Love and Virtue in Middle English and Middle Scots Poetry

by Dominika Ruszkiewicz (Author)
©2021 Monographs 238 Pages


The book provides the first comprehensive study of love and ethics in Middle English and Middle Scots poems written at the close of the Middle Ages by Geoffrey Chaucer, James I, Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, and Gavin Douglas. It shows that medieval poems often reveal a pattern in which an individual moves from selfish to selfless concerns, and how this movement is incited by love, while fulfilled through virtue. By taking into account the English and Scottish cultural contexts, as well as other traditions of writing, the book shows how the ideas on human well-being were disseminated and adjusted to meet cultural changes. In this, the book contributes to a discussion on what constitutes “mindful” or “virtuous” living, a discussion that is as relevant today as it was in the Middle Ages.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of abbreviations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Which Love and Which Morality?
  • i. The Thematic Scope of this Book
  • ii. A Critical and Theoretical Background
  • iii. The Subject and Method of this Book
  • Chapter One Love and Moral Perfection: Medieval Literary and Cultural Traditions
  • 1.1. The Provençal Love Lyric and the Troubadour Tradition
  • 1.2. The Chansons de Geste and the Epic Tradition
  • 1.3. The Latin Scholastic Tradition
  • 1.4. Classical Tradition and Christian Belief
  • 1.5. Chaucer and the Philosophical and Amatory Traditions
  • 1.6. The Chaucerian Tradition in Scotland
  • Chapter Two Love and Reason: The Romaunt of the Rose and The Goldyn Targe1
  • 2.1. “His lordship is so full of shours”
  • 2.2. “Resoun men clepe that lady”
  • 2.3. Delight – “the prince of every vice”
  • 2.4. “Thy myght, thi vertu goth away”
  • 2.5. “In erthe is not oure countre”
  • 2.6. “Hir doctrine I sette at nought”
  • 2.7. “I raise and by a rosere did me rest”
  • 2.8. “Be lufis quene I was aspyit”
  • 2.9. “Quhill Presence kest a pulder in his ene”
  • 2.10. “Quhy was thou blyndit, Resoun, quhi, allace?”
  • 2.11. “Halesum the vale depaynt wyth flouris ying”
  • 2.12. “Defendit me that nobil chevallere”
  • 2.13. “Wele aucht thou be aferit of the licht”
  • 2.14. Conclusion
  • Chapter Three Love and the Virtue of Necessity: Chaucer’s Boethian Poems and James I’s The Kingis Quair
  • 3.1. “Nothing happens other than by necessity”
  • 3.2. “Eschue thou vices; worschipe and love thou vertues”
  • 3.3. “I have lost more than thow wenest”
  • 3.4. “Swich is this world, whoso it kan byholde”
  • 3.5. “What is this world? What asketh men to have?”
  • 3.6. “His metir swete full of moralitee”
  • 3.7. “The glade empire / Off blisfull Venus”
  • 3.8. “Ground thy werk […] upon the stone”
  • 3.9. “Dame Minerve, the pacient goddesse”
  • 3.10. “Spend wele […] the remanant of the day”
  • 3.11. Conclusion
  • Chapter Four Love and the Virtue of Honor: The House of Fame and The Palis of Honoure
  • 4.1. “O wikke Fame!”
  • 4.2. “Al that longeth unto Fame”
  • 4.3. “Goddesse of Renoun or of Fame”
  • 4.4. “Soun ys noght but eyr ybroken”
  • 4.5. “Fals and soth compouned”
  • 4.6. “Good ne harm, ne that ne this”
  • 4.7. “A larges, larges, hold up wel!”
  • 4.8. “I wot myself best how y stonde”
  • 4.9. “Out of the ayr come ane impressioun”
  • 4.10. “Ane lusty rout of bestis rationall”
  • 4.11. “Raid Diane that ladyis hartis dressys”
  • 4.12. “The court so variabill”
  • 4.13. “The court of plesand stedfastnes”
  • 4.14. “Sche of nobillis fatis hes the stere”
  • 4.15. “The fynall end of our travail”
  • 4.16. “Intronyt sat a god armypotent”
  • 4.17. “For vertu is a thing sa precious”
  • 4.18. “In that myrrour I mycht se at a sycht”
  • 4.19. “All nobilnesse presupponis vertu”
  • 4.20. Conclusion
  • Chapter Five Love and the Common Good: The Parliament of Fowls and The Thrissill and the Rois
  • 5.1. “Associations and federations of men”
  • 5.2. “Thorgh me men gon”
  • 5.3. “Derk was that place”
  • 5.4. “The noble goddesse of kynde”
  • 5.5. “The vicaire of the almyghty Lord”
  • 5.6. “I chese, and chese with wil, and herte, and thought”
  • 5.7. “For to delyvere us is gret charite”
  • 5.8. “Now pes […] I comaunde heer!”
  • 5.9. “Haill princes Natur, haill Venus, luvis quene!”
  • 5.10. “Exerce justice with mercy and conscience”
  • 5.11. “In feild go furth and fend the laif”
  • 5.12. “And sen thow art a king, thow be discreit”
  • 5.13. “Haill Rois both reid and quhyt”
  • 5.14. “The commoun voce uprais of birdis small”
  • 5.15. Conclusion
  • Chapter Six The Virtue of Love: Troilus and Criseyde and The Testament of Cresseid
  • 6.1. “This Troilus is clomben on the staire”
  • 6.2. “A thing so vertuous in kynde”
  • 6.3. “For I am sik in ernest, douteles”
  • 6.4. “In his thought he nas somewhat diseased”
  • 6.5. “O blynde world, O blynde entencioun”
  • 6.6. “For thow shalt into hevene blisse wende”
  • 6.7. “Thyn be the peyne of helle!”
  • 6.8. “As Orpheus and Eurydice, his feere”
  • 6.9. “For the erthe overcomen yeveth the sterres”
  • 6.10. “Almyghty Jove in trone”
  • 6.11. “Schouris of haill gart fra the north discend”
  • 6.12. “Than desolait scho walkit up and doun”
  • 6.13. “Allace, that ever I maid yow sacrifice!”
  • 6.14. “The sevin planetis discending fra thair spheiris”
  • 6.15. “Quhair is thy chalmer wantounlie besene?”
  • 6.16. “For all your micht may cum to that same end”
  • 6.17. “Fy, fals Cresseid! O trew knicht Troylus!”
  • 6.18. “My spreit I leif to Diane quhair scho dwellis”
  • 6.19. Conclusion
  • Afterword
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Works and Characters
  • Index of Terms
  • Series index

