Chaucer's Mythic Men in the Legend of Good Women.
In her seminal work, The Mythographic Chaucer, Jane Chance considers the mythological references, images and characters in Chaucer's poetry from within the medieval mythographic tradition with the aim of elucidating the truths enshrouded within the text, possibly for various literary, social, or political reasons. Chance points out that medieval mythographers are generally known for their inclination to moralise and allegorise, whereas Chaucer "often inverts typically allegorical signification for psychological or political and ironic purposes in developing characterization. In doing so, he rewrites--vernacularizes--the Latin and patristic tradition from an English and medieval perspective: his is an antimythography" (xx). Within Chaucer's "antimythography", then, we see how "he will often deliberately conjure up an ambiguous range of readings, some in bono, some in malo, to enrich his poetry" (Chance xxi). The classical divinities and heroes found in Chaucer's poems "reveal feminizing and subversive attitudes not readily apparent on the surface because he appropriates the essentially patriarchal discourse of medieval exegesis for ironic (or even antiphrastic) use" (Chance xxiv). This is why, argues Chance, "so many of the myths involve, center on, elaborate female figures and characters" (xxiv). Amongst such a fertile feminine milieu, it becomes almost impossible to identify the male image. One way of doing so would be through the feminine gaze and another way of comprehending the male body would be through comparison, through references made regarding other mythic and legendary male bodies.
The Legend of Good Women, according to Williams, may be considered "as a Janus face. The Prologue looks back at the three visions that preceded it, and the nine stories of the 'good women' that follow it anticipate the Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories that are distinct yet linked" (172-73). Regarded as a prototype for the Canterbury Tales, the Legend also commences with a prologue acting as the general introduction to the matter and theme of the poem from whence the narrative moves forward to portray the various legends of "good" women. Williams suggests that the seed for the Legend was probably planted during the compiling of ill-fated lovers in the Temple of Venus in the Parliament of Fowls. The common denominator of these tales is "women who are unlucky in love".
Dido, for example, appears in the Parliament of Fowls as one of the unhappy lovers painted on the walls of the Temple of Venus, and in the Book of the Duchess in the Dreamer's catalogue of women who have died for love. She provides an important example, in the House of Fame, of multiple, conflicting interpretations of the same event. Yet in the Legend of Good Women, her story gets the full treatment. We have seen how interpretations of Dido's story shift according to the agenda of the author, and the House of Fame highlighted the fluidity of reputation and the contingency of historical narrative. Whereas Dido is a negative example in the Parliament of Fowls and the Book of the Duchess, in the Legend of Good Women, she is a paragon of loyalty and virtue. (Williams 173)
It seems Chaucer has solved the dilemma of treacherous Fama and her duality embodied in Fame and Rumour in the House of Fame. As the question of rumour and fame--falsehood and truth--is raised, the authoritative power wielded by books and the perspectival truths they convey within cultural memory become one of Chaucer's longstanding preoccupations. Books, says Chaucer, are where we find
Thurgh whiche that olde thinges ben in mynde, And to the doctrine of these olde wyse, Yeve credence, in every skylful wise, That tellen of these olde appreved stories Of holynesse, of regnes, of victories, Of love, of hate, of other sondry thynges, Of whiche I may not maken rehersynges. And yf that olde bokes were aweye, Yloren were of remembraunce the keye. Wel ought us thane honouren and believe These bokes, there we han noon other preve. (18-28) (2)
Consequently, the written word in the form of old stories bound in books serve as keys to remembrance as they operate as archival platforms wherein a wide range of human experience is stored. Building on time-honoured tradition and "olde appreved stories" (21), Chaucer's "agenda" has shifted once again to the theme of love with the focal point on the female condition. With the transformation of Dido in his own poetry, as Williams remarked earlier, Chaucer has come to realise during his mature years as an established poet that as much as poetry is informed through cultural memory, poetical expressions also have the ability to re-inform cultural memory.
