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The Testament of Cresseid - Image courtesy of Abbot House
Section 1 :: Stanzas 01 - 10
Section 2 :: Stanzas 11 - 20
Section 3 :: Stanzas 21 - 38
Section 4 :: Stanzas 39 - 49
Section 5 :: Stanzas 50 - 58
Section 6 :: Stanzas 59 - 66
Section 7 :: Stanzas 66 - 76
Section 8 :: Stanzas 77 - 86
 
Home The Testament of Cresseid Questions Study Tools Summary Notes on Poem ToC AV Teaching Notes
Line nosNotes
1-2Henryson offers this unusual use of the spring setting, which was conventionally associated with love poetry in the Middle Ages, as an example of pathetic fallacy. The gloomy weather is intended less as a realistic depiction of a Scottish spring than as a divine reflection of the blight which will affect Cresseid’s youth and beauty, and follows a medieval tradition by which the stages of a man’s life were associated with the seasons of the year.

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4In the Middle Ages, tragedy was commonly understood as a movement from a prosperous or calm beginning to a disastrous ending. See, for example, Dante’s definition in ‘The Letter to Can Grande’, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, gen. ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: Norton, 2001) 252.

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5The reference to Lent sets the opening of the poem in the first month of spring, the season of love and resurrection, and the Christian associations of Lent with fasting and penance are appropriate to the poet’s theme.

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9-14The opposition of Venus to the sun is an astrological impossibility. Astrology interpreted planets in opposition as a sign of misfortune: here, the impossibility of the conjunction works as a terrible omen of disaster.

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23-28The personality of the narrator is usually treated as a separate creation of Henryson’s making, rather than a faithful depiction of the poet himself. However, critical opinion is divided as to whether the reader is intended to share the narrator’s sympathy for Cresseid, or whether his attempts to excuse her are calculated to make the reader more aware of her guilt. As a worshipper of Venus, who desires a renewal of love’s favour, the narrator resembles Cresseid, and this resemblance suggests that the fate of Cresseid is intended not only as a warning to women, as the narrator argues, but is relevant to humanity as a whole.

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40-42Troilus and Criseyde is Chaucer’s retelling of a popular story based on classical legend. Many different versions of this tale circulated in the Middle Ages, in which Cressida typically appears as a lesson in woman’s fickle nature for the male reading public. However, Chaucer’s poem is at least superficially more sympathetic to Criseyde than other works in the tradition, suggesting psychological motives for her behaviour and presenting her through the eyes of a sympathetic narrator who resembles that of the Testament. Henryson’s praise for Chaucer reflects the poet’s standing, a century after his death c.1400.

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43-60Henryson describes only part of the fifth and final book of Troilus and Criseyde, ignoring the lover’s courtship and affair, which occupies most of Chaucer’s poem. He focuses on the section of the poem where Criseyde disappears from view after leaving Troy, as Chaucer abandons her character, a major presence in the poem up to that point, to describe Troilus’ sorrow. Henryson’s summary stops short of Troilus’ discovery that Criseyde has been unfaithful, brought about by the sight of a brooch he gave to her on a coat of armour belonging to Diomede. Nor does Henryson describe Troilus’ subsequent death in battle at the hands of Achilles, or his spirit’s ascent to a pagan heaven which suggests, but does not confirm, that Troilus may have achieved Christian salvation. As the verses following the summary imply, Henryson’s Testament is not a simple sequel to Troilus and Criseyde, but a complex response to Chaucer’s poem and the ‘Cressida’ tradition from which it derives.

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60-63The possibility that Henryson is describing another source cannot be dismissed entirely, but it is more probable that the ‘uther quair’ is an invention, especially since Chaucer himself had made a point of claiming a fictitious ancient source for Troilus and Criseyde, a Latin author called Lollius, rather than admitting his debt to the contemporary Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio. To a medieval audience, the use of old and respected source material made a work more valuable than if it were wholly original, so that highlighting the use of such material added to the authority of a work, rather than diminishing it as the modern understanding of plagiarism might suggest.

