Troilus’s death-seeking: Chaucer vs. Boccaccio & Shakespeare

Widely celebrated as a courtly lover, Troilus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is also a figure of men’s death-seeking. Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida provide alternate perspectives on Troilus’s death-seeking. Both Boccaccio’s playful framing and Shakespeare’s brilliant vitriol are more humane than modern critical complacency about men’s deaths.

dead men on Tarawa beach

Chaucer’s Troilus repeatedly insists that if Criseyde doesn’t accept him as her lover, then he wants to die. Despite many pressing matters confronting him, such as the Greeks besieging his city of Troy, Troilus thought only of Criseyde:

Not an hour of the day passed that he did not say to himself a thousand times, “Lovely one whom I labor to serve as best I can, now I wish to God, Criseyde, you would pity me before I die. Alas, dear heart, my health and cheer and life are lost unless you pity me.” All other fears had fled from him, both of the siege and for his own safety, and no other desires bred in him but tender yearnings to that one goal, that she should have compassion on him and he might be her man for life; lo, in this stood his life and his cure from death! … very often he would lament thus with himself: … “Save me from death, for more than my life I will love you to the end. Cheer me with some friendly look, though you may never promise anything else.” [1]

Troilus’s friend Pandarus tried to help him with time-tested wisdom such as “a man often makes the rod with which he is beaten.” But Troilus didn’t want to be cured of his obsessive love for Criseyde:

your proverbs cannot help me, and you do not know any other cure for me; and I wish not to be cured, I wish to die.

Pandarus begged Criseyde to love Troilus. He depicted for her the alternate prospect of a double death:

Now, my niece, the king’s dear son, the good, the prudent, the valiant, the lusty, the generous, that mirror of well-doing, the noble Troilus, so loves you that unless you help him it will be his death. Lo, this is all! What more can I say? Do what you will, let him live or die; but if you let him die, I will die too. Here is my pledge that I am not lying; if I am, I should have to cut my throat with this knife! … that noble gentle knight, who asks for nothing but a friendly look from you, I see him slowly dying as he walks about, and making all haste to be slain, if fortune will only grant it.

Criseyde appreciated her power to kill the mighty warrior Troilus amid Troy’s battle with Greece:

She cast over in her mind his excellent prowess, his station, his renown, his wisdom, his form, and his nobility; but what most won her was that his distress was all for her, and she thought it would be a pity to slay such a one, if his intent were faithful.

Without complete control over Troilus’s sexuality (him being “faithful” to her), Criseyde apparently would be willing to slay him.

Criseyde determined not only life and death for Troilus, but also his conditions of living. Troilus affirmed that his love for Criseyde gave her the right to have him killed for falling short of abasement in love servitude:

for the love of God, dear lady, as He has created me to serve you — by this I mean that he wills that you should be my guide, to let me live, if you will, or die — teach me how to deserve your thanks, so that through my ignorance I may do nothing to displease you. For surely I dare swear, joyous perfect woman, that all my life you shall find in me fidelity and devotion, and that I shall never break your command; and if I do, present or absent, for the love of God let me instantly be slain, if it should so please your womanhood!

The ideology of amour courtois condemned men to love servitude to women.  In love, men were women’s slaves and could suffer death at women’s whims.

Troilus’s death-accepting love for Criseyde led to Troilus’s death and the deaths of many other men. In response to Criseyde being delivered to the Greeks in exchange for a captive Trojan warrior, Troilus prayed to die:

Ah death, the ender of every grief, come now, since I have called you so often! For kindly is death when, often called, he comes and ends pain. Well I know that, while I lived in peace, I would have paid ransom before death should slay me; but now his coming is so sweet that there is nothing on earth I long after more. O death, please either quench with your cold stroke this heat of sorrow, or else drown me now in tears. You at all times slay so many in so many ways, unsummoned, against their will: do me this service at my prayer. Deliver the world now of the most woeful creature that ever was, for it is time that I die who am useless in the world!

Troilus regarded himself as useless because he wasn’t able to serve Criseyde. When he thought Criseyde had died, he prepared to commit suicide. But she wasn’t actually dead. When she was held in the Greek camp, Criseyde became the lover of her Greek guard Diomedes. When Triolus learned of Criseyde’s betrayal of him, he sought his own death:

henceforth as I can I will seek my own death upon the field, and I care not how soon be the day. But truly, Criseyde, sweet maiden, whom I have always loved with all my might, I have not deserved that you should do thus!

Triolus killed thousands of Greek men in battle before Achilles killed him. Chaucer’s courtly love tale Troilus and Criseyde is drenched in the bloody deaths of Triolus and many other men.

Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato frames men’s death-seeking as the error of valuing fictional constructs over real, living presence. In its preface, Filostrato tells of frequent courtly debate about what gives a young man greater pleasure:

  1. seeing his beloved lady,
  2. talking with others about his beloved lady, or
  3. thinking sweetly of his beloved lady.

Filostrato argued for the third option:

I affirmed that it was not the least part of the lover’s bliss to be able to make the beloved one kindly disposed according to the desire of him who was thinking about her and to render her kind and responsive in accordance with that desire — even though that might last only as long as the thought — which certainly could not happen when seeing her or talking to her. [2]

But then Filostrato’s beloved lady Filomena moved to another city. He lacked opportunity to see her. He realized his childish error. He realized that the “false flattery of my thoughts” was far less delightful than actually seeing Filomena.

In response to Filomena’s absence, Filostrato wished for death. To make clear his sorrow, he wrote in rhyme the story of how Troilo came to sorrow greatly at the absence of his beloved Criseida. That’s the same story as Chaucer’s Triolus and Criseyde. After telling that story, Filostrato warned young lovers to pray to Love:

that he kindly grant you the grace to love so wisely that in the end you will not die for an evil woman.

