The Legend of Good Women

Contents:
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer  | Date: 1386

Prologue

A THOUSAND times I have heard say that in heaven is joy and in hell pain; and I grant well that it be so. Nevertheless, well I wot this, that there is none dwelling in this land who has been in either hell or heaven, or who can know of them in any other wise than as he has heard tell or found it written, for none can put his knowledge to the assay. But God forbid but men should believe far more than they have seen with their eyes! A man shall not deem all things false because he has not beheld them of long time. God wot, a thing is none the less true though every wight cannot see it. Even Bernard the monk saw not all things, perdy!

Then in all reason must we give credence to these books, through which olden things be kept in mind, and to the instruction of these sages of old time, and believe on these old, approved histories of holiness, of kingdoms, of victories, of love, hate, and other sundry things which I cannot now rehearse. And were old books all gone, then were the key of remembrance lost. Well ought we then to believe old books, where there is none other test by experience.

As for me, though my wit be little, I delight to read in books and in mine heart revere them. In them I have such joy and faith, that there is scarce any sport to draw me from my books, unless it be some festival or else the lovely time of May; but when I hear the little birds singing, and when the flowers begin to put forth, then farewell my studies for that season!

Now I have eke this liking, that of all the flowers in the meadow I most love those white and red flowers which men in our town call daisies. To them I have such affection, as I have said, that when May is come, no day dawns upon me in my bed, but I am up and walking in the mead to see these flowers opening to the sun when it rises, in the bright morn, and through the long day thus I walk in the green. And when the sun draws toward the west, then they close and betake them to slumber till the morrow when the day comes- so sore they fear the night. This daisy, flower of all flowers, filled with all excellence and honor, ever and alike fair and lusty of hue, fresh in winter as well as in summer, fain would I praise it if aright I could. But woe is me, for it lies not in my power! For well I wot that folk have reaped the field of poesy before me and have garnered the corn. I come after, gleaning here and there, and am right glad if perchance I find an ear of any goodly words which they have left behind. And if I chance to rehearse again what they have said in their lusty songs, I hope that they will not be ill-pleased, since all is said in furthering and worship of them who are followers of either the leaf or flower. For trust well, I have not undertaken to sing in honor of the leaf against the flower, or of the flower against the leaf, any more than of the corn against the shock. For as to me, neither is dearer; as yet I am retained by neither. I know not who serves the leaf, who the flower; that is no wise the object of my labor. For this work is all drawn out of another tun, of ancient story, ere any such strife was.

But why I spake of giving credence to old books and revering them, is that men should believe authorities in all things wherein there lies none other means of proof. For mine intent is, ere I go from you, to make known in English the naked text of many a history or many a tale, even as authors tell them. Believe them if you list!

When the month of May was almost past, and I had roamed all the summer’s day over the green meadow of which I have told you to gaze upon the fresh daisy, and when the sun out of the south drew towards the west, and the flower was closed and gone to sleep, for darkness of the night which she feared, I sped me full swiftly home to mine house; and in a little shady bower that I have, newly embanked with fresh-cut turves, I bade folk lay my couch, and flowers to be strewn thereon, for joy of the new summer. When I had laid me down and closed my eyes, I fell asleep within an hour.

Then I dreamed that I was in the meadow, and was roaming about to see that flower, even as you have heard me tell. Fair was this meadow, methought, all variegated with sweet flowers. No herbs or trees or spicy gums could compare with it; for it utterly surpassed all odors, and eke all flowers for rich beauty. The earth had forgot his poor estate of winter, which had made him naked and deject and with the sword of cold had smitten him so sore. Now the mild sun had relieved all that, and clothed him in green all afresh. Rejoicing in the season, the little birds that had escaped the snare and the net mocked the fowler who had affrighted them in winter and destroyed their brood, and eased their hearts to sing of him in scorn, and to flout the foul churl who for his covetousness had betrayed them with his sophistries. This was their song, ’We defy the fowler!’ On the branches some sang clear lays of love and spring, that it was a joy to listen, in honor and praise of their mates, and for the new, joyous summer; they sang, ’Blessed be Saint Valentine! For upon his day I chose you, my dear heart, and never have I repented.’ And then they joined their beaks, and they paid honor and tenderness to each other, and then did other ceremonies right pleasing to love and nature.

