Miceal Vaughan

title.none: Percival, Chaucer's Legendary Good Women (Vaughan)

identifier.other: baj9928.9910.002 99.10.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Miceal Vaughan, University of Washington,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Percival, Florence. Chaucer's Legendary Good Women. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xii, 338. $69.95. ISBN: 0-521-41655-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.10.02

Percival, Florence. Chaucer's Legendary Good Women. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xii, 338. $69.95. ISBN: 0-521-41655-8.

Reviewed by:

Miceal Vaughan
University of Washington

We stand at the end of what has been a remarkable decade for scholarship on Chaucer's Legend of Good Women.[1] After a generation in which Chaucerians were lucky to see one new book a decade devoted to this poem, we now can greet the millennium with a small library of substantial and varied scholarship dealing with Chaucer's perhaps most neglected work.[2] In this library, Florence Percival's new book will take a prominent place, and its main contributions may stimulate further reflection upon and critical debate about the Legend and it place among Chaucer's works.

Chaucer's Legendary Good Women aims toward "identifying and elucidating major aspects of the literary context in which...the Legend of Good Women locates itself; in particular the role that humorous antifeminist/feminist debate plays in the self-definition of the learned poet." (19) It arrays itself in fifteen chapters distributed in five parts, bracketed by an introduction (1-20) and an epilogue (325-32). Although it is the longest book yet published on the Legend of Good Women, it omits any sustained discussion of three of the legends--Tisbe, Philomela, and Hypermnestra--and barely touches upon the first part of Hypsipyle and Medea. Furthermore, it almost avoids entirely any engagement with the 'problem' of the work's 'conclusion.'

With her acknowledged concentration on 'literary context,' the author engages in careful and close readings of the text of the poem, and those readings evidence an energetic, finely nuanced appreciation of the language of ideas and feelings, of humor and pathos, that the poem presents. There are some places where the detailed examination of the 'context' takes readers far away from the poem, and the discussion will not always, I suspect, succeed in persuading them that all the detail is indeed relevant to an understanding of Chaucer's views and intentions. In her sustained (and informative) discussion (88-129), for example, of the de regimine tradition behind Alceste's long speech of political advice to the God of Love, there seems to me very little (unlike, say, her discussions of marguerite poetry, the louange de dames, or translation theory) that contributes directly to my understanding of the Legend. And her repeated attempts to connect Alceste and God of Love with Queen Anne and King Richard indeed seem at variance with her proclaimed view that we are concerned with the "literary construct of Woman," with a "traditional field of discourse," and are "not primarily concerned with the problems that real women faced." (328)

Her opening sentence asserts that the Legend "purports to be a defence of women." (1) What it is, however, is a "palinode or poetic recantation" (inspired by Chaucer's Troilus and the Roman de la Rose), and its real purpose is "above all a display of rhetorical skill in pleading a case." (1) "Palinodal in form or not, all cases of medieval or renaissance defences of women must be seen as operating in a climate of debate." (2) In assessing the components of this climate, she allocates nearly equal space to the two sides of the dialectic: one presented in the Prologues (Parts I and II), and the other in the Legends (Part IV). The remaining third of the book examines the lengthy history and oppositional dynamics of the palinodic and ludic forms that structure these debates.

In her Introduction she identifies three contexts that the Prologue to the Legend establishes. "The first and overarching context is that of the joke....which said that while the existence of good women was conceivable, in practice none was likely to be found today." (6-7) Since this "ludic context, however, is not developed the same way in the two Prologues" (8), she draws on the distinctions between F and G for the other two contexts. The 'joke' is articulated (particularly in F) through "literary duels between the sexes" (10) in the form of a "courtly" and "lively dialogue between men and women." (9) In G, finally, the focus is on "the poet's professional standing, his social role, his responsibility for choice of subject matter, his poetic integrity." (10) Mentioning Rowe, but not fully adopting his categorical differentiation of the two Prologues, she does conclude that they may have been intended for different audiences: the F Prologue is "intimate game" and "light courtly entertainment" (10) for "a courtly audience at play" (8), a "therapeutic" recreation (10) for "a coterie audience" (10); the G version, on the other hand, proceeds along "the formal lines of the 'debate about women', as indulged in by men of learning" (10) and invokes "the whole corpus of clerical antifeminism" (11) to support the "claims of the serious male poet to debate and write effectively" and as an "excuse to discuss the poetic craft." (11) The "rather tidier structure" of G "probably opens up the meaning of the poem to a wider readership." (10)

