Chaucers Poetry


Authority, Rebellion and Subordination in Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Wakefield Second Shepherd’s Play

June 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

The plight of the oppressed in medieval England was paramount to the emergence of iconic works of fiction. In turn, the future comprehension of feudal society is dependent upon these works. To rely on monastic chroniclers alone, in understanding the state of their world, would be to absorb works that were largely created under the authority of the magistrate (Prescott, 1998). The multidimensional nature of works by artists such as Geoffrey Chaucer and the Wakefield Master, precede the mechanical consensus of courtly writings. Chaucer lived between two systems, of aristocracy and urban life. It would be an understatement to say that he was culturally aware of both his position with in society and that of those who’s social rankings were above and below him (Strohm, 1994). The Canterbury Tale’s, printed in 1483, was written at a time of economic and political adversity in England’s history. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, fragment VII of the Tale’s, follows the familiar outplay of the vein cock and cunning fox and fragments of reality etch their way through its theatrical compounds; such as the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Although the Second Shepherd’s Play was written almost a century after The Canterbury Tale’s, in the late 1400s, it casts a familiar reflection on the misfortunes of peasant life. The play was written by a man known merely as the Wakefield Master who, like Chaucer, had a tenancy to acknowledge the forgotten and downtrodden man. The play surveys the financial shortcomings of three shepherds as they face the theft of their sheep, against a climatic backdrop of the Nativity. The play touches on the issue of enclosure; which was the transformation of a grain based to sheep based economy in the late 15th century that sparked social and financial uncertainties (Kiser, 2009). The two tale’s exhibit the social constraints and economic conflictions of their time through an array of dramatic illusions. Chaucer and the Wakefield Master patrol the boundaries of reality and fantasy using vernacular speech and humour that is both uncouth and energetic to portray social order and revolution.

The ideal of social order, and how to control it, was a continuous concern for medieval England. The Wakefield Master’s Second Shepherd’s Play acts as a remark on social conventionality. However, the standards of the play cycle of which it was contained, traditionally upheld a crushing sense of conformity (James, 1983). The Wakefield cycle consisted of thirty-two plays carefully ordered from the world’s creation to judgement day; abiding by the chronological order of the bible. This necessity of literary structure was typical of the societal hierarchy of the middle ages. The play worked to inhibit social pressures through religious indoctrination, by upholding the common ideal of the social body. The social body symbolized structured society under the figurative head of the magistracy; and often it was combined with religion to complement the body of Christ (James, 1983). It worked under the presumption that communal subordination meant physical survival, and the structure needed constant reaffirmation; like the transubstantiation of Christ in the Eucharist (Sinanoglou, 1973). The actual progression of the plays can be mirrored in its content, people are ordered from angels, men, then women, then animals. The structure of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales also displays a predictable medieval chain of command; naturally, The Knights Tale is the first to be told in the sequence. Furthermore, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale allocates little of its content to the life of the impoverished widow before the story is directed towards the luxurious life of Chanticleer, the cock. Chanticleer is elaborately described; “Lyk asure were his legges and his toon/…And lyk the burned gold was his colour” (1863-2864) (Chaucer, 1915). The Blasphemous virgin birth’s and vulgar comedy of The Second Shepherd’s Play marked a turn of the cycles towards popular culture in the early 16th century. The plays became satirical outlets for political and social observation, veiled in an orthodox tone. The traditional reaffirmation of the social body became a threat to authority, and Chaucer and the Wakefield master parody this through the reconstruction of social order.

Both The Nun’s Priests Tale and The Second Shepherd’s Play, although printed at different points in England’s history, produce an unbounded awareness of social revolution. The farcical element of The Second Shepherd’s Play asserts ideas of Utopian change. The physical progression of the play cycle is mirrored in its hierarchical content and it serves as a reflection of oppressive class structure. The three Shepherd’s always speak in chronological sequence, first second and third, distorting ideas of three estates model of the clergy, nobility and commoners of the 14th century (Strohm, 1994). Like the social body, revolution is in need of constant renewal and quasi-religious reincarnation. Mak is representational of misplaced rebellion; he steels the sheep of his fellow sufferers. He does this instead of directing his anger towards the true causes of his unhappiness; pastoral enclosure and his social superiors. His theft is presented as basic human nature and acts as a longing for Utopian change in a nonsensical world; in which manorial lords have taken small peasant property and turned it into larger units for pasture. Chanticleer in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, a counter-revolutionary member of the aristocracy, also misplaces his blame, directing focus towards himself rather than the rebel; Daun Russell the fox. In the Wakefield Play, the Shepherd’s speak tireless laments on the economic and domestic oppression of their lives, but Mak has done what they have not; he has acted out while they have remained docile like the flocks of sheep they govern.

The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 played a huge part in the political and financial tribulations of Chaucer’s England. In 1381 Kentish rebels lead by Wat Tyler, often described in literary accounts under the pseudonym Jack Straw, advanced on London, rioting and murdering upholders of economic and judicial power (Prescott, 1998). This was caused in part by the collecting of obscene taxes and uneasy labour. Although its reference in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is fleeting, its resonance overpowers the social reception of the entire tale. Textual accounts of the revolt were plagued with dissonance and complexity, chroniclers twisting reports for social gain. Many texts describe the rebels in Latin, a criticism of their unworthiness, but Chaucer uses vernacular language of the peasants, lessening social distance. A notable writer on the revolt was John Gower, and critiques have noted that Chaucer parody’s his accounts of the rebellion in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (Justice, 1994). Gower’s work on the revolt represents its typical fictitious description and this may have prompted Chaucer’s use of him as an easily parodied example. Like many accounts of the revolt, Gower describes the rebels as ‘wild’ and ‘inaudible’ and that “Their throats were filled with all sorts of bovine bellows…… with the devilish voice of peacocks” (Gower, 1992).The rebels could only ‘bellow’ with the ‘devilish voice’ of birds, like the self-important animals on Chaucer’s widow’s farm. Justice (1994) describes this technique as rendering inaudible anything the rebels might have said. The Second Shepherd’s Play, set in a progressively advanced England, also present’s similar accounts of the over-taxing of the peasantry; “we are so haymd,/ffor-taxed and ramyd” (Hopper 1962, 15-16). The two plays together highlight the inevitable repetition of class struggle in a feudal society.