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List of abbreviations

For Chaucer’s works, I have used the abbreviations found in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 779.

For the works of other poets, the abbreviations are as follows:

ACLThe Art of Courtly Love
CPThe Consolation of Philosophy
GTThe Goldyn Targe
KQThe Kingis Quair
MALe Morte Darthur
NEThe Nicomachean Ethics
PHPalis of Honoure
RomanceThe Romance of the Rose
TestCThe Testament of Cresseid
TRThe Thrissill and the Rois

For less frequently cited works I provide translators, dates of publication and page numbers.

←14 | 15→


Since the original inspiration for this book was provided by my doctoral research, the first person to gratefully acknowledge is Professor Teresa Bela from the English Department of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, under whose patient guidance my dissertation was written and whose words of wisdom have shaped my response to life with its many responsibilities, cares, and contingencies.

The fact that the scope of my research was expanded to include the ethical dimension of love and poetry owes a great deal to David Carr, Professor of Ethics and Education at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham and Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh, whose expertise in philosophy opened my eyes to new ideas and perspectives on love, virtue, and character formation. Thank you, David, for the conversations we had on Malory’s black and white knights, for generously sharing your research with me and thoughtfully responding to mine. Above all, thank you for doing me the honor of being the first expert reader of my manuscript!

I extend my sincere gratitude to the authorities of the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow, especially Rev. Krzysztof Biel, S.J., PhD, Dean of the Faculty of Education, whose enthusiastic support for English Philological Studies in general and my research in particular has always been kindly felt and greatly appreciated. To the Director of the Institute of Modern Languages, Anna Bugajska, Prof. AIK, as well as my colleagues from the Institute – you have been wonderfully encouraging!

I am also very grateful to Ann Cardwell, whose linguistic expertise and insightful queries have largely improved the presentation of my arguments. Thank you, Ann, for your patient assistance and for sharing your observations with me, not least those related to the natural world and the unusual nesting habits of the cuckoo!

But without my family and friends this book would never have been completed – your continued belief, wise words and constant presence have been truly beyond measure. Thank you!

←16 | 17→

Introduction: Which Love and Which Morality?

In medieval and early modern imagination, romantic love did not necessary go hand in hand with virtue, as shown – for instance – in the initial scene of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in which classical teaching on love and virtue is humorously evoked by two “wise philosophers”: Lucentio and his personal servant, Tranio. Lucentio’s assertion that he will dedicate his efforts to a study of that particular school of philosophy, which imparts how happiness may be achieved through virtue, is countered by Tranio who rejects moral discipline in favor of music, poetry, and other sensual joys in life. “Let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray,” he says, “Or so devote to Aristotle’s checks / As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured” (1.1.31–33).1 In this short exchange, preceding the main events of the play, virtue, as exemplified by Aristotle’s constraining moral precepts, belongs to the sphere of intellectual endeavor and is irreconcilably opposed to love, which – epitomized by the Latin poet Ovid – belongs to the sphere of light entertainment. We may note that the conversation between Lucentio and Tranio is out of tune with the rest of the play in that “[i]‌n the rest of the play, nothing is studied, much less the philosophy of virtue” (Raffel 2005: xxvi), or alternatively, we may argue that the connection between love and virtue becomes conspicuous as the play progresses, for love proves to have a civilizing effect on the tamers and the tamed alike, both of whom grow to appreciate a companionate relationship, based on human virtue. Whichever is the case, this short exchange situates the amorous and ethical concerns within a wider discussion on the human eudaimonia, which animated many medieval and early modern works.