I gave myself to hearing their song (for I dreamed I understood their meaning); till at last a lark sang on high. Quoth she, ’I see the mighty god of love! Lo yonder he comes! I see his wings spread!’ Then I looked along the meadow and saw him come, leading by the hand a lady clothed in a royal habit of green. She had a net of gold around her hair, and over that a white crown with many flowers; for all the world even as the flower of the daisy is crowned with little white leaves, such were the flowers of her white crown, for it was made all of one fine orient pearl; wherefore the white crown above the green, with the golden ornament in her hair, made her appear like a daisy.

This mighty god of love was clothed in silk embroidered full of green sprigs; on his head was a garland of rose-leaves, all set with fresh lilies. But the hue of his face I cannot tell, for truly his face shone so bright that the eye was astonied with the gleam. For a season I could not look on him, but at last I saw that he held in his hands two fiery darts, red as glowing coals. And he spread his wings like an angel. Albeit men say he is blind, yet methought he could see well enough; for he looked sternly upon me, so that his look even yet makes my heart cold.

He held by the hand this noble lady, crowned with white and clothed all in green, who was so womanly, benign and gentle that though men should seek throughout this world they should not find half her beauty in any being formed by nature. Her name was Alceste the gentle, fair fortune ever befall her, I pray God! For had it not been for the comfort of her presence, I had been dead without help, for fear of Love’s words and look; as ye shall learn hereafter, when the time is.

On the grass, behind this god of love, I saw a company of nineteen ladies in royal garb coming at a right gentle pace, and after them came such a train of women that I could not have thought that by any possibility the third part of them or the fourth had ever lived in this world, since God made Adam of earth. And every one of these women was faithful in love. Now was this a wondrous thing or no? For as soon as they espied this flower which I call the daisy, right quickly they stopped all together and kneeled down by that very flower; and after that they went in a circle slowly dancing about it, and sang, as it were in carol-wise, this ballade which I shall tell you.

BALLADE

Hide, Absalom, thy golden tresses clear;

Esther, lay thou thy meekness all adown;

And Jonathan, hide all thy friendly cheer;

Martia, the Roman Cato’s paragon,

Before our lady’s truth vaunt not thine own;

Hide ye your beauties, Isolt and Elaine,

Alceste is here, your glories all are vain.

Thy beauteous body, let it not appear,

Lavinia; and Lucrece of Latian town,

Polyxena, that paid for love so dear,

Warm Cleopatra, with thy regal crown,

Hide ye your truth in love and your renown,

And Thisbe, thou for love that hadst such pain;

Alceste is here, your glories all are vain.

Hero, Laodamia dead of fear,

And Phyllis, hanging for thy Demophon,

And Canace, spied by thy heavy cheer,

Hypsipyle, that Jason falsely won,

Penelope, thy web is all undone,

Ariadne, Hypermnestra, now refrain;

Alceste is here, your glories all are vain.

When this ballade was all sung, they sat full gently down upon the sweet and soft green grass, in order all in a circle about. First sat the god of Love, and then this lady clad in green with the white crown; and then nigh them all the rest right courteously, according to their station. And then, whilst a man might walk a furlong, in all the place not a word was spoken.

Close by, reclining beneath a grassy slope, I waited, still as any stone, to learn what this folk purposed; till at last the god of love turned his eyes on me and said, ’Who is it rests there?’

And I answered his question and said, ’Sir, it is I.’ And I came nearer, and saluted him.

Quoth he, ’What do you here in my presence, and that so boldly? For truly a worm were more worthy to come into my sight than you.’

’And why, sir,’ quoth I, ’and it please you?’

’Because,’ quoth he, ’you are no wise fit. My servants be all wise and honorable; you are my mortal foe, and war against me, and speak evil of mine old servants, and with your works of translation plague them, and hinder men’s devotion in my service, and hold it folly to trust on me. You cannot deny it; for in text so plain that it needs no commentary you have translated the Romance of the Rose, which is heresy against my religion; and you cause wise folk to withdraw from me, and think in your cool wit that he is but a proper fool who loves with passion, too hard and hot. Well I know hereby that you begin to drivel, as these old fools when their spirit fails; for then they abuse other folk, and know not what is amiss with themselves. Have you not eke made in English the poem which tells how Criseyde forsook Troilus, to show how women have gone astray? But nevertheless answer me this now, why would you not also speak well of women, as you have said evil? Was there no good matter in your memory, and in all your books could you not find some story of women good and faithful? Yes, God wot! Sixty books, old and new, you have yourself, all full of long stories, in which both Romans and Greeks treat of sundry women, what kind of life they led, and ever an hundred good to one bad. This God knows, and eke all clerks who use to seek out such matters. What says Valerius or Livy or Claudian? What says Jerome, in his treatise against Jovinian? Of pure maidens and faithful wives, of widows steadfast unto death tells Jerome; and that not a few, but I dare say an hundred in succession, till it is piteous and ruthful to read of the woe they endured for their faithfulness. For they were so true to their love that, rather than take a new mate, they chose death in sundry manners, and died even as the story will relate. Some were burned, some had their throats cut, and some were drowned, because they would not be false. For they all kept their maidenhood, or else widowhood or wedlock. And this was not done for devoutness, but for very virtue and purity, and that men should put no blame on them. And yet they were heathen, all the pack, who so sorely dreaded all disgrace. These women of old so guarded their good name that I trow men shall not find in this world a man who could be so true and kind as was the least woman in those days. Likewise what say the epistles of Ovid concerning true wives and their travail? What says Vincent, in his Historical Mirror? Eke you may hear the whole world of authors, Christian and heathen, treat of such matters. It needs not to write all day about them; but again I say, what ails you to write the chaff of stories and overlook the corn? By Saint Venus, my mother who bare me, though you have abjured my faith, as other old fools have done many a day gone by, you shall repent it in sight of all men.’

