Legend of Good Women, The

Legend of Good Women, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1386)
   CHAUCER’s unfinished Legend of Good Women or, as he refers to it in the introduction to the MAN OF LAW’s TALE, the “Seintes Legende of Cupide” (Legend of cupid’s saints), is a collection of nine brief narratives of women martyred for love, set in the frame of a dream vision. Chronologically, the Legend of Good Women was composed immediately after TROILUS AND CRISEYDE and just before Chaucer began his more successful collection of stories, the CANTERBURY TALES.
   Readers have generally found the prologue to be the most interesting part of the text. In it Chaucer presents himself as going out in May to do homage to the Daisy, and meeting the God of Love and his consort, Alceste (a classical Greek heroine who agreed to die in her husband’s place). Love chastises Chaucer for having written of the faithless Criseyde, and translating the ROMAN DE LA ROSE, which he calls a “heresy” against his law. Alceste intercedes for the poet, listing his other, nonoffensive works, and it is agreed that as penance for his sins against the God of Love, he will write a series of narratives praising women who die while remaining true in love, often betrayed by their lovers. Nine tales are included in the Legend: Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle and Medea in one tale, Lucrece, Ariadne, Philomela, Phylis, and Hypermnestra, whose tale Chaucer left unfinished. Though it probably owes much to literary sources, particularly Guillaume de MACHAUT’s Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, the prologue may reflect a literal commission Chaucer received from King RICHARD II and his queen,ANNE OF BOHEMIA, who may be allegorized as the God of Love and Alceste in the prologue. This conjecture is supported by the fact that Chaucer’s fellow poet John GOWER was given a similar commission about the same time to write his CONFESSIO AMANTIS. As Gower’s poem presents the confession of a lover who has committed sins against Love, so Chaucer writes a Legend—a term associated with collections of saints’ lives such as the 13th-century GOLDEN LEGEND compiled by Jacobus de Voragine— praising martyrs to Love. Both poems take part in an elaborate poetic game of a “religion of love,” in which standard Christian language and customs are adapted and parodied in the COURTLY LOVE tradition.
   This, however, does not explain why the prologue survives in two different versions, known as F (denoting the Fairfax manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library) and G (named for the Cambridge Gg manuscript). Clearly Chaucer revised the original F prologue at some point, removing much of the elaborate praise of the Daisy (which had been influenced by a popular current French fashion of “Madeleine” or Daisy poems), and also removed a command from Alceste to deliver the poem to the queen. Scholars have conjectured that Chaucer revised the poem in 1394, when Queen Anne died, and so removed the specific reference to her. If Anne was the force behind the poem, it would also explain why Chaucer never finished it. He is enjoined in the prologue to produce his legends “year by year,” and if he did indeed produce one legend per year, then he would have been composing his ninth legend when Queen Anne died. Critics have sometimes found the legends themselves to be uninteresting because of their formulaic qualities: All men in the tales are false deceivers, all women innocent victims. It has even been suggested that Chaucer himself grew bored with the sameness of the legends and therefore abandoned them. In addition critics have had difficulty with the tone of the tales, which at times seem ironic or include apparently incongruous humor. It has been suggested that these elements indicate Chaucer’s tales are a parody of the sort of narrative that idealizes passive female victims— stories like Chaucer’s own Man of Law’s Tale, which mentions the Legend. Some have also suggested that the tales are not as uninteresting as they are made out to be: The Cleopatra and Dido stories contain vivid descriptive detail, for example, and the Lucrece story rises to a moving climax. The Legend of Good Women seems inspired largely by Ovid’s Heroides, a series of fictional letters supposedly written by classical or mythological heroines (including many heroines of Chaucer’s legends) at moments of crisis. Also influential to Chaucer’s conception was BOCCACCIO’s De Claris Mulieribus, a catalogue of illustrious women of the past. Of course he was also inspired by genuine saints’ lives, like that which inspired his own SECOND NUN’S TALE of Saint Cecilia—tales that depicted women in a light that may, by contrast, suggest that the virtue of women like Medea, for instance, falls short of the ideal. Still the faithfulness and real heroism of someone like Lucrece may well raise her to a kind of secular saintliness.
   ■ Delany, Sheila. The Naked Text: Chaucer’sLegend of Good Women.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
   ■ Frank, Robert W., Jr. Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972.
   ■ Hansen, Elaine. “Irony and the Antifeminist Narrator in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women,” JEGP 82 (1983): 11–31.
   ■ Kiser, Lisa J. Telling Classical Tales: Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.
   ■ McMillan, Ann, ed. and intro. The Legend of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer. Houston: Rice University Press, 1987.
   ■ Payne, Robert O. “Making His Own Myth: The Prologue to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women,” Chaucer Review 9 (1975): 197–211.
   ■ Phillips,Helen, and Nick Havely, eds. Chaucer’s Dream Poetry. Harlow,U.K.: Pearson Education, 1997.
   ■ Stone, Brian, trans. Geoffrey Chaucer: Love Visions. London: Penguin, 1983.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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