The Legend of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse (1907).
The Legend of Good Women (1386-88) is Geoffrey Chaucer's last long poem before The Canterbury Tales (1386-94). It's an unfinished poem, 2,723 lines, which makes it his third largest poem aside from Tales (which is over 17,000 lines; Troilus and Criseyde is 8,239 lines, The Romaunt of the Rose is 7.692 lines, then we have The Legend of Good Women, and next The House of Fame which is 2,158 lines). It is, as with The House of Fame, Romaunt of the Rose, and the Book of the Duchess, based on a dream vision -  Alceste and Cupid appear to him and admonish him for writing anti-women literature (referring to Troilus and Criseyde and the Romaunt of the Rose).

The poem is divided into eleven parts: the prologue, which is as much a celebration of the month of May as it is setting the scene, and a further ten parts each focused on a female literary or historical figure: Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle and Medea, Lucrece, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra.

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
I: The Legend of Cleopatra (lines 580 - 705)

Chaucer writes of Cleopatra's love for Antony, her sorrow at his death, and her suicide:
"Now love, to whom my sorweful herte obeyde
So ferforthly that, from that blisful houre
That I yow swor to been al frely youre,
I mene yow, Antonius my knight!
That never waking, in the day or night,
Ye nere out of myn hertes remembraunce
For wele or wo, for carole or for daunce;
And in my-self this covenant made I tho,
That, right swich as ye felten, wele or wo,
As ferforth as hit in my power lay,
Unreprovable unto my wyfhood ay,
The same wolde I felen, lyf or deeth.
And thilke covenant, whyl me lasteth breeth,
I wol fulfille, and that shal wel be sene;
Was never unto hir love a trewer quene."
And with that word, naked, with ful good herte,
Among the serpents in the pit she sterte,
And ther she chees to han hir buryinge.
Anoon the neddres gonne hir for to stinge,
And she hir deeth receyveth, with good chere,
For love of Antony, that was hir so dere:—
And this is storial sooth, hit is no fable.

Thisbe by John William Waterhouse (1909)
II: The Legend of Thisbe (lines 706 - 923)

The legend of Pyramus and Thisbe is a famous one, a part of Ovid's Metamorphoses (8 A.D.) and repeated in many stories, for example William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Émile Zola's The Fortune of the Rougons. In this, Chaucer writes of how the two came to be separated by the wall, how they defied their parents, how they came to escape, and their subsequent tragedy:
Tisbe rist up, withouten noise or bost,
And seigh her wimpel and his empty shethe,
And eek his swerd, that him hath doon to dethe;
Than spak she thus: 'My woful hand,' quod she,
'Is strong y-nogh in swiche a werk to me;
For love shal yive me strengthe and hardinesse
To make my wounde large y-nogh, I gesse.
I wol thee folwen deed, and I wol be
Felawe and cause eek of thy deeth,' quod she.
'And thogh that nothing save the deeth only
Mighte thee fro me departe trewely,
Thou shalt no more departe now fro me
Than fro the deeth, for I wol go with thee!

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance-Holland (1766).
III: The Legend of Dido (lines 724 - 1367)

Dido was, according to Roman sources, the first Queen of Carthage and she is featured in Virgil's Aeneid (29 - 19 B.C.) as well as Ovid's Metamorphoses. Chaucer tells of how Dido came to trust and love Aeneas, and how they came to be parted. She, like Cleopatra and Thisbe, kills herself. 
A cloth he lafte, and eek his swerd stonding,Whan he fro Dido stal in her sleping,
Right at her beddes heed, so gan he hye
Whan that he stal a-wey to his navye;
Which cloth, whan sely Dido gan awake,
She hath hit kist ful ofte for his sake;
And seide, 'O cloth, whyl Iupiter hit leste,
Tak now my soule, unbind me of this unreste!
I have fulfild of fortune al the cours.'
And thus, allas! with-outen his socours,
Twenty tyme y-swowned hath she thanne.
And, whan that she un-to her suster Anne
Compleyned had, of which I may nat wryte—
So greet a routhe I have hit for tendyte—
And bad her norice and her suster goon
To fecchen fyr and other thing anoon,
And seide, that she wolde sacrifye.
And, whan she mighte her tyme wel espye,
Up-on the fyr of sacrifys she sterte,
And with his swerd she rof her to the herte.
Medea by Evelyn De Morgan (1889).
IV: The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea (lines 1368 - 1679)

