"The Legend of False Men"?:

Chaucer's Legend of Good Women Re-titled

Hi Kyung Moon

  The liveliness of the critical debate over the question as to whether the Legend of Good Women constitutes a defense of woman or an attack is an indication of the fundamental ambiguity underlying the poem. That the Legend should be considered ambiguous at all is ironic in view of the fact that here is a text whose very title proclaims loudly what its intentions are. The text purports to be a gallery of "good" women in a manner that recalls Ovid's Heroides and Boccaccio's De mulierbus claris. The title leads us to expect accounts of exemplary women which address and take part in the medieval polemics over woman; as Delany points out, the stimulus for the text comes from the "author-narrator's anxious confrontations with western misogynistic tradition in literature" ("Rewriting Women Good" 74).

  The experience of reading the Legend, however, upsets many of these expectations and the reader finds him/herself confronted with a text which subverts and undermines itself. Alcuin Blamires points out the work's outwardly pro-feminine position but notes how "hardly any ancillary topoi of the formal case for women" are included, which makes "the poem's appetite for polemical engagement with misogyny seem unnecessarily attenuated" (218-9). Delany discusses the Legend in association with the saints' lives and argues that though not in itself a hagiography, the Legend is generated by it (The Naked Text 60). She points out the religious origin of the word "legend" as a tributary biography of some holy person, to be read out as part of liturgy during an annual mass commemorating the anniversary of the dead. If we try to read the meaning of the title The Legend of Good Women in light of the above literary traditions, the poem should be about women, and more especially about women who are saintly and that they should be dead. The only expectation that the Legend satisfies, however, is the last and the other two are found to be so problematic that they continue to be sources of contention. Though acknowledging the problematic nature of the text, most critics have taken the poem at its face value and assumed it to be primarily about women, although it may not be about "good" women. In this paper I wish to discuss how the poem calls into question the validity of its own title and more especially to argue that an equally valid claim could be made for the title the legend of "false men." I will  examine how the poem's engagement with women leads to its engagement with men in a way that interrogates and finally voids the meaning of the categories of men/women and good/false, which seem so central to the Legend.

  On first casting an eye over the choice of the women treated in the poem, one is struck by the fact that they are all pagan, which renders ironic any hagiographical associations that may be found in the word "legend." Christian women are conspicuous by their absence and their absence signifies the exclusion of Christian virtues from the narrator's definition of goodness. But can goodness be defined without Christian virtues? In order to circumvent this difficulty, Chaucer prefaces the legends with an elaborate prologue which explains how the poem has come about and justifies the choice of women dealt with. He creates a dream vision in which the narrator―who is also made to look like the poet himself―is rebuked by the God of Love for writing about a notoriously wicked woman, Criseyde, when there are plenty of good women to choose from:

Why nodest thow as wel han seyd goodnesse

Of women, as thow has seyd wikednesse?

Was  there no good matere in thy mynde,

Ne in alle thy bokesme coudest thow nat fynde

Some story of women that were goode and trewe? (G 269-73)

The real point behind the God's accusation is not the narrator's misogyny but that his writing would discourage men from serving himself. Hence the God complains of the narrator's "heresye ayeins my lawe/[which] . . . makest wise folk fro me withdrawe" (F 330-2). As far as the God is concerned, being good and true is associated with a single virtue, that is fidelity to sexual love:

For to hyre love were they so trewe

That, rathere than they wolde take a newe,

They chose to be ded in sondry wise. (G 288-290)

  The penance imposed upon the narrator for his sin against love is a task in literary composition. Acting as his intercessor, Alceste, who is given an elaborate treatment in the poem as the sovereign lady of the narrator's heart, tells him to compose stories specifically of women who had shown fidelity in love (F 481-485). To Alceste, as it was to the God, love means cupiditas, and it is only in terms of cupiditas that women's goodness is to be defined. Just as there are no Christian women, so there is no room here for Christian love caritas. The prescription necessarily curtails the freedom of the narrator and determines not only his choice of women but also their stories. For, in order to meet this narrow prescription, the narrator has to suppress, add, change, and stretch the stories, with the result that some of the stories are made almost unrecognizable. To portray Cleopatra or Medea solely as  a victim and as love's martyr, by omiting the more unsavoury aspects of her past is either to misrepresent it or to create a different character, a process which necessarily draws attention to the character's fictional status. This has led some to make cases for ironic readings whereby the text is seen to function by defeating what it ostensibly claims to do, that far from extolling good women the text proclaims their non-existence and consequently the impossibility of talking about them. The narrator's transformation of the original stories is thus seen as  another instance of medieval misogyny that asserts all accounts of good women to be fictitious.

