Fiction » Classic English Literature

The best books on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

recommended by Jenni Nuttall

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

Long before Renaissance dramas or realist novels, Chaucer wrote a love story set in a besieged city that was a deep psychological exploration of character and human relationships. Jenni Nuttall, author of Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader's Guide, shares her reading recommendations after over a decade of teaching the poem to Oxford undergraduates.

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Jenni Nuttall

Jenni Nuttall is Fellow and Lecturer at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. She is the author of Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader's Guide and is currently writing a book on the first articulations of poetic form in English. She also translates medieval poetry for contemporary readers, including the Kingis Quair and (coming soon) Sir Orfeo and Orpheus and Eurydice.

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Why should we read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as opposed to—or as well as—The Canterbury Tales? How is its narrative timeless?

It’s an extraordinary piece of storytelling. It’s one of the very greatest instances of moment-by-moment narration, of looking through different characters’ eyes: falling in love, being happy, betraying someone. Troilus and Criseyde asks profound questions about what love is. Is love something that we talk ourselves into, and then fall out of? Or is love something that happens to us without any action on our part? Why do people make the choices that they do?

It’s also the most wonderful mix of genres. It’s history; it’s romance; it’s tragedy. It’s got an epic scale in places. But it’s also a comedy of speech and manners. Much of it happens in monologue and conversation, as people talk about love, or fortune, or jealousy, or fate, or destiny. We not only know what they think, but also how they express it. And Chaucer walks a very fine line—brilliantly—between taking this very seriously as a grand poetic project, and making it a funny, engaging, playful exploration of human psychology. Unlike Oxford finalists, who only have to read it for a year or two, I’ve been reading it for 15 years, and I’m still finding new corners of it, details I’ve missed.

Before we move on to discussing your books, could you give us a brief summary of the plot of Troilus and Criseyde?

We start with love at first sight: Troilus sees Criseyde in the temple, then goes home and laments this new feeling of lovesickness. Troilus’s friend Pandarus (who also happens to be Criseyde’s uncle) helps Troilus woo her by transmitting letters between them and by organizing a first meeting in which Troilus can declare his love, and a second meeting in which the lovers spend the night together. There are also some coincidences which help along the way. After a period of happiness for Troilus and Criseyde, the Trojan Antenor is captured by the Greeks. A swap is proposed by Criseyde’s father, who’s in the Greek camp. Suddenly, the lovers are separated.

So, the Trojan War is the crux of the poem?

Absolutely. This is a love story in a besieged city. Criseyde is exchanged for Antenor, and goes to the Greek camp. In Book Four, the lovers have talked about how they might deal with this, and whether they might elope together. Criseyde has promised that she’ll come back after 10 days. But she doesn’t. We see her transfer her affections to a Greek called Diomede.

Troilus and Criseyde asks profound questions about what love is”

Gradually, Troilus, even though he remains hopeful that she’ll return, realizes that she’s not coming back. That’s the second of what Chaucer calls the poem’s ‘double sorrow’: first, the sorrow of falling in love, being lovesick and being unsure whether the object of your affections will reciprocate, and then, second and perhaps worse, losing that love.

Chaucer drew upon various sources while writing Troilus and Criseyde and certainly wasn’t the first to narrativize the Troilus story. Where does Troilus first appear in literary or oral history? How does the tale morph through literary history until Chaucer comes and tweaks it?

The first treatment of the story of Troilus who falls in love with Criseyde (originally ‘Briseida’, and then she becomes ‘Criseida’ later on), who then loves Diomedes instead, comes in a French narrative poem called the Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure in the middle of the 12th century. Chaucer knows that version; we can see him taking some details from Benoît. There’s then a Latin prose history of Troy, the Historia destructionis Troiae (1287), by an Italian called Guido delle Colonne, who interweaves this romance through the bigger narrative of the fall of Troy.

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Chaucer’s main source is Giovanni Boccaccio’s story/novella Il Filostrato (c. 1335). Boccaccio puts the story of Troilus and Criseida center stage, and invents the character of Pandaro who will become Chaucer’s Pandarus. Chaucer has all these different versions of these characters in his mind. He translates the Filostrato, but also quite radically alters and expands it, bringing in (especially towards the end of the poem) aspects of these earlier versions of these characters. I’m fascinated by how Chaucer deals with there being multiple Criseydes, multiple Troiluses.

