33% done with The House of Fame

Book 1:

Chaucer makes a small, but interesting connection between line 117, “To the corseynt Leonard” – St Leonard being the patron saint of prisoners – and Dido (in fact all women) in that she is a prisoner to circumstance and the male world of virtus as well as to Rumor. Because she is pregnant by Aeneas and her honor and love is tied up with him she is forced into a situation that eventually leads her to drive a knife through her heart, whereas he is free to continue his voyage to Italy.

Chaucer seems to be paying homage to the glory and beauty of the ancient writers and stories by placing them in this beautiful temple, a vision he cannot explain why he has received it when other people are not awarded such visions / dreams. But he also seems to be playing with the old stories in that he’s very interested in how poorly Dido, and so many other women, have been treated. He feels very modern when he writes that women should be aware of men who with sweet words can get their way and then leave a storm behind them for the women to endure, be it shame from gossip of an affair and / or an illegitimate child.

Moreover, he is playing with his favorite theme of authority vs experience. Aeneas is a hero in the epic sense, but not in the romantic, yet the great writers of antiquity are considered the authority on morality and are the basis of western civilization and are central in the canon. Since this is a poem about his desire to be famous – respected – like the ancient writers, he has to figure out how to reconcile an outdated worldview (virtus) with the more modern romantic worldview where men do not behave the way Aeneas does. In epic a woman is a barrier to fame, in romance it is integral to it and Chaucer is showing his audience that he knows the difference between the 2, a fact his audience was also smart enough to recognize.

And is Aeneas to blame for his actions? The gods have a mission for him and who is he to argue against that authority, even if in he sources he chose not to interpret the wedding as being legitimate? Chaucer has it both ways then by saying that both parties had their share of guilt and innocence. She too soon loved a stranger and threw her authority away and he led her on knowing he wasn’t supposed to be there.

Thus does the education gleaned from reading the ancients actually make a person moral? If we hold the ancients to such a high standard yet all we see is them behaving badly then why do we exemplify them such? Chaucer mentions St Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners, and so are we prisoner to the canon?