The Legend of Good Women accordingly inverts mythocultural memory as it transports classical myths to Chaucer's own time. In this sense, the Prologue of the Legend establishes a bridge between the classical past and Chaucer's present. Unlike the Anelida and Troilus poems, the Legend of Good Women merges Greco-Roman myths with Christian mythology as the stories of women of the classical period are extrapolated in the form of saint's lives. (3) However, as much as the suffering of saints was comprehensible in Chaucer's Christian world, the suffering and pathos expressed with these mythical women remain ambivalent as their pain is derived from temporal love and not from love eternal; their love refers to the earthly love of mortal men and not to that of the divine. Their suffering also remains earthly rather than spiritual. Although the legends "follow an established literary genre, that of the catalogue of holy or virtuous women", notes Saunders, "their subject is as much literary interpretation as the defence of women" (61).
We are made constantly aware of Chaucer interpreting and rewriting his sources, sometimes seriously, sometimes subversively, so that we are never quite sure of the status of the legends. Do they defend or condemn the passive, virtuous women they claim to celebrate? Are they comic in their concealment of negative details, and their frequent ellipses? Or is their pathos genuine, their adaptations suggestive of the possibilities of writing the female voice? The work moves between high seriousness and comedy, cliche and intense emotion, convention and originality. Its uncertain status has perhaps inspired more critical debate than any other work--but also less critical writing, for until recent feminist interest, the Legend was often considered dull and impossible to place. (Saunders 61)
Due to this rise in interest, the Legend of Good Women has indeed proven to be a rich poetic landscape where medieval feminist scholars have indulged themselves in questioning whether Chaucer was a protofeminist or a misogynist. Sheila Delany, for example, argues that "Chaucer both 'is and is not' the friend of woman" (83), to the extent that late medieval culture would allow him to be: for even though women were socially integrated into the labour force they were nevertheless excluded from significant social arenas such as universities and priesthood, thus Delany argues that Chaucer's ambivalence reflects this structural feature of late-medieval culture (83-4). Likewise, Catherine Cox poses the question of why Chaucer, "the 'humanist' and 'women's friend,' so frequently casts women in the role of victim", (53) to which she answers similar to Delany that "Chaucer's work is the product of a social system inextricably bound to institutionalized gender bias, suffering is an integral part of Chaucer's concern with gender, and it is situated in relation to convention" (54). Here the victimization and consequent suffering of the female in semblance with martyrdom is aligned with the victimizing male. As much as the women in the Legend portray various forms of piety and submissiveness in line with the late-medieval notion of "good" women, the "false" men are also pacified. Carolyn Dinshaw, for example, sees the Legend of Good Women as an antifeminist work that "not only silences women and constrains the letter but makes every man in the text unspeakable and, at last, unspeaking" (72); while Louise Fradenburg poetically points out that "the legends' repetitively failed unions, their ceaseless slippage from truth to treachery; despite the cradling framework of the 'good' women's constancy, of the object's phantasmatic capacity to endure, the wind of faction and betrayal blows throughout" (145). "In the Legend of Good Women", writes Jill Mann, "there are no warnings against generalizing about a whole sex on the basis of an individual case; on the contrary, the falsehood and treachery of men is reiterated with a vigorous monotony that fully matches the unrelenting misogyny conventional in so much medieval literature" (26). Continuing this line of thought, Boffey and Edwards point out that "the succession of legends contrives steadily to intensify the blackening of men and to draw them together more deliberately into an indivisible body of wrongdoers" (120). Yet, there is a seemingly tangible reason behind purposefully demeaning these images of men belonging to an earlier heroic age.
Under the carapace of the woman condition, the Legend of Good Women not only offers a platform where Chaucer employs poetical expression as an implement that has the potential to rewrite, or reformulate, former means of cultural retention by inverting mythocultural memory but also constitutes a desire to escape from authority. And he does so by undermining earlier constructs of the male image and its referents. In Chaucer and the Subject of History, Lee Patterson points out that this poem "registers Chaucer's desire to escape from subjection to a court, and to aristocratic values generally, that are felt as increasingly tyrannical" (237). In this respect, the diminished men in this poetic narrative may be regarded as a reflection of an uprising against a dominant masculine culture where, in the poetical context, Chaucer transfers authoritative power to the female. Moreover, the authority of the written word, in this case history, is established and promptly dispersed as Chaucer rewrites the "olde appreved stories" (21) that served as keys of remembrance and offers a new perspective as he deconstructs the past to accord with his present.
