Troilus and Criseyde: The Hidden Influence of Chaucer¡¯s Reading


An Sonjae


              When Chaucer is viewed in a wider literary context, it is often in terms of the literary works which he is known to have read, translated and adapted. Failing direct adaptation, analogues to Chaucer¡¯s tales are cited. Thus everyone knows that Troilus and Criseyde is an adaptation of a poem by Boccaccio, likewise the Knight¡¯s Tale, and that the Clerk¡¯s Tale is adapted from a prose tale by Petrarch (itself adapted from a story in Boccaccio¡¯s Decameron), or that the Wife of Bath¡¯s Prologue quotes from a variety of texts including St. Jerome and the Roman de la Rose, while her Tale is analogous to a story found in Gower and elsewhere. Students learn from their teachers and textbooks that Chaucer translated Boethius¡¯s Consolatio Philosophiae, and paraphrased passages from it as he explored its themes in a number of his works, including especially Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight¡¯s Tale.

While such explicit narrative sources are familiar, indirect and hidden influences are less easily recognized amd less often explored. This is particularly true of Chaucer¡¯s echoes of Dante, that are particularly evident at certain points in his rewriting of Boccaccio¡¯s Filostrato as Troilus and Criseyde. Major recent studies of Chaucer¡¯s debt to Dante are those by J. A. W. Bennett, ¡°Chaucer, Dante and Boccaccio¡± and Piero Boitani, ¡°What Dante meant to Chaucer¡± in Boitani¡¯s 1983 collection of studies on Chaucer and the Italian Trecento, and pages 125 – 137 of Barry Windeatt¡¯s 1992 Troilus and Criseyde in the Oxford Guides to Chaucer. In 1998, Winthrop Wetherbee¡¯s essay ¡°Dante and the Poetics of Troilus and Crisede¡± was included in Critical Essays on Geoffrey Chaucer edited by Thomas C. Stillinger. Windeatt (1992 126-7) provides a list of over 30 points in Troilus and Criseyde where Chaucer is directly translating from Dante¡¯s Commedia. All the critics agree that Chaucer owes Dante much more than those details.

In his article on Chaucer for the Dante Encyclopedia (160-2), Winthrop Wetherbee suggests that in Troilus and Criseyde, ¡°a historically localized story of earthly love is played out against the background of the spiritual journey of the Commedia. The relationship is of course largely parodic: though the idealistic lover Troilus has much of the buono ardor of Dante¡¯s pilgrim, Criseyde is an all-too-worldly Beatrice – emmeshed in desire, politics, and history -- and Pandarus, the guide who leads Troilus to the ¡®hevene blisse¡¯ of sexual union, is a cynical and self-interested Virgil.¡± It would be impossible to establish how conscious Chaucer was of these identifications, but certainly the patterns of reference to Dante are sufficiently clear to show that Chaucer was deeply aware of the Commedia as he was writing his version of Boccaccio¡¯s story.

The signs of Chaucer¡¯s debt to Dante are far more subtle and difficult to measure than those of his similar dialogue with Boethius, in part because the ¡°Boethian¡± language of Fortune, freedom and necessity is simpler to spot. Yet even when he mentions Fortune, Chaucer should not be too quickly assumed to be referring uniquely to Boethius. Before him, Dante had undertaken his own thoughtful re-reading of Boethius in the light of Augustine and Aquinas (Dante Encyclopedia 405: ¡°Fortune¡±). Editors have already noted, as J.A.W. Bennett points out (Boitani 1983 99), an echo of Dante in Troilus and Criseyde that owes nothing to Boccaccio (Book 5.1541-7), in a passage which is concerned with defining the role of Fortune :


ffortune -- which that permutacioun

Of thynges hath, as it is hire comitted

Thorough purueyaunce and disposicioun

Of heighe Ioue, as regnes shal be flitted

ffro folk in folk or when they shal be smytted –

Gan pulle away the fetheres brighte of Troie

ffro day to day til they ben bare of ioie.


