Analyzing “Fin Amors” in Fountain of Love and the Book of the Duchess
Fin amors, or refined loving is a staple within medieval literature. Showcasing the romantic relationships of noblemen, fin amors expresses the struggles and games that are played between a man and woman during courtship. Similar to unrequited love, fin amors focuses itself around women holding the power in a relationship, and therefore remaining aloof to a man’s advances. This behavior by the woman forces the man to place her on a pedestal, therefore idealizing her, and wanting her even more. Within Guillaume De Machaut’s Fountain of Love, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess the concept of fin amors takes center stage and drives the subject matter of the poem. Together, both poems consist of oblivious insomniac narrators who witness another man’s grieving over their respected romantic relations. Neither of the narrators have a love interest of their own, but rather they relay the stories of the men they come across and their woes in love.
Though the Fountain of Love and The Book of the Duchess have their differences, they both share the common theme of fin amors, and more specifically the subject matter of women possessing all of the power within the relationship, lamenting lovers, and women being idealized and placed on a pedestal. One of the key elements of fin amors is overzealously idealizing one’s lover. Within The Book of the Duchess and Fountain of Love, both Jean, duc de Berry and the man in black fawn over their women. Berry argues that his wife is a “sweet and lovely lady,” (Machaut 287), a lady in “whom all good dwells,” (288) which seems to be more qualities of her character and virtue, rather than her physical beauty. This is important within the context of the poem, because Berry does not want his wife to be unfaithful to him while he is gone overseas. However, within Fountain of Love, the man in black is also concerned about Lady White’s virtue, but he seems to focus more centrally on her flawless appearance. The man in black claims that Lady White has an exceptionally nice neck with a: Whyte, smothe, streight, and pure flat Withouten hole or canel-boon As by seming, had she noon (Chaucer 942-944) Herein, the man in black is literally saying that Lady White is so flawless and her chest is so nice and full that it does not even look like she has collar bones, which is just a ridiculous accusation and a perfect example of idealizing a woman. In reality, most women have collarbones, but not Lady White, because she is the perfect example of a human woman, which is absolutely mad and also illustrates the narrator’s delusion when it comes to her.
After providing a head to toe, in depth description of Lady White and all of her aesthetically pleasing faultless proportions, the man in black finally speaks of her virtue, arguing that “she loved so wel hir owne name.” (1018)—ultimately meaning that she had a pleasant reputation and was not throwing herself around to whatever man she pleases. Lady White being protective of her virtue and picky with her potential suitors plays perfectly into the concept of fin amors. Since Machaut’s Fountain of Love follows the lament of Jean, duc de Berry who is forced to leave his beloved wife because he is to become a prisoner of war. Berry worries himself sick over the possibilities of what will happen to his wife if and when he leaves, contending, “if your pure heart is given in love to another, I should be so mortally wounded that sooner or later I should die or go mad because of it.” (Machaut 287). Since Berry is so concerned about infidelity and the preservation of his wife’s virtue or honor, this becomes the main topic of his lament. Paralleling his own story to that of Ceyx and Alcyone, Berry bewails, “I can think nothing but of desolation, in which my longing overcomes my hope, and joy does not know the way to my heart, but sadness knows the right way there very well.” (288). Instead of trusting that his wife will stay faithful to him, Berry is haunted by the idea that she may not. In reality, it is very strange to compare the somewhat safe separation of Berry and his wife to the story of Ceyx and Alcyone—because therein, Ceyx died, and Alcyone is grieving his death, she is not worried about him having relations with other women. Yes, there is distance between Berry and his wife, and yes the outcome of Berry’s imprisonment is not clear, but to compare their love to that of Ceyx and Alcyone seems off kilter.
On the other hand, in The Book of the Duchess, the man in black’s issue with fin amors is much more validated, due to the fact that Lady White is dead, making the parallel to the Ceyx and Alycone story more fitting. The man in black curses against fortune, claiming that it is false for taking away his love, and that it also cheats and betrays. Since fortune took Lady White away, the man in black contemplates committing suicide, saying: By oure Lord, it is to deye sone. For nothing I leve it nought, But live and deye right in this thought (Chaucer 690-692) Without his love, the man in black has nothing to live for—until the narrator reminds him that suicide is a sin and an undesirable outcome, because if he carried through, the man in black would no longer get into heaven. Through the mentioning of Medea, Phyllis, Dido, and Ecquo, all women who are desserted by living lovers and therefore causing most of their suicides, the narrator talks the man in black out of the idea. By listing off these women who had love go wrong, the narrator is paralleling the man in black to them—and the man in black also parallels to Alycone within the story of Ceyx and Alycone. This role reversal illustrates the man in black’s extreme emotion and devastation over the loss of Lady White.
Lastly, the exploration of the power dynamics between the men and women within The Book of the Duchess and Fountain of Love illuminate the true nature of fin amors. In Fountain of Love, Berry argues that his body is a “hostage,” (Machaut 285) to his wife, and that she “does not know the wound that my heart feels through her sweet face.” (287). Herein, Berry’s wife has all of the autonomy. Berry will be overseas unable to influence her choices, therefore she has the agency to run wild and do what she wants in theory, free of judgment from her husband. Ultimately, Berry realizes that this is a definite possibility and argues that, “that beautiful creature will soon have forgotten me, who will never forget her,” (297) and that he must “wait upon your [her] mercy.” (287). The concept of mercy when comparing and contrasting the two works is fascinating. Within The Book of the Duchess, the man in black also pleads for “mercy” (Chaucer 1219) from Lady White. This moment in the poem is the culmination of the man in black’s stalking and overall wearing down of Lady White who, “loved [him] as man may do his brother.” (892). In the courting stage of their relationship, Lady White possesses all of the power in true fin amors fashion. When the man in black finally earns her love he is thrilled, and then she dies—which also compliments the tradition of fin amors.
Through the lens of fin amors, both Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess and Guillaume De Machaut’s Fountain of Love deal with the subject matter of women possessing power, or agency within a relationship, women put on pedestals, and lamenting and sorrowful lovers. When comparing and contrasting the two works, one is able to acquire a clear idea of the pain of noble courtship within medieval times. Although the man in black and Jean duc de Berry’s situations in love were quite different, they ultimately both ended up miserable slaves to their lovers.
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