The legends of Hypsipyle and Medea are found in Euripides (Hypsipyle, 410 B.C; Medea, 431 B.C.), and both women are linked to Jason, the leader of the Argonauts. Jason slept with Hypsipyle and swore his devotion to her when she became pregnant with twins Euneus and Nebrophonus but he abandoned her, and in Medea by Euripides he abandons Medea for Glauce, and Medea murders her children in an act of revenge. In Dante's Inferno (1308-21) Jason is found in the eighth layer of hell (Canto XVIII) with the panderers and seducers.

Chaucer begins by addressing Jason:
Thou rote of false lovers, duk Iasoun!
Thou sly devourer and confusioun
Of gentil-wommen, tender creatures,
Thou madest thy reclaiming and thy lures
To ladies of thy statly apparaunce,
And of thy wordes, farced with plesaunce,
And of thy feyned trouthe and thy manere,
With thyn obeisaunce and thy humble chere,
And with thy counterfeted peyne and wo.
Ther other falsen oon, thou falsest two!
O! ofte swore thou that thou woldest dye
For love, whan thou ne feltest maladye
Save foul delyt, which that thou callest love!
If that I live, thy name shal be shove
In English, that thy sleighte shal be knowe!
Have at thee, Iasoun! now thyn horn is blowe!
But certes, hit is bothe routhe and wo
That love with false loveres werketh so;
For they shul have wel better love and chere
Than he that hath aboght his love ful dere,
Or had in armes many a blody box.
For ever as tendre a capoun et the fox,
Thogh he be fals and hath the foul betrayed,
As shal the good-man that ther-for hath payed.
Al have he to the capoun skille and right,
The false fox wol have his part at night.
On Iasoun this ensample is wel y-sene
By Isiphile and Medea the quene.
He goes on, in two parts, to write of the fates of both women.

Detail of Rembrandt's Lucretia (1664).
V: The Legend of Lucrece (lines 1680 - 1885)

In Lucrece (or Lucretia) Chaucer refers to Ovid's Fasti (8 A.D.) and the works of Livy. Lucretia was also the subject of William Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece (1594). She is raped by Tarquin, the son of the King of Rome and, full of shame and guilt, she stabs herself:
This lady sente after her frendes alle,
Fader, moder, husbond, al y-fere;
And al dischevele, with her heres clere,
In habit swich as women used tho
Unto the burying of her frendes go,
She sit in halle with a sorweful sighte.
Her frendes axen what her aylen mighte,
And who was deed? And she sit ay wepinge,
A word for shame ne may she forth out-bringe,
Ne upon hem she dorste nat beholde.
But atte laste of Tarquiny she hem tolde,
This rewful cas, and al this thing horrible.
The wo to tellen hit were impossible,
That she and alle her frendes made atones.
Al hadde folkes hertes been of stones,
Hit mighte have maked hem upon her rewe,
Her herte was so wyfly and so trewe.
She seide, that, for her gilt ne for her blame,
Her husbond sholde nat have the foule name,
That wolde she nat suffre, by no wey.
And they answerden alle, upon hir fey,
That they foryeve hit her, for hit was right;
Hit was no gilt, hit lay nat in her might;
And seiden her ensamples many oon.
But al for noght; for thus she seide anoon,
'Be as be may,' quod she, 'of forgiving,
I wol nat have no forgift for no-thing.'
But prively she caughte forth a knyf,
And therwith-al she rafte her-self her lyf...