That advice at least shows some concern for men’s deaths. But with respect to his beloved Filomena, Filostrato instructed his book:

pray to her as much as you can that it may please her to return here now or to command my soul to take itself away from me because, wherever it must go from here, death is much better for me than such a life.

Even if Filomena wasn’t an evil woman, the frame suggests questioning whether Filostrato’s grief over Filomena’s absence justified him seeking death. His preference for death could easily arise from fiction of thought in her absence. An obvious alternative is to delight in what he can see in his real, present circumstances.

In his play Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare echoes Boccaccio’s concern for fictional error. Troilus, Ulysses, and Thersites secretly followed Diomedes and Cressida back to the Greek camp. There they spied Cressida amorously engaging with Diomedes. She gave him her sleeve to wear. Troilus then questioned reality:

But if I tell how these two did co-act,
Shall I not lie in publishing a truth?
Sith yet there is a credence in my heart,
An esperance so obstinately strong,
That doth invert the attest of eyes and ears,
As if those organs had deceptious functions,
Created only to calumniate.
Was Cressid here?

Ulysses affirmed that the Cressida they saw was no illusion. Troilus insisted that Cressida wasn’t there. He rationalized:

Let it not be believed for womanhood!
Think, we had mothers; do not give advantage
To stubborn critics, apt, without a theme,
For depravation, to square the general sex
By Cressid’s rule: rather think this not Cressid.

That sort of argument has commonly prevailed throughout history to support gynocentrism and suppress men’s literature of sexed protest. Troilus declared that his sword would swirl like a hurricane striking about Diomedes’s body. Despite his attempted self-deception, his fiction about Cressida quickly dissipated:

O Cressid! O false Cressid! false, false, false!
Let all untruths stand by thy stained name,
And they’ll seem glorious.

Cressida’s falseness didn’t change Troilus’s direction of action. His actions continued in the direction of men’s deaths.

Shakespeare’s Thersites bitingly criticized the folly of men’s death-seeking and men’s violence against men. As Troilus and Diomedes fought on the field between the Greek and Trojan camps, Thersites looked on, cheering:

Hold thy whore, Grecian!—now for thy whore,
Trojan!—now the sleeve, now the sleeve! [4]

When Paris and Menelaus, the principles in the struggle for Helen, engaged in fighting, Thersites provided color commentary:

the cuckold and the cuckold-maker are at it. Now,
bull! now, dog! ‘Loo, Paris, ‘loo! now my double-
henned sparrow! ‘loo, Paris, ‘loo! The bull has the
game: ware horns, ho!

Thersites recognized that disputes about women had become bloody, violent play for fools:

Here is such patchery, such juggling and such
knavery! all the argument is a cuckold and a
whore; a good quarrel to draw emulous factions
and bleed to death upon. Now, the dry serpigo on
the subject! and war and lechery confound all!

Thersites prophetically condemned elite literary narrow-mindedness:

Lechery, lechery; still, wars and lechery; nothing
else holds fashion: a burning devil take them! [5]

The ideology of courtly love obscures lechery and promotes men’s deaths. Thersites saw the truth in the love story of Troilus and Criseyde.

Courtly love aligns with human social nature in supporting gynocentrism and devaluing men’s deaths.  In 1932, an influential scholarly expositor of courtly love declared:

courtly love itself, in spite of all its shabby origins and pedantic rules, is at bottom more agreeable to those elements in human, or at least in European, nature, which last longest, than the cynical Latin gallantries of Boccaccio [6]

Men’s lives and men’s deaths follow Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in sadly indicating the truth of that observation. Boccaccio, who was no cynic, in Il Filostrato indirectly urged men to love flesh-and-blood women. If Boccaccio is too sophisticated for modern English readers, they need only turn to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Just as Marcolf highlighted the folly of King Solomon, Shakespeare’s Thersites denounced Chaucer’s story of gynocentrism and misandry.[7]

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[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, Bk 1, ll. 456-69, 506, 535-9, verse in the modernized English prose from eChaucer & Gerard NeCastro, University of Maine at Machias. Here’s Benson’s draft interlinear translation of Bk. 1. The source Chaucer text is readily available. Subsequent quotes from Troilus and Criseyde are from (book.lines) 1.740-3; 1.756-8; 2.316-25, 331-5; 2.659-65; 3.1289-1302; 4.501-18; 5.1717-22. I have made a few minor changes in the translations for clarity. Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde in the 1380s.

Chaucer at the time of his composing Troilus and Criseyde was arguably “the greatest living interpreter in English of l‘amour courtois.” Lewis (1932) p. 28. John Gower in his first version of Confessio Amantis referred to Chaucer as “Venus’ ‘disciple’ and ‘poete’, with whose ‘ditees and songes glade … the lond fulfild is overal’.” Id.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Proem, from Italian trans. apRoberts & Seldis (1986) p. 5. Griffin & Myrick (1929) provides an alternative translation. For “la cosa amata” apRoberts & Seldis (1986) has “the beloved object.” In context, “the beloved one” seems to me a better translation. I’ve used that above. Subsequent quotes from Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato are from id. Proem, p. 11, (part.strophe, page) 8.32, p. 413, and 9.7, p. 419. Boccaccio wrote Il Filostrato probably about 1335.

