Middle English Ariadne – a Chaucerian Heroide (20th November 2019)

Theseus and Ariadne
Theseus abandons the sleeping Ariadne. The goddess Athene watches, while Hypnos drops water from the River Lethe across Ariadne’s brow. Source: Red Apulian Greek vase (ca. 400 – 390 B.C) held the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Link.

Next meeting: Wednesday 20 November, 15.10 – 17.00, in Room 1.02 of the John Percival Building.

Ariadne – daughter of King Minos of Crete and half-sister to the Minotaur – is known for her long symbolic association with the labyrinth and spools of thread, and for her decision to help the iconic hero, Theseus, escape the former using the latter. After being famously deserted by Theseus, she became the wife of the god, Dionysus, who immortalised her in the stars. As a princess of Crete and granddaughter of the sun god, Helios, Ariadne is also part of a family of complex female characters, all of whom are powerful and unafraid to transgress the bounds of nature – most notably, her mother Pasiphae, whose desire resulted in the conception of the Minotaur. Other female relatives include her sister, Phaedra; her aunt, Circe; and her cousin, Medea.

It is difficult to date the Heroides exactly due to Ovid’s habit of returning to and revising his texts, but it is thought to represent some of his earliest work, estimated as between 25-16BCE. Sequentially, the epistolary collection is thought to come after the Ars Amatoria. In the Heroides, Ovid gives the women control of writing their own stories at a crucial juncture in their narratives, providing insight into the psychological trauma each of the women are experiencing at that moment. The letter from Ariadne to Theseus is the tenth included in the Heroides. It focuses on one specific moment in the Ariadne myth, that when Ariadne awakens to find herself abandoned on Naxos and her subsequent lament as she watches Theseus’ ship depart. The epistle in the Heroides is not the only time Ovid tells the Ariadne myth, but it is the longest version. The profound intertextuality of the Heroides is demonstrated in the manner the Ariadne story in the Ars Amatoria is split: it begins with the introduction of Ariadne and narration of her desertion on Naxos by Theseus (Ars, ll. 1.527-36); an interruption follows, describing Silenus and the Maenad, and introducing the god, Dionysus (Ars, ll. 1.537-48). The myth concludes with Dionysus’ appearance to the abandoned Ariadne and the offer of marriage that saves her (Ars, ll. 1.549-64).[1] Notably, it is from the moment Ovid leaves Ariadne weeping in Heroides X that he recommences with her story in the Ars Amatoria, creating a clear narrative link between the two. Ovid also briefly recounts the Ariadne myth in theMetamorphoses, where she bridges the gap in Book VIII between the longer tales of Minos and Scylla, and of Dedalus and Icarus (Met., Bk. VIII, ll. 169-182).

The Heroides has long been considered the major source for Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women (c. 1380-87), an assessment apparently supported by the poet-narrator of the Legend when he identifies the ‘epistel of Ovyde / Of trewe wyves’ (TLOGW G-Prologue, ll. 305-6) as a primary source of auctoritas. This is reinforced again in the ‘Legend of Ariadne’, readers are again directed to Ovid’s versions of women, ‘In hire Epistel Naso telleth al’ (TLGOW, l. 2220). Nonetheless, while all but one of the women in the Legend are found in Ovid, four of them are not in the Heroides – demonstrating that the Heroides are just one of a number of sources Chaucer draws upon in crafting his own versions of the legends of classical women. In the same way the Legend constructs itself as a response to the anti-feminism of Chaucer’s earlier Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1381-86), the Heroides were viewed in the Middle Ages as a response to Ovid’s ‘arguably anti-feminist’ Ars Amatoria.[2] Both texts have been considered among the less impressive works of their respective authors.

