Robert W Hanning – Stories for an Uncertain World
13 April @ 19:00 - 20:30 CESTFree
The social fabric of human communities is woven primarily from the creation, transmission, and reception of stories. Is it merely an accident that Western Europe’s two greatest tale collections originated within a long generation of each other, or is there something important we can learn about the culture of late medieval European civilization from a comparison of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1350s) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1380s-early 1390s)? In fact, for all their differences, the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales frequently align in telling “stories for an uncertain world”—a world shown to be challenged by radical uncertainties of knowledge, perception, and strategy, and lacking the serene comfort of faith in Divine Providence so often thought to characterize the medieval centuries. A comparison of passages, and stories, from both collections suggests instead that the necessary and proper response to their world is to deploy skills of calculation and deliberation that generate deeds, and supporting words, designed to control, as much as is possible, life’s ever changing circumstances. Seen from this perspective, the frequent goal in these wonderfully told tales is not salvation but agency, and the appropriate virtue, rather than holiness, is a modified version of what Aristotle called “practical wisdom” (phrónesis) and we, following Cicero, call prudence (prudentia).
Robert W. Hanning, Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, holds degrees from Columbia and Oxford. Recipient of Guggenheim, ACLS, NEH, and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships, he gave the New Chaucer Society’s Biennial Chaucer Lecture in 1998 at the Sorbonne. He has published three books on classical, medieval, and Renaissance subjects and has co-translated two major medieval French texts. His monograph, “Stories for an Uncertain World: Agency in Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,” is to be published by Oxford University Press.