[3] William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act V, Scene 2, ll. 3190-7, from Eric M. Johnson’s Open Source Shakespeare. Subsequently quotes from Troilus and Cressida (unless otherwise noted) are from id. (act.scene, lines) V.2, ll. 3203-7; V.2, ll. 3222-4; V.4, ll. 3435-6; V.7, ll. 3568-71; II.3, ll. 1284-8; V.2, ll. 3271-2. On textual complexities, Godshalk (1995). None of the quotes here depend significantly on textual differences. Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida probably in 1602.

[4] In Homer’s Iliad, II.211-77, Thersites bitterly blames King Agamemnon for the irrationality of the Greeks war against Troy. Thersites “says what everyone else is thinking.” Benardete (1991) pp. 100-1.

Marks (2005) argues that Thersites was a military commander, rather than a common soldier. Thersites’s conflict with Odysseus and Achilles thus represents elite competition of praise / blame rather than class conflict. The distinction between elite competition and class conflict can be misleading. Persons not part of particular elite groups by profession can nonetheless intervene in elite competition in ways that are not commonly possible. Marcolf in the conflict between Marcolf and King Solomon was no ordinary peasant. See Ziolkowski (2008).

Some evidence indicates that Thersites was regarded as a kinsman of Diomedes in the Aitolian royal house of ancient Greece. Marks (2005) p. 2, n. 3. In Shakespeare’s Triolus and Cressida, Diomedes before loving Cressida bitterly lamented the men’s deaths that resulted from the Greeks and Trojans fighting over Helen:

She’s bitter to her country: hear me, Paris:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian’s life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight,
A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer’d death.

IV.1, ll. 2271-8.

[5] “A burning devil take them” generally means “go to hell.” In the context of lechery, that particular phrase also suggests a male symptom of venereal disease manifest in the act of urinating.

[6] Lewis (1932) p. 43-4. The quotation above, from a highly rhetorical passage, literally ends with a question mark. The context makes clear that this is Lewis’s favored “natural conclusion.”

[7] Mann (2002) convincingly presents Chaucer’s work as gynocentric and misandristic:

he {Chaucer} crams in even more meaning, to the point where woman is at the centre instead of the periphery, where she becomes the norm against which all human behaviour is to be measured. … the Canterbury Tales, for all its rich variety of mode and genre, contains not a single example of the story-type that embodies its ideals in the central figure of a male hero. Instead, the tales that mediate serious ideals are focused on a series of women: Constance, Griselda, Prudence, Cecilia. The male hero enters only in the burlesque form of Sir Thopas, to be unceremoniously bundled out of the way in favour of the tale that celebrates the idealized wisdom of a woman, Chaucer’s tale of Melibee.

Id. pp. 2-3. Comparing Boccoccio’s Il Filostrato and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, apRoberts & Seldis (1986) declares:

Clearly Chaucer’s poem has a profundity of both thought and feeling which Boccaccio’s poem of course, never aimed at. … J.W. Mackail long ago made a very a very just assessment of the two works: “The Filostrato is lucidly told, gracefully constructed, charmingly written; but the poem that Chaucer made out of it is a consummate masterpiece. The Book of Troilus and Creseide is one of the few large perfect things in our literature.”

Id. Introduction, p. liii. That evaluation reflects a culture of relatively little concern about men’s lives. In considering Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Hume (2012) Ch. 7 focuses on the dangers of courtly love for women. Dangers to men and men’s deaths are taken for granted.

[image] Dead men; soldiers bodies on Tarawa Atoll after the U.S. invasion in November, 1943. The U.S. Marine Corps sustained 990 Marines men killed and a further 2,296 men wounded. The Japanese lost 4,713 men. U.S. Defense Visual Information Center photo HD-SN-99-03001, cropped. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


apRoberts, Robert P. and Anna Bruni Seldis, intro. and trans. with Italian text of Vincenzo Pernicone. 1986. Giovanni Boccaccio. Il filostrato. New York: Garland Pub.

Benardete, Seth. 1991. The rhetoric of morality and philosophy: Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Godshalk, William L. “The Texts of Troilus and Cressida.” Early Modern Literary Studies 1.2 (1995): 2.1-54.

Griffin, Nathaniel Edward, and Arthur Beckwith Myrick, trans. 1929. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Filostrato. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hume, Cathy. 2012. Chaucer and the cultures of love and marriage. Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Lewis, C.S. 1932. “What Chaucer really did to Il Filostrato.” Essays and Studies 17: 56-75, reprinted in Lewis, C. S., and Walter Hooper, ed. 1969. Selected literary essays. London: Cambridge University Press.{page citation above is to reprint}

Mann, Jill. 2002. Feminizing Chaucer. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Marks, J. 2005. “The Ongoing Neikos: Thersites, Odysseus, and Achilleus.” American Journal of Philology. 126 (1): 1-31.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Caxton printed dangerous Socratic sayings in Dictes or Sayings

man knealing before two women

When William Caxton printed The Dictes or Sayings of the Philosophers in 1477, he used Anthony Woodville’s English translation of a French work. Woodville’s translation omitted Socratic sayings disparaging women. Caxton added those sayings to an epilogue and justified at length including them.[1] Caxton’s epilogue indicates that broad fear in discussing women constrained public discourse in fifteenth-century England.

