Becoming woman in Chaucer: on ne naît pas femme, on le devient en mourant

Living death in medieval French and English literature - Jane Gilbert 2011

Becoming woman in Chaucer: on ne naît pas femme, on le devient en mourant

This final chapter considers the various relations between female characters, ideals of femininity and death in two poems by Chaucer: the early Book of the Duchess and later Legend of Good Women, principally the Prologue.1 Both poems foreground figures between two deaths. The Legend is dominated by Alceste who, herself returned from the dead, colours the heroines of the legends, while the Book throngs with undead. I explore the explanatory value for these poems of an anthropological account relating to funerary rites of passage by which a deceased person is detached from the community of the living and, after a threatening liminal stage, is integrated into the community of the dead. I find that this model accentuates the normative and socially constructive uses of the ’between two deaths’, thus it enhances understanding of how the dead lady central to the Book is elevated as a feminine exemplar. The absence in the Legend of such a close fit between theory and text is itself productive, enabling us at once to refine the anthropological model and to argue that the Legend works against certain normative constructions of femininity exemplified in the Book. I return to a Lacanian model in analysing the more disturbing figures in both poems.

My subtitle derives from the famous opening line of volume II of Beauvoir's Le Deuxième Sexe: ’On ne naît pas femme: on le devient’, in Parshley's translation: ’One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ — a rendering of Beauvoir's insistence on the subject's existentialist freedom and becoming. Contrastingly, the recent translation by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier reads: ’One is not born, but rather becomes, woman’, foregrounding the feminine archetype.2 Beauvoir's text examines the interactions between female subjects and essentializing myths, and I follow her lead in investigating the role of death in producing either woman or a woman — an archetype or a subject capable of interacting creatively with the givens of gender. In the Book of the Duchess the lady's elevation depends on her laudable willingness to leave the land of the living for that of the dead, whereas the virtuous women of the Legend of Good Women take their stand in a zone between earthly and heavenly life, resisting both passage into the afterlife and the rites designed to facilitate it. This resistance is an act of political, ethical and poetic significance, and the idealized representation of these ladies is consequently of a very different order from that found in the earlier poem.

Double obsequies

French anthropologist Robert Hertz, a student of Durkheim's, published in 1905—6 his ’Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death’. Hertz focuses on societies in which the funerary process has two phases: death is followed initially by the temporary disposal of the body and by a period of mourning, which ends with a secondary burial involving the permanent disposal of the body and the memorialization of the deceased, these last elements sometimes separated in time but in essence parts of a single process through which the death will be ’fully consummated’.3 The period between death and the final obsequies permits a process of social disaggregation, gradually detaching the dead person from the collectivity to which he or she belonged in life. During this period the dead person is placeless, belonging fully to neither the land of the living nor the land of the dead. ’Pitiful and dangerous’, it exerts a continued claim on its mourners’ solicitude (which must ensure its successful passage to the afterlife) while threatening them: ’It finds the solitude into which it has been thrust hard to bear and tries to drag the living with it.’4 The mourners themselves mirror the deceased's ’illegitimate and clandestine’ existence beyond the bounds of the community.5 Considered impure, they must remain isolated, distinguished by their dress, diet and activities: ’They live in darkness, dead themselves from a social point of view, because any active participation on their part in collective life would only spread abroad the curse they carry in them.’6 Hertz uses paradoxical and sometimes poetic expressions to articulate the strange existence in which both deceased and mourners are trapped during this intermediary or liminal period. Secondary burial ends this temporary suspension of everyday life and social cohesion, and brings about a dual restoration. It liberates the living and returns them to earthly society while marking the soul's rebirth as a full member of the invisible community of the dead. Regenerating the survivors and revitalizing earthly society, secondary burial also causes the deceased definitively to cast aside its polluting mortal remains to emerge in a purified, idealized form, ’reborn transfigured and raised to a superior power and dignity’ consonant with the status of the afterworld.7 Only once the deceased is cleanly separated from the world of the living can a lasting memorial be constructed marking the absence of what it commemorates. In its new incarnation the soul may become a benign guardian spirit protecting and guiding the living. The purpose of the intermediary period between physical death and final burial is to perform this metamorphosis of ’a familiar person…like ourselves’ into ’an ancestor’, ’sometimes worshipped and always distant’.8

Hertz describes the function of this metamorphosis as psychological and psychosocial. The belief that the soul ’only gradually severs the ties binding it to this world’ expresses the emotional challenge facing the survivors who must let the dead person go. Similarly society confronts the loss of ’the social being grafted upon the physical individual’, a being which the collective has carefully formed over a long period.9 The notion of death's finality threatens to annihilate society, and thus the very terms on which life can be lived, and must be deflected into the idea of regeneration and rebirth. Secondary burial aims to transform a traumatic perception of loss into an orderly, healing apprehension of a greater pattern in which death is necessary to and a source of life.10

A crucial point which remains tangential to Hertz's work though developed by some other thinkers is that this final reconciliation, a function of the living's deliverance from the disorientation of grief, makes the deceased available for political exploitation.11 The definitively dead and gone are henceforth conjured as spirits to serve the interests of the dominant survivors, though constrained significantly by the degree to which social conventions defy manipulation. The dead, in short, enter the transcendent world only on terms set by the living. Recent anthropological thinking emphasizes the performative and competitive aspects of ritual, against the Durkheimian (and Hertzian) view that ritual represents and perpetuates existing social structures. Rituals ’are not productions from cultural templates or “expressions” of structure, but instead are acts of power in the fashioning of structures: acts that make gods, kings, presidents, and property-rights by declaring that the authority of the priest, judge or police officer resides in a higher source, a mana, dharma or constitution’.12 Chaucer's Book of the Duchess illustrates such a use of ritual in the service of one powerful player in late fourteenth-century English politics.

Book of the duchess

Told in the first person, the Book recounts how after prolonged insomnia the narrator reads the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, in which a mourning queen is informed of her husband's death by his temporarily reanimated corpse, and eventually falls asleep.13 Waking into his dream he follows a courtly party hunting a hart and meets a knight in deep mourning. His uncomprehending questioning prompts the knight to recall in lengthy detail his beloved lady. Her fate is initially referred to through the mediation of courtly forms, but because the narrator fails to understand the fact of her untimely death, the knight finally states it in a blunt form which the narrator immediately acknowledges, bringing both dream and poem to a rapid close.

The Man in Black's lady has been brutally torn out of her own and others’ lives. It is clear from her lover's emotional state that this loss is unresolved; outcast from society, ’Always deyinge and…not ded’ (l. 588; ’always dying and…not dead’), his deathly life is closely reminiscent of Hertz's description of the mourner.14 Unable even to contemplate engaging with life, the Man in Black feels excluded from and yearns for death (ll. 679—90). If, as Hertz has it, ’mourning is merely the direct consequence in the living of the actual state of the deceased’, then the Man's condition implies that his lady's death remains unconsummated.15 Expelled from the community of the living, she has yet to be incorporated into that of the dead. It is not so much that she is an unquiet spirit, as that her mourner cannot resolve his loss. The former role is borne for her by the narrator who has ’felynge in nothyng’ (l. 11; ’no feeling’), and who appears at the swooning Man's ’fet’ (l. 502) just as the body of Ceyx returned earlier to the ’fet’ of Alcyone's bed (l. 199): half-life messengers bringing news of a loved one's demise. Like Ceyx's, the lady's treatment to date has only functioned as a partial ritual which cries out to be made whole — though not with the same outcome.16 The Book of the Duchess represents itself as responding to this need in a way which corresponds to the lady's secondary burial. The narrator elicits from the Man in Black an elegiac portrait and narrative which conjure his lady and their love in idealized form. This process involves a forgetting which becomes increasingly evident, for instance when the knight does not record the actual words by which the lady initially rejected him, only their import for himself (ll. 1236—44). The narrator's scepticism driving the Man on (ll. 1042—53), his experiences and emotions come into focus while hers remain indistinct; she is generalized as he is particularized. Knight and lady act out the purgative process which is the raison d’être of Hertz's intermediary period, ending with their tranquil departure in opposite directions. Memorialized as the perfect woman, ’goode faire White’ (l. 948) enters the transcendent beyond and passes out of her former lover's life, her death consummated by his performative admission that ’she ys ded’ (l. 1309) — this time without the deathly swoon that accompanied his earlier efforts at articulation.

