Study Questions for Chaucer's Book
of the Duchess
anachronism, authorial voice, character, characterization, couplet, dream vision (visio), elegy, humility topos, occasional poem, octosyllabic,
patron, persona, spirit guide,
terminus ad quem, terminus a quo.
Who was the duchess Blanche of Lancaster? Why is she important
for understanding this poem's context? What does
the name "Blanche" mean in medieval French?
Lecture or Handouts: For
what patron was The Book of the Duchess written?
What are the conventions of a dream vision? How does Chaucer
have fun with these conventions? Explain the anagram in
lines 1318-1319. How do we figure out the date The Book
of the Duchess was written, and what are some problems
with this technique?
Identify the following people
The Black Knight, Lady Fair White, the
Puppy, King Ceyx (Seys), Queen Alcion (Alcyone), Juno, Morpheus
- In the opening lines, the dreamer or poetic speaker
says he has been suffering from a medical problem that
renders him unable to do something. What is it that the
speaker cannot do?
- What is the speaker's emotional state in the beginning
of the poem?
- According to line 37, how long has it been since the
speaker last slept?
- What does the speaker ask a servant to bring to him
in order to help him rest?
- What general subject-matter does the book deal with
that the speaker reads? What story in particular does
the speaker think "a wonder thing"?
- What tragedy befalls King Seys? (i.e., how does he die?)
- When Alcyon grows worried about her missing King, she
prays to Juno for help. How does she ask Juno to send
her a message concerning her husband's situation? (i.e.,
what form should the goddess's message take?)
- What happens to Alcyon as soon as she finishes her prayer?
- How is Alcyon dressed when she is put to bed by her
servants? (trick question!)
- Juno sends her son, a messenger, to carry her commands
to another god. This third god will actually deliver the
prophecy to the sleeping Alcyon. Who is this third god?
Why is he appropriate? How is this god going to deliver
the message, and what is he going to do with Seys' dead
body, according to Juno's command?
- Describe the valley where Morpheus lives. What's the
vegetation and scenery like? Inside his cave, many people
reside. What do they do all day in the cave? How are they
- When the messenger first finds Morpheus, he has to spend
several lines talking to him before he delivers the message.
What condition is Morpheus in that prevents the messenger
from simply giving him the message and moving on? Why
is that funny or appropriate?
- Where does Morpheus take Seys's body?
- What message does Morpheus give Alcione?
- Why is the dreamer so impressed with this story of Alcione
- After hearing the story, when the dreamer prays to be
granted sleep, to what God does he pray? What offerings
or bribes does he offer this god if the god will let him
- What is the response to his prayer and how long does
it take for the prayer to be answered?
- The dreamer says his dream is so strange that two authorities
on dreams would themselves be baffled by it. What authorities
does he point to as being unable to interpret his dream?
Why are they appropriate?
- The dreamer dreams that it is May, but where is he initially
in the dream?
- How does is the dreamer dressed when he awakens? (trick
- What sound "awakens" the dreamer in his dream?
Why do these things seem a bit out of place in his bedroom
- When the dreamer looks around his room, he sees the
decor has changed. What is depicted in the glass of his
windows? What two literary works do these images come
from? What languages were they originally written in?
How is this a commentary on Chaucer's own literary works?
- What was the temperature like when the dreamer gets
up and starts walking around?
- The dreamer then hears a noise and encounters a hunting
party. He takes a horse and follows them on the hunt.
What makes this strange? What is he wearing when he rides
out with the hunt (trick question)?
- The dreamer encounters a dog-handler and asks him who
is leading the hunt. Who is the host of this hunt, according
to the dog-handler? Why is his answer rather odd, historically
speaking? How does the emperor's name connect with the
dreamer's earlier medical condition? How does this connect
with medieval numerology?
- When the dreamer gets separated from the hunt and becomes
lost in the wood, what animal does he find to lead him
onward? Why is this an amusing choice for a dream-vision?
- At first, as the dreamer follows the puppy, he sees
trees that are ten or twelve feet high. Eventually he
comes to one that is "fourty or fifty fadme lengthe"
(!) How tall is that? How long is a fathom? What sort
of animals wander around this tree?
- Who does Chaucer find under this huge tree as well as
animals? How old is this person? What is this guy doing
under the tree?
- What is the implied audience the black knight addresses
in his song or apostrophe?
Why is he upset with this personified being? How has it
- What happens to the black knight as soon as he finishes
- How does the black knight first respond when the dreamer
greets him? (trick question)
- When the black knight speaks to the dreamer eventually,
how would you characterize his behavior and attitude to
this commoner who addresses him?
- In lines 616-71, the black knight personifies Lady Fortune
as playing a board game with him. What is this game? What
piece did Lady Fortune take away from him?
- After line 710, the dreamer responds to the Black Knight's
suicidal thoughts. What does the dreamer remind the Black
- In lines 805 onward, the storyteller explains how he
met his lady-love. How did he meet her? Describe the encounter.
How did she respond to his romantic advances initially?
How does this connect with medieval conventions concerning
- In lines 939 onward, the Black Knight describes the
physical features of Lady White. What does she look like?
How do these features contrast with modern ideas of beauty?
- According to the poetry, Fair White is even smarter
than what Biblical heroine?
- The Black Knight claims that "Trouthe" lived
in an unusual place. Where did Trouthe choose to dwell
most of the time?
- In lines 1051 onward, the poet makes allusions to a
variety of mythological figures. What do these allusions
imply about Fair White?
- In lines 1139 onward, it becomes clear that the Dreamer
is missing the point. What is it that he fails to understand
about the Black Knight's reason for his depression and the
status of Fair White?
- What gift does Fair White give to the Black Knight?
- How did Fair White typically react when the Black Knight
would mess up ("Whan I had wrong and she the ryght")?
- In line 1298, what does the dreamer's question reveal
about his understanding (again)?
- What potential pun might exist in the phrase "hert-huntyng"