Due to its many paradoxes and difficulties, Chaucer’s Ariadne has been on the receiving end of more dedicated criticism than any of the other women in the Legend. Observing that the sole reason for Ariadne’s inclusion in the Legend is because she has been abandoned, Simon Meecham-Jones writes, ‘It is curious, then, that the woman whose conduct, albeit fortuitously, adheres most closely to medieval and Christian models of female patience has been so roundly condemned by critics.’[3] Unlike other figures in the Legend (such as Medea or the sisters, Philomela and Procne, who violently enact revenge upon their male abusers) Ariadne’s reaction to her abandonment is limited to her lament. Perhaps this is because she is confined to the island, or perhaps it is because she will shortly be rescued by the wine god, Dionysus. Regardless, her inaction has not protected her character – R. W. Frank viewed Chaucer’s Ariadne as a ‘grotesque’, and twenty years later, Sheila Delany reinforced that notion in her description of Ariadne’s exaggerated physical reaction as ‘more appropriate to a village girl than to a princess’.[4] The critical condemnation and neglect suffered by the Chaucerian Ariadne is not dissimilar to the decline suffered by her character in the Middle English period. In contrast to her influential Latin predecessors, the Middle English Ariadne is a minor character, leaving Chaucer’s Ariadne (for all the challenges it presents) as her most pronounced appearance.

Topics/questions for discussion:

  1. What is the purpose of the extended opening of Chaucer’s ‘Legend of Ariadne’ that focuses on Minos?
  2. What genre is the ‘Legend of Ariadne’? Is it hagiographical? Romance? Dream vision?
  3. Is Phaedra’s speech in the Legend a surprise? What difference does it make to our idea of the typical version of the Ariadne myth to have Phaedra be the one to come up with the plan to free Theseus?
  4. What do we think of the poet-narrator?
  5. What is the role/purpose of the gaoler?
  6. One of the criticisms that has been often levelled against The Legend of Good Women is that it just is not good. Does this criticism stand up either:
    1. As poetry?
    2. As a version of the Ariadne myth?
    3. As a retelling of the Heroides?
  7. Consider Ariadne waking up in the Legend Ariadne waking up in the Heroides – Sheila Delany describes the Ovidian version in the Heroides as ‘little short of farcical’ and suggests Chaucer successfully captures and reproduces the comic effect Ovid intended.[5] Is it comical, or something else?

[1] Despina Keramida, ‘Heroides 10 and Ars Amatoria 1.527-64: Ariadne crossing the boundaries between texts’, (2010), p. 50.

[2] Florence Percival, Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 173.

[3] Simon Meecham-Jones, ‘Intention, Integrity and ‘Renoun’: The Public Virtue of Chaucer’s Good Women’, The Legend of Good Women: Context and Reception, ed. Carolyn P. Collette (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006), p. 145.

[4] R. W. Frank, Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women (Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 122; Sheila Delany, The Naked Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 209.

[5] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 209.


Ovid’s Medea in the Medieval and Early Modern Period (12th December)

Medea crashes Jason’s wedding party. Source: Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 37v.

To jump right into discussing the various ways Medea was fashioned and re-fashioned throughout the Middle Ages is tempting but ultimately a shallow and unfulfilling approach. To read her medieval versions without understanding the social, religious and cultural background that generated them is not to read her at all.[1]

Over the course of a long history that stretches back to Greek mythology, there have been many versions of Medea, all overlapping with and building upon each other. Predominantly, it is as the archetypal murderous mother that she is most often remembered, but this is not the only label she has borne. Treacherous daughter, murderous sister, enchantress, potioneer, and wronged wife are also titles she has counted among her own.

The daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis and a granddaughter of the sun-god, Helios, Medea fell in love with the hero, Jason, helping him to outwit her father and steal the Golden Fleece. It is Jason’s betrayal of her love for him that prompts the extreme acts of infanticidal revenge that made her name synonymous with ‘wickedness itself’.[2] However, this betrayal also paves the way for the depiction of a more sensitive, emotional Medea that writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer capitalised upon to recast her in a more fitting, less threatening, manner.

