Being a Man in Piers Plowman and Troilus and Criseyde
The essay contributes to the burgeoning criticism on Chaucer and L by considering their poems together as strangely parallel stories of men, Troilus and Will, journeying, questing, and suffering as men in search of truth. Masculinity studies can help us relate the experiences of two characters who have dominated our attention in these colossal texts of English medieval fiction but whose names are seldom heard in the same sentence. Both poets knew that every role, every desire, and all the pressures and obligations of public manhood cannot be divorced from simply ‘being’ male. They therefore use the male bodies of their heroes to explore, through loss and renewal, the nature of Christian civic and personal life. We are accustomed to lavishing gendered attention on Troilus, who has often been studied as a body, sighing, swooning, stripped, and otherwise dragged into the first night of sexual bliss with his lady. But L, too, tells the story of a male body and its place in the larger civic and spiritual communities it looks to for guidance and salvation. Men are often in a double bind: Nature tells the body what to want and what to do, while performance pressures dominate both private and public relationships and responsibilities. Performance demands an erection, and erections play important roles in both poems. Troilus struggles to achieve one, and yet when his prowess in the bedroom is no longer of use to Criseyde, he dies. When Will can perform no longer, his wife wants him dead as well. In both poems, Christ offers not only relief from temporal objects of love but also liberation from the flawed male body in favour of His own, which is, in deitate Patris, however battle-worn from jousting in Piers’s arms, the only hope for a man rejected and dejected for his earthly impotencies. (MC)
Men and Masculinities in Chaucer's 'Troilus and Criseyde', ed. by Tison Pugh and Marcia Smith Marzec (Cambridge: Brewer, 2008), pp. 161–82.