Having abandoned books in exchange for a "holyday" (35), preferring the flower over the leaf (188-96), Chaucer's persona revels in daisy worship which Patterson considers to be "an act of instinctive poeticizing" (237). Turning towards nature embodied in the flower, the leaves of books representing the authority of the literary tradition is set aside; thus, the heliotropism of the daisy reflected in the narrator bears the representation of "an instinctive, unmediated, almost prelapsarian affinity between man and the natural world" (Patterson 238). Chaucer is able to celebrate his independence only until he enters the dream-world where he boldly engages in an active debate with the God of Love who accuses Chaucer of having committed serious crimes against love. According to Patterson, "[t]he heliotropic calling of daisy to sun that [Chaucer] celebrated while awake is now refigured as the sovereignty of the tyrannical God of Love over his sacrificial consort Alceste. What was before an instinctive symbiosis here becomes hierarchy" (238). So, to atone for his offences, the poet at the behest of Alceste is condemned to return to the written word and "olde auctours" (575) for sources concerning "goode" women. (4) From this perspective, it is possible to read Chaucer as unable to break away from the hierarchical ordering of things.
Although the Prologue of the Legend of Good Women subtitled "The Seintes Legende of Cupide" attempts to collate a pantheon of classical heroines under the facade of saints, it also simultaneously protrudes to emphasise the unworthiness of the prominent men pertaining to the classical period: thus, the more the female is venerated, the more the male becomes generatively degraded. Where the Prologue acts as a retainer, reeling in the poet from heliotropism, the legends themselves offer a space where Chaucer is able to exact his revenge, as Patterson notes,
[i]n the event he enacts his revenge upon authority in a number of ways: by radically deforming his auctores, by unmasking the misogynist violence that underwrites Alceste's version of feminine virtue, by simply refusing to fulfill his commission. But the form of resistance of most interest to us now is the irony with which he treats the noble cult of 'fyn lovynge': subject to the intransigent and uncomprehending demands of a gentil audience, the poet in turn subjects gentillesse itself to relentless critique. (238)
At this junction, addressing the "male condition", I would suggest that Chaucer not only critiques the conventions of fin' amors but also criticises the structurally adamant images of the Greco-Roman male. As most of the men depicted within the Legend counterbalance and accentuate the hardiness of the warrior with the gentillesse of the lover, the two idealised forms of the male image undergo a process of merging and inverting which depict them in a more ordinary light, with all their blemishes and characteristic flaws. However, from the point of fin' amors, Patterson notes that "[i]n the world of the legends gentillesse designates not nobility of spirit but social advantage, a superiority of place that unprincipled men use to victimize grasping women" (239). Yet, when the male body is considered as a whole, it seems that gentillesse is exactly what makes these men attractive to most of the female characters in the first place, at least from the perspective of a male poet. Hence, Antony, having forsaken both Rome and Octavia, is still defined as "a ful worthy gentil werreyour" (597) and it is "Thourgh his desert, and for his chyvalrye" (608) but more rather for his "gentillesse" (610) that Cleopatra is attracted to. For Antony represents the power of Rome and his image is initially painted according to his social standing.
That out of Rome was sent a senatour For to conqueren regnes and honour Unto the toun of Rome, as was usuance, To han the world at hire obesaunce, And soth to seyne, Antonius was his name. (584-88)
This powerful Roman senator falls from Rome's grace when he falls in love with Cleopatra. Instead of conquering kingdoms to gain honour, he himself is conquered. The legend briskly runs through the love story of Cleopatra and Antony, anchoring more on the naval battle scene between Octavian's Roman forces and the lovers' Egyptian fleet. The greater detail given to this scene serves to emphasise the warrior image rather than the lover. It is against these "stoute Romeyns, crewel as lyoun" (627) that "Antony is schent and put hym to the flyghte" (652). Having been beaten and forced to flee, Antony finds the loss of his honour remedied in taking his own life as he "rof hymself anon thourghout the herte" (661). Antony, in the end, chooses to die by his own hand not for love of his lady--it would seem--but love for self and preservation of personal honour, unlike the rare breed of men such as Pyramus who being in love both "trewe and kynde" (921) would take his own life without hesitation for his lady Thisbe.