The idea of the “crowd” as a socio-political construct is abundant in writings on revolution (Prescott, 1998). The crowd represents the inevitable catastrophe of human nature; something that was avoided in medieval England. Gower (1899) quantified that “There are three things of such a sort that they produce merciless destruction when they get the upper hand… the third is the lesser people, the common multitude for they will not be stopped by either reason or discipline”. It wasn’t only peasants who made up the crowd of the revolt of 1381; however it was less controversial for writers to describe them that way, to place as many possible social rankings between themselves and the insurgents. This insists rioters are not capable of independent action, instead controlled by individual extremists (Prescott, 1998). They are a shepherd’s flock that has drifted away from their masters into the hands of a false prophet; like Mak in the Second Shepherd’s Play. The concept of the crowd assumes the idea that high society is made up of educated individuals, versus the barbarianism of the impoverished masses. Medieval England was a time of understanding human nature, rather than “the cult of the individual” seen in the renaissance (Roney, 1983). Ferenbacher (1994) describes Chaucer’s Chanticleer as a “western man trying to maintain his dignity in the face of basic human nature”. These tales parody their era’s construction of peasants as tragically human, and rebels as exclusively lower class, which serves as humorous when one considers the authorities that have arisen from successful historic rebellions.

The medieval concept of the evil of man is displayed as tragically human and is manipulated through moralistic illusions. The Second Shepherd’s Play uses evil as a binary from which good is derived. Since Augustine, a western concept of evil was the “absence or distortion of good”(Evans, 1990). Augustine’s own account of stealing a pear from a neighbors Orchard can be likened to Mak’s theft. Augustine’s vision was that “Everyone knows, that stealing is wrong; even a thief will not let others steal from him without protest” (Evans, 1990). It is insinuated that pleasure comes from theft in itself; the social construct of the ‘evil in all’ is embodied in Mak’s conscious choice. Mak’s malevolence is heard in the harshness of the shepherd’s proverb upon discovering the stolen sheep-baby; “Ill spon weft, Iwys / ay commys foull owte” (587). Chaucer’s pleasant barnyard, “But such a joy it was to hear them sing, /When the bright sun began to spring,” (2878-2879), is very different from the apocalyptic weather of the Wakefield play; “the weders full kene./And the frostys so hydus / thay water myn eeyne”. The shepherd’s world is aged and cruel. However, the interjection of the revolt in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale suggests the peacefulness of the barnyard isn’t all that it seems. The peasants were often described as “inhabitants of hell” or “instruments of the devil” (Prescott, 1998), and the Nun’s Priest’s states they “ yolleden as feendes doon in helle;” (3389). The angel in the Second Shepherd’s Play also announces “That shall take fro the feyd/that adam had lorne:” (638). Chaucer’s ‘feendes’ and the Wakfield’s ‘feyd’ uses devilish imagery to construct a mock polar of morality. Both tales indicate Adam and Eve’s, or humanities, fall from grace. Similarly, Daun Russel in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale may be representational of the flattering tongue of the devil. The Wakefield play mirrors the Corinthians “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (Cor, 2:13-14, KJV). The sheep represents the birth of the devil, a false prophet. It is the ‘enclosure’ of the pastoral economy that proved prosperous for some and devastating for others, masquerading “as an angel of light”. Mak, however, is something worse than a false representative of Christ; he is truly satanic as a false representative of the king, “what! ich be a yoman / I tell you, of the king;”(201). These religious overtones are not only culturally necessary, but a comment on the ‘evil’ of those who defy the will of god and the will of the king.

The literary parody of religious indoctrination suggests medieval subjects weren’t as easily swayed by the guilt of moral teachings as the church might have believed. The nun’s priest hides behind theology rather than glorifying it, the mechanical prayer ending of the tale seeming strained and unnecessary; “And brynge us to his heighe blisse! Amen.” (3446). The Night’s Tale of the Canterbury Tale’s condemns the elaborate morality of the aristocracy, and The Miller’s Tale comments of the absurdity of the poor rabbles. The nun’s priest however, offers a solution to where to place one’s self within medieval society. The widow’s life is humble, quiet and upholds a kind of rustic simplicity; far away from the strife of the gentry and wicked of the barnyard. In the original source of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the Roman de Renard, Chanticleers owners were wealthy. This intentional change made by Chaucer could be an attempt to highlight the plight of living a normal, simple, Christian life, amid the mayhem of medieval realities. Contrarily, in the Second Shepherd’s Play the years have proved unprofitable for the modest rural man and religion is used to echo their poverties. Mak’s language is blasphemous, “God looke you all thre!”, and unlike cycles of the time, the Nativity is not at the linear centre. The displacement of Christ in medieval England is personified and the Wakefield master hints at faiths powerlessness in the face of economic devastation. Nevertheless, the conclusive birth of Christ could also mark a return to the fruitfulness of the spiritual minimalism. Post-enclosure turned out to be quite effective in the long term of pastoral enterprise and the birth foreshadows this (Allen, 2000). Both Chaucer and the Wakefield master poke fun at the necessity of morals in literary expression.

