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The Chaucer Review 40.3 (2006) 231-261

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Thisbe Out of Context:

Chaucer's Female Readers and the Findern Manuscript

Union College
Schenectady, New York

In the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, with its angry and hermeneutically challenged God of Love, its obsequious and misunderstood poet-narrator, and its generous queen Alceste, Chaucer poses the question: how did medieval audiences, particularly women, respond to representations of women in texts? One place to seek answers is in the reception history provided by manuscript evidence. The manuscript most frequently cited as evidence of female reaction to the Legend of Good Women is the Findern Manuscript, Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.6, a fifteenth- and sixteenth-century compilation of poetry that contains, among other texts, the excerpted Legend of Thisbe1. The Findern MS has long been accepted as having been owned, read, and perhaps even partially compiled by women.2

Most recently, two scholars, Carol Meale and Nicola McDonald, have drawn conclusions from the contents of the Findern MS about women's reactions to the Legend of Good Women.3 McDonald suggests that the women in Chaucer's contemporary audience, the noblewomen of the Ricardian court, were sophisticated readers accustomed to the conventions of debate poetry and the role-playing involved in courtly pastimes, but that the fifteenth-century provincial women who read the Findern MS, isolated from this "ludic" atmosphere and lacking in such sophistication, would not have understood or appreciated Chaucer's ironies.4 For Meale, similarly, the insertion of the Legend of Thisbe into the Findern MS indicates that some readers may have been "underplaying the controversial and dialogic aspect" of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women and interpreting Thisbe's story "divorced from its narrative frame . . . simply as a further expression of the vicissitudes suffered by loving women."5 Both scholars conclude that "provincial" fifteenth-century women were not in a position to appreciate Chaucer's ambiguous relation to and humorous commentary on the discourses of fin' amors and medieval misogyny. [End Page 231]

The contents of the Findern MS--the context in which Thisbe's story was placed--suggest otherwise. The selection and juxtaposition of texts in several quires of this manuscript reveal a fifteenth-century female reading community familiar with the "ludic" aspect of late fourteenth-century literature: that is, its humorous give-and-take in debates about the value of service in love, about misogynist views of women, and about the degree to which women, in particular, should take the game of love seriously. The Findern MS texts that allude to this latter debate construct the sort of sophisticated relationship Chaucer himself anticipated between the female reader and male fin' amors discourse, in which the love object's traditional pose of Daungier metamorphoses into a female hermeneutic of detachment and skepticism. In the light of these patterns, the Legend of Thisbe's place in the manuscript becomes clearer. This context suggests that, to the female interpretive community that created the Findern MS, there were more ways of reading Thisbe than as simply a victim--and that there is more to Chaucer's Legend of Good Women than irony.

I. Ludic Texts in the Findern MS

The work of John Stevens, John Scattergood, and others has established the recreational function of literature at the Ricardian court; scholars such as Paul Strohm, Richard Firth Green, and Jill Mann have asserted that, despite passages pointing to an inscribed or implied audience of female readers, Chaucer's intended audience was primarily male.6 More recently, however, feminist scholars have found evidence of female participation in these recreational contexts. For instance, when McDonald describes the "ludic" atmosphere at the court of Richard II, she focuses on the involvement of noblewomen in the festivities and pageants put on by the court: Philippa of Lancaster's participation in the order of the Flower and the Leaf, for example, or the detailed account of the procession of the Smithfield tournament in 1390, in which, the chronicler notes, women led mounted...


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