Whatever else she may be, Medea is indisputably a cause of fear. In the medieval period, she became particularly menacing to an English audience in period that was undergoing seismic social and cultural shift. Her actions capture the attention of writers through the ages, almost reluctantly so. The Elizabethan poet and playwright, Thomas Achelley, dismissed the transgressive behaviours of Medea and her ilke as the actions of “ethnicke examples”, emphasising the distance between her and the women of Protestant England – the implication being women should be grateful for this distance.[3] And yet, for all Achelley dismisses Medea as unimportant, he and others are incapable of leaving her alone. Her narrative is not one that easily allows the author / reader to move on, being as reluctant to let go as Medea herself was over Jason. Beyond the apparent end of her own tale, Medea crosses over into roles in the tales of other characters. In the Metamorphoses, for instance, she reappears at the beginning of the Theseus narrative as the wicked stepmother, trying to arrange Theseus’ poisoning to guarantee the furtherance of her own son’s prospects.

She is the subject of plays by Euripides and Seneca (which survive) and one by Ovid (which does not), but as access to surviving Greek tragedies was limited through the medieval and early modern period, it is Ovid’s version of her, found in Book VII of the Metamorphoses and Heroides XII, that is most important to her medieval and early modern presence. This month, we will be looking at two translations of the Medea narrative in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Chaucer’s retelling within The Legend of Good Women; and the very end of William Caxton’s The History of Jason.

This months texts:

  1. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A. D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, reis. 2008), ll. 1-402.
  2. Ovid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation, 1567, J. F. Nims, trans. A. Golding (Paul Dry Books, Inc, new edn. 2000), ll. 1-513.
  3. Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea’, The Legend of Good Womenin The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn, ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1580-1679.
  4. William Caxton, History of Jason, John Munro (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1908), ll. 19-40.

The Latin poet Publius Ovidius Naso – Ovid – was born in 43 BC and was the only one of the great Latin poets to see the beginning of the Christian era. Ovid is one of the most influential poets in Western literature, and the fifteen books of the Metamorphoses, counting approximately 250 stories and spanning from the first chaotic moments of creation to the rise of Rome, is his most ambitious work. Ovid was banished from Rome in 8 AD for immorality before the Metamorphoses was completed, and issues of speech and silencing run through the tales like a thread, always reminding the reader of their storyteller’s unjust exile to Tomis. Almost twenty percent of the tales Ovid tells recount silencing of a kind and speech loss has long been identified by scholars as a key aspect of the transformations.[4]

Arthur Golding was born in Essex in 1536, and although he dropped out of university during the reign of Queen Mary, he read the classics thoroughly as a young man and their translations from the Latin and French became his life’s work. His 1567 translation of the Metamorphoseswas the first to translate directly from Latin into English, and it rapidly became the standard Ovid in English, remembered now as “Shakespeare’s Ovid”. Its popularity inspired a wave of Elizabethan translations of Ovid’s works, and its significance to the English literary canon was seemingly confirmed, when in 1915, Ezra Pound deemed it, “The most beautiful book in the language”. Golding also produced numerous volumes of John Calvin’s sermons and treatises, a translation of Caesar’s Commentaries, an account of a 1573 murder that took place in London, and an account of the London earthquake of 1580.

Of all the women in The Legend of Good Women, it is Medea who gets the shortest shrift. Her tale is not even given its own space, instead compressed into one alongside Hypsipyle (her predecessor in Jason’s affections). The entire episode spans a mere 310 lines and at barely one hundred lines, Medea’s legend is reduced to a footnote in what is essentially ‘The Legend of Jason’. The passionate, emotional Medea who Ovid first depicts in the Metamorphoses debating so hard with herself as she is torn between her familial duty and her overpowering love for Jason is absent in Chaucer’s retelling.

The Legend of Good Women is thought to have been written between 1380-1387 at the behest of Queen Anne of Bohemia, the consort of Richard II.  It follows Troilus & Criseyde in the chronology of Chaucer’s works (purportedly as an atonement for the wrongs Chaucer-the-poet did to women in general in his portrayal of Criseyde) and is usually regarded as a critical paradox: despite having had great time and effort expended upon it, it was apparently abandoned and is viewed by some as a failure. The Legend survives in twelve manuscripts, and there are two different versions of the prologue.

William Caxton is thought to have been born around 1422. After a period living and working as a merchant in Bruges and observing the development of new printing technology in Cologne, he partnered with a Fleming called Colard Mansion to open his own printing press. Their first publication was an English translation of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye in 1473, which Caxton himself translated. Upon his return to England, he is credited with opening the first printing press in 1476.

