Table of Contents
The Many Faces of Lollius:
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reading the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, modern readers find themselves
confronted with an author of great originality and wit, one who makes
them laugh out loud and roll their eyes and protest in all the ways
that he probably wanted them to. His shrewd eye, ironic voice and
dirty jokes keep his work fun and interesting no matter the time
period. And so it comes as a surprise that such an author would,
in a major creative work like Troilus and Criseyde,
often write off his own efforts as simply following his
“auctour,” or source, only acknowledging his own hand in
the book’s writing at the very end, where he calls it
“litel myn tragedye” (V.1786). It is true that Troilus and Criseyde is a work of translation; Chaucer more or less translates Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato,
though of course he adds and omits scenes and details as he sees
fit. In this situation we could either expect Chaucer to say
outright that he’s translating Boccaccio or ignore the fact
altogether in his work, but he does neither. Instead he calls
upon Lollius as his “auctour,” a figure who is the center
of much scholarly debate. Chaucer seems to deem Lollius an
authority on the Trojan war, but today we know of no ancient historian
by the name of Lollius. Critics have focused all their attention
on finding who this Lollius could possibly be, without ever calling
into question the assumption that “auctour” refers only to
Lollius and not any of the many other sources Chaucer cites. The
few direct mentions of Lollius, the fact that Boccaccio cannot be
consistently referred to as auctour where Chaucer calls upon this
figure, and the many other sources which Chaucer cites directly,
including God, point to a more diverse reading of the term
“auctour,” one which would allow a number of different
authorities to be referenced at the same time whenever this word
It is impossible to write about the “auctour” Chaucer mentions so many times in Troilus without mentioning the past criticism that has equated this figure with Lollius; an equation, I might add, is not as obvious as it may seem. Scholarly opinions on Lollius vary greatly. Robert Pratt in his “A Note on Chaucer’s Lollius” supports the idea that George Lyman Kittredge puts forth in “Chaucer’s Lollius” that Chaucer wants his reader to believe that
his Troilus, from beginning to end, is a faithful translation from the Latin work of Lollius, without any material additions either from other sources or from his own pen…Lollius, then, in Chaucer’s fiction, is not Boccaccio or Benoit or Guido or Statius or Ovid or Boethius: he is simply Lollius. (qtd in Pratt 184)Therefore, Chaucer must have had some reason to believe that there was a real Lollius, and that he was a great historian on the subject of Troy, as “in The House of Fame, Lollius, together with Homer, Dares, Guido de Columnis, and others, stands on a pillar of iron, ‘besy for to bere up Troye’” (Pratt 183). Kittredge contends that Chaucer had misread or misunderstood a quotation in Horace’s Epistolae (Pratt 184), though other critics doubt this. Hans Epstein in his “The Identity of Chaucer’s ‘Lollius’” says that the lines which Kittredge uses as the basis for his argument—“Troiani belli scriptorem, Maxime Lolli, / dum tu declamas Romae, Praeneste relegi”—do not prove anything, since “no manuscript has ever been mentioned which reads scriptorum or scriptor for scriptorem, or te legi for relegi. If such a manuscript could be found, it would substantiate the theory considerably” (392). Pratt, however, seems to have found this evidence. He says that a copy of the Policraticus, a work in which Chaucer might have seen the quotation, makes that same scriptorum error; not only that, but the French translation of the same work reads “Car il dit, que lolli fu principal escrivain de la bataille de troye”1 (185-6). Thus Kittredge’s and Pratt’s theory seems admissible. Epstein creates his own theory, which is just as credible as the Kittredge-Pratt one, claiming that Chaucer’s Lollius can be identified as “Bassus Lollius,” who “is obviously an Ancient who did write about Troy, who quite clearly was not commonly known in Chaucer’s time, and yet whose epigrams were available in Europe” (395). He makes a convincing argument to prove that this is indeed Chaucer’s Lollius with two lines where Pandarus speaks of Queen Niobe to comfort Troilus in his love-sorrow (I:699-700): “Lollius Bassus has an epigram of virtually the same tenor” (Epstein 396-7). The same similarity appears in the Legend of Good Women (396-7). Though it does not seem like these two instances could be entirely coincidental, Epstein acknowledges that the modern “reader is left without proof as to where and how Chaucer found the epigrams,” which mentioned Lollius Bassus and his writings (400), and without physical evidence, there is no way to prove the theory.
