Genre and Source in Troilus and Criseyde
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c h a p t e r e i g h t Genre and Source in Troilus and Criseyde The purpose of this essay is to answer two questions. The first is so familiar that to ask it is—at least according to received opinion—already to answer it: why, at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, does Chaucer define his poem as a “tragedye” (5.1786)? The second, despite its obviousness, seems never to have been asked at all, much less answered. C.S. Lewis told us many years ago “What Chaucer Really Did to Il Filostrato,” but he— and evidently everyone else—declined to ask the prior question: why Il Filostrato at all? As we shall see, these questions and their answers are interconnected. As everybody knows—or at least thinks they know— Chaucer derived the term tragedy from a sentence in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and its attendant gloss.1 What other thynge bywaylen the cryinges of tragedyes but oonly the dedes of Fortune, that with an unwar strook overturneth the realmes of greet nobleye? (Glose. Tragedye is to seyn a dite of a prosperite for a tyme, that endeth in wrecchidnesse.)2 198 Patterson-08 9/17/09 4:07 PM Page 198 Accepting this definition as a guide to Chaucer’s use of the term in the Troilus, many critics have tried to accommodate the poem’s densely complex narrative to this simple (not to say simplistic) model.3 The results are generic gyrations that were wittily summed up twenty-five years ago by Alice Kaminsky. A “survey of various attempts to define the genre of Troilus is very clarifying,” said Kaminsky, somewhat sardonically. [It] “reveals that Troilus is a comic tragedy with romantic and epic elements.” She goes on to cite Alan M. F. Gunn, who defines the poem as a “polylithic romance,” then describes it as “historical, amorous, . . . chivalric, comic, elegiac, tragic, pathetic, philosophical, psychological . . . allegorical, problematic , ironic, quasi-realistic, [and] myth-oriented.”4 This taxonomic chaos derives, I shall argue, from not attending to the context of Boethius ’s definition, by ignoring or misinterpreting the Monk’s tragedies in the Canterbury Tales, and then—misled by these mistakes—by assuming that Chaucer’s use of the term in the Troilus should be interpreted by reference to Boethius at all. In Book 5 of the Consolation Lady Philosophy posits a straightforward Platonic epistemology. Knowledge is obtained through four ascending modes: sensus (which Chaucer translates as “wit”), imaginatio (“ymaginacioun ”), ratio (“resoun”), and finally intelligentia (“intelligence”) (5, pr. 4, 151–66). Of these four, only the first three are available to human beings.5 Since Philosophy’s task is to raise the prisoner’s mind from a dependence on imagination to the use of reason, her instruction in the Consolation is organized according to these two epistemological modes. In the first two books Philosophy is the prisoner’s “noryce” (1, pr. 3, 6) and he is her “nory” (1, pr. 3, 13) or nursling. Here the prisoner is taught by means of the imagination, and most extensively by the prosopopeia by which Philosophy speaks as if she were Fortune, “usynge the woordes of Fortune” (2, pr. 2, 2). Before she begins, Philosophy makes it clear that her account of the workings of Fortune—to repeat, an account spoken not by Fortune but by Philosophy as if she were Fortune—is preliminary and philosophically facile. Philosophy says that she is now going to instruct her “nory” with “softe and delitable thynges,” using “the suasyoun of swetnesse rethorien” (2, pr. 1, 37, 40–41). At the end of the self-description that Philosophy has “Fortune” provide, the prisoner says: “thise ben faire thynges and enoyted with hony swetnesse of Rethorik and Musike; and oonly whil thei ben herd thei ben delycious, but to wrecches it is a deppere felynge of harm” (2, pr. 3, 8–12). Lady Philosophy agrees with him: Genre and Source in Troilus and Criseyde 199 Patterson-08 9/17/09 4:07 PM Page 199 “For thise ne ben yet none remedies of thy maladye, but they ben a maner norisschynges of thi sorwe, yit rebel ayen thi curacioun” (2, pr. 3, 19–20). The point for us is that these preliminary and philosophically inadequate teachings include tragedy. A form of the dangerous poetry purveyed by the Muses whom Philosophy expels at the outset (see 1, pr. 1, 44–77), tragedies do not instruct the reason but, through the imagination, move the...


Subject Headings

  • Literature and society -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • England -- Civilization -- 1066-1485.
  • Historical criticism (Literature).
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
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