- The Legend of Thebes and Literary Patricide in Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Statius
Chaucer’s refusal to name Boccaccio in The Knight’s Tale and elsewhere in his poetry has often been interpreted as a strategic attempt to lend his writings more substantial authority.1 As a recent author writing in a vernacular language, Boccaccio’s name lacks the solemnity of a “Lollius,” a “Corynne,” or even an anonymous “old book.” Critics have generally agreed, therefore, that Chaucer invents these sources for the same reason that medieval historiographers such as John of Salisbury or Guido delle Colonne feigned reliance on ancient auctores while camouflaging signs of recent invention: to bolster the authenticity and credibility of his works.2 I want to propose in this essay [End Page 139] that Chaucer’s erasure of Boccaccio has a separate origin and purpose. I suggest that Chaucer learns his aesthetic of erasure from Boccaccio, who playfully conceals his debt to Statius in the Teseida under the premise of translating an anonymous old book, vowing—with no small irony—that “no Latin author has told his story before.”3 As for why Boccaccio and Chaucer erase their sources, they do so in order to participate in a tradition of authorial usurpation practiced by the Latin epicists, to develop an epic genealogy for their poems. Unlike the medieval historiographers, then, who minimize signs of poetic license, Boccaccio and Chaucer call attention to authorial erasure as a literary trope, situating their vernacular poems in a classical tradition while suggesting their preeminence as modern poets writing in a new, literary language.
But when Boccaccio and Chaucer erase their sources, whom do they expect to notice? Questions of Chaucer’s anticipated and actual reception have often framed the way we have discussed his engagement with his sources. Paul Strohm in particular reminds us to consider in any discussion of Chaucer’s reception the poet’s “consciousness both of an immediate audience … and an audience of posterity.”4 It is this second audience for whom I think Chaucer conceals his source. To clarify, I do not imagine that either Boccaccio or Chaucer expected all of his patrons and readers to pick up on the implications of this erasure. Rather, these poets—indeed, all poets—compose with their literary descendants in mind, the writers who will follow them and will invoke these same genealogical strategies to warrant their places in an ongoing literary tradition.5 And if there is something patricidal about this behavior, there is also something suicidal about it, since Chaucer writes not only to efface [End Page 140] Boccaccio but also to be effaced by a worthy successor, an ambition we will see gratified by Lydgate. It is from this Oedipal series of erasures and un-erasures, of literary patricides and poetic resurrections, that poets understand their authorial legacies emerging. What this means for our present study is that Chaucer, and Boccaccio before him, would seem to conceive of literary lineage in both a retrospective and prospective sense. In mimicking Boccaccio’s intertextual poetics, in other words, Chaucer not only binds his work to a previous literary tradition, but also takes steps to ensure his own perpetuity.
That we can trace a pattern of authorial obfuscation from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, or from Virgil to Lydgate, as I will do here, speaks to the efficacy of this device. In resituating Chaucer’s famous occlusion of Boccaccio within a genealogy of erasure, I aim to add a new understanding of Chaucer’s presentation of himself in relation to a literary tradition that includes not only his ancestors—contemporary and ancient—but, equally important, descendants, in a way that other poets may have appreciated even if we have missed it.
The Humility Topos and the “Little Book” Motif
I will begin with Boccaccio’s envoy to the Filocolo (1339). In this final farewell to his poem, Boccaccio refers to Statius in a way that suggests his sincere reverence for the earlier poet, a display of modesty that becomes increasingly mediated as we peel back the layers of allusion to discover its literary precedents. Boccaccio cautions his “piccolo libretto” not to aspire to match Virgil in verse...