i.  The Thematic Scope of this Book

It is the uneasy relation between love and virtue that will be the central concern of this book. To a certain extent, this unease is inscribed in the very nature of earthly love in that its irresistible and overwhelming force may be seen as contradicting the freedom of conscious decision-making, thereby questioning the moral meaningfulness of such love. As stated by David Carr, “there are clear problems about invoking any sort of love – which is often, after all, said to be ←17 | 18→‘blind’ – as a means of access to the moral clear-sightedness required for vision of the good” (2019: 534).2 And yet, the reverse may also be true, for even if human love is based on sensual attraction, it might still involve critical reflection and evaluation (Carr 2019: 539), which is a mark of “good” love. In a strictly medieval context, there were no morally neutral loves, just as there were no morally neutral actions, with virtues being conceptualized in the Middle Ages in terms of ordered love (Osborne 2019: 150). While love for God and one’s neighbor initiates the list of “good” loves, in fact other forms of love and human attachment, even including erotic attraction, may also be deemed “good” if they are devoid of false views, misconceptions, and vain, selfish passions, but instead have the potential to foster reflection, as noted by Carr (2019: 540). “Moreover,” Carr adds, “another good reason for taking almost all forms of love or other human attachment – such as affection, compassion, friendship, loyalty, care and sympathy – to be morally significant is that these may all be regarded, subject to the appropriate sort of restraint or discipline, as human virtues” (2019: 540). Restraint and discipline are central to the differentiation between “good” and “bad” loves. In fact, the latter category was defined through its tendency to excess, with the ultimate example of excess being lust. Further examples of vices included avarice or an excessive love of riches, as well as vanity or an excessive love of appearance.

In this book my concern is with love associated with excess, especially an excess of passion, which made individuals “blind” not only to their surroundings but also to their own natures, as well as with other forms of affection which in the Middle Ages were seen via their potential to contribute to the individual and common good, that is to the happiness of an individual and the well-being of the state. I move beyond the literary convention traditionally referred to in criticism as “courtly love” and situate the discussion on love in the context of the human condition as it was understood in the Middle Ages, treating Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy as the foundational text, against which the English and Scottish poems are analyzed. In my understanding, love serves as a context within which wider issues pertaining to human nature are examined, a context which is a metaphoric reenactment of the first step on the ascent to a higher reality, for inasmuch as the earthly experience is a necessary albeit temporary stage on the soul’s journey through life, the depiction of earthly love in poetry also opens up a wider perspective. As will be shown in the analysis, medieval ←18 | 19→poems often reveal a pattern in which an individual moves from selfish to selfless concerns, and while this movement may be incited by love, it is fulfilled through virtue, for it is through virtue that self-regarding and other-regarding motives are accommodated in human nature. In this respect, as Jessica Rosenfeld observes, “we might not only look to medieval poetry for the unethical origins of our desires, but for the ethical origins of our love” (2013: 13).

ii.  A Critical and Theoretical Background

Among the most significant publications which deal with the ethics of desire in the context of medieval literature, and the troubadour lyric in particular, is Paolo Cherchi’s Andreas and the Ambiguity of Courtly Love (1994). Cherchi examines the central paradox of troubadour poetry which rests on the assumption that eros is consubstantial with moral perfection so that they both are “reciprocally necessary rather than reciprocally exclusive” (1994: xiii). Cherchi’s central argument is that Andreas Capellanus’s model of courtly love, as described in his famous treatise, fails to resolve this paradox, for it ignores the troubadour system of values, the concept of mezura in particular. It is through this concept, Cherchi observes, that love and virtue are integrated and Capellanus’s negative model of love is turned into a positive exemplar. Mezura, as Cherchi notes, was a key concept for the troubadours, as it is related to controlling physical desire and directing it away from sexual fulfilment to other goals, such as the perpetuation of courtly values (1994: 65–66). In this way, “[v]‌irtue does not come from passion (this was Capellanus’s understanding of the troubadours’ statements), but it is present and active only when passionate love is tamed […], and temperate love […] is attained” (1994: 66).

