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Chaucer's Vergil, Troy and the medieval commentary tradition

Patricia Heumann Scudder, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Abstract

Chaucer writes significantly about Vergil's Aeneid in five poems: the House of Fame, Troilus and Criseyde, the "Knight's Tale," the "Miller's Tale," and the Legend of Good Women. While Chaucer deploys the Troy story to different purposes in each of these, the assumptions from which he works were secured for the fourteenth century by one thousand years of the commentary tradition glossing the Aeneid. Specifically, in the House of Fame, book one, Chaucer recapitulates a shortened Aeneid, emphasizing the Dido episode with seeming sympathy for the Carthaginian Queen; however, familiarity with the commentary tradition instructs that one must read Dido as concupiscence, creating of the story a comic expose rather than a sympathetic under-writing of an "Ovidian" point-of-view. In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer examines Translatio imperii, expressed in the Aeneid and in the Bible, as an idea relevant for fourteenth century England. It is no surprise that, as a member of the peace party, Chaucer translates the empire to heaven--the only appropriate venue for infinite power. In the "Knight's Tale," Theseus, who has completed the educative journey of the allegorized Aeneid, models for others how one might parlay the wisdom gained from this journey into a stable society governed by positive law grounded in natural law. The "Miller's Tale" attempts a light-hearted rebellion against the hierarchies created in the "Knight's Tale" by man's efforts to organize society, but fails because none of the principals has attempted or completed the educative journey of the allegorized Aeneid. Finally, the Legend of Good Women returns to the Dido interlude of Vergil's epic in a less overtly humorous, more severely truncated version of the Aeneid, but with an embellished version of Dido as the attracting power of lust. The poem is a condemnation of, and warning against, Cupid's kind of loving as an end worthy to seek.

Subject Area

Literature|Middle Ages|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Scudder, Patricia Heumann, "Chaucer's Vergil, Troy and the medieval commentary tradition" (1996). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9623641.
https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI9623641

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