Study Questions for the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women

The study questions for the rest of the texts will not be so detailed, but, since this is the first Middle English text you are reading, I've given you as much help as I can. (By the way, if you spot any errors--typos, etc.--please let me know.)

Who is the "I" in the first line? We find out in line 425 that it is someone who translated Boece, so it would seem to be Chaucer himself, but you will soon find that that is most unlikely. Chaucer, who laughs at everyone and everything, seems to make the most fun of himself. The "Chaucer" of this prologue is a far cry from the Controller of Customs, Clerk of the Works, and member of Parliament.

1-11 What point is the narrator making? If you don't know, read it again.

12-16 Does this make the point clearer to you?

17-28 This is his prologue to the subject of old books and how we ought to treat them. Why must we pay serious attention to "old books"? What if we didn't have any "old books"?

29 Do you believe this? Does it seem likely? What about line 31?

33-35 This is not the only place that Chaucer portrays himself as such a bookworm he never gets out of his study. How likely do you think this self-portrait is to be accurate?

36-39 The May opening is typical of a whole slew of late medieval French and English love poems--an absolutely standard opening. (Bear it in mind when we read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales.)

40-43 English daisies are white tinged with pink. They grow in lawns as plentifully as dandelions do here.

44-49 So Chaucer is a nature lover?

50-67 Pretty gung-ho, isn't he?

68-72 Who does a poet normally call on for help in composing? Why does he call on lovers? What does "make of sentement" mean? The "debates" between the flower and the leaf recall the popularity of debate poems in the Middle Ages (which perhaps derive ultimately from university debates). Not only is there a debate of the "Flour and the Leaf" extant (look it up) in Middle English, but a "Cuckoo and the Nightingale," a "Heart and Eye," and others. We'll talk about the flower and the leaf in class.

73-75 "Ye" refers to the lovers. "Corne"? "Fruyt and chaf," "husk and kernel"--such terms refer to the heart of the matter vs. the trimmings, the essential meaning vs. the poetic style. How does the narrator then portray himself in line 75-77?

78-85 Here the narrator links the daisy and love; the "flour," however, seems to stand for a lady, a lady who provides light in this dark world for the narrator.

86-95 He now addresses her (ye), as if he is writing this for her. "As to myn erthely god"--??

97-102 Now he circles around to the matter he opened the work with: "olde stories" and what a man believes vs. what he can see. In line 102, he emphasises how difficult it is (for him) to write poetry. What do you think?

103-37 This is two sentences! Can you imagine Chaucer rushing to the pasture every morning to watch on his knees while the daisies open?? Why this elaborate sentence to describe this simple action?

138-39 "hire song" = their (i.e., the birds') song.

140-52 Is this Walt Disney, or what? Reminds me of Cinderella getting ready for the ball, or some such. Chaucer conflates (look it up) Valentine's Day and May regularly--we'll talk about it in class. In fact, Chaucer probably invented Valentine's Day as a day of love; this is certainly one of the first instances of it.

153-70 Shades of the Romance of the Rose! Note the oaths in lin 157. What does "trewe" mean? Why did they swere this?

171-74 Cp. the opening of CT.

175-87 How likely is this?

188-96 Modest, self-effacing--Chaucer's narrator is ever a man who is careful not to offend anyone.

197-202 Here, at last, the teller seems to begin a story--albeit a silly one (he hurries home because he has to be up before dawn to see the daisy open).

203-209 This kind of careful detail isn't there just to slow down your reading. These details give Chaucer's story a realism, a sense that this really happened, that this is what is really in his garden and where he really sleeps in the summer (as good as air conditioning), and that he is careful about how his bed is made.

210-25 Ah, a dream vision! So from a little pocket of realism, we walk into a fantastical world where flowers are queens (or vice versa) accompanied by gods. Notice the resemblance between the queen and a daisy. Remember the Romance of the Rose.

226-40 Cp. RR. What are "dartes" (235)?

241-46 A courtly lady. A lady of the court. A queen.

247-73 A ballade is not a ballad (look them both up). A ballade is a medieval verse form that died out when the sonnet swept all before it in the Renaissance. Don't worry about the content of this one except to note that it is full of "learning" in the form of references to Classical figures (there may be a bit of a joke here, since the narrator presents himself as inept as a poet). Notice, too, that each stanza ends with the same line (the refrain).

