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Marriage in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Tales, Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Generally speaking, there are four tales in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales which make up the Marriage Group.

The Marriage group within the Canterbury Tales includes tales about the conflict between men and women in marriage and how this is, or is not resolved.

These tales include “The Wife of Bath’s tale” “The Clerk’s Tale,” “The Merchant’s Tale” and “The Franklin’s Tale.”

The Merchant’s Tale

“The Merchant’s Tale” is often held to be one of the nastier tales leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. The tale’s bitter edge is often ascribed to the character of the merchant who is described as mean and women-hating in the prologue.

However, that almost is a distraction because the man himself has a mean character but this doesn’t mean he is telling a mean tale! The beginning of the tale offers a lecture on the contemporary virtues of marriage.

The knight has had a succession of mistresses. He imagines the shape of his perfect bride. With this vivid image, Chaucer summarizes January’s attitude to the forthcoming marriage. For January, women are a commodity to be bought and sold at market. He has a lot of money to spend so he can expect to get a quality product.

Legal and Economic Contracts and the Church in “The Merchant’s Tale”

May is totally passive in this transaction. January’s friends are the ones who work out the necessary legal and economic contracts necessary but the Church is also in the picture. Chaucer draws attention to it by saying that the marriage is blessed by the priest who also blesses the marriage bed (which must have been grotesque by the way Chaucer describes it).

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May was brought to bed as “still as a stone”. January epitomizes patriarchal attitude to marriage as he informs May that he will do such things to her that she may not survive the experience. January revels in his sexual relationships with his wife and lusts after her in a way the church may condone but would not approve of.

It is true that May initiates an adulterous liaison with January’s squire but at no time does Chaucer condemn what she does and the reader is left with the feeling that May turns to Damian for relief from the repressive marriage.

The tale ends with the classical Gods witnessing this act of adultery and Pluto uses this occurrence to launch into a tirade of abuse against women that belongs to a long, established clerical anti-feminist position. But Chaucer undercuts all this by reminding the reader that Pluto had himself ravished his wife and forced her to become his wife (carrying her down to the underworld).

The Franklin’s Tale

“The Franklin’s Tale” is often seen to be the way in which Chaucer resolves the problem of the marriage debate. Averagus sees Dorigen and falls in love in typical “courtly love” way. He is a gentle knight, she is impressed by him and yields herself to him. In their marriage, they continue this romance with her being dominant partner in private, but not in public.

He, however, has to go overseas to seek noble glory (befitting a knight of his status) and leaves the distraught wife at home.

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How Dorigen is Tested in the Franklin’s Tale

Aurelius, in the background has secretly loved Dorigen for years. He finally makes himself known to her in the garden in May and she rejects him. In the game of courtly love the woman is supposed to give the man a task to do which he completes. But, to rid herself of Aurelius’s; unwanted advances, Dorigen gives him an impossible task.

He then rather ridiculously goes to bed for two years and cries! Until such time as he is able (through magic) to get the lack rocks to disappear. In many ways it is a game but as Franklin’s tale demonstrates, the woman was powerless in such a situation and the nasty trick is the employment of the magician to make the rocks disappear. And once the rocks have disappeared, then Dorigen has to give in.

But her husband returns from abroad. He finds his wife distraught and she tells him why. He insists that she must fulfil her promise. Aurelius is so touched by the “gentilesse”, he releases her. In turn, the magician is told the story and releases Aurelius from his debt.

Sources

Muscatine C, “Chaucer and the French Tradition” (1957)

Percival F “Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women” (1999)