View My Stats

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Warning against Reductive Interpretation of Ancient Auctoritas : Interpretation of Sources in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women

[written as a seminar paper for Fall semester 2013 at WMU]

            It matters aesthetically and historically, therefore, to grasp the ambivalent and
            multiply nuanced Chaucerian attitude toward women, its distance from a 
            simplistic or essentialist misogyny that would portray women - "Woman"
            as inherently passive or inherently wicked (Delaney 188).

Chaucer wrote the unfinished Legend of Good Women in approximately 1386, after Troilus and Criseyde but before the Canterbury Tales (Delaney 34). The style is rather like that of hagiography, not only because it is a list of women that fit an ideal, but because these women have been martyred, not for religion, but for the ideals of love (Delaney 60). The tales of Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Lucretia/Lucrece, Hypsipyle and Madea, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis and Hypermnestra are paraded out and altered to demonstrate how these sources can foster an understanding of how faithless men are and how many women have been martyred for love. As Sheila Delaney, author of The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, has noted above, this text presents a complicated image of women, despite its title and the mandate given to the narrator in the Prologue to present only good women. While it is a text about women, it is also a text about texts. In fact, while his characterization of women is important, often the women are metaphors for texts. Truly, the Legend is a text about sources, or about the works that Chaucer adapts to convey truths to his audience. The Riverside Chaucer, in the introduction to Troilus and Criseyde, calls Chaucer a kind of historiographer, presenting the pre-existing Troilus and Criseyde legend to his English audience (471). In the Legend of Good Women Chaucer is dealing with fallout from that distinction. Jamie Fumo has described Troilus and Criseyde as ‘haunting’ at least the Legend of Good Women’s Prologue (Fumo 167). Lisa Kiser, author of Telling Classical Tales: Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women, states that ultimately, Chaucer, “in actually producing the stories in the legendary, … succeeds in parodying some of the ways in which classical fiction was commonly ‘modernized’ to conform to fourteenth-century tastes” (Kiser 93). The stories themselves are altered substantially from their original forms, so that they could be characterized as unfaithful representations, and they emphasize the theme of ‘misreading’ taken up from the Prologue. However, the repeated emphasis on the sources for the story, and drawing attention to the place of the narrator in constructing the stories, as well as being able to compile stories that do contain women devastated in love, does show the value in using these ancient sources to frame discussions about topical concerns, such as love or honor. Just as women are neither wholly wicked or wholly good, even in a collection of stories about ‘good women,’ the interpretation of ancient sources to tell modern tales is useful, while being fraught with pitfalls for those who seek to be too reductive in their interpretations.
As James Dean, looking at Chaucer’s use of the past, has noted:
There can be no doubt that the English fourteenth century possessed a strong sense of the past, a feeling for history and its bearing on the present. … Chaucer in his works concerned himself with history, mutability, and changes in customs from pagan antiquity to the Christian era and his own times (Dean 401).
Since Chaucer is not the only one who is concerned with how classical precedents affect current proceedings, choosing classical tales for the legendary is particularly appropriate. Classical sources are well known, and so are used as exempla often. Biblical sources would seem an obvious choice if you are going to make a legend about good women, but not if you are going to critique the way that the sources can be interpreted. The same impulse may account for Chaucer’s tendency to stays away from overtly referring to contentious contemporary subjects, such as the uprising of 1381, and possibly, in this context, contemporary women (Philips 101). Chaucer, in works like Troilus and Criseyde, is clearly interested in how these classical sources can be made relevant for modern audiences and how they can be used to express his truths and read for the truths they contain. But they are also appropriate subject matter for this legendary because of the way that they could, and no doubt had, been interpreted or reduced by his contemporaries and their pre-existing position in a learned tradition: Kiser says that “the medieval urge to alter, gloss, allegorize, and edit classical narrative – in other words, the desire to intervene between it and its readers to clarify its usefulness – is rejected by Chaucer in favor of respectful preservation of the ‘doctrine of these olde wyse’” (Kiser 146).
