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Love. War. Sex. Betrayal. And finally: a hero’s violent end. Chaucer’s masterwork Troilus and Criseyde offers readers the timeless elements of the greatest literary genres––an epic with the inner turmoil of medieval romance, a tragedy with comedic self-reflection. Set in the backdrop of the famed Trojan War, the story tells of two lovers: a young Trojan hero and the beautiful widow with whom he falls desperately and dramatically in love. From its first moment, the consummation and ultimate fate of this love seems to be controlled by various self-serving forces, from Criseyde’s uncle Pandarus (from whom we take our modern word “pandering”), to the political machinations of the war, to the lovers’ own extended philosophical soliloquies on the nature of love, fate, and free will. Yet the central question upon which this text hinges is the degree of Criseyde’s own culpability in her “slydinge of corage”: her change of heart regarding Troilus. At that question’s core lie crucial issues regarding the position of the individual in relation to medieval society, to God’s plan, to human history, and ultimately to the literary canon itself. Written in the 1380s when Chaucer was already an experienced poet, Troilus and Criseyde’s philosophical import, its investment in poetic craft and literary posterity, and its overall eloquent and learned style cemented Chaucer’s reputation as a poet to be esteemed and imitated, both in his lifetime and in the centuries after his death. Indeed, in the plight of the ill-fated lovers, and in Chaucer’s inspired treatment of them, we can find a prototype of the star-crossed lovers in Shakespeare’s later Troilus and Cressida and Romeo and Juliet.
Chaucer’s interest in the effects of worldly mutability on humans and human relationships in his Troilus and Criseyde, a theme that can be found throughout his corpus, has some likely points of origin in his own biography. He was a young child, under eight, when the plague of 1348–49 devastated London and many other European cities. Roughly one third of the population of London died, including many members of Chaucer’s extended family. While we do not know the psychological or emotional impact this calamity had on Chaucer, we do know that it was in large part due to his parents’ unexpected post-plague inheritance that Chaucer was given his extremely fortunate start in life. Although he was born into a family of merchants––his father John was a prosperous vintner with some ties to the royal court––as a young boy Chaucer was placed as a page in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, the countess of Ulster and the wife of Prince Lionel, son of King Edward III. It was through this early association with the nobility that Chaucer eventually met not only his wife, Philippa de Roet, lady-in-waiting to the Queen, but also various members of the royal family who would shape his future life as both poet and public servant. These included Prince Lionel, with whom Chaucer served a short stint in the king’s army in his late teens, and more importantly the rich and powerful John of Gaunt, who would become one of Chaucer’s most staunch benefactors and who would eventually marry Chaucer’s sister-in-law (Katherine Swynford, sister of Philippa). Gaunt of course was also the uncle of the young future King Richard II, on whose behalf Chaucer went on several overseas missions throughout his lifetime, and under whose reign Chaucer enjoyed quite a few prestigious positions, including a second appointment as controller at the customhouse, an appointment as justice of the peace, and an election to Parliament. It was for Richard’s court that Chaucer very likely wrote and read aloud his Troilus and Criseyde in the 1380s.
That decade saw dramatic social, political, and spiritual upheavals that doubtless furthered his concern with worldly variability. In 1381 the most divisive historical event of the late fourteenth century occurred: the “Peasant’s Revolt,” a short-lived but violent uprising of lower and middle-class people in which several London palaces were burned and the Archbishop of Canterbury, among others, was murdered. Although the rebellion took only a few days, and was crushed by young Richard II himself, it represented a disturbing and growing shift in the balance of power in England that shocked the ruling classes, including, most definitely, Chaucer’s own social circle. If Chaucer was still writing the Troilus as late as 1386, he would also have experienced a more personal upheaval in the growing political crisis among Richard II’s court. Specifically, sitting in as a member of Parliament in that year, Chaucer witnessed another remarkable reallocation of power, in which some of Richard’s closest advisors, including several of Chaucer’s friends and acquaintances, were unseated, and in which Chaucer himself lost his own dual appointments as controller of customs. Although he would not have known it at the time, a mere two years later Chaucer would see some of these same friends and acquaintances convicted of treason and executed at the hands of the Merciless Parliament. This volatile decade also saw the first complete translation of the Bible into English, the so-called Wycliffite Bible, named for the theologian and reformer John Wyclif, whose radical ideas concerning the authority of the Church planted the seeds of the great sixteenth-century Reformation.
