The Renaissance Novelle Summary

Introduction (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

It is difficult to come to an exact definition of the Renaissance novella (pluralnovelle) because of the rapid development of prose fiction in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The novella is defined as a short, prose narrative, usually realistic and often satiric in tone. Novella is an Italian word deriving from the feminine form of the word for “new.” The quality of newness in the novella is, perhaps, best associated with the subject matter of the storiesnovelle are based on current local events—with a viewpoint that ranges from amorous to humorous and satirical to political or moral. The characters in a novella are placed in a realistic setting, complete with the rhythms of everyday life and conversation. In counterpoint to medieval romances that present an idealized world peopled with noble characters in grand adventures, novelle narrate common incidents in the lives of ordinary townspeople. These incidents become uncommon as they are flavored with exaggeration and caricature, sometimes stretching the limits of the imagination.

Scholars generally agree that the genre of the novella originated in thirteenth century Italy as a brief, well-structured prose narrative. The genre includes stories of action, experience, brief anecdotes, and accounts of clever sayings with plots of amorous intrigue, clerical corruption, and clever tricks. Novelle were often gathered together in collections, using a frame tale to unify the stories with a common theme. While the teller of a novella may claim a moral intention for the story, the underlying purpose of the Renaissance novella is to entertain. The moral intent claimed by some authors or narrators of Renaissance novelle is most often connected to the frame that encloses the collection of novelle.

The Renaissance Novelle Origins of the Novella (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Short narratives originated with the beginning of humankind—the impulse to tell a story must be one of the earliest of human impulses. The ancient civilizations of the Middle East and Egypt recorded short narratives, heroic and didactic, in both prose and poetry as early as the second millennium b.c.e. Greek, Roman, Hebrew, and Indian cultures all contributed to the growing body of ancient fictional prose narratives. These usually didactic stories were told to idealize certain behaviors, to teach moral attitudes, and to illustrate the rewards for good choices and the punishments for bad ones.

In the European Middle Ages, short tales came from a variety of sources to fill a growing hunger for enlightenment and entertainment. The sagas of Scandinavia and Iceland recorded the rough founding of a new society in a barren landscape. Celtic tales reveled in the imaginative romance and magic. Moral exempla, in the form of saints’ lives and tales of martyrs, were told to model behavior for uneducated or newly converted Christians. Among the common folk, a new kind of tale arose—one grounded in the incidents of everyday lives, preferring humor and common sense and sensuality to idealism. The fabliau, a short metrical tale, satirized marriage, women, and the clergy. Vivid detail and realistic observation enhanced the plot, usually centered on an adulterous triangle, comic and often bawdy.

The Renaissance novella drew inspiration from all of these sources but was most specifically grounded in two: tales from the Orient and Christian exempla. The Oriental tales had been collected and collated in frame tale collections by Arabic storytellers and diffused in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew translations well known throughout Europe by the twelfth century. Such widely known Oriental texts as the Panchatantra and Alf layla wa- layla (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706-1708) offered models for Renaissance authors.

The Panchatantra, a collection of tales that originated in India as early as the second century b.c.e., were translated from Sanskrit into Arabic in the eighth century. The outer frame for the tales probably was crafted in the Middle East and then translated back into Sanskrit (the original Sanskrit versions are lost) and into European languages. It is a simple frame: Three sons of a king refuse to be educated until a wise man comes along and proposes to teach them by telling stories. The princes agree and in a short time learn all the wise man has to offer about statecraft, friendship, war and peace, loss and gain, and impetuous actions. Nearly all of the stories in the Panchatantra emphasize intelligence and clear thinking as the most valuable qualities for survival and leadership. Despite the fact that many of the tales are beast fables, the underlying virtues are human ones—especially the emphasis on...

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