Caxton speculated about why Woodville chose to omit the Socratic sayings disparaging women. Caxton’s three speculations concern broad fear in contrast to narrow reason:

  1. Some “fair lady” asked Woodville to omit the sayings disparaging women. The reference to the lady’s beauty, the absence of any specific justification for her request, and Woodville’s acquiescence without argument are inconsistent with narrow reason. Eagerness to please and fear of offending are broad justifications.
  2. Woodville loved “some noble lady, for whose love he would not set it {the Socratic sayings disparaging women} in his book.” Loving a woman has no necessary relation to translating Socratic sayings disparaging women. Woodville feared that such a relation would be assumed, that such an assumption would be irrefutable, and that he would suffer from it in his personal love relation. Woodville feared that including the sayings would damage his personal life.
  3. Woodville internalized deliberative constraints in discussing women: “for the very affection, love, and good will that he had for all ladies and gentlewomen, he thought that Socrates spared the sooth {blandishment} and wrote of women more than truth.” Socrates was a well-recognized philosopher in medieval England. Endorsing or even evaluating Socratic wisdom isn’t necessary to justify translating it. Woodville feared that including the sayings would hurt his reputation.

Anthony Woodville was Lord Anthony, Earl of Rivers, Lord of Scales and of the Isle of Wright, and governor of the Lord Prince of Wales. Woodville was also the brother-in-law of King Edward IV. If Woodville was broadly fearful of including the Socratic sayings disparaging women, surely almost anyone important would likewise have been fearful.

Caxton broadly justified including the Socratic sayings disparaging women. He offered argument by contradiction, a limitation, an affective appeal, a procedural justification, excuses, a comforting hypothesis, disavowal of responsibility, an unappealing alternative, and decentralized opportunities for remediation. Consider, in a closely modernized English version, Caxton’s broad justification for printing the Socratic sayings disparaging women:

I cannot think that so true a man and so noble a philosopher as Socrates was should write otherwise than truth. For if he had made fault in writing of women, he ought not, nor should not, be believed in his other dictes and sayings. But I perceive that my said Lord {Woodville} knows truly that such faults be not had, nor be found, in the women born and dwelling in these parts and regions of the world. Socrates was a Greek, born in a far country from here, which country is all of other conditions than this is, and men and women of other nature than they, be here in this country. For I know well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of this country be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, every busy, and never idle, temperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works — or at least should be so. For which causes so evident my said Lord, as I suppose, thought it was not of necessity to set in his book the sayings of his author Socrates touching women. But for as much as I had commandment of my said Lord to correct and amend where I should find fault, and other {fault} find I none save that he has left out these dictes and sayings of the women of Greece, therefore in accomplishing his commandment — for as much as I am not certain whether it was in my Lord’s copy or not, or else, perhaps, that the wind had blown over the leaf at the time of translation of his book — I intend to write those same sayings of the Greek Socrates, which wrote of the women of Greece and nothing of them of this kingdom, whom, I suppose, he never knew; for if he had {known the women of England}, I dare plainly say that he would have excused them specially in his said dictes. Always not presuming to put and set them in my said Lord’s book but at the end separately in the epilogue of the work, humbly requiring all them that should read this little epilogue, that if they find any fault to attribute it to Socrates, and not to me … {about a page of Socratic sayings disparaging women} So these be the dictes and sayings of the philosopher Socrates, which he wrote in his book; and certainly he wrote no worse than the above recited. And for as much as it appropriate that his dictes and saying should be had as well as others’, there I have set it in the end of this book. And also some persons, perhaps, that have read this book in French would have attributed a great fault in me that I had not done my duty in viewing and overseeing of my Lord’s book according to his desire. And some other also, perhaps, might have supposed that Socrates had written much more ill of women than here above is specified, wherefore in satisfying of all parties, and also to defend the said Socrates, I have set these said dictes and sayings apart in the end of this book, to the intent that if my said Lord or any other person, whatsoever he or she shall be that shall read or hear it, that if they be not well pleased with this, that they with a pen erase it out, or else rend the leaf out of the book.

Caxton’s Dictes or Sayings omitted other passages from the Socrates section and well as other text from Woodville’s source.[2] Caxton obscured those other omissions. Those omissions probably had little public significance. Sayings disparaging women, in contrast, almost surely were controversial. Woodville was a regular patron to Caxton. Woodville and Caxton may have conspired to attract attention by skirting controversy.[3] In any case, their actions and words indicate that both plausibly feared being associated with text disparaging women.

Because human societies, like most primate societies, are gynocentric, public discourse concerning women is particularly treacherous. Woodville and Caxton, like most men throughout history, were closely associated with women and vitally dependent on women. Woodville was a bachelor seeking a new wife. Caxton was fervently grateful to his patron Lady Margaret, Duchess of Burgandy.[4] In 1478, about a year after printing The Dictes or Sayings of the Philosophers, Caxton printed Woodville’s English translation of Christine de Pizan’s Proverbes moraulx. Like Jehan Le Fèvre writing Le livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), producing a version of Christine de Pizan’s Proverbes moraulx may have been a necessary, atoning act for Woodville and Caxton.[5]

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[1] Caxton’s book was named in its ending text the dictes or sayengis of the philosphres. Subsequent versions were entitled The Dycts and the sayenges of the philosphers. In modern English it’s commonly known as The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers. I refer to it as Dictes or Sayings. Woodsville’s translation was of the French work Les Dits moraulx des philosophes. That in turn went back through a Spanish translation to Mubashshir ibn Fatik’s eleventh-century Arabic work Mukhtar al-hikam. All quotations above, unless otherwise noted, are closely modernized English from Caxton’s epilogue, available in Eliot (1910) pp. 10-13, along with other Caxton paratexts. The Dictes or Sayings epilogue is also readily available here.

