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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
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On 11 November 2003, students from Queen Anne High School, Dunfermline, Fife took part in an online question and answer session on the Testament of Cresseid, with leading academics, Professors Michael Lynch and Ronnie Jack from the University of Edinburgh and Dr. Morna R. Fleming from the Robert Henryson Society. An edited version of that session now follows.

14:06:59 [BiP Moderator] Okay, just to let you know what's happening. We should be hearing from Dr. Morna Fleming any minute now. She is a member of the Robert Henryson Society and one of the voices you'll hear on the audio recording of the Testament that we made for the project.

14:13:54 [QA01] Hello Dr. Fleming

14:14:14 [mrfleming] Hello

14:14:14 [teacher] Is that Dr Fleming logged in?

14:14:29 [mrfleming] Yes, finally. Fire away.

14:14:58 [QA01] When Henryson wrote this poem, was it controversial?

14:16:06 [mrfleming] That's a very difficult question to answer. He is taking issue with Chaucer's authority, which was in itself controversial, but unfortunately we have no way of knowing what the reception of the poem was at the time, or even what the readership was.

14:16:57 [QA01] Why was Chaucer's authority controversial?

14:18:12 [mrfleming] Not Chaucer's authority - questioning that authority. Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate were seen as the supreme authorities in terms of secular poetry, appealed to by later writers, so to say 'Wha wait gif all that Chauceir wrait wes true' is taking a big step.

14:19:03 [mrfleming] I'll try to answer simply and shortly. Yes, it is controversial because it takes a fallen woman as its heroine, but that is part of another tradition.

14:18:52 [QA02] Why is so little known about Henryson?

14:19:33 [mrfleming] Basically because he wasn't of the court, and didn't make himself known.

14:20:44 [QA03] Why does Henryson mention Christianity "Hevin unto hell" when the story is centred around pagan gods?

14:21:45 [mrfleming] This is part of the difficulty of the poem. It moves in and out of the Christian world, but then that is something that medieval writers were quite comfortable with. I can expand on this.

14:23:34 [mrfleming] The pagan gods were taken to be aspects of the Christian god - the wrath, the love, the nourishment etc. Henryson mentions mercy in relation to Saturn, which is not one of his attributes but is related to the Christian god

14:23:31 [QA06] To what extent do you think Henryson's legal background and knowledge is reflected in the Testement?

14:24:35 [mrfleming] Legal - clearly seen in the trial scene, although you could argue that Mercurius rather anticipates the outcome in his choice of mediators

14:27:05 [qa04] Why was it written as a poem and not a short story?

14:27:24 [mrfleming] Poetry was the form that was used. Following Chaucer's poem

14:27:16 [QA06] Was Cresseid's portrayal that of a stereotypical woman of the time or was Henryson trying to make her an inspiration to other woman?

14:28:14 [mrfleming] In a way stereotypical - woman as Eve. But she wants to be seen at the end of the poem as an inspiration to other women to be true to their lovers .

14:28:05 [QA05] Was Henryson writing the poem with a metaphorical meaning which expressed his own views of religion & fate?

14:28:50 [mrfleming] Again very difficult. I don't think I could do justice to this kind of question in such a short space.Henryson takes a conventional religious view. Fate adds a more pagan dimension.

14:30:00 [QA05] What do you mean by a pagan dimension?

14:30:56 [mrfleming] Fate is not part of Christianity - faith in God is what governs a good life.

14:30:28 [teacher] Was it not quite risky for a Christian to write about pagan gods?

14:31:42 [mrfleming] Don't think there was any risk in showing pagan gods to be fragmentary, cruel, unjust, everything that the Christian God was not.

14:32:12 [BiP Moderator] Seems like a very male perspective on morality, I suppose that reflects the times though.

14:32:24 [mrfleming] Absolutely

14:32:58 [mrfleming] Look at the dismissive ending - to 'worthy women' - learn to live good lives or else.

14:34:33 [BiP Moderator] OK, I'd now like to welcome Professor Jack. First question please.

14:35:34 [QA01] What sets Henryson apart from his contemporaries?

14:36:22 [rjack] Mainly his educational background. He writes as a teacher for quite a learned audience.

14:38:10 [rjack] That also means that he prefers types - moralised types to particular, psychological representation - unlike Chaucer.

14:36:50 [BiP Moderator] There you go folks... you're learned!

14:36:57 [QA01] Thank you very much

14:38:05 [QA06] How did words like 'quha,' 'quilk' and 'quhen' form into modern day 'who,' 'which' and 'when?'

14:38:53 [rjack] Early middle Scots - quh for wh - for example Barbour in 1375 will have this form.

14:40:59 [QA02] Was Cresseid's portrayl that of a stereotypical woman of the time or was Henryson trying to make her an inspiration to women?

14:42:40 [rjack] Both - the advantage of having a kind of woman (or man) in the body of the poem is that you can then individualise your moral as the type contains individuals.

14:43:53 [QA12] So you are saying that Cresseid is a metaphor for the fallen woman?

14:44:58 [QA02] There are two strories told; Chaucer's version and Henryson's. Are there any major similarities or differences between the style or the story? Which version is your favourite?

14:49:22 [rjack] Oh dear, I hoped I wasn't going to get this one - I prefer Chaucer's, mainly because it is much more open-ended and dramatic. But we are talking about apples and oranges. Some people prefer art to pose and answer questions, others prefer it to refine questions, I prefer (tend to) the latter.

14:45:04 [BiP Moderator] How was Henryson rated amonst his contemporaries?

14:45:12 [rjack] It's very well structured - look for example how the three complaints from Cresseid show her advancing in self knowledge. At the same time, Henryson is not nearly so stylistically exciting as his contemporary Dunbar. Academic tend to prefer Henryson, poets to prefer Dunbar!!!