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64-70The initial rhetorical question signals Henryson’s subtle engagement with the question of truth in literature. In the Middle Ages, the line between fiction and history was less clearly defined than it is now, and works based on the Trojan legends tended to be read as histories rather than stories. However, rather than presenting Chaucer and the ‘uther quair’ as reliable sources in order to validate his own work, Henryson raises the possibility that they may be recent fictions, without authority. Poets who chose to write imaginative works were traditionally subject to accusations of lying, and the ambiguous status of fiction is an issue Henryson also raises in his prologue to the Moral Fables, where he presents the customary defence that fictional narratives could make readers aware of moral truths. A further reference to this issue may be implied in an acrostic in lines 58-63, as the initial letters of each line spell ‘fictio’.

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67This is the first recorded use in Scots of ‘inventioun’ in the sense of original, imaginative composition, placing an emphasis on this aspect of the writing process.

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74The term ‘lybell of repudie’ means ‘bill of divorce’ where it appears in the Vulgate Bible, but, as there is no indication that Cresseid was married, here it seems to suggest a written declaration that Diomeid has cast her off.

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77Henryson’s narrator veils the suggestion that Cresseid became either promiscuous or a prostitute as hearsay.

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78The phrase ‘A per se’ (paragon) may be a reference to Chaucer’s description of Criseyde: ‘Right as oure firste lettre is now an A, | In beaute first so stood she, makeles’ (I. 171-72). Criseyde’s beauty is supreme, just as the letter A stands at the head of the alphabet.

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81Henryson’s use of the word ‘maculait’ here hints at Cresseid’s fate, as it could also mean ‘spotted’, and was often used in descriptions of lepers. In the Middle Ages, leprosy was thought to be a sexually transmitted disease, so Henryson may be suggesting an earthly cause for her illness here.

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106-109Traditionally, Calchas was a Trojan priest who worshipped Apollo and had the gift of prophecy. Foreseeing that the Trojans would lose the war, he joined the Greeks and later asked for his daughter to be sent to him. However, Henryson’s Calchas is far more affectionate than in Chaucer’s version of the story and has, significantly, become a priest of Venus and Cupid.

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135Cupid was often portrayed as being blind in western art and, very occasionally, so was Venus. However, some critics read Cresseid’s description of these gods, who are not sightless in the Testament, as a sign that she is guilty of confusing love with blind lust. See Robert Henryson, Testament of Cresseid, ed. Denton Fox (London: Nelson, 1968) 95.

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147According to Ptolemaic astronomy, there were seven planets that orbited the earth, which was thought to be the stationary centre of the universe. The most distant planet, with the widest orbit, was Saturn, followed by Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus Mercury and the moon. Henryson’s catalogue of the pagan gods follows this order.

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148-150The planets were thought to exert an influence over all created things beneath the moon.

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151-169The details of Henryson’s portraits of the gods are traditional. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture and was often portrayed as a peasant, a convention reflected in his comparison to a ‘churle’, and in his ragged clothing. Saturn was also associated with age and time, and the planet was thought to bring misfortune. Particularly relevant to the Testament is Saturn’s reputation for causing pestilence, including leprosy, which was believed to be the result of cold and dryness. Saturn’s wrinkled, leaden complexion and sunken eyes also suggest the appearance of a leper.

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168Saturn’s arrowheads connect him with the hailstorm at the opening of the poem.

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182Jupiter was king of the Roman gods. The hostility between Jupiter and Saturn derives from a legend that Jupiter rebelled against his father and overthrew him. However, Jupiter was sometimes equated with Christ in medieval tradition, and Henryson’s description of the god as interceding with Saturn on behalf of mankind might hint at this Christian interpretation. According to Christian belief, Christ’s incarnation on earth redeemed mankind, who had been condemned to hell through Adam’s original sin.

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183-196Mars was the Roman god of war.