                Ironically, in a text about how authoritative sources can be, there is not necessarily an authoritative, definitive version of the Legend. The Prologue has two variants. G exists in one manuscript, while F exists in several (Delaney 34). Much of the earlier criticism was about what relation the Prologues had to each other (Delaney 35). It is generally accepted that F has priority, though that doesn’t mean that one or the other has more authority (Quinn 2). They are printed side by side in all three ‘Cambridge Editions’ with F given priority by being placed on the left (Quinn 28). They are both “famously, concerned with auctoritas and the textual tradition of ‘olde approved stories’ (F 21),” though the different texts do present different ways of understanding the relationship of sources to people who interpret them (Warren 83).
Both Prologues opens with an epistemological discussion of how we know what we do about heaven and hell (Delaney 44). Since no man of this ‘countre’ has seen it, the divine is revealed to us through authorities and “For by assay ther may no man it preve/ But God forbade but men shulde leve/ Wel more thing then men men han seen with ye!”(F 9-11, G 9-11). This is phrased in terms of religion; it is evident to Chaucer’s audience that, unless we are privee to divine revelation ourselves, we must rely on ancient authorities in matters of religion. However, in this context ‘countre’ (or ‘countree’ in Prologue F) also refers to Chaucer’s England. Delaney shows us that this is not the only reference to the English audience, referring to daisies and Wycliff and other in text clues (Delaney 230). The Legend of Good Women contains tales ancient stories that are removed from Chaucer and his audience by time and by geography. There is no way to know the truth of these tales than through the authorities who pass them on. This is common to both Prologues.
In Prologue F book learning is set up in opposition to direct experience. When Chaucer wearies of his books he must go out into the world and experience it: “though he realized the lasting value of authoritative statements made by poets of the past, he, like all artists, also wanted to make his poetry speak with the voice of experiential truth” (Kiser 30). By looking at the daisy he can see, through direct experience, its truth. However, he understands the truth even more fully by listening to authorities speak about the daisy, a.k.a. the ‘foules’ who sing its praises. He also calls on Etik (Horace) to understand what the daisy is signifying about innocence and virtue. In the Prologue Chaucer is praising authorities who make truths available to their readers.
Chaucer then passes into the dream world where he is subject to the judgment of the God of Love and Alceste, the God of Love’s Queen. Alceste is so beautiful that Chaucer the narrator feels compelled to express her loveliness in a ballad. To express the truth of her loveliness he compares Alceste to lists of legendary beauties. When he finishes he laments that it may not be sufficient for her praises: “For certeynly al thise mowe nat suffise/ To apperen wyth my lady in no wyse” (F 272-3). According to Kiser, Chaucer recognizes “that earthly poets like himself may not always succeed in making their doctrines clear, especially to readers who are unfit to receive literature’s highest gifts” (Kiser 154). The issue is not with the sources that are being used, or with Alceste’s loveliness, but whether or not Chaucer has used them justly and that the meaning is conveyed to his audience.
Chaucer the narrator is kneeling by his daisy when the ladies who are in the God of Love’s train meet up with him. They and Chaucer together are paying homage to the daisy, who is clearly worthy of praise, as can be perceived by observation. However, the God of Love reproaches Chaucer for kneeling at his flower, reprimanding Chaucer for his depiction of women in Troilus and Criseyde and the Romaunce of the Rose. His charge is that in those texts there were false women. His charge is short compared with Alceste’s defense. The God of Love’s charge is short because he has taken a limited view of Chaucer’s work, seeing only the negative, and hence a limited view of Chaucer. He is misreading the texts, which is represented by misreading Chaucer. Kiser argues that “as a character whose metaphorical attributes do not add up to a clear representation of any real truth, and thus as a character who can survive only in a dream visions and not in descriptions of life, the God of Love is a parody of the kind of poetic artifice that Chaucer wished to reject” (Kiser 65). The God of Love has taken the narrow view that only stories of ‘good’ people can accomplish good ends, a statement that Chaucer rejects (Kiser 77).
