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.


Caxtons Prologues and Printing: The Christian Worthies

By David Mason

William Caxton’s printing is diverse, but he is perhaps best known for his prose romances. The subject of this post are three prologues to the romances of the so-called ‘Chivalric’ or ‘Worthies’ series:[1] Godfrey of Bullogne (printed 1481), Charles the Grete (1485), and Le Morte Darthur (1485), as well as the non-romance Book of the Ordre of Chyualry (1481).[2]

Caxton personally translated many of the prose romances he printed, including Godfrey of Bullogne and Charles the Grete, working meticulously and word by word.[3] Each was accompanied by short prologues and epilogues, offering insights into the motivation behind his work and the audience he intends to address. This post explores Caxton’s use of the Nine Worthies motif in the prologues of the ‘Chivalric’ or ‘Worthies’ romances, through which he groups the texts thematically, and aligns his printing with an established literary motif of the late Middle Ages.

Literature of the Nine Worthies

The Nine Worthies is a motif common to late medieval literature: nine heroic individuals from history and legend who are grouped together in a sort of pantheon of the greats. They can be divided into three groups of three, in a system popularised (though not devised) by Jacques de Longuyon in his c.1310 Les Vœx du Paon.[4] These are:

The Pagan Worthies:hans_burgkmair_d-_a-_drei_heidnische_helden

Hector, King of Troy
Alexander the Great
Julius Caesar

The Jewish Worthies:

Joshua of Israel
David, King of Israel
Judas Maccabeus

The Christian Worthies:

King Arthur
Charles the Great
Godfrey, King of Jerusalem

Each figure was the subject – collectively and individually – of a great deal of literary and artistic production in the late medieval period. Israel Gollancz’s appendices to his 1897 edition of The Parliament of the Thre Ages provide a numerous examples of medieval texts that showcase the literary popularity of this motif – two extracts from which are transcribed below:[5]

Men ȝernen iestes for to here,
And romaunce rede in dyuerse manere;
Of Alisaunder þe conqueroure,
Of Julius Cæsar þe emperoure, […]
Of King Arthour þat was so riche
Was noon in his tyme him liche; […]
How Kyng Charles & rouland fauȝt
With Sarazines nolde þei neuer be sauȝt…

(From the Anonymous Cursor Mundi (C11), ll.1-16)

The eldest was Alexandere, that alle the erthe lowtteded;
The tother Ector of Troye, the cheualrous gume;
The thirde Iulyus Cesare, that geant was holdene,
In iche jorne jentille, a-juggede with lords;
The ferthe was sir Iudas, a justere fulle nobille,
The maysterfulle Makabee, the myghttyeste of strenghes;
The fifth was Iosue, that joly mane of armes,
That in Ierusalem oste fulle myche joye lymppede.
The sextet was Dauid the dere, demyd with kynges…

(From Huchowne’s “Morte Arthure” (c.1380), the Interpretation of Arthur’s Dream, ll.3406-3446)

Both examples highlight some of the most typical descriptive features of late medieval depictions of the Worthies, which typically extol their martial deeds and great conquests. Alexander is the ‘conqueroure’ of all the world; Judas Maccabeus is the ‘myghttyeste of strenghes’ as a commander; Godfrey becomes King of Jerusalem after his success in the First Crusade.

Of the nine, Caxton’s ‘Worthies’ series details the lives of just three of the heroic individuals: the Christian figures of Arthur, Charles and Godfrey. Caxton’s printed translations are prose versions of the verse romances that proved popular at the Court of Burgundy during his own stay there in the mid-fifteenth century.[6] His mercantile and political connections meant that a significant portion of his working life was spent at the court of Philip the Good of Burgundy, where he had an intimate access to the libraries and social circles of the upper echelons.

Not only was the literature that Caxton selected for printing heavily influenced by Burgundian vogue, but so too was his printing style: it was the custom of the Burgundian court to write prologues and epilogues. Caxton’s influence in these prologues, which go some way to elucidate the connections between the ‘Worthies’ texts, have been recognised as being jointly-influenced by the dedications of the French texts he translated and those that appeared in Lydgate’s poetic works.[7] The particular style of Burgundian prologues emphasised the positive, didactic aspects of chivalry, and this didacticism is present in the prologues of the Worthies series;[8] Caxton prints, he repeatedly suggests, so that these great deeds might be emulated. Furthermore, we can read in the links between these prologues an intention that the texts should be read together, under the motif of the Nine Worthies.

Godfrey of Bullognecaxton

The first of these ‘Worthies’ texts is Godfrey of Bullogne, printed in 1481.[9] The prologue gives a detailed description of each of the Worthies, and focuses particularly on their deeds. The extent of this description puts Caxton’s work in line with the previous literary iterations of the motif:

Accordyng to that we fynde wreton in holy scripture of many noble historyes, which were here ouer long to reherce. But in especial of thre noble and moost worthy of alle other, that is to wytte, fyrst of duc Iosue, that noble prynce / whiche ladde and conduyted the Childeren of Israhel, the chosen people of God, oute of deserte in to the londe of promyssyon, the Londe flowynge Mylke and hony. Secondly, of Dauyd the Kynge and holy Prophete…

Caxton continues as such for each of the Worthies, eventually arriving at Godfrey himself:

Henne as for the thyrd of the Cristen prynces, taken, reputed and renommed for to be egal emong thyse worthy & best that euer were, I mene the noble Godefroy of Boloyne […] whos noble hystorye I late fonde in a booke of ffrenssh, al alonge of his noble actes, valyaunces, prowesses / and accomplysshement of his hye empryses.