Class struggles and periodical horrors are often safely conveyed through the medium of animal fables. The fables of Aesop served as quick moral teachings, often told by Greco-Roman peasants to convey an imbalanced distribution of power (Rothwell Jr, 1995). Aesop tells a similar tale to the nun’s priest; that of the Eagle and the Fox. The eagle eats the foxes cubs, before accidentally setting its own nest alight; the fox then eating it’s nestlings as they fall to the ground. Aesop’s eagle, like Chanticleer, is a symbol of status and authority and is equally self-destructive; both birds burn down their kingdoms and allow those beneath them to obtain power through the self-immolation of the aristocracy. Fable has no meaning alone but is understood via a return to reality. Animal imagery was also used abundantly in accounts of the Peasant’s revolt; peasants often being compared to wild beasts. Chaucer parodies this common misconception; “Ran cow and calf, and eek the verray hogged” (3385), this being almost identical to Gower’s line; “some sound the bellows of cattle, some let out the horrid grunt of pigs”(Gower, 1899). Chaucer’s animals live a lavish lifestyle, contrary to the widow’s “ful symple lyf” and the structure of these two pastoral tales is allocated via separation. The worlds of the Wakefield shepherd’s and Chaucer’s farm animals are cut off from the rest of medieval society. Chanticleer’s kingdom is in a “Yeerd….enclosed al aboute” (2847) and although their fields were physically large, the concept of ‘enclosure’ in the Second Shepherd’s Play is similarly confining. The shepherd’s use lonely laments displaying their isolation, directly addressing the root causes of their economic uncertainties; “ffor the tylthe of oure landys/lyys follow as the floore”. Harsh local language displays the discomfort of enclosure, using words like “land-lepars” (Happé, 2007). Mak is repressed, longing for his absent flock, and this can be seen is his fathering of many children as an insufficient replacement. The shepherds of The Second Shepherd’s Play have been domesticated, like Chaucer’s peasants, before their transformation into animals. Like in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale humans become animals, Mak referring to the sheep-baby as his ‘heir’. The two tale’s work under the assumption that if animals can act like humans, then humans can act like animals (Knight, 1986). The animal fable not only reiterates the social prejudices of the medieval upper class, but the animalistic nature of the typical medieval man.

The solipsism of medieval life, specifically in the rural economy, is incarnated in dream-vision. A medieval account of solitude, being alone in one’s mind, is seen in the isolated soliloquies in the Second Shepherd’s Play ‘as the shepherd’s “walk/thus by myn oone” (41) personifying the loneliness of enclosure. The first account of dream-vision was Cicero’s Somnium Scipionic, around the 4th century. Cicero’s dream experience focused on the individuals psyche as being in turmoil and distress. This has been viewed as representing the rational nature of authority against the realistic psychological needs of the people (Russell, 1988). Pertelote in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale uses Cicero’s account to foster a clinical diagnosis of Chanticleers distress. Chaucer’s characters are always present within their own dreams; the fact that he uses this technique in his time foreshadows future develops in human psychology, of dream interpretation as ‘clinical’. Biblical dreams were simply the word of god. In the middle ages, the issue was whether or not God was actually speaking. Chanticleer’s dream is a polar of free will, god has mapped out his path but like humans he must determine how he gets there. Medieval England was a time of archetypal determinism and Chanticleer’s vanity determines largely what he does. Both tale’s Mock mediums in which “man uses to dignify his existence in the world” (Finlayson, 2005). It suggests a lack of control over anything substantial in medieval life. A medieval account of character differs from modern literature and could involve astrology and theory of the humors such as melancholy, phlegm etc; and these things were all pre-determined focusing on the modern idea that temperament stems from biological makeup. Dream imagery is used to communicate ultimate realities of medieval life that couldn’t be comprehended by the simple human mind.

The tragedy of human nature was harnessed by medieval society to maintain essential subordination. Chaucer and the Wakefield Master employ the conventional genres of their era in order to parody the necessity of their existence. The causes and repercussions of the revolt of 1381 and pastoral enclosure of the 15th century are exemplified through satire and imagery and the result is an avant-garde social commentary. Social and economic uncertainties in the two tales are dramatized to ensure absurdity and realities are hauntingly intertwined. The Wakefield Master and Chaucer act as literary Robin Hood’s; pioneers in giving the deprived multitudes what they lacked; a voice.


ALLEN, R. C. 2000. Economic structure and agricultural productivity in Europe, 1300–1800. European Review of Economic History, 4, 1-25.

CHAUCER, G. 1915. The nun’s priest’s tale, Macmillan.

EVANS, G. R. 1990. Augustine on evil, Cambridge University Press.

English, E. (1948). Holy Bible. 1st ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

FINLAYSON, J. 2005. Reading Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale: Mixed genres and multi-layered worlds of illusion. English Studies, 86, 493-510.

GOWER, J. 1899. The Complete Works of John Gower: French works, Clarendon Press.

GOWER, J. 1992. Vox clamantis, Bodleian Library Photographic Services.

HAPPÉ, P. 2007. The Towneley cycle: unity and diversity, University of Wales Press.

Hopper, V. and Lahey, G. (1962). Medieval mystery plays: Abraham and Isaac, Noah’s flood, the second shepherd’s play. 1st ed. Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series.

JAMES, M. 1983. Ritual, drama and social body in the late medieval English town. Past and Present, 3-29.

JUSTICE, S. 1994. Writing and rebellion: England in 1381, Univ of California Press.

KISER, L. J. 2009. ” Mak’s Heirs”: Sheep and Humans in the Pastoral Ecology of the Towneley First and Second Shepherds’ Plays. JEGP, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 108, 336-359.

KNIGHT, S. 1986. Geoffrey Chaucer, B. Blackwell.

PRESCOTT, A. Writing about rebellion: using the records of the Peasants’ revolt of 1381. History Workshop Journal, 1998. Oxford Univ Press, 1-28.

RONEY, L. 1983. The Wakefield First and Second Shepherds Plays as Complements in Psychology and Parody. Speculum, 58, 696-723.

ROTHWELL JR, K. S. 1995. Aristophanes’ Wasps and the Socio-politics of Aesop’s Fables. Classical Journal, 93, 233-254.

RUSSELL, J. S. 1988. English dream vision: anatomy of a form, The Ohio State University Press.

SINANOGLOU, L. 1973. The Christ Child as Sacrifice: A Medieval Tradition and the Corpus Christi Plays. Speculum, 48, 491-509.

STROHM, P. 1994. Social Chaucer, Harvard University Press.

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Chaucer’s Imagery in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue

May 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

Throughout ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’, Chaucer uses imagery to enhance our understanding of the Wife’s character and principles. Chaucer makes use of simple yet powerful metaphors such as fire and nature to augment our understanding of the Wife’s personality. However, some of the more fundamental images throughout the poem – animals and trade, for example – help portray the Wife’s key arguments and ideas and are used to aid social commentary throughout the text. Many of these images would have been particularly pertinent in the medieval context in which ‘The Canterbury Tales’ were written and would have therefore been useful in enhancing the reader/ listener’s understanding of the overarching themes of the prologue.

