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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
 
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A Summary Of Robert Henryson’s Testament Of Cresseid


Lines 1-70: The poem begins with an unconventional use of a Spring/ Lenten opening, with the traditional depiction of the land reawakening and blossoming after winter replaced by gloomy weather suited to the sorrowful tale that is to follow, as the narrator remarks. The narrator, who intended to pray to Venus from his window, is forced to withdraw to his fireside to escape the bitter cold. To pass the time, he reads Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and describes Troilus’ fate after Criseyde’s departure from Troy. However, he stops short of describing Troilus’ death, claiming that he need not repeat what Chaucer has already told. He now takes up another book, which tells ‘the fatall destenie | Of fair Cresseid, that ended wretchitlie’. Questioning the truth of what Chaucer wrote, the narrator reminds us that this narrative may be fiction rather than an authoritative record of the fate of Cresseid.

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Lines 71-133: The narrative begins with Diomeid’s rejection of Cresseid by a bill of divorce, after which Cresseid wanders, and is said to have become promiscuous or a prostitute. The narrator interjects to express his pity for the ‘fair’ Cresseid and, claiming to disbelieve the rumours he reports, says that he will excuse her as far as he may. In disguise, Cresseid leaves the town for her father’s home amongst the Greeks. Her father welcomes her, but, still sorrowful, she will not attend the public service at the temple where he is priest of Venus and Cupid. In a private chapel, she accuses the gods of love of having broken faith and abandoned her.

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Lines 134-343: After her complaint, Cresseid falls into a trance and dreams that Cupid summons the moon and the seven planets to descend and try her for blasphemy. After descriptions of each of the gods, Cupid prosecutes his case, claiming that Cresseid’s offence against himself and his mother, Venus, harms all the gods. Mercury advises him to entrust Cresseid’s punishment to the highest and lowest of the planets, and so Saturn and Cynthia are chosen to judge her. They punish her with leprosy, which destroys her looks and condemns her to penury, and the narrator interjects to complain against the harshness of this punishment.

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Lines 344-406: On waking, Cresseid reproaches herself for her outburst against the gods, seeing her punishment as the result of their ill temper. Her father consoles her, and after they have mourned, she tells him that she will go to the hospital at the edge of the town in secret, asking him to send her some food there. In disguise and carrying the cup and rattle of a leper, she leaves for the leper hospital. Some of the lepers recognise her, others do not, but they accept her more willingly because her way of lamenting reveals her noble origins. Night comes, and without food she lies down to weep in a dark corner, making her complaint.

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Lines 407-469: The Complaint of Cresseid.
Cresseid laments her misfortune, describing the luxurious life that she has lost, and her faded beauty, in a long, formal complaint, which ends with a plea to the ladies of Troy and Greece to remember her fate as a warning.

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Lines 470-539: As she lies there, a leper woman approaches and advises her to learn to make virtue of a necessity and live as other lepers do, rather than struggling against her fate. She begins to travel with the leper community, and her company encounters Troilus, returning from a victory against the Greeks. Troilus responds to the leper’s calls for alms, and, although neither recognises the other, Cresseid looks up at Troilus in a way that reminds him of his old love. In remembrance, he drops a belt, gold and jewels into her lap, and rides away. On being told that her unknown benefactor was Troilus, Cresseid faints.

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Lines 540-616. Recovering, Cresseid laments her infidelity, comparing herself to the faithful Troilus, and makes her will. She commits her body to the corruption of worms and toads, her goods to the lepers, and a ring, which was a love token from Troilus, is to be returned to him. She bequeaths her spirit to Diana, and lamenting that Diomeid still has the broach and belt that Troilus gave to her, she dies. On receiving the ring, Troilus faints with sorrow and laments Cresseid’s unfaithfulness. The narrator reports that some say Troilus made her a marble tomb with an inscription in golden letters. The poem ends with a warning to women, asking them to heed a poem made for their instruction and avoid mingling their love with false deception.

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A Summary Of Robert Henryson’s Testament Of Cresseid