Troilus and Criseyde – A Review

Troilus and Criseyde

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.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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End of Week Thirty-Four

Troilus and Criseyde

As predicted, Troilus did indeed cry for 20 twenty pages. Criseyde cries for a page and is determined to join Troilus ten days after their separation as agreed, no matter what the cost. Then Chaucer tells us that even after two months she won’t be with him. Cut to Diomede. It certainly feels like a cut in a film. In one stanza Criseyde is centre stage and in the next Diomede decides that he’s going to go fishing for Criseyde. There’s certainly some misogyny in this disparity of grief.

There’s also some measure of misogyny in The Decameron where women are presented as sexually voracious. It doesn’t matter whether they’re unmarried, married, widowed or nuns, none of them can deny themselves the pleasures of the flesh.

Some of the stories in The Decameron leave a sour aftertaste. One particular story, about a scholar who falls in love with a widow who rejects him, is supposed to be inspired by Boccaccio’s own rejection by a widow. It’s a long story in which only two things happen.  The lady, who is almost as stupid as she is beautiful, knows that the scholar is in love with her, but she isn’t interested, already having a lover who pleases her. She’s not able to leave it there, though, and invites the scholar to her house one evening, leaving him outside in a snow-filled courtyard which has been locked for the night, while she enjoys herself with her lover. The scholar almost dies and plans different scenarios for revenge, one of which he’s able to put into action due to the woman’s stupidity. Just as she trapped him in a freezing courtyard, he traps her on a roof during a hot summer’s day. For reasons too complicated to go into, she’s naked and the description of what happens to her skin is decidedly unpleasant. The scholar is dissuaded from murder and the woman is rescued. I think the reader is supposed to be on the scholar’s side, but I found them both equally unpleasant.

In Das Verlies Julia Durant has caught her murderer. In a bit of an anti-climax, some people seemed far more willing to give her information than I think they would be in real life. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever read a crime novel that reflects real life.

 

Books read in challenge: 7

Books read in year: 37

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

Four Books Down

ladies

Christine de Pizan and I are finished, for the moment at least. I’ve come to the end of The Book of the City of Ladies, but The Treasure of the City of Ladies is sitting on my bookshelf waiting patiently for next year’s challenge.

It has taken me a little over three weeks to read it, which is a fair amount of time for a book that’s not 300 pages long. It’s the structure of the book that makes it so difficult to read for a twenty-first-century person. The book is divided into three parts to mark the discussions that de Pizan has with Reason, Rectitude and Justice. Reason digs the foundations of the city, Rectitude builds its walls and Justice brings the Virgin to live within it.

Within these three books are numerous short chapters extolling the virtues of women and refuting the judgements of earlier misogynistic writers. The virtuous women are biblical heroines, mythical heroines of the Greeks and Romans, women of antiquity, and Christian saints. Even a few of de Pizan’s contemporaries are presented as examples of women to be revered and respected.  It is in this catalogue of virtue that the book was probably at its most effective among de Pizan’s intended audience. The more examples of something there were, the more inclined people were to take what they said cumulatively as the truth. For the modern reader the stories of women who killed themselves on the death of their beloved, or who avenged their dead husbands, or who sent their cowardly sons back to battle are somewhat repetitive, and the repeated stories of virgins martyred for their Christian faith are just harrowing.

The purpose of the book is to show that women are not as they have been presented by men for centuries, but are noble, clever, faithful, virtuous and generous. De Pizan was not just writing for women. Men needed to read and understand her message as well. How many did so is a different issue.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book far more than I expected and it’s a useful insight into the medieval mind.

End of Week Nine

Thrones

As I enter the third month of the Goodreads challenge, I’m a little bit ahead, having already read three of the twelve books. There are still two monsters to come, however, in the shape of St Augustine’s The City of God and Boccaccio’s Decameron.  I’m very much looking forward to the latter, but the former fills me with fear.

I’m almost finished with The Book of the City of Ladies. Few of the chapters are longer than two pages, and each tells a complete story. This makes it fairly easy to read and to put down. It is necessary to put it down fairly frequently, though, since de Pizan’s argument is made by sheer weight of numbers. Not content with giving two illustrations of wives who were true to their shiftless and betraying husbands, she gives five or six. The same thing applies to her warrior women and her clever women. Despite this, it’s interesting to read something that was expected to sway the medieval mind.