You recommended a particular edition of Troilus to use, the one published by Norton and edited by Stephen A Barney. Before we discuss why you chose this edition, it seems crucial to point out that it’s in Middle English, which might be tricky for a complete layman to pick up. Can you make a case for soldiering through the original language as opposed to reading a modern English translation?

I think if you read it aloud, the tones of voice and the conversation and the humor come out. I always get students to read it aloud. Hopefully, students I’ve taught are the ones sitting in the exam whispering the commentary passage to themselves quietly. There’s so much intonation and meaning written into the fabric of this poem—it tells you how to read it. It’s a poem written for the human voice.

You’re right, however that Middle English can be hard to read. Barry Windeatt’s modern English translation for Oxford World’s Classics is great. You could sit with it in one hand and the Middle English original in the other, and cross-refer back and forth. What you miss if you don’t read the Middle English is Chaucer’s choices of words: moments where the poem uses different styles and registers to make a particular point. Though Windeatt’s translation is brilliant, that’s quite hard to capture.

Do you have a favourite of those words or moments?

It can be a single word. When Criseyde promises Troilus that she will find a way to return to him from the Greek camp, and we struggle to believe her because we know she won’t ultimately return, she assures him that she has so many options to choose from: “in a wordes fewe, / I shal yow wel an heep of weyes shewe.” There something just too casual about “heep”, a whole heap of ways which she can’t quite commit to or articulate, something a bit too insistent in her tone which the rhythm of the line and the word choice create and which heighten our sense of her unreliability. The Windeatt translation, which is in prose, is great for getting across the meaning, but that combination of form, meaning and tones of voice is special to the original.

One thing that I learned from listening to it as an audiobook is that it’s easy to read Middle English in The Riverside Chaucer and be absolutely mystified. It looks almost like a different language. But spoken aloud, suddenly it sounds much closer to modern English. You mentioned it adds to the form of the poem. Can you talk a bit about what the form of Troilus and Criseyde is?

It’s a narrative written in stanzas, a rhyme-scheme now called rhyme royal. Chaucer sees this form being used for lyric poems in French, and turns it into a narrative form. Boccaccio’s Filostrato is also in stanzas, but these are in a slightly different rhyme scheme, ottava rima.

“The Middle English original is really worth persevering with”

Chaucer’s rhyme royal is ababbcc. It’s an intriguing stanza: it has couplets within it, and possible quatrains: you can use syntax to divide the stanza up into different segments. Even though you get stanza after stanza of narrative, each stanza has a flexible variety to it. He’s also writing not quite in iambic pentameter, but what you might call proto-pentameter—what’s going to become that very famous metre. The metre works with and against the tones of voice to give you this rich poetry. I think the Middle English original is really worth persevering with.

Tell us about the edition you’ve picked. It has facing page Boccaccio and Chaucer.

This came along when I’d been teaching the poem for a few years. This edition contains the source—the springboard from which Chaucer is writing, Boccaccio—on facing pages in an English translation of the Italian. I like it because you can see where Chaucer is translating word by word. But there are also these wonderful moments where you get blank space on one side, and you realize Chaucer is expanding and inventing.

There’s also an edition by Windeatt which has an immense apparatus of all the borrowings and everything that’s going on in the manuscripts, but it’s not quite so user-friendly for students. As you can see from my copy, Barney’s edition is a book that you can dog-ear and cover in notes.

You spoke a little bit about what was so remarkable about Chaucer’s use of language. Is there anything you’d like to discuss in particular?

The style of the poem is so brilliant because of the different shades; it doesn’t stay in one register. It can go all the way from grubby brass tacks, where Troilus and Pandarus are talking about the business of working your way into a woman’s good books and getting into her bed. But it’s also got authentic, sincere moments where human love is celebrated. Book Three has three amazing passages which praise love. Chaucer gives his characters an extraordinary eloquence to talk about love.

It’s also got glorious metaphors and figurative language. There’s a passage where Criseyde’s thoughts roll through her mind, and her thoughts change—sunny day, rainy day— “A cloudy thought gan thorugh hire soule pace, / That overspradde hire brighte thoughtes alle.” Or, when Troilus is in the depths of sorrow after he learns that Criseyde will be exchanged with Antenor, he lies on his bed like a leafless tree in winter, “ibounden [bound] in the blake bark of care”, like one of Ovid’s metamorphosed heroines.

Throughout the poem, as the characters meditate on the nature of love, Chaucer is also thinking in parallel about the craft or the art of love—it’s a very self-reflexive poem. When he’s talking about how to write a love letter, for example, you realize he is thinking through what he’s doing himself as a poet of love.

Another one of your book choices, Barry Windeatt’s guide to Troilus and Criseyde, has a section that’s a 100-page guide to Chaucer’s sources in the poem. Could you speak about the differences between his main source, Boccaccio, and Chaucer’s version?

When you compare the two closely, you realize that Chaucer is taking many cues from Boccaccio but also heading off in his own directions. In an essay called “Troilus and Criseyde: a reconsideration”, included in English and International: Studies in the Literature, Art and Patronage of Medieval England (1988), Elisabeth Salter discusses Chaucer’s growing dissatisfaction with Boccaccio. She argues that he finds Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato a little too much of its genre, a little too stereotyping, a little too straightforward.

Salter’s essay is a great account of how there’s no one way of looking at this poem. Troilus and Criseyde was created by Chaucer following his nose, becoming dissatisfied with Boccaccio. That’s why you shouldn’t necessarily try to force this poem to be consistent, continuous or congruous, pointing towards the same thing at every turn.

So in a lot of ways, this essay is a masterclass of Chaucer “in his element”—which is a phrase she uses herself, right? I liked it because it has a lot of mini close-readings of different bits of the poem.

Yes. She shows how Book One is not looking at these characters in the same way as Books Four and Five, and Book Three might be a special, set-off, sacred space in which imaginatively bold things happen. That essay helps me see Troilus and Criseyde as a living encounter between Chaucer and Boccaccio’s text and between Chaucer and his own poem. He animates this preexisting story even further, extemporizing perplexing, human, funny, touching situations and emotions.

“Chaucer is taking many cues from Boccaccio but also heading off in his own directions”

If you read it out loud to people, you can make people smile, sometimes laugh. The story sounds as if it will be very solemn or grand—Troy and betrayal and love and philosophy—but there is so much humour: Pandarus rushes to get a cushion for Troilus’s knees and later on throws him into bed. And very quickly you assume that this is real in some sense and that we should treat these characters as people made of words. Stephen Justice argues for this poem as one of the first literary texts in which we’re confident that these characters have complicated inner psychologies which we might not be able to fully understand. Characters say or do things and you just can’t be sure what they’re thinking or why.

Chaucer plays with our responses through this variety and intrigue. At one turn, you think, ‘Ooh, I mostly want to take this very seriously’, but there are nudges everywhere that make you think, ‘Are they going on a bit about this? Is that really what’s happening? Might that be a little bit self-indulgent?’ Criseyde feels herself in love after seeing Troilus outside her window, and the narrator interrupts to say that a hostile reader might respond: ‘This was a sodeyn love; how myght it be / That she so lightly loved Troilus / Right for the firste syghte?’ He’s getting you to stop and remember that this is a story, that it could have happened several different ways or create different reactions.

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As Salter’s essay shows, Chaucer’s Troilus is not simply a translation. Rather, he changes the plot and expands these characters so they start to resist some of the structures in Boccaccio’s genre. That Criseyde has to be persuaded and manipulated using much more explicit mechanisms in Chaucer’s version balances the question of meaning more grandly, in a way. Pandarus lies; he invents; he distorts. If that’s how her love is created, perhaps then we might feel differently about the way in which Criseyde’s love falls away.

We see that her love is more artificial, somehow. How does Pandarus figure into this, as a mediating figure? We somehow feel complicit in his actions. He seems a bit like a creepy uncle.

He’s both a creepy uncle and a true friend to Troilus. You could argue that without Pandarus, nothing very much would happen in the poem. He takes that go-between role. Troilus is a rather green young man who needs Pandarus’s help. You might even have a sympathetic response to Pandarus’s ingenuity, his way with words, his humour, his irreverence, his ability to manoeuvre people physically and mentally. And as for Criseyde, there are delicious hints throughout Books One to Three about how much she understands of what is going on. So this prompts the question of whether the ends justify the means or whether the means destroy the ends: what is this love which Troilus praises in the highest terms but which is created in part by Pandarus’s threats and lies and plotting?

Is the reader supposed to believe that Troilus himself actually reaches those heights of philosophical and Christian reflection, rather than seeing Chaucer’s own voice shining through in them?

Critics don’t agree. Some read the praising of love in Book Three as ironic, some as entirely sincere in its narrative context.  The pagan setting, back in the impossible past, means that none of this can ultimately be rationally analysed or fully decided. I’m suspicious of any reading of the poem that proposes a single solution. To my mind, Troilus and Criseyde poses bigger questions than it can reasonably answer. It’s got that fantastic, reckless, willful quality, and also a sympathy for each of the characters which balances against their moral and philosophical failings—are we as readers really confident to take the moral high ground and say that they’ve failed in some way?

Your second recommendation is a guide many students studying Troilus treat as their Bible: Barry Windeatt’s Troilus and Criseyde. Could you break down some of the exhaustive ways this book illuminates the poem’s inner workings, style and themes?

It’s so efficient in the way it gives you the information you need to see the range of possibilities in the poem in three or four hundred pages. None of the editions quite have space to do this. Windeatt gives you information about the sources that we’ve been talking about, and about Chaucer’s structuring of the plot, its symmetry and repetitions, the architectural mirroring of events in the first half and events in the second half. He mentions some 20 themes—it’s that rich thematically. Working through it as a student, you begin to see how the poem’s wide range of preoccupations drift in and out of focus in any one scene. For example, Windeatt has a section on genre, saying we need to know about epic, romance, history, tragedy, drama, lyric, allegory, and fabliaux to capture all of Troilus’s diversity of genre. He goes through all of that in 50 pages!

In some ways, it’s an entire undergraduate course in English literature in miniature.

Absolutely. And that might be Oxford’s crazy defense for keeping the whole poem on the syllabus: you revise the entire poem in order to write a short commentary on four or five stanzas in the exam. Certainly, if you’re studying English literature from the middle of the 14th century to the middle of the 16th century, this is a primer for many different things. It teaches you about Boethianism; it teaches you about faith and fortune; it gives you a grounding in what might be good about courtly love, and what some of the problems with it might be. And its language and style are very fertile and abundant too. It’s not exactly a hidden gem, but I think it does sometimes get left by the wayside. In the last fifteen years, I’ve found Troilus and Criseyde to be this marvellous touchstone; it works to hold together a broad period-based module like Oxford’s ‘Literature in English, 1350 to 1550’ paper. And I think students bond over it and bond themselves to it.

And as famous as the Canterbury Tales is, there’s probably a good argument to include Troilus and Criseyde alongside Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, or even Milton’s Paradise Lost.

It deserves the label of masterpiece for its capacity to be more than one genre, and to pose questions that generations upon generations of readers cannot agree upon—not because the answers are necessarily difficult, but because one bit of the poem might make you think one thing, and another might lead you to consider something else. That’s its strength.

Reading Troilus and Criseyde, we become pagans in our own imaginations, not really certain what to believe and what to resist. Chaucer makes a space, both for his own contemporary audience and for us, to ask questions like: Do we make our own decisions? What is free will? What is love? By the end of the poem, you’re not even sure what ‘truth’ might mean—whose truth? There are many kinds of truth. And all of this occurs within a story whose plot you already know, which should have no capacity to engage you to the degree it does. In its gender politics and exploration of gender roles, it is extraordinarily relevant and intriguing. Students are frustrated by many aspects of the poem, but it’s a delighted frustration, an attempt to fix a poem that’s protean and always moving.

One of the reasons I wrote Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader’s Guide was I thought there was a danger it might be getting out of students’ reach, as training in Middle English has grown more sparse. Windeatt’s Guide is great, but I wondered if there was a way of writing through and with the poem, showing it in situ. It’s full of local detail, and you can see Chaucer figuring out what he wants to do, scene by scene.

I wonder if we might move on to Ida L Gordon’s The Double Sorrow of Troilus: A Study of Ambiguities in ‘Troilus and Criseyde’. You already spoke a little about what might be meant by ‘double sorrow’, but could you discuss why you’ve chosen this title and how it introduces some of the fundamental questions of the poem?

Published in 1970, this is now an old book. It’s quite a short book. It’s written beautifully clearly. I remember reading it as an undergraduate, and I definitely read it as I was sitting down to write the Reader’s Guide. It’s a wonderfully lucid articulation of what the features of this text are which make its ultimate meaning debatable.

And what are some of those features?

There are places in the poem where characters are given parts of a philosophical work by Boethius called The Consolation of Philosophy, a work which would have been very recognizable to Chaucer’s readers. The central question in Gordon’s study of ambiguities is what those borrowings of Boethian material—the holding of Boethian material within the story—do for how we feel about these characters. Often, the bits of Boethius they quote are partial and not quite right. So, many readers have found this a way of introducing irony or another viewpoint on these characters. And just as Chaucer might be introducing Boethius into the poem in order to explore his narrative more deeply, he’s also using this narrative to see how meaningful or useful Boethius’s philosophical observations might be.

He transfers a philosophical dialogue into a real-life dialogue, then.

Yes. And Gordon’s book works through the possible ambiguities and ironies which that creates. Can we apply a philosophical judgment to these characters? It’s tricky. Can we apply the Christian morals that are asserted at the end of the poem to these characters? We’re not sure. I like this book because it explains those debates in a way that’s very detailed, but it’s also schematic enough to let you know that to deal with any of those questions, you have to simplify the poem a fair bit. It shows you the levers and cogs and wheels of meaning that are working hard in the text.

Your fourth choice is a study by Gerald Morgan, The Tragic Argument of ‘Troilus and Criseyde’. This is an enormous two-volume study. Tell us about why you chose it, and what Morgan thinks the poem’s “tragic argument” is.

I suppose in some senses, this is an opposite book to Gordon’s slim volume: this is an exhaustive, brilliant thinking-through of almost every detail in the poem. The tragic argument is that Troilus is a noble figure, through his philosophy and through the ennobling features of love, who loves Criseyde too much, and falls into all sorts of follies. The tragedy is very much Troilus’s, and Morgan is perhaps less good on Criseyde. He has a rather harsh view of Criseyde that many readers might not agree with.

What does he miss out about Criseyde, or about the poem’s gender and sexual politics more broadly?

He sees her perhaps as a bit too much like Boccaccio’s Criseida: I would argue that he doesn’t pay quite enough attention to how much she’s manipulated. Chaucer’s Criseyde does, it’s true, seem to know what she’s doing in some of her interactions with Pandarus and Troilus. But if you spend Books One through Three wanting her to fall in love with Troilus, willing Pandarus’s ingenuity to succeed and delighting in the seemingly random coincidences, then you have to be sympathetic to her later on, I think. Chaucer makes you complicit in this.

There are passages where Chaucer is giving us the evidence to think quite harshly of Criseyde, and there are passages where he is giving us reasons why we might have sympathy or empathy for her. In A V C Schmidt’s review of Morgan’s book for Essays and Criticism, he talks about there being a little bit too much antipathy directed towards Crisedye in the book. Yet many readers have that reaction to her; that’s the fun of teaching it—you don’t need to set up debates because they happen by themselves, intense arguments about blame, and about who’s the victim, and whether this is love or not, and how much freedom each character has.

“The poem has a lot to say about manly behavior—the way in which women are passed back and forth between men”

Do we hate Criseyde as Pandarus says he does in his final speech in the poem? Can we have the pity that Chaucer’s narrator wants us to have for her? We see very clearly that the poem has a lot to say about manly behaviour—the way in which women are passed back and forth between men. In the text, women are offered casually to men, or manipulated, or ignored. I’m not sure I fully share Morgan’s view of Troilus’s nobility. He is literally noble, of course, and he has fine feelings and an ability to suffer, but his complicity in what’s happening is clear. All the characters are to some degree aware and complicit, but simultaneously trapped in their particular roles and destinies.

Your last choice is a recent book by Lavinia Greenlaw, A Double Sorrow:  Troilus and Criseyde (2014). I opened this one expecting a modern study, but it’s something completely different. It’s like Greenlaw has done with Chaucer what Chaucer did with Boccaccio. It’s fascinating how her poem compresses, riffs on, chops up and restyles chunks of the poem. What you’ve just said about the poem’s gender politics reminds me of one of Greenlaw’s lines in reference to the war of Troy: “All this because a woman was forced”, which is just a brutal, brilliant summary.

As you say, it’s not a translation; it’s a response. It’s a lyric sequence, but it finds across the whole of Troilus and Criseyde small moments of thought or memory or emotion. Greenlaw finds cracks of possibility which she expands in these seven-line poems. She also puts the story in the here and now, in our English. Her book is sympathetic to the notion that we might take this poem very seriously, and it might be very moving, and full of pathos and pity. She takes Troilus’s sorrow, which can be quite indigestible, longwinded, and not necessarily gripping in the original, and make you stop and dwell on it. It’s as if she ignites those moments in the poem like a firework, and you get to watch it burn out brightly.

It’s the most moving set of lyrics. If you know Troilus and Criseyde, there are poems which utterly capture Chaucer’s spirit for a split second or two. There’s a brilliant interplay between the original and this book. Many of those instances are very much, as I said, to do with taking Troilus seriously—considering what it is to be in love for the very first time. We all know the self-deceptions of love, but that doesn’t cancel out what it feels like to fall in love, be betrayed, and have all one’s hopes raised and then dashed. Those moments are there in Chaucer, but they’re crowded round with other things. Lavinia Greenlaw isolates them.

She really strips the poem down to its bare elements, as well: specific references that tie it to a place and time like ‘Greek people’ or ‘Diomede’ or ‘Jupiter’ are used very sparingly.

Like lots of lyrics, it makes it an ‘I’/‘you’ event. It captures the first-person perspective that’s sometimes only implicit in Troilus. That might be another way that the poem is timeless: it registers the psychological, physical processes of being in love. Greenlaw responds to its universals: the vanity of being in love, and the absurdity, and the self-regard, and the fear, and the delight of it.

There’s a really interesting moment in one of Chaucer’s sources, Benoît’s Roman de Troie, where Briseida imagines what future generations will make of her, and Chaucer borrows that and has Criseyde reflect in the same way. It makes you think: what would it be to be Criseyde—to somehow magically know that you’re going to be held up as an example for all time? Just as women are trapped in Troy, women are trapped in stories. And so, anticipating its future, it’s a work that produces lots of literary responses. They’re not necessarily straight translations; Robert Henryson writes what might be considered a sixth book to the poem, answering the question of what happened to Criseyde. Later on, Shakespeare comes back to the story; Dryden retells it; Wordsworth translates bits of the poem into modern English. Many writers, all the way through to Greenlaw, re-engage with it.

I love the bold claim the introduction makes for the poem: “Troilus and Criseyde is the greatest account you will ever read of people arguing themselves and each other into and out of love … Whereas Boccaccio was asserting a personal connection, Chaucer is implicating us all: this is the lovers’ story but it could be yours or mine.”

I love it too. Her lyrics take you into those feelings. As a poem about the experience of being in love, it’s brilliant to teach Troilus and Criseyde to 19-year-olds. At that age, you’re sort of teetering on the edge of all those questions. To be prepared both to take love absolutely seriously and to suggest that the center of the poem, when the lovers are in bed together, might be as-near-as-damn-it, heaven, but at the same time to give you all the tools to take love to pieces, this particular set of gender roles and relationships—all of those things—I find it startling that it has both strands.

And Chaucer writes like this before the realist novel ever existed. And before Renaissance drama with its characters and psychologies on show. We’re invested in Troilus, Criseyde and Pandarus as much as we would be with any of the characters in novels we read or plays we see. That’s why it has to be there, on courses, in literary histories, in the hands of readers.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

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Jenni Nuttall

Jenni Nuttall is Fellow and Lecturer at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. She is the author of Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader's Guide and is currently writing a book on the first articulations of poetic form in English. She also translates medieval poetry for contemporary readers, including the Kingis Quair and (coming soon) Sir Orfeo and Orpheus and Eurydice.