Reading Response for *The Legend of Good Women,* “Prologue”

Introduction

A plate from the Kelmscott Chaucer depicting Hero and Leander

A plate from the Kelmscott Chaucer depicting Hero and Leander

As we discussed in class on Monday, we are having a “virtual” discussion of our first reading, the “Prologue,” from Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women. The goal is to draw out themes, questions, differing interpretations, and problems to fuel our discussion of both the “Prologue” and the legends of Cleopatra, Thisbe, and Dido for Monday. Keeping that in mind, please read the guidelines for responding carefully.

Guidelines for Responding

Before you begin crafting your response, read through this post and any comments to it, as well as any responses to the comments that have been posted. Then, ask yourself the following questions in the order they are listed below.

Are there any comments to this post without a reply?

If so, then reply to one of those comments, using the following guidelines as inspiration for how you might engage the comment’s author in conversation about the reading:

  • Do you agree with the comment author’s analysis of the poem? If so, why, what evidence–from the LoGW Prologue, the Canterbury Tales, the shorter poems, the Jones book–can you offer to build upon or strengthen the comment author’s analysis?
  • What are the implications of the comment author’s analysis of the poem for one or more of the “big ideas” we have been discussing over the course of the semester? For example, you might consider how the comment author’s analysis relates to the problem of interpreting history, that is the connection or disconnect between “real” history and the narratives we use to record or make sense of it. Or, you might consider whether the comment author’s analysis extends our discussion of Chaucer’s self-fashioning as an author, historian, political adviser, and poet. These are just examples of how you might engage the comment author’s ideas in this way.
  •  Do you disagree with the comment author’s analysis of the poem? If so, why, what evidence–from the LoGW Prologue, the Canterbury Tales, the shorter poems, the Jones book–can you offer that suggests an alternative line of analysis for the text?

Given that there are no comments to this post awaiting a reply, would you like to further the conversation by engaging with an existing discussion thread or starting your own?

  • Do you want to engage with an existing thread? If so, then go right ahead, using the prompt above as inspiration for how you might engage constructively in the ongoing conversation.
  • Do you want to start a new discussion thread? If so, do the insights you offer in your own new comment to this post extend or draw together lines of analysis from two or more discussion threads at once? Or does your comment offer insights that haven’t been previously noted in the other responses as well as evidence–from the LoGW Prologue, the Canterbury Tales, the shorter poems, the Jones book–to support those insights?

Conclusion

When we participate in existing conversations about literature or other topics in writing, it’s important to explore that conversation’s history and find a way to enter into it constructively, making an argument for why your contribution matters. Whether we decide to express agreement or disagreement, or add completely new ideas for consideration, we should use evidence to support those discursive moves. Following the guidelines above when you’re writing, whether you’re writing a blog post or a more traditional essay, will help you to become a more constructive and engaged participant in the conversations into which your writing enters.

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14 comments on “Reading Response for *The Legend of Good Women,* “Prologue”
  1. Tobias Hoffmann says:

    Chaucer writes in the very beginning of the prologue to The Legend of Good Women that a man should not think that something is not true simply because he has not seen it. But at the same time, he also says that a man should not believe more than he has seen with his own eyes. This apparent contradiction seems to imply that Chaucer thinks differently about the matter depending on the context. For religious matters, he states that it is okay to belief in things you have never, and may never, see. But for other matters, namely historical matters, he says that is important to stick to the facts, insofar as they have been written down by trusted sources. But even books, he writes, should only be believed if we have no personal experience with the matter: “Wel ought us thanne honouren and beleve these bokes, there we han noon other preve.” The prologue, in this sense, deviates greatly from Chaucer’s other works, especially were religious beliefs are concerned. One possible explanation for this change is the increasingly strict Church under Arch Bishop Arundel towards the end of Chaucer’s life.

    • KSnyder15 says:

      When I read the opening part of the poem about how even though no one has seen God doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist it did feel something like a preface to make sure he didn’t get in trouble with the Church or make anyone mad. Of course when dealing with blasphemy in the late 1300s to early 1400s the first person that comes to mind is the infamous Thomas Arundel.