  Jill Mann, however, points out the danger of paying too much attention to what Chaucer has suppressed:

Nothing is more characteristic of the Middle Ages than the constant refashioning of old stories, and this refashioning depends precisely on the reader's willingness to suppress the details of the older versions and accept the new one on its own terms as a valid account. (37)

Given the freedom of the medieval authors to alter original materials, the metamorphoses of some notoriously wicked women into exemplary women do not necessarily signify ironic intentions on the part of the narrator. The issue here is not truth as Mann states: "There is no truth to be 'misrepresented', only a series of poetic fictions, each with its own claims to authority" (37). What the God and Alceste command then is not truthful accounts but poetic fictions, literature rather than history and the result is that we have "good" women who can only be understood to be so from a very unusual perspective.

  This process of fiction-making, however, is confined not to women alone. In fact in the task set before the narrator, Alceste demands two things of him:

Thou shalt, while that thou lyvest, yer by yere,

The moste partye of thy tyme spended

In making of a glorious legende

Of goode wymmen, maydenes and wyves,

That weren trewe in lovying al hire lyves;

And telle of false men that hem betraien,

That al hir lyf ne do nat but assayen

How many women they may doon a shame;

For  in your world that is now holde a game. (F 481-489)

If the first half of the above passage is devoted to women, the next is given to men. In other words, the legends are to be as much about men's misdeeds as women's goodness. Moreover, it is because men are false that women are given opportunities to be true and women's goodness thus becomes dependent on and is defined and circumscribed by men's vice. Recently more critics have taken note of this fact; for instance, Elaine Hansen writes, "The more I looked, the more it seemed that the Legend of Good Women  was best thought of as a poem about men, not women" (3). Making a similar point, Peter Allen mentions the greater emphasis placed on the men in the Legend. He notes how the male characters are mentioned before the female ones in every legend except one and cites as an example of male prominence the Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea where the two women are mentioned only seven times to thirty-five mentions of Jason's name (429). In some sense the emphasis given to men is natural; it is usually much easier to talk about what people did, albeit evil, than what they did not do. Silence, suffering and passive goodness are hardly the ingredients for stirring stories. If women are all identical in the legends― and this had laid them open to the charge of being wooden and boring― are men any less so? Are their falsity and treachery any less repetitive and reductive?

  The simple answer that, just as all the female characters are alike, so all the male characters are alike in being betrayers―an answer that leads to the polarization of good women/bad men―is not of much service in understanding the complex transformation  the male characters undergo in the hands of the narrator, and the implications this has on medieval attitude to women and gender roles. Moreover not all men are betrayers in love. Some, such as Aeneas, Jason and Theseus, certainly are so, but some are worse, such as rapists Tarquin and Tereus, and some are love's martyrs. Antony, in fact, presents a classic example of a man who loses the world for love:

But love hadde brought this man in swich a rage,

That hymn so narwe bounden in his las,

Alf for the love of Cleopataras,

That all the world he sette at no value. (599-602)

The beginning of the Legend of Cleopatra only briefly mentions Cleopatra before going on to describe Antony more fully, especially how he was "fallen in prosperitee." From being a powerful senator and great warrior, Antony falls to being a rebel, a false husband and perhaps even a coward, all of which roles render ironic the praises bestowed on him as possessing the virtues of "gentillesse," "discretion," "hardyesse" and therefore "Worthi to any wyght that liven may" (612). His defeat at the battle of Actium destroys his reputation as a warrior and it is the loss of his "worship," that is the real cause of his suicide. What we witness here is the destructive effect of romantic love on masculine identity. Being true to the claims of personal love leads a man to abandon his public―therefore masculine― role and cares so that he becomes unmanned. Antony's defeat at Actium is the natural consequence of the loss of manhood. According to Delany, Antony's predicament is aggravated by the fact that in choosing Cleopatra, he chooses also an alien Eastern culture and Delany attributes his weakness to the "debilitating and depoliticizing effect of foreigner, Orientals" (The Naked Text 174). In allying himself with foreigners, Antony turns into a "rebel unto the toun of Rome" (591). He therefore does become a traitor but not to love as he should have been if the narrator had been following the directive laid down by the God and Alceste faithfully. Instead the narrator draws a picture of a man, who becoming "depolitcized" removes himself from the masculine world and chooses the private world, the East, the feminine and thus becomes false to his masculine identity, to his honour and to his country. 

