The Novella before Boccaccio

The novella, or short story, is the oldest of fictional genres, having among its ancestors the anecdote, the fable and the moral tale. In the Middle Ages, there were two basic sources of inspiration at the base of the prose novella: the tales from the Orient and the Christian exemplum. Though the oral tradition was indeed strong in the Middle Ages, the establishment of a dependable chronology relies on the distribution of written texts. Several Oriental texts (such as tales from the Panchatantra, The Thousand and One Nights, the Brihat Katha cycle and Barlaam and Josaphat) had already been significantly diffused in Greek, Hebrew and Latin translations by the 12th century.

The exemplum, a tale designed to teach the correctness of thought or behavior, is an extrapolation of the adage or the sententia and has its roots in homiletic texts and Christian sermons. The story is structured generally around an example of behavior which was either positive and praised or evil and criticized. The Christian exempla and the Oriental tradition of framed collections of short narratives merged in the early 12th century in the very influential Disciplina clericalis. This is a work comprising didactic examples within the frame tale of a dialogue between father and son and was well known to both rich and poor. In the 13th century, another collection appeared of a more prosaic nature which was known as The Seven Sages of Rome, or Il libro dei sette savi. It comprises a series of moralizing tales set into a frame in which a young man is faced with a death sentence and receives instruction on the right and wrong ways to behave.

The evolution of exempla into what we could fairly call novelle comes about primarily in Tuscany as a result of a period of re-elaboration and fusion of exempla into existing tales, hagiography, Provençal vidas, French fabliaux and lais, regional and classical legends, and fabulae milesiacae. Most well known among these new Tuscan novelle are those found in the anonymous Novellino (also known as Il libro di novelle et di bel parlar gientile or the Cento novelle antiche), written presumably between 1280 and 1300. In it, alongside the expected didactic slant already present in earlier compilations, are stories which exalt the power of wit and intellect and celebrate humor in and of itself. Though there is no frame in the formal sense, the author's style lends a unifying element to the diverse stories which have been taken, decontextualized, and rewoven into a new, autonomous work which stands alone as the most significant single source of inspiration for the Decameron.

(G. M. & M. P.) Adapted from Novelle italiane. Il Duecento. Il Trecento. ed. Lucia Battaglia Ricci (Milano: Garzanti, 1982) and Robert J. Clements and Joseph Gibaldi, Anatomy of the Novella. The European Tale Collection from Boccaccio and Chaucer to Cervantes (New York: NYUP, 1977).

Other Pages in Literature: Narratology and Structural Exegesis