Ariadne by John William Waterhouse (1898).
VI: The Legend of Ariadne (lines 1886 - 2227)

Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, the King of Crete, and she took pity on Theseus who was condemned to enter the labyrinth where dwelt the monster Minotaur. With her and her sisters' help Theseus destroys the Minotaur, however, whilst Ariadne sleeps Theseus steals away with her sister and she is left heartbroken. 
The holwe rokkes answerde her again;
No man she saw, and yit shyned the mone,
And hye upon a rokke she wente sone,
And saw his barge sailing in the see.
Cold wex her herte, and right thus seide she.
'Meker than ye finde I the bestes wilde!'
Hadde he nat sinne, that her thus begylde?
She cryed, 'O turne again, for routhe and sinne!
Thy barge hath nat al his meiny inne!'
Her kerchef on a pole up stikked she,
Ascaunce that he sholde hit wel y-see,
And him remembre that she was behinde,
And turne again, and on the stronde her finde;
But al for noght; his wey he is y-goon.
And doun she fil a-swown upon a stoon;
And up she rist, and kiste, in al her care,
The steppes of his feet, ther he hath fare...

Procne and Philomela by Elizabeth Gardener Bouguereau.
VII: The Legend of Philomela (lines 2228 - 2393)

This story is found in a variety of sources, including Ovid's Metamorphoses. In this Philomela begs to see her sister Procne, wife of King Tereus of Thrace, and when she does she is raped by Tereus and he cuts her tongue out to keep her silent (as in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, 1588-93). Chaucer begins this part of the poem with an angry address to God:
Thou yiver of the formes, that hast wroght
The faire world, and bare hit in thy thoght
Eternally, or thou thy werk began,
Why madest thou, unto the slaundre of man,
Or—al be that hit was not thy doing,
As for that fyn to make swiche a thing—
Why suffrest thou that Tereus was bore,
That is in love so fals and so forswore,
That, fro this world up to the firste hevene,
Corrumpeth, whan that folk his name nevene?
And, as to me, so grisly was his dede,
That, whan that I his foule story rede,
Myn eyen wexen foule and sore also;
Yit last the venim of so longe ago,
That hit enfecteth him that wol beholde
The story of Tereus, of which I tolde.

Phyllis and Demophoon by
Edward Burne Jones (1870).
VIII: The Legend of Phyllis (lines 2394 - 2561)

Phyllis is the abandoned wife of married Demophon, King of Athens (the son of Theseus). Like many of the women in The Legend of Good Women she is bereft, and she too kills herself.
She seide, 'thy sailes comen nat again,
Ne to thy word ther nis no fey certein;
But I wot why ye come nat,' quod she;
'For I was of my love to you so free.
And of the goddes that ye han forswore,
Yif that hir vengeance falle on yow therfore,
Ye be nat suffisaunt to bere the peyne.
To moche trusted I, wel may I pleyne,
Upon your linage and your faire tonge,
And on your teres falsly out y-wronge.
How coude ye wepe so by craft?' quod she;
'May ther swiche teres feyned be?
Now certes, yif ye wolde have in memorie,
Hit oghte be to yow but litel glorie
To have a sely mayde thus betrayed!
To god,' quod she, 'preye I, and ofte have prayed,
That hit be now the grettest prys of alle,
And moste honour that ever yow shal befalle!
And whan thyn olde auncestres peynted be,
In which men may hir worthinesse see,
Than, preye I god, thou peynted be also,
That folk may reden, for-by as they go,
"Lo! this is he, that with his flaterye
Betrayed hath and doon her vilanye
That was his trewe love in thoghte and dede!"
But sothly, of oo point yit may they rede,
That ye ben lyk your fader as in this;
For he begyled Adriane, y-wis,
With swiche an art and swiche sotelte
As thou thy-selven hast begyled me.
As in that point, al-thogh hit be nat fayr,
Thou folwest him, certein, and art his eyr.
But sin thus sinfully ye me begyle,
My body mote ye seen, within a whyle,
Right in the haven of Athenes fletinge,
With-outen sepulture and buryinge;
Thogh ye ben harder then is any stoon.'
The Danaïdes by John William Waterhouse (1903).
IX: The Legend of Hypermnestra (lines 2562 - 2723)