  The conflation of the sexual and the political in the word "traitor" is a feature which Michael Hanrahan also notes in the Legend which, he argues, introduces several kinds of treason. Hanrahan discusses the meaning of the word "treason" against the contemporary background of the political struggle between Richard II and the barons, the Lord Appellants, paying special attention to the close association between treason, flattery and seduction. The case of Aeneas and Dido is particularly interesting in this context. Troy was often represented as a locus of sensuality and effeminacy, and veiled―sometimes even explicit―references to Aeneas's homosexuality were found in some of the medieval texts (The Naked Text 180). The court of Richard II in which the weak and vulnerable King surrounded himself with a circle of sycophants, and more particularly a suspected homosexual relationship with some of them, could have been obliquely referred to through Aeneas, who is portrayed in the Legend as being cunning, duplicitous and treacherous. The narrator uses the word "feigned" several times with reference to Aeneas, showing him to be altogether deceitful and manipulative in his dealings with Dido. Aeneas is described also as a sensualist--another aspect that encourages the oriental associations--who is so sunk in luxury and pleasure that the narrator exclaims, "This Eneas is come to paradys" (1103).

  The image of the treacherous man as being sensual, cunning and deceitful is carried to a even greater degree in the treatment of Jason. From the very beginning, the narrator resorts to a strong language of condemnation:

Thow rote of false lovers, Duc Jasoun,

Thow sly devourere and confusioun

Of gentil women, tendre creatures,

Thow madest they recleymying and thy lures

To ladyes of thy statly appaunce,

And of thy feyned trouthe and thy manere,

With thyn obeysaunce and humble cheere,

And with thy contrefete peyne and wo. (1368-1376)

The cumulative effect of the words "sly devourere," "lures," "feyned trouthe," "contrefete peyne," leaves a powerful impression of a man totally given over to cunning, hypocrisy and wile. Jason was able to deceive successfully because he, a consumate actor, was able to simulate so well. The reference to the fox, the wily animal, is an apt one, which calls to mind the Nun's Priest's Tale in which Reynard the fox successfully seduces Chauntecleer through seemingly plausible words. The seduction of Hypsipyle is achieved through careful machination, showing both Jason and his friend Hercules to be subtle plotters.

  And all this was compaseed on the nyght

Bytwixe hym Jason and this Ercules,

f these two here was a shrwed lees,

To come to hous upon an innocent!

For to bedote this queen was here assent.

And Jason is as coy as is a mayde;

He loketh pitously, but nougth he sayde,

But frely yaf  he to hire conseyleres

Yiftes grete, and to hire officeres.

As wolde God I leyser hadde and tyme

By proces al his wowying for to ryme!

But in this hous if any fals lovere be,

Ryght  as hymself now doth, ryght so did he,

With feynyinge, and with every subtil dede. (1543-1555)

What occurs here, as well in the treatment of other male figures, is a gender reversal which recurs throughout the legends. As traitors and seducers, men seem to resort to weapons which have been traditionally more closely associated with women in their role as temptress. And it is no coincidence that Jason is described as being coy as a maid. The treacherous men of the legends find themselves in feminized roles; as lovers they weep, submit and sue for favours; as adventurers or travellers they often end up in the position of "damsels in distress," requiring aid from the more powerful or knowing women. And in order to obtain what they want, they do not hesitate to play up their weaknesses. They find that by feigning woe, shedding false tears, and by showing humility they can work upon  women's pity, which is always the surest way of making way into their hearts. As Nicola McDonald puts it, "The constituent parts of the proverbially deceptive, inconstant, destructive and sexually insatiable women are neatly isolated , inverted and restitched into a narrative of male villany" (32).

