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“Verray goddes apes”: Troilus, Seynt Idiot, and Festive Culture
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Chaucer’s debt to festive culture is by now well documented. The efforts of a number of critics, including Alfred David, Carl Lindahl, John Ganim, and Jon Cook, have done much to reveal the echoes of festive practice and modes of thought found in his work. 1 Most of this scholarship is of course directed at the Canterbury Tales. For example, Laura Kendrick has connected the Tales to “occasions associated with seasonal change,” and Arthur Lindley has described the frame narrative itself as a “holiday tale-telling game, a festive activity presided over by a mock-king and leading to a promised feast.” 2 However, an interesting and unrecognized allusion to inversion ritual also occurs in one of Chaucer’s earlier and ostensibly more formal works, Troilus and Criseyde. 3 Although this reference may seem slight, it carries important repercussions. Not only does it color the conception of love offered by the romance; it also gives an insight into Chaucer’s general view of popular culture at this stage in his career. This paper will address these issues in turn. It will first seek to unravel Chaucer’s allusion to festivity, pinning down the rituals he evokes, before gauging how such material contributes toward wider patterns of meaning in the poem.

The reference in question occurs in the first book of Troilus, shortly after the protagonist first confesses his attraction to the “swete fo called Criseyde” (I, 874). His confidant Pandarus expresses surprise at this admission, since his friend has always shown utter contempt for love. Pandarus reminds Troilus at length of his former mockery and “scorn” of romantic attachment:

“But wel is me that ever that I was born,
That thou biset art in so good a place;
For by my trouthe, in love I dorste have sworn,
The sholde never han tid thus fayr a grace.
And wostow why? For thou were wont to chace
At Love in scorn, and for despit him calle
‘Seynt Idiot, lord of thise foles alle.’”

(I, 904–10)

The reference to “Seynt Idiot” in this passage is curious. Like much else in this exchange, it has no parallel in Chaucer’s immediate sources, as it does not occur in either Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato or Beauvau’s French redaction Le Roman de Troyle. The promotion of love to an ironic sainthood has in fact proven sufficiently remarkable to attract a small amount of critical commentary. Much of this concerns its anachronistic reference to saint worship, its opposition to the cult of fin amor, or its presentation of love as a religion with its own set of martyrs, a commonplace also found in the Legend of Good Women (F 338) and in the Introduction to the Man of Law’s Tale (II 61). 4 While these are certainly important concerns, this focus does tend to obscure the probable roots of Seynt Idiot. In particular, it overlooks the important allusion to revelry that occurs in this phrase.

What connects Pandarus’s statement to festive culture is the fact that he uses the title of a burlesque saint, an anointed “idiot,” to disparage love. The name Seynt Idiot recalls the various parodies of the vitae, miracles, and cults of saints that were generated during the Middle Ages. 5 In particular, it is reminiscent of the figures at the center of these travesties. Continental literature contains an entire pantheon of such burlesque holy men or saints facétieux : for instance, medieval French refers to Saint Fausset (Saint Falsehood), Sainct Oignon (Saint Onion), Sainte Raisin (Saint Grape), Saint Velu (Saint Hairy), and Saincte Caquette (Saint Chatterer), while Middle Dutch pays tribute to Sinte Haryngus (Saint Herring), Sint Snottolf (Saint Snot-Nose), Sint Aelwaere (Saint Punch-Up), and Sint Raspinus (Saint Prison). 6 The styling “Seynt Idiot” follows the form of these figures, marking the canonization of a humdrum, profane, or otherwise inappropriate object or being. Some are in fact very close in form to Chaucer’s parody, as the names “sainte Follie” and “saint Sot” occur in French texts. 7 Troilus’s pejorative description of love, in other words, seems to hint at an expansive tradition of grotesque holy men.

This in turn provides an important connection...

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