The poem draws out the public implications of these private rites. Because his mourning is demoralizing and slowly killing the magnate, it is damaging the society in which he ought to hold a prominent place and which cannot function properly without him. His return to the living community at the end of the poem is represented poetically by an abrupt shift into a different mode of signification:

With that me thoghte that this kyng

Gan homwarde for to ryde

Unto a place, was there besyde,

Which was from us but a lyte —

A long castel with walles white,

Be Seynt Johan, on a ryche hil,

As me mette; but thus hyt fil.

(ll. 1314—20)

(At that I thought that this king rode homeward to a place nearby, only a little way from us — a long castle with white walls, by Saint John, on a noble hill, as I dreamt; but thus it occurred.)17

The Man is identified as John of Gaunt by the references to the saint, the ’ryche hil’ — Richmond, of which Gaunt was earl for part of his life — and the ’long castel’ — Lancaster, which he acquired through his wife Blanche (d. 1368), the real-life prototype of the lady in the poem. As the Man in Black moves towards historical specificity and agency, Blanche the duchess moves in the opposite direction. The Christian ideology which in Pearl transforms the toddler into a living stone in the New Jerusalem is here answered by a secular ideology. Initially translated into ’goode faire White’ in the poem's intermediary fiction, Blanche is now further metamorphosed. Petrified into the ’walles white’ of Lancaster, she is become a ’whit wal’ (l. 780) or blank canvas receptive to reinscription.18 Thus, through secondary burial, she is installed as protectress of the building and of her House, the social group that constructs its identity around it, first and foremost her former husband. Her final separation from the everyday world guarantees her symbolic authority but deprives her of human identity, form and autonomy. The poem's funeral effigy in language operates within the narrative not as a lasting memorial but as a temporary construction easing the lady's disappearance.19 Blanche and White are gradually erased from figuration, commemorated by incorporation into the substance of Blanche's own former castle (not White's, note), which thus becomes their non-figurative monument. Leaving the here and now altogether, the lady moves simultaneously into the fully abstract and the fully material domains. However, she is not evicted from history; rather she is given (a fixed) historical meaning. On the other side, Gaunt and the Man in Black leave the poem with enhanced prestige too, thanks not only to the lady but also to the legendary companions the Man invokes when describing his love. Initially seen in the company of contemporary males and females like (although inferior to) themselves, the lady and her lover are afterwards surrounded only by ancestors, legends of Western culture. At the same time the knight records his own adoption of the idealizing mode of lyric, itself given an ancient pedigree (ll. 1159—70). Gaunt benefits from this even more than the Man, since the dream's closing move between worlds allows the prestigious otherness of the ancestral realm(s) to be conflated with Gaunt's real life which, as here represented, acquires the air of legend (compare Deschamps's Ballade 1457, Chapter 3, above). Here as everywhere, the eternal and the transcendent as well as the private and domestic serve specific political ends.20

Key to the lady's idealization is the opposition between her and Fortune.21 As the Man in Black evokes it, Fortune is not simply a force within which all human beings exist under God's law, but stands for an unbearable vision of life without the comfort of transcendence. Ruled by Fortune, earthly life is characterized by meaningless and traumatic accident and mutability (compare Lacan's Real). Pendant to this is a vision of death as a process of bodily decay and incapacitating grief which eats away at deceased and survivor, threatening to annihilate both, a death conceived without the secondary burial which transforms it into a meaningful part of the greater life cycle. According to her mourner, however, White's virtues of ’trouthe’, constancy and moderation freed her from Fortune's whims and made her the living proof of a transcendent sphere. Although the Man does not appear to grasp them fully, the logical implications are clear: because even in her earthly life she made manifest the existence of God, White is the Man's means of redemption, his path to faith when he is in danger of despair because of her bodily death.

The vision of White as Beatrice-like mediator between earthly life and Christian transcendence proceeds from the secondary burial which her lover's reminiscence gives her.22 In the Man's portrait of her, White is purified of Blanche's lived (and her own fictional) singularity; those aspects of the lady's biography and character which would suggest that she lived under Fortune's sway or within time's flow are discarded and forgotten, coded thereby as inessentials and imperfections. This is not per se a denial of death, but its working through in a process comparable to the physical transformation which Hertz insists must be undergone before secondary burial can take place. The soft parts of the corpse must disappear, leaving only those considered immune to time: bones, ashes or a mummy.23 Reduction to ’immutable elements’ represents purification from life's corruption but also corresponds to the construction of a new, incorruptible body fit for the soul in the afterlife.24 Similarly, White/Blanche's newly pure self emerges phoenix-like (ll. 982—3) from the ruins of the old mortal being. This new self is available for ideological remodelling and exploitation by her survivors. Not, of course, that the male and female members of great families were not already subject to such a process; but the lady's value and malleability are evidently augmented by her secondary burial.

Ancestral patrons may be male or female, but in the Book of the Duchess, transfiguration into the Lancastrians’ tutelary spirit is a highly gendered process. The opposition between the lady and Fortune delimits the kind of woman she can be. Fortune, ’the trayteresse fals and ful of gyle’ (l. 620; ’the false traitoress, full of guile’), epitomizes a familiar negative idealization of femininity as fickle, dangerous and sexually uncontrolled.25 Against this stereotype stands what we may call, following Beauvoir (herself drawing on Goethe), that of the Eternal Feminine. The content of this positive type changes culturally while retaining a supposed changelessness essential to its meaning. In the incarnation in question, beauty, chastity, good sense, modesty and a kind heart are necessary but not sufficient qualities of perfected womanhood. Her fundamental attribute is her location beyond the world of change and contingency. The Eternal Feminine, unchanging and incorruptible, inhabits that timeless ’death beyond death’ achieved by secondary burial, outside material existence but with symbolic authority for the life continuing on earth.26 Secondary burial thus construes life as safe and meaningful, under the protection of a higher power which orders its events for the best in accordance with a greater plan. Earthly life and eternal life bridge the temporary state of death to minimize its destructive aspect. And in the Book of the Duchess the spirit embodying this transcendent vision is uncompromisingly feminized.

For living women, accessing the authority granted to the Eternal Feminine poses problems. Already in Hertz's account it is evident that entry into the company of ancestors requires the dead person to accept the necessity of his or her own death, bowing to the general interest and gracefully exiting the mortal scene. By accepting individual fate the deceased allows society to renew itself and earthly life to continue in others. The small opportunity for dissent is decreased when gendered pressures are added in. It seems from the Book of the Duchess that individual women participate in the Eternal Feminine only by adopting its lofty indifference to incident and time as well as its other virtues. This further discourages women from behaving with singularity. It is true that White is elevated to universality by the rhetorical construction of her uniqueness; according to the Man she was in every way superlative, a hapax in femininity. But these qualities are not abnormalities; on the contrary they are highly normative. Insofar as they are validated by their virtues, women appear to be all the same, avatars of the Eternal Feminine. Any peculiarities which might distance them from the ideal must be forgotten, as Blanche's are; to insist on them would be perverse and invalidating and might even suggest a disastrous identification with Fortune.27 Hence the symbolic authority granted to the Eternal Feminine is limited to activities and uses which demonstrably accord with that ideal. Furthermore, the woman who wishes to exercise this authority must recognize that she is merely a conduit for power. White is represented as authoritative only in proportion to her usefulness for those who promote her memory. As she becomes Woman, the lady ceases to be an independent agent; she must either be dead or, being alive, behave as if her autonomous or idiosyncratic self were dead. The Book of the Duchess thus gives exemplary form to a specific connection for women between power, death and a particular paradigm of femininity.