Here are the dangerous Socratic sayings as printed by Caxton:

Socrates said that women be the apparels to catch men, but they take none but them that will be poor or else them that know them not. and he said that there is none so great empechement unto a man as ignorance and women. and he saw a woman that bare fire, of whom he said that the hotter bore the colder. and he saw a woman sick, of whom he said that the evil resteth and dwelleth with the evil. and he saw a woman brought to the justice, and many other women followed her weeping, of whom he said the evil be sorry and angry because the evil shall perish. and he saw a young maid that learned to write, of whom he said that men multiplied evil upon evil. and he said that the ignorance of a man is known in three things, that is to wit, when he hath no thought to use reason; when he cannot refrain his covetise; and when he is governed by the counsel of women, in that he knoweth that they know not. and he said unto his disciples: “Will ye that I enseign and teach you how ye shall now escape from all evil?” and they answered, “Yea.” and then he said to them, “For whatsoever thing that it be, keep you and be well ware that ye obey not women.” Who answered to him again, “and what sayest thou by our good mothers, and of our sisters?” He said to them, “Suffice you with that I have said to you, for all be semblable in malice.” and he said, “Whosoever will acquire and get science, let him never put him in the governance of a woman.” and he saw a woman that made her fresh and gay, to whom he said, “Thou resemblest the fire; for the more wood is laid to the fire the more will it burn, and the greater is the heat.” and on a time one asked him what him semed of women; he answered that the women resemble a tree called Edelfla, which is the fairest tree to behold and see that may be, but within it is full of venom. and they said to him and demanded wherefore he blamed so women? and that he himself had not come into this world, ne none other men also, without them. He answered, “The woman is like unto a tree named Chassoygnet, on which tree there be many things sharp and pricking, which hurt and prick them that approach unto it; and yet, nevertheless, that same tree bringeth forth good dates and sweet.” and they demanded him why he fled from the women? and he answered, “Forasmuch as I see them flee and eschew the good and commonly do evil.” and a woman said to him, “Wilt thou have any other woman than me?” and he answered to her, “Art not ashamed to offer thyself to him that demandeth nor desireth thee not?”

These sayings don’t include Socratic sayings about his wife Xanthippe.

[2] Jayne (1995) p. 44.

[3] On Woodville as patron to Caxton, Coldiron (2014) p. 70. Coldiron states, “The epilogue’s account of suppressed and restored ‘Socratic’ misogyny thus seems a pretext, disproportionately emphasizing a popular topic….” and describes Caxton’s speculations about Woodville omitting the sayings as “(cheekily? teasingly?).” Id. pp. 68-9, 72. Woodville and Caxton probably had real grounds for fear. Id., p. 75, describes the relevant sayings as “certainly offensive now” and prints a selection.

[4] In 1477, Woodville was “one of England’s most eligible bachelors.” Id. p. 72. On Caxton’s gratitude to Lady Margaret, see Caxton’s preface to The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, in Eliot (1910) pp. 5-7.

[5] Coldiron (2009) notes that in his edition of Christine de Pizan’s Proverbes moraulx, Caxton overtly supports Christine’s authority. Id. p. 45.

[image] Man kneeling before women. From “The Book of the Queen,” which contains various works of Christian de Pizan. Cropped from f.48, British Library Harley 4431.


Coldiron, Anne E. B. 2009. English printing, verse translation, and the battle of the sexes, 1476-1557. Farnham, England: Ashgate.

Coldiron, Anne E. B. 2015. Printers without borders: translation and textuality in the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eliot, Charles W., ed. 1910. Prefaces and prologues to famous books, with introductions, notes and illustrations. The Five-Foot Shelf of Books, “The Harvard Classics.” Vol. 39. New York: P.F. Collier & Son.

Jayne, Sears Reynolds. 1995. Plato in Renaissance England. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Boccaccio's Gilberto & Chaucer's Arveragus on wives' affairs

Arveragus and Gilberto

In Boccaccio’s Decameron, Day 10 Story 5, Gilberto confronted a quandary concerning his wife Dianora. She had promised to sleep with Ansaldo if he performed an impossible feat, which he did. In Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale, Arveragus faced the same quandary with respect to his wife Dorigen and the man Aurelius. Should the husband tolerate his wife fulfilling her sexual promise to another man? If the wife sought to renege on her sexual promise, should the husband defend her reneging?

Both Gilberto and Arveragus chose to tolerate their wives sleeping with other men to fulfill their promises. Gilberto responded with appropriate anger and fearlessly criticized his wife for her mistaken promise. He told her to sleep with the other man only if she couldn’t get him to release her from her promise. Arveragus, in contrast, acquiesced to being cuckolded with superficial cheerfulness and hidden despair like men today accept state-institutionalized cuckolding.

While the responses of both Gilberto and Arveragus generated similar stories, Gilberto’s response better realized the best features of human nature. Gilberto first criticized, directly but not cruelly, his wife Dianora:

Dianora, it’s not the part of a discrete and honorable lady to listen to messages of that sort, or to make a bargain about her chastity with any man, under any condition. The power of words that the heart receives by way of the ears is greater than many people believe, and for those who are in love there’s almost nothing they can’t accomplish. Thus, you did wrong, first of all by listening to him, and then by making that bargain. [1]

Gilberto then told her what he wanted:

I want you to go to him {Ansaldo}, and using any means at your disposal, I want you to do what you can to preserve your chastity and get him to release you from your promise. However, if that’s not possible, than just this once you may yield your body, but not your heart, to him.

Dianora rose to met the high expectations that Gilberto had of her. Early the next morning, she went to Ansaldo’s house “not having bothered to get especially dressed up.” Drawing further on women’s superior guile, Dianora said to Ansaldo:

Sir, I have not been led here because of any love I feel for you or because of the promise I gave you, but rather, because I was ordered to do so by my husband, who has more regard for the labors you’ve undertaken to satisfy your unbridled passion than he does for his own honor or for mine. And it is at his command that I am furthermore disposed, just this once, to satisfy your every desire.