This passage clearly contains echoes from a major passage in Dante¡¯s Inferno (7.61-96), where Virgil instructs Dante on the relationship between Fortune and material fortunes (i.e. worldly wealth):


Who made the heavens and who gave them guides

was He whose wisdom transcends everything;

75  that every part may shine unto the other,

He had the light apportioned equally;

similarly, for wordly splendors, He

78  ordained a general minister and guide

    to shift, from time to time, those empty goods

from nation unto nation, clan to clan,

81  in ways that human reason can't prevent;

just so, one people rules, one languishes,

obeying the decision she has given,

84  which, like a serpent in the grass, is hidden. (Trans. Allen Mandelbaum)


              The most important lines in Italian, which Chaucer drew on and echoes directly, are:


Similemente a li splendor mondani
78  ordinò general ministra e duce

che permutasse a tempo li ben vani
di gente in gente e d'uno in altro sangue,

81  oltre la difension d'i senni umani

( . . . )

Vostro saver non ha contasto a lei:

questa provede, giudica, e persegue

87  suo regno come il loro li altri dèi

Le sue permutazion non hanno triegue:

necessità la fa esser veloce;

90  sì spesso vien chi vicenda consegue.


              It may or may not be a coincidence that Chaucer, having stressed like Dante (and Virgil in the Aeneid) that Fortune is not ¡°blind chance¡± but a source of blessing and subject to the will of ¡°high Jove,¡± says that the fall of Troy was the work of Fortune. For that is what Dante says explicitly in Inferno 30:


E quando la fortuna volse in basso

l'altezza de' Troian che tutto ardiva,

15  sì che 'nsieme col regno il re fu casso


              The presence of Dante in this passage of Chaucer¡¯s may be still more complex. As Bennett remarks, Dante makes a clear distinction between ¡°Giove,¡± the pagan god and planet Jupiter, and ¡°sommo Giove,¡± the Christian God. In Purgatorio 6.118 Dante refers to ¡°sommo Giove che fosti in terra per noi crucifisso¡± (high Jove who were crucified here on earth for us). Likewise, there is no other passage in Troilus and Criseyde in which the name of Jove is qualified with ¡°high¡± and none other where the name has a Christian reference. Chaucer, with his strong interest in Boethius, must have been particularly struck by Virgil¡¯s teaching about Fortune in Inferno 7, for he also echoes it in adapting the Knight¡¯s Tale (1663-6):


The destinee, ministre general,

That executeth in the world over al

The purveiaunce that God hath seyn biforn,

So strong it is . . .


Chaucer¡¯s hidden poetic debt is not only to Dante. Similarly complex moments of hidden intertextuality can be found involving other writers. In the first book of Troilus and Criseyde, the Cantus Troili, as the manuscripts entitle it, is introduced with most particular emphasis in the preceeding stanza:


And of his song nought only the sentence,

       As writ myn autour called Lollius,

395    But pleynly, save our tonges difference,

       I dar wel sayn, in al that Troilus

       Seyde in his song, lo! every word right thus

       As I shal seyn; and who-so list it here,

       Lo! next this vers, he may it finden here.


Just 100 lines previously, Troilus had been struck by the sight of Criseyde in the temple. He is still struggling to understand what the bewildering, contradictory feelings are, that have overwhelmed him. Here the ¡°faithful translator¡± persona, serving as the secondary narrator of a story that he insists in no way belongs to him, stresses that the text following is a particularly precise rendering of the very words of Troilus, piercing at this point with particular intensity and directness, unmediated despite the double transfer (assumed from Greek to the Latin of Lollius) and from Lollius to this English poem. Hear, we are urged, the inmost mind of Troilus struggling to comprehend the full nature of the change that has occurred, a change which (we already have begun to realize) will affect the whole of the rest of his life, for good and bad, for better and for worse.

With the insight offered by the quasi-omnipotent narrator, the reader should here ponder with Troilus the sublime paradox of love¡¯s contradictions. Nothing else matters in the narratorial logic, the exploration of the paradoxical things love does to its victims is here given one of its strongest expressions:


400    `If no love is, O god, what fele I so?

