Chivalry and its Faults

More Medieval Literature Examination.

I hope you understand Middle English.

EN 391

J. Weldon

4 April 2005

Chivalry and its Faults

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is so intricate that it is called the first modern novel. In fact, Chaucer is often thought to be a modern poet writing in medieval times, as if he had access to some kind of time machine. If he did indeed come from the future his mission must have been to inspire new thought on subjects of racism, classism, and all such things ruled by persuasive stereotypes. Chaucer made his versions of Troilus and Criseyde, the protagonists of the poem, self-reflective beings while remaining as faithful to his sources as possible; those being Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato and Benoit’s Roman de Troie. He casts the doomed lovers in the same typical roles in which they were trapped in earlier versions of the story; Troilus was as a naïve courtly lover and Criseyde as a wanton woman of the court. In medieval times – as is the case today with the rich and famous – people of the court were the most revered in society. Their ways were valued and consequently imitated by lower class citizens who were so deeply immersed in their envy of the comfort in which the aristocracy lived that they rarely questioned whether their adopted habits were right or wrong. Chaucer clearly saw that changes were needed in the ways both men and women were constructed by this society; his protest coming through in Troilus and Criseyde just as it does in his other great works. Not to be overlooked is Chaucer’s reluctance to give us his own personal stance on the construction of gender. As a supplement to make up for that lacking, we are given an intricate comparison of the ideal and real worlds that make up this poem; a contrast that in revealing the causes of the characters’ inevitable fates also unmasks social ills that plagued Chaucer’s time. In this essay, particular attention will be paid to the characters of Troilus and Criseyde, and how their public, private and personal images of self conflict with each other to convey Chaucer’s messages of love being unfruitful, men being naïve, and women being fickle because love, men, and women, are constructed inappositely.

If one conclusion can be made from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, it is that there is a definite didactic voice underlying the veil of his poetry. It was dangerous to draw attention to oneself through revolutionary words at this unstable juncture of time and therefore it would be safe and logical to surmise that Chaucer had his own opinion of things which he cleverly chose to hide under poetry. To understand what sort of thing Chaucer would – if he did indeed do – preach about in his poetry it is important to consider not only the work of the poet, but also the life of the man.

Geoffrey Chaucer saw many things in his day. He lived through the Great Schism. A historic milestone that saw the Holy Roman Catholic Church split at its seams and create two Popes; one in Rome, Italy, and one in Avignon, France. Today, and especially in North America, the separation of a church would not be a significant concern of society at large. In 14th century medieval Western Europe however, just a short while after the future shaping crusades, the division of civilization’s driving force meant the world to everyone and everything. With the additions of the Bubonic plague and the 1388 Peasant’s Revolt to Chaucer’s list of experiences, it becomes evident that Europe’s people, and not just Chaucer alone, were in mental disarray. This time saw the largest flowering of literary and cultural movements since those of the ancient African Empires of Kush and Timbuktu take place in what would be later dubbed The Renaissance. Out of this explosion of artistic genius came countless people who rebelled against the social milieu through art. Chaucer was one such artist and his style of writing was one that forced the reader to look in the mirror and examine themselves and their communities. In what Lynn Staley in her essay “Chaucer and the Postures of Sanctity” from Powers of the Holy calls “deliberate irresolution”, the reader can assume that Chaucer wanted to get his message across subjectively, rather than objectively outline his arguments (Staley 180). This way of communication was Chaucer’s method to “force a listener or a reader to recognize the unmentionable”; namely “the mechanisms by which society might be reformed”. Staley continues to relate Chaucer’s poetry to larger things saying that he “frequently domesticates and privatizes social and political conflict”. That is to say, that Chaucer did in fact write with a motive, and shaped his versions of copied out texts like Troilus and Criseyde to his own personal liking.