Proceeding, in Part I, "Chaucer's Good Woman" (21-75), she focuses on the F Prologue, in three chapters: "The Good Woman: the daisy," "Alceste: The Good Woman of legend," and "The Good Woman: a legendary beast?" In Part II, "The God of Love" (77- 148), she concentrates for the most part on the G Prologue, in four chapters: "The God of Love," "The accusation," "The defence: tyrants of Lombardy," and "The defence: matere and entente." Part III, "The Palinode" (149-70), presents a single chapter which outlines the literary-historical tradition of the palinode and convincingly establishes its relevance to our understanding of the Legend. Part IV, "The Legends of good women" (171-295), examines six of the legends in detail (though not in narrative order): "Ariadne: the ladies and the critics," "Medea: the ladies and their reputations," "Cleopatra: legend of Cupid's saint," "Dido: composite woman," "Lucrece: too good to be true?," and "Phyllis and inherited male perfidy." These chapters provided the most stimulating criticism in the book, and convincing testimony to Percival's skills as a reader of Chaucer. She writes well about Chaucer's sources, about sexual double entendres, and about various intertextual concerns (e.g., Theseus in "Ariadne" and the "Knight's Tale"; connections between Dido and Cleopatra, Ariadne, and Mede). Finally, in Part V, "The Legend as courtly game" (297-323), she refines the statement of her main thesis regarding the Legend in a single chapter, asserting that the ambiguities of the work are best understood as arising from Chaucer's intentional invocation of (or alignment with the spirit of) various pre-existing courtly games, such as those associated with St. Valentine's Day, May Day, and Christmas; with the conflicts between the Flower and the Leaf; and, even, with the fortunes told in dice games. Manuscripts containing the Legend are adduced to support a number of these associations.

As one may guess from the chapter titles and the views enunciated in the introduction, the book is not driven by a monodic or categorical thesis that imposes itself on the poem's varied, and often recalcitrant, materials; rather, it offers a capacious and dynamic genre in which varied, and opposed, positions can co-exist as essential constituents of a coherent text, and as indicators of its rhetorical and social intentions. While positing 'play' and 'palinode' as the operative genres may prove particularly advantageous to a modern critic in search of an embracing thesis, we should be ready to admit that it provided Chaucer in the first instance the generous parameters for this multi-textured poem: It seems indisputable that for at least a century, most people have found humour antithetic to pathos, so that many readings of the Legend of Good Women consequently falsify the text because of the need to produce either a seriously pathetic reading or a wholeheartedly humorous or ironic one. It is no accident, however, that Chaucer insists on treating the heroines with both pathos and humour, and gives little indication which is to be the dominant mode. (326) The continuing "tension" between "idealisation" and "trivialising" of women is "a deliberate structural principle of the poem" (326); and "the stories in which we find so much to argue about were promote partisan, gender-biased argument in his original audience." (325) As a result, "[t]he challenge for modern readers is to accept this peculiar amalgam of adulation, compassion, and scepticism as wholly consonant with medieval responses to women." (325-26) Percival's thesis goes a long way toward making some sense of the unsystematic, centrifugal qualities of this poem's structure. It also locates the source of the critical disagreements and instabilities in the poem's own recalcitrance to linearity or monotonality.

She invents the 'matter of Woman' (14) as a title--analogous to the various 'matters' associated with medieval romance--to cover the range of issues that provide the gravitational pull against the centrifugal tendencies of the Legend. Without explicitly invoking the episodic nature of the narratives of many medieval romances, her term offers a useful map of the Legend's infrastructure that may assist readers to recognize coherence in the absence of any conclusive, linear structure. Just as "two attitudes towards women are held together in the voice of the Legend's narrator" (299), so (we may infer) those attitudes posit a representative 'woman' whose name is changed only to implicate the innocent with the guilty.

As is appropriate for a book bearing the imprint of Cambridge University Press, there are very few noticeable errors in the text, and they may be easily ignored or silently corrected.[3] Other aspects of the book may be less easy to ignore, and I will not forebear making what may appear unchivalrous comments about aspects of the book perhaps not in its author's control. I was bothered by a number of smaller matters, such as the omission of one or two lines from lengthy quotations of the Legend. Since there was no good real reason for doing this, and the price of printing an extra line or two is not so high as to excuse the niggling irritation such elisions raise. I was more irritated, however, by the absence of a bibliography, and by the highly selective and incomplete index. These both make this book particularly unusable by the very people who most would wish to use and refer to it. The index contains almost no references to its amply footnoted scholarship, even when the scholars are named and engaged with (sometimes at some length) in the text. And there are other irregularities throughout that suggest the indexing was done without any clearly enunciated principles for selection.[4]

I also found myself bothered by some of the author's easy generalizations regarding previous scholarship, such as the repeated castigation (or so it seemed) of 'feminist' readings. She does not articulate specifically enough in all instances her particular arguments in this debate. And in some other instances, Percival shows herself more interested in expressing strong personal views than in making coherent, or even consistent, sense of some of her points (as, for example, in 59-67).[5] But such criticisms should be taken as grounds for continuing the discussion and ought not distract attention from the accomplishment of this book. It presents stimulating arguments about the genre and contexts of the Legend, and the coming decades of scholarship on this now nearly 'fashionable' Chaucerian text must take serious account of Chaucer's Legendary Good Women.