       And if love is, what thing and whiche is he!

       If love be good, from whennes comth my wo?

       If it be wikke, a wonder thinketh me,

       Whenne every torment and adversitee

405    That cometh of him, may to me savory thinke;

       For ay thurst I, the more that I it drinke.


Of course, Chaucer is being particularly deceptive in stressing the authenticity of these stanzas; far from these being Troilus¡¯ words faithfully translated and transmitted, Chaucer is introducing completely new material here, his own version of Petrarch¡¯s sonnet Rime sparse 132, at a point where Boccaccio¡¯s text (Book 1, 37) has nothing but a bare indication that Troilus sang. 

Presumably Chaucer read as befits the way he wrote; we shall never know if he in fact had a complete text of the Canzoniere but what seems certain is that he read feelingly whatever he read, he entered into what the words were saying, he experienced them profoundly. That is to say that when Chaucer silently inserts this translation of a poem from Petrarch¡¯s Canzoniere into the Troilus, he is interweaving literary strands, ¡°in-forming¡± his poem (and the process of very free adaptation he undertook authorized him to consider it as his own work, not a ¡°mere¡± translation) with a coded linkage to the entire, sublime, contradictory, literary love-experience recorded in the Canzoniere; not only the often tormented poems written while Laura was alive, but the rather differently complex poems composed after her death. With beyond that Dante and ultimately the Provencal Troubadors, of whose work Chaucer was surely unaware, though Dante and Boccaccio had studied them deeply.

Chaucer probably did not write with any sense of owing his readers detailed explanations of what he was doing at such moments. That is why this linking passes unhinted at, unstressed. He himself knows what he has done; that is enough. He also surely realizes that probably no one else in England at the time he is writing has read (or even heard of) Petrarch¡¯s poems; if he indicates in some way what he has done, he will have to explain everything. But saying ¡°these lines are a translation of a poem by Petrarch¡± does not explain anything at all. Real understanding will only be possible if the reader has read the Canzoniere in something like the way Chaucer has read it, as a most notable ¡°Anatomy of Love¡¯s joys and torments.¡± ¡°Knowing¡± as an isolated ¡°interesting¡± anecdote that these lines are translated from a book by Petrarch will not at all allow anyone to experience a deeper dimension underlying Chaucer¡¯s work.

Why a poem from the Canzoniere came to be used by Chaucer as a reference for Troilus and Criseyde was perhaps because it was the poetic record of a parallel set of experiences, the heart of the matter being love interrupted by the fact of loss. Laura was taken from Petrarch, he abruptly found himself alone. Not that she then went on to ¡°betray¡± him like Criseyde, of course; Petrarch could hardly be jealous of God. Now Petrarch¡¯s experience so closely parallels Dante¡¯s that many have even doubted whether it was ever as independently real as Dante¡¯s. Boccaccio was writing before 1340; Laura died in 1348. The Canzoniere, also known as Rime Sparse, and that Petrarch himself titled Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, was therefore not available to Boccaccio although scholars seem to have traced echoes of some individual earlier poems in the Filostrato.

It is important to try to offer some comments on why Chaucer might have included this poem by Petrarch in the Troilus. Taken on its own, Chaucer may have felt, Troilus and Criseyde was too light a work. Troilus could still be seen as a fool for expecting a woman to be faithful in love, in which case he will be thought to have deserved what he gets. Chaucer surely knew the Latin prose tale by Guido delle Colonne, Historia Destructionis Troiae, from which Boccaccio took the basic elements of his story. There, Troilus is precisely that, a 15-year-old adolescent whose ¡°love¡± for Briseis has no depth and no great significance. Boccaccio took the sighing and the love-torment which in Guido¡¯s tale characterize Diomedes¡¯s feelings for Briseis, and gave them to Troilo when he was creating the Filostrato.