      I did some digging to try and ascertain when The Legend of Good Women was written and although there is no conclusive answer all the sources seem to agree on a rough timeframe. EChaucer has the Legend of Good Women listed in both 1381-1386 and 1394 while Wikipedia says that “Chaucer wrote many of his major works in a prolific period when he held the job of customs comptroller for London (1374 to 1386). His Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde all date from this time. ”

      Either way this dates the Legend of Good Women as being written during the reign of Richard II (Henry didn’t usurp him until 1399). However it was most certainly written during Thomas Arundel’s rise to power before being exiled in 1397. Even though he did not wield the power of a Chancellor at that time he was working very hard to fight against John Wycliff and other perceived heretics. I think it’s very possible that even though it wasn’t nearly as dangerous to be a heretic in the late 1300s as it was after Arundel helped Henry IV rise to power, that Chaucer wanted to make sure to included this little disclaimer first and foremost in the poem to ensure that no one got any ideas about burning him at the stake.

  2. joysteele says:

    The structure and context of The Legend of Good Women is not as straight forward as Chaucer’s other works, and it was especially uncommon for Chaucer to write on this topic. Chaucer the narrator’s conversation with the God of Love and his Queen, Alceste might as well be a representation of his own conscious thoughts and exchanges. Yet, it is my belief that Chaucer treated the women in his poems no different, if at least, not as horribly as his contemporaries did. Perhaps the dream allusion is a metaphor for the guilt that he maybe felt for presenting women as he did. The most striking line was essentially, “But nevertheless answer me this now, why would you not also speak well of women, as you have spoken evilly?”. He is even accused of not knowing what he was writing when he wrote Troilus and Criseyde; was he believable as an author on love?

    Was Chaucer afraid that his words would come back to hurt him, as far as
    finding love goes? It is true that we are not fully aware of Chaucer’s personal life, so maybe there were repercussions for his words. Even so, it was not uncommon for Chaucer to poke fun at himself, or maybe this poem is an example of his waning of desire to write, as The Legend of Good Women was published after his more famous works.

  3. abayer3 says:

    While Chaucer’s discussion of experiences and the tales told in books does seem somewhat contradictory, upon closer inspection Chaucer’s opinions on trusting others renditions of events appears to be good advice. Chaucer states in lines 10 and 11:

    “But God forbede but men shulde leve
    Wel more thing than men han seen with ye!”

    This translates to advise not believing a lot more than you have seen, as God has forbidden that. This gives the reader some leeway to believe what he reads so long as it is not entirely fantastical.

    What is especially interesting about Chaucer’s short dissertation on how much to believe what you read is that it is prefacing a specifically fantastical tale of his own. A tale that any reader who follows Chaucer’s advice would have a hard time taking as true. Because of this, I am lead to believe that Chaucer was telling the reader to not take The Tale of Good Women to literally. It is an idealized tale that, while the women described may make good role models, is something that can never be achieved in life and the given inspiration for the tale cannot even be believed to exist. Why does need Chaucer need to warn people not to believe the tale of the god of love literally? For fear of the Church or simply out of courtesy to literal readers?

    • Janelle Francis says:

      I agree that seems as if Chaucer it setting us up for an interesting portrayal of women. By telling us not to take it literally, he has more creative freedom as a writer. In the Canterbury tales, women were either quiet and obedient (Grislde and Cunstonce) or they were manipulative and sneaky (Wife of Bath and Alyuson). There was not much of a true example of a Woman who could be an actual role model. In this prologue he takes to describing flowers and meadows and women in a very over the top and lengthy way.

      “The empress and the flow’r of flowers all
      I pray to God that faire may she fall!
      And all that love flowers, for her sake:
      But, nathelesse, ween not that I make
      In praising of the Flow’r against the Leaf”

      This leads me to believe there may be sarcastic undertones to what he will be writing about the different women. He says the Goddess love has told him to write stories that praise women and from reading Chaucer’s other works it leads me to believe he will be exploring some of the same gender reversal and satire as used in the Canterbury Tales. Of the women he lists to describe, the only name I know is Cleopatra, which if he is re-telling her story that might point to why he is warning people not to take his view of history whole heartedly. And the story of Cleopatra she is a vixen, and betrays Ceaser to be with Mark Anthony and then commits suicide, not exactly a bright shining example of a noble woman.