Indeed, W.G. East seizes upon this fact, using the absence of evidence to refute all former theories advanced in regards to Lollius’ identity in his “Lollius” (396). East equates Lollius with Boccaccio and shifts the question from ‘who was Lollius’ to “why should Chaucer call Boccaccio Lollius?” (397). He gathers support from Kittredge again, who wrote that Chaucer “wished […] to lend his work an air of truth and authenticity […] Benoit and Boccaccio would not answer, for the conditions of the problem required an ancient (or at least antique) personage” (qtd in East 397). This point established, East then explains how Chaucer came up with the name of Lollius:
it is a play on Boccaccio’s name. Chaucer thought his author’s name was funny. In Italian, bocca means a mouth, boccaccia is an ugly mouth […] Chaucer tried to give a humorous equivalent in English. The word lolly survives in modern English dialects and means the tongue […] the name Lollius is a joke. Chaucer used it of Boccaccio because it seemed to him to be simultaneously a fairly risible translation of his name and a plausible name for a Latin author. (397-398)Considering the wit and ready tongue we see Chaucer display in The Canterbury Tales, this seems to be a plausible explanation as well, one that has the benefit of not needing any outside evidence of what Chaucer might have read. The introduction to the Norton Critical Edition of the text takes a similar stance on the Lollius problem, explaining that “We have good evidence that medieval writers, misunderstanding a passage in Horace, actually thought that there was a classical authority on the Trojan War named Lollius. But no such author existed, and Chaucer is simply being sly” (Barney xi). Barney is certain that Lollius never existed, and that Chaucer, in his typical fashion, was simply taking a common mistake of the time and bending it to suit his purposes.
The theories of Kittedge, Pratt and Epstein can only be proved with evidence in the form of Medieval manuscripts; however, we can examine the theories of East and Barney with the text of Troilus and Criseyde, as East does not mention any textual support for his theory in his article. Richard Waswo finds eleven mentions of the auctour in his “The Narrator of Troilus and Criseyde” (11), and my own count is the same. The first time, when Chaucer is introducing Troilus’s song with “And of his song naught only the sentence, / As writ myn auctour called Lollius” (I:393-4), is also the first time Chaucer deviates from Boccaccio in any significant way while claiming to follow a specific source. The problem is that the Canticus Troili comes directly from Petrarch. East explains this by saying that “Chaucer explains, honestly enough, that only the sentence, the gist as it were of the song, comes from his author Lollius. He has however been fortunate enough to discover the actual words of the song from some other source,” that other source being Petrarch (397). If we are working off the assumption that Lollius is Boccaccio, this may work, as Boccaccio mentions that “here [Troilus] joyfully gave himself to singing, with high hopes and completely disposed to love Criseida alone” (Il Filostrato I:37). The second mention of Lollius, in the brooch scene of Book Five, seems to support this, as this scene is nearly a word-by-word rendition of Boccaccio. As far as the other nine mentions of the auctour, one could assume that if Lollius is really Boccaccio, Chaucer would invoke his source at the places where his readers might object the most to the story; if he is a separate source completely, it may be assumed that Chaucer will invoke Lollius to justify where he deviates significantly from Il Filostrato. Neither of these readings are consistently proven by the text.
For the moment we will assume that the auctour refers only to Lollius, and that Lollius is a pseudonym for Boccaccio. Under these assumptions, there are four times when Chaucer mentions his auctour from which he is obviously getting his source material from Boccaccio. In Book Three, Chaucer excuses himself for not telling more of Troilus’s and Criseyde’s words of love, as “that wolde, as seyth myn autour, wel contene/ neigh half this Book, of which hym liste nought write” (III:502-3). We cannot know if Boccaccio actually said this, as it is not in Boccaccio’s style to make such a direct address to the reader, but we can allow Chaucer his stylistic differences. Perhaps Boccaccio and Chaucer met, and Boccaccio told Chaucer about Troilus and Criseyde at that point, but this is pure conjecture. The important thing here is that the text of Il Filostrato does not, at this point, go on any longer than Chaucer does regarding the expression of Troilus’s and Criseyde’s love for one another. The same thing happens in the next two instances, also in Book Three. Chaucer claims that “I kan nat tellen al, / as kan myn auctour, of his excellence” (III:1324-5) in reference to the lovers’ happiness at having passed the night together. This could be written off as modesty on the narrator’s part, for Chaucer writes just as much as Boccaccio does about the same subject, excepting his added two-stanza disclaimer, which starts with these lines and begs lovers not to take issue with the narrator’s words, since he does not know about love as they do (III:1325-37). At the end of Book Three, Chaucer gives a brief synopsis of the book with “Th’effect and joie of Troilus servise, / Al be that ther was som disese among, / As to myn auctour liseth to devise” (III:1815-7). Though again this is not paralleled directly in Il Filostrato, it cannot be called a deviation from the text, for it imitates what Boccaccio does in the brief prologues to each of his Parts. Finally, we return to the second mention of Lollius: “The whiche cote, as telleth Lollius, / Deiphebe it hadde rent fro Diomede / The same day” (V:1653-5). This scene closely follows its Il Filostrato counterpart, though Chaucer does give us more detail than Boccaccio, which he most likely extrapolated from his own mind.