Blanche's absorption into the castle, material symbol of a clan's political power and longevity, makes her patron and protector of that clan and therefore available to sponsor whatever policies its prime representative chooses to follow. She becomes a potentially important piece in a strategy which aims both to bring about a desired political state and to extend it into the future. Remarriage may very well play a part in this strategy. The interpretation I have been outlining might therefore have some bearing on the question of the Book's date in relation to Gaunt's remarriage in 1371. It is obvious that the secondary burial which the Book performs on its duchess is symbolic and suggestive, not legal and formal. There was no official prohibition to prevent Gaunt remarrying before Chaucer's poem was written, nor did its composition alter his position in law. However, the anthropological material presented here does suggest that memorializing Blanche is not incompatible with urging Gaunt to remarry, or even with retrospectively endorsing such a project.28 Assimilation into the Eternal Feminine, the outcome of White's secondary burial, increases the possibilities contained in Blanche's fruitful absence. For the Man in Black to marry another good woman will be tantamount to having White returned to him, for all good women are in a sense avatars of the type she is brought to represent. Marrying another version of his dead lady is a way to express performatively not only his continuing love for her but also hers for him. The Man's extreme mourning, recorded in the poem, also plays its part in this construction. He is discreetly reminded of the effects of love, which once before made him ’as blyve / Reysed as fro deth to lyve’ (ll. 1277—8; ’as glad as if raised from death to life’). These rites of mourning and secondary burial allow the deceased to be enlisted as an advocate of her former husband's remarriage, as she joins the community of guiding spirits which preside over social renewal. Not that the poem presumes to instruct the lordly widower. The contingent and dependent nature of White's authority is demonstrated by its pliability in the service of various potential strategies on Gaunt's part.

Hertz stresses the dead person's progression through the troubling period, during which it is uncontrolled by and even hostile to society, to a final resting-place in which it is socially integrated once more. He emphasizes how survivors move correspondingly through unliveable grief towards a comfort which accommodates the altered aspects of their lives. He analyses the ways in which death is worked into a stage on the path to regeneration, allowing potentially traumatic changes in social and individual lives to be recuperated as part of a cycle by which life endlessly renews itself. Such a model permits variations in the social order so long as they can be anchored in a framework of continuity and tradition. Although change itself is acceptable, the potentially disruptive forces which may bring it about cannot be tolerated while they appear as such.29 This traditionalist process is illustrated by the passing of both White and Blanche. However, a different account might emphasize the ’intermediary’ period as a possible site from which opposition to the dominant order and its renewal could be elaborated. Lacan's entre-deux-morts provides such an account. What in many, especially older anthropological accounts is a liminal or transitional space, a description emphasizing the solidity of the ’states’ between which passage must be achieved, becomes in Lacan's version a queer, uncanny site challenging the integrity of those ’states’. Lacan thus brings out the extent to which such descriptions reiterate and reinforce the desired political effect of rites of passage: the presentation of historically contingent ideological orders as coherent and durable, phenomena as natural as life and death themselves. The entre-deux-morts, in contrast, draws attention to the necessary incompleteness and hence incoherence of any particular order; it is, strictly speaking, revolutionary. Hence Lacan's formulation allows us to focus on ethical and political resistance to the dominant order, whereas Hertz emphasizes society's tendency to assimilate and adapt.30 With this alternative vision in mind, we can turn to the Legend of Good Women. In a poem which focuses on women true in loving all their lives, we might expect to encounter a series of Whites. However, the notion of dual obsequies allows us to appreciate the deep-seated differences which separate Alceste and her cohorts from White, and still more strikingly from Blanche.

Legend of good women

The Legend of Good Women consists of nine short narratives, with a Prologue surviving in two versions, F and G. In the Prologue the poet declares that his devotion to books is interrupted only by his preference for going out to the fields in spring to worship the daisy flower (on marguerites, see Chapter 4, above). He falls asleep and dreams that he sees a regal god of Love leading by the hand a lady whose dress recalls the daisy. They are accompanied by a host of other women, all true in love. The daisy-lady is named as Alceste (early in G, towards the end of F). The god of Love reproaches the poet-narrator for having produced in English the Romaunt of the Rose and Troilus and Criseyde, which attack him and his devotees.31 In particular, the poet is accused of choosing to retell only women's ’wikednesse’ even though wicked women are rare exceptions to the general rule of female ’goodnesse’ (G.268—9, 277).32 Alceste intervenes to disarm the god's threats by discoursing on tyranny and on the responsibility of a ruler to uphold justice and exercise mercy, at the same time advancing a series of arguments absolving the author of responsibility for the content of the works under dispute. She lists works by Chaucer, some of which, like the Book of the Duchess, are positively friendly to love, and others Christian in theme. The lady then suggests that the poet be required to repair the damage he has caused, and sets what she calls his ’penaunce’:

Thow shalt, whil that thow livest, yer by yere,

The moste partye of thy tyme spende

In makynge of a gloryous legende

Of goode women, maydenes and wyves,

That were trewe in lovynge al here lyves;

And telle of false men that hem betrayen,

That al here lyf ne don nat but assayen

How manye wemen they may don a shame;

For in youre world that is now holden game.


(You shall while you live, year on year, spend the greatest part of your time in making a glorious legend of good women, maidens and wives, who were true in loving all their lives; and tell of false men who betray them, who all their life do nothing but try to see how many women they may disgrace; for in your world that is now considered fun.)

The poet begins his legend but the text is incomplete. The life of Alceste with which the god instructs the poet to conclude is lacking. The lives that survive are those of Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle and Medea, Lucrece, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra, this last lacking an ending.

The Legend has not been popular in modern times.33 Commentators have found it repetitive and limited in range, while its insistence on a particular idea of female virtue and the way it reshapes its source material to fit that idea have caused unease. It is strange to modern eyes, for example, to see Medea rub shoulders with Lucrece as virtuous victims of male betrayal. In the Book of the Duchess Medea is said to have killed her children in response to her abandonment by Jason (ll. 726—7), but in the Legend she confines herself to writing him a letter.34 Some critics argue that the Legend's true subject is poetic activity, while others focus on the poem's relevance to issues of kingship, government and statecraft, linking this to the contemporary political situation. Critics who engage with the poem's treatment of women generally argue either that the poem endorses medieval ideas and practices relating to female virtue and understood to be unacceptable today, or that it ironizes such ideas; some impute to Chaucer an antifeminist position, others an anti-antifeminist one. In spite of this, the poem remains largely unpalatable. Moreover, arguments constructed around it often seem to leave the text behind or even to obscure it; it is almost traditional to appeal to the poem's ’obvious’ qualities while contending that this surface conceals a deeper meaning requiring additional interpretation or information which must be supplied from outside the text. The Legend today is at once unappealing and obscure, difficult to enjoy and difficult to capture. I do not apologize for these qualities but interpret them as essential to the radical aesthetic of the Prologue. I shall argue that the Legend is difficult to enjoy not because it is overly conventional or because it enshrines long-dead cultural practices but because it pays insufficient regard to conventions which still today govern our lives as readers and as social beings. It is difficult to capture because its own partialities of vision produce blind spots in its readers, so that what tends to evade our attention is not what the poem omits but, surprisingly, that which it highlights. Drawing on Lacanian insights as well as on the anthropological material presented above, my analysis will focus on three central features of the poetic programme laid out in the Legend's Prologue which have proven resistant to critical analysis. These relate respectively to Alceste as revenant, to repetition and to the proper topic of poetry. Comparison with the Book of the Duchess in each case emphasizes the significance of certain characteristics of the Legend of Good Women.

