Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168

Giovanni Boccaccio took a minor incident in the story of the Trojan War and made it the center of his story. Geoffrey Chaucer is indebted to Boccaccio for Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382). Though The Filostrato contains none of the psychological portraiture of Chaucer’s work, it has great literary merit and is probably superior to Chaucer’s work in its directness and passionate intensity.

The Filostrato, from a word coined by Boccaccio meaning “the one who is vanquished by love,” contains many of the traditional courtly love elements found in medieval romance, but it also develops a worldview based upon moral standards that are new to the genre. It can thus be seen as a transitional work, bridging the medieval and Renaissance periods.

One factor distinguishing Boccaccio from earlier writers of medieval romance is that he represents the bourgeois class that was a decisive force in the dissolution of the Middle Ages. His attitude toward courtly love is thus quite different from the mystical orientation of such writers as Dante Alighieri or the aristocratic tradition of the writers of French romances such as Chrétien de Troyes.

An indication of the new manner in which Boccaccio approaches courtly love can be found in the particular way in which he transforms the tale of Troilus (Troilo) and Cressida (Griseida) as originally found in the Roman de Troie of Benoît de Saint-Maure, who lived during the twelfth century. The story as narrated by Benoît was within the tradition of the medieval epic and represents a masculine and military orientation in which the prowess of arms plays the primary role. Women and love, if they appear at all, are of only secondary importance. When Benoît describes love, his emphasis is on Troilus and Diomede, and not on Cressida. Indeed, his story appears to be that of Diomede rather than of Troilus (Troilo). Boccaccio took the basic plot of Benoît and transformed it for his own purpose.

This purpose is related in the poem to The Filostrato, in which Boccaccio indicates that he will narrate the suffering of Troilo so that the lady to whom the poem is addressed will understand that Boccaccio himself is suffering as Troilo suffered. This lady is generally acknowledged to have been Maria d’Aquino, the natural daughter of the king of Naples, who absented herself from Naples, where Boccaccio was then residing. The Filostrato was designed to function as a love letter. This may have been an extraliterary reason for Boccaccio’s amplification of the role of Pandarus (Pandaro). The purpose of the work was to seduce Maria (and cause her to return to Naples) as Pandarus helps to seduce Cressida.

Superficially, The Filostrato appears to be a conventional tale of courtly love, and many familiar conceits associated with the tradition of courtly love are in evidence. The work opens in a courtly setting with the presentation of questions in a court of love. Love enters through the eyes in “the fair season.” Griseida is described as being “so fair and so like an angel.” Troilo is depicted as being ennobled by love; he becomes a more fierce and vigorous fighter against the Greeks because of the love bestowed upon him by Griseida. Troilo suffers—he is pale, lacks appetite, loses sleep, and becomes weak.

Boccaccio places particular emphasis on the courtly love doctrine of nobility as residing not in noble birth but in a noble heart. Since Boccaccio was a member of the bourgeoisie and was attempting to make his way in the royal court of Naples, this view was of personal interest. Nobility is depicted as based upon virtue, not power. Although of a lower social rank than Troilo, Griseida is considered worthy of his love because of her “proud and noble bearing . . . high worth and courtly speech . . . manner more courteous than those of other ladies.”

Despite the presence of these traditional courtly love elements, other aspects of the tradition are contradicted within the poem. For example, the purpose of love is not ennoblement but satisfaction of Troilo’s “hot desire.” Griseida understands (as Boccaccio hoped Maria would understand) the true purpose of the courtship. She is outside the courtly love tradition, not because of her later betrayal but because of her easy seduction. The danger and barriers that confound the lover in a typical medieval romance are missing. Troilo, unlike the heroes of the medieval romances of Chrétien de Troyes, does not have to prove himself by submitting himself to constant danger. His love is unearned and too easily won. Troilo recognizes this when he states that “what I crave has not been earned by my service.”

Boccaccio is not concerned with ennobling Troilo, however, but with telling of his passion. He wishes Maria to understand from the tale “how great and of what sort my desires are, what is their goal, and what beyond all else they crave.” Like Troilo, Boccaccio is concerned with making his love known to his lady and drawing her to him. If his lady should fail to understand, he addresses her directly in the invocation to canto 3 and requests that she “refuse not my high desire; graciously grant that which I ask.”

The noble purpose of courtly love is lacking, and so is the moral lesson. Boccaccio makes no distinction between earthly love and heavenly love. Boccaccio’s salvation will come from his lady and not from heaven. The song of Troilo, dedicated to Venus, reinforces the recognition that Boccaccio is not conflating earthly and heavenly love. He is not rejecting religious values; they merely have no place within the context of his work.

The lack of a palinode in The Filostrato is thus not surprising. The palinode is the recantation of earthly love and the reassertion of the supreme value of heavenly love found at the conclusion of many traditional medieval romances. Its purpose is to remind the reader that although courtly love may be supreme on this earth, heavenly love is always preferable. Courtly love is, therefore, generally placed within a framework of religious values. Since Boccaccio’s narrative is based solely upon worldly values, there is no need to recant. Boccaccio’s only warning to the reader is presented not as a moral lesson but as a practical lesson, in keeping with the practical tone of his poem. He advises young men to place their love in ladies of true nobility, that is, ladies who will not betray them.

Although Boccaccio in The Filostrato utilizes the conventions of courtly love for a purely sensual end, this should not suggest that he could not write tales completely within a courtly tradition. One has only to turn to the fifth day of Decameron (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620) to realize with what seriousness Boccaccio could write of courtly love. In The Filostrato, however, Boccaccio can be seen as a transitional figure, already drawing away from the values of the Middle Ages but not completely caught within the values of the Renaissance.

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