Love in Troilus and Criseyde

December 15, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post. Also, thanks to HMU Tutor Dominique Wagner for a wonderful discussion which resulted in some of the questions posed in today's blog.

“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly as love.” - Erich Fromm

Listen to John Cage's Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard while reading of love.

What kind of love do Troilus and Criseyde share? Courtly love, romantic love, passionate love, committed love, friendly love, dutiful love? I could go on. We have so many types of love, and we use the word so often that it may refer to our favorite food (as in “I love pie”) all the way down to the essential core of our being. More than merely defining what type of love they share, however, I propose that Troilus and Criseyde do not share love at all. Let me explain.

Let me start with a note on the style of the work. Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde in Rhyme Royal. This just sounds like the form that such an idealized notion would take – that love be represented in Rhyme Royal sounds fitting, doesn't it? Rhyme Royal consists of stanzas that contain 7 lines of iambic pentameter rhymed in ababbcc format. It is common to fuse elevated speech with elevated notions (or nobility). Shakespeare often employs this tactic, as does Chaucer. And both do it with great success. So, the rhyme scheme alone may be a hint to the reader.

In the story, Troilus, the son of Priam, has fallen in love with Criseyde. He pines away for her and finds himself growing weaker at the idea of both having her love, and of being scorned by her. As Troilus pines away, his friend Pandarus offers help. Pandarus also happens to be Criseyde's uncle. After a few schemes and ruses, the affair begins. Yet, from the very outset, Criseyde's participation is at a different level than Troilus'. He has fallen in love with her by sight and, perhaps, reputation. She has yet to truly notice the noble knight. And when Pandarus explains the love that Troilus feels for her, she reasons to herself:

“'Alas, since I am free,/ Am I to love and put myself in danger?/ Am I to lose my darling liberty?/ Am I not mad to trust it to a stranger?/ For look at others and their dog-in-manger/ Loves, and their anxious joys, constraints and fears!/ She who loves none has little cause for tears.

“'For love is still the stormiest way of life,/ In its own kind, that ever was begun;/ There's always some mistrust, some silly strife/ In love, some cloud that covers up the sun;/ We wretched women! What is to be done/ In all our grief? We sit and weep and think;/ Our grief is this, that it's our grief we drink.

“'And then there are these wicked tongues whose fashion/ Is to speak harm; and men are so untrue;/ Immediately they cease to feel their passion,/ They cease to love; they're off to love anew; But harm that's done is done, that's certain too:/ Those are the very ones that passion rends;/ But violent delights have violent ends.'” (Book II, #111-113)

She explains how the violence of a passionate relationship can go awry. She even advocates for her liberty over security in marriage. In fact, she does not address marriage in a contemporary sense, but only the instability of passionate love. Throughout the text, I feel that Criseyde's character is fairly flat. She is not given a lot of depth, but I wonder more and more about her actions. In this speech, she demonstrates her hesitation and her concern for herself. Yet, she does fall into Pandarus' schemes and begins to see Troilus.

Criseyde is not new to the pain of love. Previously widowed, she was also abandoned by her father who foretold the fall of Troy and left. Her father fled to the Greek stronghold just outside Trojan walls. In Book V, her father enacts a deal that trades Criseyde for a Trojan prisoner, and thus, she is forced to leave Troilus. They part among tears and promises, however, Criseyde does not keep her promises. Instead she is courted by the Greek Diomedes and eventually falls in love with him. Once Troilus learns of her betrayal, he pushes harder on the battlefield until he is killed by Achilles. Chaucer writes, “And, having fallen to Achilles' spear,/ His light soul rose and rapturously went/ Towards the concavity of the eighth sphere,/ Leaving conversely every element,/ And, as he passed, he saw with wonderment/ The wandering stars and heard their harmony,/ Whose sound is full of heavenly melody.” (Book V, #259) As Troilus ascends to heaven, he recognizes the futility of worldly love. It would be easy to say that the moral of the story is that the only true love is devotion to God. If so, I wonder why Chaucer used a pre-Biblical setting for his moral? However, I can overlook this based upon the fact that Troilus and Criseyde was an incredibly popular story of Chaucer's time. (In fact, the narrative had been written at least twice - first in French, then in Italian- before he recounted it in English.) In other words, I can imagine that Chaucer used a popular tale to demonstrate his ideal of heavenly love.

