The Dark Ages were the victory of barbarism over classical civilization. The Middle Ages were the epoch during which, having been converted, the barbarians slowly civilized themselves with the help of the church and of the surviving fragments of classical culture. The Renaissance meant the enlargement of that growing civilization. That growth required a recapture of Greek and Latin texts and heritage on a scale not seen for a thousand years. It would link the two great cultures of Classical antiquity to the greatest extent since the partition of the Roman Empire and it would do so just as the Roman East crumbled into oblivion. It is important to note the Renaissance was not a lightning event or a flash flood. It was, as the name suggests, a birth and in its infancy, it required the greatest care and nurture, for it was fragile. We shall look at three men who’s work was pivotal at this early stage – Petrarch, Boccacio, and Chaucer. The two former names were both Italians who had a second home in France, the latter is England’s great bard of the middle ages, who renewed English literature with classical enthusiasm not seen since Alfred the Great.


Francesco Petrarcha (1304-1374) belongs to the generation after Dante, though the differences between the two are striking, and highlight the divergence of culture that was occurring in Italy as the fourteenth century progressed. Petrarch did not care for Dante, finding his Italian overly austere. The relationship between Dante and Petrarch mirrors that of Virgil and Ovid: Petrarch is the younger, as is Ovid. Both saw the great poets of their childhood briefly, before attempting to spend their life outdoing their

Petrarch Face
Petrarch: At once felt himself above Dante and yet perennially in his shadow

seniors. Both would write with greater grace and less depth. Dante was inward looking, always wishing to return to the Florence from which he was exiled. Petrarch, having been born in exile, was outward looking, a citizen of the world and a keen wanderer.

Petrarch’s legacy is as much in his image as the first Renaissance man as it is in his poetry. His is the well-stocked head with a better stocked- library, the ideal personified in Montaigne, Ronsard, Johnson, Goethe, Voltaire, Milton, Tennyson, and many more. Petrarch found, published, and popularized many of the works that would go into such libraries, and would do so by an incessant belief in the greatness of the classics. He visited places as disparate as Liege and Verona searching fore fragments of Cicero. The interest he garnered inspired others, such as Coluccio Salutati. Petrarch would plunge into Cicero with inexhaustible enthusiasm, and he would model himself on the Ciceronian ideal: admirable as an artist, stimulating as a thinker, lovable as a man.

Petrarch was never one to tire or be tempted by idle leisure. He had his mission – to renew the vigour of Greece and Rome to the European mind – and this truly was a life’s ambition. He was found dead in his library, stooping over a book. In philosophy he gravitated more toward Plato than Dante’s Aristotle, and was altogether a much less devout character, though still an ardent Christian.

In his works Petrarch strove to imitate the ancients – in his Africa, a Latin Virgilian epic on Scipio, he imitated the Mantuan technically closer than Dante, though with less success overall. Petrarch would explore Horace in much finer detail than Dante, quoting his odes freely. He also knew the Latin dramatists to a far greater extent -the tragedies of Seneca, the comedies of Terrence and Plautus. On Greek writers, one need only compare the relatively poor number of Greek writers in Dante’s Comedy to Petrarch’s Triumphs.

Why, then, are none of Petrarch’s works as renowned as the Comedy of Dante? An obvious reason is Petrarch’s insistence on Latin as his poetic language of choice. In his Africa he uses the language to follow closely the classical forms. In fact, he follows it almost too closely. This was the difficulty Renaissance poets, including Milton, would come across again and again. The use of a modern language, with its infusion of modern grammatical tricks and expressions, will allow and facilitate greater imagination to a poem built on existing classical lines. The use of Latin will always raise the question: are these original works of art, or are they plaster casts? To succeed on the level of Dante and Shakespeare, one required a self-realised creative imagination along with a unique synthesis with the classics. Their creativity captures a Graeco-Roman spirit that cannot be achieved by imitation alone. It is notable Petrarch did not publish his Africa, just as Ronsard would also fail to complete his French Aeneid, a similar plaster cast. The restricted sense with which they began their projects, seems to have had a restrictive effect in its completion.

A more original Petrarchan work is his Eclogues, modelled as they are on Virgil’s Bucolics, though his most interesting work is the group of dialogues he called his Secret, in which he talks to St Augustine about his own character. The dialogue is itself a classic form, its tradition stemming from Plato, through Cicero, and culminating with Boethius. The latter’s Lady Philosophy can clearly be seen in Petrarch’s Lady Truth. His choice of Augustine show Petrarch’s medieval tendencies – his pre-occupation with damnation, his distrust for his romantic feelings for Laura – and yet his acute self-examination and physical sensitivity are modern appendages. He sees both medieval Europe and Renaissance Europe, and encapsulates the torment of the fourteenth century Italian scholar well in this regard. His love for Laura cannot be curbed, however, and it is interesting that his sweet lyrics written to her, his Canzoniere, are written in Italian, not Latin. In them there is a romantic spirit which exuded down the centuries, eventually finding a fiery musical form in Liszt. After her death, he sought to immortalise her as Dante had done his Beatrice. The resulting work is Petrarch’s Triumphs. The poems describe a succession of triumphal processions modelled on those of the Roman conquerors: Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, Eternity.

