One of my classmates touched upon a recurring theme I have had difficulty reconciling with other aspects of Medieval thinking – the idea that people are “victims” to fate. This has been apparent in the texts we read in Ashmole, such as The Incestuous Daughter. The daughter in this work is acting out the will of devils influencing her, and ultimately suffers the consequences of following their instructions. The consequence of this is eternal torment in hell. The narrator in Cresseid pities her because of the misfortune she was destined for, and the suffering she experiences throughout her life. These are just two examples of this recurrent theme. Yet what I have trouble reconciling is that the narrator in Cresseid seems to be alone in his pity for Cresseid. While I think this is part of his intent, as we discussed in class, to encourage others to feel the same sentiments for Cresseid. But is the narrator reflecting a Medieval interpretation? Or is Henryson’s view of Cresseid unique from other Medieval opinion regarding the sinful as victim to fate?
I think that was one of the main point of Henryson, to restructure the story the story into a more traditional Medieval way of thinking regarding fate. He presents her as a victim of fate and product of fortune, not as a tragic and weak figure. In this view, Henryson is able to get across the greater message of everyone being susceptible to these situations through no fault of their own. It is a very “it is what it is” tone. He is not defending her actions or reputation but is instead challenging everyone’s response to her. And as you stated above, that is with pity instead of torment.
This was a concept I thought was really interesting that was brought up in the introduction to The Testament of Cresseid. Not only do we not know whether Henryson believes Cresseid to be a victim of fate, or whether she deserves her misfortunes, but we do not know whether we are to believe the narrator to be the voice of Henryson or a work of an irony that was common among writers of this time. Reading this piece, I did find it held less irony than The Clerk’s Prologue and Tale, but I also found it harder to interpret, so I’m not sure if I missed potential irony. But like the introduction suggests, there are lines that suggest complete sympathy for Cresseid from at least the narrator, if not Henryson himself. I find it interesting to study whether the authors/narrators of these stories feel like their characters are “victims to fate,” but especially when it comes to women. It seems like as of late we have been reading a lot of stories that center on a female protagonist that has sinned in some way.
I want to add–since this issue of fate/free will (that’s what it boils down to) has struck a chord with a number of people in class–that in none of these cases are we seeing an either/or attitude: it’s not that the Incestuous Daughter was a victim of the fiends and thus not personally responsible, but rather that her sin, especially in its extremeness, wasn’t simply a product of her own sinful nature but was exacerbated by the influence of the fiends, and of her father. Like any sinner, she has to confess. But like any sinner, she is also tempted by Satan, which is a significant part of medieval understandings of sin: it’s not simply a human product.