Alceste tries to show the God of Love his mistake, saying first that one should never listen to only one side, but take in all of the evidence, before a man (text) is condemned: “For, syr, yt is no maistrye for a lord/To dampen a man without answere of word” (F400-1). She points out that while Chaucer’s previous works may have done harm to women in love, they have also done them a service by educating people in these original stories “yet hath he maked lewed folk delyte/ To serve yow, in preysinge of your name” (F 415-6). This comes back to the original point that opened the Prologue, that authorities are important to fostering understanding of the world.
Chaucer is then allowed to make the point that whatever faults can be found in Criseyde or the Rose were not put there by him, but were a result of his sources, since he thoroughly meant to be true to and cherish the concepts of love:
For that I of Creseyde wroot or tolde,
Or of the Rose; what so myn auctour mente.
Algate, god woot, yt was myn entente
To forthren trouthe in love and yt cheryce,
And to ben war fro falsnesse and fro vice
By swich ensample; this was my menynge (F 469-74).

Chaucer then is caught between the ability of authorities and ancient sources to help him express truths about love (or divinity, as is his first example), and how reference to authorities can cause you to fall short of the truth you are trying to express. Chaucer the narrator found authorities and comparisons with other ancient women insufficient for expressing Alceste’s beauty and found that the intentions inherent in his original sources may be counteracting his professed authorial intent in his own works. In both those cases it is not the truth of the ancient sources that are at fault but Chaucer’s own reworking of them. He, like the God of Love, is being accused of misreading, and mistranslating with translating here meaning taking material and ‘translating’ it into something new that is supposedly more accessible for readers.
                The God of Love is misreading Chaucer as Chaucer is accused of misreading his sources. The God of Love is guiltier, since he is, as Alceste says, not weighing both sides equally, or is being too reductive in his reading. Kiser says that he is “confusing the ethical purpose of a literary work with the traits he perceives in its individual characters, a massive confusion, indeed” (Kiser 77). Ironically, Alceste is the one that asks Chaucer to appease the God of Love by scanning ancient sources and reducing them to a single point of view. She is asking Chaucer to condemn the men of ancient sources by showing them only as faithless towards women. She is asking Chaucer the narrator to wilfully misread the texts, but it is not necessarily a shift in her character, since she is asking Chaucer to use the sources to express an essential truth. In addition, while the stories that are to be chosen for the Legend are often reduced to the point of changing the truth of the original source, they do all portray women who are unlucky in love, and so are martyrs in Love’s cause.
                The God of Love asks Chaucer the narrator if he has recognized Alceste. Chaucer the narrator replies: “Nay, sire, so have I blys,/ No moore but that I see wel she is good” (F 504-5). Alceste is identified with the ultimate martyr for love. She died for love of her husband. She is identified with the daisy and with a pure form of a loving woman. Kiser argues that Alceste operates literally and as an allegorical figure who represents experiential learning, as the daisy, but also textual authority since hers is also an ancient tale (Kiser 139). This is much stronger in Prologue F than it is in G. The God of Love charges Chaucer to write her story and do her justice as he hasn’t yet in any of his texts. Alceste then represents Chaucer’s task to do justice to the ideal of loving women, as well as to Alceste’s story. Alceste represents the truth to be found in ancient sources, but she also represents the ancient sources themselves. Chaucer the narrator is being charged with the nigh impossible task of representing a single truth of the story while doing justice to the original source.
Prologue G maintains many of these themes from Prologue F, but emphasizes even more the role that ‘authorities’ play in our understanding of truths, downplaying the truths themselves. Delaney observes that G “strikes one as a work on the whole less subjective than F, less insistent on art in general, and more modest in its presentation of the Narrator as poet” (Delaney 36). The opposition between book learning and direct experience is downplayed. Helen Philips sees an “increased emphasis on the interpretation of texts, authorial intentionality, and translation” (Philips 109). We still have the opening lines showing the role ancient authorities play in how we know things we cannot experience, however our narrator does not go out and experience nature in the same way as he does in Prologue F. The daisy is one of two nature metaphors that are being used to talk about sources. Chaucer the narrator does not experience the nature of the daisy to the same extent, though it still is his favorite flower and still represents Alceste. The other metaphor of corn, which is mentioned in Prologue F, is more fully developed in G. Both texts state:
                For wel I wot that folk han here-beforn
                Of making ropen, and lad awey the corn;
                And I come after, glenynge here and there,
And am ful glad if I may fynde an ere (G 61-4; F 73-6)

In both texts it is standing in for finding something worthwhile in other works, however G continues the metaphor and makes it more explicit, when Love tells Chaucer the narrator “Let be the chaf, and writ well the corn” (G 529). Prologue G plays down the narrator’s direct knowledge of the daisy, and plays up the art of creating based on original sources.