Within this larger cultural context, the Trojan setting of Troilus and Criseyde does more than simply pique the reader’s interest with its implicit parallel between Troilus, Criseyde, and Diomede, and that most famous classic love triangle of Paris, Helen, and Menelaus. Indeed, it offers us a framework for Chaucer’s interest in––and the wider medieval attention to––the crucial concept of auctoritas, or authority, in medieval literature and culture. In this period no literary subject carried the authoritative weight of the “matter” of Troy, despite the fact that Homer’s two great epics on the subject were “lost” to medieval Europe, to reemerge again only in the Renaissance. The Trojans were considered to be the ancestors of Western Europeans, and in the time Chaucer was writing, London was to some extent identified with that ancient city. In fact, in the 1380s, a proposal actually existed to rename London “Troynovant,” or New Troy. Medieval writers knew the material of Troy primarily through two short books of Latin prose by Dares Phrygius and Dictus Cretensis, who claimed to be more reliable authorities than Homer on the Trojan War. These works provided the material for a long twelfth-century French poem called the Roman de Troie, by Benoît de Sainte-Maure, which itself was translated into Latin in the thirteenth-century Historia Destructionis Troiae, by the Sicilian Guido delle Colonne. The Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio based his fourteenth-century Il Filostrato on Benoît’s and Guido’s accounts, and it was Boccaccio’s text that became Chaucer’s own principal source for his Troilus and Criseyde.
Chaucer’s text displays a heightened awareness of this extended tradition of literary Troy. He names Homer, Dares, and Dictus as previous writers of “Troyane gestes” (I.145), Trojan deeds or stories, and he repeatedly refers to his own acts of reading and translating his “auctor,” or authority. At this point in his career Chaucer was recognized as a translator: His translation of Guillaume de Lorris’ and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose inspired his contemporary Eustache Deschamps to hail him as a “grant translateur.” To call Troilus and Criseyde a translation of Boccaccio’s text, however, is to seriously misjudge the poetic project of Troilus and Criseyde, as well as Chaucer’s particular brilliance for reworking and reinventing the stories, poetic forms, and even genres that he encounters. Near the beginning of the poem, Chaucer’s narrator identifies as his authority not Boccaccio, but a person of dubious existence named “Lollius” (I.394). In doing so, he signals that his overt interest in textual authorities is as much a part of his poetic imaginary and a part of the fictional landscape of the text as is his re-imagination of the individual characters’ lives during the siege of Troy. By the end of the poem we realize that Chaucer’s allusion to past authors also marks his own quest for poetic authority. In this learned poem we see not only Chaucer’s most manifest attempt at posterity, but also the moment in which the attempt seems to become a reality. For it is with his Troilus and Criseyde that we can see Chaucer’s shift from being merely a “grant translateur” to being, in the famous words of John Dryden, the “father of English poetry.”
In addition to the historical world of Troy and auctoritas, Chaucer situates his characters within two main cultural and intellectual frames: the social practice called courtly love, and the worldview of Boethian philosophy. Courtly love, an established code of conduct and attitudes towards love and the opposite sex, centered on the adoration of a gallant knight for a beautiful, intelligent, and usually unattainable noblewoman. In Chaucer’s poem, the love of the courageous prince Troilus, brother of Hector and Paris, for the beautiful widow Criseyde encompasses these and various other crucial tenets of courtly love. We see, for instance, clear examples of the need for love to be kept secret, the use of love tokens as symbolic gifts between lovers, and the physical and mental suffering caused by love. Moreover, Chaucer’s portrayal of the love between Troilus and Criseyde also focuses on the crucial role of language in love. When Troilus returns to the solitude of his home after first seeing Criseyde, he bursts into his first song––here in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet––which questions in lofty discourse the existence and nature of love (I.400-20). Correspondingly, when Criseyde first hears of Troilus’ love for her, she quickly addresses how Troilus speaks of love: “Can he wel speke of love?” she asks Pandarus (II.503). This question encompasses multiple meanings, including the idea that a man might talk of love too much, but it also identifies a defined and, for medieval readers, recognizable language of courtesy and chivalry that forms the basis of Troilus and Criseyde’s exchanges, as well as their relative malleability in the hands of Criseyde’s uncle Pandarus––and the poet Chaucer. For it is in the unforgettable character of Pandarus as the persuasive, opportunistic, unsuccessful-in-love intermediary who ensures the linguistic and sexual progression of Troilus’ and Criseyde’s relationship, that we ultimately see the figure of the poet himself.
Chaucer’s treatment of the subject of love also touches upon a larger discourse about the nature of the world and the role of the individual in it. Indeed, the “double sorwe” (I.1), or “double sorrow” experienced by Troilus in the story, identified as Troilus’ initial sorrow in loving Criseyde and then his additional sorrow in losing her (I.54-56), also symbolizes the changing nature of the world as presented in Boethian philosophy. Chaucer imbued much of his poetry with the worldview of the early sixth-century writer Boethius, but this is particularly true of his Troilus and Criseyde, which was written in roughly the same time period as his translation of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius’ text describes the workings of Lady Fortune, whose ever-spinning wheel represents the constantly changing fortunes of the temporal world. It also describes the relationship of human free will to the greater order of God’s providence. Troilus’ double sorrow in the beginning of the poem hints at a Boethian shift in fortunes: the narrator describes “In lovinge, how his aventures fellen / Fro wo to wele, and after out of joye” (I.3-4). Later, as Troilus debates with himself about free will and fate in Book IV, his sorrow returns as a physical manifestation of the cyclical nature of fortune and misfortune. Unlike Boethius, however, Troilus does not appear to learn from his misfortune, and in the end that is his tragic undoing.