      It will be interesting to see whether he does actually portray women in a good light or not. Another interesting thing this prologue points out is to the date this may have been written. Was it after the Canterbury tales or during since he referencing stories he has written about women which many are contained in the tales?

      • avandeventer3 says:

        I think you have a good point in regards to the sarcasm in his tone. I thought similarly when reading the prologue. There is a certain ring of satire to the way he praises his daisy and the springtime as well as his descriptions of The God of Love’s queen. His portrayal of women in The Canterbury Tales, especially in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, is one that challenges their social suppression so I’m willing to bet that he will continue this trend.

        Alceste declares that, for his portayal of women in the past, he will, from this time onward tell tales “Of Gode Wommen, maidenes and wyves, That weren trewe in lovinge al hir lyves;” The question is, what will Chaucer determine a good wife to be? I can’t believe that he will simply provide the obedient image that Alceste seems to desire. His evident hatred of the romantic norm, as expressed by The Host’s outrage at the Tale of Sir Topas.

        However, he pleads to Alceste earlier in the Prologue that

        “…hit was [his] entente
        To forthren trouthe in love and hit cheryce;
        And to be war fro falsnesse and fro vyce
        By swich ensample; this was my meninge.”

        He claims that he, from the start, intended to lead people away from falseness and vice. He admits his good intentions, which makes me wonder whether the Legend of Good Women is, after all, a response to negative feedback regarding his other works. The fact that he acknowledged his own causes leads me to the belief that he is not entirely false or sarcastic in this passage. Certainly he will deviate in some way from his previous descriptions of femininity, but in what way? Satire is the name of Chaucer’s game and, like I said, it seems to be his weapon of choice in the Prologue so I’m sure that’s the direction that he’ll go, but maybe not. I guess we’ll see.

  4. ajalma says:

    In the “Prologue” from The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer makes use of some vivid imagery to portray the story of a dream he has involving the god of Love and queen Alceste. In his dream, Chaucer is chastised by the god of Love for writing literature that essentially depicts women in a negative light. As punishment, queen Alceste tells Chaucer that as long as he lives, he must write literature that praises women.

    Clearly, one of the main themes introduced in this work is love in the Middle Ages. Chaucer spends quite some time describing the god of Love and how the god reprimands him for not writing properly about love and women, “‘Thow art my mortal fo and me werreyest, / And of myne olde servauntes thow mysseyest, / And hynderest hem with thy translacyoun, / And lettest folk to han devocyoun / To serven me, and holdest it folye / To truste on me. Thow mayst it nat denye, / For in pleyn text, it nedeth nat to glose, / Thow hast translated the Romauns of the Rose [...]‘” (lines 248-255). The ideas that the god of Love primarily talks about makes it clear that this work will revolve around romance and the role of women. He chastises Chaucer for poorly writing about these two concepts and, in order to make amends for his wrongdoing Chaucer must write The Legend of Good Women.

    Aside from the theme of love, Chaucer also sets up his work to present what may be a feminist theme when Alceste requests that he writes about “good” women, “Thou shalt, whil that thow livest, yer by yere, / The moste partye of thy tyme spende / In makynge of a gloryous legende / Of goode women, maydenes and wyves, / That were trewe in lovynge al here lyves [...]” (471-475). Alceste requests that Chaucer write a work with model or heroic female figures. She wants him to depict women in a positive way. The introduction of this theme leads me to think that The Legend of Good Women will definitely tie back to the medieval gender role reversal theme that’s been brought up for discussion since the beginning of the semester.

    So far, we’ve been introduced to various female figures in Chaucer’s work, so it will be interesting to see how Chaucer will portray the female characters in this work. We’ve seen some rather weak and vulnerable female characters from The Canterbury Tales such as Cunstance (from “The Clerk’s Tale”), Grisildis (from “The Man of Law’s Tale”), and Emelye (from “The Knight’s Tale”). The aforementioned female characters seem to possess very little or no control in their fate, and it almost does feel as if Chaucer is objectifying women through these characters. At the same time, Chaucer has written some stronger female characters in The Canterbury Tales including Alysoun (from “The Knight’s Tale”) and the Wife of Bath. These two female characters seem to be able to exercise some power in their lives and, to some extent, actually do as they please. In what other ways might Chaucer portray women in The Legend of Good Women?