                Prologue G emphasizes Chaucer the author’s role as author who uses ancient sources by having the God of Love elongate the charges against the narrator:
                Yis, God wot, sixty bokes olde and newe
                Hast thow thyself, alle ful of storyes grete,
                That both Romayns and ek Grekes trete
                Of sundry women, which lyf that they ladde,
                And evere an hundred goode ageyn oon badde (G 272-7).
The God of Love criticizes the deliberate interpretive choices made by Chaucer the author in his previous works, saying that he has so many books to choose from, and that even though there are more ‘sundry’ choices than ‘good’ ones, it is up to him as ‘translator’ to choose the ones that will best fit Love’s ideal. For the God of Love “all literature is exemplary in function; he cannot conceive of literary meaning other than that which might arise from these prerequisite moral categories” (Kiser 80). The God of Love of Prologue G is even more deliberately reductive than Love in F.
                Prologue G puts the ‘Balade’ about Alceste’s beauty in the mouths of the God of Love’s train of women. They make the appropriate authoritative comparisons and there is no second guessing of whether the description using ancient sources falls short of the actual thing being described. The effect of this is that there is less emphasis on the Chaucer narrator’s concern over whether or not he can do a good job. With the exception of when he is allowed, through Alceste’s intercession, to defend himself to the God of Love, an episode in both Prologues, the problem is in G is solely whether or not Chaucer’s (narrator and author) work holds up to the reductive ideals prescribed by the God of Love. The defense that he didn’t know “what so myn auctor mente” has much less bite in G than F, as it sounds like our narrator is saying whatever will get him out of a jam in G, whereas in F the sentiment was backed up by Chaucer the narrator’s own doubts about his ability to use authorities to express what needed to be expressed.
While Prologue F emphasizes the truth that can be described by known authorities, Prologue G maintains this theme, shifting the emphasis away from the truth that needs to be expressed to the ability of poets to properly present those stories to their audiences. Prologue G, however, leaves Chaucer the narrator with the same task, of presenting only good women and not ‘sundry’ ones, or reducing women, texts and authorities to one dimension so that audiences have no doubt how they will interpret them. The God of Love says presenting the Romance of the Rose “in pleyn text, withouten to glose” was “an heresye ayeins my lawe” (F 328-30; G 254-6). Laura Getty has shown how “glossing, … consistently represents deception in Chaucer’s works. To follow the God of Love’s commands, the narrator must gloss (i.e., misrepresent) the stories, rather than telling the “verray sooth” of their tales” (Getty 53). Although the God of Love is emphasizing how dangerous it is not to give readers the gloss, or proper conclusions to take from the text, Chaucer parodies this in the Legend by attempting to do so, and then undercutting his tales and parodying the reduction of women and lists of women to one interpretation.  
Either Prologue sets us up to read the legends, which have been distilled to a truth, that of the persecution of women in love. As the God of Love misreads Chaucer, the women in the legends often misread the men who will eventually do them harm. This mimics the misreading of these sources happening in the Legend. The theme of misreading recurs throughout the legends, indicating, as was shown in the Prologue, that there is unreliability in the way sources are interpreted. This does not efface the truth we can glean from these authorities (these women were persecuted in love) but the text is nevertheless a critique of readers and writers who are reductive to the point of obscurity.