Deed and ‘accomplysshement’ takes pride of place, and Caxton suggests that these actions should prove an example for all of his readers. The Christian Worthies are given particularly great emphasis as men of legend, potentially as indication of Caxton’s intent to print on both Arthur and Charles in the coming years. Arthur is not only ‘kyng of the brytons’, but was the ‘fyrst founder of the round table’; Charles is likewise noted to have performed ‘noble actes and conquestes’ that have inspired many ‘large volumes’, the likes of which Caxton would translate and print only four years hence

Malory’s Morte Darthur

The second of the ‘Worthies’ romances is Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, printed by Caxton in July of 1485.[10] As with his translations, Caxton accompanies his edition with a lengthy prologue that begins with reference to the Worthies:

For it is notoyrly knowen thorugh the unyversal world that there been nine worthy and the best that ever were, that is to wete, thre Paynyms, thre Jewes, and thre Crysten men.

Specifically, he mentions the repeated demands to print Malory’s text that he has received – which he says has prompted his continuation of the Worthies motif.[11] While we cannot accept his claims at face value, his discussion in the prologue indicates that he prints Le Morte Darthur because he is obliged:

 …many noble and dyvers gentylmen of thys royame of Englond camen and demaunded me many and oftymes wherefore that I have not do made and enprynte the noble hystorye of the Saynt Greal and of the moost renomed Crysten kyng, fyrst and chyef of the thre best Crysten, and worthy, Kyng Arthur, whyche ought moost to be remembred emonge us Englysshe men tofore al other Crysten kynges.

The sayd noble jentylmen instantly requyred me t’emprynte th’ystorye of the sayd noble kyng and conquerour Kyng Arthur […] affermyng that I ought rather t’enprynte his actes and noble feates than of Godefroye of Boloyne or ony of the other eyght…

The passages are in direct reference to his 1481 work, a feigned dismay that he has mis-ordered his Worthies and removed the English King Arthur from his rightful place at the top. The initial passage is followed by a clear listing of the Worthies, along with a justification that the Pagan heroes are acceptable as men of legend as they were ‘tofore the Incarnacyon of Cryst’. Presumably, he suggests, no Pagan man can be held to the same standard as Christian man after the coming of Christ. The insinuation is hardly surprising; the Morte, is the only of the three texts in this set where the Worthy in question does not spend the majority of their time on crusade against Pagan foes.

Charles the Grete

Finally, we reach Charles the Grete, which can be precisely dated from Caxton’s final lines of the epilogue, stating that it was ‘enprynted the first day of decembre’ of 1485, roughly five months after the Morte.[12] More interesting though is that Caxton ‘fynysshed in the reducyng of hit in to englysshe’ on the 17th June – the point at which he was working on printing the Morte. Once again, Caxton claims that popular demand provides the reason for his printing:

I haue been excyted of the venerable man messier henry bolomyer, chanonne of Lausanne, for to reduce for his playsyr somme hystoryes as wel in latyn & in romaunce as in other facion wryton, that is to say of the ryght puyssaunt, vertuous, and noble charles the grete…

However, shortly afterwards, the motive is twisted. Whilst still referring to the demands of his readership, Caxton makes mention of the Worthies series. Just as he has printed the works of Arthur and translated those of Godfrey:

 Thenne for as moche I late had fynysshed in enprynte the book of the noble & vyctoryous kyng Arthur, fyrst of the thre most noble & worthy of crysten kynges, and also tofore had reduced into englisshe the noble hystorye & lyf of Godfrey of boloyn kyng of Iherusalem, last of the said iij worthy, Somme persones of noble estate and degree haue desyred me to reduce thystorye and lyf of the noble and crysten prynce Charles the grete, kyng of fraunce & emperour of Rome, the second of the thre worthy…

The prologue to Charles the Grete, in this sense, is the most obscure of the three prologues; it does not follow trend Caxton has set of explaining the complete structure of the Nine Worthies, referring only to the Christian three. Perhaps, by this point, Caxton believes his readership has sufficient knowledge to make the connection. The link is not hidden, as he refers to Charles as ‘the second of the thre worthy’, but nor is it made explicitly clear in this prologue who these Worthies are. There is no mention of nine, no reference to the full pantheon, to the Pagans or the Jews, only the ‘thre most noble & worthy of crysten kynges’.

Caxton’s Worthies

Referring to these texts as a ‘Worthies’ series is a title we apply retrospectively, but not without reason. The evidence exists in Caxton’s own prologues to suggest that his intention was always that Godfrey of Bullogne, Charles the Grete, and his printing of Malory’s Morte Darthur be thematically linked and read as such. In using the motif as a linking factor, Caxton does not tread new ground. Many of the poetic works such as the Cursor Mundi treat the Worthies as a group, described and revered within a single text. Caxton prints each of his Worthies individually, but weaves throughout his own comments on the works a commonality that binds the three texts as one.