Dido, similar to Cleopatra's sentiments, sees Aeneas as "a verray gentil man" (1068). Numerous factors play into her judgement and approval of the body of Aeneas most of which are fundamentally concerned with his social standing: Aeneas is a nobleman from fallen Troy, he is a great warrior, he is semi-divine as he is the son of both immortal Venus and mortal Anchises. In contrast to Aeneas, who considers himself shamed as he gazes upon the depiction of the fall of Troy on the temple wall, Dido, through the colouring of gentillesse
[...] saw the man, that he was lyk a knyght, And suffisaunt of persone and of myght, And lyk to been a verray gentil man; And wel his wordes he besette can, And hadde a noble visage for the nones, And formed wel of braunes and of bones. For after Venus hadde he swich fayrnesse That no man myghte be half so fayr, I gesse; And wel a lord he semede for to be. (1066-74)
It is to this man that Dido decides to give her heart as she words her sentiment to her sister Anne (1172-81). Aeneas, however, is a man on a divine quest, the land of Carthage being only a temporary delay. It is to his quest that he is forced to return as he tells Dido in his own words that his father's spirit bore the gods' message that he must continue on the path destiny paved for him, he must sail to Italy even though his heart breaks at the thought of leaving her (1295-1300). From this point on, Aeneas becomes one who sheds "false teres" (1301) and a "traytour" (1328) as he sails on his way to fulfil his destiny.
Another man on a quest that proves to be "false" towards his lady--or ladies in this case--is Jason. The stories of Hypsipyle and Medea are treated under the same legend as they both have Jason as the common denominator. The stories of both women are also very similar in content, which only emphasises Jason's track record of being consistent in his inconsistency towards women. The introduction to the dual legend begins with twenty-eight lines of pure poetic rampage against Jason where he is depicted as the root, the very source, of false lovers, a sly devourer of gentil women, a well-established liar, and a false fox (1368-95), characteristics for which he will be exposed in the English language, writes Chaucer (1382). The legend of Hypsipyle, thus begins by exposing Jason's lineage and moves on to define him as "a famous knyght of gentillesse,/Of fredom, and of strengthe and lustynesse" (1404-5) who was sent on a quest by his uncle to retrieve the legendary golden fleece. It was on this single quest that Jason conquers Hypsipyle and Medea respectively, both women who are overcome by his gentillesse. Arriving first on the isle of Lemnos, Hypsipyle greets Jason and Hercules observing that they "were gentil-men of gret degre" (1504) and "worthy folk" (1518). She soon becomes enamoured with Hercules's praise of Jason as he is described by his peer to be wise, brave, trustworthy and rich (1528), but more to the point "so gret a gentilman was he,/And of Thessalye likly kyng to be" (1532-33). In short, they wed, have two children, and then Jason along with his Argonauts set sail to resume their quest for the Golden Fleece. Hypsipyle left with the fruits of their marriage sends Jason a letter wherein she threatens to kill both her children. Jason, however, has already reached the land of Colchis where he re-enacts a similar scenario with Medea who is also besotted with his man "lyk a lord, and hadde a gret renoun,/And of his lok as real as a leoun" (1604-5). Comprehending that without the aid of Medea he will never retrieve the Golden Fleece, Jason weds her "as a trewe knyght" (1636), then steals away both "prizes" and reaches Thessaly. Once Jason sets his eye on yet another advantageous prize, the daughter of King Creon, he leaves Medea and the two children she bore him.
