Boece by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Manuscript of Boece by Chaucer.
Boece is Geoffrey Chaucer's translation of The Consolation of Philosophy (De Consolatione Philosophiæ) by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (written in the early part of the 6th Century, possibly 524). Chaucer translated it somewhere between 1378-81 (around the same time as writing Anelida and Arcite and The Parlement of Fowls): it is his first of two works of prose (the second being A Treatise on the Astrolabe, 1390-94) and his second of two translations (the first being The Romaunt of the Rose, 1361-7). I read Chaucer's Boece this weekend alongside V. E. Watts' translation of The Consolation of Philosophy. The plan was to read it after I'd read The Canterbury Tales, but somehow I was drawn to reading it this weekend and I'm glad I did because I've learned that it's hard to over-estimate the importance of Boethius to Chaucer's works and medieval literature generally!

It's worth, to start of with, knowing a little about Boethius: he was born to a wealthy family in 480 A.D. in Rome; by the age of 25 he was a senator, and by 30 he was a consul in the kingdom of Ostrogoths. However, the king, Theoderic the Great (Flāvius Theodericus) suspected him of conspiring with the Byzantine Empire, so Boethius was imprisoned and executed in 524. Whilst awaiting execution, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy.

The book is divided into five parts, which are subdivided into between six and twelve segments. Like many of Chaucer's works, The Consolation begins with a vision: the imprisoned Boethius writing poetry. "Wepynge" as he writes his poetry, he sees Lady Philosophy:
Chaucer: Whyle that I stille recordede thise thinges with my-self, and markede my weeply compleynte with office of pointel, I saw, stondinge aboven the heighte of myn heved, a woman of ful greet reverence by semblaunt, hir eyen brenninge and cleer-seinge over the comune might of men; with a lyfly colour, and with swich vigour and strengthe that it ne mighte nat ben empted; al were it so that she was ful of so greet age, that men ne wolde nat trowen, in no manere, that she were of oure elde. 
Watts: While I was quietly thinking these thoughts over to myself and giving vent to my sorrow with the help of my pen, I became aware of a woman standing over me. She was of awe-inspiring appearance, her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men. She was so full of years that I could hardly think of her as of my own generation, and yet she possessed a vivid colour and undiminished vigour. [Watts]
She is wearing a dress which, on the bottom hem has Π (the Greek letter 'Pi') and on the top hem Θ (the Greek letter 'Theta'), and both are joined by a ladder, which Chaucer explains within the text,
In the nethereste hem or bordure of thise clothes men redden, y-woven in, a Grekissh P, that signifyeth the lyf Actif; and aboven that lettre, in the heyeste bordure, a Grekissh T, that signifyeth the lyf Contemplatif. And bi-twixen these two lettres ther weren seyn degrees, nobly y-wroght in manere of laddres; by whiche degrees men mighten climben fro the nethereste lettre to the uppereste. 
and Watts explains in a footnote: Π refers to moral philosophy and ethics, Θ refers to theology, metaphysics, and natural science. Her dress is torn by "handes of some men hadde corven that cloth by violence and by strengthe; and everiche man of hem hadde born awey swiche peces as he mighte geten." She has come to help Boethius, and begins first by sending away the Muses of Poetry:
Chaucer: And whan she say thise poetical Muses aprochen aboute my bed, and endytinge wordes to my wepinges, she was a litel amoved, and glowede with cruel eyen. 'Who,' quod she, 'hath suffred aprochen to this syke man thise comune strompetes of swich a place that men clepen the theatre?
Watts: At the sight of the Muses of Poetry at my bedside dictating words to accompany my tears she became angry. 
'Who', she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, 'has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside? 
The Muses of Poetry, she believes, do not cure a man of his sickness and misery, they only encourage and even feed off it. The Muses of Poetry flee, and so ends the first segment of the first book. 