  Once love has been enjoyed and the desired object gained, the next step for these men is to abandon the women. This inverts the Troilus/Criseyde relationship and the narrator is obviously trying to rectify the error in the previous poem that the God had found fault with. Elaine Hansen, on the other hand, sees the act of abandonment as the hero's attempt to recover his masculine position by showing his independence, nobility and devotion to more important issues (7). This, however, can hardly be the case. The figure of Aeneas stealing away at night or of Theseus stealthily sailing away while Ariadne is asleep can hardly be taken as an example of independence or nobility. Nor do the heroes leave their women because their duty calls. Chaucer's treatment of Aeneas is more Ovidian than Virgilian. The men's abandonment of women, on the contrary,  is an indication of their selfishness and duplicity.

  Cowardice, that most unmanly quality, also plays an important part in the make-up of the villains of the legends. None of them have the courage to be open about their villany. It is the fear of exposure which makes Tereus mutilate Philomela, and Tarquin, climbing through Lucrece's window like a thief is hardly a figure to exemplify male courage. Yet these emasculated men still have enough importance to push the supposedly "good" women from the centre of the stage and turn the legends from "her/stories" to "his/stories." This is best seen in the Legend of Lucrece which is ostensibly about a woman's rape but is in reality all about men and their world. In Collatine's proud display of his wife's virtues, in Tarquin's unlawful appropriation of what ultimately amounts to another man's property, in the manner in which the dead body of Lucrece is displayed before the angry Romans in order to whip up anti-Tarquin feelings, the rape becomes a political event that ultimately brings about the downfall of Tarquin. Once again the sexual and the political are conflated and Tarquin, like Antony, becomes a traitor not only to a woman, but to another man and to his country. As a usurper he is seen to have committed the double rape of Lucrece and of Rome. Lucrece's suicide is a sign of her internalization of the ideology of patriarchy which sets highest value on female chastity. The wrong done to Lucrece is a wrong done to Collatine, and it is not for her own honour but for his that she commits suicide. The rape becomes purely an affair between the two men, neither of whom can escape censure. For, Collatine cannot be entirely exempt from blame in his failure to provide his wife with necessary protection. And in Tarquin's rape, the narrator sees a failure of chivalry:

Tarquinius, that art a kynges eyr,

And sholdest, as by lynage and by ryght,

Don as a lord and as a verray knyght,

Whi hastow don dispit to chivalrye? (1819-1822)

Lucrece's suicide is also a sign of her powerlessness, a gesture of feminine helplessness. The Legend is about women who "chose to be ded in sondry wyse" (G 290), but women are not the only ones to kill themselves. Men too kill themselves when they are disempowered. Antony is like Lucrece when he kills himself upon losing his honour. Though male honour may be different from female honour, the gesture signifies the same.

  The gender inversion that occurs throughout the legends then problematizes romantic love and signals its failure. For men to be in service of Love is to be emasculated and be placed in a feminized position, and neither sex seems to benefit from the experience of love. As Priscilla Martin tartly remarks, "Virtue is equated with victimization. No wonder the heroine of the Legend look rather stupid. If the men are villains, women are idiots to believe them" (203). Unlike the women, the men are given power to act, but being without any of the positive virtues associated with manhood, such as loyalty, courage, duty to the weak, they become prey to vices traditionally associated with women and turn sensual, cowardly, cunning, duplicitous and manipulative. Considering that it is to balance the bad propaganda love has received in Troilus and Criseyde that the Legend is written at all in the first place, the negative view of love the Legend comes to acquire opens up the possibility of an ironic reading. Under the guise of obeying the God's command, the narrator tells negative stories which are more likely to put men as well as women off from serving love. In this role the narrator too joins the rank of cunning and deceitful men who betray trust. He too is one of the traitors. And if blind trust and foolishness have exposed the women of the legends to betrayal, in  the God's case, it is his obtuseness as a reader that has laid him open to the narrator's duplicity. As many have remarked, the God misreads Troilus and Criseyde as a poem against love and women and consequently the remedy he proposes, that the narrator tell stories of good women and false men, proves to be ineffective, if not downright harmful.