In the introduction to her collection of essays on the Legend Carolyn Collette states that “the victimization of loyal women at the hands of crafty and duplicitous men is the central thematic point Alceste insists upon in her directive …, and Chaucer seems to follow her direction slavishly” (Collette ix). Nor is this meant as a compliment. The stories are brief and much has been cut from the originals. In fact, Kiser states that “brevitas turns into something more like lying, for Chaucer is forced to employ it as a device to mask those details in his sources which would complicate our moral judgments of these women and their deeds and would render the narratives useless as exempla” (Kiser 100). We will see that there are details in many of these examples that were not included, because they did not fit the mold of the exemplum, which is the source of much of the comedy and irony (Kiser 98). Delaney sees those original traditions “break through again and again in the legends, swamping the simplistic demands of Eros and Alceste” (Delaney 193).
The first is the Legend of Cleopatra. It is no coincidence that this is both the most authoritative story and that it occurs first. While there is not as great a division between mythology and history in Chaucer’s idea of the past, since both offer truths from authorities for modern audiences, Chaucer does make the distinction that Cleopatra is a woman who really lived: “And this is storyal soth, it is no fable” (702). Kiser states that it is the most faithful retelling of a classical source in the whole collection (Kiser 102). But already it is undercutting the proposed plans of Alceste and the God of Love since, as Delaney argues, Cleopatra would hardly be considered a ‘good’ woman (Delaney 173). William Sayers argues that the description of the Battle of Actium is from Vegetius, an authoritative source itself, and that the naval battle seems real (Sayers 85). The point is then to bring the learned audience to feel the truth of the story. Chaucer has used many devices to ground this tale as a real episode in the imagination of his readers. Cleopatra’s status as a ‘real’ suffering woman is meant to instill in the readers how ‘true’ the suffering of the ensuing women is. Getty, however, offers an alternative view of the inclusion of the long description of the Battle of Actium:
The battle mirrors the process that Chaucer has gone through to write this piece of history/legend: it is a mess. The story must literally be ripped into pieces, like the ships, in order to conform to the God of Love’s expectations, as all of the stories will be (Getty 57-8).

Getty is scanning the legends for metaphors of misreading, and her argument is that while the veracity of the story is made present to the reader, the story itself has been cut short to show only the battle and Cleopatra’s suicide. In addition to Cleopatra’s misreading of Antony, the text misreads Antony, casting him in with faithless men, when that is not the reason he commits suicide himself: “thus we see that the Chaucer who is so faithful to the women in this legendary is at the same time the faithless betrayal of its men” (Kiser 125). Therefore, the text seems grounded in the authorities that were discussed in the Prologue, but the text has been altered, so that it is not faithful to the original, nor can it be said to represent a wholly good woman. The sources are useful to creating an image of Cleopatra, and yet they cannot be used effectively if they are reduced so viciously.
                If Cleopatra is not necessarily a good woman, Thisbe is not really oppressed by a faithless man. Antony does not deserve all the aspersion cast on him in the text, but Piramus simply misread the situation and tried to himself become a martyr for love: “Chaucer has to moralize this narrative awkwardly after he has told it, in hopes of making it appropriate to his project” (Kiser 118). Both Antony and Piramus are at fault, Antony for his suicide and Piramus for his stupidity, but they are not the ‘faithless’ men that Alceste prescribed. Cleopatra didn’t overtly treat on its sources, mentioning just the fact that it is history and presenting a convincing naval battle. In Thisbe, Maggie Burns has shown that the depiction is largely derived specifically from Ovid, but we also have a first mention of an authority: “Naso seyth thus” (Burns 637; 725). We are also drawn back to the fact that the narrator is constructing his legendary from sources: “Of trewe men I fynde but fewe mo/ In alle my bokes, save this Piramus, / And therefore have I spoken of hym thus” (917-9). Clearly sources have been useful to construct this tale, but the whole thing is undercut by its deviance again from the directions of the God of Love, and by the metaphors of misreading, which are stronger than in Cleopatra.
                In the Legend of Dido, Chaucer the narrator reminds us that he is writing under a directive: “But nat to purpose for to speke of here,/ For it acordeth nat to my matere” (954-5). Both the reference to sources and references to the interceding hands of the narrator are exponentially increasing. In fact this tale starts specifically with references to both:
 Glorye and honour, Virgil Mantoan,
Be to thy name! and I shal, as I can,
Folwe thy lantern, as thow gost byforn,
How Eneas to Dido was forsworn.
