Philomela Retold - An Ovidian Tale recounted by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower

Seminar Paper, 2007

25 Pages, Grade: 2.0

Free online reading

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Classical Mythology in the Middle Ages
2.1 Philomela in the Ovide moralisé: An Example

3 Major Source: Publius Ovidius Naso
3.1 Ovid and Chaucer
3.2 Ovid and Gower

4 The Use of Christian and Pagan Vocabulary and Motifs
4.1 In Chaucer’s Legend of Philomela
4.2 In Gower’s Tale of Tereus

5 Christian Moral: Guilt, Justice, and Revenge

6 Conclusion


1 Introduction

King Pandion of Athens marries his daughter Procne1 to the Thracian king Tereus. At some stage, Procne sends her husband to Athens in order for him to bring home her sister Philomela whom she longs to see. On their way back to Thracia Tereus rapes Philomela, cuts out her tongue lest she could tell anyone what he has done, and leaves her imprisoned in the woods. Philomela manages to weave her story into a cloth and has it brought to her sister, whom Tereus had told that Philomela was dead. Procne frees her sister and together they take revenge on Tereus, they kill his son Itys and feed him to the Thracian king, who is unaware of what he is eating. After he has been told what he has eaten, the king draws his sword and attempts to kill the sisters. Just in time, the gods transform the three of them into birds: Philomela turns into a nightingale, Procne into a swallow, and Tereus into a hoopoe.

One might assume that classical tales such as the one of Philomela would have imposed special problems on authors of the middle ages. The classical pantheon, ideas of fatum, revenge, and transformation do not seem to fit into the Christian world-view. Nevertheless, classical myths were well known in the middle ages and often adapted and retold. The medieval authors used a trick: Allegorisation. The supernatural incidents as well as the gods are explained as allegorical, signifying virtues or vices, or they were understood as anticipations of Jesus Christ.

Geo ff rey Chaucer and John Gower both retell the story of Philomela and adapt it to their own purposes. In this paper I shall examine, on the one hand, how the late medieval authors use the classical source in order to serve their own purposes. On the other hand, I will show how the classical religious motifs are formed by the two Christian authors. Gower, and even more so Chaucer, do not treat their material in the exact same way earlier commentators and translators have done before them. As an example of the traditional moralisation I will examine the moral to the Philomela story that is given in the early-fourteenth century Ovide moralisé.

2 Classical Mythology in the Middle Ages

The use of classical mythological material in the Middle Ages provided some partic- ular problems, the most significant being the conflict between Christian beliefs and the pagan pantheon underlying and penetrating classical myths. Nevertheless, Classi- cal Mythology has not only been preserved but also widely used, adapted and retold throughout the Middle Ages. The most important way of treating the traditional pagan material was to understand the issues of pagan myths and their supernatural beings as di ff erent kinds of allegories. Thus, mythic figures would stand for personifications of virtues or vices (Moral allegory), as examples of virtues or moral failings, as repre- sentatives of elements of the universe (Physical allegory), or as types for biblical figures (Typology)2.

Reading Ovid and allegorising his texts within these terms was very popular during the Middle Ages. Besides being an author whose works pupils read at school as a model of rhetoric and often morality,3 Ovid’s texts provided a possibility to “read and write about sex and crime” and what was related to Ovid was less severely controlled than theological commentaries.4 In general, Ovid was considered as the authority on love, and was credited for the idea that love consisted of strict rules and was an art form.5 Ovid’s text, on the other hand, made it easy for the reader to access the ancient myths for people not longer believing in the pagan pantheon: Ovid had separated the myths from their original ritual background and concentrated on the characters’ psychological backgrounds and their human behaviour.6 Nevertheless, according to Fyler, Ovid’s Metamorphoses posed problems for medieval readers. Since Ovid’s work could be seen as “a bible of the pagan gods, it provoked Christian apologetics, euhemerism, and attempts to account for the similarities”7 to the bible. A further problem was the metamorphosis itself, because it questioned the authority of God, who created man in his own image. A solution to that problem was to understand the metamorphoses of bodies allegorically as changes in the states of the soul.8 The 14th century Ovide moralisé can be seen as the culmination point of medieval allegorisation of Ovid’s work.9

2.1 Philomela in the Ovide moralisé: An Example

The tale of Philomela within the Ovide moralisé goes back to the version by Chrétien de Troyes. At the end of his text, the author of the Ovide moralisé provides his own 155 lines in which he explains the allegorical meaning of the tale:

According to this allegorisation, Pandion, the king of Athens, represents God:

Li rois d’Athaines la cité

C’est Diex, rois d’immortalité, Tous poissants et rois pardurables,

Larges, cortois et pieables (O.m. 6.3721–3724)10

Procne, his daughter is

. . . l’ame que Diex ot formee A sa samblance et a s’image Joint et dona par mariage