The History of Jason was first published c. 1477 and is Caxton’s English translation of a French romance by Raoul Lefèvre from c.1460. The History of Jason constructs Jason as a typical romance hero, and places a great deal of emphasis upon his previous marriage contract with the Queen Mirro to nullify his bond with Medea. However, once Mirro has died (shot with an arrow through the throat by Patroclus on the orders of King Aeson), the way is opened for Jason and Medea’s reunion.

Topics for discussion
• Thinking about translation, to what extent do the two versions of Ovid’s Medea count as different texts? Where are the differences? Why might these differences exist? Or has little enough changed in the approx. 450 years that they are still recognisably the same text?
• How do the beginnings of the Ovidian Medea and Chaucer’s ‘Legend of Hypsipyle’, set up different expectations for the texts?
• How is Jason portrayed throughout these texts, and how does that influence how we perceive Medea?
• Consider the three different endings these texts present for Medea. Is the ‘Happily Ever After’ Caxton gives Jason and Medea convincing in the light of the other versions of her tale?
• What tensions, fears, and anxieties might the figure of Medea have played upon and incited in the medieval and early modern period?
• Medea is foremost remembered as the mother who killed her sons. How useful are the various labels that have been attached to Medea – ‘murderess, necromancer and sorceress’[5] – when considering her construction as a character?
• What do we think of Medea? Is she a villain? A victim? Is she ever sympathetic?

[1] Siobhan McElduff, ‘The Multiple Medeas of the Middle Ages’, Ramus, Vol. 40, No. 2 (2012), p. 191.
[2] Geoffrey of Vinasuf, as quoted in Florence Percival, Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 203
[3]Katherine Heavey, The Early Modern Medea: Medea in English Literature, 1558–1688, p. 1.
[4] Bartolo A. Natoli, Silenced Voices: The Poetics of Speech in Ovid(Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin press, 2017), p. 11.
[5] Florence Percival, Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 203.

Geoffrey Chaucer, Dream Visions (26th October 2016)


Next meeting: 26th October 2016 / Room 1.26 / 3-5pm

Alongside romance, dream visions formed one of the most popular genres of literary writing in the later Middle Ages. Chaucer wrote four dream visions before he wrote the Canterbury Tales, and his dream poetry draws on a range of classical and continental sources, especially French dream visions and love lyrics from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Chaucer’s choice to write dream poems was paralleled by the dream visions of his English contemporaries, including William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the Gawain-poet’s Pearl, and was emulated by fifteenth-century Chaucerian followers such as John Lydgate (The Complaint of the Black Knight) and James I of Scotland (The Kingis Quair). As a genre or mode, the dream vision is capacious and flexible: it can accommodate narrative, dialogue and debate, lyric, both the real and the allegorical, and both secular and spiritual concerns.

The Book of the Duchess (c.1368-72), Chaucer’s earliest dream vision and first sustained narrative poem, was likely written for Duke John of Gaunt in the years following the death of his wife Blanche, and it addresses ideas of grief and consolation following the death of a loved one. The Parliament of Fowls was perhaps composed c.1380-82, when King Richard II was negotiating for the hand of Anne of Bohemia. Yet these are much more than occasional poems. These poems deploy and interrogate theories of the origins and nature of dreams, and Boethian ideas of consolation. They explore themes of love, loss, death, and desire, and consider the interrelations of nature and culture, experience and authority, and the nature of and inspiration for poetry itself.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What do you make of the narrators? How do they compare with Chaucer’s other narrators with which you may be familiar – for instance, in The Canterbury Tales or Troilus and Criseyde?
  2. What does Chaucer suggest about the sources and nature of dreams, and their interpretation?
  3. What is the role of books in Chaucer’s dream visions?
  4. How do sleep, insomnia, and emotions feature?
  5. What do the settings contribute to the poems’ themes and questions?
  6. How do Chaucer’s dream poems portray chivalric figures? (compared to, say, Chaucer’s romances?)
  7. How do Chaucer’s dream poems represent women?
  8. To what extent do Chaucer’s dream visions demand to be read on an allegorical level?
  9. To what extent are they independent of their immediate patronage contexts?
  10. Does the Book of the Duchess offer consolation, and if so, what sort? Does the Parliament of Fowls offer any resolution to debate, and if so, what sort?