In thyn Eneyde and Naso wol I take
The tenor, and the grete effects make (924-929).

There is a great emphasis in Dido on the inability of Chaucer the narrator to do justice to either source, or to write it in a way that will be as compelling as their versions. The narrator says “I coude folwe, word for word, Virgile,/ But it wolde lasten al to longe while” (1002-3) as well as “But who wol al this letter have in mynde,/ Rede Ovyde, and in hym he shal it fynde” (1366-7), which are parallel statements that invite the reader to go back to the original sources. The Legend of Dido contains a lot of praise for the sources of Dido, but constantly undermines its own ability to properly interpret them. It makes of itself an unreliable narrator, although it does contain a condensed version of the story.
The Legend of Hipsipyle and Medea is a bit of a misnomer since the reason these two stories go together is that both women are duped by Jason, so that it is really the legend of Jason. Getty takes this as evidence that “the project is slipping out of his grasp, [since] the body that is misread is Jason’s” (Getty 61). Dido somewhat misread the character of Aeneas, but Hipsipyle and Medea are grossly misreading the character of Jason, although the text makes him even more despicable than he appeared in sources. The narrator’s direction to the reader, that they should go back and read the original, is again present: “Lat hym go rede Argonautycon, / For he wole telle a tale long ynogh” (1456-8). One of those statements comes at the end of Hipsipyle’s tale, saying that the rest of the letter she was writing can be found in the source material “Wel can Ovyde hire letter in vers endyte,/ Which were as now to long for me to wryte” (1678-9). In this case, both of the women’s tales are not finished. Hipsipyle’s letter is left hanging, and Medea, like Cleopatra, is a woman who, if you know the whole story, it is hard to see as among the ‘good’ ones. The tale ends before Medea takes her revenge on Jason by killing their children and Jason’s new bride. Such an omission clearly alters the nature of both Medea and her story, and so does not do justice to the original tale. The sources are emphasized by the author as useful, but the decisions made in the editing of the text undercut the ability of the text to represent either the proposed purpose of the legend, or the original sources.
The whole reason that Lucrece dies is because she is afraid of being misread, of being at all complicit in the Tarquinius’s violence (Getty 63).  The opening lines of the Legend of Lucrece deal with the sources and treats on how the material is going to be treated:
Now mot I seyn the exilynge of kynges
Of Rome, for here horrible doings,
And of the laste kynge Tarquinius,
As seyth Ovyde and Titus Lyvius.
But for that cause telle I mat this storye,
But for to preyse and drawe to memorye
The verray wif, the verray trewe Lucresse,
That for hyre wifhood and hire stedfastnesse
Nat only that these payens hire comende,
But he that cleped is in our legend
The grete Austyn hath gret compassioun
Of this Lucresse, that starf at Rome toun;
And in what wise, I wol but shortly trete,
And of this thing I touché byt the grete (1680-93).

The narrator references Ovid and Titus Livius as sources, but also draws readers to the interpretation of the tale by St. Augustine. He finishes his introduction by stating that he himself will only treat on it a little. Placing the sources in the context of other famous interpretations he is bringing the readers’ attention to the tradition of interpreting the material. He then reminds the reader that he is interpreting it himself, which is contrasted with the original sources.
Although Lucrece was avoiding being the object of misreading, Ariadne, like Medea, Hipsipyle and Dido, is the subject, misreading the character of Theseus. She is, however, the object of Theseus’s wiles, as the other women are the object of the viciousness of their respective men.  Delaney has observed that Ariadne continues in her misreading right until the end of the legend (Delaney 212). Ariadne constructs her own version of events, just as she can translate the labyrinth for Theseus so that he can understand it (Getty 64). Nancy Warren sees Ariadne as asserting her will, almost Amazon like, more than any of the other women in the legendary (Warren 85). The result is that she comes off as ambitious, and in the end she is incorrect in her assessment of events. In her betrayal of her kingdom and father and her portrayal as ambitious, she may not fit the category of ‘good’ either. Also, the changes to this legend make her situation more tragic than it was, as Ariadne is eventually rescued from the island, in some traditions by Dionysius. The alteration of the story makes the moral derived from it untrue to the nature of the original. Again the source is mentioned, “In hire Epistel Naso telleth al” (2220). Again the reader’s attention is brought back to the narrator’s role as interpreter: “But that tale were to long as now for me” (1921).
