The Legend of Good Women

Author: Geoffrey Chaucer  | Date: 1386

IX. The Legend of Hypermnestra

Incipit Legenda Ypermistre.

In Greece whilom were two brethren, of whom one was named Danaus, and got many a son of his body, as such false lovers often know how to do. Amongst all his sons there was one he loved best of all; and when this child was born, this Danaus devised him a name and called him Lynceus. The second brother was named Aegyptus, and in love he was false as ever he pleased, and in his days he begat many a daughter, amongst whom he begot of his own wife a dear daughter, the youngest of them all, and let her be named Hypermnestra, which child by her horoscope was born to all good virtues, as it pleased the gods before her birth that she should be the corn of the sheaf. The Weird Sisters, that we call Destiny, ordained for her that she must needs be compassionate, steadfast, wise, and true as steel; and it well accorded with this woman. For though Venus gave her great beauty, she was so compounded by the influence of Jupiter that tenderness, and fidelity, and to dread disgrace, and preserve the good name of her wifehood,- these seemed to her to yield felicity on earth. And at that time of year red Mars was so feeble that he was bereft of his power for ill; Venus repressed his cruel activity. What with her power and other depression by celestial houses, Mars’ venom was kept down, so that Hypermnestra durst not handle a knife with evil intent, though it were to save herself. But as the heavens then revolved, she came under evil aspects of Saturn, which made her to die in prison, as I shall afterwards tell.

To Danaus and eke to Aegyptus, though they were two brethren, it seemed good to make a marriage betwixt Hypermnestra and Lynceus (for at that time consanguinity hindered not), and appointed it should be on such a day, and the full accord was duly made. The preparation was done, the time was near at hand. And thus Lynceus wedded the daughter of his uncle, and each possessed the other. The torches and the bright lamps burned, the sacrifices were all ready prepared, the incense reeked sweetly out of the fire; flower and leaf were torn up by the roots to make garlands and high crowns. The place was full of the sound of minstrelsy, of the amorous songs of marriage, as was all the custom at that time. And this was in the palace of Aegyptus, who ruled in his house as he would. And thus they wore the day to an end, and friends took leave and went home. The night came, the bride must to bed. Aegyptus hasted to his chamber and privily summoned his daughter. When the house was voided of all folk, he looked on his daughter with joyful mien, and spake to her as ye shall hear. ’Mine own true daughter, mine heart’s treasure, since the day when my first shirt was made, or I had my lot at the hands of the fatal sisters, never a thing came so nigh my heart as you, mine Hypermnestra, beloved daughter! Take heed what I your father here say to you, and evermore follow the will of one who is wiser than you. For, first of all, daughter, I love you so that all the world is not half so dear to me! And I would not advise you to your harm for all the wealth under the cold moon. And what is in my mind shall be said straightway, with this attestation, that unless you do as I shall tell, you shall die, by Him who created all! In few words, you escape not from my palace before you die, unless you consent and work after my counsel. Take this to you as my full resolution.’

This Hypermnestra cast down her eyes and trembled as the leaf of the green aspen; deathly waxed her hue and like ashes, and she said, ’Lord and father, God wot I will do all your will, according to my power, so it be no dishonor to me.’

Quoth he, ’I will have no conditions.’ And he caught out a knife, sharp as a razor. ’Hide this,’ quoth he, ’that it be not seen. And when your husband is gone to bed, cut his throat in two whilst he sleeps. For in my dreams I am warned that my nephew shall be my slayer, but which nephew I know not; therefore I will be secure. If you say nay, by Him that I have sworn by, we two shall fall out, as I have said.’

This Hypermnestra nigh lost her wits, and, to pass thence unharmed, she consented to him; there was none other grace. And with that he took up a flask, and said, ’Give him a draught of this, or two or three, to drink when he goes to rest, and he shall sleep as long as ever you would have him, the narcotics and opiates be so strong. And go your ways, lest he grow impatient.’

Out came the bride; and with full grave countenance, as is oft the manner with maidens, was brought to the chamber with revel and song. And in brief, lest this tale stretch out, this Lynceus and she were soon brought to bed, and every wight hasted out at the door.

The night wore on and he fell into slumber. She began to weep full tenderly, and arose, and quaked with fear, as the branch which Zephyrus buffets; and all in that city of Argos was hushed. Now she waxed cold as any frost; for pity so constrained her heart and dread of death so pained her that thrice she fell down in the strife. She arose and staggered here and there, and looked hard at her hands. ’Alas, and shall my hands be bloody? I am a maiden, and, by my nature and my semblance and my raiment, my hands are not shapen for a knife, to reave his blood from any man. What (a Devil!) have I to do with the knife?- And shall I have my throat cut in twain? Then I shall bleed, alas! and perish; and this thing must needs have an end, either he or I must needs die.- Now certes,’ quoth she, ’since I his wife, and has troth, it is better for me to die with wifely honor than to be a traitor living in shame. Be as be may, for earnest or mirth, he shall awake and arise, and go his way out by this gutter, ere it be light.’

And she wept full tenderly on his face, and clasped him in her arms, and shook him, and gently awoke him. And when she had warned him and provided his escape, he leaped out at the window from the upper room. This Lynceus was swift and light of foot, and ran full swiftly before his wife. This hapless woman, alas, was so weak and helpless that ere she had gone far, her cruel father had her seized. Alas, Lynceus, why so unkind? Why didst thou not remember to take her and lead her forth with thee? For when she saw that he was gone, and that she could not go so fast or follow him, she sat her down right then, till she was caught and fettered in prison.

This tale is told for this end....

[ Unfinished. ]


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Chicago: Geoffrey Chaucer, "IX. The Legend of Hypermnestra," The Legend of Good Women Original Sources, accessed September 30, 2023,

MLA: Chaucer, Geoffrey. "IX. The Legend of Hypermnestra." The Legend of Good Women, Original Sources. 30 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: Chaucer, G, 'IX. The Legend of Hypermnestra' in The Legend of Good Women. Original Sources, retrieved 30 September 2023, from