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Educating Reader: Chaucer's Use of Proverbs in "Troilus and Criseyde"

Ann C. Hall

Educating Reader: Chaucer's Use of Proverbs in "Troilus and Criseyde"

The scholarship on Chaucer's use of proverbs is so vast that one might imagine Chaucer closing either the MLA or the International Proverb Bibliography with a sigh and shrug, muttering, "diverse folk, diversely they said."1 The Troilus is a particular favorite because, simply, "Chaucer uses a greater proportion of proverbs and sententious remarks in the Troilus than in anything else he wrote."2 From Bartlett Jere Whiting's indispensable index to more recent criticism, most scholars attribute the function of this folk wisdom to characterization, particularly the characters in the romance.3 Karla Taylor's work is worth mentioning here because through its departure from this critical trend, it establishes the integral function of proverbs throughout the work, not just among certain characters and their interrelationships.4 Taylor argues that Chaucer highlights the proverbs in the Troilus through not only their volume but also through the poem's self-reflexive nature. Taylor notes that "the poet often intrudes into his text to direct our attention to the process of composition."5 And, since proverbs play such an important role throughout this process, the poem also forces us to notice these rhetorical devices. The Troilus, then, is not just a romance; it is also a tale-being-told.

What Taylor, and other proverb scholars, neglect to consider, however, is Chaucer's ironic, and often humorous, use of the narrator. To be brief, Chaucer creates what D. C. Muecke calls "ingénu irony" through this narrator. Muecke characterizes this form of irony as "another mode in which the ironist, instead of presenting himself as a simpleton [as Chaucer does in the House of Fame], puts forward in his place a simpleton or ingénu who is to be regarded as distinct from the ironist."6 By viewing the narrator in this way, we see that Chaucer not only uses his narrator's proverbs for specific functions but, more importantly, demonstrates their limitations throughout the Troilus, particularly during narration. Chaucer, finally, neither dismisses nor embraces proverbial wisdom, but, to put it proverbially, admonishes his audience to "let the user beware."

Before moving on to the narrator, it is important to examine, briefly at least, the character of Pandarus, the poem's most prodigious proverb-user.7 For through this character, Chaucer demonstrates the inadequacy of proverbs, their illusive tendency to "seem to embody the wisdom of the past," in non-narrative situations, that is, in situations other than storytelling.8 According to Donald MacDonald, who notes that Chaucer's audience habitually accepted the wisdom of proverbs, such an illustration may have been necessary.9 We first meet Pandarus when he attempts to aid the love-sick Troilus. The knight, aware of Pandarus' own problems with love, declines the offer, saying. "Thow koudest nevere in love thiselven wisse: / How devel maistow brynge me to blisse?" (I, 622-23). Pandarus proceeds to answer this question in the next fourteen stanzas almost completely relying on proverbial material as his means of persuasion (I, 624-721). Humorously, none of this folk artillery works--Troilus remains silent. It is only when Pandarus resorts to brute rhetorical strength that Troilus relents. Pandarus shouts "Awake!" and Troilus finally speaks:

...whan he [Troilus] hadde herd hym crye
"Awake!" he gan syken wonder soore,
And seyde, "Frend, though that I stylle lye,
I am nat deef. Now pees, and crye namore,
For I have herd thi wordes and thi lore;
But suffre me my meschief to bywaille,
For thi proverbes may me naught availle.

Nor other cure kanstow non for me.
Er I nyl nat been cured; I wol deye.
What knowe I of the queene Nyobe?
Lat be thyne olde ensaumples, I the preye"

(I, 750-760)

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The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Throughout the Troilus, Chaucer demonstrates the illusive nature of the proverb, its tendency to offer "verbal stability" without offering a reliable answer to the problem it purports to solve. It may momentarily protect the speaker, but it, finally, "means" nothing. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues that the meaning of proverbs are "indeed contextually specified."19 Through the conclusion to the Troilus, in particular, Chaucer takes this assessment one step further to show that misapplication, or a misunderstanding of the situation to which the proverb is inappropriately applied, often renders proverbs meaningless. If we use Burke's admittedly broad definition of the proverb, then the retraction functions as a proverb. It, like many of Pandarus' sayings is a strategy for "dealing with" a situation, namely the conflicting purposes the narrator faces and is responsible for creating.

