Troy and Shakespeare


The Greek Gods Become Human:

Raoul Lefevre’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye

Adapted from Chapter 7 of my Dissertation, “Human Responsibility and the Fall of Troy” (CUNY, 1981)

 © Diane P. Thompson

Many versions of the Troy story have included at least some non-human causation, whether the wrath of the gods, destiny, the spite of demonic fates, the arrow of Amors, or the blinding confusion caused by Fortune for apparently no reason at all, or for reasons beyond the capacity of humans to understand. However, Raoul Lefevre’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, translated into English and printed by William Caxton [1], presents the Troy story as occurring in a world almost totally devoid of non-human causation.

The Recuyell is organized into three books. The first two books are largely drawn from Boccaccio's Genealogia deorum gentilium. [2] Book I gives extensive details of the origins of the pagan gods considered as human, especially focused on the strife between Jupiter and Saturn. Book II is mostly a life of Hercules as a glorious semi-divine hero. Book III is based on Guido delle Colonne’s Historia Destructionis Troiae and tells of the final fall of Troy. [3]

Each of the three books of the Recuyell includes a fall of Troy. The first and second falls are caused by the rude and tyrannical behavior of Laomedon toward Hercules, who destroys Troy twice. [4] Agamemnon and Menelaus and their Greek army destroy Troy for the third time, to avenge the rape of Helen. The second book of the Recuyell is a glorified life of Hercules, who destroys Troy twice. Subsequently, the third and final fall of Troy is a rather ordinary event, something heroes do to a ruler who misbehaves.

The tone of the Recuyell is set in the first book that presents an almost totally euhemerized version of the struggles between the generations of the pagan gods, especially Jupiter and Saturn. This version explains away almost all supernatural events (except rather minor ones of magic and an occasional monster) by means of moralized allegories that destroy whatever meaning originally inhered in the myths. [5] Thus, Pluto founded a city in Sicily called Helle, and Pegasus was really a very swift ship, only called a flying horse (Recuyell I. 86, 196).

As Don Cameron Allen points out, euhemerism has strong atheistic tendencies. One may begin by explaining how the other fellow's gods were really humans who had various adventures; however, that mode of interpretation may eventually lead to questioning the divinity of one's own gods. [6] This is not to suggest that Lefevre was an atheist; in fact he was a priest. [7] But the effect of the euhemerization of the pagan gods is to destroy the motivation of stories about the ancient figures who were involved in the fall of Troy. [8] The gods were originally causes; they were used to explain why events occurred, as does Homer in the Iliad or Virgil in the Aeneid. If the gods, who had been the causes of events, are reduced to mere mortals, then causation shifts from the divine to the human.

The stories of the gods as human seem chaotic. The ancient tales, stripped of the meaning of divinity, are disorderly, lacking in cause and effect sequence, and disturbing, if not shocking from a moral standpoint. To be told of a god devouring his children is merely to hear an ancient tale; it is far more disturbing to be told of a human being Saturn who tries to kill his good son Jupiter because of the warning of an oracle. One cannot avoid applying human standards of morality to Saturn's behavior now that he has been transformed into a human being. Thus, the author attempts to explain Saturn's behavior as one would explain the behavior of a man, not a god. [9]

The Recuyell includes a very long section describing the various attempts of Saturn to kill his son Jupiter. The following scene is typical of Lefevre's attempts to explain that behavior in human terms:

And longe tyme whan Saturne sawe hym thus in pease / hit happend on a day whan hit cam vnto hys mynde . that his god appollo had prenostyqued that this Iupiter shold put hym out of his royame / Sodeynli there began to engendre in hym a mortall hate agaynst Iupiter that had don vnto hym so many good dedes (Recuyell I. 86). [10]

The passage continues to analyze Saturn's behavior as a man:

he adioustyd fayth and gaf credence vnto his cursid prenosticacyon. And so suffryd hym self to be enuolupped wyth so grete a folye that he coude neuer drawe hyt out after: And than he retorned vnto his auncyent sorowes and fantasies" (Recuyell I. 87).

This is a psychological analysis of the behavior of a former god. The motivating idea rises to present itself to Saturn's conscious mind; it is an arbitrary event, without any other cause than its own occurrence. Saturn's immediate reaction is hatred, a passion that conflicts with the experience he has of Jupiter as a good son. Saturn does not resist the impulses of his passion; he adjusts his beliefs to suit his emotions and allows himself to become permanently controlled by his folly. We see the touch of Christian free will here: Saturn allows his folly to control him, and having performed this willing act of compliance, abdicating his free will freely, he becomes forever unfree. From now on he will be dominated by emotional fantasies.