There are two things that I cannot overlook, though. First, Troilus and Criseyde display an almost cheapened sense of self-serving love. Troilus, a great warrior, pines away and devotes every moment of his life (even those in battle) to his love Criseyde. In doing so, he implores the gods for help to win her love. Then, when he wins her love, he curses the gods (for making sunlight which signals his time to leave). He chooses not to eat and drink, he foresakes all pleasure save that which he experiences with Criseyde. The entire time, Troilus is acted upon by others, unable to create a plan of action on his own. On the other hand, Criseyde reluctantly enters into the love affair after numerous tricks (created by her uncle Pandarus). Therefore, their love was never truly about the other. The warrior who cannot act for himself and is so devoted to fulfilling his own desire enters into love for his own sake, not for any noble reason. Criseyde, whose main reason for starting the affair with Troilus was so that her uncle would be happy, does not have much choice in the matter. She does not want to lose her newfound liberty. She does not want to be attached to pain and ridicule and gossip. Furthermore, she realizes that the type of love exhibited by Troilus (the intense passion) often has violent ends. She knows, however, that women have little choice, and so in a sense of self-defeat, she takes pity on him. Troilus has yet to realize this, and perhaps he never fully realizes it. Instead, after his death, his soul flies into heaven mocking those who participate in worldly love. Yet, I feel it is unfair to mock love and then claim that all earthly love is untrue. And second, I wonder why Chaucer dedicated five books to tell the tale of their love, and then introduce the idea of virtue only in the last 10 stanzas of the poem. What is the purpose for such a short discussion of virtue?

My point, though, is not whether or not this is a tale of Christian love, but rather, what our actions say about us. Did Troilus truly love Criseyde, or did he love himself, or his own idea of Criseyde? Did Criseyde truly love Troilus? In leaving him for Diomedes, she perhaps chose the smarter path, since Troy was falling and Diomedes appears stronger and more decisive than Troilus. So, is self-preservation a type of love? Would Chaucer say that religious love can also be seen as a type of self-preservation? And, in classic Chaucerian style, what do we know about truth after reading of this love affair? Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, can we only gain access to divine love through an experience of mortal love?

Read the full text of Troilus and Criseyde on Project Gutenberg.

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Planets, Planets, Planets

October 13, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The vastness of heavens stretches my imagination... Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” - Richard Feynman

In 1609, Johannes Kepler published a few surprising details. First, he said, “the orbits of the planets are ellipses with the sun at one focus.” Then he added, “the time it takes a planet to travel from one position in its orbit to another is proportional to the area swept out by a planet in that time.” This comes almost 70 years after Copernicus corrected Aristotle's view of the heavens. Aristotle's versions were so widely accepted that Copernicus's assertion that placed the sun in the center of the universe upset many people. Kepler, too, shocked with his description of elliptical orbits around the sun. It was not until Newton arrived on the scene that these theories were put to scientific tests. In fact, Newton explained a lot about the celestial beings in his laws of motion. While Newton used calculus to support his scientific findings, he realized that he had to explain the motions in terms that other scientists in his day might understand. Therefore, he proved the motions of the planets using plane geometry. (“Just for fun”, Richard Feynman proved the same in his “lost lecture”, which can be found here: )

