Henryson (ca. 1492) The Middle Scots poem The Testament of Cresseid is the best-known work by Robert Henryson. Though commonly considered one of the Scottish Chaucerians, in this work Henryson clearly rejects material Geoffrey Chaucer included in his version of the story, Troilus and Criseyde.
The story of The Testament of Cresseid is set during the Trojan War and is based on a brief incident from Homer's Iliad. Cresseid's character is based on two women, both prisoners of war in the Greek camp: Chryseis, the captured daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo, and Briseis, a slave. When Chryseis's father calls down a plague, Agamemnon returns her. In exchange, he takes Briseis from Achilles, who sulkily withdraws from battle. Over time, these two women merged into one, Briseida (later Criseida), who is beautiful and pleasant, but unconstant of heart. Her name became Criseyde in Chaucer's poem, Cressida in William Shakespeare's play, and Cresseid in Henryson's poem. Most tales have her becoming involved with Troilus before being sent from Troy in a prisoner exchange, and then submitting sexually to Diomedes, a Greek hero. In most versions, Criseida realizes nothing positive will ever be written about her.
The Testament of Cresseid does not include the love story with Troilus. Instead, it picks up with Cresseid's expulsion from the Trojan camp, and Troilus's sorrow over her failure to return as promised. Cresseid is soon faced with a dilemma after Diomedes rejects her. Returning to her father Calchas, a priest of Cupid, she is welcomed home. Entering the temple, Cresseid falls asleep. Before doing so, however, the embittered woman rails against Cupid and his mother venus. In response, Cupid curses Cresseid, and she is infected with leprosy. Cresseid awakens to a ruined life, and, crying, she joins a leper colony. one day, while begging for alms at the roadside, she encounters Troilus. Though neither recognizes the other, Troilus is reminded of his lost mistress, so he gives the leper woman gold before riding away. Afterward, another leper reveals the warrior's identity, and Cresseid is devastated. Realizing how far she has fallen, Cresseid repents, asks that her ring be returned to Troilus, and dies. Upon learning of her death, Troilus builds a monument and buries her honorably. The poem ends with a warning to female readers not to be deceitful in love, and to remember Cresseid's sad end.
Henryson's version of the tale is misogynist and disturbing. For instance, Cresseid consistently refers to herself as licentious: "My mynd in fleschelie foull affec-tioun / Was inclynit to lustis lecherous" (ll. 558-559). This discrepancy speaks to the central question of the tale: Is Cresseid a wronged victim or a promiscuous, unprincipled whore? Neither Chaucer nor Giovanni Boccaccio fully decides, but Henryson does—she is an agonized (but repentant) whore. In particular, his use of leprosy, commonly associated with prostitution in the Middle Ages, confirms her as a lustful, willing participant in her own disgrace. He creates, in Cresseid, a figure of desire and feminine changeability, demonstrating an alternate view of a figure made sympathetic by others.
Fox, Denton. The Poems of Robert Henryson. oxford: oxford
University Press, 1987. Macqueen, John. The Narrative Poetry of Robert Henryson.
Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature.
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006.
Susannah Mary Chewning
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