Analysis of the Wife of Bath’s prologue reveals repeated use of certain metaphors which collectively create a vivid illustration of The Wife of Bath’s strong and lustful personality. For example, the idea of fire is regularly associated with the Wife e.g. ‘Better is to be wedded than to brinne.’ Here, Chaucer is making use of a biblical citation which the Wife uses to excuse her multiple marriages; the verb ‘brinne’ refers to an uncontrollable passion which the medieval society and church would deem inappropriate. The Wife acknowledges harbouring this passion therefore recognising her lustful nature; her admittance of it reveals to the reader the boldness of her character, she is not ashamed to admit she is lustful even though society deemed it disgraceful. This imagery of fire recurs throughout the text, for example, ‘for peril is bothe fyr and tow t’assemble.’ In terms of the wider significance of this fire imagery, it is debatable whether Chaucer uses it in order to create a character who complies with the medieval stereotype of women as lustful therefore conveying a largely anti-feminist message, or whether through the Wife’s lack of shame over her fiery and passionate personality, he is suggesting that this is not something that society should condemn.

Chaucer, through the Wife, regularly makes use of imagery of nature, specifically seed, fruit and flowers, as a symbol for the Wife’s sexual activities; she excuses her numerous sexual relationships by reconciling them with something natural. For instance, she observes that ‘if ther were no seed ysowe, virginitee, than whereof sholde it grow?’ Here the wife uses the metaphor of the seed to demonstrate how if everyone practised chastity, there would be no people and hence no seed for virginity to grow from. She logically uses the analogy of something natural in order to excuse her own actions. The Wife also makes many references to flowers and fruit when describing her sexual relations: ‘I wil bistowe the flour of al myn age, in the actes and in the fruit of marriage.’ Again, the wife uses images of nature in a euphemistic sense but also to reconcile her sexual actions with something natural and therefore acceptable.

In the context of Middle Ages England, the sciences of astrology and physiognomy were largely accepted as giving insight into the character and tendencies of a person. Throughout the Wife of Bath’s prologue, Chaucer responds to the popularity of the two disciplines by highlighting specific details of the Wife’s image and her astrological signs to communicate to the audience various aspects of her personality. For example, we are informed that the Wife’s character is influenced by both Mars, the God of war and Venus, the Goddess of love and beauty and this, she and a medieval audience would believe, meant that ‘Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse and Mars yaf me my sturdy hardinesse.’ In addition, she is described as being ‘gat toothed’ which indicated a lecherous and bold personality. She is also eager to point out her birthmark in a ‘privee place’ which physiognomists believed demonstrated a voracious sexual nature. Chaucer therefore uses the Wife’s own image to communicate aspects of her personality.

Perhaps the most constant imagery throughout the text is that of animals which the Wife uses, almost entirely, to describe women. Many would argue that this is a strong feminist response to the comparison with women to animals in Theophrastus’ ‘Liber aureoles de nuptiis’, a prominent piece of anti-feminist literature which Alison cites and mocks throughout the text. In a medieval society, it was widely believed that women came after men in the creation hierarchy followed swiftly by animals. This placed women close animals in the ‘chain of being’ and they were often unflatteringly compared to them e.g. by Theophrastus: ‘Horses, asses, cattle… are first tried and then bought: a wife is the only thing that is not shown before she is married.’ However, Chaucer, through the Wife of Bath, flips the imagery, comparing women with animals in a flattering and positive way. For example, Alison claims that she was as ‘joly as a pie’ and describes herself as a ‘lionesse’ having connotations of pride and strength. As well as describing herself using animal imagery, she also makes numerous animal comparisons with men. For example, she compares her husband to her sheep named ‘Wilkin’; this comparison is arguably riddled with insults, not only is she comparing a man to an animal but the name’ Wilkin’ comprised of the words ‘Wil’ (will) and the diminutive suffix ‘kin’ has connotations of a lack of desire. Therefore, not only does the Wife mock men for comparing women with animals by flipping the imagery, she also mocks them with same degrading comparisons.

Underlying the Wife of Bath’s discussion and exploration of marriage appears constant imagery of trade and commerce. Her repeated references to medieval trade perhaps depict her as a more masculine figure. Marriages were often arranged (by males) for economic and political reasons and, on many occasions, this is how the Wife refers to her relationships. For example, she talks of courtship like bartering at market: ‘Greet prees at market deere ware, and to greet cheep is holde at litel prys: this knoweth every woman that is wys.’ It is a possibility that Chaucer uses this imagery in order to comment on how reductionist and dehumanising the medieval marriage system was. This idea of trade appears again when the Wife turns the cliché of the ‘flower of youth’ around to mean baking flour: ‘the flour is goon, ther is namoore to telle; the bren, as i best kan, mow moste i selle.’ She equates herself to a miller who, after selling his good flour must now attempt to sell the bran. The image of fading beauty and youth still remains but with an undertone of business and commerce adding an extra dimension and commentary on the nature of marriage. Therefore, the repeated imagery of medieval trade reveals the protagonist’s practical attitude to relationships as well as aiding Chaucer’s social commentary.

In conclusion, throughout ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’, Chaucer effectively uses imagery and symbolism in order to generate an understanding of the protagonist’s personality and ideas. References to Alison’s physical appearance alongside metaphors of fire and nature demonstrate the Wife’s passionate and lustful character whilst constant allusions to animals and trade help to powerfully express The Wife of Bath’s, and potentially the author’s, opinions and principles.