In the second part, which Boethius begins with a poem (translated into prose by Chaucer). Lady Philosophy asks that he tells her his woes so that she might properly help, and he explains why he entered politics (inspired by Plato) and that his honesty had only made him very powerful enemies in a corrupt government. He then expresses his anger that he was faithful to Philosophy and has seemingly been punished for it. She replies,
Chaucer: 'O,' quod she, 'my norry, sholde I forsaken thee now, and sholde I nat parten with thee, by comune travaile, the charge that thou hast suffred for envie of my name? Certes, it nere not leveful ne sittinge thing to Philosophie, to leten with-outen companye the wey of him that is innocent. Sholde I thanne redoute my blame, and agrysen as though ther were bifallen a newe thing? quasi diceret, non. For trowestow that Philosophie be now alderfirst assailed in perils by folk of wikkede maneres? Have I nat striven with ful greet stryf, in olde tyme, bifore the age of my Plato, ayeines the foolhardinesse of folye? And eek, the same Plato livinge, his maister Socrates deservede victorie of unrightful deeth in my presence.
Watts: 'Why, my child,' she replied, 'should I desert you? Why should I not share your labour and the burden you have been saddled with because of the hatred of my name? Should I be frightened by being accused? Or cower in fear as if it were something unprecedented? This is hardly the first time wisdom has been threatened with danger by the forces of evil. In olden times, too, before the time of my servant Plato, I fought many a great battle with against the reckless forces of folly. And then, in Plato's own lifetime, his master Socrates was unjustly put to death - a victorious death won with me at his side.
French manuscript from the 1460s.
They go on to discuss nature and humanity, and she reminds him that for all the material possessions and powers he has lost, he still has his soul, and he is still a spiritual being. The first book concludes with a poem (again translated into prose by Chaucer):
Chaucer: The sterres, covered with blake cloudes, ne mowen yeten a-doun no light. Yif the trouble wind that hight Auster, turning and walwinge the see, medleth the hete, that is to seyn, the boyling up from the botme; the wawes, that whylom weren clere as glas and lyke to the faire clere dayes, withstande anon the sightes of men by the filthe and ordure that is resolved. And the fletinge streem, that royleth doun dyversly fro heye mountaignes, is arested and resisted ofte tyme by the encountringe of a stoon that is departed and fallen from som roche. And for-thy, yif thou wolt loken and demen sooth with cleer light, and holden the wey with a right path, weyve thou Ioye, dryf fro thee drede, fleme thou hope, ne lat no sorwe aproche; that is to seyn, lat non of thise four passiouns over-comen thee or blende thee. For cloudy and derke is thilke thought, and bounde with brydles, where-as thise thinges regnen.'
Watts: In dark clouds,
The stars can shed
No light.
If boisterous winds
Stir the sea
Causing a storm,
Waves once crystal
Like days serene
Soon turn opaque
And thick with mud
Prevent the eye
Piercing the water.
Streams that wander
From tall hills
Down descending
Often dash
Against a rock
Torn from the hillside.
If you desire
To look on truth
And follow the path
With unswerving course,
Rid yourself
Of joy and fear,
Put hope to flight,
And banish grief,
The mind is clouded
And bound in chains
Where these hopes hold sway.
During these discussions in the first book, Lady Philosophy 'diagnoses' Boethius, and from there she begins on his cure. In the second book, she explains Fortune, that by her very nature Fortune is fickle:
Chaucer: Thou wenest that Fortune be chaunged ayein thee; but thou wenest wrong, yif thou that wene. Alwey tho ben hir maneres; she hath rather kept, as to thee-ward, hir propre stablenesse in the chaunginge of hir-self. Right swich was she whan she flatered thee, and deceived thee with unleveful lykinges of fals welefulnesse. Thou hast now knowen and ataynt the doutous or double visage of thilke blinde goddesse Fortune. She, that yit covereth hir and wimpleth hir to other folk, hath shewed hir every-del to thee. Yif thou aprovest hir and thenkest that she is good, use hir maneres and pleyne thee nat. And yif thou agrysest hir false trecherye, despyse and cast awey hir that pleyeth so harmfully; for she, that is now cause of so muche sorwe to thee, sholde ben cause to thee of pees and of Ioye. She hath forsaken thee, forsothe; the whiche that never man may ben siker that she ne shal forsake him.
Watts: But you are wrong if you think Fortune has changed towards you. Change is her normal behaviour, her true nature. In the very act of changing she has preserved her own particular kind of constancy towards you. She was exactly the same when she was flattering you and luring you on with enticements of a false kind of happiness. You have discovered the changing faces of the random goddess. To others she still veils herself, but to you she has revealed herself to the full. If you are satisfied with her ways, you must accept them and not complain. But if you shudder to think of her unreliability, you must turn away and have nothing more to do with her dangerous games. She has caused you untold sorrow when she ought to have been a source of peace. For she has left you, she in whose constancy no man can ever trust.
French manuscript from the 1460s.
They go on to debate the nature of happiness and the impossibility of truly attaining it on earth. Fortune, clearly, is not a source of happiness, nor is wealth in itself (happiness derived from wealth is false, it is the function of wealth, or the 'transferring' of it that appears to bring happiness. Power and honour may be bestowed by a false source, is the case of Boethius, a corrupt government. Even Nature does not belong to us but God, so that cannot bring true happiness either. All is either temporal or apart from us. If anything, Lady Philosophy concludes, 'bad' Fortune is good for us: "The amiable Fortune deceyveth folk; the contrarie Fortune techeth."

In the third book, Lady Philosophy explains that all humans desire happiness, but their goal to attain wealth, power, bodily pleasure, or manifestations of love (a family) are treated as ends in themselves, and happiness may only be attained spiritually as a path towards God, and this path toward the unity with God will satisfy one's desire for happiness. This third book concludes with a poem in which Boethius asks for help to attain this unity and discover satisfaction (as close to happiness as a human may find on earth).