Chaucer believed that there was something “threatening in an economy based on money” because he saw what it did to the unfortunate ones not born into nobility and wealth (Pearsall xiv). The gap between rich and poor in medieval times was considerably large compared to today’s most heavily civilized areas and the effects of this broad gap seemed to also be exponentially increased. The poor envied the rich and the rich treated the poor like dirt; all while the poor got poorer and the rich got richer. Apart from the economic effects, Chaucer saw the ill-treatment in both classes of women by men. Felicity Riddy suggests that Chaucer was misogynistic and wonders “why [it was] not possible to imagine an altogether different kind of story, in which Cresseid marries a Greek, establishes a household, even has children…” (Riddy 285). To draw such a conclusion, I think, would be a bit of a stretch – taking into account Chaucer’s often dim-witted and ill-equipped narrators who seem to represent the collective ignorance of society more than that of an anti-feminist. The more likely reason that Chaucer did not change the outcome for Criseyde is that in leaving the story as it was – displaying Criseyde as she was traditionally known – Chaucer is able to criticize her stereotypical portrayal or at least showcase it to the point that his readers to do the same.

Consider how Criseyde is constructed as a character. She fits the typical mold of a courtly woman. When the reader is first introduced to her the narrator is saying that

…in al Troies cite

Nas non so fair, forpassynge every wight,

so aungelik was hir natif beaute,

That li a thing immortal semed she,

As doth an hebenyssh perfit creature,

That down were sent in scornynge of nature. (1.100-105)

Apart from being portrayed as a fallen angel, Criseyde was also described as a widow; setting her up as a woman in emotional distress. Adding to her public persona, Criseyde is first perceived by Troilus, and assumingly in the same way by all men, as woman of “honour, estat, and womanly noblesse” just from looking at her (1.287). From Troilus’ judgment of Criseyde as a person, the reader gets a glimpse into Troilus’ own being, and what characteristics were collected to make his character. He, like any man, has a social identity that is crafted through race and class, and personal identity crafted through the discourses he was exposed to. Being a part of the royal family and not just of the court, Troilus is awarded a considerable level of respect in public. To himself, he is torn between two role models of how a king’s son should be: his brothers Hector, the great warrior, and Paris, the great lover. He adopts a portion of each of his brother’s personas as his own, and in doing so becomes the true embodiment of the courtly lover. Troilus himself does not realize what he has become until he first sets his gaze upon the lovely Criseyde; saying earlier that the men in his company were “verray fooles, nyce and blynde …” (1.202). Moments later he finds himself ensnared by the same force which draws their gazes from all over the room; the scene being when the people of Troy are having a great feast to honor their guardian Apollo. It is perhaps this scene that foreshadows the doom that lies ahead for the would-be lovers. The men of the court are said by the narrator to be “many a lusty knight” while the women are said to be “many a lady fresh and mayden bright” (1.165-166). If this was the common view of the court – that all men were like farmers looking for a fresh harvest of women ripe for the plucking – then it would not be difficult to imagine Troilus’ and Criseyde’s view of each other being influenced by this common view. Criseyde then, already a widow and seemingly sexually experienced, only viewed Troilus as one of the “lusty” knights out for sex. It does not help that she is introduced to him through her mischievous uncle Pandarus who says to her:

Now, nece, myn, the kynges deer sone,

The goode, wise, worthi, fresshe, and free,

Which alwey for to don wel is his wone,

The noble Troilus, so loveth the,

That, but ye helpe, it wol his bane be.

Lo, her is al! What sholde I moore seye?

Doth what yow lest to make hym lyve or deye. (2. 316-322)

Criseyde is at first hesitant to get involved with another man but then agrees to entertain this knight’s love for reasons that are not initially because of love. Although she later claims to genuinely fall in love with him, we must question her resolve as a traitor’s daughter desperately looking for the acceptance of her people. Her meeting Troilus and having relations with him in Book III seems more like a matter of convenience to her than that of love; her being single, in need of a man, and in a fragile place socially. Furthermore, the agency she shows after they consummate their love is looked back upon as deception and coddling of Troilus. All the while Troilus is actually in love with her. A fact he finds impossible to fight, and one he embraces on the battlefield while claiming that it makes him a better warrior. It is in his act as a great warrior that Criseyde sees and first decides that she could love him. Considering the outcome of the poem, love to her seems like the simple exchange of gifts and loving words; an act to played for the court. She beholds him on his “baye steede” drenched in the blood of his enemies and says to look on him is “to loke on Mars, that god of bataille” (2.324-330). Awestruck, and with mouth agape, Criseyde asks “who yaf me drynke?” paralleling her situation to a well known literary tale in which Tristan and Isolde are both given love potions (2.651). She reacts to this iconic image of Troilus and sees a romantic hero not unlike the ones she often read and heard about in court life. Chaucer is showing us how Criseyde is being constructed from discourses of literature of his age. Troilus himself places Criseyde in a high light, falling in love with his own idea of her before he even speaks to her:

Thus gan her make a mirour of his mynde

In which he saugh al holly hire figure,

And that he wel koude in his herte fynde.

