The romance of Troilus and Criseyde was a fairly recent invention when Chaucer borrowed the tale. Troilus had been given a bit part as a corpse in the Iliad, but was otherwise a tabula rasa. It took medieval poets, chiefly Boccaccio, to make the back story a love story. Troilus was an attempt to apply medieval romance to characters more than two millennia old, cast in an epic about a war half a millennium older, if it occurred at all. For all the praise scholars have lavished on Chaucer’s nearly endless tapestry in rime royal, more than half as long as the entire Iliad, the poem in its staginess is like an early talkie. You have to go to the Canterbury Tales for a medieval world out of Breughel.

Chaucer’s Middle English catches the language in the frenzy of transition from its guttural Germanic roots to the flexible gallimaufry known...

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