The revenant

The Legend of Good Women is placed under the aegis of someone who has returned from the grave. When the poet fails to recognize the classical figure of Alceste in the daisy-lady before him, the god of Love reminds him of her story:

…and that thow knowest wel, parde,

Yif it be so that thow avise the.

Hast thow nat in a bok, lyth in thy cheste,

The grete goodnesse of the queene Alceste,

That turned was into a dayesye;

She that for hire husbonde ches to dye,

And ek to gon to helle rather than he,

And Ercules rescued hire, parde,

And broughte hyre out of helle ageyn to blys?


(…and that you know well, indeed, if you reflect. Don't you have in a book lying in your chest the great goodness of the queen Alceste, who was turned into a daisy; she who chose to die for her husband and also to go to hell sooner than he; and Hercules rescued her, indeed, and brought her out of hell back to bliss?)

The emphasis on Alceste's return is the more evident if we compare the brief summary of her story in Troilus and Criseyde. Troilus objects to Cassandra when she announces Criseyde's infidelity with Diomede:

As wel thow myghtest lien on Alceste,

That was of creatures, but men lye,

That evere weren, kyndest and the beste!

For whan hire housbonde was in jupertye

To dye hymself but if she wolde dye,

She ches for hym to dye and gon to helle,

And starf anon, as us the bokes telle.


(You might as well slander Alceste who, unless men lie, was of all creatures that ever were the kindest and the best! For when her husband was in danger of dying unless she would agree to die, she chose to die for him and go to hell, and perished soon, as the books tell us.)

Troilus ends Alceste's story with her dying in her husband's place, the act which makes her the paragon both of ’fyn lovynge’ and ’of wifhod the lyvynge’ (G.534—5; ’pure, courtly loving’ and ’the behaviour expected in a wife’). In the Legend, however, this death has a sequel, as Alceste is rescued and returned to ’blys’ by Hercules. In the mythographic works from which Chaucer is thought to have drawn her story, Alceste is restored to wedded bliss in an idealized human marriage. However, the echo of the Harrowing of Hell in Chaucer's text confers overtones of a life beyond the human, as also does the reference to metamorphosis into a daisy and the subsequent mention of stellification (G.513—14).35

Figuring Alceste's situation in Hertz's terms, we may say that the narrator and the god of Love discuss Alceste as if she were not only dead but had undergone secondary burial. Buried in a book which is itself entombed in a coffin-like chest, she is said to lie dormant within the poet's memory, at once familiar and comfortably forgotten.36 She is presented in the aspect of an artefact, as submissive and adapted to the natural cycle as the heliotropic daisy (compare pp. 180—4, above):

In remembraunce of hire and in honour

Cibella made the dayesye and the flour

Ycoroned al with whit, as men may se;

And Mars yaf to hire corone red, parde,

In stede of rubies, set among the white.


(In memory and in honour of her, Cybele made the daisy and the flower crowned all with white, as men may see; and Mars gave to her crown red, indeed, for rubies, set among the white.)

By speaking as if Alceste had already undergone secondary burial, the male characters attempt to perform that rite. The image they conjure aligns Alceste with the idealized female who is the final product of the Book of the Duchess: a figure of authority who dispenses solace to living men and serves the interests of her male sponsors.

Even here, however, there are signals that this transformation may be more difficult than that of White. Cybele and Mars, unusual champions of the marguerite, set a combative note. Alceste's actual manifestation in the Prologue suggests a curious relationship with Hertz's intermediary period. The returned Alceste does not seem to be in an identifiable afterlife, Christian or pagan; but if she is not exactly in the land of the dead, nor is she in the land of the living. Her condition is, though, not identical to that of the Book's undead duchess, which cries out for secondary burial. After her physical death, that lady's image is a construct manifested only in her lover, at first in his physical and psychic deterioration and latterly in his memorial to her; Alceste has a positive presence of her own, surging beyond death and appropriation. Whereas Lady White exemplifies Hertz's model in her initially destructive effect on the living and in her progressive enhancement, as an artefact (ironically recalling Pygmalion's Galatea), into a wholly benevolent patron spirit, Alceste is consistently creative and independent, saving the poet from the god's wrath and furnishing him with material and occasion for future productions. She nevertheless remains an ambiguous figure, restricting and domineering, never in this text safely dispatched into the symbolic land of the benignly dead. While White's authority over the living is derived from her status as a legitimized member of the eternal, spiritual community, Alceste's is associated with her survival of both physical death and attempted secondary burial. Her experience affords her knowledge designated in the Prologue's opening lines as inaccessible to mortals.37 Insofar as the human condition necessitates mediation between earthly and transcendent, it excludes Alceste. With Alceste, the intermediary period entre-deux-morts becomes another scene, beyond the concrete sequence of life—death—afterlife proposed by Hertz. This placeless, undead quality is far from being associated with weakness.

The problematic authority of this resilient revenant manifests itself throughout the Prologue, although F, which concentrates on the daisy-muse, gives greater prominence to a transformed, benevolent, useful Alceste, whereas the uncompromising Alceste, resistant to glossing, on whom I am concentrating is stronger in G, as is the contrast between this figure and the product of secondary burial.38 In each version, Alceste shows little of White's malleability. Unlike White's, her authority actually finds expression within the poem, in a direct command to the narrator and in assertion of her own wishes against those of her male companion and patron. Her decrees are not negotiable. After she has won forgiveness for the narrator by arguing that he cannot be considered responsible for those works to which the god of Love objects, the narrator himself intervenes to claim rather more authorial status. Alceste silences him sternly:

And she answerde, ’Lat be thyn arguynge,

For Love ne wol nat counterpletyd be

In ryght ne wrong; and lerne this at me!’


(And she answered, ’Cease your arguing, for Love will not be disputed with rightly or wrongly; and learn that from me!)

These lines are sometimes held to show how reasonable Alceste is by comparison with the tyrannical god of Love. Yet it is she who, in winning the argument, refuses to countenance any point of view other than her own.39 This uncompromising absolutism also characterizes her attitude towards her husband. Her inflexible fidelity could be interpreted as tantamount to a demand for death, but death finds itself marginalized where Alceste is concerned. She dismisses its power over her not only when she dies for her husband but much more spectacularly when she returns to his side. If there was ever a love that ’wol nat countrepleted be’, surely this is it (’and lerne this at me!’ posits Alceste herself as the exemplar). It may seem ironic that it should be Alceste's utter refusal to accept separation from her husband which results in her final independence of that husband, himself nowhere present in the Prologue, and in her ability to bend to her own wishes the god of Love, a character often of dubious benefit to women.40 However, Alceste's appearance in the Prologue without her husband but with her story suggests that the fact of her love has primacy over its object and that her unparalleled ’trouthe’ should be understood above all as truth to her own desire, partially coincident with but not reducible to fidelity to her husband.41 Antigone-like, Alceste exceeds the framework within which the god of Love wishes to contain her.


