Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University
 
 

Chaucer's "Truth" and "Gentilesse": 
Introduction to the Middle English World View
[page numbers in NA refer to 9th ed., 2012]

Read Chaucer's lyric poems "Gentilesse" (online reading) and "Truth" (trouthe), NA 344-5 (in the NA 8th ed., 2009, p. 317).  Don't neglect the footnotes; you may also wish to consult the translations in CH 602-4 (note to ENGL 203 students: the translations of the two poems are on e-reserve in Polylearn).  Are the values implied by these terms similar to the values you found in our readings from the Old English period? Keep an eye out for the use of these key terms/themes in subsequent readings of the Middle English period (for example, the Pearl Poet's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Chaucer's The Franklin's Tale).

1) GENTILESSE/GENTIL. What do these terms mean or imply? The Middle English concept of gentilesse frequently applies to an aristocrat, i.e. a member of the landed nobility ("gentil" is related to the modern term "gentleman," which originally meant someone of noble -- i.e. aristocratic -- birth). But in Chaucer's ballad of the same name, it is clear that the term refers to more than one's parentage or bloodline: true "gentilesse" is something akin to nobility of character and is determined by one's choices and behavior rather than by one's parentage. Remember to look for references to the idea of "gentilesse" (or the adjective "gentil") in other readings throughout this term. Note how different characters and/or narrators define these terms. Note also how this virtue relates to the stories being told.

2) TROUTHE/TREWE. In Middle English, the word "trouthe" means more than its modern English analogue, "truth."  Although it can be used to denote the idea of truthfulness, i.e. a lack of falsehood or deliberate deception, it's primary meaning is considerably broader:  "trouthe" implies something akin to moral integrity.  "Trouthe" can also refer to a promise an individual has pledged to keep upon his or her word of honor; failure to keep such a promise or pledge implies dishonor (cf. modern English, to "pledge one's troth," meaning to agree to marry; see also comments in the headnote to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, NA 193-95 (p. 161 in NA 8th ed.) Would this value be "at home" in the epic world of Beowulf and The Dream of the Rood? Is it related to "gentilesse"? How? (Cf. line 9 of the poem on "Gentilesse.") Remember to look for occurrences of the term "trouthe" (and the related adjective form "trewe") as you read other works of the Middle English period (Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida or the Franklin's Tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc.). What is the importance of this virtue? How is it defined by the various characters/authors, and what does it imply?

Given the importance of these terms, can you make some generalizations about the different values and world view of the Middle English period as compared to the epic-heroic world view and values found in Beowulf?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2019

Click here for Troilus and Cressida Study Questions (not read in ENGL 203)

Click here for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study Questions

Click here for The Franklin's Tale Study Questions (not read in ENGL 203)

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