Some, of course, might say that this conclusion merely reflects the medieval tendency to Christianize pagan texts. But throughout the narrative stance of the Troilus, Chaucer creates the context in which these retractions generally appear: it is not piety which motivates our narrator to resort to Christianity but his own inexperience with narrative strategies--he, like many medieval authors in crisis, resorts to religion during troubled rhetorical times. Like proverbial wisdom, this Christian solution is fine in and of itself, but when misapplied, as it is here--a Christian conclusion to a classical text--it offers no real solutions; it only "sounds good." The effects of such proverbial uses of this doctrine not only disrupt narrative unity but also, in effect, destroy the validity of such conventional wisdom. The medieval Curch may offer salvation, but it does not solve the narrative sins of the Troilus. In this way, Chaucer neither embraces nor condemns conventional wisdom but illustrates the effects of its misapplication on both the work and the conventional wisdom itself. Like Pandarus' persuasive techniques, this conclusion becomes merely a stockpile of Christian commonplaces. Through the simultaneity of the tale and its telling, Chaucer controls the context for his proverbial wisdom. Through Pandarus and the narrator, Chaucer illustrates the proverb's tendency to provide quick solutions when either speakers or tale-tellers face overwhelming situations or literary material. Rather than offering us successful uses, however, Chaucer teaches us what to avoid--easy, conventional answers to life of literature's complexities--possibly in the hopes that we will create our own successes as he has. For by illustrating the limitations of the proverb in the midst of a romance, Chaucer creates a clever and humorous piece of literary criticism. At the same time, however, Chaucer uses this limited rhetorical device to his advantage. With Pandarus as the plot's catalyst, Chaucer protects the classical characters in the romance from assuming full responsibility for their actions; they, after all, live according to the "rules" of folk or socially acceptable wisdom. The narrator, however, is not so well-protected. By hurriedly concluding his complex story with a simplified and formulaic version of Christian wisdom, he, finally, appears to have no wisdom at all.


Previously published in Proverbium 3 (1986), pp. 47-58.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA).

1 Chaucer, Geoffrey, "The Canterbury Tales" in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 2nd ed., Ed. F.N. Robinson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), Reeve's Prologue, 3857. All further references to Chaucer's works are taken from this edition and appear in the text.

2 Whiting, Bartlett Jere, Chaucer's Use of Proverbs (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1934). Whiting also notes that Chaucer "introduces one hundred twenty-eight sayings, of which sixty-one are proverbs and only eighty-seven proverbial phrases, of which thirty-two are comparisons" (p. 49).

3 According to Whiting, Chaucer, "who loved and appreciated the rich pawky wisdom of the folk" (p. 4), uses proverbs "largely for purposes of characterization" (p. 74). Following Whiting's lead, R.M. Lumiansky studies the relationship between Troilus and Pandarus via proverbs in "The Function of the Proverbial Monitory Elements in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde" in Tulane Studies in English, 2 (1950), pp. 5-48. Donald MacDonald argues that proverb misapplication enhances comic effect, but focuses primarily on Pandarus in "Proverbs, Sententiae, and Exempla in Chaucer's Comic Tales: The Function of Comic Misapplication," Speculum, 41 (1966), pp. 453-465. And finally, Charles S. Rutherford focuses on Troilus' use of proverbs in "Troilus' Farwell to Criseyde: The Idealist as Clairvoyant and Rhetorician," Papers on Language and Literature, 17 (1981), pp. 245-254.

4 Taylor, Karla, "Proverbs and the Authentication of Convention in Troilus and Criseyde" in Troilus: Essays in Criticism, Ed. Stephen A. Barney (Hamden: Archon Books, 1980), pp. 277-298. 

5 Taylor, p. 278

6 Muecke, D.C., Irony (Norfolk: Methuen, 1970), pp. 57-58. See Alice Kaminsky's annotated bibliography, Chaucer's "Troilus and Criseyde" and the Critics (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1980). And Dorothy Bethurum's "Chaucer's Point of View as Narrator in the Love Poems," PMLA, 74 (1959), pp. 511-20. Both are good introductions to the Chaucerian narrator. Neither work, however, includes any folklore-related materials or information.

7 Thanks to Whiting's work, the frequency of proverbial wisdom among the characters is as follows:
Pandarus: 20 Proverbs; 2 Comparisons; 22 Proverbial Phrases; 23 Sententious Remarks.
Narrator: 17 Proverbs; 2 Comparisons; 16 Proverbial Phrases; 12 Sententious Remarks.
Criseyde: 11 Proverbs; 2 Comparisons; 10 Proverbial Phrases; 16 Sententious Remarks.
Troilus: 4 Proverbs; 4 Comparisons; 2 Proverbial Phrases; 6 Sententious Remarks.

8 Abrahams, Roger D. "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions" in Folklore and Folklife, Ed. Richard Dorson (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 122.

9 MacDonald, Donald, p. 455. Ray Browne also notes, "in the Middle Ages great stress was placed on generalized wisdom, and thus on the importance of proverbs" (p. 199). From his essay, "The Wisdom of Many: Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions" in Our Living Traditions: An Introduction to American Folklore, Ed. Tristam Potter Coffin (New York: Basic Books, 1968). Whether or not these statements hold true for Chaucer's courtly, and probably more educated, audience is difficult to say. 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

19 Krishenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, "Toward a Theory of Proverb Meaning" in The Wisdom of Many, Eds. Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes (New York: Garland Press, 1981), p. 112.

Ann C. Hall
Center for Medieval and
Renaissance Studies
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio 43210


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