It is Alceste's demand which generates the repetitive scenario which is so prominent a feature of the legends. Their repetitiveness has been a major cause of the low critical esteem in which the Legend of Good Women is held and defences have generally been on the grounds of hitherto neglected variety, but it is evident from Alceste's prescription that the project is conceived as a repetitive one. Variations between the individual legends are irrelevant to what is identified at their inception as their primary characteristic: the single scenario to be played out again and again and again. This scenario defines the male role as serial betrayal, and the male characters do indeed repeat themselves as well as repeating each other. Similarly, the heroines each follow Alceste's example, replicating her and each other. Within the text itself there is repetition of word and imagery. Some of these features can be evaluated as developing patterns of similarity and difference which organize meaning and literary effect, as one usually expects of literary texts, but repetition here far outruns any such justification. It becomes wearisome repetitiousness, a negation of the aesthetic. The existence of two redactions of the Prologue and also their standard printing strengthens the sense that repetition is central to the Legend of Good Women's impact.42 The text gives the impression of proceeding not from an artistry of which the poet is fully in control, but from irrational compulsion generated by the need to resolve an insoluble but unavoidable problem.43 Rather than trying to free the legends of Alceste's prescriptive constraint by emphasizing their individuality, I want here to keep in sight the poem's monotonous, monologic and obsessive qualities. Moreover, I interpret these qualities as central to the text's resistance to dominant norms.44

This ’perpetual recurrence of the same thing’ (to borrow a phrase from Freud)45 originates with Alceste. She demands of the narrator that he spend the rest of his days repeating a single, extremely limited, rigid and essentializing version of gender roles and relations. Her version is not, however, that recommended by the god of Love; he again echoes the Book of the Duchess, and again Alceste dissents. Both Book and Legend present pre-emptive variations on Poe's assertion that ’the death…of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’.46 Poe continues, ’and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic [sic] are those of a bereaved lover’. In the Book, the Man in Black is inspired to lyric composition by the death of a woman who, as recreated by him, has inner as well as outer beauty, while his dream motivates the narrator, also an unhappy lover, to write. In the Legend Prologue, the god of Love urges the poet to write the stories of women of the following sort:

…to hyre love were they so trewe

That, rathere than they wolde take a newe,

They chose to be ded in sondry wyse,

And deiden, as the story wol devyse;

And some were brend, and some were cut the hals,

And some dreynt for they wolden not be fals;

For alle keped they here maydenhede,

Or elles wedlok, or here widewehede.


(They were so true to their love that rather than consent to take a new they chose to die in various ways, and died, as the story shall relate; and some were burned, and some had their throats cut, and some drowned because they would not be false; for they all preserved their maidenhood, or wedlock, or their widowhood.)

One way to understand the god of Love's formulation is as a prescription for suicide. A ’trewe’ woman will recognize that severance from her man, even involuntary or undeserved, is equivalent to death; her actual suicide seems thus to be only a belated acting out, an obedient translation into the physical world of patriarchally determined symbolic rules. In the poem's pagan setting suicide may be considered the ultimate good death for a woman, granting her instant passage into the Eternal Feminine. By this act she declares her superiority to Fortune. To do otherwise would threaten her social identity in ways spelled out above.47

On the other hand, the god seems here to envisage a series of martyrdoms in which women are tortured by third parties but remain true to him, their Love.48 This interpretation, as Fradenburg points out, is reminiscent of Lacan's insistence on the indestructible beauty of Sade's female victims:49

La victime survit à tous les mauvais traitements, elle ne se dégrade même pas dans son caractère d'attrait voluptueux…elle a toujours les yeux les plus jolis du monde, l'air le plus pathétique et le plus touchant. L’insistance de l'auteur à mettre toujours ses sujets sous une rubrique aussi stéréotypée pose en elle-même un problème.50

(The victim survives all the ill-treatment, she does not even lose any of her voluptuous attraction…she still has the loveliest eyes in the world, the most pathetic and touching air. The author's insistence on always placing his subjects under such a stereotyped heading is itself a problem.)

The last sentence could stand as an epigraph for the legends. Lacan posits that Sade seeks in these women evidence of ’le caractère indestructible de l’Autre’ (’the indestructible character of the Other’),51 in other words of the existence of a metaphysical ground to being which makes death strictly impossible and guarantees the limits and structures necessary to produce such human phenomena as society, ethics, meaning and the person. And he links this fantasy to Christianity, ’apothéose du sadisme’ (’apotheosis of sadism’) for its emphasis on the passion of Christ, echoed in those of the martyrs.52 Tormented and humiliated beyond tolerance, the Legend's women become sublimely beautiful. Their superhuman endurance points to a divine entity — in this case the god of Love — who underwrites the immortality of the male viewer, torturer or writer. From a more feminist standpoint, Simon Gaunt argues that female characters who die for love in Old French literature enact a specifically feminine jouissance (following Lacan's Seminar XX) which constitutes a subversive relation to the universal. According to Gaunt, for all that it is a male fantasy, feminine jouissance may nevertheless trouble patriarchal social organization.53

These are productive ways of understanding the Legend of Good Women, but I would go further: the feminine voice in the Prologue positively exploits the sublimation which male fantasies impose upon it to stake out a potentially more independent territory beyond male sponsorship and torment. To adopt for a moment the Lacanian terms used in Chapter 2 above, analysing the courtly Lady Alceste as also inhuman Thing would be insufficient since she introduces into the poem a position not caught within the dialectic of sublimity and abjection.54 Alceste proclaims the proper topic of poetry to be the single scenario in which women were faithful ’al here lyves’ (G.475; ’all their lives’) while men spend ’al here lyf’ (G.477; ’all their life’) betraying women. Her prescription constructs gender difference around dissimilar modes of living and of representing lives, not around the distinction between life and death. Men are lumped together in a perpetual present having only one story, but for women she stipulates the detail of their historical particularities. This leads to the repetitiousness of the Legend, which rehearses the women's individual stories and the ’sondry wyse’ of their deaths within an overarching insistence on one unvarying interpretation. Some are tortured, some commit suicide, some die, others remain alive; these distinctions are less significant than the issue of whether the god's or Alceste's interpretative framework triumphs.

Death is an important element in Alceste's vision, which insists on lifelong fidelity. In the legends themselves, some of the heroines die immediately, others after a lifetime which is presented as a sort of long-drawn-out death, as in Hypsipyle's case:

And trewe to Jason was she al hire lyf,

And evere kepte hire chast, as for his wif;

Ne nevere hadde she joye at hire herte,

But deyede for his love, of sorwes smerte.

(ll. 1576—9)

(And she was true to Jason all her life, and kept herself chaste forever, as his wife; nor did she ever experience joy in her heart, but died for his love out of sorrow's pain.)

Hypsipyle's loyalty prevents her from living in any social role other than that of Jason's wife. From the moment of their abandonment the heroines’ futures are foreclosed; they are set apart from everyday life even before their physical death. Their refusal to participate further in life nevertheless does not make them the acquiescent suicides which the god of Love may envisage. Nor is it merely the turning upon themselves of a violence impotent to harm its true object.55 It is an act which ’almost parodies the death which is the ultimate manifestation of altruistic self-abnegation’.56 The decision of those heroines who choose to follow their lovers into death is coloured by Alceste's return from the grave. For it is not in fact her severance from her man which seals each heroine's fate but her wilful refusal to be detached from her former partner. Nor does her decision imply submission to male desires; we can rather say that each heroine refuses to allow her partner to detach himself from her. There are no liberating secondary burials in the Legend. On the contrary, its good women go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that their men will never be free of them nor licensed to remodel the women's personae to suit their own agendas. Thus the emphasis in Alceste's prescription of the most poetical topic lies on women's rejection of normal existence and the patriarchal authority decreeing it. Physical death does not bring this rejection to an end but instead preserves it. Choosing to exist suspended beyond the masculinist cycle of normal life and consummated death, the Legend's heroines withhold the regenerating power which their deaths ought normally to contribute to the social order. In place of the exemplary bearers of patriarchal meaning proposed by the god of Love, Alceste links the making of poetry to the presentation of a group of women who defy the ’boundes’ that they ’oughte kepe’ (G.536; ’boundaries’, ’should observe’), the confines of social life and of the socialized death that is an integral part of that life. It is Alceste's totalizing, monologic project that ensures for these women a spectral presence which outrages recognized forms but is nonetheless immovable, defying conventional aestheticization.

