Popular literature typically reflects the viewpoints of its society. Greek and Roman literature portrayed hundreds of gods who hated mankind and had to be appeased. The Bible depicted one God who controlled everything, was perfect, and who rewards those who served him by doing good. Medieval literature, with its Judeo-Christian basis, depicts God the same way. On the other hand, Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was written during the time of the Black Death, praises God at the start, but the rest of the book seems to imply that God isn’t in charge. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was written about fifty years after the Black Death, depicts many different viewpoints: some believe in God, some don’t.
So, what view of the gods did ancient Greek and Roman literature have at its core? Both depicted a system with hundreds of gods. Zeus was the head of the gods, but some claimed he didn’t possess infinite power; Hesiod’s Theogony implies that even Zeus can’t change the minds of the fates.
Every god in the Greek and Roman world used different laws, so in most cases, an individual would have to break one god’s laws in order to serve another god’s laws. Every city-state (a state the size of a city) worshiped a particular god so that the city would always be protected provided the citizens appeased the god they worshiped.
These gods had no morals. Zeus raped several women. The gods hated each other in most cases. The gods couldn’t be trusted. They saw humans as playthings.
Man’s court system in Greek and Roman society had significant authority because the gods would usually disagree. In the Oresteia, a Greek play, a man has to kill his father’s murderers because of Apollo, but then the furies want to kill him, so the entire dispute is settled via trial by jury which finds him not guilty.
Most Greek and Roman literature gave very little reason to hope. This reflected the decline of Rome. Most writers of the time, including Hesiod and Ovid, agreed that there were several ages of mankind and each age got steadily worse.
Christian and Biblical literature asserted that there was one God. His laws were simple. He rewarded those who served him and punished evil doers. The literature stated what God defined as good and evil. Serving God and keeping his commandment was good. Serving any other “god” was considered evil. Basic morality was stressed heavily.
Christian literature always looked towards the resurrection at the end of time and believed that the afterlife would be better than this life and any suffering endured in this life to serve God would be worth it.
Some Christian literature directly attacked Roman religion. For instance, Justin the Martyr’s First Apology (“Apology” means explanation in this case), which was to Titus Augustus Caesar, but really designed for Christians, shows that Rome’s head deity, Zeus, was evil by all standards. Zeus committed one of the worst crimes possible by killing his father according to mythology.
What did early Renaissance society believe? Boccaccio’s Decameron begins by praising God, and then destroys the idea that God rules, throughout the rest of the book. The events of the book occur during the Black Death. Everyone died, from the poor to the wealthy, the young to the old, and from the clergy to the worst sinners. Boccaccio then appears to claim that random chance controls everything. After he finished his prologue, he gets to the heart of his book. Ten people take refuge in a church, and then decide to leave the city and flee to the country because of the Black Death. One character claims that reason should be in charge since everyone keeps dying. The characters reach an abandoned villa and decide to tell stories all day for ten days. Almost every story they tell is either an attack on the church or involves adultery. Boccaccio likely included the initial praise of the Church so the inquisition wouldn’t kill him. His viewpoint of chance controlling everything is much closer to ancient Greek and Roman literature than early Christian literature.
What about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? First, it doesn’t seem to have any consistent messages. The events depicted in this book focus on a group of people on a pilgrimage. This group decides to hold a storytelling contest. One story praises God and Mary. Another claims fortune controls everything. Another claims nature rules all. The Tales claim the evil are punished in one story, and then in another story, an evil man gets off scot free. Every story has a different viewpoint. This may have described society, everyone had a different viewpoint; some people believed in God, others in fortune, and others in nature. Chaucer never finished the Canterbury Tales so he may have just been laying out a bunch of different viewpoints while planning to make his viewpoint clearly superior at the end of the book. No one knows for sure if the Canterbury Tales were against the Church or not, however it seems to show society as drifting away from God.
How does all this literature of various time periods compare? Greek and Roman literature had so many gods, no one could serve all of them. Morality wasn’t valued by the gods. The gods didn’t care about humans very much. In pre-Renaissance Christian literature, God cared about those who served him. He had a specific set of commands and rewarded those who followed them. God controlled everything. Within 400 years from the writing of Song of Roland, society had done a complete 180. The Black Death and the writing of the Decameron marked this transition. The Decameron claimed that chance controls everything and an individual should just do what they feel like whether it’s right or wrong. This is clearly unchristian. The Canterbury Tales seems to compare society which, in general, didn’t serve God. The Decameron and the Canterbury Tales are closer in viewpoint to Greek and Roman literature than Christian literature.