The problem is one of stress. Which is the story¡¯s central emotional focus, Troilus¡¯s joys and pains as a lover, or Troilus winning then abandoned by Criseyde? If the former, this can be read as a tale of the joys and sufferings love causes a man. If the latter, the story can be seen as an exemplum showing how fickle and unreliable women are. That antifeminist reading is said to have got Chaucer into trouble; he claimed to have been ¡°sentenced¡± to write the Legend of Good Women as a penance for having belittled women. The way both poets set out to focus the tale clearly on Troilus¡¯s sufferings is one of the striking parallels between them.

Boccaccio adopted a strategy that Chaucer did not preserve, by presenting the Filostrato as a work written essentially as an attempt to overcome his own lady¡¯s indifference. His personal love-sufferings caused by a woman are the basic raison-d¡¯etre for the poem, he claims. The Greek title Filostrato that Boccaccio gave the work was understood by him as meaning 'a man vanquished and laid prostrate by love' This refers less to Troilo than it refers to the poet, as the Proem makes clear. It dedicates the poem to 'Filomena' (¡°the loved one¡± of the poet) and the narrator tells the story of Troilo who was 'vanquished by love both by fervently loving Criseida and then again by her departure' in order to persuade Filomena to come back to him.

The narrator informs his lady and his readers in the Proem: 'as many times as you find Troilo weeping and grieving for the departure of Criseida, that many times you may clearly recognize and know my own cries, tears, sighs, and distresses; and as many times as you find the beauty, the good manners, or any other thing praiseworthy in a lady written of Criseida, that often you can understand them to be spoken of you (Filomena).' His purpose is writing this work (Teseida and Filocolo also contain the same subtext) was: 'in the person of someone emotionally overcome as I was and am, to relate my sufferings in song.' The work becomes an exemplum of the male's unhappiness caused by hopeless love by being cast as an argument designed to draw a woman back to the poet.

 Both Boccaccio and Chaucer direct attention to and deepen the theme of male love-pain by weaving into the body of the work indirect references to Dante¡¯s experience of love and loss. After Criseyde has gone away to the Greek camp, Troilus writes a letter to her. Chaucer¡¯s poem only follows the Italian in having a letter, the contents are mostly very different. One stanza in the Filostrato (Book 7, stanza 60) begins:


Gli occhi dolente, dopo il tuo partire,

di lagrimar non ristetter giammai;


Chaucer (Book 5) has retained the mention of weeping eyes while changing the rest – to intensify Troilus¡¯s sense of despair, perhaps:


    "Myn eyen two, in veyn with whiche I se,

        Of sorwful teris salt arn waxen welles;



. Boccaccio, like Chaucer with the Cantus Troili, gives no indication that here he is (as Boitani points out) echoing the opening words of a lyric by Dante from the Vita Nuova (chap.31) :


Li occhi dolenti per pieta del core

hanno di lagrimar sofferta pena,

se che per vinti son remasi omai.


The eyes grieving out of pity for the heart,

while weeping, have endured great suffering,

so that they are defeated, tearless eyes.


The link is minimal, true, a bare three words, and could conceivably even have been unconscious, since Boccaccio is known to have personally copied out the Vita Nuova, that was not a widely distributed text (Boitani 1983 21). In any case, this possible echo of Dante can only be emotionally significant if a reader has read, like Boccaccio, with proper feeling, the Vita Nuova. 

The three words are the start of the very first poem written by Dante after hearing that Beatrice had died. Now that, in the emotional economy of the Vita Nuova, is no slight poem; it marks what might be considered the second greatest turning point in Dante¡¯s whole life. Likewise, this letter is Troilus¡¯s first attempt at communication across the distance separating him from Criseyde. When Boccaccio was writing the Filostrato, Petrarch was only just beginning to write the poems destined to become the Canzoniere, Laura was still alive. The main source where Boccaccio could find an exalted, poetic expression of the pain experienced by a lover separated from his love was obviously Dante¡¯s Vita Nuova, and the wider tradition of love poetry, Italian and Provencal.