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187A falchion is a sword with a curved blade.

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187-188The meaning of ‘roustie’ here is unclear, although critics have made various attempts to discover it. The word evokes iron and the colour red, both associated with the planet Mars in medieval tradition. For a contemporary audience, it might have suggested blood, both through its colour and a medieval custom whereby the blood of an enemy was left to dry on the sword blade, as a mark of its bearer’s skill. In either case, it contrasts with the bright armour of Jupiter and adds to Mars’ hostile appearance.

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205-217According to legend, the sun was a chariot with four horses, guided by the god Apollo. Although the names of the horses sometimes vary, the first is linked with the early morning and is red, the colour of the rising sun. The second is usually white, to reflect the brightness of the morning sun; the third is hot, representing midday; and the last is black, linked with sunset and night. Phaeton was Apollo’s son, who, refusing to listen to his father’s advice, persuaded the god to let him drive the chariot for a day. Unable to control the horses, he died as a result. In the Middle Ages, Phaeton is often used as a symbol of pride.

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218-238The goddess of love’s inconsistent appearance here has much in common with the medieval iconography of the goddess Fortune. Love and Fortune were considered as examples of the changeable life experienced by men, in a world where things grow and die, and both goods and affections can pass from one person to another. In Christian belief, the instability of fortune and human love were traditionally contrasted with the eternity of God and heavenly things. The green colour of Venus’ dress had a particular association with infidelity in love.

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231Laughing with one eye and weeping with the other is a feature common to portraits of Venus and Fortune. However, in earlier versions of the Cressida story, it is a characteristic attributed to women as a sign of their fickleness, of which Cressida’s behaviour is a key example. See, for example, Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Le Roman de Troie (ll. 13442), and the footnotes to Fox’s edition of the Testament (1968), p. 106.

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239-252Mercury was the messenger of the gods, and god of rhetoric and eloquence, making him the natural choice as chairman of the group. His association with medicine was traditional.

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253-263The moon was often represented as Cynthia, a woman with a crescent moon on her head, fixed to resemble a hairstyle in which the hair was dressed (‘buskit’) into horns. Described as ‘spottis blak’, the craters on the moon hint at Cresseid’s future disease, as does the moon’s traditional association with cold and darkness. The peasant painted on her chest refers to the medieval legend of the man in the moon as a thief carrying a bundle of thorns. The man in the moon was sometimes associated with Judas or Cain, adding to the sinister overtones of this portrait. Usually, the moon was considered to be a neutral influence on mankind, but just as she borrows her light from the sun, Cynthia takes on the qualities of the company she keeps. Her pairing with Saturn is therefore unfortunate for Cresseid.

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299-302‘modifie’ (assess, determine) and ‘proceidit’ (acted judiciously) are Scots legal terms, indicating Henryson’s knowledge of contemporary law.

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300According to some medieval astrologers, Saturn and the moon in conjunction caused leprosy. Astrological factors were amongst the three possible kinds of cause for disease according to medieval medical theory. The second category included physical causes, such as diet or an infection from another sufferer. The third category was disease sent by God as a punishment for sin.

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311Saturn’s ‘frostie wand’ has been linked with the white staff carried by the officer of a court of justice in Henryson’s time.

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314-343The physical effects of Cresseid’s punishment correspond to the symptoms of leprosy, which included discolouration of the hair and hair loss.

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342-343Lepers were obliged to carry ‘cop and clapper’. The cup was for charitable donations, and the rattle to warn people of a leper’s approach. The separation of lepers from other members of the community was an ancient tradition, and took place for religious rather than medical reasons. Lepers described in the Bible were treated as being ritually unclean rather than sick. However, while leprosy was often interpreted as being the result of sin, the leper’s status was not unambiguous. The term ‘lazarous’ associated the leper with Lazarus, a biblical leper who appears in the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31). Lazarus begs for food at the house of Dives, a rich man. After death, Lazarus goes to heaven, while Dives suffers in hell, and Lazarus’ happy fate is seen as his reward for suffering on earth. This Lazarus was often confused with another man of the same name, whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11-12). As a result, leprosy was associated with the idea of resurrection to eternal life. The leper was thought to be especially favoured because he had been chosen by God to atone for his sins before death. Rites like those given to the dead sometimes accompanied the expulsion of a leper from the community, and similar rites were sometimes used to prepare monks and nuns for entering religious orders, as they died to the sinful material world.

