15.01.15, Collette, Rethinking Chaucer's Legend of Good Women

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Lynn Shutters

The Medieval Review 15.01.15

Collette, Carolyn P.. Rethinking Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. Woodbridge, Suffolk: York Medieval Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 168. ISBN: 9781903153492 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Lynn Shutters
Colorado State University

Near the end of her book, Carolyn Collette claims that "the Legend of Good Women is arguably Chaucer's most problematic poem" (117). As she also points out, Chaucerians are increasingly willing to take on the challenge of the Legend. Scholarship has certainly come a long way since the days when the poem's fragmentary status was attributed to a bored Chaucer abandoning a court-mandated poetic project. No small part of the credit for the burgeoning of Legend studies is due to Collette herself, who edited The Legend of Good Women: Context and Reception (2006), the first collection of essays on the poem. In her monograph, Collette continues to blaze new trails in Legend scholarship by veering away from source studies and reception, two common approaches to the poem, to instead "deal in synchronicity" (2). That is, Collette locates the Legend in artistic, intellectual, and ethical currents of fourteenth-century Europe. The book's five chapters are each devoted to a specific fourteenth-century context, including early English humanism in the court of Edward III; literary collections of the lives of pagan women; the reception of Aristotle's Ethics; and two chapters devoted to contextualizing the Legend within Chaucer's literary career, one focusing on Troilus and Criseyde and the other on the Canterbury Tales. The results are delightfully surprising, as Collette's meticulous scholarship both develops new contexts for studying the Legend and casts a fresh eye on its content and positioning within Chaucer's corpus.

Chapter 1 focuses on Richard de Bury, the center of a community of authors and scholars and an influential figure in the court of Edward III. By demonstrating that Bury and his circle are best understood as early humanists, Collette also identifies a specifically English context for the humanist features of Chaucer's Legend, including questions regarding authorial intention, the ethical value of literature, and the impact of translation and reception on the interpretation of texts. Comparing de Bury's Philobiblon to the Prologues to the Legend, Collette connects the two authors through their "enthusiasm for the inspirational, generative power of books" (24) even as she identifies Chaucer's equivocal stance on the English language as a medium for textual and cultural transmission.

Chapter 2 compares the Legend to other literary accounts of pagan women produced across Europe in the later Middle Ages by authors including Boccaccio, Machaut, John Gower, and Christine de Pizan. Some of the works selected, like Boccaccio's De Mulieribus Claris and Machaut's Jugement dou roi de Navarre, are usual suspects for comparison to the Legend, while others, Boccaccio's Amorosa Visione, for example, are not. Situating Chaucer's Legend within this larger collection of texts allows one to see the "adaptability of the trope of women's fidelity to exemplify a variety of social and ethical issues" (34). The sheer variety of ends to which, as Collette ably demonstrates, medieval authors employed pagan women is richly suggestive and opens further avenues for considering how and why pagan women developed as such a popular literary motif.

Chapter 3 provides, to this reader's mind, the most intriguing contextualization of the Legend by reading Chaucer's poem in light of the popularity of Aristotle's Ethics in late-medieval Europe. Collette begins with an overview of Nicholas Oresme's translation of the Ethics, placing particular emphasis on late-medieval reception of the Aristotelian concept of the mean. As Collette notes, "the concept of the mean regulates ideal moral and ethical behavior, including patterns of exchange between people in equal and unequal relationships" (86). Collette proceeds to examine moderation and patterns of exchange in the individual legends. As she notes, the Legend women "are...traders and dealers who strategize to gain and keep the men they desire" (101). However, the unbalanced exchanges between men and women in the Legend frequently lead to the stories' tragic outcomes. Collette's skillful consideration of the many ways in which Aristotelian ethics undergirds the individual legends allows her convincingly to argue for a coherent thematic within what can otherwise seem a disparate collection of stories.

Chapters 4 and 5 contextualize the Legend within Chaucer's literary career by considering the work's relationship to Troilus and Criseyde (chapter 4) and the Canterbury Tales (chapter 5). Chronologically sandwiched between these two giants in the Chaucer canon, the Legend has often suffered in comparison. Expanding upon the claims of Robert W. Frank, Collette claims that the Legend "is a work of Chaucer's maturity, a story of women's vulnerability in love, grounded in the tragic story of Troilus and looking toward the comedic narratives of the Tales" (117).