For as a traytour he is from hire go, And with hire lafte his yonge children two, And falsly hath betraysed hire, allas, As evere in love a chef traytour he was. (1656-59)
As questers, Aeneas and Jason could not have been more different considering their intent: where the former is divinely spurred forward to accomplish a great deed for the benefit of his people, the latter is stimulated by personal gain and honour. Yet, when their gentillesse is taken under consideration, the way they have been perceived could not have been more similar, for the women they cross paths with, according to Patterson, "are easily deceived by a man who fulfills their social expectations" (239). Thus, through the feminine gaze these men are initially evaluated according to their superiority within the social hierarchical structure and then they are appraised in accord with how such a male should conduct himself concerning the matters of the heart, a matter in which they both fail miserably.
Other male bodies that undergo similar feminine evaluation in terms of gentillesse are Theseus and his son Demophon. In the Legend of Ariadne, the imprisoned body of Theseus arouses great pity in Ariadne as he is considered to be first and foremost a "kynges sone" (1975), a "woful lordes sone" (1979), currently in a "povre estat" (1981). It is not only Theseus' current condition that moves Ariadne into helping him but the fact that he is the son of a king. Against her offer to aid Theseus, he pledges to forsake his heritage and serve her as a page even though he is "a kynges sone and ek a knyght" (2055). At this point, the poet interrupts the dialogue between Theseus and Ariadne to describe the physical traits of Theseus emphasising that he is a young and handsome knight. Ariadne, on the other hand, does not want Theseus to forsake his heritage as it is this social inheritance she holds high in esteem repeating that "A kynges sone, and ek a knyght" (2080) should not subjugate himself "To ben my servaunt in so low degre" (2081) but instead proposes that "[y]it were it betere that I were youre wyf, Syn that ye ben as gentil born as I" (2089-90). Since her sister Phaedra is also involved in aiding and abetting Theseus, Ariadne continues with her verbal contract by adding an article that would also see her sister safe: she requests that Phaedra "unto youre sone as trewely/Don hire ben wedded at youre hom-comyng" (2099-100). Only upon accepting this verbal contract will Ariadne help Theseus to overcome the Minotaur at the heart of the labyrinth as she concludes "[t]hat is the final ende of al this thyng;/Ye swere it here, upon al that may be sworn" (2101-2). Theseus duly promises to comply with Ariadne's proposition and as she has seemingly secured a place for her sister and herself, "Now, syster myn," she whispers softly to Phaedra.
Now be we duchesses, both I and ye, And sekered to the regals of Athenes, And bothe hereafter likly to ben quenes; And saved from his deth a kynges sone, As evere of gentil women is the wone To save a gentyl man, emforth hire myght, In honest cause, and namely in his ryght. Me thynketh no wight oughte us herof blame, Ne beren us therfore an evil name. (2126-35)
Ariadne's speech suggests the main reason for her helping this king's son and knight is the prospect of furthering her noble status. As Patterson suggests, "gentillesse is a claim to social superiority that tries and fails to dignify the appetite by which the inhabitants of this world are at once driven and undone" (239). It is her future expectation of being associated with the Athenian court that drives Ariadne into betraying her own people in a Medean fashion and she is also undone similar to Medea, as Theseus,
Whan Adryane his wif aslepe was, For that hire syster fayrer was than she, He taketh hire in his hond and forth goth he To shipe, and as a traytour stal his wey, Whil that this Adryane aslepe lay, And to his contre-ward he sayleth blyve. (2171-76)
Turning to Demophon, son of Theseus and Phaedra, the negative impact of gentillesse that weaves itself throughout the narrative is highly observable. As Theseus was constantly referred to being a "kynges sone" so too is Demophon; yet the reference to Demophon's lineage is not that expectations run high of his noble conduct but rather the opposite, that he is his father's son as "wiked fruit cometh of a wiked tre" (2395). Sailing forth from the victory gained in Troy towards Athens, due to rough weather Demophon and his crew are forced to dock for repairs and provisions and it is where he makes his landfall that he is counselled to seek the aid of Phyllis, the queen of the land. Although Demophon bears the generative marks of gentillesse in terms of the warrior figure like his father, he lacks nobleness when it comes to dealing with love, also like his father:
