The Chaucer Review 35.3 (2001) 294-317
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The Influence of Plautus and Latin Elegiac Comedy on Chaucer's Fabliaux
Kathleen A. Bishop
During the formative stages of Chaucerian study in the period spanning the first half of this century, the fabliaux were largely ignored due to the bawdy nature of this material. In more recent history, there has been a growing interest in the genre, spurred on by the work of scholars of the Old French fabliaux such as Nykrog, Muscatine, and Bloch. But, although much focus has been placed on the relationship between Chaucer's fabliaux and the vernacular analogues of his tales, scant attention has hitherto been paid to the important Classical and Medieval Latin influences underpinning them.
The deep Classical and Medieval Latin elements of his fabliaux, in both their theoretical and performative contexts, are just as necessary to a full assessment of his comic invention as are the Old French variety. This is especially clear since the Canterbury Tales in general are so saturated in the written literary tradition on which Chaucer so avidly and learnedly drew. Thus what is true of the whole is equally applicable to the part. When considering the Old French and Chaucerian fabliaux in juxtaposition, it becomes clear that while both sets of tales are influenced by the underlying oral nature of their core source stories, the written Latin material that Chaucer knew so well, both directly and indirectly, is vitally, inextricably, and undeniably linked to his comic poems.
Although Edmond Faral remarked upon the relationship of Roman and Medieval Latin Elegiac comedy to the Old French fabliaux, he met with much resistance from his colleagues. 1 Similarly, although these connections are so much easier to delineate in the case of the English fabliaux, Chaucer's tales have not often been viewed within the larger frame of the Western comic tradition. Pearsall and Ruggiers have commented upon the inherent interest in examining the comic theories of the Antique commentators in relation to the Canterbury Tales, but no complete study has been undertaken. 2 Plautus' work has almost never been [End Page 294] viewed as pertinent, and the Latin Elegiac comedies of the Middle Ages have been either ignored or dismissed. According to Peter Dronke, fabliau comedy is one of the great constants in Western literature, 3 and the works of all these writers form clear links in the chain joining comic writers of different ages. Robert Miola expresses a similar thesis in his study of the effect of the plays of Plautus and Terence on those of Shakespeare. These dramas, he says,
. . . function as . . . "deep sources," as possessors of a comedic gene pool that shapes in various mediated ways succeeding generations. Exploration of these lineages can be rich and fruitful. The proof of direct paternity is often less important and less interesting than the establishment of ancestry, the tracing of complicated genealogy, the identification of inherited characteristics, the analysis of family resemblance and diversity. 4
These "inherited characteristics" and "family resemblances" which were passed down and adapted by Chaucer will be traced in a number of areas such as the numerous shared thematic features centering on lust, deception, and the triangular configuration prominent in so many of these stories. Similarities in characterization will also be acknowledged, especially in the continuing presence of Roman comic stock figures like the blocking senex and wily slavuus in Medieval works by the authors of the comoediae and Chaucer.
Every writer, in his lifetime, is the last in a long line of writers stretching back through history. In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom describes the "strong writer" as struggling to find his own voice, thus freeing himself from his "fathers." 5 In Chaucer's case, although he was surely a "strong writer," he seems to have been especially susceptible to outside influences on his poetry. Chaucer's corpus is witness to his ability to synthesize the things he heard and read in his life, picking and choosing the pieces which were useful or appealing. In this way, we see the...