Demonstrative examples of early Renaissance literature (Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) made interesting breaks from the literary tradition of Biblical, Medieval, and early Christian literature. These breaks took place chiefly in the areas of sovereignty, ethics (or law), and sanctions. There were breaks in the areas of authority and succession as well. These pieces of literature followed trends of the Renaissance and were closer to Classical Literature in many ways. This sort of outlook was characteristic of the Renaissance, and was exemplified in these classic works of literature.
The divergence of Renaissance literature from Biblical, Christian, and medieval literature, and its closer association with Greek and Roman literature occurred in several areas. The first area, that of sovereignty, was probably the most pronounced area of division between these different types of literature. In the Bible, God was the undisputed sovereign power. This was true in both New Testament and Old Testament literature (however in New Testament Literature Jesus was introduced as co-sovereign with God). He had no equal and no force could resist Him. He was the ultimate source of all sanctions, good and bad. In addition, God as the sovereign operated under a system of ethics, and laid down concrete laws based on His supreme authority. The position of God as sovereign was undisputed in early Christian literature (Augustine’s The City of God, Justin Martyr’s Confessions, etc.). This position was still firm in late medieval literature (e.g. The Song of Roland, and The Little Flowers of St. Francis), where God’s sovereignty over heaven and earth was affirmed many times.
However, in Classical (ancient Greek and Roman) literature, sovereignty was an ambiguous issue. It was never truly clear whether or not Zeus of Greek literature (or Jove/Jupiter, as in the case of Roman literature) was the absolute undisputed sovereign (as God was in the Bible). Sovereignty seems to be divided not only among the many rival gods and goddesses, but also among the Furies and the whims of fortune. The Furies (called the Eumenides by the Greeks) were greatly feared beings who relentlessly pursued vengeance. They were a feature of Aeschylus‘ Oresteia Trilogy, particularly The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. Not even Zeus could stop them. In the conclusion of The Eumenides, they were placated only with an assembly of Athenian citizens, over which the goddess Athena presided. In Roman literature as well Sovereignty did not come from a single source.
Renaissance literature, especially Boccaccio’s The Decameron, was similar to Classical literature in that sovereignty was not concentrated at a central source. In the The Decameron, a set of 100 short stories written in the mid-14th century, fortune and chance were widely invoked in place of God. God was not totally forgotten, however. He was invoked at the beginning of the first novel by one of the story-tellers. The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer also, to a lesser extent, invoked fortune and chance as sovereign figures. This was especially true in The Monk’s Tale, where the story-teller told a series of vignettes in which the rise and fall of historical figures was attributed to the jealousy of fortune. God was not absent, and was a part of the vignettes dealing with Adam, Lucifer, and especially that of Nebuchadnezzar.
The second area is authority, or hierarchy, which deals with the relationships between man and/or God(s) in a hierarchical system. In the Bible, man’s role was very clear: he existed under God and above the rest of creation. Introduced in the New Testament was Jesus, a figure that served as sort of an intermediary between God and man, and the Virgin Mary, who served as an intermediary between man and Jesus. Early Christian literature touched on the importance of hierarchy, calling Christians to obey temporal leaders. In medieval literature, especially The Song of Roland, hierarchy was a central feature; Charlemagne under God, Roland and the other barons under Charlemagne, the soldiers under the barons, etc. In The Little Flowers, St. Francis’ whole religious order was founded on hierarchy. Renaissance literature (mostly The Decameron) was influenced by the Black Death, which uprooted traditional hierarchical systems. This is illustrated in Boccaccio’s gripping account of the Plague at the beginning of The Decameron.
Third are ethics and law, the later being very carefully laid out in the Bible. This law was the basis for ethical conduct, and had to be obeyed. Ethics was of no small importance in the Bible, and was, in conjunction with law, the basis for all conduct. In medieval literature law was very central. In many cases the issue rested on who’s law one took, the good or the bad, the Saracens’ or the Christians, as in The Song of Roland; Rome’s or the Christians’, as in St. Augustine and Justin Martyr; and the world’s or the Friars’, as in The Little Flowers. In Classical literature, ethics seemed absent, at least among the gods. They did whatever they pleased, whenever they pleased, with no concern for proper ethical conduct as laid out by any law. Law was ambiguous, and ethics were erratic.