That’s a magnificently guileful speech. Ansaldo fell for it. He responded:

things being the way you say they are, God forbid that I should mar the honor of a man who takes pity on my love. And so, for as long as you choose to stay here, you will be treated as if you were my sister, and whenever you please, you shall be free to depart, provided that you convey to your husband such thanks as you deem appropriate for the immense courtesy he has displayed and that from now on you always look upon me as your brother and servant.

Ansaldo thus freed Dianora from her sexual promise. Dianora further pretended that no quandary had ever existed. She told Ansaldo:

nothing could ever make me believe that my coming here would have produced any result other than the response I see you’ve made to it, and for that, I will be eternally in your debt.

Dianora then immediately left Ansaldo and returned to her husband. Ansaldo had hired a magician at great expense to fulfill the impossible feat that Dianora had specified for extra-marital sex with her. The magician was so impressed with the generosity that Dianora conjured that he forgave the fee he charged Ansaldo. Acting in individually distinctive ways, Gilberto and Dianora as a couple generated from their marital quandary wonderful acts of generosity.

In Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale, Arveragus’s response to Dorigen reflected the abasement of men central to courtly love. In response to Dorigen telling him of her foolish, “playful” promise, Arveragus acted as if she had done nothing to him:

This husband, with cheerful demeanor, in a friendly manner
Answered and said as I shall tell you:
“Is there anything else, Dorigen, but this?” [2]

Arveragus then privileged Dorigen’s word and devalued his own life:

You shall keep your pledged word, by my faith!
For as surely as God may have mercy upon me,
I had well rather be stabbed
For sheer love which I have for you,
Than you should {do anything but} keep and save your pledged word.
The pledged word is the highest thing that man may keep [3]

The transition to the third-personal reference “the pledged word” suggests shallowness in Arveragus’s personal connection to Dorigen. Dropping his facade of cheerfulness and duty, Arveragus then wept and requested secrecy:

But with that word he immediately burst into tears,
And said, “I forbid you, upon pain of death,
That never, while your life or breath lasts,
You tell any person about this adventure —
As best I can, I will my woe endure —
Nor make any outward appearance of sadness,
That folk may believe or guess anything harmful concerning you.”

Most men would be ashamed to act like Arveragus did. But most men lack the strength to say to their wives what Gilberto did.

Aurelius released Dorigen from her promise with generosity celebrating gynocentrism. Dorigen explained to Aurelius that she went to the garden:

Unto the garden, as my husband commanded,
My pledged word to keep — alas, alas!

Dorigen — “my pledged word” — is the center of concern. Aurelius’s response echoed the centrality of Dorigen:

Madam, say to your lord Arveragus
That since I see his great graciousness
To you, and also I see well your distress,
That he would rather have shame (and that would be a pity)
Than you should thus break your pledged word to me

Great graciousness to Dorigen, Dorigen’s distress, Dorigen breaking Dorigen’s word — it’s all about Dorigen. Aurelius, internalizing the valorization of men’s love servitude in amour courtois, sought to likewise privilege Dorigen. He freed her from her promise. He even went on to praise her as:

the truest and the best wife
That ever yet I knew in all my life.

The philosopher-illusionist whom Aurelius hired to fulfill the impossible feat sought to equal Arveragus and Aurelius in their gynocentric eminence. He thus freed Aurelius from payment for his illusion service.[4]

The Franklin’s Tale ends with Arveragus as the courtly love servant under his sovereign lady. Most men suffered love servitude only in courtship. In return for not facing further cuckolding, Arveragus continued in love servitude throughout his marriage to Dorigen:

He cherishes her as though she were a queen,
And she was to him true for evermore.

Straining dutifully to affirm dominant ideology, a scholar recently declared, “Chaucer creates an equality of imperfection between Dorigen and Arveragus.”[5] That’s nonsense. Men like Arveragus and Aurelius have made men today subject to forced financial fatherhood even in circumstances of fraud and incarceration for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being poor. That’s no more equality than acute anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support awards.

Men competing with each other in abasement in love servitude to women foster for no one freedom and generosity in love. To enjoy women’s love, men do not need to pursue impossible feats of illusion. Most men are naturally capable of love magic. Like the “exceptionally pleasant and amiable” Gilberto, men secure their wives’ love when they respect themselves and effortlessly command respect from their wives.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 10 Story 5 (X.5), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 781-2.  All the subsequent quotes from Boccaccio’s story are from id. pp. 782-84.

[2] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Franklin’s Tale, ll. 1467-9, modernized English from Benson (2002). Rather than the Decameron’s X.5, a tale recounted by Menedon in Book 4 of Boccaccio’s Filocolo was probably a source for Chaucer.

[3] The Franklin’s Tale, ll.1474-9, in modernized English from Benson (2002). The Middle English for l. 1479 is ” Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man may kepe.” Benson modernized that line as “One’s pledged word is the highest thing that one may keep.” I modernized “man” non-generically above and used the definite article “the pledged word.” Subsequent quotes from The Franklin’s Tale are from ll. 1480-86, 1512-3, 1526-30, 1539-40, 1554-5.

[4] Mann (2002) convincingly presents Chaucer’s work as gynocentric and misandristic:

he {Chaucer} crams in even more meaning, to the point where woman is at the centre instead of the periphery, where she becomes the norm against which all human behaviour is to be measured. … the Canterbury Tales, for all its rich variety of mode and genre, contains not a single example of the story-type that embodies its ideals in the central figure of a male hero. Instead, the tales that mediate serious ideals are focused on a series of women: Constance, Griselda, Prudence, Cecilia. The male hero enters only in the burlesque form of Sir Thopas, to be unceremoniously bundled out of the way in favour of the tale that celebrates the idealized wisdom of a woman, Chaucer’s tale of Melibee.