There are multiple, hidden echoes by which Boccaccio¡¯s poem is firmly anchored to the centuries-old European literary concern with the joys and pains, and the wonder, of love. Dante was in many ways a too present source of influence. Critics have been shocked by borrowings from Dante in Boccaccio where the result is indecorous (Boitani 1983 94). A somewhat similar feeling arises regarding the chatty eagle in Chaucer¡¯s House of Fame, which also has rather more sublime Dantean roots.

Returning now to Chaucer¡¯s Troilus and Criseyde, we still have to examine the words that close the poem:


               Thou oon, and two, and three, eterne on-lyve,

       That regnest ay in three and two and oon,

1865   Uncircumscript, and al mayst circumscryve,

       Us from visible and invisible foon

       Defende; and to thy mercy, everichoon,

       So make us, Iesus, for thy grace digne,

       For love of mayde and moder thyn benigne! Amen.


The whole stanza owes nothing to Boccaccio. The first three lines are a close translation of words from Dante¡¯s Commedia (Paradiso 14.28-30) while Boitani (1983 127) links the final line with the opening line of Paradiso 30. The lines celebrating the Trinity are taken from Canto 14 of Paradiso. This is set in the Sphere of the Sun, which Dante entered in Canto 10, and the singers are the spirits in the first two circles of the wise. Eighth among the wise doctors forming the First Circle introduced by Beatrice in Canto 10 is ¡°the holy soul who makes plain the world¡¯s deceitfulness to one that hears him rightly; the body from which he was driven lies below in Cieldauro, and he came from martyrdom and exile to this peace.¡± It would be interesting to know if Chaucer realized that this meant that one of the voices joining in this hymn is none other than that of his favorite philosopher, Boethius.

It is here that we should also, I believe, locate our reflection on the hidden structural features which link Troilus and Criseyde to the Divine Comedy that Dr. Kaylor has pointed out. Numerological patterns requiring a close inspection of line-count in manuscripts that know nothing of line-numbering is an even more sophisticated game of hide-and-seek than the insertion of translations from unfamiliar Italian poets. It reminds us perhaps of Shakespeare making Romeo and Juliet kiss at the end of a sonnet; he was not interested in footnotes, either, but full of the themes of the Canzoniere : love, separation, death, truth.

This is not necessarily to say that we should read the entire Divine Comedy because of five lines at the end of Troilus, the whole Vita Nuova because of a few words just before, and the whole Romance of the Rose too, to be able to deal with some lines in the Canterbury Tales. I would rather say that someone who has done such reading, not as a background to Chaucer but for the works¡¯ sake, will read Chaucer differently.

This becomes even more obvious, I believe, when we turn to Boethius. We are all so aware of ¡°Boethian¡± elements and ¡°influences¡± as well of longer direct quotations in different parts of Chaucer, especially in Troilus and the Knight¡¯s Tale, that it comes as a shock to realize how little Boethius means to most people today. The Consolation does not figure high on many reading-lists, even medievalists¡¯. Perhaps that will change with the increasing anxiety and insecurity of these weeks past.

The only way to read Boethius properly, I suspect, is to be deeply concerned by the questions he raises and deals with. Existential Angst has become so much an indulged pleasure, and systematic doubt such a habit of mind that we no longer expect explanations or bother to ask the question ¡°Why¡± when faced with injustice and the suffering of the innocent. Not to see any problem with pain -- one¡¯s own or others¡¯ -- suggests that we have no expectation of meaning or justice. The message of the Consolation is presumably that the best thing people can do, when faced with the ¡°slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,¡± is to try to think clearly and ask the right questions. It¡¯s probably not for the conclusions reached (if any there are) that so many people have turned to Boethius across the centuries. Rather, like Chaucer I would suppose, they read it for the process of enquiry and learning the book records, and the hope it proposes that, somewhere, there is indeed an answer and a justice, a system and a pattern – a Providence.

