Assembly of Ladies: Introduction

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Assembly of Ladies: Introduction

There are three manuscripts of The Assembly of Ladies (AL), all dating from the last quarter of the fifteenth century: British Library MS Addit.34360, Trinity College, Cambridge, MS R.3.19, and Longleat House MS 258. The earliest and best of these, copied not long after the poem was written (c. 1470-80), is MS Addit.34360, which is used as the basis of the standard modern edition of the poem (Pearsall 1962). Pearsall's text is followed here, with his emendations silently incorporated. There is also an early print of the poem in the collected edition of Chaucer's Works put together by William Thynne in 1532. Thynne's text, which is close to that of the Longleat MS, was used by Skeat as the basis for his edition of AL in Chaucerian and Other Pieces (1897), but solely for reasons of convenience: it has no authority. Thynne included the poem because of his desire to include all plausibly Chaucerian pieces that he could find, and it stayed in the canon until rejected by Thomas Tyrwhitt in his 'Account of the Works of Chaucer' in his great edition of the Canterbury Tales (1775-78). AL came to be closely associated with FL (which was also once in Longleat 258) because Skeat supposed that, since both had a female narrator, both must be by women, and, for economy's sake, by the same woman. Whatever the grounds for the attribution of the two poems to women, there are no grounds whatsoever for the attribution of both to the same author: the briefest acquaintance with the two poems will make clear the difference between the radiant and eccentric gifts of the author of FL and the skillful hack-work of AL. Style, language, and meter are all against common authorship.

The theme of AL is the truth and loyalty of women and, generally speaking, the neglect and unfaithfulness of men. It describes an assembly at which a group of five ladies (including the narrator) and four gentlewomen present their written complaints against men at the court of Lady Loyalty and seek redress (though exactly what form that might take remains a mystery). One of the gentlewomen seems to be there under false pretenses, since her petition (673-9) says she has nothing to complain about. The preparations for attending the assembly, the arrangements when the ladies arrive, and the organization of their presentation of their 'bills,' occupy the greater part of the poem.

The theme of the poem is a conventional one in the love poetry of the period, and bears the same relation to reality as the opposed theme of women's lasciviousness and fickleness. The paintings of women unfortunate in love in Lady Loyalty's palace (456-66) remind us of similar paintings in the temples of the Parliament of Fowls and Lydgate's Temple of Glass, but more especially of the stories of faithful women wronged by men in Chaucer's martyrology of Cupid's saints, the Legend of Good Women. Chaucer represents himself, not entirely seriously, as doing penance for having slandered women in Troilus and Criseyde; the writings of Christine de Pisan are a good deal less playful, and her Epistre au Dieu d'Amours is a vehement defence of the honor and fidelity of women, particularly against the slanders of Ovid and of Jean de Meun in the Roman de la Rose. The debate, with its own painful basis in reality and yet no doubt productive of much lively casuistry on relaxed social occasions, continued through the fifteenth century in the controversy provoked or supposedly provoked by Alain Chartier's portrayal of the cruel mistress in La Belle Dame sans Merci. At the same time, it should be remembered that the theme of women wronged, oppressed or unfortunate in love produces some of the most affecting poetry of the period, not only in Chaucer, but also, and perhaps more notably, in Gower.

The framework chosen for the development of the theme is that of the Court of Love, conceived of here both as the quasi-religious court of Lady Loyalty, where she hears petitions and grants boons, and as a court of law, with set procedure and forms of legal redress (see 325n). There are many precedents for both conventions, particularly in poems of the fifteenth century such as Lydgate's Temple of Glass, which is an important influence throughout AL; one recalls too the establishment of a Cour Amoureuse by the Duke of Burgundy on St. Valentine's Day, 1401, dedicated to the virtues of humility and fidelity and to the service of ladies, in whom those virtues are so conspicuous. The complaintes d'amour for which such assemblies provided the occasion are themselves a favorite literary genre, exploited, it must be said, more than fully in AL. The allegory of the assembly is enclosed within the conventional framework of a dream, which springs naturally from the circumstances of the narrator: unhappy in love, she dreams of the court of Lady Loyalty, where the wrongs of despised lovers will be set right.

The allegory of AL has little vitality, and it was an error of judgment on the poet's part to suppose that interest could be sustained through nine separate and generally similar petitions of complaint summarily presented (582-707). If the ladies and their mottoes were once excitingly identifiable in real life and had some topical significance in the 'game of love' (for which see Stevens, Music and Poetry), things might be different, but, whatever that significance might have been, it is now lost. The author's principal interest, as C.S. Lewis discerned, appears to be in 'the stir and bustle of an actual court, the whispered conversations, the putting on of clothes, and the important comings and goings' (Allegory of Love, p. 250). Here, in a manner reminiscent of Skelton, the dialogue has a vivid colloquial vigour, and the narrator's pert self-confidence comes over quite sharply, as in the somewhat petulant response to the request for her bill (682, 690), and in the skillfully circumspect and maybe unnecessarily suspicious way she deals with the request by Perseveraunce for privileged advance information about the ladies' mottoes (400-413). The interest in the actual running of a great household, and what may seem to a modern reader an inordinate care to name and specify the functions of all the officers, show, and are designed to show, a fair expertise; it was an interest shared by the scribes of the Longleat and Trinity manuscripts, who both rubricate appropriate stanza headings with the names of officers. In its concern for the topical and actual, AL stands in sharp contrast to FL, reflecting contemporary social life and the appurtenances of that life with a directness absent from the latter poem. There may be some specific influence from the Burgundian styles made fashionable during the later reign of Edward IV (1471-83).

Whether the author was indeed a woman is a question impossible to prove either way. There is nothing very unusual in the writing of poetry by women in the fifteenth century, nor in the adoption of a female persona by male poets. The carefully guarded language in which the exclusion of men from the assembly is first announced (145-54) suggests a certain sensitivity on the matter, as does the almost total absence (though see 669) of any mention, in the actual complaints, of men or of the fact that men are the cause of all the trouble. The language, in fact, is so vague and unspecific that one could not be sure exactly what the ladies are complaining about if one did not already know. The constant references to clothes, and the putting on and wearing of clothes, and the comments on the way the clothes look (e.g. 256), suggest a woman's interests, though they may equally well be what a man would characterize as a woman's interests. But the monotonously regular nature of the versification, the rather threadbare repertoire of tags and conventional phrases, suggest a hack versifier, and if this versifier is also responsible for the romance of Generydes, as seems to me certain, it is very unlikely that it is a woman. Women had occasion and good reason to write in the fifteenth century, but not like this.


Bibliography for The Floure and the Leafe, The Assembly of Ladies, and The Isle of Ladies

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