Then spake Alceste the worthy queen: ’God, of very courtesy thou must hearken and see whether he can make reply to these charges that thou hast made against him. A god should not thus be moved to anger, but being a deity he should be stable, and eke righteous and merciful. He cannot rightfully vent his ire ere he has heard the other party speak. All that is carried to thee in complaint is not gospel-true; the god of love hears many a feigned tale. For in thy court there is many a flatterer, and many an artful, tattling accuser, who din many a thing in thine ears out of hatred or jealous imaginings, or to have familiar talk with thee. Envy- I pray God give her ill luck!- ever washes the foul linen in a great court; out of the house of Caesar she departs neither by night nor day (thus says Dante). Whosoever departs, never will he be lacking. This man may be accused wrongly, and by rights should be absolved. Or else, sir, because this man is unwise, he might translate a thing not out of malice but because he uses to write books and heeds not of what matter; therefore he wrote the

Rose and Criseyde all innocently, and wist not what he was saying. Or else he was bidden by some person to write those poems, and durst not refuse it, for ere this he has writ many a book. In translating what old clerks have written, he has not sinned so grievously as if he should in malice endite scornfully of love, out of his own wit.

’A righteous lord should have this in mind, and not be like Lombard tyrants who practise wilful tyranny; for a king or lord by natural right ought not to be tyrannical or cruel like a farmer of taxes, doing all the harm he can. He must bear in mind that they are his liege-men, and that his very duty is to show all benignity toward his people, to hear their defences readily, and their complaints and petitions in due time when they present them. This is the philosopher’s saying, that a king shall maintain his lieges in justice; that is his duty, of a truth, and thereto is a king sworn full deeply, and has been for many an hundred years of old; and to maintain his lords in their station, as it is right and reasonable that they be exalted and honored and held most dear, for they be demi-gods here in this world. Thus shall he do to both rich and poor, albeit their conditions be not alike, and have compassion on poor folk. For behold the noble nature of the lion! When a fly annoys or bites him, he full gently drives the fly away with his tail; for in his noble nature he deigns not to avenge him upon a fly, as a cur does and other beasts. A noble nature should show restraint, and weigh all things by equity, and ever regard his own high station. For, sir, it is no noble act for a lord to condemn a man without speech or answer; in a lord that is a full foul practice. And if so be the man cannot excuse himself, yet with sorrowful heart asks mercy, and humbly in his bare shirt yields him up wholly to thy judgment, then a god with brief consideration ought to weigh his own honor and the other’s trespass. For since there is no cause of death here, thou oughtest the more easily to be merciful. Lay aside thy wrath, and be a little yielding!

’This man has served thee with his art, and has furthered thy religion with his poesy. Whilst he was young he followed thee; I know not whether he be now a renegade. But well I know that by what he has been able to write in praise of thy name he has caused unlearned folk to rejoice in serving thee. He wrote the book called the House of Fame, and eke the Death of Blanche the Duchess, and the Parliament of Birds, I trow, and all the love of Palamon and Arcite of Thebes, though the tale is little known; and for thy holy days many hymns, which are called Ballades, Roundels, and Virelays; and to speak of other laborious works, he has translated Boethius in prose, and Of the Wretched Engendering of Mankind, which may be found in Pope Innocent; and he also wrote the life of Saint Cecilia; and also, a long while ago, Origen upon the Magdalene. He ought now to have the less penalty; he has written many a lay and many a work.