The legends themselves are sometimes considered to undermine Alceste's prescription and sometimes to disappoint the expectations it arouses. However, in certain respects Alceste's command is precisely realized in the legends. Each heroine repeats the intransigent position that Alceste articulates in the Prologue. Pace those critics who see them as dying for love, monogamy or their menfolk, these women die for nothing but to uphold the desire which inhabits them, exemplifying Lacan's description of psychoanalytic ethics.57 ’Fiercely monogamous’, these women can, of course, be reclaimed for the marital ideology proposed by the god of Love.58 However, the poem warns with remarkable consistency and obviousness against such appropriation. Monogamy in this poem appears not as a manifestation of masculine authority but as a mode of feminine resistance to that authority. Unlike the ladies of the Book of the Duchess, the heroines of the legends could never be transformed into patrons of remarriage. In declining to be replaced they repudiate the idea of women's essential interchangeability and combat the endless recycling of ideal types associated with the Eternal Feminine. Paradoxical though it may appear, the poem's repetitive quality is key to its heroines’ uniqueness. They embody that combination of ’concrete singularity’ and ’concrete collectivity’ which Irigaray attributes to Antigone (see pp. 23—5, above). The ladies’ re-enactment of Alceste's adamant resolution preserves their personal couplings perpetually in human memory, a ploy whose success is borne out by the Legend's own reproduction of their stories. The repetitiousness that originates with Alceste must therefore be distinguished from the repetition which characterizes the supposedly eternal cycle of life and death; whereas the latter erases and discourages particularity and promotes conformity in favour of a socially useful norm, the former is here allied with an unassimilable singularity which is all the balder for being independent of accidental biographical details, pared down to the bare facts of desire and its assertion. Central to the discomfort that the poem inspires is the Legend's insistence on its ladies’ undying protest.59

Alceste's heroines refuse to be passed along into the transcendent realm from which Blanche and White preside puppet-like over their own replacement, and by this means they resist conscription as patrons of social renewal. Female resistance to a patriarchal order could easily be coded as misogyny, but in the Legend it is couched in positive moral terms. Alceste is no less a paragon than White, and the quality she and her heroines exemplify is once again trouthe. I can hardly overstate the difference between the Legend and the Book where this value is concerned. Whereas Lady White's trouthe is the prime mechanism inducting her into the politically manipulated symbolic realm beyond time and change which is the land of the dead, Alceste's trouthe, realized in the poem as her unshakeable demand, removes her from that realm without integrating her into everyday life. Trouthe makes White doubly socially useful, easing her through ideal normativity into the universal and thus back into substitution on earth, but it fixes Alceste and her ladies in the entre-deux-morts outside society's living and deathly manifestations. Their trouthe represents the women's rejection of the customary identification of femininity with lack: their reason for preserving their prior states of maidenhood and so on is ’nat kept for holynesse, / But al for verray vertu and clennesse, / And for men schulde sette on hem no lak’ (G.296—8; ’not maintained out of holiness, but entirely out of true virtue and purity, and so that men should accuse them of no lack’).60 The Legend provides its heroines with a positive ethical position which gives them the power to engage seriously in debate with other views. It creates out of traditionally feminine virtue a place distinct from the Eternal Feminine ideal and from the hegemonic ideological order, and critical of both.

The Legend emphasizes that insistence and lack of orthodox aesthetic appeal are poetically generative. Since the narrator is to have no other subject until he dies, ’yer by yere’ (G.471; ’year on year’) his life is as foreclosed and dominated by a single repetitive model as those of the ladies he is to write about. His poetry is henceforward to occupy a domain if not analogous to that of the ladies’ lives, then bearing testimony to it. This is a ’perverse poetic’ to counter the tradition of ’hylomorphic poetics’ in which a male author paternally imposes form on inchoate feminine material; it contradicts the ’Father of English Poetry’ myth, frustrating desires and identifications tenacious in Chaucer criticism.61 The Lady who imposes her non-negotiable bidding upon him exemplifies the desire that inhabits us against what would ordinarily be considered our better judgement. Alceste's unrefusable gift to the narrator's poetic production is expressed in the ballade in her honour inserted into the Prologue. This ballade lists paragons of ’trouthe in love’ (G.221; ’fidelity in love’), all feminine except for two masculine names in the first stanza, naming each only to surpass it with the refrain ’Alceste is here, that al that may desteyne.’ The MED gives three principal glosses for disteinen:

1 To color or stain (sth.); (b) fig. to disguise (one's purpose).

2 To deprive (sth.) of color, brightness, or beauty; (b) fig. to dim or obscure (sth.), put in the shade; (c) fig. to fade away, vanish.

3 to sully (someone's reputation); desecrate (the name of God); ∼ tonge, speak vilely; (b) to dishonor or defame (sb.); defile.

The ballade's refrain is commonly understood to suggest that Alceste's pre-eminence is such that she extinguishes all other claims, a reading which relies on sense 2.62 Attention to the other glosses alters our appreciation. Alceste's effect is to cast a particular colour or stain over — or even, given the connotations of sense 3, to discolour — any woman she stands next to.63 The heroines of the Legend all acquire Alceste's livery, turning a corpse-like pale or taking on a bloody flush as they manifest the uncompromising trouthe that projects them into the zone beyond life and death and opposes them to the life cycle. ’[P]hysical loss of control’ here represents a step beyond the order of everyday life.64 Its involuntary nature reflects the essential, instinctive impulse to resist that order. These are the colours of the marguerite reinterpreted by Cybele and Mars. Seen in the light Alceste casts, the ladies appear quite different from their realizations in other texts. Testifying to the revenant's effect, each resists being appropriated to the reproduction of the established order. This explains the peculiar treatment of source material in the Legend; to tell a story under Alceste's aegis is to distort its natural, which is to say its usual ideological purposes.65 As Žižek, discussing anamorphosis, puts it: ’If we look at a thing straight on, i.e., matter-of-factly, disinterestedly, objectively, we see nothing but a formless spot; the object assumes clear and distinctive features only if we look at it “at an angle”, i.e., with an “interested” view, supported, permeated, and “distorted” by desire.’66 The formless spot of the boring and conformist Legend of Good Women comes into focus when the desire of Alceste and her heroines is made the basis for the critical gaze. Small wonder that the ballade urges its pantheon of conventional exemplars of true love to hide and be silent. If these names represent figures who, like Blanche and White, have undergone secondary burial, Alceste comes to disinter them. The warning signalled by the ballade's insistent refrain is a real one, for through Alceste the lyrical, symbolic domain to which Blanche and White are dispatched will be dismantled in the name of a different, awkward and particular femininity.

The Prologue suggests that distortion is not so much a valid as an inevitable interpretative principle, for desire intervenes in even the most supposedly disinterested of accounts. Its achievement is to grant to Alceste's refractory desire an effective authority usually reserved for the representatives of the established order. The secondary burial and translation into the Eternal Feminine professedly achieved in the Book of the Duchess contrast with the inflexible revenant, obsessive repetition in form and content, and assertiveness of female trouthe which give the Legend of Good Women its unpalatable, ungraspable quality. These attributes of the later poem are, in a sense, blindingly obvious; simultaneously impossible to ignore and impossible to confront directly, they invite us to ’desteyne’ the literary material if we are to see what it really sets before us.67 The Legend opposes the possibility that we may assimilate it comfortably into an existing system, thereby challenging our potential appropriation of it as much as it does that of the god of Love in the Prologue. Taking their stand in the intermediary zone through which their system's rites are designed to hurry them, the legends’ heroines contest the social and poetic vision consecrated by those rites. As woman after woman ceremonially upholds her singularity she not only protests against the sacrifice of women to a male-dominated order but also conjures new ethical and political possibilities. Insistent poetic repetition elevates behaviour into ritual, and the cumulative effect of Alceste's and her heroines’ actions is to replace the ritual they challenge with one of their own: a ’ritual of resistance’.68 Although Hertz does not discuss the possibility, an altered rite can be an engine of change. Alceste's exemplarity is of a new and radical kind. Refusing the satisfaction of sublimation, it remains resolutely demanding, geared not to ideological reproduction but to critique, not to the normative but to the alternative.

