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  • Introduction: Looking Forward, Looking Back on the Legend of Good Women
  • Betsy McCormick, Leah Schwebel, and Lynn Shutters

Almost thirty years ago, in her introduction to the Legend of Good Women in The Riverside Chaucer, Mary Shaner observed that the Legend has “attracted more serious and sympathetic study than heretofore” and projected that further study may provide “both more appropriate ways of reading and interpreting it and a clearer sense of its value in the canon of Chaucer’s work.”1 Shaner’s projection proved prophetic: beginning in the mid-1980s, criticism on the Legend took off in multiple directions, from feminist readings to historicist studies, from source studies to studies in poetics and form.2 While this recent critical attention would imply that the Legend has assumed its fitting place in Chaucer’s oeuvre, something about this poem remains unsettling to critics. In 2006, Carolyn Collette observed that the Legend “seems either to intrigue or annoy its modern readers—but rarely, if ever, to satisfy them.”3 More recently, Kathryn Lynch described the Legend as Chaucer’s “awkward transitional collection of saints’ lives.”4 For many scholars, the Legend remains the ugly duckling of the Chaucer canon, a work whose repetitive structure, melodramatic [End Page 3] extremes, roster of dead “good” women, and complex textual history render it a curious but unsatisfying detour in Chaucer’s career—one oddly sandwiched between his two masterpieces, Troilus and Criseyde and the Canterbury Tales. Yet, what annoys some intrigues others, and for the editors and contributors of this volume the Legend is a poem to which we keep coming back.


The purpose of this special issue is to build on important trends in Legend scholarship from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, some of which was produced by our own contributors, even as we look forward, considering new approaches to the poem. We begin by considering the poem in the context of two highly influential late-twentieth-century monographs on Chaucer: Carolyn Dinshaw’s Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (1989) and Lee Patterson’s Chaucer and the Subject of History (1991).5 In many ways, the history of Chaucer criticism from the late twentieth century onwards is a history of the influence of these two books. Patterson, with both Subject of History and his prior monograph, Negotiating the Past, ushered in an age of historicist interpretation that remains a predominant critical mode in Middle English literary studies to this day.6 Dinshaw, in producing the first feminist monograph on Chaucer, blazed a trail for not only feminist but also psychoanalytic, queer, and post-colonial approaches to the poet.

If Dinshaw and Patterson inaugurated important paths in Chaucer criticism, then it is notable that both position the Legend as a bridge from Chaucer’s earlier work to his crowning achievement in the Canterbury Tales. The very title of Patterson’s chapter on the Legend—“From Tragedy to Comedy through the Legend of Good Women”—indicates the poem’s transitional role, a transition that progresses from Chaucer’s engagement with classical antiquity and aristocratic values in Troilus and the Knight’s Tale, to his consideration of the nonaristocratic and the individual in the rest of the Canterbury Tales. The mordantly sardonic performances of gentilesse in the Legend are understood as both a send-up and a leave-taking of the literary modes dominating the first half of Chaucer’s corpus. Dinshaw traces Chaucer’s career-long engagement with a medieval hermeneutics that genders reading, writing, and interpretation as masculine activities enacted upon [End Page 4] a text gendered as feminine. In this model, the narrators of Chaucer’s earlier works reveal the negative effects of “reading like a man,” while his later narrators devise strategies to counter and revise this dangerous hermeneutic. The Legend constitutes the nadir from which alternatives to reading like a man will rise, when both Chaucer—and Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics—arrive at the Canterbury Tales.

Ultimately, despite their differing theoretical approaches, Patterson and Dinshaw reflect longer traditions of scholarly ambivalence in the face of the Legend and reinforce prominent strategies for addressing it. Both view the Legend as a poem from which Chaucer himself must be saved, and redemption is...


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