Aristotle believed in natural final forms. In his book Meteorology, he explains his hierarchical system which includes: fire, air, water, earth. What may sound trivial to us is incredibly complicated, however. Aristotle observed a great number of events – some of them celestial – and attempted to explain them or their origins within his working framework. Yet even Aristotle understood that his categorization was incomplete. He admits the limits of scientific language in explaining his theories. He argues for a more scientific understanding of the processes on earth. He writes, “Some say that what is called air, when it is in motion and flows, is wind, and that this same air when it condenses again becomes cloud and water, implying that nature of wind and water is the same. So they define wind as a motion of the air. Hence some, wishing to say a clever thing, assert that all the winds are one wind, because the air that moves is in fact all of it one and the same; they maintain that the winds appear to differ owing to the region from which the air may happen to flow on each occasion, but really do not differ at all. This is just like thinking that all rivers are one and the same river, and the ordinary unscientific view is better than a scientific theory like this. If all rivers flow from one source, and the same is true in the case of the winds, there might be some truth in this theory; but if it is no more true in the one case than in the other, this ingenious idea is plainly false. What requires investigation is this: the nature of wind and how it originates, its efficient cause and whence they derive their source; whether one ought to think of the wind as issuing from a sort of vessel and flowing until the vessel is empty, as if let out of a wineskin, or, as painters represent the winds, as drawing their source from themselves.” Science often requires metaphor, and Aristotle certainly used this linguistic device. Drawing upon the idea of vessels being filled or emptied or the idea of a wineskin helps others understand his theory. It also helps to explain when there is no language for explanation. At times he writes of “stuff” or ambiguous “forms” and explains that we must use this terminology because it is what we have to use.

Creating a language for something new requires thought and metaphor. Proper nouns often rely upon metaphor or story. This is especially true of celestial beings. When Uranus was discovered in 1781, there was no standard of naming. It wasn't until 1850 that Uranus was officially accepted and a process for naming celestial beings was established. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded in 1919, now controls all names. Assuming that all planets within our solar system have been identified, they deal mostly with moons, surface features, asteroids, and comets.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been recognized in the heavens throughout history. The next three planets were identified as technology advanced. First Uranus in 1781, then Neptune in 1846 and, if you want to include it, Pluto in 1930. Early cultures identified the movement of the planets with the movement of mythological beings. For this reason, Romans named Venus after the goddess of love, who would surely be epitomized by the brightest and most beautiful celestial being. Mars, of course, the god of War, takes on a reddish appearance, and Mercury whose orbit is so short, moves swiftly on winged feet. Merriam-Webster tells us that Earth, ironically, comes from the Indo-European base 'er,'which produced the Germanic noun 'ertho,' and ultimately German 'erde,' Dutch 'aarde,' Scandinavian 'jord,' and English 'earth.' Related forms include Greek 'eraze,' meaning 'on the ground,' and Welsh 'erw,' meaning 'a piece of land.' Jupiter, the largest and most massive of the planets was named Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans. This name depends entirely upon size because he was the most important deity in both pantheons. Saturn (Cronos in Greek) was the father of Zeus/Jupiter. Since it is visible by the naked eye, Saturn has a variety of names from other cultures as well. (Find a wonderful list of names gathered from many cultures here: ). Uranus was first seen in 1781 as noted above, named for the father of Cronos/Saturn. Neptune followed in 1846 and is named for the Roman god of the sea. Pluto is named after the Roman god of the underworld. The name especially fits this body because Pluto can make himself invisible at will, as does Pluto in its orbit.

As science continues to push to exoplanets and quantum physics, language will continue to evolve. As technology jumps from email to iPhones to cloud computing, we continue to see metaphors emerge and converge, proving that language must evolve simultaneously with culture.

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Linguistic Clues

September 8, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

According to Merriam-Webster, a clue is:

  1. something that guides through an intricate procedure or maze of difficulties or
  2. a piece of evidence that leads one toward the solution of a problem

Clue offers one example of how language changes and is, therefore, the subject of today's blog. I love this word because it visually expresses its meaning better than the string of the four letters c-l-u-e. Somehow this word morphed from clew – or a ball of yarn or thread – into clue (as defined above). Both words are still in use today, but clue exists in the mainstream, while clew is known only to those interested in fiber arts. To understand how this happens, we have to reach back into ancient mythology and understand one of the myths of young Theseus.