John Dryden, Theories of Translation (20th July 2016)


Next Meeting: 20th July 2016 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

John Dryden was born on the 9th August 1631, and died on the 1st May 1700, at the age of 68. He was a hugely successful playwright, critic, poet, and translator who dominated the English literary scene in the later seventeenth century. Dryden became the first Poet Laureate in 1668 and was fiercely loyal to the Stuart kings, even though their reign was not always smooth. After the deposition of James II in 1688 Dryden refused to swear the oath of allegiance to William and Mary and so fell out of favour. He was stripped of the Poet Laureateship, although Christopher Hollis has argued that this was because Dryden was not willing to work for a regime in which he did not believe, rather than because of the new royals did not want his services.[1]

Without the salary that accompanied the title of Poet Laurette Dryden turned to translation as a source of income. He translated, among others, The Satires of Juvenal (1693), The Lives of Plutarch (1693), and The Works of Virgil (1697). The full list of translations from Fables Ancient and Modern is as follows:

  • Palamon and Arcite: or, The Knight’s Tale
  • Meleager and Atalanta, out of the Eighth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Sigismonda and Guiscardo, from Boccace
  • Baucis and Philemon, out of the Eighth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Pygmalion and Statue, out of the Tenth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Cinyras and Myrrah, out of the Tenth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • The First Book of Homer’s Ilias
  • The Cock and the Fox: or, The Tale of the Nun’s Priest
  • Theodore and Honoria, from Boccace
  • Ceyx and Alcyone
  • The Flower and the Leaf: or, The Lady in the Arbour. A Vision (wrongly attributed to Chaucer)
  • The Twelth Book of Ovid His Metamorphoses
  • The Speeches of Ajax and Ulysses. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XIII
  • The Wife of Bath Her Tale
  • Of the Pythagorean Philosophy. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XV
  • The Character of a Good Parson; Imitated from Chaucer, and Inlarg’d.
  • Cymon and Iphigenia, from Boccace

Interspersed with the translations are literary compositions completely of Dryden’s own design:

  • To Her Grace the Duchess of Ormond
  • To my Honour’d Kinsman, John Driden of Chesterton
  • The Monument of a Fair Maiden lady, Who dy’d ay Bayh, and is there Interr’d

Dryden’s translations of Chaucer were used by future poets as a way into Chaucerian translation, and were the authoritative editions for many years afterwards. Dryden saw himself as being within a continuing tradition of great writers, and worked to present himself as exactly that, with strong links to the literary past. He was the first to dub Chaucer as ‘the father of English literature’ and wrote that ‘Shakespeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets’ in An Essay on Dramatic Poesie (1668).

Questions for discussion

  1. How does Dryden’s theory – or perhaps theories – of translation change over time?
  2. Do we agree with Dryden’s theory that translation should be an essence capturing exercise, rather than an exact science? Does this endanger the integrity of the text?
  3. Does it seem likely that Dryden’s views on translation changed, or did he see a way in which looser translation could be used to build a canon?
  4. In what ways is Dryden attempting to construct a canon, with himself as the latest in that line?
  5. Is it problematic that the same man building the canon is also the primary mediator of that canon to the general public? Dryden kick started an age of translation into vernacular English, and also adapted a number of Shakespeare plays including The Tempest (1667) and All for Love (1677), an imitation of Antony and Cleopatra.
  6. What techniques does Dryden use in these extracts that we might recognise as being medieval? Do any of the techniques seem especially Chaucerian?
  7. Dryden chose to translate The Knight’s Tale, The Tale of the Nun’s Priest, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and gave us The Character of a Good Parson; Imitated from Chaucer, And Inlarg’d. What does the choice of tales tell us about the canon Dryden is trying to construct? Is it relevant that at least two of these tales are among the most romance like within Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?
  8. For those who know the other texts translated in Fables Ancient and Modern, can the selection from Chaucer be linked to these other, more classical, texts? Where does The Flower and the Leaf fit into this selection?


