Week 10 Recap Blog: On the Legend of Good Women

The Death of Cleopatra by Jean Andre Rixens. Cleopatra committed suicide after her lover, Mark Antony, killed himself. She is believed to have committed suicide historically, but due to a fear that her kingdom would soon be conquered.

Preface

Geoffrey Chaucer left behind a complicated message in The Legend of Good Women. His tales of feminine morality could have simply spelling out his opinions on the social place of women in medieval England, but his love of satire makes that unlikely. In that vein, he could have been using female abuse to make a statement about the corruption of men, or about the perversion of leadership. However, I would argue that he was discussing women and their place on a historical level. His message had less to do with what he thought of women and more to do with what history thought of women.

Class time this week was spent primarily on The Legend of Good Women. There was no class Monday, but there was an online discussion of the Prologue which served as a preface to discussion for the rest of the week. The consensus boiled down to Chaucer’s intent with the Prologue. He began by stating that men should only trust things that can be seen with their own eyes, but soon after followed it with a disclaimer that revoked this opinion as it pertains to the bible. He further, in The Prologue, feigned ignorance regarding many of his other works which include controversial images of women, such as Troilus and Criseyde and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”.  Discussion of Chaucer’s “Retraction”, the final chapter of The Canterbury Tales, in which Chaucer retracted everything he had written, led to connections between these two works. Chaucer clearly wanted to cover himself, which leads to an important point: these works were done despite their intentional controversy.

The Canterbury Tales vs. The Legend of Good Women

An image of The Wife of Bath from the Ellesmere Chaucer. The Wife of Bath was known for her controversial behavior and multiple husbands. This contrasts heavily with the women of Legend who surrendered their life when betrayed by their husbands.

However, there are obvious differences between The Canterbury Tales and The Legend of Good Women. As was brought up in class, The Legend of Good Women is a great deal more romanticized than The Canterbury Tales. Where the ‘Miller’s Tale’ includes fart jokes and commentary on social class, The Legend of Good Women covers classic Greek myths from an alternate perspective. The Legend of Good Women is also much heavier in terms of description, and is more technically impressive. These differences are important because they signify what Chaucer’s intention was with each piece. He satirized the present in Canterbury and satirized the past with Good Women, but in two completely different ways. Class discussion led to his potential intentions with Good Women.

For week 10, we covered all of the legends except ‘The Legend of Phyllis’ and ‘The Legend of Hypermnestra’. All of the women are virtuous and true, unlike some of their Canterbury counterparts, but they also meet terrible ends brought on by their legendary male lovers. Cleopatra and Thisbe both kill themselves in response to the suicide of their lovers. Lucretia and Philomela are raped by different men and commit suicide out of shame. Hypsipyle and Madea are both betrayed by the Greek hero Jason to live out their days chaste and mournful. Several possible messages came out of these similarities in character and narrative. It could be that Chaucer wanted to give a message about the corruption of men or the corruption of leaders and those in power. He could also have simply been responding to criticism of his previous works regarding women with a sarcastic “all good women die”. Judging from the conclusion that I drew in regards to the Prologue, which is that Chaucer was knowingly treading on controversial ground, I have to believe that he was not simply chronicling the stereotype of a ‘good woman’.

The History of Women

This, of course, is very debatable and I welcome opinions in the comments, but I believe that Chaucer had a couple points that he wished to make with The Legend of Good Women. In The Legend of Good Women, “… not only does Chaucer recognize the logical faculty of woman; he makes, too, a delicate and graceful tribute to the feminine sense of humor by refusing to enter upon a crass explanation of his satire.” (Goddard, 94) In light of this, we cannot take Chaucer’s word at face value. Alceste decrees in ‘Ballade’

      Thou shalt, whyl that thou livest, yeer by yere,
      The moste party of thy tyme spende
      In making of a glorious Legende
      Of Gode Wommen, maidenes and wyves,
      That weren trewe in lovinge al hir lyves;
      And telle of false men that hem bitrayen,

She blatantly requests that Chaucer not only tell tales of women who are true in love, but also that he tell of men who betray them. Assuming that this is satire as Goddard suggests, Chaucer would not give us the answer to his carefully crafted message outright as he does with good women and bad men in the ‘Ballade’. What then is Chaucer saying and what can it tell us about the social situation at the time? I would argue that his point revolves around satire of the traditional roles of men and women. Historically, Chaucer points out, women were good and true, but men took advantage of them and were lauded as heroes for it. Chaucer uses a history of anti-feminism to reveal just how ugly the popular image of womanhood is. The Legend of Good Women “derives the very substance of its being from its antagonist’s power, and relies on that power to justify its own extremism.” (Mann, 39) In contrast, Chaucer’s own stories about femininity, to which he alludes in the ‘Prologue’, allow for freedom and mistakes in their heroines. By comparing the two, Chaucer makes himself clear: “How can I be at fault if this is how women were treated before me?”

Feminist Framework

Chaucer’s feminist pervades through the framework of the piece as well. Chaucer is known, especially in The Canterbury Tales, for using an outside narrator to make comment on narrative bias. In this case, Chaucer switches the typical male perspective out for a female one to make a comment on historical bias. By taking on the role of these legendary women, Chaucer sympathizes with them and reveals how misogynistic their stories were. Additionally, “… the commissioning of the Legend by a woman (Alceste) is freighted with an essential significance: the male author signals … his subjection to women and the story they have to tell.” (Mann, 38) There are statements about both men and women in the Legend, but Chaucer clearly comes out on the side of the women. These are not good women. These are abused women.

In Closing

Admittedly, I suffer from a modern bias and could very well be at fault in my assumptions. There were likely a number of different intended messages and some of them were probably specific to the social situations of the time. However, it is my firm belief that Chaucer is making generous use of satire in The Legend of Good Women and that his message is commentary on the history of women. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you think otherwise!

Citations
Goddard, H. C. “Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 7.4 (1908): 87–129. Print.
Mann, Jill. Feminizing Chaucer. Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2002. Print.
Rixens, Jean André. The Death of Cleopatra (1874). Musée des Augustins, Toulouse. Painting.
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