People ask Saturn why he behaves so badly:

… been thyn Interyor rancours permanent shall thy fantasyes neuer cesse / shalt thou be in Age lasse & sympler than a child / the more that men growe in age / the more be they wyse / Thou hast lasse knowleche now / than thou haddest in thy paryllous yougth and fro whens cometh this deffaulte / is this by the heuenly Influence / yf hit be thus / where is rayson where is equyte (Recuyell I. 96).

These very important questions are never answered in the Recuyell, which presents a psychology of causative behavior without underlying causes. Behavior is something that happens to a person. To be sure, the person must acquiesce freely, but that momentary action can produce a lifetime of compulsion. Saturn's passions destroy his knowledge, his ability to recognize and judge events. The reference to heavenly influence is interesting. That would be the astrological influences of the planets.  Lefevre does not accept this as the source of Saturn's behavior, but merely comments that if it were indeed the source, "where is rayson, where is equyte."

The euhemerization of the gods contributes to the paratactic structure of the narrative. Events are generally connected to one another by the neutral "and" that frequently indicates a lack of causal relationship. The narrative attempts to follow a sequence of very complex events lacking meaning or purpose. This produces a chaotic impression on the reader. For example, consider the following passage, where Jupiter, a heroic figure, goes from one action to another with no logical connections other than the paratactic "and":

Whan Iupiter herde the Caas and the Infortune of Danes / he began to sorowe and sighe sore. The swete cam in to his visage And the teres in to his eyen he callyd Gamynedes and yxion And tolde hem that his viage was broken And that the kynge Acrisius had caste her in to the see for whom he made this Armee / Gamynedes and yxion conforted hym the best wyse they coude And brought hym agayn to Crete he helde hym there solitaryly a while And laye by his wif Iuno / And Iuno and her aunte seres made him good chere often tymes And so ofte cam seres that ones she axid the cause of hys sorowe  He behelde the beaute of her / And that she was alloone dyde so dyde so moche to her that he had to doo wyth her / and knewe her flesshly / and that she conceyuyd of his seed a doughter / and after he determyned in his wyll that he wold goo in to secylle and conquerre the contre.  (Recuyell I. 176-7)

Not only is there no subordination, there is almost no motivation and very little sense. This is largely a result of transforming the gods, who had been the causes of events, into human beings who cannot be causative as gods are; yet these humans must follow the tortuous paths of the ancient divine adventurers. There was a clear division between humans and gods, between causes and actors, in most early Troy stories. This division is absent from the Recuyell, and the consequence is a great confusion between causation and those who experience events. [11

In the Recuyell, Juno, who is the cause of the labors of Hercules, is no longer a terrible goddess, but merely "the false wycche and sorceresse" (Recuyell I. 243). She can change shape, make herself invisible, and so on, but hers is not the wrath of a goddess, a final cause in itself, but merely the anger of a woman, jealous of her husband's infidelities. When Alcumena gives birth to the infant Hercules, whose father is Jupiter, husband of Juno, the humanized woe of Juno is described:

[She] sayd / what a vaylleth me to be born of the ryall blood of saturne / what auaylleth me my patrymonye of the world of golde / what auaylleth me the dyademe of crete / ne what auayllen me the sciences of the worlde that I haue lerned by grete studie & laboure whan the goddesses ben agaynst and contrarye vnto me in alle thing. The kynge my husbonde rekketh not / ner setteth nought by me / no more in myne olde dayes than he dyde in my yougthe He hath euery day a newe lady / O what destyne / fortune wilte thou neuer torne thy whele Shall I alleway suffre my tribulaciouns & this payne.  (Recuyell I, 239-40)

Here Juno is at the mercy of the wheel of Fortune! This is a far cry from the raging Juno of the Aeneid who is one of the primary causative factors of the universe, although not the finally victorious one.

However, while Juno refers to the wheel of Fortune, even Fortune is practically absent from the Recuyell as a causative factor, and where it does occur, it is in the form of Fortune as random change, to be exploited or endured as the case may be, not Fortune as destiny, which must be helplessly and totally accepted. A typical example is where one of her captains tells Medusa, a beleaguered lady:

we muste nedes kepe oure renome / yf fortune hath ben to vs this day froward / to morn she shal torn to prouffyt / the woundes and hurtes that ben made in our worship and blood we moste bere hit and take hit in gree. And our prowesse and honour shall to morn putte vs to fore the shame (Recuyell I. 191).