Men knewen hym wel and diden hym honour; For of Athenes duk and lord was he, As Theseus his fader hadde be, That in his tyme was of gret renoun, No man so gret in al the regyoun, And lyk his fader of face and of stature, And fals of love; it com hym of nature. As doth the fox Renard, the foxes sone, Of kynde he coude his olde faders wone Withoute lore, as can a drake swimme Whan it is caught and caryed to the brymme. (2441-51)
The continuous emphasis laid out in how Demophon walks in his father's footsteps does not leave much to imagination, as the expectancy that bearing so much resemblance to Theseus will eventually unfold within the narrative. Being false in love is second nature to Demophon, so when we hear that Phyllis "liketh wel his port and his manere" (2453) we are immediately reminded of Ariadne and how she was betrayed by Theseus. Perhaps even Chaucer has grown weary of the repeatedness that he decides to cut the story short and simply reminds his audience that however Theseus betrayed Ariadne, Demophon treats Phyllis in the same manner (2458-64) since "fals in love was he, ryght as his syre" (2492). The letter Phyllis sends to Demophon is conceivably better situated in enlightening Demophon's manhood from the feminine perspective wherein she writes she trusted much in his lineage and fair tongue (2525-6). So Demophon's lineage, the source of his gentillesse, was significant in guiding Phyllis's judgment and it is also this heritage that she curses.
That it mot be the grettest prys of alle And most honour that evere the shal befalle! And whan thyne olde auncestres peynted be, In which men may here worthynesse se, Thanne preye I God thow peynted be also That folk may rede forby as they go, [...] But sothly, of oo poynt yit may they rede, That ye ben lyk youre fader as in this, For he begiled Adriane, ywis, With swich an art and with swich subtilte As thow thyselven hast begyled me. As in that poynt, althogh it be nat fayr, Thow folwest hym, certain, and art his ayr. (2534-49)
In the classical sources as well as the poetic output of the early Middle Ages, lineage was one of the milestones from whence a man's sense of manhood was established. In this tale, however, this former constituent of masculinity has been inverted to such a degree that it degrades the man's honour specifically in matters pertaining to the heart.
In the legends of Lucretia and Philomela, the gradual blackening of the male image becomes more vivid as both women are raped; consequently, Lucretia commits suicide for she cannot bear to live with the shame and Philomela is mutilated as her tongue is cut out by her rapist in an attempt to silence her. In Lucretia's case, unlike the other women in the Legends, she is set as the paramount example of virtuous women, a characteristic that her husband Collantinus boasts to the Roman king Tarquinius who in turn sees her as a coveted prize to be conquered. "I am the kynges sone, Tarquinius" (1789) he says in an authoritative manner as he climbs into Lucretia's bed with a sword against her heart. It is the imminent prospect of death that frightens her as well as the words Tarquinius spills forth promising to slander Lucretia's name by killing the stable boy, laying his dead body in her bed, and accusing her of adultery. The poet reminds his audience that "[t]hese Romeyns wyves lovede so here name/At thilke tyme, and dredde so the shame,/That, what for fer of sclaunder and drede of deth" (1812-14). The fear of slander and of death causes Lucretia to actually lose consciousness and become numb so "She feleth no thyng, neyther foul ne fayr" (1818). Chaucer's voice intervenes, questioning the foundations of Tarquinius' gentillesse as he says
Tarquinius, that art a kynges eyr, And sholdest, as by lynage and by ryght, Don as a lord and as a verray knyght, Whi hastow don dispit to chivalrye? Whi hastow don this lady vilanye? Allas, of the this was a vileyns dede! (1819-24)
Full of shame and humiliation, Lucretia relates being raped by Tarquinius to her loved ones and then kills herself with a dagger. Once word gets out of Tarquinius' foul deed and all of Rome learns the truth, Brutus swears "[t]hat Tarquyn shulde ybanysshed" (1863) and because he has committed a "horryble dede of hir oppressyoun,/Ne never was ther kyng in Rome toun/Syn thilke day" (1868-70). Subsequently, this legend becomes the history of the exiling of kings, the end of the regal period in Rome paving way for the Republic to emerge. Chaucer's critique on gentillesse is on the extreme negative end of the spectrum in this legend as his words suggest: simply because he holds power this does not give him the right to possess all that his eyes devour, as this is not what knighthood and chivalry means. In this light, Chaucer's words also suggest that he might have had a romantic notion of what true gentillesse encompassed and that he was gradually growing disenchanted with this notion as the ideal image of knighthood and reality clashed. The following image of noble manhood is even further removed from that of Tarquinius as Tereus surpasses all the men in the legends as one of darkest images of manhood.
