The Costs of Exemplary History in the Confessio Amantis
In the story of the Roman maiden Virginia, first told by Livy and later taken up by Jean de Meun, Gower, Chaucer, and many others, the heroine’s exemplary virtue is perhaps the one facet of the tale upon which all authors agree. Unlike its sister case, the rape of Lucretia, Virginia’s story does not generate doubt about its heroine’s virtue, though the tale raises many other moral questions.1 Virginia is the daughter of Roman soldier Virginius; when the decemvir Appius Claudius takes a liking to her, he rigs the Roman court to take possession of her. Rather than see his daughter defiled, Virginius takes her aside and stabs her. Like the suicide of Lucretia with which it is often paired, her death prompts political revolt. But in her difference from Lucretia—Virginia is not a suicide—lies a crucial problem: when does endorsement of an exemplary figure amount to an act of violence? The many medieval retellings of the story reveal profound investment in this question, which places severe pressure on any ideal of timeless and univocal exemplary authority and, hence, on the possibilities for using examples to teach virtue.
KeywordsDirect Discourse Public Realm Imaginative Activity Political Virtue Indirect Discourse
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