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A Curious Error?: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Hypermnestra

From: The Chaucer Review
Volume 36, Number 1, 2001
pp. 73-86 | 10.1353/cr.2001.0018

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The Chaucer Review 36.1 (2001) 73-86

When reworking the Ovidian version of the story of Hypermnestra for his Legend of Good Women, Chaucer made a seemingly negligible variation which critics have since regarded as a "curious error." In Chaucer as in Ovid, the story involves two fathers who "lykede hem to make a maryage/ Bytwixen" their children, Hypermnestra and Lyno (2603-04). In Ovid, Hypermnestra's father is named Danaus; Lyno's father is named Aegyptus. Chaucer exchanges the names of the two fathers. Could this be but a "curious error"? Chaucer's modifications of Ovid include an additional change: reducing the number of daughters from fifty to one, which has a significant bearing on questions of gender and of subjectivity. The purpose of this article is to reexamine the relationship between Hypermnestra, her father, and her husband within the context of Chaucer's Ovidian source and the structure of the exchange of women.

Geoffrey Chaucer's Legend of Hypermnestra ends with Hypermnestra saving her husband instead of killing him as her father had ordered her to do on her wedding night. This act has led critics to view this legend as another variation on the theme of wifely loyalty. The text's emphasis, Henry Ansgar Kelly suggests, is on "marital fidelity." McCall claims Hypermnestra is ruled by her heart and affections. That when she wakes Lyno up he runs away without waiting for her creates the impression that she is the passive woman and deserted wife. According to Minnis, "because Hypermnestra is aware of her wifely duty and has her heathen 'feyth' (2770), she cannot murder her husband." The general view of Hypermnestra is of a weak and passive woman whose loyalty to her husband is not rewarded. The legend, most critics conclude, is a tribute to marital fidelity.

This view focuses on the bond between Hypermnestra and her husband. Yet this bond is part of a larger structure: the structure of the exchange of women in which the transacting fathers are as structurally, economically, and psychologically significant as the transacted woman and the man to whom she is married. Remembering the fathers in The Legend of Hypermnestra opens up a wholly different perspective on its inscription of gender, one in which the woman is far from weak, far from passive.

The Legend of Hypermnestra looks like a classical case of "the exchange of women." In accordance with medieval norms of marriage, Hypermnesta's father Aegyptus and Lyno's father Danaus decide to marry their children: "It lykede hem to make a maryage / Bytwixen Ypermystre and hym Lyno"(2603-04).

The tale begins when Aegyptus "concludes a deal" with another man -- Danaus; they are "ful acorded" to marry their children (2600-06). Exchange, Arjun Appadurai writes, "creates value," which is "embodied in commodities that are exchanged." In the exchange of women, as Luce Irigary explains, the exchanged commodity is a woman. In this case, Hypermnestra is a commodity. In such an exchange "the work force is . . . .always assumed to be masculine and [women] are objects to be used, objects of transactions between men." The function of the exchange of women is cementing the bonds between men upholding patriarchal society. In it women function as the copula of the homosociality "played out through [their] bodies." Hypermnestra does not participate as a subject in the exchange between Aegyptus and Danaeus

What exactly is the function and value of each of the participants in the economic exchange? Chaucer invites us to think about this question by introducing two significant economic variations upon his sources with regard to each of the participants: Aegyptus, Danaus, and Hypermnestra. In Ovid, Danaus is the name of Hypermnestra's father, and Aegyptus is the name of Lyno's father. Actually, what seems to be a mere confusion between the names becomes a meaningful comment on the relations between gender and power. If in the exchange of women, women are capital, in his variation upon his sources, Chaucer transfers capital from Danaus to Aegyptus. He seemingly inscribes himself, on a meta-narrative level, as a participant in the same kind of exchange in which the men in his legend are involved and aligns himself with them...

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