The Legend of Philomela begins by addressing God the giver of forms, asking him "[w]hy madest thow, unto the slaunder of man" (2231), "[w]hi sufferest thow that Tereus was bore" (2234). Under such a severe introduction does Tereus enter the scene. The next glimpse into his constructed personage is that "[o]f Trace was he lord, and kyn to Marte" (2244). No other mention of his noble status is given within the legend; yet since he is married to King Pandion's daughter Procne, one unfamiliar with the myth may surmise that he is of noble birth. (5) Tereus being related to Mars, "[t]he crewel god that stant with blody darte" (2245) and the fact that neither Juno (the goddess of marriage), nor Hymen (the god of wedding ceremonies) attended the union between Tereus and Procne but that "[t]he Furies thre with al here mortal brond" (2251), leads to a conscious foreboding that not all will end well. Thus, five years after his marriage to Procne, his wife asks to see her sister Philomela whom Tereus agrees to escort back to Thrace himself; yet once his eyes look upon the young and fair Philomela "[h]e caste his fyry herte upon hyre so/That he wol have hir, how so that it go" (2292-93). Similar to Tarquinius' glimpse of Lucretia and his undoing of her, so Tereus treats Philomela, who was supposedly under his protection. Once the vessel reaches Thrace, Tereus "up into a forest he hire ledde,/And to a cave pryvely hym spedde" (2310-11). She the lamb, he the wolf "[b]y force hath this traytour don a dede,/That he hath reft hire of hire maydenhede" (2324-25). But even worse than raping her, Tereus goes further and mutilates Philomela.
For fere lest she shulde his shame crye And don hym openly a vilenye, And with his swerd hire tonge of kerveth he, And in a castel made hire for to be Ful pryvely in prisoun everemore, And kepte hire to his usage and his store, So that she myghte hym neveremore asterte. (2232-38)
Ironically, Tereus is full aware that his actions in no shape of form conform to the unwritten codes of noble conduct; he has kidnapped his sister-in-law who happens to be the daughter of a king, has consistently raped her, has mutilated her, and shut her away from the rest of the world, telling her loved ones that she was dead. The act of cutting out her tongue lest she speaks of Tereus's gross misconduct speaks volumes in terms of Tereus's manhood. Philomela's voice was considered to be the only power that she wielded that would be able to bring him shame, so in his mind by silencing her Tereus removes the possible threat to his manhood. Now his complete subjugation of the forbidden female is complete. Yet, having been kept under these conditions for about a year or so, voiceless Philomela literally weaves her tale by embroidering the past year scene by scene onto a cloth; even though she is tongueless, she finds a way of delivering her message to her sister Procne. Chaucer ends the tale with the two sisters uniting and warns his audience to be wary of men.
