Dramatized Sodomitical Discourse: The Case of Troilus and Pandarus

  • Richard E. Zeikowitz
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In addition to positively depicting an eroticized relationship between two knights—an affirmation found in other fourteenth-century chivalric texts—Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde also reveals a discourse that denigrates male-male intimacy. During the years Chaucer was composing his text, namely, 1382–86, he was an esquire in Richard II’s household and controller of petty customs; he was also acquainted with, in varying degrees, most of Richard’s “seducers.”1 Although Troilus and Criseyde was most likely completed by the time of the Parliament of 1386, which Chaucer attended as M.P. for Kent, he had undoubtedly caught wind of the storm of protest by the powerful nobles—the murmurings referred to by Walsingham—against Richard’s favored treatment of his intimate friends. Derek Pearsall suggests that Chaucer was well-informed of the political situation, speculating that “Chaucer was ‘elected’ as a reliable king’s man in anticipation of some difficult passages in the October Parliament.”2 Of course, even if Chaucer was viewed “as a reliable king’s man” it does not necessarily mean that he wholeheartedly and consistently supported the king’s faction or that he sympathized with the victims of the nobles’ campaign. My reading of Troilus and Pandarus’s relationship does not hinge on settling the question of Chaucer’s affinity, but rather I propose that the tumultuous political events that Chaucer himself witnessed or at least heard about find expression in his work.3 That Troilus and Criseyde is in part a translation of an earlier work does not diminish its topicality. Given the long association between England (and London) and Troy, Chaucer’s “translation” of Boccaccio’s Filostrato would have a political relevancy different from that of the original text.4 Patterson notes that “[substantial and specific political value was…invested in the idea of Trojan origins—a fact that gives the literary initiative undertaken by Chaucer, who remained loyal to his beleaguered monarch throughout the factional 1380s, an inevitably political dimension.”5