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“The Book of the Duchess”: The Dreamer’s Story

April 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The Book of the Duchess” was written between the years 1369-1372. The poem is a product of Chaucer’s French period. This work was written for Chaucer’s principal patron, John of Gaunt, after the death of his first wife, Blanche. Initially the poem was known as “The Deth of Blaunche the Duchess” and was the first elegy of an English lady. The framework of the poem is a dream motif structured in octosyllabic couplets. Chaucer’s use of the dream motif contributes to the poem’s theme of the brevity of love, the obtuseness of the dreamer, and springtime.It is not by mistake or accident that Chaucer implemented the dream motif in “The Book of the Duchess.” The dream represents a disconnection from reality; otherwise, Chaucer would have offended John of Gaunt in writing a misrepresentation of the death of his wife. The dream motif also gives Chaucer the freedom to pen a creative and enticing piece. Dreams have no boundaries because they are solely the creation of the dreamer. The action that takes place in a dream cannot be challenged by anyone else because it is what the dreamer created. Therefore, the use of the dream motif opens a door to many possibilities for the writer and the characters of the work.Although the general subject matter of the poem is accepting loss and the uncontrollability of loss and death, the brevity of love seems to invoke loss in the poem. Upon being introduced to the dreamer, we learn that he is an insomniac and is suffering from an unrequited love affair. The dreamer cannot grasp sleep or the declining lover that can heal him. The dreamer begins to read the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, and it intrigues him because it is a romance. The dreamer continues the story because it is a way for him to hold on to the idea of love. While reading the story with the dreamer, the audience learns that Alcyone has lost her husband and cannot let go of him because of her love for him. Ceyx and Alcyone is a story within a story in which Chaucer also implements the dream motif. Alcyone, stricken with grief, finally falls asleep after calling out to Juno, “Quod she to Juno, hir goddesse, ‘Helpe me out of thys distresse’” (109-110). Juno summons Morpheus, the god of sleep, to help bring closure to Alcyone by presenting Ceyx in a dream in which Ceyx tells Alcyone to let go of her grief.The story of Ceyx and Alcyone is but a distraction because the actual poem does not start until the story ends. The dream motif also makes the narrator and dreamer two different characters, although at first glance the audience considers them to be one. The narrator tells us a story and then wakes up in a dream after falling asleep, thus transitioning us from the narrator to the dreamer. Initially upon meeting the narrator, we learn that he is in a melancholy state. He has chronic insomnia and is delusional and depressed. He questions why he is still alive since nature usually calls for the end of any creature so full of sorrow and lacking sleep. This further proves John Rivers’s theory that “the poem is a dream vision in which the poet-narrator falls asleep troubled about his own situation and in the dream has an educational experience” (Rivers 565). The dreamer’s thoughts are idle and he takes no note of his surroundings. The narrator finally falls asleep after reading the story and drifts into a dream. Being aware of the narrator’s state of insomnia, the dream motif contributes to the obtuseness of the narrator. The audience is as ignorant as the dreamer because we learn just as he does, and the poem unfolds before us just as it does for him. The dreamer is purposely dull and naïve so that he may enter the being of other characters. When the dreamer stumbles upon the Black Knight, he observes the Knight as he grieves. The dreamer approaches the Black Knight and is confused by the Knight’s story of grief until the Knight yells, “she ys ded. — May! — Yis, be my trouthe!” (1309). Because the dreamer could not understand the Knight’s jargon, it shows that he is socially naïve. The dreamer tries to appear courtly and sophisticated but the insomnia and dream motif have shaped him to be obtuse in character.According to John Gardner, “Chaucer’s time was one in which official doctrine split human personality in ways we would now call schizophrenic.” Because of this, it would only make sense that Chaucer’s dream motif promotes a theme of springtime. Springtime essentially represents a time of happiness, warmth, growth, and hope — obviously none of the elements of schizophrenia or insomnia. Once again, as seen in the use of springtime in the dream motif, Chaucer disconnects the suffering character from reality and places him in an oasis. The dreamer has left his world of insomnia, and he dreams that he wakes up in May at dawn to the singing of small birds, a significant change from the reality of this life. This springtime is also associated with love, frivolity, and gaiety, although no one in “The Book of the Duchess” ever acquires these things. The dream motif introduces the so-called reverdie tradition, which indicates springtime and the theme of love that is associated with it.The dream motif allows for an intimacy that Chaucer may not have been able to use in a regular work. This intimacy allows Chaucer to write the most absurd thing and justify it because it is a dream. The dream allows the freedom to explore and gives the work a seal of authenticity because no one can question or contradict the validity of a dream. For example, the obtuseness of the narrator is obvious because there is no other explanation for why he first hears the Knight speak of the death of his lady, but still the narrator does not understand. Chaucer’s use of the dream motif creates the perfect structure for “The Book of the Duchess.” The dream motif creates a story within a story that intimately explores the brevity of love, creates and justifies an obtuse character, and implements the the reverdie tradition, all of which are typical elements of French poetry.Works CitedChaucer, Geoffrey, and John H. Fisher. “The Book of the Duchess.” The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1989. Print.Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Theodore Morrison. The Portable Chaucer. New York: Penguin, 1977. Print.Gardner, John. The Life and Times of Chaucer. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2009. Print.

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Color Symbolism in The Miller’s Tale of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

April 16, 2019 by Essay Writer

“The Miller’s Tale”, a ribald and bawdy fabliaux about the generation gap, youthful lust, aged foolishness, and the selfishness and cruelty of people towards each other, contains a wealth of color terms which add to and expand the meaning of this rustic tale. The teller, too, the Miller, is described in detail in Chaucer’s “Prologue” with several colors attached to him. The colors employed by Chaucer were important not only for the vividness of the description to help to make a mental image for the hearers (or readers,) but also for clues to the nature of the characters described. Sometimes there are several layers of meaning in one color term describing an aspect of a human being or a piece of clothing, and these meanings can create multiple readings of increasingly revelatory and sometimes contradictory significance.

Color symbolism was far more important in medieval society than it is today. Colors meant many things, and the different shades and hues chosen for clothing, furnishings, and even hair-tinting (in additions to natural variations of these hues) were all imbued with meaning within a social and religious context:

…color [was] a favorite ploy of Satan and his cohorts, used in their tireless efforts to trip up humanity as it struggled along the rocky path to salvation. Adherents of this theory thought color very suspect, doubly corrupted by the Fall of Man that had made the material world ephemeral and transient…The Middle Ages had color cultists, however, who argued that color was actually the product of a divine light that brought matter to life. (Pleij 1-2)

An interesting side note, described by Pleij, is that before the Renaissance, bright and rich colors were considered both formal and acceptable for daily wear, which is why the Miller could wear “a hood of blue and a white coat” (Chaucer 18) for his traveling costume. Our perception of the Middle Ages, portrayed in film, is of most of the common people clothed in drab brown and grey homespun fabric, interspersed, perhaps, with the richer robes of the clergy and the nobility. However, color was employed in every conceivable way in garments, even among the poor, and if we were able to view the dress of the Pilgrims described by Chaucer, we would most likely see a riot of color. It was not until much later than Chaucer’s time that the colors of blue and black (colors of the firmament, and, therefore, of God) became the colors of “earthly abnegation, extreme asceticism, deep sorrow, and supreme humility” (Pleij 6). Bright colors became traits of the devil, and the somber blues and blacks became the colors of the righteous (especially later among the Protestants – note the uniformly black wear of Dutch merchants of the Renaissance, and the black-and-white costumes of the Puritan Pilgrims in America.) This preference for blue and black has been held over even to the present day, in modern formal and evening wear, especially for men (Ibid).

