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The device of the collection of tales was unknown to European literature before Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which ten speakers are gathered in a castle in the countryside near Florence, to where they have taken refuge to get away from the plague. Another Italian precedent was Ser Giovanni Sercambi’s ‘Il Novelliere’, where one narrator on a journey recounts a series of tales. The question has naturally arisen whether Chaucer knew of Boccaccio and his prose masterpiece, and how much he is indebted to the Italian writer.

Chaucer went on diplomatic and commercial missions to Italy on at least three occasions, during which he came to know well three powerful cities like Genoa, Milan and Florence. It seems very likely that on those occasions he also became familiar with Italian literature, then famous throughout Europe for three great writers: Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. Curiously though, Chaucer mentions Petrarch and Dante but never once Boccaccio, to whom he obviously seems to be indebted for the idea of the frame into which to insert his tales. Chaucer in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ imitates one of Decameron’s novellas, the story of Griselda, but he claims to have derived it from a Latin Version by Petrarch.

For some critics Chaucer took the device of the collection of tales from Boccaccio, but the central idea of the pilgrimage might have come from Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise in the Divina Commedia. According to this interpretation, Chaucer would have turned Dante’s other-worldly pilgrimage into a realistic English pilgrimage. In the end, the importance of his ‘Italian’ experience was that it showed Chaucer that a vernacular language – in his case English – could be used to create literature of a nobility, subtlety and importance equal to that of the classical languages. Thus, he tried not so much to reproduce the great Italian authors in English as to elevate English to equal importance as a literary language.

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