’Now as thou art a god and a king, I, thine Alceste, once queen of Thrace, ask thee of thy mercy never to harm this man so long as he lives. And he shall swear to thee, and that straightway, that he will sin no more thus; but even as thou shalt enjoin he shall write of women ever faithful in love, maidens or wives, whatsoever thou wilt; and shall further thee as much as he spake amiss in the Rose or in

Criseyde.’

Forthwith the god of love answered her thus: ’Madame,’ quoth he, ’it is long that I have known you to be so charitable and faithful that never, since the world was new, have I found any better toward me. Therefore, if I will safeguard mine honor, I neither may nor will refuse your petition. All lies with you; do with him as pleases you, and forgive all, without more tarrying. For whosoever gives a gift or does a kindness, let him do it betimes, and his thanks will be the greater. Judge you therefore what he shall do. Go now, thank my lady here,’ quoth he.

I rose, and then got me down on my knee and said: ’Madame, may God on high reward you because you have made the god of love to give over his wrath against me; and may He grant me the grace to live so long until I may truly know who you are that have helped me and put me in such hopeful case. But truly in this matter I thought not to have sinned or to have trespassed against love. For an honest man, in verity, has no part nor lot in the deeds of a thief; and a true lover ought not to blame me, though I speak reproach of a false. He ought rather to hold on my side, because I wrote of Criseyde or of the Rose; whatsoever mine author meant, it was in my mind at least, God wot, to exalt faithfulness in love and to cherish it; and to warn folk from falseness and evil by such ensamples. This was mine intent.’

And she answered, ’Let be your arguing, for Love will hear no pleas against himself, just or unjust; learn this from me. You have your pardon; hold by that. Now will I say what penance you shall do for your trespass; understand it now. As long as you live, year by year you shall spend the most part of your life in writing a glorious legend of good women, maidens, and wives, who were ever faithful in love, and you shall tell of the false men who betrayed them, men who all their life do naught but try how many women they can shame,- for in your world that is now held as a sport. And though you list not be a lover, speak well of love. This penance I give you. And I will so pray the god of love that he shall charge his servants in any wise to aid you and shall requite your labor. Now go your way; your penance is but small.’

The god of love smiled, and then he said, ’Know you whether this be maid or wife, queen or countess, or of what degree, who has given you so little penance that have deserved to suffer more sorely? But pity runs soon into a noble heart; that you can see. She manifests what she is.’

And I answered, ’Nay, sir, as I hope for happiness, I wot no more but that I see well she is kind.’

’By mine hood,’ quoth Love, ’that is a true saying; and that you well know, perdy, if you well consider. In a book which lies in your chest have you not the story of the great goodness of Queen Alcestis, who was turned into a daisy,- she who chose to die for her husband and eke to go to hell in his stead; and Hercules rescued her, perdy, and brought her out of hell back to happiness?’

And I replied, ’Yes, now I know her! And is this the good Alceste, the daisy, mine own heart’s repose? Now I feel well this woman’s goodness, that both in her life and after her death her great goodness makes her renown double. Well has she requited me for mine affection which I bear toward her flower, the daisy. No wonder though Jove should turn her into a star, as Agathon tells, for her goodness. Her white crown bears witness of it; for she had as many excellences as there be small flowers in her crown. In remembrance and honor of her Cybele created the daisy, the flower all crowned with white, as men can see; and Mars gave its redness to her crown, set amidst the white instead of rubies.’

At this the queen waxed somewhat red from modesty, when she was so praised in her presence. Then said Love, ’It was a full great negligence to write about the unsteadfastness of women, since you know their goodness by experience and eke by olden stories. Let be the chaff, write well of the corn. Why would you not write of Alceste, and leave Criseyde sleeping in peace? For your writing should be of Alceste, since you know that she is a calendar of goodness; for she taught noble love, and especially how a wife ought to live, and all the bounds that she should keep. Your little wit was nodding that time. But now I charge you on your life that in your Legend you write of this woman, after you have written of other lesser ones. And now farewell, I charge you no more. I will that you begin with Cleopatra; and so continue. And so you shall gain my love.’

And at these words I awoke from my sleep, and I began to write on my Legend even thus.

Explicit prohemium.

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Chicago: Geoffrey Chaucer, "Prologue," The Legend of Good Women Original Sources, accessed May 20, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=X823JC8B7DJJHLT.

MLA: Chaucer, Geoffrey. "Prologue." The Legend of Good Women, Original Sources. 20 May. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=X823JC8B7DJJHLT.

Harvard: Chaucer, G, 'Prologue' in The Legend of Good Women. Original Sources, retrieved 20 May 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=X823JC8B7DJJHLT.