Of the remaining six, Caxton is remarkably quiet. He makes little mention of either the Pagan or Jewish worthies, save for his comments in the prologue to Malory’s Morte Darthur that they ‘were ‘tofore the Incarnacyon of Cryst’. Caxton’s judgements echo through the prologues, of these three texts and of many of his other prose romances. Many of these prologues show a considerably greater enthusiasm for religious war than can be reasonably explored in this post. Caxton’s allots a significant space in his prologue to Godfrey of Bullogne for direct comparison between the Saracen threat of the Godfrey’s crusade and the Ottoman threat that is ‘moche more nowe than were in his dayes’.

The prologues provide the clearest indication we could hope for of the intentions behind Caxton’s choice of texts to translate and print, even if we cannot discern the truth in his claims of patronage. Caxton adopts the motif of the Nine Worthies in his printing, but redirects focus from the entire pantheon onto the Christian three most relevant to his readership and printing interests.


  • William Caxton, Godeffroy of Boloyne, ed. Mary Noyes Colvin, EETS ES 64 (London: Trübner, 1893)
  • William Caxton, The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete, ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, EETS ES 36 & 37 (London: Oxford University, [1880] 1967)
  • William Caxton, The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry, ed. Alfred T. P. Byles, EETS SS 2 (London: Oxford University, 1971)
  • Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. P. J. C. Field (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013)

 For further reference:

  • Blake, N. F., Caxton and His World (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969)
  • Blake, N. F., Caxton’s Own Prose (London: Andre Deutsch, 1973)
  • Bornstein, D., ‘William Caxton’s Chivalric Romances and the Burgundian Renaissance in England’, English Studies, 57 (1976), 1-10.
  • Cooper, H., The English Romance in Time (Oxford: University Press, 2004).
  • Dickson, D., ‘The Nine Unworthies’, in Medieval Literature and Civilization, ed. D. A. Pearsall and R. A. Waldron (London: Athlone, 1969), pp.228-32.
  • Goodman, J. R., ‘Malory and Caxton’s Chivalric Series, 1481-85’, in Studies in Malory, ed. James W. Spisak (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985), pp.257-71.



[1] William Kuskin, ‘Caxton’s Worthies Series’, ELH, 66:3 (1999), 511-551; J. R. Goodman, ‘Malory and Caxton’s Chivalric Series, 1481-85’, in Studies in Malory, ed. James W. Spisak (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985), pp.257-71.

[2] The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry is regarded as part of the ‘Chivalric’ series, but it is not a ‘Worthies’ text like the romances. Still one of Caxton’s own translations, from the work of thirteenth-century French writer, Ramon Llull, it is addressed not as popular fiction but as specifically for those noble gentlemen who intend to enter the Order of Chivalry. See Caxton’s Epilogue to The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry, ed. Alfred T. P. Byles, EETS SS 2 (London: Oxford University, 1971).

[3] See ‘Introduction’ by Sidney J. H. Herrtage, in Charles the Grete, ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, EETS ES 36 & 37 (London: Oxford University Press, [1880] 1967), p. vii.

[4] Bruce Dickins, ‘The Nine Unworthies’, in Medieval Literature and Civilization, ed. Pearsall and Waldron (London: Athlone, 1969), 228-32.

[5] The following examples are transcribed from: The Parlement of the Thre Ages, ed. Israel Gollancz (London: Oxford University, 1897). The text is available on archive.org at < www.archive.org/details/cu31924013116219 > and the relevant appendix begins on p.119. A number of later texts considering the Nine Worthies, largely from C15-C18, are also freely available online on the Early English Books Online database.

[6] See: Diane Bornstein, ‘William Caxton’s Chivalric Romances and the Burgundian Renaissance in England’, English Studies, 57 (1976), 1-10.

[7] N. F. Blake, Caxton and His World (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969), pp.152-63.

[8] Bornstein, ‘Caxton’s Chivalric Romances’, p.6.

[9] Quotations from Godfrey are taken from Caxton’s prologue, transcribed in the EETS edition: William Caxton, Godeffroy of Boloyne, ed. Mary Noyes Colvin, EETS ES 64 (London: Trübner, 1893), pp.1-5.

[10] Quotations from the Morte are taken from P. J. C. Field’s 2013 edition of the text and paratexts: William Caxton, ‘Prologue to Le Morte Darthur’, in: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. P. J. C. Field (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013), vol. II, pp.854-7.

[11] Kuskin, ‘Caxton’s Worthies Series’, p.512.

[12] Quotations from Charles are taken Caxton’s prologue in the EETS edition: William Caxton, The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete, ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, EETS ES 36 & 37 (London: Oxford University, [1880] 1967).

David Mason is a doctoral candidate in medieval English literature, based at the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University. His work is funded by the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWW-DTP). David’s thesis examines the English prose romances printed between 1473 and 1534 and the means by which these texts represent crusade, conversion, and the Eastern ‘other’. He can be found on twitter @d_s_mason