From one perspective, the uncompromising aesthetic of the Prologue fails to impose itself on the legends and on Chaucer's later compositions. It may be that it can never found a workable poetics, since by definition we cannot remain long in the entre-deux-morts. Chaucer re-enacts the male role of abandoning the heroines, thus both fulfilling and denying Alceste's prescription. If we take a different point of view, however, we can open up the question of the Legend's possible success. Entre-deux-morts, the revolutionary position on the far side of blind folly or human ruin — to phrase it in Lacanian terms discussed earlier in this book — may be invoked as a trope with the aim of challenging the existing order and of making it past, placing its norms into suspension or abeyance for critical reconsideration. We should, therefore, judge the success of the Legend of Good Women not only by whether it actually provided a workable model for Chaucer's future productions but by how passéiste it makes some other productions appear. Against the courtly and scholarly melancholia that characterizes modernity in much fourteenth-century writing, the Legend's Prologue presents a poetry that engages fully with death but refuses equally to mourn, to declare it ’nothing for us’, or to Christianize it; and thus gestures towards quite other cultural possibilities. Of all the figures in this book, Chaucer's dreamt Alceste bears closest comparison with the Antigones portrayed by Irigaray and by Butler. She acts not out of a self-destructive drive but from urgent desire to have things done differently. Both Irigaray and Butler envisage a future shaped by Antigone: Irigaray, an order which includes Antigone as a coherent feminine principle to balance the hitherto dominant masculine; Butler, the possibility of recognizing far more forms of desire and attachment than those restricted few privileged by patriarchy. For all the moral distance separating the exemplar of wifehood from Oedipus’ child, Alceste's ambivalence for Chaucer's poetry balances on precisely the knife-edge that Butler identifies for Antigone: ’what she draws into crisis is the representative function itself, the very horizon of intelligibility within which she operates and according to which she remains somewhat unthinkable’.69 Alceste is not sacrificed by her text to normality and to the death drive, as Lacan has Antigone; nor is she a Žižekian constitutive exception, foundational for an order that she also negates and that must necessarily reject her. More pessimistically than in Irigaray's vision, Alceste's authority rests on her death; more optimistically than in Butler's, Alceste in living death stands at the admired centre of an entire court with its symbolic and social order, and actively engages the living court poet.

Conclusion: living dead or dead-in-life?

Previous chapters have, I hope, established both the recurrence of the ’between two deaths’ in medieval literature and the variety of meanings and uses to which it bends. A question which it has not been possible to pose earlier is: are the formally dead but apparently alive significantly and systematically different from the technically alive but effectively dead? The evidence surveyed here suggests that the former (the Pearl-Maiden, Alceste) are more associated with the idea of demand or obligation which it is the living addressee's duty to fulfil, the latter (Roland, Galehot) with that of sacrifice or willingness to die for a person or cause, thus creating an obligation. However, these categories are not stable. Whereas the Pearl-Maiden bases the authority for her advice to the Jeweller on Christ's death for humankind, Galehot's death for Lancelot's sake is also a petition to Lancelot, although it remains a question whether the latter's failure to reciprocate frustrates or answers Galehot's desire. Roland's death is not originally a sacrifice for Charlemagne, though the later parts of the assonanced Chansons de Roland and the rhymed redactions in toto make it one retrospectively. Blanche/White's consummated death too is rewritten as a sacrifice that she and her mourner make, albeit involuntary on her part and painful on his, for the benefit of surviving members and future generations of their House. This interpretation extracts her from the entre-deux-morts and lays her to rest.

In the works analysed in this book, the living dead are female, the dead-in-life male. This observation has suggestive correspondences with the distinction elaborated by Simon Gaunt between men who ’talk the talk’ of death, in that their deaths for love are subordinated to their own deployment of the symbolic order of discourse, and women who ’walk the walk’; their deaths are much less mediated by language, at any rate by language over which they exercise direct control, and therefore have a potentially closer connection with the Real.1 Male-authored texts, perhaps unsurprisingly, tend to represent the masculine melancholy as subjectively and ethically the more serious, whereas female death, however gratifying in one respect to the male ego, retains a troublesome aspect insofar as it represents an independent female desire. This Gaunt characterizes as feminine jouissance, drawing on Lacan's Seminar XX. In the schema based on Seminar VII that I have used in this book, there is no distinction made either between masculine and feminine characters entre-deux-morts, on the one hand, or between the living dead and the dead-in-life, on the other. I have presented upholding desire unto death as essentially genderless though malleable into different gendered frameworks, and have treated the different inflections in its realizations as cultural, social or political phenomena stemming from and impacting on the texts’ ideological positioning. While accepting the Real antagonism of sexual difference and of other differences not limited to gender, I adopt the methodological principle that it is better to proceed as if the terms in which such antagonisms are couched were human-made and variable. Such a procedure is preferable analytically and politically. I accept Butler's reiterated objection to Lacanian psycho-social analysis, namely that the empty ontological or formal categories it posits are easily confused with particular social structures and arrangements. Her point is, indeed, illustrated by Žižek, whose political insights often depend on a creative conflation of the two. Literary criticism is an ethical and political practice. Even though the fundamental alienation of sexual difference can never be finally overcome, it is, in my opinion, not only excusable but necessary to believe in the possibility of a less unjust and inhumane social order. This reflects my view (Chapter 2, above) that Lacan's account of actual gender differences is historically determined (which I imagine he would accept) and inadequate in its restrictive nature (where he would retort that I am nostalgic or utopian, in any case unrealistic). Alceste and the Pearl-Maiden, the dead females who speak in this book, do so through named or presumed male authors, respectively Chaucer and the Pearl-poet, though God may also be considered the Maiden's Author. Their opposition to the established earthly order does not in my view represent a transhistorical and irreducible female otherness; neither is it accidental or insignificant. Gaunt's distinction is important, but both these feisty dead females and the Lacanian gendered explanation of them need to be related to available cultural codes of femininity. Male characters can also play the role of demanding living dead, as they do in many visionary exempla of the sort studied by Schmitt. My corpus is, after all, selective and no doubt reflects at some level my own preconceptions about gender roles. I nevertheless offer the distribution of fully realized male and female figures within my sample as a fact to be noted.

Žižek offers a further way of thinking about the difference between living dead and dead-in-life. After noting an antagonism between the ordinarily living and dead on the one hand and the awkwardly unliving and undead on the other, he further divides up the problematic category: ’For a human being to be ’dead while alive’ is to be colonized by the ’dead’ symbolic order; to be ’alive while dead’ is to give body to the remainder of Life-Substance which has escaped the symbolic colonization.’2 Huot has shown how fruitful this distinction can be in the context of madness in medieval literature. Among my texts, the correlation cannot be sustained, though it remains stimulating. Pearl, for instance, inverts the relationships that Žižek proposes. The Pearl-Maiden, who is ’alive while dead’, is the creature of the symbolic order, while the Jeweller in his ’dead while alive’ condition in the poem's first section is overwhelmed by a meaningless life-force, a ’remainder’ as well as a ’reminder’ of his infant's death. Throughout the text he is construed as excessive in relation to the poem's symbolic order and, I argue, remains so at the end in spite of the Maiden's overwhelmingly normative integration. This reversal of Žižek's pattern could, however, be ascribed to Pearl's Christian/courtly strategy of inverting perspectives and tropes. The Chanson de Roland provides further ground for exploring the distinction. In the assonanced Rolands, the various ethical discussions over behavioural norms of, for instance, masculinity, leadership and baronial or Christian conduct, happen around Roland without containing him. Although ’dead while alive’, Roland, precisely by embodying the ’remainder of Life-Substance which has escaped symbolic colonization’, provides an initially free-floating energy which those norms that fasten onto him, whether as exemplar or counter-exemplar, compete to harness in order to impose themselves more widely. Roland's empty demand, realized in his destruction drive, elicits various responses from different ideologically constituted bodies, all of which construe Roland's actions as a question to which they have the answer, thus ascribing retrospectively a specific content to his demand.3 In the Oxford and Venice 4 texts Roland is colonized by the symbolic order, that is, recuperated for meaning — regardless of which particular one — only after his corporeal death. To phrase it in the Hertzian terms of Chapter 5, the Baligant, Aude and Ganelon episodes constitute the hero's ’secondary burial’ as he is integrated into the community's afterlife and recycled into social use as a symbol. This second life is energized by his own focus on second death. In the rhymed remaniements, however, we see a situation more like that which Žižek proposes; Roland, ’dead while alive’, from the start emblematizes the texts’ (imaginary) symbolic order, the site of meaning and social contract, accounting for the mysterious fascination he exercises over every other character as well as for the need to distance him from the textual world.