[1]Hollis, Christopher, Dryden (New York: Hookell House Publishers LTD., 1974), p. 151

French and English fabliaux (17th February 2016)

The Summoner from the Ellesmere Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales

Next meeting: 17th January 2016 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

The Fabliaux genre was popular in twelfth and thirteenth century France, and around 150 French fabliaux are now extant. The genre was briefly revived in England the fourteenth century, and Geoffrey Chaucer included several fabliaux in The Canterbury Tales.

Fabliaux are traditionally set in real, familiar places, and the characters are ordinary sorts – tradesmen, peasants, priests, students, restless wives; the plots are realistically motivated tricks and ruses. The genre presents a lively image of everyday life among the middle and lower classes, but the class politics and function of these tales are often complex: some scholars suggest that they were subversive tales which were consumed by the lower classes, while others argue that they were a product of aristocratic society that were designed to reinforce social hierarchy.

We are reading a selection of French and English fabliaux, including:

Le Prestre Crucefié / The Crucified Priest (Old French / early thirteenth century / France)

In this tale, a cuckolded husband, who is also a wood carver, castrates a priest who has an affair with his wife. There are two later versions of this fabliau, including De Connebert and Du Prestre Teint (The Dyed Priest)

Li Dis de la vescie à Prestre / The Tale of the Priest’s Bladder (Old French / early fourteenth century / Antwerp

In this tale, two friars beg a dying priest to leave them his property. The Priest consents on the grounds that the friars bring their Prior with them the next day. Five friars arrive without their Prior, but the Priest insists he will only reveal his secret in the presence of the Sheriffs and the Mayor. The Priest berates the friars for their importunity, and bequeaths his bladder to them. This text is an analogue for The Summoner’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s Summoner’s Prologue and Tale (Middle English / late fourteenth century / England)

In The Canterbury Tales, The Summoner takes offense at The Friar’s Tale, which focuses on a corrupt summoner and his interaction with a demon. In response, The Summoner tells the tale of a dishonest friar, who wanders from house to house begging for alms.

The friar arrives at the house of Thomas and his wife: Thomas is ill, and their child has just died. The friar reassures Thomas’ wife that their child has entered heaven, but he insists that Thomas is ill because he has not donated money to the church. The friar continues to lecture Thomas, and finally asks him for money to build a cloister. Thomas tells the friar he has a gift for him, and that he can have if he divides it between his twelve brothers. The friar attempts to retrieve the gift, which Thomas is sitting on, but it is, in fact, no more than a fart.

The friar is chased from the house, and complains to the lord of the village about how he is supposed to divide a fart into twelve. The lord suggests that a cartwheel could be used to distribute the fart equally.


 Some possible topics for discussion

  • The body / fetishization?
  • C12th / C13th contexts?
  • Conservative (Norris Lacy) or subversive (Benson)? Reflective or corrective?
  • ‘Fabliaux are the essence of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque and violence is often a part of that humour which was directed at mixed audiences of peasantry, bourgeoisie, and nobility.’
  • The meanings generated by torture and (judicial / non-judicial punishment)?
  • ‘The episodes interrogate the “Other within” – those who function within a society and a shared cultural identity, but who transgress societal norms and act in ways beyond social or literary sanction’.
  • What are the advantages and limitations of reading the Summoner’s Tale as a response to the Friar’s?
  • Despite the scholarly emphasis placed on Chaucer’s comic tales, the English fabliau is relatively rare. Why use a form that was, to all intents and purposes, dead?
  • And how does Chaucer use the form? What are the characteristics of Chaucerian fabliaux?
  • (and if you want more, you could look at one version of Boccaccio’s handling of the fabliau form from II.iv of the Decameron: http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/texts/DecShowText.php?lang=eng&myID=nov0402&expand=day04 )






Death and exile in Troy – 5th August 2015

The MEMORI reading group meets on Wednesday the 5th of August, from 3:10 to 5 pm,  in Rm 2.04a/b to discuss a selection of readings on the themes of death and exile in Troy.

