“Things Happen, As They Do in War”: From Chaucer’s Siege of Troy to the Siege of Gaza

“Troilus and Criseyde” is not often regarded as war poetry. But in 2024, it's impossible not to see the truth at the poem's core: it’s a work about a city under siege.

For the love of God, is the siege over? I’m so scared of the Greeks that it’s killing me.

Troilus and Criseyde, Book II, ll. 123–24

 

“However you feel about the conflict, these are points of connection worth bearing in mind,” I said. I was teaching the first class of an undergraduate seminar on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde at the University of Oxford in fall 2023.* I was anxious, and I suspect I garbled my words. I told my students to track how the Trojan War flickers in and out of focus through the poem; I mentioned the old Crusader knights still knocking around court when Chaucer was a young man. In the process, I also attempted to reference the horror that Israel was, at that point, only beginning to unleash on Gaza.

It was an imperfect introduction, and I wish my manner had been less circumspect in delivering it. Sitting across from me, my students were quiet, somber. Some of them nodded, others took notes. Others had no discernible reaction; maybe they weren’t listening at all. But I went on, saying the things I felt I had to say. While preparing my fall seminars, I had found it increasingly difficult to think about how to teach Chaucer and not discuss Gaza. Not only because, if Chaucer doesn’t resonate with the lives and concerns of students now, I personally see little point in teaching him. Not only because a depoliticized Middle Ages is a Middle Ages made available to the uses and abuses of white supremacist history.1 Not only because my solidarity with Palestinian struggle does not end when I leave the protest crowd. And not only—although substantially—in memory of Refaat Alareer, the professor and poet murdered on or around December 6, 2023, who wrote about teaching Dickens and Shakespeare to students at the Islamic University of Gaza and watching them slowly come to identify with the despised Jewish figures of Fagin and Shylock.2

I wanted to talk about Gaza because Israel’s siege against Palestinians has fundamentally changed how I read Troilus. When I read Chaucer in 2024, the pictures that drift through my mind are not of romantic schemes and interpersonal intrigue—ostensibly the bulk of the poem’s plot—but of rubble, bodies, unfathomable grief. Troilus, I began to see, is a poem soaked in blood.


Geoffrey Chaucer is not often thought of as a war poet. Troilus and Criseyde, his epic romance of the 1380s that unfolds against the backdrop of the Trojan War, is not often regarded as war poetry. A story of love, fate, sex, subtly shifting gendered power dynamics: Troilus tends to be described as all these things, before being identified as a poem meaningfully constituted by the conflict through which its main characters are living. Chaucer himself invites us to ignore the violent collisions of bodies playing out in and around Troy. Early in the poem, his narrator claims that explaining Troy’s destruction would be a “long digression” from his twisty love plot.3 The narrator is almost bored by the conflict: we can imagine him sighing as he tells us that “The thynges fellen, as they don of werre” (Things happened, as they do in war). War is banal, he seems to say, following predictable patterns—it doesn’t make for a good story.

But, recently, while rereading Troilus in order to teach it, I was struck by the blunt reality of what lies at the core of Chaucer’s plot. Troilus is a poem about a city under siege. Its protagonists are a combatant—Troilus—seeking to defend that city, and a civilian woman—Criseyde—trying to negotiate her survival, even while being traded as a hostage as part of political negotiations in which she has no say. The war is not mere “backdrop.” It’s the engine of Troilus’s plot, grounding its every action: from the vulnerable Criseyde turning to Troilus for “lordshipe” (protection), to the revelation of Criseyde’s “betrayal,” when Troilus sees her brooch pinned on a coat of arms captured from the Greek soldier Diomede.

The realization startled me, and I don’t think that my reading would have shifted so dramatically were it not for a coincidence of timing. I was rereading the poem in October 2023.

Every day, as I cycled to the library, I listened to news about how, following the deadly Hamas attacks of October 7, the Israeli state had unleashed cataclysmic violence on Gaza. Thus far, that violence has seen more than 34,000 Palestinians killed, more than 77,000 wounded, and approximately 1.9 million displaced. Those numbers are probably out of date even as I write this.

