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Naught by Nature: Chaucer and the (Re)Invention of Female Goodness in Late Medieval Literature

Naught by Nature: Chaucer and the (Re)Invention of Female Goodness in Late Medieval Literature

By Joanna R. Shearer

PhD Dissertation, University of Florida, 2007

Abstract: The women in Chaucer’s stories are not content to live life in the margins, and these characters are neither as good as they should be according to medieval standards of proper female behavior, nor are they as bad as these same standards would have one believe. In this sense, Chaucer is an author who is ahead of his time, and one can determine from his poems that women, in all of their myriad incarnations, are, for him, meant to be seen and heard.

In “Subverting Rape, Romance, and Religion in Troilus and Criseyde,” I examine the most common mistranslation of Criseyde by modern scholars, namely I argue that Criseyde’s betrayal of Troilus for Diomede is as necessary as it is inevitable. Thus, Chaucer rehabilitates his heroine, a feat he manages without harming either her reputation or Troilus’ masculinity.

In my chapter on The Legend of Good Women, I often disagree with contemporary critical reasoning as to why Chaucer-as-author would choose to (re)translate Classically “bad” women into rather dull examples of “good” womanhood. It is my contention that he uses these women and their tales to show that, no matter how much either sex tries to play the victim when “true” love sours, there are often few real victims to be had in such tragic scenarios.

My fourth chapter examines how The Man of Law’s Tale, when taken in conjunction with two other Canterbury Tales, provides the best answers to some of Chaucer’s most challenging questions. Indeed, he (re)invents Custance as the exception to many of the rules for proper female behavior in the fourteenth century, even as she is paradoxically the perfect embodiment of authority’s claim on women in general.

In essence, this dissertation’s over-arching aim has been to show just how adept Chaucer is at (re)translating women from their often one-dimensional “Lady-like” portrayals in courtly literature into something that is wholly unique and, most important of all, memorable – even to a modern world. Few male authors (re)invent women as Chaucer does, and while many scholars argue that he was simply a man of his time, I contend that, in reality, his work remains timeless.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Florida

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