestly claiming to be the least of all scribes (‘ego enim sum minimus omnium scriptorum frater Amadeus’), he has produced a book of surpassing beauty.

Ornamental pages at beginning of work (folios iiiv - 1r)

Preface with illuminated initial 'E' (folio 2r)

Beginning of text (folio 1r)

Virgil Aeneid
Italy: early Fifteenth Century
MS Hunter 375 (V.1.12)

The works of Virgil exerted an enormous influence upon Latin and later Christian literature. One of a number of classical Roman authors found in the medieval curriculum, many fourteenth-century schoolboys would have been familiar with his poetry. Virgil was especially revered in the Middle Ages as he was considered to be almost a Christian. His Fourth Eclogue was seen to be prophetic of the birth of Jesus, while the Aeneid was read allegorically: the voyages of Aeneas in leading the defeated Trojans to their new home in Rome became the Christian soul wandering through life searching for heaven. In Chaucer’s The House of Fame, the dreaming poet sees the story of the Aeneid written on the walls of the Temple of Venus. He paraphrases the famous beginning of Virgil’s poem as: ‘I wol now synge, yif I kan, / The armes and also the man / That first cam, thurgh his destinee’.

This manuscript is written in the humanist book-hand that was created by Poggio Bracciolini in Florence in the early Fifteenth Century. The opening of the poem is displayed to the left. The original inner ornament of the illuminated initial ‘A’ has been washed out and replaced by a pen and ink sketch of a mail-clad warrior with helm and mace.

Beginning of Book 7 (folio 76r)


Beginning of Book 6 (folio 70v)

Ovid Metamorphoses
Italy: 1380
MS Hunter 445 (V.5.15)

Ovid‘s vast Latin poem on the theme of transformation incorporates about 250 tales from Greek and Roman mythology. Of enduring popularity, it was widely read and well known in the medieval period. Many of Chaucer’s contemporaries would have been familiar with its stories via a fourteenth century French translation entitled the Ovide Moralisé. This allegorised version of the work imbued the stories with Christian overtones. Chaucer’s poetry is permeated by Ovidian allusions. Most famously, he adapts the story of Ceyx and Alcyone from Book Nine of the Metamorphoses in The Book of the Duchess, written to commemorate the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster and wife of John of Gaunt.

Shown to the left is the opening to Book Six which tells of Arachne’s transformation into a spider. As can be seen from the pages displayed below, some sections of the work have been very closely read and annotated by a fairly early reader. The manuscript was made in Italy and the colophon at the end of the volume states that the scribe completed writing it on the third of October, 1380.

End of Book 1 (folio 19v)

Beginning of Book 2 (folio 20r)

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