Petrarch’s greatness is held less in the works as solitary achievements than in conjunction with Petrarch’s own life and times. He was recognised with a laureateship in 1341, only the second since antiquity, and the first to have conferred in Rome. As a renewal of a Roman ceremony, it was a powerful aesthetic moment that glorified the Roman tradition and imbued Europe with a belief in the invigorating force of classical revival. It was a time of stirring political rejuvenation as well, and Petrarch had among his friends the famous Roman revolutionary Cola Di Rienzo, who was crowned tribune and Augustus some years later, and proclaimed a Roman Republic. But political reform was only tentative compared to the spiritual regeneration that was sprouting around the Italian peninsula. Petrarch is inextricable from this process, and such his legacy as a great poet and scholar whose work was critical to the humanist movement that came after his time.


Giovanni Boccaccio was born in 1313, was an illegitimate son of a French girl and an Italian banker. As such he was fused with the French love of fabliau romance and chicanery and the Italian boisterous bravado. He was a contemporary of Petrarch, and they corresponded frequently. Boccaccio gave Petrarch a copy of Dante, and Petrarch’s last work was a Latin translation of Boccaccio’s Patien Griselda. His major works are his Fiammetta and his Decameron. The former is a psychological novel constructed from a mind mourning the loss of his love, Maria d’Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of Kind Robert of Naples, to the black death in 1348. His heroine wonders of the fate of her lover, and compares her situation with many of her ancient predecessors – Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido, Io. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is again a clear influence. Indeed, Ovidian morality is also present – when Fiammetta yields to her lover it is after consultation, not with God or the Virgin Mary, but with Venus, dressed seductively with only a thin dress.


The plague was also the inspiration for his other famous work. The Decameron is a group of stories in Italian prose of adventure, love, and trickery told by seven ladies and three gentlemen who have fled the plague-ridden city to a rural safe-house. The format is without an obvious classical precedent, in Plato’s Symposium the group make rival speeches, in Petronius they chat at random. Boccaccio’s inspiration is hodge-podge – an element of Oriental caravanserais here, a dash of medieval fabliaux there, and a sprinkling of contemporary anecdotal influence across the board. The style, with its harmonious and complex rhythm, is evidently Ciceronian. Its characters show cynicism, if not contempt, for the established clergy, indicative of the republican idealism of the likes of Rienzi at the time.

In poetry Boccaccio’s major contributions are his Theseid, which he modelled off Virgil., and his Filistrato, which is his retelling of Troilus and Cressida, whose part in the flourishing literature of middle age Romance has been previously discussed. Like Dante, Boccaccio chose to write in Italian rather than Latin, and his meter is Provencal in origin,

La Fiammetta
La Fiammetta by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Boccaccio’s muse found her admirers down the centuries

an eight-line stanza ABABABCC. Both poems resonated strongly with Chaucer, and are responsible for much of continental filtration into English literature through England’s medieval poet.

As with Petrarch, Boccaccio’s writing was inseparable to his scholarship. He mastered Greek through the help of Calabrian Leontius Pilatus, and translated Homer. He found many lost classics, including a valuable manuscript of Tacitus. He taught Dante in Santo Stefano in 1373, and settled down in later life, to devote his time to reading and scholarship, as Petrarch had done. His change of attitude can be considered to orient around his conversion to Christianity in 1361, ditching his earlier pagan beliefs. But his reaction away from moral Christianity, as found in his Fiammetta and Decameron is a part of a sub-tradition of classical influence. He had built it upon the pre-existing Ovidian French love-poems, as well as a scholarly belief that the Graeco-Roman morality was a freer and more realistic interpretation of the facts of life than stringent Catholicism. He didn’t want austere, he wanted positive and happy. He didn’t want otherworldliness, he craved what was purely human. The battle between worldviews would rage down the centuries – the pagan advocate Shelley, the Christian advocate Tolstoy, the torn Matthew Arnold. Boccaccio was as torn as the rest of us, but his expression of it in his unique literary form is what gives his name relevance.


English literature had not advanced much since the days of Alfred. It had faced invasion from the Danes and then the Normans, who brought with them complications and war resulting from French held territory. It had faced succession struggles, civil wars, and an absent crusading king in the form of Richard Lionheart. It was an England that needed great literary re-imagination. This would come just as France was going through its own literary ebb during the Black Death and Hundred Years War which dominated its countryside during the fourteenth century.

Chaucer:  English poet with his pulse on continental trends 

The Provencal troubadours had been put down with the Albigensian heresy during the crusades. France produced nothing of note bar the historian Froissart. England, too, had its men on the battlefield, and its fair share of the black death, but it also developed quite a serene sense of character, a strange effect of fighting the hundred years war was its remarkable ability to solidify exactly what it meant to be English. It would was exemplified in literary form by Chaucer.

What sets Chaucer as the first great English poet is down partly due to his popular style, partly due to his understanding and insight into English Middle Age life, but also partly due to the fact he was well-connected to a continent brimming with renewed interest in the classics. He knew Europe and was enthused by it. His fascination with Italian would become an English tradition – as seen in Milton, Byron, and Browning. Examples of Chaucer’s Italian influence in his work are as follows:

  1. A part translation of The Romance of the Rose
  2. His Troilus and Cressida, modelled on Boccaccio’s Filostrato
  3. The House of Fame, inspired by Dante’s Comedy
  4. The Knight’s Tale, the greatest of his Canterbury Tales, had elements of Boccaccio’s Theseid

His Canterbury Tales have right, through them, shades of Boccaccio’s Decameron. He takes one story Patient Griselda of the Clerk’s Tale from it, though he seems to have used Petrarch’s Latin translation, unable to get a hand on Boccaccio’s original. He knew Dante well, and has the Wife of Bath quote him by name:

Wel can the wyse poete of Florence,

That highte Dante, speken in this sentence;

Lo in swich maner rym is Dantes tale:

‘Fuls selde up ryseth by his branches smale

Prowesse of man; for god, of his goodnesse,

Wol that of him we clayme our gentilesse.’

His classical knowledge is not without mistake, however, and he often claims greater knowledge than he has. The most egregious of these mistakes is his Maximus Lollius, whom he claims has writtena history of Troy, and introduces in his House of Fame as a genuine historian. The confusion stems from a mistranslation or misreading of Horace’s Epistle:

The writer of the Trojan war, Maximus Lollius,

While you practised speaking in Rome, I reread at Praeneste

Horace was addressing the letter to Lollius. The writer of the Trojan was of which he was talking was likely Homer. The use of Maximus meaning ‘greatest’ is playful humour on Horace’s behalf, meant in a half-mocking tone to a youth who no doubt had great pretentions about himself. Fittingly so did Chaucer.

He knew Ovid best, and Dryden saw many similarities between the two poets, they were both ‘well bred, well read, amorous, and libertine’. Chaucer knew the Metamorphoses well, and even uses Ovid’s lesser work, The Heroides, as an influence, as well as referencing the Roman’s Art of Love, and Cures for Love. He knew Virgil’s Aeneid, though found the hero’s sense of duty somewhat stifling. His philosophy, like so many other writers at the time, had inspiration from Boethius, as seen in The Ballad of Good Counsel.

Her nis non hoom, her nis but wildernesse:

Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!

Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al…

Chaucer also knew Statius, and the late Latin poet Claudian’s Rape of Proserpine; of Cicero he knew the Dream of Scipio and based The Parliament of Fowls on his understanding of it. He mentions Seneca, though likely only knew isolated passages. All his Senecan quotes from The Tale of Melibeus are taken from The Book of Consolation and Counsel by Albertano of Brescia (1246). He mentions Valerius Flaccus, and mentions Juvenal twice. Of contemporary Latin writers, he was fond of Boccaccio’s Genealogy of the Gods and Beauvais’ Mirror of History.

Poets Corner
Poet’s Corner: Chaucer (far left) was the first to be buried as such in Westminster Abbey

We mentioned earlier that he knew the classics, he knew Europe, and he knew the classics. He knew them because they were what interested him, with his ‘Europe’ as we put it being largely the courtly life of French and Italian romantic love-poetry. Like Boccaccio, he became more devoutly Christian with age, and is worthy of his place as the first poet in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. No other character of the time could meld the English folk-tale method with classical and continental style and grace on the level of Chaucer. Every now and then, a man will stand head and shoulders above his countrymen in a particular field and show the international sphere that his corner of the world is ready to do its part. Chaucer fulfilled this role for English literature. Yes, Dante may have been a greater figure, and Chaucer was not entirely alone as a skilful poet in England (there was the author of Piers Plowman), but it was Chaucer who would set the classically trained English poet in motion. For that we are indebted.

Ready for the Renaissance

Such were the last figures stepping out of the middle ages of literature and into the coming light during the fourteenth century. From fertile Italy, who could now boast Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio amongst its own, to Chaucer on fair Albion a direct line of classically trained literature stretched across Western Europe with a growing sense of purpose. Manuscripts were being discovered, printed, and published and translators were working hard to popularise the ancient texts to audiences who otherwise would have remained immortally ignorant. It is to these tireless translators we now turn our attention.