Revising literary history: Two UConn professors discuss their modern approaches to historical literature

UConn professor Fred Biggs a discusses influences on famous literary works and their authors, including those of Chaucer on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017 in the Austin building. (Natalija Marosz/The Daily Campus)

Extra chairs needed to be brought into the Stern Lounge in Austin on Wednesday, Oct. 11, to accommodate the number of people who turned out to hear University of Connecticut professors Frederick Biggs and Martha Cutter discuss their recently published books.

Biggs’ text focused around the argument that the “Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer were heavily influenced by the “The Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio, an idea which many critics have spoken out about. Cutter’s book analyzed the exclusion of abolitionist illustrative texts depicting slaves in what she coins a “parallel empathic” light from literature.

“I think it’s really unique that two faculty members who work in such different time periods in literature could put their work together under this theme,” said ninth semester English PhD student Meghan Burns. “There was an interesting overlap and engaging conversation.”

Bigg’s presentation included some background on the major literary figures Chaucer and Boccaccio, pointing out how they both lived in Italy during the same time period, but that historians had no evidence that they had met. He also included some of the beliefs held by other critics. Helen Cooper, for instance, holds the belief that Chaucer had probably read or at least heard of “The Decameron” without owning his own copy while others, such as Warren Ginsberg, argue that Chaucer had no introduction to the text. Biggs, a professor in English and medieval studies here at UConn, provided evidence that shows that Chaucer had been heavily influenced by Boccaccio’s work and likely even owned his own version of “The Decameron.”

This evidence was mostly based in drawing similarities between the two texts. Biggs believes that the first, second and tenth story of the eighth day in “The Decameron,” as well as “The Shipman’s Tale” in the “Canterbury Tales” were closely based on an anonymous Latin verse with a similar plot. He pointed out startling connections between all three works. Boccaccio reworked this one individual folktale about a man bartering for sexual favors into three economic settings, a peasant village, an urban setting and one of international commerce. Chaucer noticed this, as well as the misogynistic undertones of Boccaccio’s stories, and condensed the three retellings back into one in “The Shipman’s Tale.” Biggs also references how the story was probably some of the original influence for “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in “The Canterbury Tales” but did not work because of its misogynistic nature and Chaucer wanted the former to be about women having more freedom over their bodies and economic status.

“There’s no other source for this [connection]. Chaucer must have read these stories and seen what most modern critics fail to,” Biggs said. “What’s fun is when you can make these kinds of direction connections. This is literary history. You can say with absolute certainty that Chaucer was influenced by “The Decameron.” Biggs also included images of the manuscripts for several of the works he discusses in his book, as well as illustrations from the authors themselves, to provide another layer of depth to his argument. His passion and expertise shined through as he discussed these nearly seven centuries-old texts.

Cutter’s book was about a more historically recent literary era and focused on abolitionist literature, primarily. She questioned the lack of representation of empowered and humanistic depictions of slaves in the time period of this literature. Even the people fighting for the abolitionist cause tended to depict slaves as beaten down, bound and pitiful.

Cutter’s presentation was very visual-based as she showed different mediums from the time period, including books, pamphlets, coins and carvings.

One of the main points she made was about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Throughout the novel, Uncle Tom is depicted as almost dependent on a white girl and generally passive rather than active. Yet, this is the abolitionist piece and imagery that most people know about. Some of the lesser known escape narratives, with illustrations of empowered and liberated slaves, are relatively forgotten in our culture despite being so important at the time of their production. Some of the examples Cutter, a professor in English and Africana studies, provided were “The Narrative of Moses Roper,” Henry “Box” Brown and Henry Bibb.

“At what cost [did we exclude these images from our history]?” Cutter asked. “It’s like when people feel good about wearing the pink breast cancer awareness ribbons. Political campaigns become increasingly commercialized and consumerist, which is problematic because it devalues the situation. Like, I don’t want a pink ribbon. I want a cure,” she concluded.

Cutter also introduced the ideas of two different types of empathies evoked by the two different types of slave illustrations: hierarchical empathy, in which pity was invoked in the primarily white audience of the time, or parallel empathy, in which both parties could understand each other and there was more equity. She concluded her discussion by providing some examples of recent movies about slavery and even neo-slave narratives, and how the representations in this long visual legacy are changing but still have a long way to go.

“This talk was so important because it shows that what’s done isn’t really done,” said Burns. “There’s still an ongoing conversation about how literature is produced and where images, allusions and inspiration fit in. It hasn’t all been said yet.”

“Chaucer’s Decameron and the Origin of the Canterbury Tales” by professor Biggs and “The Illustrated Slave: Empathy, Graphic Narrative and the Visual Culture of the Transatlantic Abolition Movement, 1800-1852” are both available now. This book talk was presented by the Committee on Speakers and Symposia, which will be hosting several other events throughout the semester.


Julia Mancini is the associate life editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Julia.mancini@uconn.edu.