In this week’s ‘Also Reading’ category is Thrones, Dominations by Dorothy L Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh. It’s a Lord Peter Wimsey novel that Sayers put away with her notes after writing six chapters. Other things got in the way and it was never finished. Paton Walsh was asked to complete it and it was published in 1998.

Although the mystery itself is reasonable, Paton Walsh is far too knowing about what happened in 1936, when the novel is set, and afterwards. The murder takes place around the time of George V’s death and Paton Walsh foreshadows the abdication crisis of much later in the year. Few people in Britain would have thought it even a possibility at the time when the book is set. The Second World War looms much larger than it would have done for Sayers writing at the time.  There are also a few anachronisms to remind the reader that they’re not reading something written in 1936.

I have my own theory about who did it and why and how, but I’ll keep it to myself.

Books read in challenge – 3

Books read this year – 11

End of Week Eight

ladies

The first section of The Book of the City of Ladies is, somewhat bizarrely to my mind, about warrior women. De Pizan uses their stories as the foundation of the city walls, before moving on to clever and inventive women.

One of the things that has struck me is how often de Pizan gets something wrong. My knowledge of classical mythology and history is not great and I have to refer to the notes frequently in order to understand what’s being discussed.  Quite often the notes say that de Pizan conflated two people or simply mistook one person for another. I wondered why that might have happened and it didn’t take too much thought to work it out.

Books were very expensive and, although she had wealthy patrons who presumably gave her access to some books, de Pizan would not have had constant access to all the books she mentions. She would have been working from memory and from any notes that she might have made. The other reason why she made mistakes was that her source material made the same mistake.

One of the sources that de Pizan uses is Boccaccio, as Chaucer does in Troilus and Criseyde. She uses a different book, however. Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women was the first work of European literature to contain biographies of women only. He was not always complimentary to them, but de Pizan turns his own words against him to demonstrate the value of women.

I hadn’t realised quite how much influence Boccaccio had in the fourteenth century and I’m really looking forward to reading The Decameron as part of the Goodreads challenge later in the year.

Books read in challenge – 3

Books read this year – 10

Some Success With Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and Criseyde

I’ve finally made it to the end of the first book of Troilus and Criseyde.  I knew that reading Chaucer in Middle English was going to be a long-term project, but I didn’t realise that it was probably going to take all year.

Since the book has been sitting beside me on my desk all week, waiting for me to open it, I’ve had the opportunity to take a good look at the cover. I noticed that it shows, amongst other things, a wonderful tiled floor. I’m very fond of medieval tiles and have written about them on my other blog, A Writer’s Perspective.

In the narrative, Pandarus has gone off to work out how to effect a meeting between Criseyde, his niece and Troilus, his friend. I know; it seems odd that he can’t just invite them both round for tea or something. Apparently he can’t, though, and he will have to use devious, and probably questionable, means to get them together. In the meantime, Troilus has stopped weeping on his bedroom floor and gone off to fight the Greeks.

The Book of the City of Ladies is also proving difficult to get into. To be totally honest, I haven’t really given it much chance. My reading time has been somewhat curtailed over the last few days. I do need to keep going with it, though. I know from past experience that I’m unlikely to pick up a book again if I leave it too long. Fortunately the chapters are very short,  which encourages me to keep going.

End of Week Seven

ladies

So far I’ve only read a few pages of The Book of the City of Ladies, which was written by Christine de Pizan as a response to the misogyny of her time. Most men considered women to be nothing more than defective males. Books were written to explain why this was the case, quoting various sources from the past to support their arguments. Christine’s genius lay in using those same sources to present her view of women. She used the Bible, the lives of saints, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Ovid and the Church Fathers. Her book is a catalogue of great women and their acts.

The city of the ladies is built by means of Christine asking a specific question about how a particular statement about women can be incorrect when it was made by a great philosopher, or one of the Church Fathers. One of the three women helping her, Reason, Rectitude or Justice, answers her. To my mind, it’s a rather tedious format, but the question and answer appealed to the medieval mind.