  Many reasons are given for the Legend's incompleteness. Did Chaucer simply lose interest or was the poet-narrator simply unable to continue the poem as it stood?  Carolyn Dinshaw sees the unfinished ending as an indication of the narrator's boredom with unvarying stories of good women/false men, and in abandoning the work, she identifies the narrator with other male betrayers who tire of their women and leave them (85). Boredom, however, is not the sole reason for the narrator's inability to carry on with the legends. Whether intentional or not on the part of the narrator, the stories refuse to be confined to the narrow prescription laid down by the God and Alceste. Reductiveness and stereotyping that arise from the good women/false men dichotomy cannot be made to fit the complexities of human experience and the very categories of good/bad, true/false, men/women elide and merge as to render the literary task given to the narrator pointless. With the breakdown of these categories, the grand title of the poem, The Legend of Good Women, no longer seems to have any grounds to stand upon. The result is that the work comes to a stall. It can no longer keep up the pretence of being about women nor about goodness. The act of narrating explodes the propaganda of "good women" and "false men," exposing it for what it is, and the reader, who presumably is a better reader than the God, too must decline to read on when he/she finds that he/she too had been taken in by the false title.

(Korea University)

Works Cited

Allen, Peter L. "Reading Chaucer's Good Women." Chaucer Review 21.4 (1987): 419-34.

Blamires, Alcuin. The Case for Women in Medieval Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. F. N. Robinson. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Delany, Sheila. The Naked Text: Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

_______."Rewriting Women Good: Gender and the Anxiety of Influence in Two Late-Medieval texts." Medieval Literary Politics: Shapes of Ideology. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990. 74-87.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer's Sexual Poetics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Hanrahan, Michael. "Seduction and Betrayal: Treason in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women." Chaucer Review 30.3 (1996): 229-40.

Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Martin, Priscilla. Chaucer's Women: Nuns, Wives and Amazons. London: MacMillan Press, 1996.

McDonald, Nicola F. "Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, Ladies at Court and the Female Reader." Chaucer Review 35.1 (2000): 22-42.

Mann, Jill. Geoffrey Chaucer. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.


ꡔ거짓된 남성전ꡕ: 초서의 ꡔ훌륭한 여인 열전ꡕ 재고

문 희 경

초서의 ꡔ훌륭한 여인 열전ꡕ이 여성을 옹호하는 작품인가 아니면 공격하는 작품인가의 여부를 놓고 비평가들 사이에서 많은 논쟁이 있으며, 이러한 논쟁은 작품이 지닌 근본적인 모호성에서 비롯된다고 할 수 있겠다. 작품의 제목이 시사하는 바와 같이 이 작품은 일련의 “훌륭한” 여성들의 이야기를 묶어 놓은 것으로서, 표면적으로 볼 때 강한 여성 옹호론을 펼치고 있는 것처럼 보인다. 그러나 작품에서 다루어지는 여성들은 단지 사랑에  끝까지 충실했다는 점에서만 훌륭한 여성들로서 이들에게서는 중세 사회가 통상적으로 여성들에게 요구하는 덕성들을 찾아볼 수 없다. 특히 작품의 여성들은 모두 고대 그리스와 로마 시대에 속하는 여인들로서 이들에게는 기독교적인 미덕이 해당되지 않는다. 그런 의미에서 작품에서 여성들이 지닌 미덕이 과연 미덕이라고 간주될 수 있는 문제가 제기되면서 ꡔ훌륭한 여인 열전ꡕ이라는 작품의 제목은 아이러닉한 성격을 지니게 된다. 이 작품의 제목은 또 다른 면에서도 문제될 수 있다. 여인 열전의 성격을 지닌 이 작품은 당연히 여성을 다루고 있는 것처럼 보인다. 그러나 사실 작품은 사랑에 충실한 여성들의 이야기이기 이전에 여성들을 배신한 남성들의 이야기이며, 이러한 남성들의 역할이 더 부각된다. 이런 점으로 미루어 볼 때 이 작품은  그 제목이 강력하게 주장하는 것처럼 여성에 대한 이야기도 아니고 훌륭한 여성에 대한 이야기는 더더욱 아니다. 본 논문에서는 작품의 제목을 아이러닉한 것으로 보고 작품이 어떻게 스스로의 제목과  표면적 주장을 전복시키고 있는가를 살펴보고자 한다. 이 작품을 통하여 초서는 중세에서 활발하게 일어났던 여성을 둘러싼 논쟁에 참여하고 있으며, 작품은 이런  논쟁에서 흔히 나타나는 성 역할의  단순화와 정형화를 비판한다.  결국 초서는 작품에서 여성과 남성, 미덕과 악덕, 신의와 배신 등 작품이 표면적으로 내세우는 이분법적인 카타고리들을 거부하고 이러한 양극화가 삶의 복합성을 반영하지 못한다고 암시하고 있는 것이다.

Key words: legend, good women, false men, misogyny, gender reversal.