I couldn’t shake Palestine from my mind as I read Troilus. I didn’t want to. Now, more than four months into the program of mass Palestinian death recently ruled by the ICJ to risk constituting a genocide, I want to talk about reading and teaching medieval poetry in wartime. I want to talk about how Chaucer’s 600-year-old lines seem utterly changed to me now in light of what’s happening to the people of Gaza and the West Bank. And, most importantly, I want to talk about how that context needs to have a place in our classrooms.

academics—even precarious ones—cannot afford to turn a blind eye to Gaza, because, for many of us, Gaza is inextricably bound up with our work.

Troilus is the one compulsory text on Oxford’s English Literature curriculum. Students have to read it in order to demonstrate a working knowledge of Middle English. That Chaucer’s poem has been accorded this status testifies both to Chaucer’s canonicity and Troilus’s perceived teachability. Chaucer is a deft craftsman, weaving an elaborate lattice of cloaked jokes, clever rhymes, and literary allusions over 8,239 lines. As an undergraduate, I learned to unpick that lattice, to mine the poem for Boethian phrasings and subtle manipulations of rime royal. Now, as a tutor, I am expected to teach my students how to do the same.

This kind of reading taught me a great deal, but I also experienced it as desensitizing. It didn’t encourage the immersion, the feeling of porous susceptibility I associate with books that have changed me. When I first read Troilus, I don’t remember much noticing Criseyde’s urgency in asking her uncle Pandarus “For Goddes love; is than th’assege aweye? / I am of Grekes so fered that I deye” (For the love of God, is the siege over? I’m so scared of the Greeks that it’s killing me). Nor the horror of Chaucer’s description of the “wyde wowndes” (wide wounds) that Troilus will end up inflicting on his love-rival Diomede in battle. In fact, the whole of the war plot—the niggling undercurrent of dread, the presentiment of catastrophe humming beneath the love-talk and birdsong—slid off me. The late Jenni Nuttall’s invaluable Reader’s Guide to Troilus, beloved by many an undergraduate, describes it as a poem in which “weighty public matters” are often used as “camouflage for private pleasure.”4

But I wonder now if it might be the other way around: if Chaucer crams his readers’ minds with the tragic love story of two individuals in order to avoid us glancing at the very public tragedy unfolding around them.

Perhaps he had good reason for doing so. As much as Chaucer insists that he’s telling a tale already a “thousand yeer” (thousand years) old, comfortably remote from his present moment, the Trojan War may not have felt like ancient history to his readers. England in the 1380s was a turbulent place: in addition to domestic discontents, the Hundred Years’ War with France was grinding on, and there were anxieties about invasions from the Continent.5 Chaucer himself had been taken hostage as a young soldier during the unsuccessful siege of Reims in 1359, had seen the churned-up earth and burned crops the English left behind, had smelled on his own clothes the stink of a prisoner’s fear.6

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Crossings into Indigenous Palestine

By Eman Ghanayem

There were other conflicts, too, which the Trojan War might have recalled to Chaucer’s audience. Medieval English readers understood Troy to have been located in modern Turkey. At the time, Turkey was the source of a new anxiety in the shape of the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire, the perceived threat of which set Western Europe ablaze with plans to retake the Holy Land—roughly corresponding to the borders of modern Israel and Palestine—for Christendom. But by the late 14th century, the crusading ideal had grown a little grubby, following a series of embarrassments and defeats: the 1291 loss of Acre (located in what is now northern Israel); the cash-grabbing 1365 Alexandrian Crusade (in which the Knight of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales apparently participated); the shambolic 1383 Despenser’s Crusade (to Ghent, of all places). People—Chaucer, perhaps, among their number—were beginning to ask themselves whether religiously motivated bloodshed in distant lands was even worth it.7

If Calais and Acre and Alexandria came to mind for medieval readers when Chaucer describes the Greeks and Trojans spilling out one anothers’ “braynes,” is it any wonder if, reading Troilus in 2024, I think of the images of torn bodies emerging every day from Gaza? As Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh writes, exploring the continuum between medieval and modern Islamophobia, “The historical objects I engage with in my research may be temporally distant from me, but the stories they tell are not old. The violences they describe are not old.”8 Troilus’s violences feel piercingly fresh to me now.

When I look from the news app on my phone to the Riverside Chaucer on my desk, for example, I read of Criseyde, constantly calibrating her performance of feminine vulnerability in order to survive. I think of her first speech in the poem, appearing before the Trojan hero Hector in her widow’s habit to beg with “pit[e]ous vois” and “[tendre] wepynge” for protection, and of her last speech, correctly lamenting that she will be “rolled … on many a tonge” for having decided to accept Diomede as a lover-protector while being held hostage in the Greek camp. Criseyde’s gendered calculations recall the similarly devastating contingency of victimhood for Palestinians; the ways in which, to quote Mohammed El-Kurd, that status is accorded only to those, mostly women and children, seen to be “wounded, wailing, and weak,” and the ways in which that status is liable to be rescinded from anyone calling for, or engaging in, resistance.

Or I think of how little Chaucer’s characters speak of the war, and how indifferent Chaucer seems to his own war plot. How Criseyde and her maidens casually read about a different siege, that of Thebes, while their own city is under attack, how inured they seem to the violence all around them, even as it alters their lives irrevocably. At the end of nearly a decade of siege, I think about how cruelly prosaic the nightmare must feel for these women, just as it likely feels for Gazans, who have effectively been living in a state of siege since 2007, and for all Palestinians, who have faced a world accustomed to (even celebratory of) brutality against them since the 1948 Nakba. They face a world that seems to believe, in Chaucer’s words, that “things” just “happen,” “as they do in war”; or, in the words of the narrator in Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail, about the 1949 rape and murder of a Bedouin girl by Israeli soldiers: “Incidents like that aren’t out of the ordinary, or, let us say, they happen in contexts like this.”9

Or again, I think of Diomede “wooing” Criseyde by telling her that his army will kill everyone she’s ever known; that the “folk of Troie” (Trojan people) are “alle” in “prisoun” (prison) and the city must be given up; his proclamation that “ther shal not scapen oon / That Troian is” (not a single Trojan shall escape). When I first read the poem, I never understood how Diomede could repeat these unspeakable things over and over to a woman he’s supposedly seducing. But I understand them a little better now, because I think of the Law for Palestine database of more than 500 instances of Israeli officials, legislators, army commanders, and other prominent public figures openly inciting genocide; the ease with which Israeli politicians describe their will to destroy the “empire of evil” that amounts to a population half made up of children; the gleeful TikToks made by IDF soldiers as they bomb and bulldoze homes and schools; and the impunity with which the Israeli state can declare its intent over and over on the international stage while hovering its finger above the detonator of the next bomb.

When I read Chaucer in 2024, I began to see that “Troilus” is a poem soaked in blood.

I want to be clear here: I am not drawing parallels for the sake of drawing parallels. I am a white British scholar, living thousands of miles from the bombings. I do not want to make Palestinian death into an academic exercise. There can be no equivalency between the Trojan War and the war in Gaza. The war in Gaza does not arise from the ‘“ravysshyng” (abduction) of legendarily beautiful women, and it is not being fought by demigods and princes. There is no question as to Gaza’s historicity and reality: Troy, by contrast, is a hazy concatenation of fantasy and garbled memories. The critical distinction is that Troy, for the medieval reader, is “always already destroyed,” available as an inert jumble of ruins onto which to project whatever national or personal grief lies to hand.10 The destruction of Gaza City, of Khan Yunis, and, now, of Rafah, are not historical objects. They are unfolding before our eyes; they demand our intervention.

Myth and poetry, like all language, fail us when we confront Gaza. As the poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote in 1973, “We do injustice to Gaza when we turn it into a myth, because we will hate it when we discover that it is no more than a small poor city that resists.”

Still, I can’t help thinking of Gaza when I read Troilus in the same way that I can’t help reading Troilus by anachronistic electric light: because it is the stuff of my modern world, because it is sifted into everything I think and do. Gaza is being bombed when I get dressed in my bedroom in Oxford to give a seminar, when I walk through the beautiful buildings of a centuries-old university.

It is still being bombed when I sit down in a cool quiet room with a group of 19- and 20-year-olds and read a medieval poem.


Solidarity with Palestinians is often treated, in UK higher education and elsewhere, as a controversial position. Suspicion from university administrators and government ministers alike has only intensified since October 7.

In October 2023, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan circulated a letter to university vice-chancellors urging them to act “swiftly and decisively” against pro-Palestinian groups that threatened the “welfare” of Jewish students. Also in October, the national research funding agency UKRI suspended an Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion advisory group, following pro-Palestine posts by members that another minister, Michelle Donelan, had branded “extremist.” At UCL, the Marxist Student Society was suspended for refusing to remove posters that called for “Intifada Until Victory” in Palestine. At my own institution, our branch of UCU, the lecturers’ trade union, came under fire from the national press for proposing to hear a motion that contained similar language; a different Palestine solidarity motion was overwhelmingly passed months later. And, in January, a SOAS student was reportedly raided and arrested at her home for statements she had made at a Palestine protest held in October.

These threats are only the palest shadow of the attacks academic institutions are facing in Gaza, where, as of May, every single university has been bombed, and at least 231 educators have been killed. Still, anxiety surrounding public solidarity with Palestine is hardly conducive to pedagogy that confronts the violent realities of our current moment—especially for racialized or precariously employed academics.

But academics—even precarious ones—cannot afford to turn a blind eye to Gaza, because, for many of us, Gaza is inextricably bound up with our work. Like many UK institutions, the university in which I teach and study benefits from the profits of Gaza’s destruction. My institution received an estimated £19 million from arms manufacturers between 2013 and 2021, placing it within the top five UK universities for arms trade research funding. These funders—Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, to name a few—also supply products to the Israeli military, handing out cash for labs with one hand and components for F-35 fighter jets with the other.

My students and I are part of the university; we are, therefore, complicit in the contacts it forges with weapons dealers. It seems preferable for us to at least try to reckon with what, exactly, we are being made complicit in.

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Our Siege Is Long

By Esmat Elhalaby

After I’d made my opening remarks in the fall of 2023, the seminar moved on—probably to talk about rhyme or sources or themes, or one of the other hefty Chaucerian components one has to discuss in an introductory Troilus class. As the class progressed, I wondered if I had made the right decision—if I should have plotted out my phrasing more carefully, or waited, or said nothing at all.

But when, weeks later, a student emailed me to ask if they could leave class a little early to help facilitate a Palestine solidarity demonstration, I was glad I had spoken, if only to create an environment in which that was something they felt empowered to declare. I am glad, too, that I still have classes to teach, and, therefore, that the conversation is not over.

There is a Chaucer quotation that I didn’t include in that first anxious introduction, but now wish I had. Not being a Chaucer scholar, I wasn’t familiar with it until I came across it in a paper by Jamil Al-Asmar, an academic at Al-Azhar University, which was destroyed around November 6, 2023, after repeated airstrikes. The quotation is from the Canterbury Tales, and is, as far as I know, the only explicit reference to Gaza in Chaucer’s corpus.

While recounting the story of the Jewish hero Samson—an Israelite locked into bitter conflict with the Philistines—Chaucer’s Monk relates an incident from the Book of Judges:

By verray force at Gazan on a nyght,

Maugree Philistiens of that citee,

The gates of the toun he hath up plyght,

And on his bak ycaryed hem hath hee

Hye on an hill whereas men myghte hem see…11

(By sheer force, one night at Gaza,

despite the Philistines of that city,

he yanked up the gates of the town,

and carried them on his back,

placing them high up on a hill where men might see them…)

As Chaucer’s audience would have known, Samson’s stand against the Philistines does not hold: his hair is cut, his strength is lost, and he is imprisoned, only escaping by pulling a temple down on himself and his captors, killing everyone inside. But here, just for a moment, we catch a glimpse of wild resistance, of liberation, of the instant in which that which had been inconceivable becomes possible.

When I read these lines, I picture something different than the destruction and horrors of war that permeate Troilus. I picture Gaza, standing open. I picture the gap where the gates used to be. I picture the posts, high up on the hill, gleaming in the slant light of morning. icon

*Author’s note: Since writing this article, University of Oxford students and staff have joined members of some thirty UK universities in establishing a Gaza Solidarity Encampment. The encampment—which now has two sites—demands that Oxford disclose its assets and sever financial ties with corporations complicit in the brutality being visited upon the Palestinian people by the Israeli state. It has also become an open, generative space for exactly the kinds of conversations I discuss in the article: about the inextricability of Gaza from our day-to-day in the West; about pedagogy and its purposes; and about how we can build better universities, better worlds. The encampments’ community tents are named for Palestinian victims of the 2023–2024 war. Its makeshift library—which houses everything from coloring books to handmade zines to the works of Frantz Fanon—is named, in honour of the scholar and poet whose work guided me in writing this piece, the Refaat Alareer Memorial Library.
  1. Here, I am thinking, as I often am, about Dorothy Kim’s description in her essay “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy” of medievalists as “ideological arms dealers,” who must actively “choose a side” in order to defend against racist appropriations of the history that preoccupies our working days.
  2. Refaat Alareer, “Gaza Asks: When Shall This Pass?”, in Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire, edited by Jehad Abusalim, Jennifer Bing, and Michael Merryman-Lotze (Haymarket Books, 2022).
  3. Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, in The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson (Houghton Mifflin, 1987), Book I, l. 143. All subsequent references are to this edition. All translations from the Middle English are my own.
  4. Jenni Nuttall, Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader’s Guide (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 81.
  5. On the Hundred Years’ War’s traces in the poem, see Patricia Clare Ingham, “Chaucer’s Haunted Aesthetics: Mimesis and Trauma in Troilus and Criseyde,” College English vol. 72, no. 3 (2010), pp. 226–47; Ardis Butterfield, The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language, and Nation in the Hundred Years War (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 187–200; and Daniel Davies, “‘Wereyed on every side’: Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and the Logic of Siege Warfare,” in New Medieval Literatures 20, edited by Kellie Robertson, Wendy Scase, Laura Ashe, and Philip Knox (Boydell & Brewer, 2020), pp. 74–106.
  6. On Chaucer’s experience of the Hundred Years’ War as a soldier, see Marion Turner, Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 71–88.
  7. On crusading anxieties as reflected in Chaucer’s work, see Marcel Elias, “Chaucer and Crusader Ethics: Youth, Love, and the Material World,” Review of English Studies, vol. 70, no. 296 (2019), pp. 618–39; and Celia M. Lewis, “History, Mission, and Crusade in the Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer Review, vol. 42, no. 4 (2008), pp. 353–82.
  8. Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, “The Depoliticized Saracen and Muslim Erasure,” Literature Compass, vol. 16, no. 9-10 (2019), pp. 1-8 (p. 2).
  9. Adania Shibli, Minor Detail, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020), p. 60.
  10. Marilynn Desmond, “Trojan Itineraries and the Matter of Troy,” in The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature: Vol. 1, 800–1558, edited by Rita Copeland (Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 251–68 (251).
  11. Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, in The Riverside Chaucer, ll. 2047–51.
Featured image: Detail of The Battle with the Sagittary and the Conference at Achilles’ Tent (from Scenes from the Story of the Trojan War), probably produced through Jean or Pasquier Grenier (ca. 1470–90). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art