Chaucer’s meditations on the recording, rewriting and understanding of history occur in the context of a struggle between the dominant sacred view of history as a providential, divinely superintended plan and an emergent secular historiography that sought its own internal logic of causation for the events of history. While the late medieval historiographical and epistemological struggles are visible in many of Chaucer’s writings — and prominently in the tales of the classical past, Troilus, Anelida and the ‘Knight’s Tale’ — nowhere in Chaucer’s oeuvre is the conflict between sacred and secular models of history dramatized so directly as in the under-appreciated ‘Monk’s Tale’. Its self-conscious staging of divergent historiographical worldviews is most clearly demonstrated in the discord between the text’s form and its speaker. As a series of tragic histories of great men (and a single great woman), it was inspired by Boccaccio’s virulently democratic and anti-monarchist De casibus virorum illustrium (On the Fates of Illustrious Men, 1355–74), a title which serves as the incipit to the ‘Monk’s Tale’ in many manuscripts.
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