King Minos of Crete demanded yearly payments from Athens in the form of seven men and seven women to feed his Minotaur. In the third year of the tribute, Theseus, son of King Aegeus, asked to be sent as one of the seven male pledges. Therefore, fourteen young Athenian men and women entered the Labyrinth with the Minotaur. No one had ever escaped the Labyrinth or the Minotaur, until Theseus. He, of course, killed the beast. As happens with so many of the myths involving heroes, however, he required some help to navigate the Labyrinth. Ariadne, King Minos's daughter, instantly fell in love with Theseus. She gave him a spool of thread – or a clew – which unraveled as he traveled through the Labyrinth. After slaying the bull, he followed the magical thread back to the entrance. Theseus sailed away from Crete with both his pride and his prize: Ariadne. (Unfortunately, Theseus's gratitude did not extend very far because he soon abandoned Ariadne on the shores of Naxos. Do not worry about Ariadne, however, as Dionysus soon rescued her.)

The first use of clew dates back to somewhere near 900. Originally recorded in Old English as cliwen or cleowen, over time, the final 'n' sound dropped off and became clew in Middle English. This word is still used today to describe yarn. Clue, in the sense of figuring out a puzzle, first came about in the 1600s and now exists as a stand-alone concept. The OED credits a poem from Michael Drayton in 1605 with the first metaphorical usage. Drayton wrote, “Loosing the clew which led us safely in, [We] Are lost within this Labyrinth of lust.” Of course today, we take for granted that this concept has long existed. For example, it has become the title for mysteries, games and children's television shows. In so doing, it becomes a literal example of its own definition. Walking backward through language gives literal clues to the history of culture and the human mind. For some reason, the metaphor of walking a labyrinth resonated with a large majority or English speakers. As the word gained in popularity, the more abstract definition slowly replaced the physicality of any labyrinth.

I have this theory that human understanding is proportionally linked to our separation from nature. This perceived independence from nature actually moves us toward a more figurative language – and yet, perhaps deprives us of the ability (or interest) to understand the etymology of basic words. As daily pace increases, we are forced to rely upon derivatives of nature – much the same as our language. “Clue” is a simplistic example of this notion in which the concept is driven by an actual object. It is no coincidence that clue comes from a literal cord or tether – something that binds us to oral traditions – yet, I doubt that many people know its history. That our current understanding of clue is a figure of speech, or that it comes from ancient Greek myths. Just as I did not. And having discovered this new treasure, I am overwhelmed with the way that language carries such a depth of knowledge.

Why is it important to think about the reasons that figurative speech might become more common than literal? Why is it important to understand the etymology of the word? How does the history of the word enhance our definition of clue? These are questions that I ask every time I am working with translation...which makes it painfully clear why translation is so slow and laborious. Each word is a wormhole in its own way. But it also gives a better understanding of just how rich we are in words.

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Mundane Inventions

July 7, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The list that follows are a few inventions that we often take for granted. These mundane items offer a way of analyzing the cultural values and technologies on which we rely (sometimes without knowing it!). Enjoy!

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO):

Though highly contentious and ethically problematic, GMO has made it to the mainstream. This is less of an invention that we take for granted, and more of one that we know little about. Only the savvy consumer realizes that GMO items are in our clothes, food, and products. Originally, farmers saved seeds as the best method of reproduction. Unfortunately, crops were susceptible to pests and weather, so genetic modification made them heartier. As with all inventions, however, there is a potential fallout from tampering with nature. Making plants resistant also made insects evolve. There are many pros and cons, but it is worth investigating since a lot of the products that we depend upon also depend upon genetic modification. A better understanding of the science behind both the pros and cons can be found here.