In chapter 4, Collette reassesses the Legend's status as a palinode to the Troilus to claim that rather than working to opposite purposes, the two works are actually quite similar in their focus "on exchange values" and on the particular challenges that love relationships pose to women (119). A strength of this chapter is Collette's close attention to poetics, as she compares how the different rhyme patterns and verse forms of the Troilus and Legend contribute to the two poems' different perspectives on love--more sympathetically hopeful throughout much of the Troilus, more condemnatory of women's sufferings in love in the Legend. Even as the two poems differ in form, Collette claims that they employ similar imagery of walls and the sea to convey the need for protection in love and love's mutability. Ultimately Collette questions whether Chaucer's approach to love in the Legend, with its more pointed commentary upon the values and ethics of love, can be attributed to the increasingly "humanist interest" of the author (136). Collette carries these questions about humanism foreword into her discussion of the Canterbury Tales and their comedic treatment of love. Ethical concern with moderation and exchange provides a way to connect the Legend to the Wife of Bath's Prologue, Clerk's Tale, and Franklin's Tale. This shared thematic allows Collette intriguingly to claim that "the Wife is...a distant cousin to the women in the legends--typified by Ariadne and Medea--who see marriage as a deal, a negotiation in which there are buyers and sellers, people who have something of value and those who desire to possess it" (144). Equally compelling is the parallel Collette draws between the Legend and Franklin's Tale: "The story of Dorigen and Arveragus almost fits the plot of stories of the Legend. After establishing a balanced relationship in which neither is dominant, Arveragus leaves by sea and Dorigen becomes obsessed by fear of the rocks and waves that symbolize her fear of losing her lover" (153). According to Collette, the happier outcomes in love for the women of the Canterbury Tales are only achievable because Chaucer has worked through their tragic counterparts in the Legend.

Collette's book has much to offer Chaucer scholars interested in the Legend--so much so, in fact, that I frequently found myself wanting more. For example, I would be interested in further commentary on Chaucer's status as a "humanist." Some considerations of early humanism have questioned the positioning of women in the work of humanists like Petrarch and Boccaccio. Boccaccio's De Mulieribus Claris, for example, has traditionally been viewed as a work not particularly sympathetic toward women. Collette's book links Chaucer's humanist endeavors to his interest in the vulnerabilities and social positioning of women. Does Collette, I wonder, want to rethink not just Chaucer's Legend but the positioning of women within early humanist discourses more generally?

Also on the subject of humanism, I detect a tension between Collette's desire to recuperate Chaucer's Legend as a humanist endeavor and her attendant aim to situate Chaucer's Legend within his social and cultural milieux. These dual aims mesh well in chapter 1, in which Collette claims that Italian humanism arrived on English shores much earlier than previously thought. I have a question, though, about Collette's positioning of the Legend as a humanist text in her epilogue. Referencing Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), Collette notes that Greenblatt identifies as a hallmark of humanism the ability on the part of humanist authors to recognize the "alterity" of the classical past, that is the ability to recognize sharp historical and cultural distinctions between the classical past and the humanists' own era. (155). Collette argues that late-fourteenth century Europe was not prior to this version of humanism but rather an era of its early blossoming: "the age in which Chaucer wrote, with its recurrent descriptions of translatio studii as the transfer of learned classical culture to the European West, cited classical texts as representatives of a different and not entirely familiar culture" (156). Chaucer's Legend, for Collette, is representative of this tradition. Encountering this claim at the end of Collette's study raises a question. Throughout her book, Collette focuses less on Chaucer discovering a "different and not entirely familiar culture" in the classical past (an alleged hallmark of humanism) than she does on the ways in which Chaucer ingeniously rewrote stories of pagan women, often with little consideration for their original classical contexts, to respond to late-medieval questions regarding ethics and society. Therefore I was left wondering how Collette's description of classical antiquity as a productively "different and not entirely familiar culture" to late-medieval authors like Chaucer applied to her interpretations of the Legend in this book.

Finally, I wonder whether even as Collette brilliantly locates Chaucer within his European cultural contexts, she on occasion tries too hard to distinguish him from them. For example, in her comparison of Chaucer to Boccaccio, Gower, and Christine de Pizan, Collette characterizes Chaucer as "radical" (5), with the implication that the other authors are tame. Thus, Collette states, "where Chaucer's signature response to his own tales is to create ambiguity often where one most wishes for clarity, Boccaccio (like Gower and Christine) sees no advantage in tolerating textual indeterminacy in his narratives" (41). This statement perhaps risks oversimplifying the works of Boccaccio, Gower, and Christine de Pizan, and, rather than contextualizing Chaucer within late-medieval society, presents him as a sort of super-author capable of rising above the limitations of his peers.

These comments in no way detract from the rigor and originality of Collette's study, which constitutes a major contribution to scholarship on the Legend. Rather, they are offered as questions that this reader would like to see Collette comment on further in her continued work on this most problematic of Chaucerian poems.

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Lynn Shutters

Colorado State University