Delaney has noted that the Legend of Philomela differs from the other “in its lack of obscenity, wordplay, or other evidently ironic devices” (Delaney 213). Delaney also notes how many things are left out of the text from the original story. Philomela, Phyllis and Hypermnestra differ from the others in that there is less emphasis on the source material they are drawn from, though they still have a lot of narratorial interjections. The effect of this is that there has been a degradation of the source material from Cleopatra to the last three texts. Cleopatra, the text says, was a tale grounded in history. The intervening legends bring readers back to the original sources. The legends of Philomela, Phyllis and Hypermnestra do not remind the reader of the source, and offer no way for the reader to check Chaucer’s facts.  Like Ariadne, Philomela is a writer of text; she weaves her own tapestries to tell Procne the terrible tale of her fate at the hand of Tereus. This is continued in the Phyllis and Hypermnestra; Phyllis writes her own letter and Hypermnestra, while she cannot prevent Lyno from leaving her, does not kill him, controlling, in part, her own narrative. Therefore, the texts are degraded from removal from the sources, but they also redeem themselves by showing the creation of texts within the narrative. They are themselves source material, with Philomela’s tapestry, as well as Phyllis’s letter, being the true interpretations of that source.
The most interesting interjections by the narrator, reminding us both of his purpose and of his unreliability, occur in the Legend of Phyllis. The legend starts “By preve as well as by autorite,/ That wiked fruit cometh of a wiked tre,/ That may ye fynde, if that it like yow” (2394-6). This brings us back to the idea expressed in the prologue that some things can only be known by ‘autorite.’ This is elaborated on more explicitly later:
To wryte of hem that ben in love forsworn,
And ek to haste me in my legend,
(Which to performe God me grace sende)
Therefore I passe shortly in this wyse (2455-8).

The passage notes his specific purpose, in case we as readers forgot, and reminds us that he is making editorial decisions. Most interesting is the final lines of the tale: “Be war, ye wemen, of your subtyl fo,/ Syn yit this day men may ensaumple se;/ And trusteth, as in love, no man but me” (2559-61). The narrator casts himself into the group of men. Even though he is meant to be a contrast, the irony is that the editorial decisions he has made mean that we cannot trust him.
In the final, unfinished Legend of Hypermnestra (though there were meant to be at least nineteen) our narrator reminds us again that he has told these tales, “And shortly, lest this tale be to long” (2675-8). Getty has shown how it is drastically altered from the source material: “if Hypermnestra is interchangeable with her forty-nine sisters, and her father’s and uncle’s names are just as exchangeable, does anything have solid meaning?” (Getty 68). It is least effective in showing the God of Love and Alceste’s purpose, being so different from the other texts. Her father is more of an oppressor than her lover. It is also the least faithful to its source.
                The women of the legends wilfully misread the men in their lives. When they don’t, they are being misread by the men. This theme is prominent in each of the tales. In addition, each tale has undergone a very severe selection process, whereby scholars and likely learned readers of Chaucer’s time, notice the absences as much as they notice what has been included. Chaucer has convincingly, as per Alceste and the God of Love’s request, made a collection which demonstrates the martyrdom of good women to the cause of love. However, in the process the original sources have been mangled and altered to fit his purpose. They are carefully located in the context of their original sources and historical context, making them seem more authoritative, which is then undercut by the aforementioned mangling (Getty 56). This is an unreliable representation of the original material, which also exults in the truth that can be found there. Readers take away from the Legend of Good Women both the importance of ancient sources for creating works such as this which can tell us truths, but also a warning about misreading the original texts and about being too reductive of ancient tales and books.