It is in the figure of Criseyde that Chaucer’s fundamental questions about the nature of love, free will, and fate reside most poignantly. At the beginning of the poem we are led to believe that the issue will be one of simple feminine betrayal: The story will tell how Troilus loved Criseyde, the narrator tells us, and also “how that she forsook him” (I.56). In Book V, Chaucer’s famous description of Criseyde as “slydinge of corage” (V.825), or changeable of heart, goes even further in aligning her with mutable Fortune and the mutable world. But Chaucer also suggests certain reasons for Criseyde’s disloyalty: for example, her initial anxiety about her father’s defection to the Greek camp (I.108); and later, her feelings of isolation in that same enemy camp with no friends to help (V.1026-7). When he finally addresses her act of betrayal, it is through second-hand hearsay: the words of other “stories elles-where” (V.1044). These are things that “[m]en seyn, I not” (V.1050), Chaucer is careful to tell us. We are thus led to wonder, was this change of heart a choice Criseyde made out of free will, or was her fate decided long ago by other men writing other stories?
Chaucer’s refusal to condemn Criseyde spurred his earliest critics to do it for him. For example, Robert Henryson’s fifteenth-century Testament of Cresseid, perhaps the first critical response to Chaucer’s poem as well as an impressive poem in its own right, brings Criseyde’s culpability brutally to the forefront. In this poetic sequel Diomede abandons Criseyde after he has been sexually satiated, and she becomes a common street whore and a leper, completely unrecognizable to Troilus when he passes her on the street. By comparison, modern critics, and especially feminist critics, have closely examined the subtleties of Criseyde’s character in Chaucer’s poem and have found complex statements on the predicament of women, individualism, and even the masculine process of reading literary texts. Certainly Criseyde’s independence and self-assuredness markedly contrast with her subtle social conditioning and her construction as a literary lover. This can be seen most clearly in Criseyde’s last spoken words, in which she bemoans her now lost reputation for “trouthe in love” (V.1055), and imagines her infamy rolling off tongues and written in books for all eternity (V.1058-64). In the end, the friction between Criseyde’s individual desires and the limitations of her fate––the open-ended questions regarding her entente and trouthe––parallel the restrictions placed upon Chaucer by his own literary sources and chosen subject matter. Furthermore, it also parallels the reader’s own relative lack of freedom in reading a story that must end, and that must end in a particular way.
On a different note, although Chaucer’s poem contains many themes that seem “modern” and with which modern readers can easily identify, the same cannot necessarily be said for his language. Chaucer writes in Middle English, one of the languages (along with Latin and French) that existed in England from the time of the Norman Conquest (1066) to roughly 1500. Chaucer’s Middle English dialect is the ancestor of our own modern English, but there are many elements that may seem foreign to a first-time reader and that need some basic explanation.
To begin, the language has a different sound. Chaucer wrote before what is called the Great Vowel Shift, and for this reason his vowels are pronounced more like Continental European vowels than our modern English: The a in the Middle English word tale, for example, sounds like the a in the modern word father. Correspondingly, the e in the Middle English word wele sounds like the a in the modern word tale. Consonants, on the other hand, are pronounced in the same way as in modern English, with the basic exception that there are no silent letters, so that, for example, the k and gh in the Middle English word knight should be pronounced as fully as the n and the t (with the gh sounding like the Germanic ch in the word Bach). In addition, the e at the end of many of Chaucer’s words is usually pronounced. This enclitic e also helps establish the rhythm of Chaucer’s meter, in this case the iambic pentameter of his rhyme royal stanza, or “Troilus stanza” as it is sometimes called. This cursory explanation of Middle English does not do justice to the myriad subtler elements of the language that cannot be enumerated here, but it should help with basic reading and pronunciation of Chaucer’s poem. The correlative differences in comprehension between Middle English and modern English, such as issues of grammar and vocabulary, can be more fully explored through the suggested readings included in this edition.
Chaucer was well aware of the complex changes in English even in his lifetime, and his attraction to the idea of a mutable world extended to greater linguistic transformations throughout literary and cultural history. In Book II of Troilus and Criseyde, he describes historic transformations of language in startlingly familiar terms:
Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem, and yet they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winne love in sondry ages,
In sondry londes, sondry been usages.
Chaucer’s keen perception that words written long ago often seem foolish and strange cannot help but resonate with the modern reader’s experience when first encountering his poem, some six hundred and twenty years after he wrote it. Yet in this passage Chaucer harnesses the variability of language to the persistent need of every different society to speak “well in love.” Love in Troilus and Criseyde emerges not only as the ultimate equalizer, but also as the very reason that we speak, write, and read.
Andrea Denny-Brown is Assistant Professor of English literature at the University of California, Riverside. Her current work explores the issues of dress, consumption, and identity in medieval English literature and culture.