The Testament of Cresseid: Introduction

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The Testament of Cresseid: Introduction

Henryson's best-known poem is this tale of the heroine of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. The story of the two ill-fated lovers exists in a number of works, including Boccaccio's Il Filostrato. In the prologue, Henryson himself refers to the troublesome uther quair ("second book") which he alleges to be the basis for his poem. The attribution to another source, however, appears to be only a rhetorical convention, and Chaucer's poem is likely the only source for Henryson's creation.

Henryson introduces a major element into the tradition of the tale with Cresseid's leprosy. His portrayal of the disease is so realistic and vivid that, even in 1841, Sir J. A. Y. Simpson was able to diagnose the specific type of disease Cresseid has. Henryson's detailed description gave rise to at least one suggestion that he himself was a physician. The association between leprosy and sexual excess in the Middle Ages was well established, and this aspect of the disease is fertile ground for those who wish to argue that Cresseid is punished for her promiscuity. Henryson begins her tale after she has left Troilus and had an affair with Diomede. Cresseid and Diomede, however, have separated after "Diomeid had all his appetyte, / And mair" (lines 71-72) fulfilled with Cresseid, which suggests that Diomede satisfied himself with her then cast her aside. Henryson's assertion that she subsequently was in "the court commoun" (line 77) indicates that she might have descended to a life of prostitution. That she becomes wanton there is no doubt, but the protagonist refuses to place blame upon her. That she becomes wanton there is no doubt, but is she deserving of punishment or, instead, redemption?

The central critical problem in this poem, in fact, relates to Henryson's treatment of his heroine - does the author suggest that Cresseid's fate is well deserved or is he sympathetic to her plight? Two issues have been consistently linked to the answer to that question: the character of the authorial persona and the religious structure of the poem. First, with regard to the authorial persona, it has often been observed that Henryson, in the tradition of Chaucer, dedicates an unusual amount of time to the depiction of his author in the prologue to the poem. While the general matter of Henryson's debt to Chaucer will be treated later, it is important to note here that Chaucer's narrator is initially somewhat less developed than Henryson's. Like Chaucer's narrator, Henryson's narrator has indeed been in the service of love. He also suffers the torments of unrequited love, but for a very different reason: advanced age. Both narrators suggest their feelings about their heroines, but there are significant differences in the way Henryson presents his narrator. Henryson's character indulges far less in potential irony than does Chaucer's. Henryson's narrator is a more central character and has greater importance in establishing the tone for the major part of the poem. He is portrayed in much more detail and he exists specifically in a Scottish setting. The "doolie sessoun" (line 1) that he describes, for instance, has been identified as a bone-chilling Scottish April. He tells us that he stokes the fire, takes a drink, and reads to pass the time, even citing the specific volumes he examined. In addition, far from establishing this narrator as an ironic figure, Henryson seems to portray him as a kind and sympathetic person whom we are to take at his word. Thus when he exclaims, "I have pietie thow suld fall sic mischance!" (line 84) we are to understand his expression of sympathy as genuine. Likewise, when he says, "I sall excuse als far furth as I may / Thy womanheid" (lines 87-88), we are to be convinced that he will write an apologia. However, even though Henryson's narrator appears to be honest and straightforward, arguments are still advanced that Henryson indulges in Chaucerian irony. Critical discussion about the famous "uther quair" (line 61) might suggest that Henryson is toying with his audience as other late medieval writers were known to do. Questions about the sincerity of Henryson's narrator clearly relate to his treatment of the heroine. If indeed both Henryson and his narrator are attempting to "excuse" Cresseid, then we can interpret his apparent sympathy for the character in a straightforward manner. Yet, some recent criticism has suggested that, except for the broadest outlines, Henryson's narrator may be no more a reflection of the poet himself and his attitudes than is Chaucer's self description in the Canterbury Tales (see Greentree, Reader, Teller, and Teacher, pp. 1-16). If Henryson intended to make his narrator the same kind of naive soul one finds in the "Chaucer" of the Canterbury Tales or the more distant narrator of the Troilus, then authorial irony may become a major factor in the interpretation of the heroine. (See Jentoft, pp. 94-102, and Fox, The Testament of Cresseid, pp. 49-57.)