The following passage gives another example of this mode of faded fortune: "the marroners toke their shippe and wente to the see / And saylled all that day with oute fyndyng of ony aduenture / But on the morn by tyme in the mornyng / ffortune that alleway torneth with oute ony restyng brought to them a grete shyppe…" (Recuyell III. 337-38). Fortune in the Recuyell is not the Boethian destinal force that tests men and teaches them to despise the world, nor is it Guido's malicious causative factor of the fates. This Fortune is closest to the one recognized by Chaucer's Pandarus, change itself, and the world of the Recuyell changes constantly, for no particular reason, as does its figure of Fortune.

A corollary to the absence of external malicious powers is the tremendous humanistic optimism that the Recuyell expresses in its central book, which concentrates on the life of Hercules. Freed of the tyranny of the pagan gods and the medieval destructive forces of fate and Fortune, the Recuyell describes a place where men can indeed be heroes, capable of acting to create a better world. Hercules is a superhero who cleanses the world of all tyrants. This profound optimism about human capacity is best expressed by Hercules himself:

hyt is force vnto a man that he take and bere all that fortune wyll…. Hyt is expedyent that aman reioyse hys ryght. Ryght conforteth the courage of a man. And also the corage of a man conforted bryngeth hym ofte tymes to gloryous victorye / A beste rurall disgarnysshyd of raysonable engyne fighteth for his hole and neste with his clawes with his feet teeth and wyth his becke / what shall a man sensible and endowed with entendement & rayson doo yf ony assault and namely in his owen land and terrytorye come / Nature wyll and enseygneth that where corperall force faylleth / vygour and vertue of courage werken / and that they fyghte for their contrey. Take courage than in yowr right / and late saye your entente vnto your enemyes. (Recuyell III. 372-73)

Hercules is a natural man and a man at home in nature. He finds no conflict in drawing his precepts for behavior from observing wild beasts. Further, he proposes optimistically that right makes might. This is typical of Troy stories, where factors other than human rights generally control the outcomes of events. Finally, Hercules praises the power of the "vertue of courage" which can carry men even beyond the power of their bodily strength. "Vertue" is a major element in the characterization of Hercules. It is his heroic essence, which recognizes and destroys tyrants, but cannot be destroyed by them. Hercules:

had in hym that vertue / that where he myght knowe monstre or tyrant or ony men enpesshyng the comyn wele / thether he wente And suche tyrans he destroyed And to thende that men shold not saye that he dyde such werkes for couetyse . he wold neuer holde ne reteyne to his propre vse no thynge of their goodes / But all that he conquerid in suche wyse he gaue hit vnto noble men And preisid no thyng but vertue / He wold not make his seignourye to growe ne to amasse and take to hym self royame vpon royame . He was contente of that / that nature had gyuen hym. And all way he wold laboure for the comyn wele / O noble herte / O right wel adressid corage / O tresuertuous paynem ther was none like to hym of all them / that were afore hym ne after hym. (Recuyell II. 477)

Hercules is, unequivocally, the "tresuertous paynem." There is no conflict in the Recuyell between Christianity and the possibility of a truly excellent man who was not a Christian, but a natural man of extreme "vertue." The "vertue" of Hercules is a natural quality that responds to adversity by developing even further. This development is aptly expressed by the metaphor of the growth of a natural object, a plant:

In suche wise as the yonge wyne by the labour and besynes of the labourer groweth in heighte&his bowes spred a brood full of fruyte / semblably hercules by vertue labouryng in hym grewe in verdur of well doyng and in fruyt of noblesse / his werkes his bowes hys braunches than began to spreed a brood & to mounte and ryse from royame to roiame . . .  (Recuyell II. 308)

Hercules is apotheosized by his widow and unwitting murderer, Deyanyra, as the ultimate link between gods and men, a true Renaissance superhero, far removed from the flawed knights of the Middle Ages. Deyanayra says of Hercules: "He that traversid the stronge marches the fondementes terrestre / that bodyly conuersid amonge the men / And spirytuelly amonge the sonne the mone and the sterris And that susteyned the circomference of the heunes is ded" (Recuyell II. 500).

The Recuyell is centered on the superhero Hercules, who destroys Troy twice. Both destructions are fully justified responses to the greed and bad faith of the Trojan King Laomedon. In this context Laomedon is merely one of many tyrants destroyed by the "vertue" of Hercules.

The first destruction of Troy is based on an adventure involving Priam's sister Hesione, called Exiona in this version. She is the same woman who is later given to Ajax Telamon after the second fall of Troy, and who provides the pretext for Paris to seize Helen, which causes the third and final fall of Troy.

The trouble at Troy starts when Laomedon borrows money from the temple of the god of the sun in order to pay to fortify the walls of Troy. When the time comes to repay the loan, "Laomedon daigned not to speke to the prestes but sente hem worde shamefully that they shold retorne & kepe her temples wherfore he was afterward sore punysshyd" (Recuyell I. 271). Storm, heat and plague follow this impious act until Laomedon finally goes to the temple of Apollo at Delphos, where the devil that inhabited the idol says that Troy is being punished because of the money which has not been returned, and that the plague will not cease unless they offer a virgin every month as a sacrifice to be devoured by a monster sent by the gods. This situation will continue until "they finde oon man that by his armes and his myght shall ouercome the sayd monstre &c” (Recuyell I. 273).

Hercules slays the monster, but although the Trojans adore him for his deed, Laomedon's response is envy, not gratitude. Laomedon sends Hercules out to hunt and then bolts the gates of the city against him and accuses him of having "meued by conspiracion the cyte ayenst hym" (Recuyell I. 282). Laomedon also refuses to give Hercules the horses that he had promised him as a reward for rescuing Exiona. When Hercules asks Laomedon why he will not give him his promised reward, Laomedon replies: "for as moche as hit is my wyll and pleseth me so to do" (Recuyell I. 282). Free will, not the malice of the fates, fortune, or confused error, motivates Laomedon. Hercules leaves, recruits an army, and returns to punish Laomedon. There is no question of who is to blame: "The kynge laomedon heeryng this tydynge ' began to sighe and to taste the punycion and trespaas that he had comysed and don ayenst hercules" (Recuyell I. 287). Hercules and his army destroy Troy. As a special touch of gallantry, they leave the palace full of ladies untouched (Recuyell I. 295-96).

Hercules has punished yet another tyrant. This is reinforced by the second destruction of Troy, which is also due to Laomedon's bad behavior and the "vertue" of Hercules. Once again Laomedon insults Hercules, who along with Jason had sought to land at Troy. Laomedon "sente doun a man that comanded them rudeli that they shold departe thens and that he was enemye vnto the grekes" (Recuyell II. 347). Hercules swears to return with an army and destroy Troy once again, which he does, clubbing Laomedon to death (Recuyell II. 350). Since Hercules is the unquestioned hero of this second book of the Recuyell. There is no question about the justice of his action; it is his unique "vertue" to destroy all monsters and tyrants (Recuyell II. 477). Clearly, Laomedon was one of these tyrants and Troy deserved to be destroyed.

Only the third and final destruction of Troy is based on Guido's Historia. This story occupies the third book of the Recuyell, which begins after the death of Hercules. Once again, the fault is clearly placed on the Trojan side. The first paragraph states that this book will be about how Priam rebuilt Troy "And afterward how for the rauysshement of dame helayne wyf of kynge Menelaus of grece. the sayd cyte was totally destroyed Priamus hector and alle his sones slayn with noblesse wyth oute nombre" (Recuyell III.505). Since this is the third such destruction, there is no need to mention that Troy is a place that willfully invites destruction by heroes.

The Recuyell omits most of Guido's attempts to explain why things happened. It also omits most of Guido's astrology, scientific lore, seasonal descriptions, references to the fates and nearly all of Guido's ambivalence about the causes of the fall of Troy. The Recuyell notably omits Guido's references to the fates as malicious forces capable of controlling human behavior. For example, at the end of the Council where the decision is made to send Paris to Greece, Guido gives an extensive analysis of the external controls of Fortune: "But the opposition of Fortune, who had already in her course given voluntary impulses and unfortunate inspirations, hastened toward the end by ordaining the rapid progress of events thereafter. If the arguments of Hector, the warnings of Cassandra...  But after the inexorable Fates decree that misfortunes and evils shall happen, they represent the opposite and contrary in the minds of men" (Historia, 65). The Recuyell merely remarks: "But neuer for the dissuacions of hector. Ne the monyssioins ne warnynges of cassandra the kyng wold not change his purpoos ne for helenus his sone ne for pantheus &c" (III. 527). All non-human causative factors have been removed.

Guido introduces the critical encounter between Hector and Ajax with a description of the hateful fates: "But the fates, who arrange for future adversities to happen, destroy everything by hidden snares, by which they complete those adversities which they have arranged for the future" (Historia, 140). All that remains of this in the Recuyell is "In this day had the troians had vittorye of alle the grekes yf fortune that is dyuerse had wylle consentyd" (III. 589). In the Recuyell, Fortune is "dyuerse," not malicious. Human beings are capable of making decisions and performing actions that will at least have a fair chance of controlling what happens to them.

After the encounter between Hector and Ajax, Guido points to the fatal causes: "This was the trivial cause for which the Trojans on that day ceased from obtaining their victory which they never afterward were able to reach, because the fates opposed" (Historia, 140). The Recuyell replaces the destinal fates with the more impersonal figure of Fortune and adds a common sense moral that one should not be merciful in war (III. 590). Although Fortune may have been unfavorable, human beings, not external factors, are to blame for what occurs.


  1. Raoul Lefevre, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, trans. by William Caxton, ed. H. Oskar Sommer, 2 Vols. (1894; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1973). Cited hereafter as Recuyell. Caxton says that Raoul Lefevre wrote the Recuyell in 1464, and he (Caxton) translated it from French into English between 1468 and 1471 (Recuyell, 3). Sommer accepts 1474 as the probable date of publication (Recuyell lxxxiv).
  2. Speaking of the first two books of the Recuyell, Sommer concludes that the “principal source whence Lefevre derived his information is undoubtedly Joannes Boccaccio’s ‘Genealogia deorum gentilium.’ While making use of the facts and events related in this work, he has retold thme in his own way, and added a great deal of detail to them”(Recuyell cxxxi).
  3. “In the third book of ‘Le Recueil’ Lefevre mentions no less than twelve times the name of Dares Phrygius.” But, Sommer concludes, “in spite of these references, a comparison of the third book with the ‘Historia destructionis Troiae,’ by Guido delle Colonne, shows, beyond doubt, that he exclusively made use of this work” (Recuyell cxxxi). Comparing the accounts of Boccaccio and Guido of the first fall of Troy, when Hercules overthrew Laomedon, Sommer comments, “It is clear that Lefevre cannot have misunderstood the two accounts, and we have no alternative but to conclude that he purposely made Hercules destroy Laomedon’s city twice, in order that each of his three books should deal with one destruction of Troy” (Recuyell cxxix). The edition of Guido referenced in this essay is the Historia Destructionis Troiae by Guido delle Colonne (Trans. with an Intro. and Notes by Mary Elizabeth Meek [Indiana U.P., 1974])
  4. Sommer comments that the “gods and goddesses of the heathen of Boccaccio, however, are in Lefevre’s estimation neither divinities nor genii, neither demons nor other supernatural beings, but men of flesh and blood, kings, knights, their wives and their people: in short, they are stript of all the characteristics so familiar to us from the Greek and Roman Classics” (Recuyell cxxiii).
  5. Don Cameron Allen, Mysteriously Meant: The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism and Allegorical Interpretation in the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P, 1970) 56-60.
  6. Sommer remarks that “Although a priest, Lefevre does not seem to have been anxious to pass in silence over passages which were certainly contrary to the morals even of his time” (Recuyell cxxvi).
  7. Euhemerism is an ancient practice, not a discovery of the 15th century. Allen traces the roots of this point of view to Euhemerus of Messina, in the 4th century BCE. Allen also points out that the Christian apologists “first described the rather scurvy moral lives and ignoble manners of Greek divinities.” The implication was that such behavior was human, not divine (53).
  8. There are remnants of a few gods in the Recuyell, especially Apollo, but they are not developed as active or causative factors, and are mostly ignored.
  9. I have followed the peculiar orthography of Caxton’s text in Sommer’s edition, except that I have substituted “s” for “ƒ” for the sake of ease in reading the passages. Actually, although many of the words look very strange, they are rather phonetically spelled, so if one reads the passages out loud, the sense of each word is generally clear enough.
  10. Although not all medieval versions of the Troy story place much emphasis on the pagan gods per se as causative factors, they introduce substitute sources of non-human causation, such as Fortune, or the malicious fates, or the stars, or devils hidden in pagan idols. These all help to explain why even fairly decent men, such as the Trojans, could be come deeply involved in a major disaster. Lefevre’s version does not rely upon such external explanations for human experience.
  11. Seznec (in The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art, [Princeton U.P., 1972]) comments that Raoul Lefevre was influenced by the importance of Hercules to the dukes of Burgundy, and that Hercules was given “unwonted prominence” in the Recuyell: “Why this special emphasis upon Hercules? It is due to his reputed place as the founder of the dynasty” (25).

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© Diane Thompson: 11/10/1998; updated: 01/28/2011