Although the Legend of Good Women, as the title suggests, is woven around the stories of ten famous/infamous women of the classical period, their tales are formulated according to how they were mistreated by various men, most of which are considered to be false and unworthy. (6) Thus, similar to the poem Anelida and Arcite, the Legend inherently composes portraits of men from the perspective of the female; or rather, the men are painted in accord with the feminine gaze that substantiates the lack of true manhood. In this sense, Chaucer inverts mythocultural images of men and their masculinities as the men in this poem are not strictly categorised under the concepts of physical strength, honour and valour which were nominative of battlefield culture in the epic tradition nor are they evaluated solely under the paradigms of fin' amors where such characteristics as gentillesse and largesse were prominent; Chaucer rather fuses the two creating an amalgamation of previously rigid structures. The Legend, thus, transgresses both of these clear-cut constructions as it focusses on the ways in which these men were far removed from any idealised pattern or structure of manhood as comprehended and informed by earlier literary texts. As much as the earlier narratives focussed on the generative and positive aspects of the male body and its contingent designations, the Legend of Good Women zooms in on the negative facets, transforming the male's fame into infamy. In this sense, the Legend carries overtones of the Anelida text where the body and voice of the masculine counterpart Arcite was more or less devoid of any physical substance as his manhood was dually composed by both the female and the narrator. Likewise, the Legend is no exception as it weaves a similar path in diminishing designations of manhood as the men are assessed in relation to their malevolent treatment of women.
All in all, the Legend of Good Women explores Chaucer's deliberate historical and cultural distancing where he utilises the mythic template to generously delve into his comprehension of the male body and designations of manhood. Through subverting the memory images of formerly established classical male bodies and by empowering the feminine gaze as an authoritative evaluator of manhood, Chaucer re-informs previously idealised legendary and mythical men by defaming them, creating distorted if not more ordinary men that are fallible. Playing with the notion of how the "olde appreved stories" (21) did not always necessarily confer with the truth, or that there could be more than one reality specifically when human relations were concerned, Chaucer's poetic landscape becomes a fluid locus where new meanings are ascribed onto old, authoritative images of men. The poetic distancing as well as the pastness of the subject matter leaves Chaucer somewhat dissatisfied, an intuition that what is sought lies not in a distant past but in the presentness of his own time paves way for the construction of the Canterbury Tales where a multitude of contemporary fourteenth-century human images favourably flood the scene.
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Boffey, Julia and A. S. G. Edwards. "The Legend of Good Women". The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. Eds. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, (1986) 2007. 112-126.
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Zuleyha Cetiner-Oktem is a full-time lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at Ege University where she focusses on classical and medieval literature as well as science fiction and fantasy. She is the editor of Mythmaking across Boundaries published by Cambridge Scholars Press in 2016 and co-editor of Languages, Cultures, and Gender published by Ege University Press in 2017. She is currently working on a comparative study of medieval monsters. E-mail: email@example.com
(1) This article is a revised subchapter from my PhD dissertation "Memory, Men and Chaucer" (Ege University, 2013).
(2) All citations of Chaucer's poetry are from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson, 3rd edition, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988, and will be identified parenthetically by line numbers within the text. Quotations regarding the Legend of Good Women are from the F Prologue unless otherwise noted in parenthetical citations.
(3) For a detailed analysis of how Chaucer meshes hagiography and classical literature in the Legend of Good Women see Kiser, Telling Classical Tales: Chaucer and the "Legend of Good Women". Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1983.
(4) Here, when the last two lines of the F-Prologue and G-Prologue are considered, we have two very different interpretations. In the F-Prologue, immediately after receiving orders from Alceste, Chaucer picks up his books and begins working on the Legend: "And with that word my bokes gan I take, / And ryght thus on my Legende gan I make." (F 578-79); whereas in the revised G-Prologue, Chaucer first wakes from the dream and then begins writing: "And with that word, of slep I gan awake, / And ryght thus on my Legende gan I make." (G 544-45). Thus, while the F-Prologue remains a part of the dream vision, the G-Prologue is composed in waking life only inspired by the dream, making the revision closer to the Canterbury Tales.
(5) See Book VI of Ovid's Metamorphoses where the myth of Tereus and Philomela is given in full.
(6) Although the Legend of Good Women, unsurprisingly unfinished, depicts stories of ten women, there are only nine legends. The stories of Hypsipyle and Medea are handled under one legend. The unifying factor for the stories of these women is Jason. Thus, the denomination of ten women, nine men, and nine legends may also suggest that the women were considered in accordance with the men they encountered. Hence, the attempt to dismantle the sense of masculine authority seems to have gone amiss, making this poem as much about manhood as it does womanhood.
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|Title Annotation:||Geoffrey Chaucer|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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