‘True’ Love or Not To Love?
by Cathy Cupitt

“But wene ye that every wrecche woot
The parfit blisse of love?”1

From the beginning the reader knows that “Troilus and Criseyde” is both a romance and a tragedy, for if the name of the poem and the setting of doomed Troy are not enough of a clue, Chaucer’s narrator tells us so explicitly. This is a tale of:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,

In lovying, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie2

This waxing and waning of Troilus’ and Criseyde’s happiness in love allows Chaucer to explore the different manifestations of love in his contemporary society, and what the costs of loving might be. In particular, Criseyde’s fear of love, and betrayal of Troilus’ love, raises the question: who is allowed to choose to love?

Yet despite the readers’ foreknowledge of a tragic ending, Chaucer’s skill is in exploring this theme, while making the outcome of the story seem anything but fixed. He “directs our responses and controls the narrative situation,”3 so that we are in constant anticipation. One scene in particular strikes me as a powerful example of Chaucer’s ability to evoke this feeling of uncertainty and infinite possibility suddenly coalescing into the next inevitable movement of the plot.

In a relatively short passage in Book II (lines 876-931) Criseyde makes the symbolic decision to love, despite her concerns about the power games involved with ‘true’ or courtly love. She “wex somwhat able to converte”4 her fears into love of Troilus.

This scene is made up of what appears to be a simple convergence of four important elements: Antigone’s song of true love, and her certain and convincing belief in true love (as opposed to mere passion – “hoot”5), the nightingale’s sweet lovesong, and Criseyde’s dream of heart exchange.

Together these elements are what ultimately predispose Criseyde towards love rather than fear, and so moves her ever closer to her predestined fate as traitoress. But this synchronicity is not the working of Fortune as is implied frequently throughout text. Rather it is the working of a master composer. This scene makes explicit a vortex of forces of relevance to the medieval nobility – particularly the social forces inherent in the imagery of courtly love. I believe that David Aers was on the right track when he suggested that:

In Troilus he [Chaucer] used the romance genre and the conventions of courtly literature to explore the anomalies between upper class literary conventions and realities, to explore the tensions between the place women occupied in society and the various self-images presented to them, and to imagine his way into the psychic cost for men and women in the relevant situation.6

How are these forces, or anomalies, made explicit in this scene? Although the references to courtly love are positive – positive enough to reassure the doubt filled Criseyde – there is a constant negative refrain.

To begin with, Antigone has just sung a song about a couple who love each other both truly and “faste”7, but the song ends with an echo of Criseyde’s fear.

“All dredde I first to love hym to bigynne,
Now woot I wel, ther is no peril inne.”8

Next comes a moment which appears to be an artless revelation to Criseyde – her “fresshe”, “white”9 niece inadvertently says exactly what Criseyde needs to hear to help allay her fears about the “parfit blisse of love”10. Antigone compares the existence of true love with the existence of a paradisiacal Heaven, and foul Hell.
To a Christian audience this would be a superficially convincing comparison. Heaven and Hell, by their nature, are as mysterious as the difference between ‘passion’ and ‘true love’. But can love poets really be compared, as sources of veracity, to the “seyntes” that “men moste axe at”11? Or is this argument subtly showing up the folly of comparing earthly love to the love of God? Although the argument seems to satisfy Criseyde, the mystery remains – what is true love and who can know its bliss?

With the falling of night Criseyde turns away from the world of Romance, and returns to her ‘real’ world, and prepares for bed. The synchronistic singing of the nightingale right beneath her bedroom window pushes her drifting thoughts towards love, making her “herte fressh and gay”12. Immediately after this is the disturbing dream image of Criseyde’s heart being ripped out of her breast. “This dream highlights the violence and perils of loving concealed behind the traditional conceit of an exchange of hearts.”13

This contrast of Criseyde’s “fressh”, “gay”14 heart, and the rending of her heart, is, in my opinion, the crux of the passage. Criseyde is passive while this horrendous act is carried out – does not even feel “agroos” or “smerte”15 as it happens. The appealing ideal of the exchange of two true loving hearts is depicted as a violation acted out on a passively accepting woman. How can love ever be ‘true’ under such circumstances? How can a woman ever choose to love under such circumstances?