The religious structure of the poem also has a bearing on how one interprets Henryson's approach to his heroine. Lee W. Patterson has summarized many of the arguments. In general, those critics who believe that Henryson is harsh with Cresseid see the poem as basically pagan. They point to the judgment of the court of gods, involving pagan deities, and find that Henryson has punished his heroine for her sexual excesses according to the laws of pagan religion. On the other hand, those critics, such as Grierson, who see the poem as essentially Christian believe that Henryson has developed a multi-sided character who matures during the course of the poem and finds salvation. Most often cited as the fulcrum of her self-realization and atonement is line 574: "Nane but my self as now I will accuse." The line is especially important when one considers that throughout the poem Cresseid has previously blamed everyone but herself. She thinks that her terrible experience in the Greek camp was the fault of Diomede and that the general misfortune she suffered was the fault of Venus and Cupid, whom she accuses of betraying her. Even when her fate becomes evident to her, she does not look inward to find out what has caused the problems but instead laments the loss of creature comforts such as her room and fine food. Her pitiful exclamation in line 574 seems to indicate a new kind of spiritual growth that coincides with her later regret for the way that she has betrayed Troilus. This spiritual growth in Christian terms, Grierson and others contend, leads ultimately to her redemption. Yet the reader of Chaucer's Troilus may retain some nagging doubts about whether Henryson is serious in his sympathy for the heroine. For instance, is Cresseid's brief and cold epitaph to be interpreted like Troilus' ironic laughter in his ascent to the heavens? Debate continues on this issue.

One's stance on both of these issues will ultimately determine how Cresseid is to be viewed. Those who see Henryson's depiction of his narrator as ironic and untrustworthy and who see the poem as pagan feel that Henryson deals harshly with his heroine. This school argues that Henryson himself believed that she was the "false vnconstant whore" described by Sir Francis Kinaston (see Smith, Poems, pp. ciii-iv). Those who see the depiction of the narrator as sincere and charitable and believe that the poem is essentially Christian argue that Henryson treats his heroine with kindness and sympathy. She undergoes a process of purgation and ultimately achieves redemption through her self-realization of error. Especially given the inconstancy and betrayal which mark the actions of Chaucer's Criseyde as she fades into the end of Troilus and Criseyde, these critics suggest that Henryson has brought Cresseid back to redeem her. Many of these questions clearly involve the extent of Henryson's debt to Chaucer.

The evaluation of this debt involves the originality of Henryson's work. In his prologue, Henryson himself acknowledges that he read Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. The fact that Thynne printed Henryson's poem as a "sixth book" of Chaucer's poem led many to believe for a hundred years that the work had been Chaucer's; some even went so far as to discuss parallels in style and characterization. For years critics have debated to what extent the poem is a product of derivative genius and to what extent the poem is an original work of art. The traditional assertion that Henryson, as a "Scottish Chaucerian," shows himself most dependent on Chaucer in this poem has been forcefully answered by Ridley, McDiarmid, and others who argue that the work cannot simply be viewed as a sequel to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. To be sure, Henryson builds on Chaucer's work, but the architecture is unique. For one thing, Troilus' reappearance after his death in Troilus and Criseyde would have been a "blunder" in a pure sequel. Anyone who has examined Henryson's use of his sources would know that he was too fine a craftsman to use this device if he intended only to follow Chaucer. Moreover, besides signaling that he read Chaucer, he also indicated that he would depart from Chaucer in very significant ways when in the prologue his narrator asks, "Quha wait gif all that Chauceir wrait was trew?"(line 64). Other distinctive elements emerge in the poem. Henryson's style is generally more concise than Chaucer's (see Spearing, Tillyard, and Muir). Part of the stylistic difference derives from the way that he has reduced dialogue as compared with Chaucer's poem. Cresseid has a different kind of vitality in Henryson from what Chaucer gives her. Florence Ridley has noted that Henryson "found in Chaucer's poem a latent idea in the outline of a static character which he proceeded to develop fully." The character change that Cresseid undergoes shows her capable of "great growth" (Ridley, "A Plea," p. 196). In Chaucer's poem, the focus was on Troilus - here Henryson has shown how his own heroine matures and finds redemption. It is true that both poems emphasize transcending the values of the world and avoiding the entrapments of love. Henryson has used the names of Chaucer's characters and part of the plot of Chaucer's poem as a prologue to his own. However, he puts his own distinctive stamp on the tale of Cresseid. See Gray (Robert Henryson [1979], pp. 162-208), Kindrick (Robert Henryson, pp. 118-48), McDiarmid (pp. 88-116), and MacQueen (Robert Henryson, pp. 45-93) for further comment.