The majority of times that Chaucer refers back to his auctour, however, are where he leaves behind Il Filostrato and appropriates the story line. In these places, Chaucer seems to use his auctour as a justification for adding on to Boccaccio’s text, in which case Boccaccio is not the auctour to whom Chaucer refers. As we saw earlier, the first mention of “myn auctour called Lollius” introduces a song which Chaucer borrows from Petrarch. The next two instances are in the Proem of Book Two, where Chaucer changes his muse from the Fury Thesiphone he invoked in the Proem of Book One to the Muse of history, Cleo, and tells his reader, “Disblameth me if any word be lame, / For as myn auctour seyde, so sey I” and “But syn I have bigonne, / Myn auctour shal I folwen, if I konne” (II:17-18, 48-49). The whole Proem warns the reader that Troilus’s wooing of Criseyde may seem strange, for it took place a long time before. This seems to be more significant than a simple stylistic difference; Chaucer really seems to be trying to anticipate and block criticism by claiming that he can only follow his source. And since he does not get back to Il Filostrato for another 150 lines, it does not seem like his source could be Boccaccio here. Book Three shows the most important instance of justifying Chaucer’s departure from Boccaccio in the scene where Pandarus gets Troilus and Criseyde in bed together at his house. At the beginning of the scene, Chaucer writes,
Nought list myn auctour fully to declare
What that she thoughte whan he seyde so,
That Troilus was out of towne yfare,
As if he seyde therof soth or no, (III:575-8)thereby excusing himself from telling the reader Criseyde’s inner thoughts. Later in the scene, he adds that “though that I tarie a yer, somtyme I moot, / After myn auctour, tellen hire gladnesse, / As wel as I have told hire hevynesse” (III:11945-7), again making a sort of apology for what follows. This scene is the biggest addition Chaucer makes to Il Filostrato, thus it follows that he would need to justify the addition more than once. The last instance of deviation from Boccaccio allows Chaucer to admit that he has many sources for his work when he says “But trewely, how longe it was bytwene / That she forsook hym for this Diomede, / Ther is non auctour telleth it, I wene” (V:1086-8). It is true that Boccaccio gives no indication of time anywhere in Il Filostrato, where as in Chaucer’s version we know that it has been three years since the affair started when Criseyde is forced to leave for the prisoner exchange (V:8-11). Since he was so exact at the beginning of Book Five, we can also assume that he had wanted to be exact about how long it took Criseyde to change her mind about Troilus and Diomede as well, and to do so, he would have had to rely upon other authors for this information.
It is important to note, too, that Chaucer does not consistently mention his auctour whenever he deviates from Boccaccio. Nothing is said in way of apology, excuse or acknowledgment when he adds Antigone’s song and another hundred lines to Criseyde’s weighing of the love affair (813-938), or at the addition later of the elaborate trick of making up a threat to Criseyde in order to get her and Troilus a few moments of privacy in Deiphebus’ house (1394-1757). Nor is anything said about an auctour when Chaucer adds scene and characterization for Diomede in Book Five (92-189), despite the precision about being incapable of finding an auctour who knows how much time passed before Criseyde fell for Diomede. There is also no mention of the auctour during Troilus’s ascent through the spheres in Book Five (1807-1827); however, this is after Chaucer’s authorly intervention of “go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye” (V:1786-1799).
If Lollius is Boccaccio, then Lollius is not always the auctour to whom Chaucer continually refers, as Chaucer probably would not cite Boccaccio. Even if Lollius is not Boccaccio, if they are separate authors, it still would not be very convincing that Chaucer is thinking of Lollius every time he invokes his author, since there are four places where he seems to be specifically referring to Boccaccio. Indeed, the very line that leads so many critics to assume that Lollius is the only auctour can also be evidence that he is not. Chaucer says, “As writ myn auctour called Lollius” (I:394); in other words, ‘as wrote my source called Lollius.’ This seems to resemble the way that a modern scholar would cite sources, distinguishing a source by name if it has something unique to contribute. If there were a number of sources who conferred on a subject, Chaucer, like a scholar, would most likely simply refer to them as a collective auctour. If Chaucer had wanted to refer to Lollius every time he wrote auctour, he would have said ‘myn auctour Lollius,’ which would give the phrase a more definite, singular sense. And if Lollius is the only auctour, why wouldn’t Chaucer simply write ‘Lollius’ instead of auctour, or at least use Lollius’s name directly more than once?