Hypermnestra was one of the fifty daughters of Danaus (his twin brother Aegyptus had fifty sons). Chaucer refers to Danaus as a "false lover", and Hypermnestra is betrothed to her cousin Lynceus. In order to avoid sending his sons to battle, Aegyptus instructs the wives (the Danaides) to kill their husbands, however Hypermnestra refuses. Chaucer writes of her virtue:
For, though that Venus yaf her greet beautee,
With Iupiter compouned so was she
That conscience, trouthe, and dreed of shame,
And of her wyfhood for to kepe her name,
This, thoughte her, was felicitee as here.
And rede Mars was, that tyme of the yere,
So feble, that his malice is him raft,
Repressed hath Venus his cruel craft;
What with Venus and other oppressioun
Of houses, Mars his venim is adoun,
That Ypermistra dar nat handle a knyf
In malice, thogh she sholde lese her lyf.
But natheles, as heven gan tho turne,
To badde aspectes hath she of Saturne,
That made her for to deyen in prisoun,
As I shal after make mencioun.
For refusing she is imprisoned, and here Chaucer's poem ends abruptly.


Rape, heartbreak, murder, suicide: this is not a poem for the faint-hearted! It's believed that the poem was written on the request of Anne of Bohemia, the first wife of Richard III, however Chaucer got bored with the task hence the sudden end (it's suggested that there would have been twenty-five women: in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer writes of "the book of the xxv. Ladies" in the retraction). In its time it was a popular poem nevertheless (a notable fan would be Chaucer's own 'Man of Law' from The Canterbury Tales!) however now it's generally not read, apart from the prologue which is contained in some anthologies (at the least I would recommend that people would look at the prologue, it's full of beauty and spring). Ovid, clearly, is a main source of inspiration, and for that it is good as a glimpse into Ovid's Metamorphoses as well as other Greek and Roman myths, legends, and histories. That it is not widely read is undeserving. It is a fascinating history. I loved reading it.

To finish, here are Edward Burne Jones' illustrations, a series titled The Legend of Good Women from 1864.

Amor and Alcestis
Ariadne and Lucrece
Cleopatra and Dido
Hypsipyle and Medea
Phyllis and Hypermnestra
Thisbe and Philomela


  1. These are great - especially the first three. My kids and I just finished our Greek component and are in the Roman period now. They performed A Midsummer Night's Dream b/c it took place in Athens, read about Dido from a kid's version of The Aeneid, and we just finished reading about Cleopatra and Antony. These may be fun to read to them now that they are familiar with these stories. And I can just read these portions from your blog, too. : )

    1. That sounds excellent! I wish I had have done at school half the stuff you teach your children! :)

      Let me know what they make of Chaucer, will you? I'm curious :)

    2. OK, so I read it to them in part Old English (is that what it is?) and part English (where I knew the words for certain). They got excited when I said Thisby, but they didn't recognize what part of the story. I needed to tell them. Once I said the name of Dido, they knew who it was about, and then only one of them knew immediately the story of Cleopatra. My 15-year old was the one who enjoyed them most b/c she said they were beautiful.