The fourth book begins with the question of evil: if God is perfect in his goodness, then how can evil exist? Lady Philosophy reminds him,
Chaucer: ... that certes the gode folk ben alwey mighty, and shrewes ben alwey out-cast and feble; ne the vyces ne ben never-mo with-oute peyne, ne the vertues ne ben nat with-oute mede; and that blisfulnesses comen alwey to goode folk, and infortune comth alwey to wikked folk. 
Watts: ... the good are always strong and the wicked always humbled and weak. From Him, too, you can learn that sin never goes unpunished or virtue unrewarded, and that what happens to the good is always happy and that what happens to the bad always misfortune. 
Furthermore, simply by striving towards good, or indeed wickedness, brings it's own reward. The means, in short, are as crucial as the end. All things, Lady Philosophy continues, are temporary and are inexplicable, as God is, and at the very least, bad fortune leads to good because it leads to change (as previously explained). Nevertheless, Lady Philosophy argues that one should feel compassion for the wicked as they lead essentially unnatural lives.

1385 manuscript. 
In the fifth and final book, they discuss chance, and whether the existence of chance undermines the arguments for God's order and the notion of free will. Philosophy responds that what may appear to be chance may not in fact be so, and that free will exists because beings have a choice between virtue and wickedness, and though we are temporal beings who cannot truly understand God's order, this does not mean one ought not strive towards God. The Consolation of Philosophy concludes,
Chaucer: Withstond thanne and eschue thou vyces; worshipe and love thou virtues; areys thy corage to rightful hopes; yilde thou humble preyeres a-heigh. Gret necessitee of prowesse and vertu is encharged and commaunded to yow, yif ye nil nat dissimulen; sin that ye worken and doon, that is to seyn, your dedes or your workes, biforn the eyen of the Iuge that seeth and demeth alle thinges.'
Watts: Avoid vice, therefore, and cultivate virtue; lift up your mind to the right kind of hope, and put forth humble prayers on high. A great necessity is laid upon you, if you will be honest with yourself, a great necessity to be good, since you live in the sight of a judge who sees all things.
King Alfred's translation of Boethius.
And so ends Boece. It is a very dense work, though simply presented, and reading it in Middle English is especially a challenge (hence I turned to Watts for help). I can't say I was wholly convinced by it, but nevertheless it's fascinating and very thought-provoking. As I said at the beginning of this post, it's also a very important work to Geoffrey Chaucer and to Medieval writers. Alfred the Great (King of Wessex from 871 - 899) also translated it, as did Jean de Meun (second author of The Romance of the Rose, also translated by Chaucer), and later Queen Elizabeth I. It influenced Chaucer greatly, particularly Troilus and Criseyde (1382-86) and parts of The Canterbury Tales (1386-94), for example 'The Knight's Tale', 'The Clerk's Tale', 'The Franklin's Tale', 'The Parson's Tale' and 'The Tale of Melibee'. Lady Philosophy also appears as the "noble goddesse Nature" in The Parlement of Foules (1382). 'The Wheel of Fortune' (Rota Fortunae) described by Boethius is possibly the most influential element.
And thus does Fortune's wheel turn treacherously And out of happiness bring men to sorrow. ['The Monk's Tale']
The Consolation of Philosophy is, I've learned, an essential part of Chaucer's work, and I'm glad I didn't end up leaving this one until autumn. It is, I cannot stress enough, a difficult book however short, and it needs some time to sink in. I dare say I'll read it again, though I do think anyone contemplating it might be better off reading Watts first, or at least alongside Chaucer. One needs a clear head for it!

'The Wheel of Fortune' by Edward Burne Jones (1875-83).


  1. I continue to be impressed by the range of your reading and scholarship. Are you now or will you be teaching? Students will be most admirably served.

    1. No, not a teacher. I don't think I could cope with all the paperwork! :)

  2. Wow, I'm so impressed. I can't believe that you are scared of The Iliad or The Odyssey when you can read something like this!! With all the Chaucer that you're reading, are you starting to see similarities or common threads of ideas?

    I'm looking forward to reading Boethius with regard to his concept of time and God, which you see in the writings of Augustine and C.S. Lewis. Best to start at the beginning!

    Great review! I can only hope I live long enough to read (and re-read) all the books that you have! :-)

    1. Regarding Homer - I was so surprised when I saw it was only about 2 000 lines longer than Aurora Leigh! I might go back to Homer again this year, maybe summer.

      Yes, lots of similarities in the Chaucers - plenty of dream visions! His style is very unique as well, a very pleasant read he is! I ought to do some kind of post on Chaucer so far....

      Glad you'll be reading Boethius. There's so much happening in it I'll be grateful to read your perspective to learn a bit more!

    2. I predict that if you read The Iliad and Odyssey a couple of times, you'll be hooked! :-)

    3. I hope so! I've tried them before, but.... Anyway, I've decided I'm going to re-read them this year, probably quite soon. Oddly it's Aurora Leigh that's given me the confidence! :)


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