Id. pp. 2-3.

[5] Hume (2012) p. 48.

[image] Arveragus and Gilberto, imagined in funerary portrait of Sabdibel (nephew; died first) and Yarkhibonna (uncle). Limestone sculpture. Palmyra, Syria, 150-200 GC. Object 54.2, gift of Mr. Aziz Atiyeh. Portland Museum of Art. Photograph by Douglas Galbi.


Benson, Larry. D.  2002. The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale: An Interlinear Translation. The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, Harvard University. The Middle English text is from Larry D. Benson, ed. The Riverside Chaucer.

Hume, Cathy. 2012. Chaucer and the cultures of love and marriage. Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Mann, Jill. 2002. Feminizing Chaucer. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

amour courtois & glorification of men’s love abjection

woman blessing knight serving in amour courtois

Since late in the nineteenth century, learned scholars have intensely and earnestly deliberated various historical and technical issues associated with medieval European poésie lyrique and amour courtois. This deliberation, though courteous, has been heated and pointed. Scholarly reputations have risen and fallen in the verbal battles. Just as in war generally, almost all the persons fighting in this field of medieval scholarship have been men. Consistent with the gynocentrism typical of primates, all the leading men have glorified men’s love abjection and men’s love servitude to women.

Narrow historical and technical disputes about amour courtois have obscured broad scholarly endorsement of men’s love abjection and men’s love servitude to women. Claims about medieval European poésie lyrique have been qualified to amour courtois. The latter, however, has been identified as an anachronistic term. Fin’amor (more accurately called fin d’amor) has thus among scholars become a more reputable term for amour courtois. Being French, amour courtois is more stylish than “courtly love.” Both terms are etymologically related to being classy. Embracing the spirit of democratic equality, an elite medieval scholar coined the term “courtly experience.” That term emphasizes that amour courtois is a universal impulse:

I hold that here is a gentilezza {courtesy} which is not confined to any court or privileged class, but springs from an inherent virtù {manly excellence}; that the feelings of courtoisie are elemental, not the product of a particular chivalric nurture. In the poets’ terms, they allow even the most vilain {common} to be gentil {noble}. [1]

“Courtly experience” expressed in poetry can be a way of looking at life even for peasants rolling in the hay:

The courtly experience is the sensibility that gives birth to poetry that is courtois, to poetry of amour courtois. Such poetry may be either popular or courtly, according to the circumstances of its composition. The unity of popular and courtly love-poetry is manifest in the courtly experience, which finds expression in both. [2]

Gynocentrism is typical of primates. It hence encompasses both popular and courtly love poetry. Amour courtois has been described as “a part of the heart, one of the eternal aspects of man {un secteur du coeur, un des aspects éternels de l’homme}.”[3] Stated more literally, gynocentrism is a prevalent aspect of human societies.

The stark, oppressive anti-men gender inequality at the core of amour courtois has often been obscured. In 1896, an eminent European medievalist defined la poésie courtoise {courtly love poetry}:

What distinguishes it is conceiving of love as a cult directed toward an instance of excellence and based, like Christian love, on the infinite disproportion between merit and desire; like a necessary school of honor that makes the lover worthy and transforms commoners into nobles; like a voluntary servitude that has an ennobling power and that consists in the dignity and beauty of passionate suffering. [4]

That definition completely ignores the starkly different positions of men and women in amour courtois. The monumental work Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric, published in 1965, expanded upon that definition:

‘le culte d’un objet excellent’ {cult directed toward an instance of excellence}: such an attitude of the poet towards his beloved is the foundation of the courtly experience. From this arises the ‘infinite disproportion’ between lover and loved one. Yet the entire love-worship of the beloved is based on the feeling that by loving such disproportion may be lessened, the infinite gulf bridged, and a way toward union, however difficult and arduous, begun. … It is what leads to such expressions as: she whom I love is peerless throughout the world; one moment with her is worth Paradise to me; I would gladly go to Hell if she were there; her beauty is radiant as the sun; she mirrors the divine light in the world; she moves among other women like a goddess; she is worshipped by saints and angels; she herself is an angel, a goddess; she is the lover’s remedy; she is his salvation. … winning such a love is infinitely arduous, and would be impossible were it not for the lady’s grace. The value of the way is intimately related to its difficulty; therefore the lady should not take pity too easily. In any case, the lover must orient himself to an absolute love, if necessary a love unto death. [5]

In 1936, an influential medievalist declared the anti-men gender inequality of amour courtois more openly and more realistically:

Every one has heard of courtly love, and every one knows that it appears quite suddenly at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc. … The lover is always abject. Obedience to his lady’s lightest wish, however whimsical, and silent acquiescence in her rebukes, however unjust, are the only virtues he dares to claim. There is a service of love closely modelled on the service which a feudal vassal owes to his lord. The lover is the lady’s ‘man’. He addresses her as midons, which etymologically represents not ‘my lady’ but ‘my lord’. The whole attitude has been rightly described as ‘a feudalisation of love’. [6]

The scholar rightly identified an “unmistakable continuity” in this idea of love from the Middle Ages right through to the present. Men’s love servitude to women also existed in the Roman Empire in love elegy, in the relation to between caliphs and slave girls in the early Islamic world, and probably in most human societies throughout history.[7]

Scholars have only described and interpreted amour courtois while glorifying it. The scholarly imperative should be to abolish it. Writing in 1936, the influential medievalist observed:

Even our code of etiquette, with its rule that women always have precedence, is a legacy from courtly love [8]

