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  • Title: The Testament of Cresseid
  • Editor: Seth Lee

  • Copyright Seth Lee. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Robert Henryson
    Editor: Seth Lee
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Testament of Cresseid

    Introduction

    1Less than a century after Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and two centuries before William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, the Scottish poet Robert Henryson (c.1425-c.1500) crafted a daring "sequel" to Chaucer's work detailing the ending of Criseyde, and a sad ending it is. The Testament of Cresseid is problematic to date, though Henryson's life places it firmly in the fifteenth century. The specifics of Henryson's life are basically unknown to history, and what evidence we do have is largely anecdotal. William Dunbar, Henryson's contemporary and a fellow poet, provides scholars with the only known "obituary" for Henryson in his Lament for the Makars: "In Dunfermelyne he hes done roune / With Maister Robert Henrisoun." The "he" Dunbar refers to is Death, so Henryson likely died close to Laments' publication around 1505. Douglas Grey's contribution to the Medieval and Renaissance Authors series mentions an additional biographical gleaning from Dunbar's text, positing Henryson's title of "Maister" likely means he graduated from University. Using that title as evidence Dunbar concludes, "the later tradition that [Henryson] was a schoolmaster [in Dumfermline] is quite likely to be correct" (2). Apart from that, little is known with certainty.

    2Though not a sequel in the modern sense of the word, Henryson's Testament does carry on the story Chaucer began, but it does not necessarily follow Chaucer's original. Chaucer's work ends with Troilus' death, but in Testament Troilus is very much alive. The action of Testament therefore occurs in the same fictional time as Chaucer's Book V between the last time Troilus sees Criseyde and his death. Where Chaucer focuses on Troilus' end, Henryson offers closure to the character of Criseyde, whom Chaucer largely ignores after her betrayal. Testament begins as the narrator describes a cold evening "in the Middle of Lent." Wishing to speed along the dreary evening and coming night, the narrator takes a copy of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Finishing that, he takes down "a second book where I found the fate of Cresseid, who ended wretchedly." The remainder of the poem is the content of that book. The text includes several staples of medieval literature: references to Fortune, the influence of the planets on human fate, and the storytelling device of the dream vision. By the poem's conclusion its tone changes from the telling of a story to something akin to a medieval morality play. In the final lines the poet addresses the reader directly, whom he assumes to be young women, admonishing them to avoid mixing "love with deception." On the surface the narrative is relatively straightforward, but do not dismiss the poem as simplistic. Filled with detailed descriptions of the ancient gods, questions concerning the "crime" behind Cresseid's punishment, and the maturation of Cresseid as the poem progresses, Testament is a remarkable example of Henryson's skill as a poet and is often considered his masterpiece.