It was to hym a right good aventure

To love swich oon, and if he dede his cure

To serven hir, yet myghte he falle in grace,

Or ellis for oon of hire servants pace. (1.365)

Being the conventional courtly lover, he is immediately hit with Criseyde’s beauty and sickened by the possibility of not being able to serve her as a lover. His idea of her however, comes from within the ether; her beauty being his only justification for her worthiness. In addition, Troilus is to some degree concerned with his own public image, not wanting it to get out that he has become enamored with a woman in the same manner he once criticized.

Both Troilus and Criseyde have different images of themselves and of each other. Also, the public has its own idea of how a man and woman of the court should behave. Keeping in mind that Chaucer is always talking about something larger than just the material he has “domesticated and privatized”, we can link his ideas of men and women in the private and public spheres as possibly being related to ignorance of men in general, the unfair demonization of women everywhere, and the social ills underpinning the current idea of love. The latter being a criticism of the Church’s treatment of women since Eve in the Genesis of The Bible, Criseyde was undeniably a fickle woman – her inevitable betrayal of Troilus for the more convenient arms of the Greek Diomede leaving no room for argument on the subject. One Andrew Hadfield, in an essay entitled “Reading Beyond and Behind the Lines” from Consuming Narratives, says that Chaucer “deliberately exposes some of the more pernicious effects of patriarchy and offers them up for critique”. Furthermore, he accounts for the demonization of women saying that “monstrosity, of course, is not the preserve of women, but of those discourses which define them as such” (Hadfield 179). In other words, Chaucer is not himself saying that women are fickle, all he can be said to be guilty of is criticizing the discourses in which women rely on to construct themselves within and outside of the public sphere; the role models of Isolde and Guinevere being more than inefficient. Chaucer thinks men –the ruling sex – are ignorant because they allow a chivalric code to be acted out by the upper classes and imitated by the lower ones; ignorant to the fact that the code is doing more harm than anything. Not only did it put more power into the hands of already misguided women, according to Gwendolyn Morgan in Medieval Balladry and the Courtly Tradition, it also “provided a justification for the feudal system” and bred envy as “the new urban middle class adopted its manners and ideals in their attempt to gain respectability” (Morgan 12). To Chaucer, not only was the code flawed, but so were the men who nurtured it and brought it to prominence. Therefore, as both men and women of every class acted out the roles of hero and heroine in an attempt to bring the love of the story books to life, they corrupted the ideas of gender and love so deeply that the effects are felt to this very day.

Chaucer’s satire on chivalry is a criticism of the public sphere, social institutions, and how they distort the private and personal spheres of life. He found the people of his era too encumbered by the so-called rules of propriety put forth by the aristocracy. He lamented the sight of every new man who pursued love with a set of rules in mind. He sympathized with women who were told by the highest authorities that they were the cause of the fall of man into the world of sin, and thus destined to live as secondary to men for all time. Above all still, Chaucer commiserated those who thought love could work under the restraints of code of chivalry and perhaps called for its very refinement.

Works Cited

Aers, David. Staley, Lynn. Powers of the Holy. Univeristy Park: The University of

Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. from The Riverside Chaucer. Ed Larry Benson & F.N. Robinson. Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Hadfield, Andrew. “Reading Between and Beyond the Lines” Consuming Narrative.

Ed. Liz Herbert McAvoy & Teresa Walters. Cardiff: University of Wales, 2002.

Pp. 178-179.

Morgan, Gwendolyn A. Medieval Balladry and the Courtly Tradition. New York: Peter


Riddy, Felicity. “Henryson’s Testament of Cressid” Chaucer to Spenser. Ed. Derek

Pearsall. Blackwell Publishers: Massachusets, 1999. Pp. 285.

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