The tension that Žižek identifies between excessive remainder and symbolic colonization has run throughout this book, although it does not correlate neatly with the distinction between ’dead while alive’ or ’alive while dead’. Entre-deux-morts — to return to a phrase which places the two conditions on a par — generates psychic and aesthetic energy by its position beyond the symbolic order; precisely this energy is valuable to ethical, poetic, political and ideological regimes, which therefore hasten to bind it, in Freud's term, to a specific meaning serving particular interests. Žižek's various developments of Lacan's notion of the point de capiton (’quilting point’, ’anchoring point’) suggest too many directions for inquiry to follow up here.4 I shall refer briefly to only two such. In For They Know Not What They Do, Žižek reads the point de capiton as an ideological operation in which a particular signifier is attached to a particular signified. He emphasizes how this in practice produces a ’“magical inversion” of defeat into triumph’: ’Here one is dealing with the act of “creation” stricto sensu: the act which turns chaos into a “new harmony” and suddenly makes “comprehensible” what was up to then a meaningless and even terrifying disturbance’ (and Žižek continues, ’It is impossible not to recall Christianity’).5 Such inversions are put to political use in the assonanced Rolands, in Pearl and in the Book of the Duchess, and supply one way of reading the figure of Galehot as well as the Prologue and legends of the Legend of Good Women. In my second citation, from Tarrying with the Negative, Žižek treats the point de capiton in a way that recalls Barthes's definition of myths, stressing that although the highly invested signifier expresses fears associated with real material circumstances, it is a proxy figure deployed so as to shield those circumstances and their exploitation by particular forces from effective analysis and engagement. His privileged examples here are the Jew in anti-semitism and the shark in Jaws:

To say that the murderous shark ’symbolizes’ the above-mentioned series of fears [e.g. big business manipulations] is to say too much and not enough at the same time. It does not symbolize them, since it literally annuls them by itself occupying the place of the object of fear. It is therefore ’more’ than a symbol: it becomes the feared ’thing itself’. Yet, the shark is decidedly less than a symbol, since it does not point toward the symbolized content, but rather blocks access to it, renders it invisible.6

Žižek concentrates on feared figures, but Lacan's analysis of le beau in Seminar VII argues that beauty can also be used at once to body forth the Real for us and to bar us from it. Such figures as the Pearl-Maiden, Alceste and her cohorts of indestructibly beautiful women or Galehot with his extraordinary self-abnegation both indicate and conceal hinterlands of economic, material and psychic disturbance. The art object itself performs a similar dual function.

Some instances are more productive than others. Blanche/White never has much disruptive energy, her effect on her mourner being closely contained by courtly paradigms which determine that he will not, in fact, die of his love. As Machaut's Reason affirms before the king of Bohemia, love cannot survive the death of the beloved; Love and Youth will bring forgetfulness and thereafter, presumably, a new attachment. Whereas an unfaithful beloved effectively kills love itself for the lover, a faultless and dead one actually enables future loves.7 Losing one's perfect beloved to death in fact favours the probability that the survivor will fall in love with another, and live that love happily. It is perhaps cynical to suggest that the Man in Black's lady was partially disinterred in order that some political or marital capital might be wrung out of her. Blanche/White is certainly an etiolated specimen of the ’between two deaths’, dispatched with a grace, convenience and coherence that arouse suspicion. The Nirvana drive is too strong in her portrayal, the destruction drive too feeble. Symbolic colonization dominates the primary narrative of the Book of the Duchess (the minor narrative of Ceyx and Alcyone may tell a different story), and the dead woman's weak disruptive force generates correspondingly little ideological fuel. Contrast the Pearl-Maiden, with whom Christian ideology smashes through everyday life. Alceste, however, fits Žižek's model of the ’alive while dead’ so well that she carries it further than Žižek envisages. So strong is she that she remodels the symbolic order in accordance with her will, at least for the space of the Legend; she colonizes the Poet-Dreamer to be the foreclosed instrument of that order, repeating her instructions year by year for the rest of his life. (Can this recolonization of the living poet for the reordered symbolic succeed? The examples of Alceste and the Pearl-Maiden — who attempts the same thing — suggest doubt but not certain disbelief.) The transparency of the meaning borne by figures entre-deux-morts is therefore not an indicator of their colonization by the symbolic order; Alceste invests a specific message — the injustice of females’ treatment under patriarchy — with all the energy of an indestructible life-substance. Galehot, for his part, rather than being defeated by the symbolic order represented by Lancelot, enthusiastically and painfully submits himself to it, becoming its abject, undead creature, hence its symptom. He remains excessive; Lancelot does not want his overgenerous adhesion or his sacrifice-demand, which therefore become themselves acts of protest against knighthood and perhaps, beyond that, against the symbolic order per se. Contrast the prince of Deschamps's Ballade 1457, called upon to sacrifice earthly glory and to become the symbolic order's anonymous subject on earth in order to access eternal life. In the texts foregrounded in Chapter 3, the ubi sunt topos implants a constant toing and froing between ’alive’ and ’dead’ that deliberately confuses efforts to separate the terms. Of the ladies of Villon's ’Ballade des dames’, only Joan of Arc could be said to be ’alive while dead’, all the others being properly dead in their sublime otherwhere. Or so they seem at first. The lords, coming after, appear dead in a different mode, not eternal but ephemeral. For these latter we are pushed to ask whether they were ever really ’alive’ in the sense of embodying the life-substance; and the symbolic order falters with them. Their unsettling clears the ground for the writing subject and the speaking vieil langage of the third ballade, ’dead while alive’ in a promisingly disturbing way, refusing either to lie down quietly or to be generative within normal forms, proliferating without changing except to rot.

The evidence of this book, therefore, suggests that symbolic colonization and escape are related dialectically. Rather than a formal taxonomy tying the living living dead to one set of tropes or meanings and the dead living dead to another, their distribution varies within this dialectical field. They may be related within particular texts and textual networks in assorted ways, these relations being the primary generators of meaning. The major antagonism, therefore, lies between the normative and the disturbing, in living as in dying; and even this produces in many cases a mutually reinforcing dynamic, witness Pearl and Roland. In the strange overlap between death and life — when, in Barthes's phrase, ’one of the spaces bites unwarrantedly into the other’ — cultural laws are suspended along with natural ones. Established norms are temporarily deracinated, leading ultimately to one of three outcomes: restoration, modification or revolution. The practical outcome in terms of the regime is an important topic; equally interesting are the philosophical, existential explorations which centre on the figure caught in the overlap or interstice between life and death. ’Between two deaths’ is itself ’good to think with’. The most fundamental challenges to their and our cultures’ ways of thinking are posed by those figures whose desires lead to an impasse. Galehot, Villon's testator and Alceste found no tradition in their own time and therefore finally appear merely (grandly, tragically, foolishly) idiosyncratic. The demands they articulate not only are not met by the individuals to whom they are nominally addressed but also fizzle out as movements of the collective: for Lacan the hero, as opposed to the common man, is one who may be betrayed with impunity.8 It is therefore important for us to register that those demands point towards a profound dissent from the aesthetic, social or subjective regime. This dissent, of course, also makes them available for appropriation by particular interests such as my own. I asked in the Introduction whether there was a medieval Antigone commensurate with Sophocles. Perhaps not; but I consider these other figures at the cusp of representability to be Antigone's kin.