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348-349The mirror was a medieval symbol for vanity and sensuality, associated with Venus.

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372-378It may be significant that one of the duties of a medieval parish priest in Scotland was to inspect and report lepers.

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376-377Leprosy was thought to be incurable, unless God chose to heal the leper.

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382-383Leper houses were situated outside the limits of towns and cities, and the charitable act of sending food was also intended to discourage lepers from coming to town to beg.

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386Beaver hats were expensive and usually worn by men. Cresseid is probably wearing one in order to go unrecognised.

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406The phrase ‘scho maid hir mone’ introduces a formal complaint, a poetic form also indicated by the shift to nine-line stanzas.

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407A ‘sop’ was a piece of bread soaked in liquid, and was sometimes used to denote something of little value. ‘Sop’ could also mean ‘embodiment’.

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416Cresseid’s complaint adopts a common medieval theme, known as ubi sunt (Latin, meaning ‘where are they?’). In lamenting the transitory nature of worldly pleasures, the ubi sunt theme seeks to bring an audience to consciousness of the value of heavenly things, which cannot decay. Cresseid’s catalogue is a standard list of luxuries suggesting the decadence of her former life. Such laments were often written as speeches made by corpses, a tradition reflected in Henryson’s poem through the equation of leprosy and death. Cresseid’s complaint is also unusual in that she is still capable of learning from her own words.

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426Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers and springtime.

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429According to popular superstition, if a young woman washed her face with dew she would become more beautiful.

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437The turning Cresseid refers to is that of the wheel of fortune, a common image for the changing circumstances which can bring the rich and important low, and raise others to positions of power unexpectedly.

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441Records suggest that rotten food may have been sent to lepers as a matter of custom.

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482Lepers were allowed to beg within certain areas of towns, but were typically forbidden to enter churches, private homes and food markets.

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505-511Aristotelian psychology held that an image could be so deeply imprinted in the memory that it could deceive the senses, which perceive the outside world. Troilus remembers Cresseid because he has spent so much time thinking about her, so that he recognises her without knowing it.

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575-576This is the testament spoken of in the poem’s title. Many medieval authors experimented with testamentary writing as a way of exploring the issues associated with real last wills and testaments. Because the making of a last will was often associated with a person’s final confession, fictional works on this model came to deal with moral introspection. Although Cresseid’s testament itself is brief, it has been argued that the ideas associated with this kind of writing inform the poem as a whole. See Julia Boffey, ‘Lydgate, Henryson, and the Literary Testament’, Modern Language Quarterly 53.1 (1992): 41-56.

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587Traditionally, the soul was left to God, but as Cresseid is a pagan, this is not an option for her. Instead, her soul is bequeathed to Diana, the Roman goddess of chastity and protector of women, indicating a break with her luxurious past. Diana was sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary, and critical opinion is divided as to whether or not Henryson is implying that Cresseid has achieved Christian salvation. Strictly speaking, as a pagan, Cresseid is damned, but medieval belief is sometimes less certain on this point than is often assumed. Radical thinking, like that of the nominalist theologians, suggested that virtuous pagans had some claim on salvation if they did the best they could. However, even more orthodox theorists such as Bradwardine were prepared to accept that, in very exceptional circumstances, a pagan might be saved by a belief in Christ’s future incarnation. Henryson’s depiction of Cresseid’s fate is necessarily mysterious, and bears comparison with the ambiguous destiny of Troilus in Chaucer’s poem.

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Notes on the Testament of Cresseid