    3. Your kids are very enthusiastic! That's so impressive, I'm glad they enjoyed it :D

      Chaucer's Middle English, and quite an easy Middle English as well as far as they go. I have a book I want to read - Gawain & the Green Knight - and I was disappointed to see mine was translated from its original Middle English. I thought it would be along the lines of Chaucer, tough but manageable. Then I saw it in its original! Here's an example (and no, I have no idea what it means!) -

      SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
      þe bor3 brittened and brent to bronde3 and askez,
      þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t
      Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erþe:
      Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde,
      þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
      Welne3e of al þe wele in þe west iles.
      Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swyþe,
      With gret bobbaunce þat bur3e he biges vpon fyrst,
      And neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;
      Ticius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
      Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes vp homes,
      And fer ouer þe French flod Felix Brutus
      On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settez wyth wynne,
      Where werre and wrake and wonder
      Bi syþez hatz wont þerinne,
      And oft boþe blysse and blunder
      Ful skete hatz skyfted synne.

      I can't believe that was written in the same period as Chaucer! I managed to ascertain that someone was "tried for their trickery", that's about it!

      I got the example from here, it has sample texts of Old, Middle, Early Modern, and Modern English. :)

    4. Holy smokes! That's impossible! Well, at least without tons of practice. You'll be happy to know that I picked up a copy of Chaucer's Dream Visions and Other Poems today, thanks to you. After The Canterbury Tales, I'll attempt to read them slowly in Middle English. Thankfully Chaucer's ME is easier than the Gawain poet's!

    5. Yep, it's a whole new language practically :)

      Are you planning on reading Canterbury Tales in Middle English? I can't remember what you said...

      I saw that book, Chaucer's Dream Visions - I really want it! I'm reading The Riverside Chaucer, which is his complete works. It's brilliant and I'm happy to have it, but it's a bit hard going - small print, double columns. Glad I bought it though - I saw it in Barter Books a few years ago but didn't get it, regretted it bitterly, but by chance (can't remember the circumstances) we had to go back a few days later so I jumped into Barter Books and bought it :) Glad you're planning on reading the Dream Visions. I think from reading what I've read so far, The Canterbury Tales isn't that typical of Chaucer.

    6. Wow! That looks fun. My kids would actually love that. (Kids have this strange interest in other languages, and especially in inventing their own.)

    7. I thought they might, I certainly did - I love looking at other languages especially when the alphabet is different (or a bit different in this case!).

  2. Oh sure, throw Ovid at me again! ;-) I hope in July or August I can pull out Metamorphoses. I still can't believe that you're reading these in Middle English. Does it really get easier with practice? How much longer do you think it takes you to read it in Middle English than in modern English?

    It's wonderful how there are so many links in literature and I'm beginning to recognize more and more of these links. You've also reminded me that I'd like to get back to The Divine Comedy and write a detailed post on each book. Sigh! There's just not enough time in the day, is there?

    1. I did think of you every time I mentioned Ovid :) I don't think I'll be able to join you for Ovid this year - I really did want to, but after I've finished Decameron I'm jumping straight into The Canterbury Tales. It would be so good to revisit Ovid again, though... I don't think I'll manage it :(

      I want to re-read Divine Comedy again as well and write about each book - I loved reading it last autumn, but I was reading more for fun. It will be a good thing to read it slowly.

      It really does get easier, reading Middle English, with practice. I have heard it said that people from my part of the world (Northumberland) do find it a bit easier, but I don't know how true that is. As for how much longer it takes to read.... Not sure - probably about 3 or 4 times as long as modern English. Maybe longer. I can understand what I read but it doesn't come to me in a split second and if I tried to read a bit faster (as I have done) I get very quickly lost!

    2. Let's say that you probably won't be able to join me for Ovid ....... I have a pile of books lined up before I get to it so who knows ....... summer is the plan but it may be very delayed.

      You are very north, aren't you? I had a chance to do a house exchange with someone in Heysham and I was wondering if it might be close to you. It's very tempting but I think I'm going to pass. I just heard on the news that because of the California drought, the cost of fruits and vegetables may go up 30-40%. Yikes. I may need my travel money just to eat. :-Z

    3. I had to google Heysham - I'm 130 miles north of it :)

      That is quite a hefty increase!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.