In The Decameron all systems of law broke down as a result of the Plague, and subsequently all ethical practice. The only remaining system to live by was natural human reason, employed by the seven young women taking refuge in the church. In some of The Canterbury Tales law and ethics took very erratic and unexpected turns. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, a knight of King Arthur raped a young maiden, and was sentenced to death by the royal court. The ladies of the court intervened, and said that if the knight could answer a riddle, he would live. The riddle was “what do women want?”. With the help of an ugly old women (in exchange for an unspecified favor), he said that women want authority over men. This answer was acceptable to the women of the court, who let him go. The favor the old woman asked was for the knight to marry her, which he did after she turned into a beautiful young woman, and they lived happily ever after. This tale is an example of a crazy ethical system that did not permeate The Canterbury Tales, but was present in some of the stories.
Fourth is the area of sanctions. Again, starting with the Bible, sanctions came from an ethically predictable source: God alone. In medieval literature, sanctions were also based on God’s law. The defeat of the Saracens in The Song of Roland came as a direct sanction from God for not following His law, to take one example. Just as ethics and sovereignty were random, so were sanctions in Classical literature. There was never a single undisputed source of sanctions in Classical literature because there was never a single undisputed source of sovereignty. Gods, goddesses, Fates, Furies or fortune were all possible sources.
In Boccaccio’s account of the Plague, it is an open question whether this horrible sanction came from God or from some other source. The sanctions were so random and unpredictable during the Plague that people began to question things. They questioned Christianity, the Church, and even God. This new outlook was prevalent in the Renaissance, and subsequently its literature. In The Monk’s Tale, fortune was the source of many sanctions, not God.
Finally, the fifth area of divergence, that of succession. In Biblical literature there is concrete sanction of succession and inheritance, or eternal life, for the righteous who obey God’s ethically based law. There is also the sanction of disinheritance, or damnation, for the sinners. Early Christian literature was unconcerned with the success of Christianity in history, but was concerned with its far more important success in eternity.
In The Decameron’s account of the Plague there was no promise of succession because the disease wiped out family lines and killed heirs. In the actual stories there was little concern for the future, just the immediate present. The idea of the importance of the “here and now” was a common feature of the Renaissance. Concern for success in eternity shifted to concern for success in history. The poet Petrarch (1304-1374) was extremely concerned about gaining worldly fame as a sort of immortality, not dissimilar to the poets of Rome who sought immortality through their work.
The Renaissance and its literature was marked by a closer association with the ideas and outlook of the Classical world. The Black Death had called into question many undisputed beliefs of the medieval period and earlier, and paved the way away from the concrete sovereignty, ethics, and sanctions of the Christian world. What the main difference between Renaissance and Classical literature and Biblical and Christian literature boiled down to is the relationship between sovereignty, ethics, and sanctions. In Renaissance an Classical literature sovereignty was not necessarily based in ethics, whereas in Biblical and Christian literature sovereignty was firmly rooted in ethical principle, for God can do no evil, only ethical good. Sovereignty and sanctions were not directly related in Renaissance and Classical literature, because sanctions did not necessarily come from one sovereign source, they came from either God(s), fate, or fortune, none of which were totally sovereign. Christian literature had sanctions come directly from God, the one sovereign source. Ethics and sanctions were not related as related in Renaissance literature, and were definitely not related in Classical literature. Gods and goddesses administered positive and negative sanctions regardless of any ethical laws. In Biblical literature sanctions came as a direct result of either the breaking of God’s ethically grounded laws, or adherence to them. The Renaissance marked a breakaway from the predictable and constant system of Christianity, and an embrace of the strange and random system of the Classical world.