“The Legend of False Men”?: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women Re-titled
Moon, Hi Kyung
Medieval English Studies, vol. 11 (2003) No. 1
The liveliness of the critical debate over the question as to whether the Legend of Good Women constitutes a defense of woman or an attack is an indication of the fundamental ambiguity underlying the poem. That the Legend should be considered ambiguous at all is ironic in view of the fact that here is a text whose very title proclaims loudly what its intentions are. The text purports to be a gallery of “good” women in a manner that recalls Ovid’s Heroides and Boccaccio’s De mulierbus claris. The title leads us to expect accounts of exemplary women which address and take part in the medieval polemics over woman; as Delany points out, the stimulus for the text comes from the “author-narrator’s anxious confrontations with western misogynistic tradition in literature” (“Rewriting Women Good” 74).
The experience of reading the Legend, however, upsets many of these expectations and the reader finds him/herself confronted with a text which subverts and undermines itself. Alcuin Blamires points out the work’s outwardly pro-feminine position but notes how “hardly any ancillary topoi of the formal case for women” are included, which makes “the poem’s appetite for polemical engagement with misogyny seem unnecessarily attenuated” (218-9). Delany discusses the Legend in association with the saints’ lives and argues that though not in itself a hagiography, the Legend is generated by it (The Naked Text 60). She points out the religious origin of the word “legend” as a tributary biography of some holy person, to be read out as part of liturgy during an annual mass commemorating the anniversary of the dead. If we try to read the meaning of the title The Legend of Good Women in light of the above literary traditions, the poem should be about women, and more especially about women who are saintly and that they should be dead. The only expectation that the Legend satisfies, however, is the last and the other two are found to be so problematic that they continue to be sources of contention. Though acknowledging the problematic nature of the text, most critics have taken the poem at its face value and assumed it to be primarily about women, although it may not be about “good” women. In this paper I wish to discuss how the poem calls into question the validity of its own title and more especially to argue that an equally valid claim could be made for the title the legend of “false men.” I will examine how the poem’s engagement with women leads to its engagement with men in a way that interrogates and finally voids the meaning of the categories of men/women and good/false, which seem so central to the Legend.