The medieval folk described by Chaucer had no such compunctions about color. “If any one era could be singled out as being the most obsessed with color, it would be the Middle Ages.” (Pleij 4) What, then, did the colors in the description of the Miller, and then the colors employed by him in his Tale, contribute to the meaning of the story? The Miller’s hair is “Red as the bristles in an old sow’s ear”. Red was often associated with hot-temperedness and sexual incontinence, and red hair and ruddy skin were associated with the “other” in medieval art. The devil is depicted, infernally, with red hair. (JTS article). Red hair was, in fact, a stock negative connotation for a whole host of evil characters, including, specifically, “greedy millers” (Pleij 82). Medieval negative attitudes toward redheads were so severe that all redheads were “considered imposters and cheats.” (Ibid) There may have been the superstition, also, that red hair was a product of a conception occurring during a woman’s menstrual period. This sinful act, for the sexual act outside of the specific purpose of procreation was thought to be sinful, was considered to have marked the child for life. “Generally speaking, physical characteristics involving the color red are hardly ever good ” (83).

In addition, the Miller’s nostrils are “black as they are wide” (Chaucer 18, “blake were and wide,” Benson 32), which may be only a disparaging personal description, but the notions of black as a color associated with human beings were complicated in medieval times. Still the superstition persisted against things of the night, and the takeover of the idea of black being a heavenly color had not yet occurred. In many instances in medieval verse “black is the colour attributed to the devil and to fiends” (Heather, II, 215).

So far, in two lines, Chaucer has been able to create two demonic references to the Miller just within his personal description. The running joke among medieval villagers, no doubt based at least partly in fact, was that millers were thieves, and therefore the drawing of a parallel between the Miller and the devil was not only apt but funny. His description as burly, like a pig (and therefore greedy and overfed,) with hair porcine in texture and devilish in color, with a wide nose (a short or broad nose could “betray an amorous nature,” Brewer 44, as does the nature of his tale) is so thick with meaning already that the Miller hardly seems to need further explication. He is greedy; he is probably amorous, and possibly amorous in a way outside of the accepted mores. He is like the devil, perhaps in the sense of true evil, or, depending on how he interacts with the other pilgrims, only with a sense of mischief. He has been established as being outside the norm, with his red hair (a possible holdover prejudice against either the native Celts or the invading Danes), and his black nostrils have completed the facial picture not just of ugliness, but also a including a suggestion of the breath of the infernal regions.

The Miller’s “thombe of gold” (Benson 32) was a direct reference, of course, to his cheating ways on the scale with his customers’ grain and flour. Millers were proverbially thought of as thieves, (Langdon 244) and the reference to “golde” – not only a metal but a color – meant that his thumb was heavy indeed. It is also a suggestion of his inhumanity, for if a part of his body could be other than flesh, he was less than human and not as worthy of respect or sympathy as a true human being. Gold and red are often spoken of together in medieval verse (Heather, IV, 322) and the parallel with his red hair (which, of course, is really orange, or red-gold) could be continued here. Or, it could be that he is so enamored of profit, in the form of stolen grain or flour or in gold itself that his thumb has become made of it.

The Miller’s “whit cote and a blew hood” (Benson 32) are more problematic. White was almost always associated in the Middle Ages with purity and holiness, so his white coat belies the Miller’s nature. The whiteness of the soul after being shriven (Heather, III, 266) was an important image in medieval verse, and therefore it’s hard to say what Chaucer was trying to describe, if anything, by giving the Miller a white coat. Perhaps this was in reference to a real miller he had known, who wore such a coat. It was eminently impractical color (as well as being somewhat expensive, for fabric bleaching was a difficult process during medieval times) for a journey, for the pilgrim were sure to get dirty and dusty on an unpaved road on horseback. Perhaps, though there is little evidence for this, it was a symbol of his impracticality and his willingness to show off his ill-gotten gains in sartorial display.

The “blew hode” is slightly easier to understand, but still contradictory. It could be associated with the planet Venus (Heather, IV, 326,) which would be yet another reference to the Miller’s bawdy tale and his supposed sexual incontinence. However, blue is also explained by Chaucer as being the “color of constancy in love” (in reference to Canace’s blue velvet mew in “The Squire’s Tale,” Chaucer 500). This is somewhat confusing. Perhaps it is either a validation or a repudiation of the virtue of the Miller’s own wife. He says:

I have a wife, God knows, as well as you

Yet not for all the oxen in my plough

Would I engage to take it on me now

To think myself a cuckold just because…

I’m pretty sure I’m not and never was.

One shouldn’t be too inquisitive in life

Either about God’s secrets or one’s wife (Chaucer 88)

So perhaps the blue hood he wears, if it has any color symbolism at all, is a token of his belief in (or benign neglect of) the faithfulness of his wife. It could, in reverse, be a mocking of his inattention to his own wife’s sexual infidelities, and therefore be a substitute for cuckold’s horns, too. The blue cloth over the head of the Virgin was proverbial in statues and painting of this time (and up to the present day in many representations of her,) so the Miller’s blue hood could either be his own tribute to the Virgin Mary (which seems unlikely,) or possibly another of Chaucer’s jokes about the lack of chastity on the Miller’s or the Miller’s wife’s part.