The ethics of desire in medieval literature was also explored in Jonathan Morton’s The Roman de la rose in its Philosophical Context: Art, Nature, and Ethics (2018). I am especially indebted to Morton for highlighting the many paradoxes that underpin the Roman de la Rose, Chaucer’s crucial French source, paradoxes which blur the boundary between natural and moral philosophy, as revealed, for instance, in the description of Nature as a skilled artist, the maker of artificial creations (Morton 2018: 43). It is Morton’s discussion of the Aristotelian teleology of sex, including the distinctions between seeking pleasure and willing reproduction, as well as between artificial and natural impulses, that I found particularly relevant, as well as his belief in the philosophical potential of poetry. Morton examines the allegory of love as a genre of medieval philosophical poetry, situating the Roman de la Rose between the clerical and courtly intellectual traditions (2018: 12). “This text,” Morton argues, “[…] is exceptional in that ←19 | 20→it uses the fundamentally untrustworthy medium of poetry to discuss philosophical ideas in a much more sustained and complex way than had ever before been attempted in European literature, either in Latin or in the vernacular” (2018: 4).

A similar point was made by Jessica Rosenfeld in her Ethics and Enjoyment in Late Medieval Poetry. Love after Aristotle (2013). In fact, both Morton and Rosenfeld’s books may be appreciated for their contribution not only to literary, but also to philosophical studies in their focus on the reception of Aristotle’s ethics in the Middle Ages. In other words, they belong to a broader category of interdisciplinary research into “the ethical history of European medieval poetry” (Rosenfeld 2013: 9). Similarly to Morton, Rosenfeld also underlines the crucial role of French writers in bringing moral philosophy and poetry together, but contrary to Morton, she does not see the philosophical concerns of vernacular poetry as contributing towards a separate genre. One of the main theses of Rosenfeld’s book is that “vernacular love poetry takes the science of love and the good as one of its primary concerns, not simply as an independent genre, but as a participant in a larger late medieval ethical discourse” (2013: 39). Examining the impact of Aristotle’s ethical writings on the poets’ conception of happiness, Rosenfeld promotes the understanding of love as philosophy, a philosophy which moves beyond the wisdom of Chaucer’s “clerkes wyse” (TC, 1.961).3 In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, “philosophy is love and love is philosophy,” Rosenfeld observes (2013: 159). She contrasts the poem with Dante’s Convivio and presents her own understanding of philosophy in Troilus and Criseyde:

In Dante’s Convivio, contemplation is understood through the categories of human friendship, while for Chaucer, actual engagement with human friendship and love are the grounds of the pursuit of philosophy – not as a vehicle or allegory for philosophical truths, but as a route toward a philosophy that is nurtured by sensory experience, animated by poetic compassion, and constituted by shared conversation about the pursuit of the good (Rosenfeld 2013: 159).

In her examination of Chaucer’s characters, Rosenfeld uses the concept of what she refers to as “erotic Aristotelianism” (2013: 160) and the ideas of Jacques Lacan concerning love.

I was also inspired by those scholars who examine Aristotle’s ideas in the context of narrative poetry. David Carr, for instance, draws upon two concepts central to Aristotle’s ethics: that of character and that of education through ←20 | 21→stories, making a case for character formation as a chief educational concern. This concern may be implemented in practice by, first of all, promoting the study of medieval poetry in relation to virtue ethics, and secondly, by defining school education as “an initiation into enquiries, activities or pursuits that are at least potentially constitutive of a meaningful life” (Carr, Harrison 2015: 10). Unlike Morton and Rosenfeld, who employ literary tools to examine philosophical concerns, Carr uses expertise in the field of philosophy and experience in the field of education4 to make a strong case for character education through stories, medieval chivalric romances in particular, which he sees as reservoirs of moral knowledge and instruction (see Carr 2003: 15–26). Władysław Witalisz, on the other hand, focuses on the instructional potential of the Middle English narratives of Troy, situating them in the context of speculum historiae and speculum principis: “the Trojan narratives emerge as a kind of Troy moralizé, in which the heroes’ attitudes, decisions, and actions, all in the political context of war, peace and responsibility for the city-state, become mirrors of princely behaviour” (2011: 97). In his examination of the medieval conception of an ideal prince, Witalisz takes into account virtues and ideals, such as: prudence, wisdom, fortitude, justice, mercy, and many others.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (October)
medieval literature – history and criticism the ethics of desire moral life and education the human condition English poetry Scottish poetry Love and the Common Good Love and Honor Love and Moral Perfection Love and Necessity Love and Reason the virtue of love
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 238 pp.

Biographical notes

Dominika Ruszkiewicz (Author)

Dominika Ruszkiewicz is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of Modern Languages at the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Kraków. Her main field of study is Middle English and Middle Scots poetry, with a particular focus on Geoffrey Chaucer, James I, Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, and Gavin Douglas.


Title: Love and Virtue in Middle English and Middle Scots Poetry
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