The Legend of Good Women is one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s longer poems (the third longest, in fact). He wrote it after he wrote Troilus and Criseyde, but before the The Canterbury Tales. It was probably begun in around 1386 and was subsequently left unfinished. Like the The Canterbury Tales, The Legend of Good Women is a collection of different narratives, and some scholars have noted that writing the poem may have given Chaucer the opportunity to practise knitting a series of narratives together, which is what he later did to great effect in The Canterbury Tales.
What happens in the poem?
The prologue of the poem is a dream-vision (like Pearl, Piers Plowman or the The Parliament of Fowls). It imagines a narrator, who encounters the God of Love and his queen, Alceste. The narrator (whose identity is never revealed) is reprimanded by the God of Love and Alceste for the presentation of women in his previous works. This frame-story proceeds into a sequence of stories about famous women from history and mythology. In the Legend, Chaucer uses narratives which he alludes to elsewhere in his work: the stories of Medea, Phyllis, Ariadne and Dido.
Form and sources
The poem is indebted to several sources, including Ovid’s Heroides and Metamorphoses, the works of Virgil and Vincent of Beauvais. The form used by Chaucer here is iambic pentameter couplets, also known as heroic couplets. Chaucer seems to have felt that the poem was an important one – in The Canterbury Tales, the Man of Law (one of the pilgrims) discusses the Legend at length in the introduction to his tale, describing it as a ‘large volume’.
Despite the fact that Chaucer seems to have thought that the text was important, the poem appears to be unfinished. The prologue exists in two forms, and scholars are unsure about which version Chaucer preferred. In different manuscript versions of another poem by Chaucer called the Retraction, he refers to the Legend, calling it either ‘the book of the XXV ladies’, ‘XIX ladies’ or ‘XV ladies’. In addition to this, the prologue of the Legend lists several women who do not subsequently appear in the poem. And in much the same way, the list in ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’ describes a different poem to the text of the Legend which survives. It seems that the Legend, like The Canterbury Tales, was left unfinished at the point of Chaucer’s death, giving editors a headache for centuries to come.
This manuscript is unusual because it contains some pages of an edition of the poem printed by William Bonham in 1542.