This array of attributes and colors serves to enlighten, amuse, and even confuse the reader. It would have been much simpler if the Miller were arrayed in green, (the color of “lightness in love” Chaucer 500). Being dressed in “dressed in green…was [a] trait of the devil in medieval lore.” (Howard 62) But Chaucer doesn’t make things so simple for us, and instead piles on the allusions and the contradictions to make us stop and consider not only the Miller’s words, but the sense behind his words (such as his possibly too-eager protests of his wife’s faithfulness.) It is without a doubt that, from these few terms, Chaucer creates a lively and completely human image in our minds of the teller of The Miller’s Tale.

The first mention of a color term in the Tale itself is in reference to the young lover Nicholas’s cupboard or linen press being “covered with a faldyng reed” (Benson 68.) Faldyng was a kind of coarse cloth, presumably cheap and easy to obtain even for a poor student like Nicholas. The coarseness of the fabric is perhaps a marker for the coarseness, and, indeed, even the deviousness of Nicholas and his sexual and revenge-taking escapes. The picture is quickly made of a man who was at the same time concerned with luxury and appearances (red or scarlet was associated with luxury cloth, especially in the earlier Middle Ages when it was really the only luxury fabric available) but only able, either through his own low and gaudy tastes, or by constraints of poverty, to make his room look like a cheap bordello.

Red, too, was associated with the color of flame (Heather, IV, 320) which could be a parallel either to the devil (as in the reading of the Miller’s appearance, above) or to the flame of sexual desire. But, again, there is contradiction in this color. Red had, for many years, been associated with royalty and honor (Heather, ibid) and “Scarlet and crimson were especially coveted, as these costly red dyestuffs were extracted from snails and worms that were difficult to obtain” (Pleij 6.) This was a fashionable color, and the red hue of Nicholas’s cupboard-covering was perhaps chosen by him to help draw in young women. The character of Nicholas “Of deerne love he koude and of solas” (Benson 68, “And making love in secret was his talent” Chaucer 89) certainly supports the idea of a young man who would choose his clothing and apartment furnishings based on what he thought would get him the most mileage sexually with the young women of his acquaintance.

Chaucer was so able to create a persona for a character in just a few lines that it seems that color was part of his scheme for bringing up possible attributes for characters by means of personal description. Red was “For centuries…thought to be the exact opposite of white” (Pleij 17) rather than black. If this thought still held sway in Chaucer’s time (and there is no evidence directly from the text, but it is a possibility) then Nicholas’s red cloth in his room was like a red flag (or a red light in a prostitute’s window, or the red cloth thrown over a lamp in a prostitute’s room) announcing his sexual willingness and less-than-scrupulous morals.

Professor Sherbo argues the idea that the choices of words in Chaucer were not about poetic diction, but were simply the words used in everyday prose. For, as Dr. Johnson said, “…before Dryden’s time there was ‘no poetical diction: no system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestic use and free from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts.” One could argue against this chronological division, for Shakespeare wrote “incarnadine” for red (Macbeth Act II ii,) but from this idea we may suggest that Chaucer’s motivation in selection of colors were more about the symbolism of the color than any kind of “elegances or flowers of speech.” (Sherbo 1) Since:

Chaucer’s poetry is almost entirely innocent of poetic diction, which is quite understandable. As far back as 1913 Havens wrote “in proportion as the subjects of poems draw near to those of ordinary conversation the language and style grow conversational, and … ‘poetic diction’ is employed only in passages which it is desirable to have as different as possible from prose. (Sherbo 44)

If this is true, and the conversational rather than formal tone of the Miller’s tale (it is referred to as a “cherles tale” Benson 67, a churl being a low-class person) fits with this idea, then the selection of color terms was not based on aesthetic, aural, or musical bases. Words might have been chosen to fit within the meter (and Chaucer’s color terms are short and easy to rhyme and fit into a line — reed, barred, whit, col-blak, blew – as opposed to later poetic Latinisms, incarnadine, striation, achromatic, nigrous, or cerulean, for example) but were not chosen, at least not primarily, to create an audible effect. Therefore, it can be argued that the choice of colors was based, firstly, on how they fit into the story, and, secondly, on the symbolism that those colors signified.

Continuing on to the description of the fair Alison, Chaucer uses a further wealth of color terms. Immediately Chaucer tells us that her girdle was of “striped silk” (Chaucer 90). Stripes, or parti-colored cloth, while both expensive and showy (as was silk), could also be considered a sign of her deviance. “When a painter dressed a figure in hose of one leg red and the other leg yellow, he was telling the viewer he was a dubious character” (Pleij 73). While we are not told the actual colors of the stripes on Alison’s belt, it could be that this was Chaucer’s first way of marking her, visually, as gaudy, showy, perhaps over-willing to spend her rich old husband’s money on fine things, and, even, possessing her upcoming sexual deviance. Women who chose to wear multi-colored clothing were religiously chastised. “The thirteenth-century hellfire preacher Berthold of Regensburg railed against women who let themselves be carried away by fashionable colors. He noticed that they no longer contented themselves with the infinite variety of colors which God had placed at the disposal of nature – an abundant supply of brown, red, blue, white, green, yellow, and black. No, the latest in female pride involved combining these colors in dots and stripes…” (Pleij 75)

The notion that it was female pride, and not just personal taste or even sexual advertisement, fits with the character of Alison. She is so proud that she not only think that she can fool her husband (which she and Nicholas accomplish easily, ) but she feels no remorse for her deceitful acts and infidelity, and does nothing to save her husband from the insults of the townspeople at the end of the tale (Chaucer 105-106). Her striped girdle is a signal of her willingness to violate her marriage vows and take pride in deceiving her husband. A damning garment, indeed.

“White as morning milk” was the apron of Alison, as was her smock. A white apron soon gets dirty, so this was probably an expression of Alison’s vanity, as was the more expensive white cloth a marker of her willingness to spend her husband’s money. White was considered “the most suitable color for women” (Pleij 68) for it was the color of heaven and sinlessness, so perhaps Alison wore these white garments in order to give herself a false aura of respectability. But the embroidery on the smock is black (Chaucer 90), showing not only Alison’s ability to mix colors (something frowned upon as against God’s nature) but her willingness to mitigate the whiteness of her garment with the blackness of the devil. The embroidery, too, in silk, was a considered a vanity, no doubt, and was of sufficient unusualness for Chaucer to comment on it. One may imagine that Alison thought she was either creating a fashion, or leading it within her village. This, too, would have been considered immodest, and perhaps an indicator of future sinfulness.