In fact, Chaucer himself admits repeatedly that Boccaccio and ‘Lollius,’ are not his only sources: he also cites historic figures such as Homer and Virgil. He tells his reader to go to “Omer, or in Dares, or in Dite / Whoso that kan may rede hem as they write” to learn of the Trojan War (I:141-7). He comes up with a source such as this to gloss every battle scene. For Troilus’s death scene, he writes, “His worthi dedes, whoso list hem here, / Rede Dares, he kan telle hem all ifeere” (V:1770-1), sending the reader off to a real, tangible source to hear of the battle scenes. He also tells his book to “kis the steppes where as thow seest pace / Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan and Stace” (V:1791-2). The glosses in the Norton text also point out that many of the speeches that Chaucer lengthens or changes completely come from a variety of outside sources; for example, Troilus’s speech about predestination comes from Boethius (Barney 273; TC IV:957-1078) and Cassandra quotes Statius (Barney 403; TC V:1498-1510). Chaucer does not mention his auctour at these points, nor does he mention the authors whose work he is paraphrasing, but it can be assumed that his audience would have recognized these works, as they were widely known during the time period.
There is also the matter of the eleventh direct mention of an auctour: “But O, thow Jove, O auctour of nature” (III:1016). This clearly is not like the other auctour invocations; it not only names Jove an auctour, but describes him as the “auctour of nature” with no direct attachments to writing. It is questionable whether this can truly be classified as being part of the “auctour” debate, for it is in a speech by Criseyde that Chaucer added in the scene at Pandarus’s house, the only auctour passage not spoken by the narrator. In fact, this mention could probably be disregarded completely if not for the echo made in Book Five where Chaucer speaks to his book and says “Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye, So sende myght to make in som comedye!” (1787-8). Here he is praying that God will eventually “sende” him a comedy to write, implying that God sent this tragedy in the first place, and that it does not matter where his sources are from, since they all come from God. This idea of divine inspiration goes back to the invocation of Jove as creator of nature since Jove (or Jupiter), at the top of the Greco-Roman pantheon, can be more or less equated with the Judeo-Christian God. As both are considered the creators of the world, they are the creators of everything on the world by extension—not only including people but also their works, which means that God can be considered to be the true auctour of Troilus and Criseyde and everything else that Chaucer wrote. It is unclear as to whether Chaucer meant to make this association from the very beginning (or whether his audience would have made this connection without his prompting), but it certainly comes up after the invocation of Jove as auctour. And if God is the ultimate auctour of the work, then obviously none of the others— whether Lollius, Boccaccio, Homer, Virgil, Boethius, etc.—can be.
Contemporary criticism focusing on the Lollius question assumes that Chaucer meant to send his reader back to Lollius every time he mentioned his auctour, but textual evidence does not support this theory. There are few direct mentions of Lollius; Boccaccio cannot be referred to as auctour every time Chaucer calls upon this figure, and the many other sources which Chaucer cites directly, including even God, point to a more plural reading of the term “auctour,” which would encompass a number of different sources at once. The quest for an identifiable Lollius is an interesting one, but not one that is particularly necessary as soon as one allows for the reading of multiple personages into “auctour” and the name Lollius itself. At this point, we need not concern ourselves with why Chaucer chooses to name the names he does, but rather how he did so in order to completely appropriate the translation and a unique work that only the genius of Chaucer could have written, with the help of some auctours along the way.
Barney, Stephen A., ed. Introduction. Troilus and Criseyde.
By Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. Ed. Stephen A.
Barney. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.East, W.G. “Lollius.” English Studies 58.5 (1977): 396-98.
Epstein, Hans J. “The Identity of Chaucer’s Lollius.” Modern
Language Quarterly 3.3 (1943): 391-400.Pratt, Robert Armstrong. “A Note on Chaucer’s Lollius.” Modern
Language Notes 65.3 (1950): 183-87.Waswo, Richard. “The Narrator of Troilus and Criseyde.” ELH
50.1 (1983): 1-25.
1 For he says, that lolli was the main writer of the battle of troy. Author’s translation.