Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Amphibologies of Mythology and Language

The story of Troilus and Cressida is a medieval fan-fiction of Homer’s Iliad. Where Troilus is an original character directly pulled from the Iliad, Criseyde is not. The narrative follows the “double sorrow” (L1 Book 1) of two lovers who are caught in the midst of the Trojan War.  For those unacquainted with the conventions of medieval poetry – it is an exceedingly popular trope of both central and late medieval English literature to portray Trojan and, subsequently through genealogy through Virgil’s Aeneid, as a central part of England’s cultural origin story. Where this may seem bizarre to a contemporary audience, the English consistently saw themselves as the honourable victims of the Trojan War. One must follow not only the British sources, but also Roman epics (The Aeneid) in order to understand how this convoluted mythology had been formulated. A reader can find this narrative in Laȝamonn’s Brut, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and innumerable histories written far into the 17th and 18th centuries (see Lisa Hopkins “We Were the Trojans” for a breakdown of some of these). The English, perhaps like no other culture, identified themselves with various characters and cultures in the Greek and Roman classics and proceeded to create their own narratives of these events. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is also not the first adaptation of this story – but follows Benoit’s Roman de Troi and Boccaccio’s Filiostro in adapting this material for an English audience. While it remains unclear whether Chaucer bought into the “English are Trojans” mythology that has circulated throughout much of England’s history – his epic poem has remained a canonical work of poetry – known to be among those with a distinctive use of the second person singular unseen in much medieval poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, while inspiring a plethora of works from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida to Lavinia Greenlaw’s 2015 A Double Sorrow, the work is itself situated among a plethora of pilfered sources and materials stitched together to create something new.

One of the most rewarding aspects of working with medieval sources is the extensive labour often required to get at the meat of the material. The language is often quite foreign – even when one reads words generally familiar to contemporary speakers of English, the meanings have shifted significantly over the centuries and oceans the language has circulated. Middle English wonderfully blends Anglo-Norman, German, Old French, Italian and Latin and is a beautiful exempla of how languages are creative projects themselves – adapting to new usages and yet often retaining old expressions where the newer ones fail to capture meaning. This is why programs in medieval studies often require that graduate students be fluent (at least in reading) in German, French and Latin – regardless of what additional language training they may have.  Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is plump with odd expressions – words that no longer exist and yet are so beautiful and poetic – and others where one finds the figures of Classical Greece and Rome with novel names that one could only imagine the connections with the figures from what is known from mythology. I am sure that a scholar of Greek and Roman mythology may easily glance at the names that follow, but perhaps we can make a game out of this. The person who identifies most of these Gods and mythical figures wins something from me…: Citheria, Herynes, Quyryne, Cipride, A mayde, Latona, sone of Tideus, Lachesis.

chaucer corpus christi

It is problematic that some professors of English literature will teach the late 17th and 18th centuries as the dawning of the “epistolary” format – one which is used and reused throughout Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. One instance is found at L1316 in Book V, where the instruction “Litera Troili” is left to indicate that we are reading Troilus’ letter. The same occurs with Criseydis’ letter at L1589 of the same book. Most symptomatic – there are several instances throughout where both Troilus and Criseyde “sing” the poetry – actions one would expect of dramatic texts but not necessarily of written (canonical) poetry. One finds such at 638 in Book V of the work – where an instruction is left for “Canticus Troili” ie. Troilus here sings the following passage. It is almost as if Chaucer expects his readers to perhaps sing these verses themselves – or at the very least imagine how the text might be performed as it were sung by its dramatis personae. Troilus sings the ending of the narrative poem as one might have expected the poets of another culture[1]

Turning back to language – I wanted to dwell my attention upon several verbs, adjectives and nouns which no longer exist in English usage but communicate something about medieval culture in the present moment by our own dis-use of and unfamiliarity with the vocabulary. Towards the end of the fifth book, Chaucer describes how Troilus’ soul “sholde unbodye” (L1550) – an expression that literally means to leave the body. Where in contemporary usage requires a full sentence to describe this phenomenon, and a great deal of spiritual belief, Chaucer’s “unbodye” encapsulates the environment of belief – that spiritual actions are of equal value to physical ones – and as such – a verb exists to describe a phenomenon many would not necessarily recognize. I also absolutely adored the reference to war as an “anger game” (L1563) – a metaphor which perhaps demonstrates Chaucer’s own predilections towards militarism. Another verb that potentially jars in contemporary usage is “remorde yow” (L1491) – to cause remorse. In Chaucer’s usage – again – what a contemporary reader would recognize as a spiritual and religious quality – is used as both subject and verb – almost “remorse will cause you this”.  If you are enjoying this linguistic game – another favourite word is when Pandarus tells Troilus that “goddess speken in amphibologies” (L1406) – at once reminding the reader of the mutable nature of gods in the pre-modern world and assigning them what a contemporary reader would typically associate with the animal world. Amphibologies literally refers to ambiguities – but the word takes on animalistic qualities not present if we were to literally translate it. This is why reading literature in the original language is crucial in understanding cultural context – and appreciating the beauty of a way of being perhaps very different from your own.  Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde showcases the genius with which medieval artists could fuse traditions and forms of knowledge from far in the past to create hybrid mesh-work of old narratives.

[1] Think on Homer’s Greece – especially see the classic works Albert B. Lord. The Singer of Tales. 2nd ed. 2000 with introduction by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Print. as well as Gary Miller. Improvisation, Typology, Culture, and the “The New Orthodoxy”: How “Oral” is Homer? Washington, D. C.: University Press of America.

*Feature image taken from an image of Troilus meeting with his mother, Hecuba in Histoire ancienne jusq’à César, Italy (Naples), c. 1330-c. 1340, Royal MS 20D. i, f. 139v.

*Manuscript image taken from the Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 061 front-piece for Troilus and Criseyde.


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1 thought on “Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Amphibologies of Mythology and Language

  1. Nathan AM Smith May 14, 2019 — 9:30 pm

    I’ve always had such an interesting relationship with this story! Thanks for chatting about it!


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