- Chaucer’s Legend of Lucrece and the Critique of Ideology in Fourteenth-Century England
In the context of English literary history, Chaucer’s Legend of Lucrece marks the beginning of a long lineage of literary elaborations of this narrative. As a narrative about foundation (that of Republican Rome), Chaucer’s poem is itself usually taken as a foundation: characteristically “sympathetic”; Christianizing but not so Christianizing as to obscure its vision of cultural otherness; in one or another of these respects distinctively original. 1 Yet it is within a roughly contemporary intellectual context of commentary and debate about Lucretia rather than a more distant lineage that the originality of Chaucer’s work can best be assessed and appreciated. His brief poem is only a part, if in many ways the culmination, of an unexamined group of late-medieval English elaborations of her narrative in which Lucretia’s private consciousness and its relation to a context of cultural ideals and assumptions attain a new level of intense exploration. Within a fairly rapid succession of elaborations by these late-medieval English commentators and writers, her story emerges as something more historical than the psychomachic allegory it is in some other medieval hands, and less specific than the narrative of political transformation it is in Titus Livy’s history of Rome: it becomes an exemplary occasion for contemplating the relation between culture and individual consciousness—in this case Lucretia’s embodiment of and uneasy relation to the institutional and social values of ancient Rome.
The main outlines of medieval interest in the story of Lucretia are well known. From the account in Livy on, Lucretia is a pivotal figure in Roman constitutional history: because of her rape and suicide, the Romans rose up against the royal family of the Tarquini and established a republic (thus Dante’s Emperor Justinian, for instance, uses her “dolor” metonymically as a political time-mark). 2 From St. Augustine on, she is also a central [End Page 813] figure for defining the secular ethics and ideology of Rome, especially its zeal for honor and fame. Augustine, having determined that Lucretia’s suicide made her sinful because she displays the Roman “excessive zeal for praise,” in a fit of ironic out-paganing a pagan sent her to Vergil’s underworld, to the place where are found those who “guiltless sent themselves to doom” (“qui sibi letum / Insontes peperere”). 3 Perhaps in implicit response to Augustine, Dante locates her in a limbo rife with allusions to Vergil’s Elysian fields, although in Dante’s poem she has a nearly blissful existence, portrayed amidst a chorus of praise for the ethos of “onore” that envelopes her and the other righteous heathens there. 4 Dante thus answers Augustine not only on the matter of Lucretia’s values and fate, but also on the entire meaning of the pagan fama for which she died, bringing it near the Christianized ideal of magnanimitas: honor that derives from a person’s goodness. 5
The later Middle Ages interrogated Lucretia with increasing insistence, seeking to reconstruct her point of view by elaborating both her rape and her pre-Christian beliefs and social vision. As Wolfgang P. Müller has recently shown, medieval canonists at first held an approving view of her faithfulness and honor, but this soon turned to a more suspicious consideration of her intentions and choices. Among the “first generation” of canonists in the early twelfth century, Augustine’s account in the City of God was only partially quoted, presenting the saint’s posited defense of her action, a defense that Augustine goes on to dismantle. But even without quoting or, apparently, knowing the rest of Augustine’s text, the late twelfth-century canonist Huguccio condemned Lucretia for having made a “conditional choice” to be raped (an argument from negative evidence, since she apparently does not choose to be killed and left with a dead, naked slave next to her, the alternative Tarquinius presents her). This condemnation was taken up by all later canonists, an interpretation with dark implications for medieval victims of rape and perhaps merely the obverse side of the canonists’ emphasis on women’s “power to choose” in marriage, for...