When I chose The Book of the City of Ladies, I put it with St Augustine’s City of God, because I liked the symmetry, but it turns out that I was only picking up on something that de Pizan had already done. She references St Augustine and, like him, makes the city the ideal community.

I’ve made little progress on Troilus and Criseyde this week. The vocabulary is not sticking and I still haven’t made it to the end of the first book.

 

Books read in the challenge – 3

Books read this year – 8

The Book of the City of Ladies

ladies

The next book on my classics challenge list is The Book of the City of Ladies. It’s the only book on the list by a woman.

Christine de Pizan was born in Venice in (probably) 1364, but her father became court physician and astrologer to Charles V of France when she was a child and the family moved to France. At 15 she was married to Etienne de Castel, a nobleman. At 25 she was widowed. In addition to her three children, she had to support her mother and her niece, her father having died. De Pizan’s solution was to write for her living. As far as is known, she was the only professional female writer of the early fifteenth century.

She was famed for her lyric poetry, but also wrote about public affairs, the art of government, biographies and the role of women in society.  Her patrons were wealthy and influential and her work was produced as illuminated manuscripts. Much of it still survives.

Civil war broke out in France in 1418 and she went into a convent, where she died in 1430.

The translator, Rosalind Brown-Grant, is Professor of Late Medieval French Literature at the University of Leeds.

The book is a defence of women and is essentially a list of women from the past, some pagan and some Christian, who made great contributions to society.

I have tried to read this book before and got less than halfway through.  This time I’m hoping to complete it. I know more about the fourteenth century and the environment in which she was writing than I did then and that should help.

 

End of Week Six

Troilus and Criseyde

I’m continuing with Troilus and Criseyde and nearing the end of the Song of Troilus, which makes up most of Book 1. Troilus spends about 20 pages weeping and lamenting the fact that he has fallen in love with a woman who doesn’t know he exists and whom he has no expectation of meeting. For about half that time his friend Pandarus is in the same room trying to get him to name the woman who has captured his heart. Troilus eventually names her and the remaining 10 pages are taken up with Pandarus’ plan to enable Troilus to meet Criseyde.

Given that I’m just starting to learn Middle English, I’m finding this rather tedious. It is quite interesting, though, to get some insight into the origins of the word ‘pandar’, which now means a procurer or someone who furthers an illicit love affair.

guinness

I’ve finished Alec Guinness’ A Positively Final Appearance, which does mention his last stage appearance, a very downbeat occurrence, if he’s to be believed.  It’s a fairly gentle book, with the odd outburst of venom. Guinness was well-travelled and well-read, and the book is enlivened by quotations from his reading.

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland continues to annoy, but the description of the arrival of the plague and its effects on the village is gripping.

Next week I’ll be starting The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan.

Books read in the challenge – 3

Books read this year – 7

The Twelve

twelve

Here they are, sitting innocently on their shelf: the twelve classics I’m intending to read in 2018.

  1. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (trans Max Hayward and Manya Harari)
  2. The Poetic Work of Rupert Brooke
  3. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  4. The Ambassadors by Henry James
  5. The Odyssey by Homer (trans E.V. Rieu)
  6. Phaedrus by Plato (trans C.J. Rowe)
  7. The Decameron by Boccaccio (trans G.H. McWilliam)
  8. Canzoniere by Petrarch (trans Anthony Mortimer)
  9. Erotic Poems by Ovid (trans Peter Green)
  10. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans Rosalind Brown-Grant)
  11. The City of God by St Augustine (trans Henry Bettenson)
  12. Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer

The two standbys are:

  1. Becket by Anouilh
  2. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

This is quite a heavy list and I know I have to start with Dr Zhivago, as it’s a group read in the Catching up on Classics group in January. The poems can be read throughout the year, although I might decide to read them in one go. One of the things I like about this kind of challenge is that I have no idea how I’ll feel about any of the books when I get to them.

I’m also going to start Troilus and Criseyde next week. The poem itself is just over 300 pages long, but my Middle English is very poor and I want to be able to read it properly. It will probably take several weeks to read it.

Obviously I’ll be reading other books during the year and I’ll probably be mentioning some of them as we go on.

By the time I post again, I’ll have started reading. I’m looking forward to meeting Dr Zhivago.