The poem exists in early printed editions. For the extra-textual history of the poem, probably the most important text is Thynne's printing of 1532, where the Testament was appended to Chaucer's Troilus. Besides being the earliest printed text to survive, this edition was also responsible for the widespread impression in the sixteenth cen-tury that Chaucer had written the work. The most reliable early text, however, is the Charteris print of 1593, which is the basis for the text provided here. It has been suggested that Chepman and Myllar may have printed the Testament in 1508, but no copy has survived. Nonetheless, it is clear from external records that the poem was in print in Scotland prior to Charteris' edition. The next printed edition to have survived (the Anderson print) appeared in 1663. Manuscript sources are fragmentary. Short passages appear in the Book of the Dean of Lismore (1512-29) and the Ruthven MS (1520-30). Although lacking authority, the Kinaston Manuscript (1639) has antiquarian interest. It contains both Chaucer's Troilus and The Testament with Kinaston's Latin translation.

Go To The Testament of Cresseid
Select Bibliography

[See also the Select Bibliography attached to the General Introduction for discussion of the Testament in conjunction with other works by Henryson.]

Early Printed Editions

The Thynne Edition
The Workes of Geffray Chaucer. London: Thomas Godfray, 1532.

The Charteris Edition
The Testament of Cresseid. Edinburgh: Henrie Charteris, 1593.

The Anderson Edition
The Testament of Cresseid. Edinburgh, 1663. [The only known copy is in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge. The title-page does not identify publisher or place. The ornaments suggest the publisher to have been Andrew Anderson, who, though a Glasgow publisher, was printing in Edinburgh in 1663.]


The Book of the Dean of Lismore
National Library of Scotland, Gaelic MS XXXVII. [Contains one stanza.]

The Kinaston MS
Bodleian MS Addit. C. 287 (Summary Catalogue No. 29640) [Dated 1639.]

The Ruthven MS
University of Edinburgh Library, MS Dc. I. 43. [Contains the first three stanzas.]

Books and Modern Editions

Fox, Denton, ed. The Testament of Cresseid. London: Nelson's Medieval & Renaissance Library, 1968. [A valuable edition and commentary, now generally superseded by the complete edition of the poems.]

Gordon, R. K., ed. The Story of Troilus. New York: Dutton, 1964. [A useful compilation of various versions of the tale (including Henryson's) in translation.]

Greentree, Rosemary. Reader, Teller, and Teacher: The Narrator of Robert Henryson's Moral Fables. Frankfort am Main: Peter Lang, 1993. [A study of Henryson's roles in the fables.]

Kilbansky, Raymond, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl. Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art. London: Nelson, 1964.

Simpson, James Young, Sir. Antiquarian Notions of Syphilis in Scotland in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Edinburgh: Edmonton and Douglas, 1862.

Skeat, Walter W., ed. The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Vol. 7, Chaucerian and Other Pieces. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897. [Contains the Thynne version of The Testament.]

Stearns, Marshall W. A Modernization of Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1945. [An intriguing modern translation.]


Adamson, Jane. "Henryson's Testament of Cresseid: 'Frye' and 'Cauld.' " Critical Review (Melbourne) 18 (1976), 39-60.

Aswell, E. Duncan. "The Role of Fortune in The Testament of Cresseid." Philological Quarterly 46 (1967), 471-87.

Bennett, J. A. W. "Henryson's Testament: A Flawed Masterpiece." Scottish Literary Journal 1 (1974), 1-16.

Chessell, Del. "In the Dark Time: Henryson's Testament of Cresseid." Critical Review (Melbourne) 12 (1969), 61-72.

Craik, Thomas W. "The Substance and Structure of The Testament of Cresseid: A Hypothesis." In Bards and Makars: Scottish Language and Literature: Medieval and Renaissance. Eds. Adam Aitkin, Matthew P. McDiarmid, and Derick S. Thompson. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1977. Pp. 22-26.

Duncan, Douglas. "Henryson's Testament of Cresseid." Essays in Criticism 11 (1961), 128-35.

Elliott, Charles. "Two Notes on Henryson's Testament of Cresseid." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 54 (1955), 241-54.