This violent imagery seems to align love with the other major theme of the poem – war. In fact it is almost as though these themes are “in reality a single violence whose twin visages are love and war” 16. Here, then is the “psychic cost”17 that Aers’ talks about. No one can find love in this society without also being wounded and scarred emotionally in its skirmishes and battles.

Although the image of Criseyde’s savaged heart is represented as only a dream, it reflects both this ‘cost’, and the place women held in the real medieval world. Women were the possessions of men, with little choice in love or anything else. A point brought home later in the poem by the Parliament’s decision to trade Criseyde for a prisoner (as though she herself was a prisoner of war and not a free citizen).

If the system of true love required this kind of passive acceptance of men’s actions by women, did women see love as a kind of war? Perhaps they were too well encultured to see it like this. In any case, in this light, Criseyde’s “fear is fully justified, her weakness is a genuine aspect of a social reality not of her own making”18. Criseyde can never participate fully in love if she is always the powerless partner.

Yet Criseyde is not painted as entirely a victim. She is not unaware of the position she is in, and once she has made the choice that has been thrust upon her, she empowers herself by taking part in her affair with Troilus enthusiastically. “She wex somwhat able to converte.”19 She bends with the wind and survives, while taking the next step towards her preordained destiny.

Left unanswered, though, are the questions implied by this passage. And especially, the question about love itself. When Chaucer writes:

But wene ye that every wrecche woot
The parfit blisse of love?20

We are inclined to ask instead ‘does anyone know the perfect happiness of love?’. Is ‘true’ love even possible, if the option not to love is impossible?


Aers, David.
“Criseyde: Woman in Medieval Society,” The Chaucer Review 13 (3) (1979), 177-200.
Benson, Larry.
The Riverside Chaucer, Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Mehl, Dieter,
“Chaucer’s Narrator: Troilus and Criseyde and the Canterbury Tales.” In Boitani, P. and Mann, J., The Cambridge Chaucer Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, 213-226.
Vance, Eugene.
“Mervelous Signals: Poetics, Sign Theory, and Politics in Chaucer’s Troilus.” New Literary History 10 (1979), 293-337.

End Notes

  1. Larry Benson, The Riverside Chaucer, Third Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), from Troilus & Criseyde Book II, 890-891, p.501.
  2. Benson, Book I, 1-4, p. 473.
  3. Dieter Mehl, “Chaucer’s Narrator: Troilus and Criseyde and the Canterbury Tales,” In The Cambridge Chaucer Companion, eds. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) pp. 213-226. This from p. 213.
  4. Benson, Book II, 903, p.501.
  5. Benson, Book II, 892, p.501.
  6. David Aers, “Criseyde: Woman in Medieval Society,” The Chaucer Review 13 (3) (1979), 177-200. This from p. 180.
  7. Benson, Book II, 872, p. 501.
  8. Benson, Book II, 874-875, p. 501.
  9. Benson, Book II, 887, p.501.
  10. Benson, Book II, 891, p. 501.
  11. Benson, Book II, 894, p. 501.
  12. Benson, Book II, 922, p. 502.
  13. Aers, p. 186.
  14. Benson, Book II, 922, p.502.
  15. Benson, Book II, 930, p. 502.
  16. Eugene Vance, “Mervelous Signals: Poetics, Sign Theory, and Politics in Chaucer’s Troilus,” New Literary History 10 (1979), 293-337. This from p. 328.
  17. Aers, p. 180.
  18. Aers, p. 181.
  19. Benson, Book II, 903, p. 501.
  20. Benson, Book II, 890-891, p.501.

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