The readings:

  • Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Le Roman de Troie, midtwelfth century, ‘Briseïda encourage l’amour de Diomède’, dix-neuvième bataille’
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, late 1330s, Cantos vi to viii
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, 1380s, Book V, ll. 582–1869

While the great epic romance of Troy provides much material for discussion, we will be focussing specifically on the themes of exile and death, events which bring the love affair of Troilus and Criseyde to an end. The affair between these two characters is a significant medieval addition to the ancient tale of the Trojan war, taking place between Troilus, son of Priam, and Criseyde, a character evolved from a conflation of Briseis and Cryseis, Trojan captives of Achilles. In placing the love affair at the heart of Il Filostrato, Giovanni Boccaccio greatly amplifies the romance between the two characters from its source in Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Le Roman de Troie. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde follows the plot of Il Filostrato, although the influence of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophaie redirects the focus of the text to an exploration of fate, fortune, predestination and human agency.

The story so far…

Troilus, prince of Troy, has been engaged in a long, clandestine affair with Criseyde (Briseida/Creseida), the daughter of Calchas, seer and servant of Apollo, whose knowledge of Troy’s impending destruction led him to flee the city for the Greek encampment. Wishing to save his daughter from the fate of the other Trojans, Calchas persuades the Greeks to demand Criseyde in return for their prisonor, Antenor (who will later betray the city). The secret nature of the love affair prevents Troilus from being able to halt the exchange.

Our readings begin from the point of this exchange being agreed and include the seduction of Criseyde by the Greek Diomede, an exchange of letters between the lovers, Criseyde’s failure to fulfil her promise to return to Troy and Troilus’s eventual death.

Topics and questions for discussion:

  • These texts devote much attention to a love affair taking place in the midst of a lengthy siege. While the narrator and audience are, of course, fully aware of the city’s fate, the war and its violence appear to be subordinate to the appropriate conduct of lovers. How do the contradictions inherent in this elevation of romantic/sexual love over the business of war affect the texts’ treatment of a) Diomede’s seduction of Criseyde and b) narratorial condemnation of Criseyde’s betrayal?
  • In Il Filostrato and Troilus and Criseyde, Criseyde’s gaze upon the walls of the city from the Greek encampment mirrors Troilus’s longing watch from upon the walls. To what extent is Criseyde portrayed as an exile? How should we understand her assertion to Diomede in Il Filostrato that she wishes to partake of the city’s fate alongside its inhabitants?  What is the meaning of her shifting allegiances?
  • The texts are inconsistent on whether Criseyde is the only woman among the Greeks or whether she is amongst others. What might be the reason for the inconsistency?
  • In contrast to the lengthy prelude to the love affair in Boccaccio and Chaucer, and the lengthy speeches in all three versions, the death of Troilus is an abrupt occurrence. Can this be seen as a reassertion of the brutality of war, an interruption of an escapist dream of love? If not, why not?
Creseida in the Greek encampment, Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Morgan Library, M.371, f.44r
Creseida in the Greek encampment, Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Morgan Library, M.371, f.44r
Troilo's last battle, Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Morgan Library M.371, f.56r
Troilo’s last battle, Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Morgan Library M.371, f.56r

Click here to see more from this beautiful manuscript:  Morgan Library MS M.0371

The Book of the Duchess – 12th March 2014

Our next meeting will take place on Wednesday, the 12th of March, from 3:10 pm – 5 pm in Rm. 2.50, John Percival Building.

Members of the group expressed a desire to read some of Chaucer’s earlier work, so we will be reading one of his dream visions, The Book of the Duchess, written between 1369 and 1372.

Topics of discussion might include:

·        The relationship between the frame and the dream

·        The depiction in the dream of the bed chamber

·        The extent of the narrator’s naïveté

·        The nature of mourning and its relationship to the Black Knight’s narrative of


·        The puppy as dream guide

·        The significance of the hunt

·        Discourse

·        Chess

·        Birds


As always, all welcome.