Fries, Maureen. "Besides Crisseid: Henryson's Other Women." In Actes du 2e Colloque de Langue et de Littérature Ecossaisses. Eds. Jean-Jacques Blanchot and Claude Graf. Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, 1979. Pp. 250-67.

Hanna, Ralph. "Cresseid's Dream and Henryson's Testament." In Chaucer and Middle English Studies in Honour of Rossell Hope Robbins. Ed. Beryl Rowland. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1974. Pp. 288-97.

Harth, Sidney. "Henryson Reinterpreted." Essays in Criticism 11 (1961), 471-80.

Hume, Kathryn. "Leprosy or Syphillis in Henryson's Testament of Cresseid." English Language Notes 6 (1969), 242-45.

Jentoft, C. W. "Henryson as Authentic 'Chaucerian': Narrator, Character, and Courtly Love in The Testament of Cresseid." Studies in Scottish Literature 10 (1972), 94-102.

Larkey, Sanford V. "Leprosy in Medieval Romance: A Note on Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 25 (1958), 77-80.

Long, Eleanor R. "Robert Henryson's 'Uther Quair.' " Comitatus 3 (1972), 97-101.

MacDonald, Alasdair A. "Fervent Weather: A Difficulty in Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid." In Scottish Language and Literature, Medieval and Renaissance. Eds. Dietrich Straus and Horst W. Drescher. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1986. Pp. 271-80.

Marken, Ronald. "Chaucer and Henryson: A Comparison." Discourse 7 (1964), 381-87.

McDermott, John J. "Henryson's Testament of Cresseid and Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness." Renaissance Quarterly 20 (1967), 16-21.

McDonald, Craig. "Venus and the Goddess Fortune in The Testament of Cresseid." Scottish Literary Journal 4 (1977), 14-24.

McNamara, John. "Divine Justice in Henryson's Testament of Cresseid." Studies in Scottish Literature 11 (1973), 99-107.

——. "Language as Action in Henryson's Testament of Cresseid." In Bards and Makars: Scottish Language and Literature: Medieval and Renaissance. Eds. Adam Aitkin, Matthew P. McDiarmid, and Derick S. Thompson. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1977. Pp. 41-51.

Moran, Tatyana. "The Meeting of the Lovers in 'The Testament of Cresseid.' " Notes and Queries 10 (1963), 11-12.

——. "The Testament of Cresseid and the Book of Troylus." Litera 6 (1959), 18-24.

Noll, Delores L. "The Testament of Cresseid: Are Christian Interpretations Valid?" Studies in Scottish Literature 9 (1971), 16-25.

Parr, Johnstone. "Cresseid's Leprosy Again." Modern Language Notes 60 (1945), 487-91.

Patterson, Lee W. "Christian and Pagan in The Testament of Cresseid." Philological Quarterly 52 (1973), 696-714.

Ridley, Florence. "A Plea for Middle Scots." In The Learned and the Lewed. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974. Pp. 175-96.

Rowland, Beryl. "The 'seiknes incurabill' in Henryson's Testament of Cresseid." English Language Notes 1 (1964), 175-77.

Spearing, A. C. "The Testament of Cresseid and the High Concise Style." In Criticism and Medieval Poetry. London: E. Arnold, 1964. Pp. 118-44.

Stearns, Marshall W. "Robert Henryson and the Fulgentian Horse." Modern Language Notes 54 (1939), 239-45.

——. "The Planet Portraits of Robert Henryson." PMLA 49 (1944), 911-27.

——. "Robert Henryson and the Leper Cresseid." Modern Language Notes 49 (1944), 265-69.

——. "Henryson and Chaucer." Modern Language Quarterly 6 (1945), 271-84.

——. Robert Henryson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.

Strauss, Jennifer. "To Speak Once More of Cresseid: Henryson's Testament Re-considered." Scottish Literary Journal 4 (1977), 5-13.

Tillyard, E. M. W. "Henryson: The Testament of Cresseid 1470?" In Five Poems 1470-1870: An Elementary Essay on the Background of English Literature. London: Chatto & Windus, 1948. Pp. 5-29.

Toliver, Harold E. "Robert Henryson: From Moralitas to Irony." English Studies 46 (1965), 300-09.

Whiting, B. J. "A Probable Allusion to Henryson's 'Testament of Cresseid.' " Modern Language Review 40 (1945), 46-47.