Perceptions of Marriage in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

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Perceptions of Marriage in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

 
    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

below.

      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

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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.

                                          (MilPro 3163-6)

 

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

women.

      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..."

                                          (WBPro. 1-3)

 

      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

prologue:

 

            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.

 

Works Cited

 

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.


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