It took me almost nine months to read Troilus and Criseyde in Middle English, one of the books in my Goodreads reading the classics challenge. As you would expect, it got easier to understand the language as time went on and, now that I’ve finished it, there’s a Middle English gap in my life.
The story is straightforward. During the Trojan War, in the city of Troy, Troilus sees Criseyde and falls in love with her. He talks her uncle into introducing them and she falls in love with him. They become lovers. Criseyde is exchanged for a Trojan prisoner and leaves Troy, promising to be true to Troilus. She isn’t. Troilus seeks death in battle.
Criseyde is presented as the villain of the piece, which I think is more than a little unfair. She’s tricked into meeting Troilus, having never noticed him before. As a Greek living in Troy during the Trojan War, she’s been very careful of her reputation and doesn’t want to upset anyone by having an affair with a son of the king. Her reticence leads to her being tricked into sharing Troilus’ bed. Troilus doesn’t have the decency to marry her publicly, but is perfectly happy to meet her secretly. Her father, who left her behind in Troy whilst saving himself, decides he wants her back and exchanges her for a Trojan prisoner. Instead of marrying her, Troilus lets her go. Criseyde herself has no choice in the matter. Once she’s in the Greek camp there’s really no way for her to get back to Troy, since it would mean evading both the Greek and Trojan armies and, should she be captured by either side, convincing them that she’s not a spy. She’s labelled fickle, because she accepts the protection of a Greek knight, but her father, having got her back, makes no provision for her to be married. All of the men in her life fail her.
Despite all this, Chaucer is kinder to Criseyde than his sources were. Most of the story comes from Boccaccio’s Filostrato, and we already know that he was not the feminist many commentators want to see in him. His own words were used against him in Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, and The Decameron is full of misogynistic stories. Although the overall story stays the same, Chaucer makes subtle changes and treats Criseyde with more sympathy than Boccaccio did.
After all the ups and downs of the affair, Chaucer’s final point is that all earthly love is only a shadow of Christ’s love for mankind. Unlike his contemporary, Boccaccio, he chooses to make a moral point of his tale.
One of the many interesting things about the book is how much it contributed to the English language. It contains many proverbial expressions, including what’s supposed to be the first usage of ‘all good things must come to an end’.
I enjoyed Troilus and Criseyde, and I might attempt The Canterbury Tales in the challenge next year.