  5. Amalie Erwood says:

    Chaucer’s prologue to the Legend of Good Women reminds me of the overly romanticized tone present in that of the Knight’s tale. Chaucer attempts to paint a portrait of beautiful misery in this poem, detailing vivid scenes of nature and the setting of the story. For example in the beginning of the prologue, he even reflects on the birds and their songs. However, in the midst of long ballads and extensive imagery, the point is lost. Chaucer leads the reader to question at which point strife for romance negates a true and virtuous love and crosses into the realm of a kind of adoration that is overly fantasized and flowery.
    His overly woeful attitude and long-winded descriptions of his desperate love speaks to an almost negative viewpoint of the theme of courtly love. According to the prologue, one shows honor and faithfulness to their true love by exhibited some of the most extreme forms of self sacrifice. In fact, the poem at times mentions death in favor of one’s lover. As mentioned before in previous literary analyses on courtly love, Chaucer often paints love in a way that causes the reader to question why a Medieval man would pursue such a chore. Chaucer speaks of lovers as slaves to romance with his harsh language such as “sinners” in love and even “evil.” With this negative attitude and mocking language, one must presume Chaucer’s view of love is far from favorable.

    • Cory Pritchett says:

      (In response to Amalie)

      I agree with the ideal of an over romanticized tone present in this story much like the Knight’s tale. While Chaucer is no stranger to using descriptive imagery, the way he uses it to describe the emotion of love gives the reader with a real sense of passion. For example, these lines from the poem that have been translated to modern English:

      “So glad am I when I am in its presence
      To show it all and every reverence,
      As she that is the flower of all flowers,
      Whom every virtue and honour dowers,
      And ever alike fair and fresh of hue,
      And I love it, and ever the love renew,”

      Much like Amalie previously stated, the prologue begins with rich, colorful text imagery about love then as it continues this point is lost. This leads his tone to switch into sad and desperate as his descriptions become longer and more desperate. This brings up the questions as to whether this poem falls under the category of love an adoration or one of overly fantasized ideas of the nature of love and wanting.

      Aside from the almost overbearing theme of love and romance, the theme of feminism is also apparent. He depicts the women as good, or heroes. This idea of women being the ‘heroes’ ties in with our theme of Chaucer’s reversal of gender roles in his poems.

  6. lpeng32 says:

    (reply to ajalma)

    For the most part, I agree with the points that ajalma touched upon in her reply. The Prologue of “The Legend of Good Women” by Chaucer obviously places a strong emphasis on medieval courtship and love. But this could be more of a parody or criticism of the flowery, flamboyant-ness of courtship in the middle ages as Amalie mentioned in her comment.

    However, I think Chaucer’s “Good Women” is most likely sincere in its attempt to portray women in a positive light. I agree that he has written strong female characters before and is no stranger to writing outside of accepted literary norms.

    The first few tales — dedicated to Cleopatra, Thisbe, and Dido — depict loyal, loving, “good” women as those willing to commit the ultimate sacrifice to prove their love: suicide. Is this the most positive way Chaucer could have portrayed good women? Perhaps in the medieval times, the pinnacle of a good woman was one who would be willing to suffer in the name of love and loyalty, even to unworthy men (Antony and Aeneas).

  7. eslep says:

    One of the things that I liked the most about this text was that I feel like this is one of the first times I’ve really been able to see Chaucer as a ‘poet’ rather than just a ‘writer’. From the start, I feel like the text almost meanders through its story, setting a somewhat easy, relaxed tone for Chaucer’s tale. As such, when paired with his talk of daisies and the birds singing, the tone of Chaucer’s writing creates such an idyllic setting that when the God of Love finally shows up, it is impossible for the reader to believe anything but what Chaucer wants him to believe: that this is some divine dream of paradise. What Chaucer accomplishes here, writing in such a way that his scene is set not only by what he says, but by how he says it, is an accomplishment that is truly the mark of a poet.