[1] Donald W. Rowe, Through Nature to Eternity: Chaucer's Legend of Good Women (Lincoln/London: University of Nebraska Press, 1988); William A. Quinn, Chaucer's Rehersynges : The Performability of The Legend of Good Women (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994); and Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer's Legend of Good Women (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1994). To these three books should be added three others: Ann McMillan's translation, The Legend of Good Women (Houston: Rice University Press, 1987); Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); and Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford: University of California Press, 1992).

[2] Robert O. Payne, The Key of Remembrance: A Study of Chaucer's Poetics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963); Robert Worth Frank, Jr., Chaucer and The Legend of Good Women (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1972); and Lisa J. Kiser, Telling Classical Tales: Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1983). Along with these should be included John M. Fyler, Chaucer and Ovid (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1979).

[3] I noted the following spelling errors: 'imitatation' (34), 'perfecta' (73: for 'perfecte'), 'the' (73: for 'this,' in quotation of F 518), 'subtelty' (84), 'Eriugina' (139), 'transcendendent' (148), 'Age' (153), 'Blame' (194: for 'Blameth'), 'irresistable' (234), 'millenia' and 'millenium' (252-53), ' Anelide' (258), 'LeFevre' (336: for Lefevre, as in the main text), and 'Quintillian' (337).

A spate of errors attends the quotation from Robinson on 199: 'explicit' should be 'Explicit,' 'Martirs' should be 'Martiris,' 'could not' should read 'would hardly,' and 'There can' should be 'there can'; on 200, 'God' should be 'god.'

The Index entry for 'Circe' has an extra '239.' There is a missing paragraph indentation (top of 87); and a few other slight errors in format can also be noted: the transposition of publisher and city in the bibliographical entry for Robinson's edition (24, n.2); the title of Quinn's book is given in article form (74, n.24); and the reverse is the case with Delany's article (274, n.28).

I noted a few missing pieces of punctuation: a closing period is omitted from the quotation (59) and one closing quotation mark is omitted (277). And why does Deschamps alone warrant an apostrophe-s for the possessive form, when all other singulars in 's' receive only an apostrophe. I presume that the variation in the commas I detected in some quoted lines from the Riverside Chaucer are discrepancies between the Houghton Mifflin and Oxford University Press printings: e.g., 46 (F 278), 62 (F/G 8), 90 (F 235).

[4] Why, for instance, is Wenceslas de Brabant indexed, but not Eriugena (88), and Circe but not Calypso (239, 242)? Or why, among the villains, are Aeneas and Tereus listed by name, but not Jason, Theseus, Hippolytus, or Demophon; and why are there no entries for Philomela, Phyllis, or Tisbe? Other aspects of the Index also call for justification: e.g., Why is Queen Philippa indexed under 'Q' and Duke Humfrey of Gloucester under 'D,' while Queen Anne appears under 'A'; why does the Virgin Mary appear under 'V' and St. Jerome under 'J'; why do some people (Jean Froissart, to pick one at random) warrant first names, while others (from Abelard and Bromyard to Trevisa and Walsingham) do not, and Hugo Lange is reduced to an abbreviation; and why, finally, does Walsingham, who appears only in two notes, appear in the Index while Guillaume de Lorris, who is mentioned at least twice (90, 118), is not?

[5] In the course of which she: conflates Chaucer and the God of Love (60-61); rails against unspecified proponents of 'full- bodied religious scepticism'(62)--whatever that is; identifies scepticism with 'unbelief' and 'involuntary doubt' (64); criticizes Delany's 'sceptical fideism' and her invocation of philosophical movements of the fourteenth century as relevant to understanding Chaucer; denies that words like 'assay' and 'preve' in the opening of the Prologues 'is the language not so much of logic as of everyday experience" (65); and then almost immediately insists that "By contrasting, at this point [i.e., F/G14-16] in his argument, the domain of experience with that of rational inference, Chaucer moves closest to the stance of contemporary philosophers." (65)