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 Letters of Abelard and Heloise

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise recount the love affair between a philosopher and his pupil. Abelard, a prominent theologian, philosopher, and logician, was hired by the canon Fulbert to teach his niece, Heloise. Abelard and Heloise fell in love and had sexual relations with each other until they were discovered by Fulbert. The two lovers were separated, but continued to meet in secret until Heloise became pregnant.

After Heloise gave birth to a son, Astrolabe, Abelard suggested that he and Heloise should be married in secret in order to appease Fulbert. Abelard and Heloise could not be married publicly as Abelard’s reputation in the Church would be severely damaged. Heloise originally objected to the marriage, but the couple were eventually wedded in secret. Later, Fulbert publicly disclosed the marriage, although Abelard and Heloise denied it.

For her own safety, and to escape public scandal, Abelard sent Heloise, disguised as a nun, to the convent of Argenteuil where she had been brought up. Meanwhile, Fulbert and his friends punished Abelard by castrating him. To escape his shame, Abelard entered the Abbey of St Denis. Shortly afterwards, Heloise finally took the veil and became a prioress until the convent was taken over by the Abbey. Abelard arranged for Heloise and the nuns to enter the Order of the Paraclete, where Heloise became abbess to a new community of nuns.

The letters that we are reading are the ‘Personal Letters’ that were exchanged between Abelard and Heloise, and they reflect on the nature of their past relationship and their current life in the Church. The other letters exchanged between the two contain information about Abelard’s life and his misfortunes (letter 1, Historia calamitatum), and Abelard’s advice to Heloise on how to direct religious communities of women (letters 6 to 8, the ‘Letters of Direction’).

Questions for discussion

  1. What is the nature of the letter form as a means of private exchange? How do Abelard and Heloise greet each other?
  2. How are biblical stories and quotations used throughout the letters?
  3. What is the relationship between marriage and public shame? What do you make of Heloise’s repudiation of marriage? How would you characterise the relationship between Abelard and Heloise?
  4. How are female piety and private devotion represented in Abelard’s letters? Are they represented differently in Heloise’s letters?
  5. How does the goddess Fortune function in Heloise’s lament?
  6. What is the relationship between punishment, repentance, and salvation? How are these related to crime, intention, and guilt?
  7. What do you make of Abelard’s final rejection of the love affair and his appeal for absolution?
  8. Some scholars believe the letters were written by a single author (probably Heloise): can you find any similarities or differences between the letters of Heloise and Abelard?