    Also, I think that the imagery of the daisy that Chaucer uses is a wonderful poetic device. At the start, Chaucer talks about the beauty of the daisies and how their presence relieves all of his sorrow and how none ever felt a love so great or passionate as he did for it. Once the God of Love arrives on the scene, however, the image of the daisy is paired with Alceste, the Queen of Love. With Chaucer having already professed his love for ‘her’, referring first to the daisy and then to Alceste, I believe that Chaucer is, in a sense, singing his praise to the God of Love, despite the God’s accusation that Chaucer draws people away from his religion. Thus, I believe Chaucer is saying that while he may not always paint love and women in the most favorable light, he is nonetheless as firm a believer in Love’s religion as the poets who came before him, who would’ve sang songs of love no differently from the small birds Chaucer placed in the trees.

    All of these things point to the fact that Chaucer, when writing this, paid attention not only to what he said, but to how he said it as well. This is something that is emblematic of the writing of poets specifically, and I think it is because of this that Legend of Good Women comes across as somewhat more poetic than many of Chaucer’s other works which we’ve read.

    • sburke7 says:

      I have to agree with Eric on how the prologue of “The Legend of Good Women” offers Chaucer as more of what we would think of as a poet. Even though he was called a poet throughout his time, this work is one of the few that actually displays the use of modern poetry conventions. Chaucer used a form/structure unlike those used in previous works, one like iambic pentameter. He also displayed great focus on creating images, emotions, and an overall pleasant experience for his readers.
      Another thing that I noticed and appreciated about this poem, was that instead of one person falling in love with another who may have not felt the same way or who may have had something standing in the way, this poem celebrates true love between two beings. It addresses all of the good that can come out of being in love in a realistic way rather than what is felt by admiring someone from afar or falling in love for somebody that they had never actually spoken to. Chaucer is praising the woman that he is actually involved with, not complaining about her or praising a mistress but praising his only “lady” for being so faithful and good for him.
      So is this a way to counter the other stories that Chaucer has written about women? Is this a way for him to take women out of a seemingly negative light and present them in a much more pleasant way? Who is Chaucer’s audience? Who is he trying to impress with this long story about the good women? Or is he being ironic or sarcastic again, maybe poking fun at how women may never really be good? These are the questions that the prologue made me ask; I question his intentions.

  8. gatech2013 says:

    In response to joysteele, I really like your thoughts on the dream allusion serving as a sort of metaphor for the guilt that Chaucer may have felt from portraying the women the way he did. The choice by Chaucer to use the “dream” seems to me to be a tool by which to distance himself. In a dream state, Chaucer can present things that in no way have to be realistic. He can add things into his work on a non-personal level this way, and sense it was “just in a dream” so to speak, creates a bit of distance in ownership perhaps. This again in another sense gives Chaucer a freedom to express whatever he wished to discuss, and in a sense alert the reader to the fact that the things that he includes within are important and have a potentially deeper meaning.

    I found an interesting article on Chaucer’s use of “dream vision” as a tool. http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/chaucer/writing3.html

    It has some interesting things to say regarding Chaucer use of the tool, and his development of the Canterbury Tales, which marks a shift from using the “dream vision” to getting the intended point across in the actual content, which leaves interpretation up to the reader.

  9. wwhiteside23 says:

    My apologies for the delayed response: I was well at work on the introduction for the manuscript.

    A few things stand out to me about the introduction. Notably, it continues the popular medieval tradition of invoking the traditional polytheistic gods of old as a way of making the work appear to be more portentous and grandiose. I wouldn’t exactly peg this as an epic feminist work, however. Rather, it seems to be more of a level headed work that is intent on shedding a “new” light on the relation between the sex.
    I found one of the concluding lines
    “I wish you to begin with Cleopatra; and so continue. And so you shall gain my love. For let us see now what sort of man that lover would be, who would endure so strong a pain for love as she.”
    to be particularly interesting, because it seems to explicitly ground the work as something focused on the woman’s perspective. Through this description (for let us see now what sort of man..) the reader is permitted to get an “external” view of the men in the lives of these female figures. Considering this use of gender as a device of distinction, what might one conclude about Chaucer’s view of women?