Toilet Paper:

This might be the most mundane item on today's list, but an indispensible one. Yet, it is a relatively modern development, and one that inspires very little conversation. As with all inventions that have arisen to such mainstream status, it is good to look at the product from the outside to determine how it can be improved. As you can imagine, toilet paper first became available to royalty. The sheet size and makeup greatly differed depending upon culture and technology. However, it was not until the late 1800s that toilet paper became its own product. Closely linked to the paper-making process, it rose to popularity after Scott Paper Company placed it on rolls in 1890. Find a full history in the Toilet Paper Encyclopedia.


The idea of disposable is fascinating to unpack. Merriam-Webster notes that its first known use goes back to 1643, but has little information on that usage. Instead, the first applications of disposable products arrives in the late 1900s, with the rise of such products as disposable diapers and disposable spoons and cups. As we begin to throw away items of luxury, so too, disposable becomes an adjective which describes things like income. Disposable income, Merriam-Webster claims, is “income available for disposal”. I find that definition confusing at best. Today, our society heavily depends upon disposable products such as gloves, diapers and cups, just to name a few. It is important to look at the things we rely upon to better understand our current culture, as well as gauge what might be best for the future. For example, while disposable gloves have certainly helped the medical field, are disposable cups a necessity? Meant for travel or emergencies, many disposable objects have become mainstream, daily requirements. This trend directly correlates to our increasingly mobile lives. The conversation leads into a wonderful discussion of what is culturally beneficial, helpful or otherwise, necessary.

Find more on disposable cups or disposable diapers or disposable gloves.


Did you know that, according to Merriam-Webster, pocket can mean “a small bag carried by person”? This seems odd at first because a pocket is clearly not a bag. Yet, they did originate from bags, which is why Merriam-Webster also lists “a small bag sewn into a garment” as an alternative definition. The pocket, a seemingly mundane object, has a dozen turns of phrase. It has gained a number of metaphors because of its utility and significance. And maybe because of its secret contents. Authors are quick to pick up on such cues, and we find mentions of pockets strewn throughout literature.

Women's pockets and men's pockets developed separately and for slightly different reasons. Other than the fact that both seem to have originated as well-hidden spaces, they diverged from there. Women nowadays often carry money, phones and whatever else in a purse or handbag. Prior to that, mimicking men's pockets, women resorted to well hidden belts. (These greatly challenged the skills of a pick-pocket, which was a pretty sophisticated crime in retrospect). The original pockets would have been hidden under layers of clothing and attached to a belt of sorts, rather than their actual clothes. Women's pockets were difficult to access, whereas men's pockets were sewn into their interior coat linings or inside their suits.

Men have often used pockets for money, food and cigarettes or whatever else they might need. Prior to that, men often used knapsacks to carry food, hunting supplies or supplies. Since the invention of the pocket, men's clothing has found suitable ways of creating useful pockets. Size is understandably of importance: too large makes clothing overly bulky and too small makes the pocket useless. The Victoria and Albert Museum claims, “In contrast to the delicate, embroidered pockets of the 18th century, those of the 19th century are larger and quite plain.” This may be true of men's suits, but women's pockets remained fiercely attached to fashion trends, which often interrupt utility. It appears that women's clothing continues to create designs based off of look rather than purpose (though it can be argued that aesthetics serve a purpose, but that is discussion for a different day). Is it really that surprising to find that something so mundane as a pocket has a political history too?!


Food is a wormhole of investigation. One thing leads to another and really, it can be successfully combined in so many ways since success depends upon your very subjective tastebuds. Imagine, however, trying to create a delicious loaf of bread without a recipe. Not so long ago, recipes depended upon terms that lacked any specificity. Terms like “a dash” or a “handful” or “large” mean nothing to the inexperienced cook. Trial and error rules the day with recipe development. It is painstaking and often extremely aggravating. At times, however, a successful recipe grants a certain level of pride. This very interesting (and ambitious) website attempts to offer a timeline of foods, providing rough dates and cultural attachments. It is a fascinating journey through human civilization.

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