Medieval Literature 2, Testament of Cresseid: To what extent should the planetary gods be blamed for Cresseid's downfall in Henryson's "Testament of Cresseid"?

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Medieval Literature 2: Testament of Cresseid

To what extent should the planetary gods be blamed for Cresseid’s downfall in Henryson’s “Testament of Cresseid”?

Here, the problem is posed as to how far the planetary gods can be seen as responsible for the infliction of leprosy and ultimately the death of the poem’s heroine, Cresseid, the beautiful yet unfaithful lover of the Trojan knight Troilus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to which this poem is a sequel.  However, it might be questioned whether the planetary gods can be blamed at all for Cresseid’s downfall.

The poem outlines how Cresseid, rejected by her lover Diomede, blasphemes against Venus, the goddess of love, and her son Cupid.  She then falls into a swoon in which she dreams that she observes a counsel of the planetary gods as they decide her punishment, and when she awakes she looks in the mirror to find she has been inflicted with leprosy:  

                . . . than rais scho vp and tuik

                Ane poleist glas, and hir schaddow culd luik;

                And quhen scho saw hir face sa deformait,

                Gif scho in hart was wa aneuch, God wait! (lines 347-350)

Nevertheless, it could be argued that Cresseid deserves such a cruel punishment for her arrogance in refusing to accept responsibility for her own actions, instead blaming the gods; it would almost certainly have been understood by a medieval audience that the planets represented their creator and controller; that is, the God of Christianity.  Thus Cresseid is guilty of blasphemy and deserves a harsh penalty, a fact which even she acknowledges towards the end of the poem, though she has blamed everyone but herself previously, remarking Nane but my self as now I will accuse (line 574).

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Furthermore, it is hinted in the text that after her rejection by Diomede, Cresseid becomes a prostitute (Than desolait scho walkit vp and doun,/And sum men sayis, into the court, commoun. [lines 76-77]).  In the middle ages, leprosy was commonly regarded as a sexually transmitted disease; hence it can be seen that Cresseid may have contracted leprosy through her prostitution, and consequently her downfall is directly caused by her own carnal sins.

In spite of this, it has also been argued that the planetary gods are unnecessarily harsh in their punishment of Cresseid.  She has been shamed and ...

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