In his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer fully explicates the cultural standard known as courtesy through satire. In the fourteenth century, courtesy embodied sophistication and an education in English international culture. The legends of chivalric knights, conversing in the language of courtly love, matured during this later medieval period
. Chaucer himself matured in the King's Court, as is revealed in his cultural status, but he also retained an anecdotal humor about courtesy. One must only peruse his Tales to discern these sentiments, for Chaucer’s view of courtesy can seem shocking and, all together, obscene at times, it’s the similarity of the differences that make Chaucer’s tales superior. An example of this can be seen through Nicholas’ attempt at “courting” Alison versus Arcita and Palamon’s endeavors at courting Emily. Nicholas' anxious and lewd behavior, in conjunction with his explicit sexual connotation, demonstrates Chaucer’s more farcical side; where as, the manner in which Arcita and Palamon court Emily can seem more satirical. In the Miller's Tale, Chaucer juxtaposes courtly love with animalistic lust, while in the Knight’s tale, the subject of chivalry is held with much higher regard, and used as a florid, glorious attribute. These numerous references provide the reader with a remarkably rich image of the culture and class structure
of late fourteenth century England.
In the Miller's Tale, Chaucer blatantly mocks courtesy and courtly love in Nicholas’ exchange with Alison:
Now sire, and eft sire, so bifel the cas
That on a day this hende Nicholas
Fil with this yonge wyf to rage and pleye,
Whil that hir housbonde was at Oseneye,
As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte;
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, "Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille."
And heeld hire harde by the haunchebones,
And seyde, "Lemman, love me al atones,
Or I wol dyen, also God me save!"
And she sproong as a colt dooth in the trave,
And with hir heed she wryed faste awey,
And seyed, “I wol nat kisse thee, by my fey!
Why, lat be!” quod she. “Lat be, Nicholas,
Or I wol crie ‘out, harrow’ and ‘allas’!
Do wey youre handes, for youre curteisye!” (3271-87)
Quite literally, Nicholas caught Alison by the crotch to draw her near to him, and then held her there by her haunches, or rear end. Standing alone, that image provides an element of base humor, but when that event is coupled with Nicholas' words, a dramatically ironic, and altogether funny, scene arises. Nicholas is wooing Alison with the words of courtly love ("love me al atones, / Or I wol dien,"), the respectful standard of the time, as he simultaneously gropes her in the must vulgar method possible. Here Chaucer plays with the idea of courtesy; he is directly mocking Nicholas’ attempt at it, making a much more amusing, and entertaining, scenario than that seen in the Knight’s Tale. Chaucer suggests that not every courtier was so innocent and reverent in his motives. Further more, Chaucer seems to be making fun of Alison as well by comparing her actions to those of an animal, a colt. For the time period in which this was written, the extreme bawdiness of the scene is so explicit. It's the unabashed sexuality of it that provides the humor, and speaks volumes, not only about the roles/classes of Nicholas and Alison, but the Miller as well.
Often, the literary genius of Chaucer shines through in his actual diction. In the above passage, Chaucer uses language to emphasize his ironic depiction of courtly flirtation. Usually when a character speaks in courtly language, the author biases his word choice to French, since French was the formal language of the Court, and people associated with the Court spoke French-derived English on a daily basis. Chaucer avoids that practice here and selects words based in Germanic-derived English, or Anglo-Saxon. Words like "ich," "wille," and "spille" and others persisted from Old English, coupled with Chaucer's use of them through Nicholas, give the passage a decidedly rough tone, corresponding to Nicholas' sensual actions. Nicholas' language may have been an attempt at courtliness, but his intentions were certainly not as delicate as his words.
In the Knight’s Tale, Chaucer depicts yet another satirical picture of courtly love, though in this case, his use of subtle nuance is in full effect. Palamon and Arcita's behavior toward Emily exemplifies this perfectly:
But I was hurt right now thurghout myn ye
Into myn herte, that wol my bane be.
The fairnesse of that lady that I see
Yond in the gardyn romen to and fro
Is cause of al my criying and my wo.
I noot wher she be woman or goddesse,
But Venus is it smoothly, as I gesse. (1096-1102)
In this passage, Palamon parallels Emily’s beauty to that of the legendary goddess of love, Venus. Her beauty is so shocking that it sends him to his knees in pain. Arcita, in turn, sees the fair Emily, and is too, struck by her beauty, in pain:
The fresshe beautee sleeth me sodeynly
Of hire that rometh in the yonder place;
And but I have hir mercy and hir grace,
That I may seen hire atte, leeste weye,
I nam but deed; ther nis namoore to seye. (1118-22)
While both Arcita and Palamon are courteous, their chances of ever leaving their prison, at this time, are impossible. They have been locked away with no chance of being set free. Chaucer’s humor rests on that, because as far as Theseus is concerned, they have no chance of ever being in her grace or her love. Their courtly efforts can only be seen through the eyes of the audience, and themselves, for Emily does not even know of their existence. This provides the humor in their “undying” love. For if they can never "have hir mercy” the passionate love that encompasses the tale can never truly live, therefore making their efforts seem futile and unrequited.
Chaucer's use of satire
throughout the Canterbury Tales provides the reader with, much more than, amusing anecdotes. Through this theme of courtesy, he proffers views on society, hierarchy, and love. Although the Miller's tale is clearly an extreme, it is the subtlety of his satirical perspective in the Knight's tale that joins the two and makes a bold statement. His mockery of such idealist behavior is brazen and intuitive.