Memory and Recognition in Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid

  • Elizabeth Allen
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Chaucer’s poetry continually raises the question of how poetic delight might have moral consequences. But despite his many explorations of the relationship between “sentence” and “solas,” he repeatedly depicts exemplarity per se as a limited conceptual model. This is most striking in the Physicians Tale, where, as we saw in chapter 4, the narrator makes Virginia exemplary by killing her off. The Physician rejects natural bodily mutability—Virginia’s growth into a woman—which he associates with the unpredictable and multiplicitous effects offabula. His laborious efforts reveal that, for Chaucer, moral ideals provide too fixed a way of understanding human action, or of representing that action in poetry. When, in response, the pilgrims desire “some moral thyng” from the Pardoner, he demonstrates the compelling moral logic that equates desire with death; as we saw in chapter 5, the Pardoner’s performance turns that logic against his desiring audience. Elsewhere, in the Clerk’s and Man of Laws Tales and the Legends of Good Women, Chaucer repeatedly examines the costs of imposing abstract moral rules, especially upon women.1 These examinations occur in different formal registers, invoking a range of discourses—the hagiography of the Man of Law, the domestic advisory discourse of the Clerks Tale, the courtly love of the Legends. In each context, female virtue is achieved through visible narrative manipulations, hinting at how feminine will may exceed available parameters.


Moral Judgment Love Affair Exemplary Moral Love Story Exemplary Figure 
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© Elizabeth Allen 2005

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  • Elizabeth Allen

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