Chaucer’s Tragic Muse. The Paganization of Christian Tragedy

Author: Herold, Christine
This work significantly revises the history of literary tragedy. The first half examines the classical background regarding theories of tragedy – philosophical, theological, and literary. The second half investigates tragedy as it appears in various works of Chaucer. A pivotal central chapter demonstrates the previously missing link between Senecan and Chaucerian tragedy. Scholars of drama, especially Renaissance drama, will find this study indispensable, since it presents a challenge to the entrenched theories of the discovery of Senecan tragedy by Renaissance playwrights. It also argues that Boethius is explicitly in dialogue with the late Roman tradition, specifically Seneca, documenting a direct line of influence from Seneca’s Latin plays, through the Consolation of Boethius, to de Meun, Boccaccio and Chaucer. It contributes a corrective to a persistent blind spot in medievalist criticism that would deny the integration of classical secular influences into medieval Christian thought.


"Herold (College of Saint Rose) dismantles the premise that Chaucer adheres to a single, simplistic paradigm for tragedy and shows how Chaucer adopts and adapts both Christian and pagan traditions. Unique to Herold's discussion of Chaucerian tragedy is her demonstration that Chaucer is indebted to the plays of Seneca and her insistence that Chaucer's understanding of classical sources is sophisticated rather than naive. Showing how Senecan tragedy prefigures Christian medieval concepts of tragedy, Herold begins her argument illustrating how the gladiators of Senecan drama experience, in their glorious deaths, something analogous to Christian transcendence of suffering. Much of the text traces Senecan influence on medieval literature and theology, and the final chapters briefly discuss Chaucer's engagement with the Senecan tradition and lay the groundwork for further studies on the topic. Copious notes, index, and bibliography. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, and specialists with interests in classical, medieval, or renaissance tragedy." - CHOICE

“Herold, in a searching and emotionally-engaged study, finds the ‘missing links’ in the history of Western tragedy. She traces the deep and multi-layered currents of tragic thought that passed from the Greco-Roman into the medieval Christian world. One of the most compelling aspects of Herold’s work is her discovery and mapping of not one, but several of the persistent trajectories of tragic thought that connected the dark and ambiguous Roman Seneca, through the late Antique and Early Medieval periods, to Chaucer. Herold shows that, without an understanding of the depth and complexities of the Roman tragic vision, the Medieval Christian one is impossible to grasp…. Herold’s deeply thoughtful and graceful analysis will be of interest to students of Ancient, Late Antique and Medieval mentalities – and to anyone striving to comprehend the array of ways that human beings have of understanding and articulating human suffering.” – Dr. Carlin Barton, The University of Massachusetts

“…highly scholarly and also highly readable…..comprehensive and detailed… The impressive bibliography includes manuscripts as well as books and articles. One of the book’s major achievements is to refute the traditional critical view that the Middles Ages were not familiar with the texts of Seneca’s tragedies. Herold’s extensive documented research convincingly demonstrates that medieval England was indeed familiar with those texts…. The author looks closely at Boethius as the bridge between classical and early Christian thought… also offers much about such figures as Augustine, Prudentius, and Tertullian…. A brilliant combination of sound scholarship and convincing analysis, this book is valuable reading to anyone interested in Chaucer, or tragic drama, or the Middle Ages.” – Dr. Charlotte Spivack, The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Table of Contents

Table of contents (main headings):
Introduction: A Unified Theory of Tragedy
The Philosophy Theology, and Literature of Tragedy in the Middle Ages
· Philosophy: Plato, Seneca, Boethius; Christian Conceptions
· Theology: Augustine, Jerome, Tertullian, Isidore of Seville, Honorius; Aquinas; Nicholas Trevet
· Literature: Ovid, Virgil, Seneca, Lucan, Jean de Meun, Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer
Seneca’s Conception of Fortune and Medieval Tragedy
Tragedy in Chaucer’s Early Works
· The Book of the Duchess The Short Poems, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, The Legend of Good Women
Tragedy in Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales
· Troilus and Criseyde, The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
Bibliography; Index