14:43:53 [QA12] So you are saying that Cresseid is a metaphor for the fallen woman?

14:47:24 [rjack] She is a type of faithlessness and wordliness initially - Chaucer's version. Henryson excuses her, I think (!) by showing how she gains self-knowledge and comes to die a holy death, In that way he excuses her, in that sense her tale is at once a worldly tragedy and a spiritual comedy.

14:48:19 [BiP Moderator] Where does Shakespeare take the tale?

14:51:02 [rjack] Shakespeare's is not only a dramatic rendering it moves away from the medieval categories of thought which Henryson uses.

14:49:09 [QA05] Has the Testament changed because of the move from written text to printed text? How has it altered over the years?

14:53:03 [rjack] The fact that literature in Henryson's time was primarily oral - a branch of oratory is very important for understanding his writing. The early printed texts of his poem make him less editorially problematic than most, though and so 'not greatly' would be the briefd answer

14:50:49 [QA03] Do you think Cresseid actually believes in the gods herself or is simply using them to take the blame off herself?

14:55:17 [rjack] The northern renaissance used the pagan gods as devices - much like astrological signs to-day - and so in the poem Cresseid's belief becomes allegorically a type of her moral punsihment. Beware overly naturalistic approaches to artficial art.

14:59:12 [rjack] An allegorical literature temds to work in terms of stereotypes - Chrsiatianity had Eve and this strengthned the tendency but it also had Mary. Christina Aguilera seems to continue the method.

14:53:50 [qa04] Why is there such a contrast in the sounds of words that have the same meaning e.g. 'brukkilness' sounds like brutal but means frailty

14:56:46 [rjack] Words do not alway imitate sense onomatopoetically. What makars were trained to do was alliterate - harsh sounds low sense -gigotlike' etc.

14:57:25 [QA01] How did astrology and the humours affect daily life in the Middle Ages?

15:00:40 [rjack] Astrology as such was held to be a false science, but in verse - many gods aided variety and so the pagan gods became types of 'generabill' life and a means of foreshadowing different human emotions.

15:01:51 [QA01] professor jack, what do the humours have to do with the action of the poem?

15:03:14 [rjack] I fear I'm confusing you - I meant humour in this sense to mean the type character -ie dominate by one ruling characteristic as in Moliere.

14:58:18 [BiP Moderator] OK, I'd like to say thanks to Professor Jack - please feel free to continue to contribute - and now introduce Professor Lynch who's here to answer questions on the historical context. I think we'll need to give him a little time to answer though!

14:55:27 [QA01] What is the European context of the poem?

14:57:45 [rjack] Quite extensive because Latin was the language of learning across Europe. On the other hand the earlkiest translations of Henryson are laten condered unreliable and untrustworthy?

14:57:01 [QA01] If the poem has a Greek subject as its inspiration, why does Henryson use the Roman names for the gods, rather than the Greek ones?

15:14:21 [BiP Moderator] Because both Chaucer's and Henryson's versions of the story stem from Virgil's (i.e. Roman) retelling of Homer's story.

14:57:07 [QA03] What were the main historic events around the time that the poem was written?

15:06:45 [lynch] Main events: the reign of James III (1460-8 sees the establishment of a new phase in court life, building e.g. the King's Old Building at Stilring Castle which has been called, by Rod Lyall, the most impressive royal court Scotland had ever seen court. On the other hand, history textbooks tell you about the unpopularity of this king, of his taxation and especially his pro-English policy, so there is a mismatch of impressions of the reign. IIn broader terms, we see this period as one where the law and schoolteaching are both becoming more open to non-clerics. Clerics, on the other hand, are going in larger numbers abroad to gain a second degree (unlike Henryson) so we are seeing an increasingly cosmopolitan learned society, with strong links in France, Burgundy and the Low Countries

14:57:22 [QA02] How much of a major undertaking would the printing of such a work have been in the middle ages?

15:02:32 [lynch] Chapman and Millar are known to have worked in printing houses in northern France and Burgundy before they set up their own press, in or near Edinburgh's Cowgate in 1507. But printing irons would have had to be imported and some special ones fashioned for Scots verse. So this would have been a major undertaking. We don't know the print runs of these works but they are likley to have been quite small by modern-day standards.

15:00:00 [qa04] To what extent did a belief in the gods manifest itself in the Middle Ages?

15:17:48 [lynch] Each age has a Cardinal Virtue ascribed to it and a planet Both the late Middle Ages and the 16th century are astrological ages: the notion of the Seven Ages of Man is one example of this:

15:03:10 [QA06] Why were the Trojan wars such an influence in Europe?

15:12:35 [lynch] Court culture looked to the classical era for themes, stereotypes etc to use in contemporary ceremony and literature. The Trojan wars offered some useful metaphors, eg the Judgement of Paris aws used in entry spectacles in Burgundy in teh 1490s and reused for the entry of Margaret Tudor when she married James IV in Edinburgh in 1503

15:15:04 [QA12] Why were women considered untrustworty and unreliable?

15:16:10 [lynch Recurrent throughout the Middle Ages is the theme that women are lustful, untrustworthy and will consume men by their unbridled desiresdesires

15:16:37 [QA12] No change then!

15:17:09 [BiP Moderator] Well, if there are no more questions, maybe we can let you off early Prof. Lynch and say thanks very much for your help.

15:17:31 [QA05] Thank you Prof Lynch

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Testament of Cresseid: Literary Background

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Robert Henryson - Historical Context: The State and The Church 1480s to 1700

Testament of Cresseid in Context

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