Perceptions of Marriage in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
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Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales demonstrate many different attitudes
toward and perceptions of marriage. Some of these ideas are very traditional,
such as that discussed in the Franklin's Tale, and others are more liberal such
as the marriages portrayed in the Miller's and the Wife of Bath's Tales. While
several of these tales are rather comical, they do indeed give us a
representation of the attitudes toward marriage at that time in history.
D.W. Robertson, Jr. calls marriage "the solution to the problem of love,
the force which directs the will which is in turn the source of moral action"
(Andrew, 88). Marriage in Chaucer's time meant a union between spirit and flesh
and was thus part of the marriage between Christ and the Church (88). The
Canterbury Tales show many abuses of this sacred bond, as will be discussed
For example, the Miller's Tale is a story of adultery in which a
lecherous clerk, a vain clerk and an old husband, whose outcome shows the
consequences of their abuses of marriage, including Nicholas' interest in
astrology and Absalon's refusal to accept offerings from the ladies, as well as
the behaviors of both with regards to Alison. Still, Alison does what she wants,
she takes Nicholas because she wants to, just as she ignores Absalon because she
wants to. Lines 3290-5 of the Miller's Tale show Alison's blatant disrespect for
her marriage to "Old John" and her planned deceit:
That she hir love hym graunted atte laste,
And swoor hir ooth, by seint Thomas of Kent
That she wol been at his comandement,
Whan that she may hir leyser wel espie.
"Myn housbonde is so ful of jalousie
That but ye wayte wel and been privee..."
On the contrary, Alison's husband loved her more than his own life,
although he felt foolish for marrying her since she was so young and skittish.
This led him to keep a close watch on her whenever possible. The Miller's main
point in his story is that if a man gets what he wants from God or from his wife,
he won't ask questions or become jealous; he is after his own sexual pleasure
and doesn't concern himself with how his wife uses her "privetee":
An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf
Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf.
So he may fynde Goddes foyson there,
Of the remenant nedeth nat enquere.
Stories like the Miller's Tale are still popular today, those which claim that
jealousy and infidelity arise from marriages between old men and beautiful young
The Wife of Bath obviously has a rather carefree attitude toward
marriage. She knows that the woes of marriage are not inflicted upon women,
rather, women inflict these woes upon their husbands. In setting forth her
views of marriage, however, she actually proves that the opposite is true:
"Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynough for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage..."
The Wife of Bath, in her Prologue, proves to her own satisfaction that
the Miller's perception of marriage is correct, and then declares that it is
indeed acceptable for a woman to marry more than once. She claims that chastity
is not necessary for a successful marriage and that virginity is never even
mentioned in the Bible, as is seen in the lengthy passage of lines 59-72 of her
Wher can ye seye in any manere age
That hye God defended mariage
By expres word? I praye yow, telleth me.
Or where comanded he virginitee?
I woot as wel as ye, it is no drede,
Th'apostl, whan he speketh of maydenhede,
He seyde that precept therof hadde he noon:
Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
But conseillyng is no comandement.
He putte it in oure owene juggement.
For hadde God comanded maydenhede
Thanne hadde he dampned wedding with the dede;
And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe,
Virginitee, thanne whereof sholde it growe?
She later asks where virginity would come from if no one gave up their
virginity. Clearly, the Wife of Bath's Prologue is largely an argument in
defense of her multiple marriages than an attempt to prove her idea that "if
society was reorganized so that women's dominance was recognized. society would
be much improved (Huppe, 110)". Her Prologue depicts women as "a commodity to
be bought and used in marriage, one whose economic and religious task was to pay
the debt in a society where 'al is for to selle'" (Andrew, 209), although she
claims to have control over this process. For example, her first three husbands
gave her economic security in exchange for the sexual use of her body. This
"degradation of sexual life" in the culture is greatly evoked, and supported by
the Church's command to 'pay the debt' (210). The Wife of Bath clearly rebels
against male domination with regard to her first three husbands but still
accepts the ways in which she survives economically. Overall, marriage for the
Wife of Bath is much more than sexual pleasure; it provides her with a "vast
sense of power in the exercise of her sovereignty; it makes her feel the godlike
powers which the Serpent promised Eve would follow the eating of the apple..."
(Huppe, 117). Through obstinacy, the Wife of Bath declares that a wife will
achieve sovereignty in marriage, which is good for both wife and husband as a
woman's sovereignty provides for peace. She also sees women as objects and
commodities to be purchased, which is probably why she has such a great lack of
respect for marriage.
On the other hand, the Franklin's tale is one of courtly love and
gentillesse and the reader is asked after the tale to decide which of the three
male characters has proved the most generous. The Franklin suggests a marriage
of equality, a marriage where the laws of courtesy rule (Huppe, 167). The
knight in the Franklin's Tale promised his wife that he would never try to
dominate her or show any form of jealousy, and at the same time he would obey
any command she gave him (Lines 745-750):
Of his free wil he swoor hire as a knight
That nevere in al his lif he day ne night
Ne sholde upon hime take no maistrye
Again hir wil, ne kithe hire jalousye,
But hire obeye and folwe hir wil in al,
As any lovere to his lady shal--
Arveragus' and Dorigen's love and respect for each other is apparent at
many times throughout the course of the tale. Dorigen reciprocates his vow to
her in lines 753-760 of the Franklin's Tale:
She thanked hym, and with ful greet humblesse
She seyde, "Sire, sith of youre gentilesse
Ye profre me to have so large a reyne,
Ne wolde nevere God bitwixe us tweyne,
As in my gilt, were outher werre or strif.
Sire, I wol be your humble, trewe wyf,
Have heer my trouthe, til that myn herte breste."
Thus been they bothe in quiete and in reste.
The Franklin goes on to describe the blissful happiness between
Arveragus and Dorigen and goes as far as to say that married couples share a
happiness that someone who isn't married couldn't appreciate or measure. This
occurs in lines 803-5 of the Franklin's Tale:
Who koude telle, but he hadde wedded be,
The joye, the ese, and the prosperitee
That is bitwixe an housbonde and his wyf?
This couple's happiness takes a turn for the worse when Dorigen makes a
pledge of copulation to Aurelius in jest and Arveragus makes the noble decision
to make Dorigen stand by her word. While one might say the knight was foolish
not to fight for his beloved Dorigen, it can be argued that he knew the value of
a promise and would go to great lengths to keep his word and honor; both of
these views are appreciated by the Franklin.
From Alison's adultery and infidelity to Dorigen's faithful love to
Arveragus and the Wife of Bath's attitude toward chastity or lack thereof, we
have seen Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales portray the concept of marriages in
several different ways.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Canterbury Tales". The Complete Works of Geoffrey
Chaucer. Ed. F.N. Robinson. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1933. 19-314.
Huppe, Bernard F. A Reading of the Canterbury Tales. Albany: State
University of New York, 1964.
Robertson, D.W. (1962). "Concepts of Pilgrimage and Marriage". Critical
Essays on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Ed. M. Andrew. 1st ed. Buckingham:
Open University Press, 1991. 87-90.