Au cors, qui fu estrais de terre. (O.m. 6.3726–3729)

The union between the eternal soul and the earthly body was initiated by the barbar- ians, who represent the fallen angels, that were at war with Athens. Through their agency man was created: In order to provide heaven with souls to replace those of the fallen angels who no longer dwell there, God made man. The barbarians who besiege Athens symbolise these agents that enable the union between soul (Procne) and body (Tereus), since Tereus helps the Athenians fight these barbarians. The newly established relationship between body and soul is a happy one for quite a long time and bears “le bon fruit de sainte vie” (O.m. 6.3747), their son Itys. Then

Progné, nature humaine,

Encline a toute oeuvre vilaine,

Ot desir de sa suer avoir

(O.m. 6.3751–3753)

Then, the compiler explains the allegorical meaning of Philomela: She is

Amour decevable et faillie,

C’est li faillibles biens dou monde,

Que diex, en cui tous biens habonde,

Fist pour humaine creature

Soustenir a sobre mesure.

(O.m. 6.3756–3760)

In other words, Philomela represents the tempting, false, and unsatisfying love; earthly pleasures. These “mondains biens” (O.m. 6.3762) have been created by God for man and woman to use in moderation. Procne, the soul, wants these earthly pleasures and sends out Tereus, the body, to go and get her what she desires. The body wants to stay with the joys of the world and locks them away, an action which is considered as being avaricious. (O.m. VI.3782). Procne’s tearing apart of her gold ornaments upon hearing of Philomela’s death symbolises the sacrifice of a “vie sainte et verteuse” (O.m. VI.3793) to Pluto. The black robe she puts on afterwards is a symbol for the sinful life. The soul frees the earthly joys and thus loses the “fruit spirituel” (O.m. VI.3813) and “destruit le bon fruit de sa vie” (O.m. VI.3818), Itys. Consequently the body, which is turned into the stinking, dirty, and rotten hoopoe, has brought the soul in danger of perdition because of delights that fly away “plus tost que rousseignos ne vole” (O.m. VI.3831). Philomela’s translation into a nightingale is judged negatively: “Et li delit vain et muable / Devienent rousseignol volable” (O.m. VI.3839–3840).

In this way the author of the Ovide moralisé equips the legend of Philomela with a Christian moral. This moral makes the story perfectly apt for Christian readers to read. About fifty years later, Chaucer and Gower present quite di ff erent approaches to this classical myth, although they adapt it to a Christian context as well. Some aspects of their adaptations shall be analysed in the following chapters.

3 Major Source: Publius Ovidius Naso

Both Chaucer and Gower use Ovid’s Metamorphoses VI.424–605 as their main source for their tales of Philomela, and both made their adaptations in order to make the tale suit their individual purposes. These alterations and how they help the authors’ goals shall now be examined.

3.1 Ovid and Chaucer

Chaucer, in his Legend of Good Women tells the stories of female martyrs of love. This task, assigned to him by the God of Love as a punishment for the negative examples of women he had depicted in earlier works, conditions Chaucer’s adaptations. In contrast to Gower or Chrétien, Chaucer omits any kind of moralisation or psychologism.11 He is mainly interested in Ovid as a poet of and authority in matters of love.12 In the following, no full comparison between Chaucer and Ovid will be given. Only those adaptations that help to illustrate the purpose of this paper shall be discussed.13


1 Throughout my paper I will use this classical spelling of the names. Gower and Chaucer use ‘Progne’ and ‘Philomene’, Chrétien de Troyes as well as the Ovide moralisé ‘Progné’ and ‘Philomena’.

2 Brumble, xx–xxi

3 Miller, 107.

4 Levine, 197.

5 Shannon, xiv–xv. This reputation, however, was based more onthe ars amandi than on the meta- morphoses.

6 von Albrecht, 987–988.

7 FFyler, 17.

8 Fyler, 168–169, ann. 29.

9 Miller, 107.

10 For all the quotes of the O.m.: Ovide moralisé: Poème du commencement du quatorzième siècle. Ed. C. de Boer. 5 vols. Amsterdam: Johannes Müller, 1920. Vol. 2, p. 337–369.

11 Fyler, 17. The ending (ll. 2383-2393) might be understood as a kind of moral, but it does not help understanding antique concepts but only places the tale within the Legends.

12 Fyler, 17, also Shannon, 283.

13 For more details see Shannon, 258–283.

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Philomela Retold - An Ovidian Tale recounted by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower
University of Bern  (English Department)
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Philomela, Retold, Ovidian, Tale, Geoffrey, Chaucer, John, Gower
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Marcel Patrik Röthlisberger (Author), 2007, Philomela Retold - An Ovidian Tale recounted by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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