People have always turned to the Consolation when they were directly confronted with the reality of unavoidable pain. Without a more or less intense need to ask with the imprisoned Boethius, ¡°Why do such things happen in life? How can I possibly make any sense of them?¡± it probably remains a closed text. If Chaucer¡¯s narrators look toward Boethius most often using terms of Fortune, they collapse in confusion (as the Nuns¡¯ Priest does in the last of the initial quotations) when they try to encapsulate the theme of Providence in the space of a phrase, because the vagaries or sheer incomprehensibility of chance are the necessary starting points for a process of deep thought that cannot arrive with any ease at a concept of divine fore-knowing, since that insight is the highest form of wisdom. Fortune¡¯s wheel is a natty device; what it expresses is an abrupt and inexplicable, unacceptable, scandalous loss of an essential happiness. The turning of the wheel brings the great transformations: ¡°From wo to wele and after out of joie.¡±

Have we somewhere lost the art of great unhappiness? ¡°The worst thing that could happen to me¡± tends today to degenerate into the bathos of ¡°a tragic accident,¡± where the main victim is the notion of tragedy. Dante set the stakes higher in the sonnet that comes immediately after the poem quoted earlier, in the Vita Nuova. The sighs of grief at his loss are compared to those of a soul abbandonata de la sua salute (which the English translates as ¡°abandoned by its hope of happiness.¡±) How is it possible to go on living at such a moment? ¡°I wish I were dead!¡± today sounds melodramatic, words overused; but the words are no sooner out than the mind starts jumping in all directions. ¡°Why did I not perish at death?¡± asks Job. ¡°The reason I am unwilling to die is not because I would rather be unhappy than not be at all, but a fear that after death I may be still more unhappy,¡± replies Augustine. ¡°Who would bear the whips and scorns of time... when he himself might his quietus make... But that the dread of something after death... puzzles the will,¡± explains Hamlet, recalling Augustine, and reaching for his copy of Boethius.


Works Cited


Primary sources


The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri with translation and comment by John D. Sinclair. 3 Volumes. London: John Lane The Bodley Head. 1946.


The Riverside Chaucer. Third Edition. General Editor Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1987.


Troilus and Criseyde: ¡®The Book of Troilus¡¯ by Geoffrey Chaucer. Edited by B. A. Windeatt. London: Longman. 1984.


Secondary sources


Chaucer and the Italian Trecento. Edited by Piero Boitani. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1983.


Chaucer¡¯s Troilus and Criseyde: ¡°Subgit to alle Poesye.¡± Essays in Criticism. Edited by R. A. Shoaf. Binghampton, New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies. 1992.


Critical Essays on Geoffrey Chaucer. Edited by Thomas C. Stillinger. New York: G. K. Hall & Co. 1998.


The Dante Encyclopedia. Edited by Richard Lansing. New York: Garland Publishing. 2000.


The European Tragedy of Troilus. Edited by Piero Boitani. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1989.


Patterson, Lee. Chaucer and the Subject of History. London: Routledge. 1991.


Taylor, Karla Chaucer Reads the Divine Comedy. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press. 1989.


Wallace, David. Chaucerian Polity: Absolute Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1997.


Wetherbee, Winthrop. Chaucer and the Poets: An Essay on Troilus and Criseyde. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1984.


Windeatt, Barry. Troilus and Criseyde (Oxford Guides to Chaucer). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1992




Although it is basically a translation of a poem by Boccaccio, Chaucer¡¯s Troilus and Criseyde can easily be shown to have been influenced by Chaucer¡¯s reading of texts by Dante, Petrarch, and Boethius. In modern editions this is often indicated in a brief footnote but the full depth of the effect of such intertextuality is not accessible by means of that meager information. Chaucer¡¯s knowledge of works by Dante and Boethius, and perhaps of Petrarch¡¯s Canzoniere, was such that readers who have not read them will be unable to perceive the full complexity of the effect of the echoes of them found in Troilus and Criseyde. Yet Chaucer nowhere indicates what he is doing and the interpretations of his text are rendered the more complex by such secret strategies.