                This has implications for the lists of women that appear in Chaucer’s later, also unfinished work, the Canterbury Tales. The theme of misreading comes up often. Fumo has noted that the ‘Retraction’ that occurs at the end of the Tales demonstrates an ongoing concern for being misread (Fumo 175). Dean has noted the obsession in the tales with sources and proof, such as is explored by Prudence in The Tale of Melibee (Dean 402-3). However, the greatest implications may be reserved for reading the frequent appearance of lists of women, such as appear in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. Delaney argues that there is a parallel in the search for ‘preve’ in the Legend and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue (Delaney 222). In that Prologue Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, describes her husband’s habit of reading from a certain list of women: “Whan he hadde leyser and vacacioun/ From oother worldly occupacioun,/ To redden on this book of wikked wyves” (685-7). She takes action and even rips pages out of the book (and possibly does away with her husband, depending on the reading of the text). She re-enforces this idea from the Legend of Good Women, that the truth of original sources often depends on who is doing the interpretation:
By God, if women hadde written stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han written of men moore wikkednesse
Than al the mark of Adam may redresse (693-6).

The Legend of Good Women, read in conjunction with this episode, echoes Alisoun in condemning such a reduction of texts and of women to one single wicked truth. It also confirms the reading of the Wife of Bath’s character as neither wholly bad or wholly good, as the Legend, by being tongue and cheek-edly reductive, is anti-reductive interpretation, especially of women.
                The Legend of Good Women has been less well received critically, Kiser suggests because it is harder to unweave the “tangled web of irony” to get at the criticism that Chaucer is making about reductive interpretations (Kiser 20). Nevertheless, while he is comedic he is also making a serious point (Kiser 48). Chaucer walks the line between ironic and serious, with both intents existing in the text at the same time. Throughout both Prologues, Chaucer is emphasizing how we use our sources to create truth for ourselves and for our audiences. Chaucer the narrator’s interactions with Alceste and the God of Love make it clear, however, that Chaucer is negotiating how that process works, and what kind of truths can be ‘gleaned’ from that ‘corn.’ He wishes to mine the works for the truth that he sees there, but doesn’t want to be misunderstood or misrepresent those sources. By inserting himself and his own works in the text the reader understands the Legend as a negotiation of the place ancient sources have in Chaucer’s work.


Burns, Maggie. "Classicizing and Medievalizing Chaucer: The Source for Pyramus' Death-Throes in the Legend of Good Women." Neophilologus 81 (1997): 637-47. Print.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Legend of Good Women." The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. 587-630. Print.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale." The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. 105-121. Print.
Collette, Carolyn P. "Introduction: Rethinking the Legend of Good Women: Context and Reception." The Legend of Good Women: Context and Reception. Ed. Carolyn P. Collette. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006. vii-xviii. Print.
Dean, James. "Time Past and Time Present in Chaucer's Clerk Tale and Gower's Confessio Amantis." ELH 44.3 (1977): 401-18. Print.
Delaney, Sheila. The Naked Text: Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Print.
Fumo, Jamie C. "The God of Love and Love of God: Palinodic Exchange in the Prologue of the Legend of Good Women and the 'Retraction'." The Legend of Good Women: Context and Reception. Ed. Carolyn P. Collette. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006. 157-175. Print.
Getty, Laura J. "'Other Smale Ymaad Before': Chaucer as Historiographer in the Legend of Good Women." The Chaucer Review 42 (2007): 48-75. Print.
Kiser, Lisa J. Telling Classical Tales: Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983. Print.
Philips, Helen. "Register, Politics, and the 'Legend of Good Women'." The Chaucer Review 37.2 (2002): 101-128. Print.
Sayers, William. "Chaucer's Description of the Battle of Actium in the Legend of Cleopatra and the Medieval Tradition of Vegetius's De Re Militari." The Chaucer Review 42 (2007): 76-90. Print.
Warren, Nancy Bradley. "'Olde Stories' and Amazons: The Legend of Good Women, the Knight's Tale', and Fourteenth-Century Political Culture." The Legend of Good Women: Context and Reception. Ed. Carolyn P. Collette. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006. 83-104. Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment