Document 49

Chaucer Essay

Author(s): Niall O'Gallagher

Copyright holder(s): Niall O'Gallagher


Discuss Chaucer’s treatment of marriage in TWO of the texts you have studied.

"Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage"

Wife of Bath’s Prologue, 1- 3.

Thir lines, that comes at the stert o Kittredge’s ‘marriage group’ micht gie hiz a clue to the concerns o the tales that follae. Baith the Wife of Bath’s Tale an the Franklin’s Tale features mairriage as a foremaist concern. In speirin about mairriage, the taletellers appeals to baith ‘experience’ an ‘auctoritee’, despite whiles claimin itherwise.

Rhetoric is gey important in thir tales. Baith ar unco explicit about their ain biggin. A guid ensample o this is in the Franklin’s Prologue:

"Colours ne knowe I none, withouten drede,
But swich colours as growen in the mede,
Or elles swiche as men dye or peynte.
Colours of rethoryk been to me queynte"

Franklin’s Prologue, 723 – 726.

Ou can see here a fairly typical ‘modesty topos’. Despite the Franklin’s cryin himsel a “burel man” , wi thir lines he shaws himsel to be a weel-handit rhetorician, uisin monie different devices to beautify his tale.

A seimilar discrepancy bides in the difference atween the Wife of Bath’s preferred method, as set out in her prologue, an the wey the Wife of Bath’s Tale is, in fact, pit thegither. In spite o the prologue, ‘auctoritee’ is at the hert o the Wife of Bath’s arguments:

"Thenketh hou noble, as seith Valerius,
Was thilke Tullius Hostillius,
That out of poverte roos to heigh noblesse.
Reedeth Senek, and redeth eek Boece;
That he is gentil that dooth gentil dedis."

Wife of Bath’s Tale, 1165 – 1170.

The device o the ‘modesty topos’, uised bi the Franklin, couldnae be cried by-ordinar. Forbye, ither fowk hae argued that ony ‘mismatch’ atween the Wife of Bath’s Prologue an the Wife of Bath’s Tale can be explained in terms o the history o the biggin o The Canterbury Tales . Houanever, hit could be possible that Chaucer is drawin our sicht to the importance of rhetoric an argument in thir tales, askin hiz to gley at our taletellers wi suspicious een.

Ae wey o lookin at the treatment o mairriage in thir twae tales is to see baith texts as concerned wi ideas o ‘soveraynetee’. This is central to the terms agreed whan Arveragus gets mairrit on Dorigen in the Franklin’s Tale:

"And for to lede the moore in blisse hir lyves,
Of his free wyl he swoor hire as a knyght
That nevere in al his lyf he, day ne nycht,
Ne sholde upon hym take no maistrie
Agayn hir wyl, ne kythe hire jalousie,
But hire obeye, and folwe hir wyl in al,
As any lovere to his lady shal,
Save that the name of soveraynetee,
That wolde he have for shame of his degree."

Franklin’s Tale, 744 – 752.

The’r monie things that kythes efter a guid look at thir lines. Firstly, Arveragus sweirs “as a knycht”. An ou tak tent o the Franklin’s ain aspirations ou could argue that this is an ensample o the wey he seems to idealise knichtheid. Saicontly, the view o ‘soveraynetee’ pit forward here is a complex yin. Arveragus disnae offer to gie ower aa pouer to Dorigen, insteid he says that he will “take no maistire / Agayn hir wyl”. This seems to balance the offer to “folwe hir wyl in al” an imply that baith pairties maun allou the tane to exercise ‘soveraynetee’ ower the tither, makin naebody a ‘maister’ in their relationship. Thirdly, the picture is complicatit bi a concern wi appearances. He maun be seen to be abuin his wife, an this can sour our view o Arveragus. The Franklin’s ain opinion is hinted at throu his choice o verbs; “sholde” and “shal”, implyin that Arveragus is hauden to dae thir things, while “wolde” suggests that he isnae morally obliged to hain “the name of soveraynetee”. Thir details micht suggest that the Franklin isnae as blind to Arveragus’ fauts as ou micht itherwise think.

A siclike statement is pit across in the Wife of Bath’s Tale:

"Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above."

Wife of Bath’s Tale, 1038 – 1040.

In thir lines, the wumman is seen as dominant, an the implication is that weimen cannae achieve ‘sovereynetee’ binnae bi force. This statement, made bi the knicht in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, treats mairriage differently frae the mairriage contract agreed bi Arveragus an Dorigen, pit ower bi the Franklin.

Houanever, ettlin to see the Franklin’s Tale an the Wife of Bath’s Tale as settin out twae different perspectives on ‘soveraynetee’ in mairriage is difficult. For a stert, different ideas is pit ower at different narrative levels in the twae tales. The mairriage agreement atween Arveragus and Dorigen is pit across bi our narrator, the Franklin. In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, houanever, ou hae seen aaready that a statement about ‘sovereynetee’ in mairriage is made bi the knicht, a character athin the tale itsel. At this stage, the knicht seems feart:

"This is youre mooste desir, thogh ye me kille.
Dooth as yow list; I am heer at youre wille.”

Wife of Bath’s Tale, 1041 – 1042.

His uiss o the formal ‘y-’ pronouns suggests dreid, an his words micht weel be coloured bi fear an crabbitness. Forbye, while the Wife of Bath micht share the knicht’s ideas about what weimen maist desire, she disnae seem to share his radge, wumman fearin perspective.

Anither point that maks it difficult to see thir tales as pittin forrit brichtly defined perspectives about ‘soveraynetee’ in mairriage is that the narrative situations is unco complicatit. In the Franklin’s Tale ou cannae easily haud up onybody or ony situation for an ensample cause o the flaws that kythe afore us, mibbie een agin the wisses o the Franklin himsel. Arveragus’ concern wi hou ithers see him is important whan he returns in the hindmaist pairt o the tale:

"But with that word he brast anon to wepe,
And seyde, I yow forbede, up peyne of deeth,
Thay nevere, whil thee lasteth lyf ne breeth,
To no wight telle thou of this aventure –
As I may best, I wol my wo endure – "

Franklin’s Tale, 1481 – 1484.

Thir lines raises a number o questions. Firstly, It seems a gey suddent chynge o hert frae Arveragus, burstin out greetin juist efter tellin his wife to “lat slepen that is still”. Forbye, Arveragus seems to growe mair crabbit as he gaes on, uisin the formal address “I yow forbede” at first, an syne uisin the less respectfu “thee” an “thou” pronouns. Finally, it seems hard to tak seriously Arveragus’ whinge that he ‘wol his wo endure’ efter aa that Dorigen’s haed to thole aaready. Aa this maks Arveragus a sicht mair complex nor ony simple, idealised picture o knichtheid.

While the Wife of Bath an the Franklin div tell quite different kinds o tale, ou could argue that the twae tales see the issue o ‘sovereynetee’ in gey seimilar weys. In the hindmaist pairt o the Wife of Bath’s Tale the knicht gies up his ‘soveraynetee’ an syne his auld, hackit wife becomes blithe an bousome:

"A thousand tyme a-rewe he gan hire kisse,
And she obeyed hym in every thing
That myghte doon hym plesace or likyng."

Wife of Bath’s Tale, 1254 – 1256.

This echoes the stert o the Franklin’s Tale, where Dorigen promises to be a “humble, trewe wyf” as suin as Arveragus gies up his claim to ‘sovereynetee’. Mindin that there is muckle differences atween the twae tales, ou could argue that baith the Wife of Bath an the Franklin tells tales where a man gies up his ain ‘soveraynetee’ an syne his wife agrees to dae as she is telt. An ou accept this, ou micht weel stert to speir whether ‘sovereynetee’ in thir tales isnae juist a rid herrin.

Ou hae aaready seen that the Franklin can be gey skilly in his uiss o rhetoric. In the hindmaist pairt o his tale the Franklin seems to remind his audience that ou should juidge his tale as a tale, an no by ony ither criterion:

"Paraventure an heep of yow, ywis,
Wol holden hym a lewed man in this
That he wol putte his wyf in jupartie.
Herkneth the tale er ye upon hire crie.
She may have bettre fortune than yow semeth;
And whan that ye han herd the tale, demeth."

Franklin’s Tale, 1493 – 1498.

Insteid o ettlin to justify Arveragus, the Franklin, bi appealin to “fortune” seems to be sayin that this kind o criticism misses the point; it is the abeility o the Franklin to bigg complex narratives that is to be juidged, no the ‘morality’ o his characters.

A different wey o lookin at thir twae tales is to see thaim as commentaries on ither texts. Ou hae aaready seen hou the Wife of Bath appeals to ‘auctoritee’ ower an ower again, in spite o claimin in her prologue to rely only on ‘experience’. Mindin that there is some debate about the textual history o the Wife of Bath’s Tale it seems important to mind that the Wife of Bath contradicts hersel athin the Prologue itsel, quotin sacred an secular sources aa the wey throu. Her heid source in the Prologue is mibbie ‘the Apostle’, Saunt Paul. She argues close to the letter o what Paul says about mairriage. Firstly, she insists that Paul disnae mak ony command about virginity:

"Th’apostel, whan he speketh of maydenhede,
He seyde that precept therof hadde he noon.
Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
But conseillying is no comandement."

Wife of Bath’s Prologue, 64 – 67.

Richt eneuch, Paul seems to say as muckle in the first letter to the Corinthians:

"ANENT VIRGINS I hae nae commaund o the Lord for ye,
but I will gíe ye my ain juidgement; an, efter aa I hae kent
o the Lord’s mercie, I trew I am ane ye can lippen."

I Corinthians, 7.

Seimilarly, the Wife of Bath justifies her repeatedly gettin mairrit bi reference to Paul:

"And for to been a wyf he yaf me leve
Of indulgence; so nys it no repreve
To wedde me, if that my make dye,
Withouten excepcion of bigamye."

Wife of Bath’s Prologue, 83 – 86.

Again, this seems to correspond to Paul’s ain writin:

"A wumman is bund til her husband as lang as he líves:
but gin he slips awà, she is free tae mairrie onie man she is
mindit, saebeins he is a brither in Christ. But she will be
happier, gin she bides as she is; oniegate that is my thocht,
an I trew I hae the spírit o God as weill as ithers."

I Corinthians, 7.

Mibbie ou can sympathise wi the Wife of Bath’s position; she disnae pretend to be perfyte an the letter o the law seems to be on her side. On the ither hand, she ettles to dern, at the stert o the prologue, the fact that she disnae rely juist on ‘experience’ but, insteid, tries to pit her ain slant on ‘auctoritee’, tries to interpret scripture. She tries to disguise opinion as truth comin frae ‘experience’. Syne, ou can see why her audience michtnae believe that the Wife of Bath, like Saunt Paul, is ‘yin they can lippen’.

In the Franklin’s Tale, a different kind o ‘auctoritee’ is appealed til. The motif o the ‘rash promise’ is central to the tale. This motif, gey common in fowk tales, is at the centre o the Scots ballad The Daemon Lover:

‘O where have you been, my long, long love,
This long seven years and mair?’
‘O I’m come to seek my former vows
Ye granted me before.’

‘O haud your tongue of your former vows,
For they will breed sad strife;
O hold your tongue of your former vows,
For I am become a wife.’

Lyle, Scottish Ballads, 79.

In this version o the ballad the wumman is temptit to leave her weans an guidman bi the daemon lover’s offer o gowd. The daemon lover is, o course, the deil, an he taks her aff to hell. The implication is that she haes to dree her weird cause o her “former vows”, a ‘rash promise’ she aither couldnae, or didnae, haud til.

In the Franklin’s Tale forbye, Dorigen maks twae different promises that come into conflict wi yin anither. The first is to Arveragus:

"Sire, I wol be youre humble trewe wyf –
Have heer my trouthe – til that mine herte breste"

Franklin’s Tale, 758 – 759.

The word “trouthe” becomes a kind o ‘leitmotif’ in the Franklin’s Tale, an is uised again whan Dorigen maks her saicont promise, this time to Aurelius:

"Have heer my trouthe, in al that evere I kan."

Franklin’s Tale, 998.

Unlike The Daemon Lover, the endin o the Franklin’s Tale isnae tragic, but comic. The Franklin pits forrit a solution that lats Dorigen escape the damnation ou wad expect to see in this situation. The Franklin’s solution is ‘gentilesse’. An aabody can be persuaded to dae “a gentil dede” aathing can end happily. Syne ou could argue that the Franklin taks his ‘auctoritee’ frae fowk tradition an pits his ain interpretation on this ‘auctoritee’ bi offerin a solution to the problems hit presents.

Mairriage is at the centre o baith the Wife of Bath’s Tale an the Franklin’s Tale. Mairriages atween men an weimen gie thir tales a muckle pairt o their narrative interest. Houanever, lookin for a strecht, didactic treatment o mairriage in thir tales is problematic. While the twae tales is while different, ideas about ‘soveraynetee’ in mairriage seem gey seimilar in baith; the Wife of Bath an the Franklin seem to agree that fowk achieves ‘soveraynetee’ ower their pairtners bi first giein hit up. This, alang wi direct interventions frae our narrators, seems to suggest that ou should tak mair tent o the wey thir tales is telt, raither nor lookin for didactic sermons about mairriage. Syne, an thir texts div talk about mairriage, they talk about the mairriage atween text an interpretation, atween ‘experience’ an ‘auctoritee’. The possibility that the Wife of Bath an the Franklin micht be sleekit narrators, an the sometimes unsiccar interpretations they pit on their sources, suggests that this isnae an innocent process, an that audiences should aye mak shuir they ken whae they ar listenin til.


Benson, Larry D. et al. Eds., The Riverside Chaucer, Oxford, 1987.

Lorimer, W.L., The New Testament in Scots, Edinburgh, 1983.

Lyle, Emily ed., Scottish Ballads, Edinburgh, 1994.

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Information about Document 49

Chaucer Essay


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Adults (18+)
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Author id 605
Forenames Niall
Surname O'Gallagher