He, however, lamented that courtly love isn’t more prevalent:

The popular erotic literature of our own day tends rather to sheikhs and ‘Salvage Men’ and marriage by capture, while that which is in favour with our intellectuals recommends either frank animalism or the free companionship of the sexes. [9]

In Theft of History, published in 2006, the chapter “Stolen Love: European Claims to the Emotions” takes amour courtois to farce:

the associated claim that love is uniquely European has also had a number of political implications being bound up not only with the development of capitalism but also being used in the service of imperialism. There is a palace in Mérida in Yucatan, the decoration of which portrays helmeted and armoured conquistadores towering over vanquished savages, with an inscription that proclaims the conquering power of love. That emotion, fraternal rather than sexual, had been claimed by the imperialist conquerors from Europe. Love literally conquers all in the hands of the invading military. [10]

Claiming amour courtois for a time or place is no substitute for meaningful ethical judgment. Amour courtois, which has at its core the subordination of men to women, isn’t humane. Amour courtois remains far too prevalent in societies around the world. Medieval European literature, wrongly understood as the source of amour courtois, provides important resources for overcoming it. Everyone needs to be educated through careful study of Lamentationes Matheoluli, Vita Aesopi, Solomon and Marcolf, Old French fabliaux, medieval women’s love poetry, and especially Boccaccio.

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[1] Dronke (1965) p. 3. Id., p. 7, refers to “the way of acquiring the virtù that she embodies.” That feminine usage of virtù reflects Dronke’s blurring of stark sex differences in amour courtois.

[2] Id. p. 3. Id, n. 1, explains:

I speak of the courtly experience rather than, say, the courtly manner or fashion because, beyond manners and fashions, it can entail a whole way of looking at life.

Dronke doesn’t speak about how looking at life through amour courtois differs in domination and subordination between women and men.

[3] Marrou (1947) p. 89, cited in Dronke (1965) pp. ix, 46.

[4] Bédier (1896) p. 172, cited in Dronke (1965) p. 4, my translation from French. The original French text:

Ce qui lui est propre, c’est d’avoir conçu l’amour comme un culte qui s’adresse à un objet excellent et se fonde, comme l’amour chrétien, sur l’infinie disproportion du mérite au désir ; — comme une école nécessaire d’honneur, qui fait valoir l’amant et transforme les vilains en courtois ; — comme un servage volontaire qui recèle un pouvoir ennoblissant, et fait consister dans la souffrance la dignité et la beauté de la passion.

Bédier was disputing the views of his contemporary scholars Alfred Jeanroy and Gaston Paris. All are influential figures in scholarship on amour courtois. C.S. Lewis characterized amour courtois as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love. Lewis (1936) p. 2. The three characteristics other than adultery exist together in some medieval love poetry. That has spurred marginal disputes about amour courtois.

[5] Dronke (1965) pp. 4-5, 7. In his elaboration on Bédier’s definition, Dronke treats gender difference as merely a grammatical formalism. Gender difference emerges only when Dronke moves to “such expressions as.”  The subordinate, abject lover is the man (he) and the dominant, paragon of excellence is the woman (she).

[6] Lewis (1936) p. 2. The reference to “unmistakeable continuity” is id. p. 3. Id. pp. 11, 12 calls amour courtois a “new sentiment” and a “new feeling” that originated in the love poetry of the late-eleventh-century Provençal troubadours. Donke, in contrast, declares nothing new and no geographic origin for amour courtois. Dronke also regards amour courtois as not particularly associated with feudal, chivalric society. Dronke (1965) p. ix. His depiction of amour courtois is nonetheless consistent with servant / lord feudal relations.

[7] Dronke (1965), Ch. I, documents the courtly experience of amour courtois in ancient Egyptian literary love songs; medieval Byzantium popular love songs; Rusthaveli’s The Man in the Panther’s Skin, written in Georgian about 1200; in the pre-Islamic Arabic poetry of Jamil and Buthaynah, the early Islamic poetry of ibn al-Ahnaf, and the eleventh-century Persian romance Wis and Ramin; love poetry of Mozarabic Spain; refrains of medieval France and Germany; tenth-century Icelandic skaldic poetry; and medieval love poetry in the Greek-Italian dialect of Calabria.

[8] Id. pp. 3-4. Scholars have provided rationalizations for denying and reversing men’s manifest subordination in courtly love. The collapse of reason is now pervasive in medieval scholarship:

As is now generally recognized, the rhetoric of courtly love is a social discourse of coercive power, asserting the courtier’s dominance over both the female love-object and men of lesser status.

Garrison (2015) p. 323. Anti-men gender bigotry is now similarly interpreted as promoting gender equality. Moreover, as the Costa Condordia disaster made clear, men continue to be denied equal opportunity to get off sinking ships.

[9] Id. p. 1. The term “salvage” apparently is an archaic form of “savage.”

[10] Goody (2006) p. 285. These are the concluding sentences of the chapter. The non-gendered reference to military action underscores lack of concern for men’s lives.

[image] Knight serving woman in amour courtois. Oil on canvas. Edmund Leighton, English, 1901. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Bédier, Joseph. 1896. “Les fêtes de mai et les commencemens de la poésie lyrique au moyen âge.” Revue des Deux Mondes 135: 146-72.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Vol I. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Garrison, Jennifer. 2015. “Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and the Danger of Masculine Interiority.” The Chaucer Review. 49 (3): 320-343.

Goody, Jack. 2006. The theft of history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, C. S. 1936. The allegory of love; a study in medieval tradition. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Marrou, Henri-Irénée. 1947. “Au dossier de l’amour courtois.” Revue du Moyen Age Latin 3: 81-89.