274-81 Hmmm. If this queen is his lady, then who was his lady in lines 86-95? What would have happeden if she hadn't been kind to him?

282-307 Two groups of ladies follow these two: first 19 ladies (what does line 284 mean?), then an enormous train of ladies. How does he know that these women were "trewe of love"? What does "trewe of love" mean? What did they do then?

312-18 Remember what kind of character The God of Love was in the RR when you "read" his tone of voice. In what tone of voice do you think the narrator answers him?

319 "and yt lyke yow" = if it please you.
Remember that "and" can mean "if."

320-40 This speech functions in a number of ways. One thing it does is give you one take on _RR_. What do you make of it? For another, it acts as a resume for the poet (he lists his work elsewhere, too). For that reason it is an invaluable passage to Chaucer scholars: it tells us that all these works were completed by the time Chaucer wrote the Legend.

Note that our titles for medieval works are imposed by editors, not by the authors of those works; thus the Troilus (or Troilus and Criseyde) is here designated by the author by Criseyde (if indeed Chaucer is actually using the name as a title)!

The God of Love is the son of Venus--in Classical mythology, called Cupid, but a very different Cupid from the one we are used to (think of our Valentine's Day imagery).

341-72 The queen is the voice of reason, of "measure" or moderation, of reconciliation. Who is this God who knows all in 348? The "losengeour" is a standard figure in such poems, who poisons the atmosphere, usually for a lover rather than a poet.

Notice the reference to Dante in 360. This places this poem after Chaucer's travels in Italy.

So Chaucer is "nice" (l. 362), right? What excuses (3) does the queen give on the poet's behalf in lines 362-68? What about lines 371-72?

373-408 She then turns to lecturing (politely) the God of Love on his duties as a ruler.

409-30 She then defends him by--doing what? We know all of the works she mentions except which one? It is likely that before he wrote any of his longer works he wrote quantities of lyrics (balades, roundels, virelayes), many of them probably in French.

431-41 The queen now names herself. This delayed naming is extremely common in literature from Homer to . . . well, I don't know when, but certainly through the eighteenth century. What punishment does she suggest to the God of Love?

442-54 His answer tells us something about the high regard in which even the God of Love holds her.

455-74 Pay attention to line 449: putting the decision in the hands of the woman is something you will see again. "The God above" (456)?. How does the narrator try to get out of his predicament? (He really gives two contrary arguments, one in 470 and one in 472.)

475-94 In fact, his excuses are a bit after the fact. Do you think she speaks to him in 475-78 with a bit of impatience? or as a parent to a rather slow child?

What can "legende" mean? Do you think that her definition of "goode wymmen" is limited? What are the implications of "in youre world" in 489? of 490?

495-97 Chaucer never lets you forget that he lives in a real world, however fantastical the fictional world he creates.

498-504 We're back to the obtuse narrator. Commit line 503 to memory; Chaucer uses it repeatedly in different contexts. What does it mean here? What do you make of line 504?

507-16 Read the story of Alceste in your mythology book if you don't know it already. Notice that books were kept in chests rather than on shelves. In medieval paintings, books nearly always lie flat rather than stand up.

517-34 Why is Alceste, the daisy, the narrator's "owene hertes reste"? Here we get a little learned speech by the narrator. What is its effect on the reader?

535-547 Do we have the poem the God of Love refers to? "Fyn lovynge" or "fin amor" (the French equivalent) is the term earlier scholars referred to by the name "courtly love," but does it have anything to do with "wyfhod"? It is certainly associated with "boundes." Note line 547. 548-62 How many ladies are named in the poem referred to in line 555? If you add Alceste? Did he write a story for Alceste? "Ne shal no trewe lover come in helle"?? Remember that this is the Legend of Good Women--good in what sense?

563-end Why at Cleopatra? "of al hir lyf the grete" means. . . (574)? Haven't we heard about "olde auctours" before in a contrary context? Chaucer accounts for the fact that his "legends" will be very short in 576-77. Note that the narrator works as he said, and as the God of Love said he should, out of his "bokes"; no originality here! . . .or is there?