Fourteenth Century Good Deed Royal Family Love Affair Intimate Friend 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Regarding the date of composition of Troilus and Criseyde, see Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History, p. 156 n149; and Paul Strohm, Social Chaucer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 207 n41. Donald R. Howard notes that on October 12, 1385, Chaucer was appointed one of the justices of the peace for Kent, and served under Simon Burley (Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World [New York: Dutton, 1987], pp. 383–84). Burley, who fell victim to the purge of Richard’s favorites by the Lords Appellant, had earlier been Richard’s tutor and allegedly first brought Robert de Vere into the young king’s company; see the Westminster Chronicle, ed. Hector and Harvey, pp. 276–77Given his proximity to Burley, Chaucer would have been well positioned to hear of criticism directed at Robert de Vere. Strohm maintains that Chaucer would have known the other favorites as well, particularly Nicholas Brembre, who was “Chaucer’s immediate superior throughout most of… [his] term as controller [i.e. 1382–86]” (Social Chaucer, p. 28). For a thorough discussion of Chaucer’s circle of acquaintances, see Strohm, Social Chaucer, pp. 24–46.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992), p. 203. It was at this parliament that Richard’s chancellor, Michael de la Pole, was impeached.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Patterson recognizes that “[t]he 1380s were a time of disputed sovereignty, conspiratorial factionalism, and disastrous militarism—all issues upon which Troilus and Criseyde reflects…. [Yet] [d]eriving from and speaking to the unhappy world of the 1380s, the Troilus refuses to offer any clear message” (Chaucer and the Subject of History, pp. 162 and 163). For a general survey of Chaucer’s political position during the last fifteen years of his life, see S. Sanderlin, “Chaucer and Ricardian Politics,” Chaucer Review 22 (1988): 171–84.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    John Clark observes that the association between England and Troy goes back at least as far as Geoffrey of Monmouth who established the connection between London and Trinovantum, the legendary Trojan settlement on the banks of the Thames (“Trinovantum—Evolution of a Legend,” Journal of Medieval History 7 [1981]: 143 [135–51]). This connection also surfaces in literature of the fourteenth century such as St. Erkenwald, Gower’s Vox Clamantis, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In addition, the fact that England was faced with invasion by the French, particularly in 1385 and 1386, also adds to the topicality of the Trojan story. For a discussion of the invasion panic during these years, see John Barnie, War in Medieval Society: Social Values and the Hundred Years War 1337–99 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), pp. 43–48. On the connections between Troy and London/England in the 1380s, see also Craig A. Berry, “The King’s Business: Negotiating Chivalry in Troilus and Criseyde,” Chaucer Review 26 (1992): 240–41 [236–65]. On the political context of Troilus and Criseyde and Chaucer’s possible message, see D.W. Robertson Jr., “The Probable Date and Purpose of Chaucer’s Troilus,” Medievalia et Humanistica 13 (1985): 143–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 6.
    About the same time that Chaucer was composing Troilus and Criseyde John Trevisa was translating Ranulf Higden’s mid-fourteenth-century Polychronicon into English. Higden/Trevisa’s observation of Edward’s relationship with Gaveston, like comments found in the earlier chronicles, highlights the negatively viewed excessive love between them: “[Edward] loved strongliche oon of his queresters, and dede him grete reverence, and worschipped and made hym greete and riche. Of þus doynge fel vilenye to þe lovyer, yvel speche and bacbitynge to þe love” (Ranulf Higden, Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden monachi Cestrensis, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby, vol. 8 [1857; repr. Wiesbaden: Kraus, 1964], p. 298). Trevisa’s English translation is printed alongside Higden’s Latin text. Although I am not suggesting that Chaucer was aware of Trevisa’s project or that he had read Higden’s original text—which he might well have, given its enormous popularity—it does indicate that Edward and Gaveston’s relationship was still “in the air” in the 1380s.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    It is also possible to read Pandarus’s actions as illustrating his concern for his “ailing” friend, which is in keeping with the text’s affirmation of homosocial intimacy. The contradictory discourses generated in Chaucer’s text do not cancel each other out. For studies of Pandarus’s role as healer, see Martin Camargo, “The Consolation of Pandarus,” Chaucer Review 25 (1991): 214–28; and Mary Wack, “Pandarus, Poetry, and Healing,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Proceedings 2 (1986): 127–33.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 1:61. Karma Lochrie questions Foucault’s view of confession in the Middle Ages. For her examination of how the practice of confession developed in the Middle Ages, see her book, Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), pp. 24–42.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    The idea that Troilus is submitting to both the god of love and Pandarus is underscored by the fact that he later addresses Pandarus as “lord” (2.975; 981). I will discuss shortly how this negatively politicizes Pandarus’s relation to Troilus. I am drawing on the translation of “consente” (refl.) as “to submit” listed in Norman Davis, Douglas Gray, Patricia Ingham, and Anne Wallace-Hadrill, comp., A Chaucer Glossary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979).Google Scholar
  9. 19.
    Commenting on the above exchange between Troilus and Pandarus, Strohm distinguishes between Pandarus, who “lives in a time-bound world in which commitments are subject to renegotiation as new facts emerge,” and Troilus, whose “commitments are indivisible and eternal, aspiring to transcend time and circumstance” (Social Chaucer, p. 104). Strohm goes on to note that “Chaucer and the members of his circle were beneficiaries of the redefinition of sworn vassalage into a variety of more supple forms” (Social Chaucer, p. 108). Strohm thus implies that Chaucer would be more inclined to support Pandarus’s position. Although Troilus’s unswerving fidelity had become somewhat old-fashioned, chivalric texts current in the fourteenth century still affirmed long-lasting intimate bonds between knights, and likewise chroniclers use a language informed by chivalric values in suggesting that a king should be tied to responsible noblemen. For a fine reading of Chaucer’s poem in chivalric contexts, see Berry, “The King’s Business.” For a brief examination of Troilus and Criseyde against the social changes of late fourteenth-century England, see Arlyn Diamond, “Troilus and Criseyde: The Politics of Love,” in Chaucer in the Eighties, ed. Julian N. Wasserman and Robert J. Branch (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986), pp. 93–103.Google Scholar
  10. 21.
    Richard’s privileging his intimate friends over the nobles, while not necessarily representing a conscious decision does indicate a failure to recognize and learn from the misguided actions of his great-grandfather, Edward II. One can speculate whether Chaucer might not be hiding his political views behind Troilus here. In his reading of the parliament scene, John M. Ganim remarks that “[w]e do need to consider the possibility that Chaucer is engaging current political controversies surrounding the questions of advice and the prerogatives of rule, perhaps even criticizing impulsive tendencies on the part of his superiors” (“Chaucer and the Noise of the People,” Exemplaria 2 [1990]: 75 [71–88].)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 22.
    If Troilus were to follow through with Pandarus’s scheme, they both would be in a sense outlaws. Although the circumstances are indeed different, there is a striking parallel between Pandarus’s imagined scene and the chroniclers’ reports that Robert de Vere and other favorites instigated conflicts that set Richard against the nobles and, ostensibly, the interests of the realm. One of the “outlaws” Richard was harboring was Michael de la Pole, who was impeached at the parliament of 1386. This analogy enables us to observe how Chaucer’s text, like the chronicles, paints a negative picture of an influential adviser/friend in order to justify the actions taken against him. My reading of Pandarus’s counsel in a political context parallels that of Josephine Bloomfield, who observes: “Since Pandarus is closely aligned (as Chaucer was in his own time) with the royal family and would be expected to have their military and social goals at heart, Troilus is receiving this subversive advice from a counselor who is apparently ambivalent about goals he is deeply involved in forwarding” (“Chaucer and the Polis: Piety and Desire in Troilus and Criseyde,” Modern Philology 94 [1997]: 296 [291–304]). Bloomfield does not, however, offer an in-depth study of Pandarus’s role as Troilus’s counselor.Google Scholar
  12. 23.
    It is not at all certain that Chaucer or his readers would condemn Pandarus’s proposed action purely on sexual grounds. In her examination of rape in the Middle Ages, Shulamith Shahar notes that even when there was no doubt that rape had occurred, “there was a suspicion that the woman had enjoyed the act” (The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages, trans. Chaya Galai [London: Methuen, 1983], p. 16). See also Christopher Cannon, “Chaucer and Rape: Uncertainty’s Certainties,” in Representing Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, ed. Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 255–79; and “Raptus in the Chaumpaigne Release and a Newly Discovered Document Concerning the Life of Geoffrey Chaucer,” Speculum 68 (1993): 74–94. For a study of rape as it appears in fourteenth-century French pastourelles and court cases, see Kathryn Gravdal, “The Poetics of Rape Law in Medieval France,” in Rape and Representation, ed. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 207–26; see also Gravdal’s more extensive study, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  13. 28.
    The related term, “traitor,” is often used in the chronicles to describe Richard’s favorites. For instance, the first article of appeal at the Merciless Parliament refers to these men as “faux traitours du roy et du roiaume” [false traitors of the king and of the realm] (Westminster Chronicle, ed. Hector and Harvey, p. 240; trans. Hector and Harvey, p. 241). Knighton’s version of this phrase varies slightly: “faux traytours et enmys au roy et a realme” [false traitors and enemies of the king and of the realm] (Knighton’s Chronicle, ed. Martin, p. 458; trans. Martin, p. 459). On this topic, see Michael Hanrahan, “Seduction and Betrayal: Treason in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women,” Chaucer Review 30 (1996): 229–40.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard E. Zeikowitz 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard E. Zeikowitz

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations