Chaucer’s Book of the Lion

What Was Chaucer’s Bookof the Lion?

by Michael Delahoyde

The following discussion resultsfrom instincts and energies devoted to a piece that no longerexists1: Chaucer’s Book of the Lion, one meremention of which is included among the literary revocations inthe poet’s Retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales.The work has been lost, presumably because it was such an earlyand already obscure artistic flop that it did not even merit inclusionin Chaucer’s previous autobibliographies: in the Prologue to theLegend of Good Women (G: 405-420) and in the Introductionto the Man of Law’s Tale (CT II 57-85).

Speculation about the nature ofthis lost work more or less died out seventy years ago. In 1928,Victor Langhans capped a tradition reaching back to the days ofTyrwhitt in the late 1700s in postulating that the Book ofthe Lion was likely a redaction of Guillaume de Machaut’s”Dit dou lyon,” a courtly love allegory “writtenin a mode thoroughly compatible with that of Chaucer’s dream poems”and a work broadly circulated, as evidenced by numerous extantmanuscripts.2 Critical consensus, if that is an appropriateterm in this realm of complete conjecture, has adopted Langhans’guess, despite the indication then that the Book of the Lionmust have been an early work, composed before the poet outgrewthe artificial genre, and one so aesthetically atrocious thatChaucer suppressed it and all mention of it until on his deathbedwhen eleventh-hour guilt over the abomination demanded full bibliographicalconfession.

Langhans effectively subdued ifnot silenced the notion offered also in the 1920s by Aage Brusendorff,who thought instead that the Book of the Lion had beeninspired (another inappropriate term, I assure you) by EustaceDeschamps’ “Dit du lyon” or “Fiction du lyon,”a 2954-line incomplete abomination of a poem, antiseptically describedby Wimsatt thus:

Its narrative is a political allegoryfeaturing Noble the Lion, representing Charles V, together withthe young lion, Charles VI; also important are Renard the Fox,a surrogate for Charles le Mauvais of Navarre, and the leopard,Richard II of England. In the midst of the fable the poet insertsa great council of the pagan gods in which they decide to destroythe world in a progressive process, and a monologue of Nature,who speaks of her divine mission and pleads vainly that the godsspare man and the animals. The poem breaks off with Renard visitingthe leopard and determining to foment discord.

Badel’s statement that the poem”adds nothing to the credit of Deschamps” is probablyjust. Its execution is uninspired and one understands Deschamps’having abandoned it.3

The so-called political allegoryis minimal and stagnant in Deschamps’ poem, and the seeminglyinterminable interpolation of Nature’s diatribe aims to impress(and fails) with encyclopedic inclusion of everything from thehackneyed predestination/free-will debate to a mini-dissertationof the four causes of kidneystones. Wimsatt concludes that since

the Fiction du lyon may havenever circulated, that it is a mediocre poem which has littleto attract imitation, and that there are no correspondences betweenthe Fiction and Chaucer’s other works, the chance thatit provided a model for the “Book of the Leoun” seemsvery small.4

But. . . .

“directly before the only hinted-atbooks, those which Chaucer hardly remembers” (Langhans)

because of its position in this sequenceof “enditynges of worldly vanitees,” it surely musthave been a late work from the Canterbury period, possibly theonly substantial piece besides the Tales from the last years ofChaucer’s life.

“Both served in royal and ducalcourts from a young age. Both may have studied law. Both travelledfar on the king’s business” (Wimsatt 272).

Chaucer knew Deschamps’ poetry? “itwould be surprising if he did not. And we have Deschamps’ ownword that he read Chaucer: his ballade to Chaucer bears explicitwitness to his knowledge of Chaucer’s writing” (242).

Ballades: “All in all, we maysay that the similarities are significant but not conclusive,and the direction of influence is uncertain” (Wimsatt 256).

“Fortune,” “Lak ofStedfastnesse,” “Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton” –all with Deschampsian envoys (his ballade gimmick) and maybe “Complaintto his Purse.”

Since Deschamps’ “Dit du lyon””is a ‘satire directed against the political situation inFrance’ in the early 1380s, says Brusendorff, Chaucer ‘may haveadapted it to suit the disorderly state of affairs in England’in the late 1390. There are a number of arguments against sucha suggestion, among them the uninspired content of the Fictiondu lyon itself” (Wimsatt 268).

Certainly there was much to be said,perhaps most judiciously in allegory, about English politics inthe late 1390s if Chaucer indeed borrowed Deschamps’s idea andimported it for local court purposes. The lion traditionally hasbeen linked with kingship, but more tellingly, Chaucer’s referencesto lions in his surviving late works show an associative patterninvolving advice against harshness and for compassion and “gentilesse”to the characteristically “wood” lion–very much thekind of advice consistent with that which critics speculate inother of Chaucer’s passages must surely be intended for RichardII, and indeed just the kind of advice Richard needed and shouldhave heeded in the late 1390s.

Richard’s tendency towards megalomania,paranoia (302), 1397, 1398. Affected imitation of Edward II. Gauntdied February 3, 1399. (Gardner)

Death of Richard: “Chaucer hadno comment, or at any rate none that has come down to us. . ..” (304)

That this kind of piece would quicklybecome obsolete and diplomatically a potential problem with theousting of Richard in 1399 may explain its disappearance.

lion quotations

Rowland, Beryl. Blind Beasts:Chaucer’s Animal World. The Kent State University Press,1971.

Animals: “in the works of thetheologians from the patristic period to medieval times they werefacts belonging to the Book of Nature which was an immense cryptogramwhereby Man might discover God’s truths and become regenerated.”(2)

“‘Androcles and the Lion,’ theclassic example of a lion showing gratitude by fawning on hisbenefactor, circulated so widely that even the briefest allusionmust have been understood.” (2)

“None of the writers was interestedin stalking a lion to establish whether it did indeed dwell onmountain tops, disguise its spoor with its tail when pursued byhunters, sleep with its eyes open, breathe life on the third dayinto the cubs which its mate had brought forth dead. The supposedcharacteristics of the lion were significant only because thelion represented Christ hiding the spoor of his love in high places,the Godhead remaining awake though sleeping in the body afterthe crucifixion, the Father raising Christ from the dead on thethird day.” (4)

“The fact that an animal couldhave multiple and very opposite meanings was not considered confusing:the Allegoriae in sacram scriptoram gave eight symbolsfor the lion including both Christ and anti-christ (PL, cxii,col. 983).” (4)

“The fable of the innocent assentenced to beating and death by the lion served to demonstratethe fate of those of humble rank. . . .” (5)

“the animal symbolism attachedto the seven deadly sins because he refers to the lion of Pride. . . the adder of Envy. . . .” (6)

“An earlier satirist used thestory of the fox and the wolf at the court of the noble lion toindict those who exploited the poor.” (8)

“Familiar animals fare etterthan the exotics: Mary is mounted on a very life-like ass in theearly fourteenth-century psalter of Robert de Lisle but the lionat her feet in a subsequent illustration has a shaggy beard andelaborately curled hair. . . .” (8)

“The animal world with whichChaucer would have been familiar in literature and art was, therefore,a humanized world with animals standing for qualities which weremeaningful to man. The fables, the Bible, hermeneutical writings,natural histories, encyclopedias, manuscript illustrations, sculptureand carving, all saw animals as exhibiting human traits, as havingconscious motives or even moral standards.” (10)

“Since the traditional attitudewas so strong and unequivocal, it is not surprising that Chaucer,when he considered the animal, thought of its stereotyped characteristicsand found it interesting mainly because it provided illustrationsof humanity.” (11)

“the Ancrene riwle, thefirst English work to portray the sins as animals, referred tothe lion of pride, the serpent of envy, the unicorn of wrath,the bear of sloth, the fox of covetousness, the swine of greedinessand the scorpion of luxury.” (19)

Gower in his Mirour de l’omme“describes Pride mounted on a lion” (19)

“Chaucer seems to accept theview that the beast exemplified the baser aspects of man’s nature.If he does not apply the moral didacticism usually accompanyingsuch an attitude, he most frequently adopts the perjorative symbolismand even reinforces derogatory conventional ideas with equallyunfavorable observations of his own. . . . Except when he is non-committal,he usually finds in [sic] the animal qualities similar to theless agreeable qualities in man. . . . From popular sources Chaucerdraws extensively upon the proverbial phrase. . . . The humanprotagonist is fierce like the lion (KnT, I, 1598; SecNT,VIII, 198). . . . Even the lion is applied favorably in proverbialphrase only to Emetreus in The Knight’s Tale (I, 2171),Troilus in Troilus and Criseyde (I, 1074; v, 830), andJason in The Legend of Good Women (IV, 1605). Elsewhere,it shows its proverbial fierceness(KnT, I, 1598, SecNT,VIII, 198), anger (KnT, I, 1656, SumT, III, 2152),cruelty in battle (KnT, I, 2630) and mercilessness in civiladministration (KnT, I, 1774-1775). The generosity forwhich the Noble Lion of the fable is traditionally famous is referredto only once (LGW, F, 391-395, G. 377-381), and even thisinstance is ambiguous.” (21) (Rowland)

“The Wife shows up the weaknessesof the hypothetical arguments of the schoolmen by drawing on experiencefrom life, and the implications of her rhetorical allusion tothe Aesopian fable of the lion and the man are consistent withher point of view.” (52)

“Used figuratively, the dogevokes a variety of unpleasant images. A good ruler has the toleranceof a lion, not the vengeful disposition of a cur (LGW,F, 396, G, 382)” (159)

Squire’s Tale reference to “Asby the whelp chasted is the lion”: “Its sententiousnessis not particularly suited to the falcon nor to the teller ofthe tale. Its origin may be either factual or literary, for itwas the practice to discipline the lion by beating a dog, andit had already given rise to proverbs in Latin, French and Englishby Chaucer’s day.” (159)

“lion, representing pride, hangingonto ego, hanging onto yourself” (Joseph Campbell, Mythos,Intro. Susan Sarandon; re Dante, Classical hermeneutic Renaissancetrans.)

“lion, representing pride, hangingon to ego, hanging onto yourself”

[Joseph Campbell. Mythos.Re: Dante, Classical hermeneutics, Renaissance trans.]

[RR 894 in list; plural]

[Bo3 m3 tamed in Carthage; plural]

[Bo3 m12 cruel; plural]

Bo4 p3 courage of

Bo4 m3 metamorphosis

Bo4 m4 killer among other animals;negative

Bo4 m7 Hercules slew

Astr 272 Leo

TC1 1074 Troilus at war (like Arcite)

TC3 1780 hunting ref.

TC4 32 zodiac

TC4 1592 zodiac

TC5 830 hardy Troilus

TC5 1019 zodiac

TC5 1190 zodiac

LGW 391 GENTIL, ADVICE FOR COMPASSION(compassyoun rhyme)

Alceste to God of Love:

“A kyng to kepe his liges injustice;

Withouten doute, that is his office. . . .

Yit mot he doon bothe ryght, to pooreand ryche,

Al be that hire estat be nat yliche,

And han of poore folk compassyoun.

For loo, the gentil kynde of thelyoun:

For whan a flye offendeth him orbiteth,

He with his tayl awey the flye smyteth

Al esely; for, of hys genterye,

Hyn deyneth not to wreke hym on aflye,

As dooth a curre, or elles anotherbest.

LGW 627 cruel simile (destrucciounrhyme)

LGW 829 Thisbe story (adoun rhyme)

LGW 842 Thisbe story

LGW 1214 hunting list

LGW 1605 regal Jason (renoun rhyme)

KnT 1598 Arcite “fiers”

KnT 1640 epic simile

KnT 1656 metaphor “wood”fighting (Palamon rhyme)


Theseus to self:

And softe unto hymself he seyde,’Fy

Upon a lord that wol have no mercy,

But been a leon, bothe in word anddede,

To hem that been in repentaunce anddrede,

As wel as to a proud despitous man

That wol mayntene that he first bigan.

That lord hath litel of discrecioun.. . .

KnT 2150 decor

KnT 2171 king of India in pageant

KnT 2186 tame ones in show

KnT 2462 Leo, but Saturnine disasters(correcccioun rhyme)

KnT 2630 Arcite hunting (Palmon rhyme)

MLT 475 Daniel ref.

Mk 3106 foolhardiness, from Host

Mk 3215 Sampson victim (champiounrhyme)

Mk 3288 Hercules victim (renoun /adoun rhyme)

[Mk 3451 hunting; plural]

NPT 4369 grim show by Chaunticleer(doun)

WB 429 husbands “wood”(conclusion)


Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?

WB 776 or dragon to live with, vs.woman

WB 794 “wood” (adoun rhyme)


Near final lines:

Herketh this word! Beth war, as inthis cas:

‘The leoun sit in his awayt alway

To sle the innocent, if that he may.’


Friar to Thomas:

Touchynge swich thyng, lo, what thewise seith:

‘Withinne thyn hous ne be thou noleon;

To thy subgitz do noon oppression,

Ne make thyne aqueyntances nat toflee.’

Sum 2152 “wood” (soun rhyme)

Sq 265 Leo, constellations, gentil?

Sq 491 WHELP CHASTISES LION (conclusion)

Bird to Canacee:

I se wel that ye han of my distresse

Compassion, my faire Canacee. . ..

But for noon hope for to fare thebet,

But for to obeye unto youre hertefree,

And for to maken othere be war byme,

As by the whelp chasted is the leon,

Right for that cause and that conclusion,

Whil that I have a leyser and a space,

Myn harm I wol confessen er I pace.

Frnk 1058 Leo sign (opposicioun rhyme)

Frnk 1146 vision by magician (dounrhyme)

SN 198 fiers


Ire breakdown:

Of whiche seith Solomon, “Leonrorynge and bere hongry been like to cruel lordshipes” inwithholdynge or abreggynge of the shepe (or the hyre), or of thewages of servauntz, or elles in usure, or in withdrawynge of thealmesse of povre folk.

ParsT 1085 “the book of theLeoun; and many another book, if they were in my remembrance,and many a song and many a leccherous lay, . . .

(safely dismissive; next to trivia,or material so tame and insigificant even he can’t remember, butpreserved name at least)

late, still considering moral significanceof lion. sourcetexting for appropriateness of analogy (after thefact?)

Gardner, John. The Lifeand Times of Chaucer. NY: Random House, 1977.

identified a late aesthetic:

“But though he had not forgottenhow to write great stories, Chaucer became, in his last years,interested in another kind of art–an art rediscovered by importantwriters of our own time: the art of, so to speak, / bad art. Perhapsthe discovery was all but inevitable for a realist like Chaucer,once he had settled on the idea of a literary contest among thepilgrims. Someone, after all, had to lose miserably. Why not several?(290-291).

unconvincingly idyllic

He had toyed with bad art and unreliablenarrators before. The House of Fame is, among other things,a clownish Divine Comedy. And though the poet’s young friendJohn Lydgate admired it with monkish seriousness, Chaucer’s recentTale of Melibeus was a parody of a popular bastard genre.”(291).

“But though Chaucer had earlierplayed, on occasion, with intentional bad art, during his lastyears–living in virtual retirement, free to write, if he wished,for his own satisfaction–he began to work more eanestly withthis curious new form he’d discovered, what I should like to callthe “clown poem,” a work of art designed as inept imitationnot of life but of art, a work which achieves the ends of artby indirection or–gleefully–not at all! Now and then he tookpoems he’d written long ago and no longer liked, such as the Monk’sTale, and fitted them to his new purpose. More often he wrotemagnificant new atrocities, such as the / Physician’s Tale,the Tale of Sir Thopas, the Prioress’s Tale, orthe Manciple’s Tale.” (Gardner 291-292)

Gardner adds Melibee, and I wouldadd the Squire’s Tale. Deschamps’ “Dit du lyon” sucksin such a way that would have rivetted Chaucer’s attention.

“. . . in the late clown poetry,the act of writing itself is mocked as absurd.” (293)

“Again, in his most ambitiousclown poem, the Manciple’s Tale, he bloats a simple fableabout how the Crow became black into a comic masterpiece of pretentiousnonsense. . . . For sixty-two lines (in outrageous parody of somelines by John Gower), the Manciple speaks of the importance ofnot speaking . . . babbling lines that might serve as a modelof art so bad that, finally, it’s good.” (294)

“This late, intentionally clumsypoetry has not much been admired until recently. Perhaps it wasmuch admired in Chaucer’s day; we will probably never know. Butwhatever his friends and patrons may have thought of it, writingsuch poetry, and chuckling over its awfulness, was one of thepleasures of the poet’s peaceful old age.” (295)

“the story told by Thomas Gascoigne,chancellor at Oxford in the middle of the fifteenth century. Talkingabout people who repented too late, Gascoigne mentions, amongothers, Judas Iscariot and the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.” (310)

Wimsatt, James I. Chaucerand His French Contemporaries: Natural Music in the FourteenthCentury. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Chaucer knew Deschamps’ poetry? “itwould be surprising if he did not. And we have Deschamps’ ownword that he read Chaucer: his ballade to Chaucer bears explicitwitness to his knowledge of Chaucer’s writing.” (242)

Ballades: “All in all, we maysay that the similarities are significant but not conclusive,and the direction of influence is uncertain.” (256)

“However, as with the poem quoted,the statements he makes are simplistic in comparison with Chaucer’ssophisticated presentation in Lak of Stedfastnesse of the’up-so-doun’ condition of the world, which culminates with a requestto King Richard to ‘wed thy folk agein to stedfastnesse.'”(257)

Fortune, Lak of Stedfastnesse,and Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton all have envoys. Deschampsis the chief poet who established the practice of composing envoysfor ballades.” (259)

“Another class of poem fromwhich Deschamps might have chosen an example to send Chaucer isthat of topical works dealing with the activities and diversionsof the court.” (260) like flower and leaf.

“a begging poem to Charles Vwhich is seen as a source of the Complaint to His Purse“(262)

“Both served in royal and ducalcourts from a young age. Both may have studied law. Both travelledfar on the king’s business.” (272)

Fiction du lyon:”Since the latter is a ‘satire directed against the politicalsituation in France’ in the early 1380s, says Brusendorff, Chaucer’may have adapted it to suit the disorderly state of affairs inEngland’ in the late 1390s. There are a number of arguments againstsuch a suggestion, among them the uninspired content of the Fictiondu lyon itself.” (268)

The beast fable nevertheless appealedto him as a subject-matter. There are a half-dozen short poemsin which he uses the Renard material for political allegory, andnumerous others that contain references to figures in the fables.Although Deschamps makes diverse uses of the materials, Chaucer’sone great beast fable, the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale,’ has almost nothingin common with them. If we add to this the facts that

On the other hand, Machaut’s Ditdou lyon, extant in numerous manuscripts, obviously had abroad circulation. It is written in a mode thoroughly compatiblewith that of Chaucer’s dream poems, and in fact Chaucer made useof it in the Book of the Duchess. If Chaucer’s lost workis based on one of the French poems, by all odds it is Machaut’s.”


If we are to believe that the Bookof the Lion ever existed, that is, that Chaucer is not justinflating his résumé (how many of the “XXV”–or,even granting scribal mistake, “XIX”–ladies did Geoffreyreally complete?), then my hunch is that the Book of the Lionwas a late work, barely if ever circulated, which convenientlygot lost among the poet’s mess of other papers and fragments athis death (a scene sketched by George Williams in A New Viewof Chaucer). In light of other tendencies in Chaucer’s laterworks, I suspect the Book of the Lion was an inane allegoricalsatire on didactic poetry. Gardner paints a last idyll for us:

This late, intentionally clumsy poetryhas not much been admired until recently. Perhaps it was muchadmired in Chaucer’s day; we will probably never know. But whateverhis friends and patrons may have thought of it, writing such poetry,and chuckling over its awfulness, was one of the pleasures ofthe poet’s peaceful old age.43

Given the other rather grim implicationsabout the final years from the life-records and from Chaucer’slast datable work, the “Complaint to his Purse,” I dohope Gardner’s portrait is accurate–that Chaucer did have a fewlast laughs.

Works Consulted

Brusendorff, Aage. The ChaucerTradition. 1925. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.

Dear, F.M. “Chaucer’s Book ofthe Lion.” Medium Aevum 7 (1938): 105-112.

Gardner, John. The Life and Timesof Chaucer. NY: Randon House, 1977.

Langhans, Victor. “ChaucersBook of the Leoun.” Anglia Zeitschrift für EnglischePhilologie 52 (1928): 113-122.

Peck, Russell A. Chaucer’s Romauntof the Rose and Boece, Treatise on the Astrolabe, Equatorie ofthe Planetis, Lost Works, and Chaucerian Apocrypha: An AnnotatedBibliography 1900-1985. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1988.

Rowland, Beryl. Blind Beasts:Chaucer’s Animal World. The Kent State University Press, 1971.

Sayce, Olive. “Chaucer’s ‘Retractions’:The Conclusion of The Canterbury Tales and Its Place inLiterary Tradition.” Medium Aevum 40 (1971): 230-248.

Wurtele, Douglas. “The Penitenceof Geoffrey Chaucer.” Viator: Medieval and RenaissanceStudies 11 (1980): 335-359.

Washington State University

1. A version of this article waspresented at the Rocky Mountain MLA conference in Salt Lake City,October 1998.

2. James I. Wimsatt, Chaucerand His French Contemporaries: Natural Music in the FourteenthCentury (Toronto, 1991), 269.

3. Wimsatt, 268-69.

4. Wimsatt, 269.







43. Gardner, 295.