These gorgeous garments (a striped belt, a white apron, a silk smock with black embroidery) do not end here. There are “tapes and ribbons” on her “milky mutch” (cap, Chaucer 90) to match this ensemble. Her white headdress was possibly required, as noted above, for colors of headdresses other than white were considered to be the height of vanity and sexual display. But Alison doesn’t stop at a white cap – she gilds the lily with tapes and ribbons, as a young woman might choose to do. It’s interesting that Chaucer would include this detail. Whether it was sheer whimsy, however, or another indicator of Alison’s wantonness is difficult to say.

The next color term applied to Alison is in regard to her eyebrows. “And she had plucked her eyebrows into bows,/Slenderly arched they were, and black as sloes.” (Chaucer 90) A sloe, of course, is a small dark fruit used for flavoring alcohol, and hardly one of the classical comparisons for female beauty. Chaucer injects a bit of humor and satire here, for lower-class beauty of Alison would not be classified and catalogued in the same way as the upper-class beauty listed, say, in The Book of the Duchess. “…[The description of Alison] is, indeed, partly a rhetorical joke, the point of which is the absurdity of describing a carpenter’s wife, a wanton village wench, as if she were a heroine, a noble and ideal beauty. There is probably also some element of social satire here. Chaucer is writing for a courtly audience. He is a snob,” (Brewer 42)

The black eyebrows on a blonde (we are assuming that she is blonde, as it is not stated, though it seems likely. We know only that her “complexion had a brighter tint/Than a new florin from the Royal Mint,” [Ibid] Also, “Her hue is bright gold as any lady of romance, but it is compared to a new-minted ‘noble’, a gold coin worth 6s. 8d. {What is Alison’s price?}” Brewer 42) were not considered strange. In fact, it was considered the ideal. “In the Middle Ages, blondes were supposed to have brown eyes and black — or at the very least dark brown – eyebrows. This combination, so strange to us nowadays, paved the way for hair-dyeing methods that enabled all those dark-eyed brunettes to achieve the ideal with relative ease.” (Pleij 50) The reference to the florin of the Royal Mint could be a suggestion that Alison dyed her naturally dark hair to a blonder color. This was not an uncommon practice. Possibly, her hair color was “bought” by gold. The other possibility of that reference, too, certainly, is that her love or virtue were cheap and easily bought by gold or other favors.

Incidentally, the prejudice against blue eyes (considering the generally good associations attached to that color) even in the case of natural blondes has a number of possible origins. The one that seems to have the most age and credence was the prejudice in antiquity against invaders from the North, who were naturally more blue-eyed than the majority of Mediterranean peoples. (Ibid) Though we do not know the color of Alison’s eyes, it seems likely her eyes were dark as her eyebrows were, and Alison was possibly held up as an example of the medieval ideal of beauty (albeit a lower-class and humorous one.)

The next possible color term is “latoun” (Benson 69), or the brass-like alloy on her leather purse, which was “tasseled with silk and silver droplets” (Chaucer 90). These metallic colors adorning the purse attached to her striped girdle add another element to her already gaudy ensemble, and were probably expensive. White-silver, although this color was more connected to heraldry (argent) than the metallic colors described by Chaucer, are confusingly associated with a child’s early life (up to age twelve) when children were considered the most innocent and angelic. (Pleij 15) It seems unlikely that this association would apply to the eighteen-year-old sexually mature and wanton Alison, so it seems much more plausible that Chaucer, here, with the mention within six lines of three metallic colors (brass, silver, and gold) with the addition of “pearled” to simply be a catalogue of the richness with which this young lady is dressed.

The next flurry of color terms comes when Alison goes to church, and sees the lovelorn Absalon. Significantly, Alison “…enticed/The colour to her face to make her mark:” (Chaucer 92). Either Alison was pinching her face to make her cheeks red and make her more attractive (red faces were often given to fools in Terence’s comedies, Pleij 50, and “blushing red faces… were thought to be indicative of lunacy, aggression, slyness, and betrayal. 82) In that one tiny detail the whole of the story is revealed. Alison is indeed aggressive sexually, sly in the extreme, and quite willing to betray not only sexually but socially her elderly husband. It is clear that blushing cheeks, while attractive, were not something to be found on a trustworthy woman.

Moving on to the description of the parish clerk Absalon, another riot of color attributes are given to him:

His hair was all in golden curls and shone:

Just like a fan it strutted outwards, starting

To left and right from an accomplished parting

Ruddy his face, his eyes as grey as goose,

His shoes cut out in tracery, as in use

In old St. Paul’s. The hose upon his feed

Showed scarlet through, and all his clothes were neat

And proper. In a jacket of light blue,

Flounced at the waist and tagged with laces too.

He went, and wore a surplice just as gay

And white as any blossom on the spray.

Six color terms are applied to him: golden, ruddy, grey, scarlet, light blue, and white, (in Middle English: gold, reed, greye, rede, light waget, and whit, Benson 69-70) in only eleven lines. It would be difficult to draw a single or even two conclusions from this array of shades, assuming that the colors are meant to have any symbolic meaning other than description. “There is no such thing as an unequivocal system of medieval color symbolism, unless the term is used to refer to medieval man’s desperate and contradictory attempts to cast colors in the role of meaningful signs planted on the narrow path to eternal salvation.” There is no one defining idea that could include the symbolism of gold, red, scarlet, light blue, grey, and white. This array of Absalon’s color attributes seems to have less meaning, directly, than either the description of the Miller in the Prologue, or of Alison at the beginning of the tale.

The clerk’s golden curls would have been proverbial for a wanton youthful lover, and might have looked incongruous in his drab role of clerk. Being ruddy of face has been described as amorous, foolish, and deceitful, which indeed Absalon is. The fact that his eyes are “grey as a goose” rather than a gander was perhaps a reference to his effeminacy. Since grey eyes were considered the height of female beauty (such as in the Prioress,) perhaps grey eyes were considered too girlish in a man’s face. It is a rather washed-out color, perhaps meaning that Absalon lacked vitality or virility. (He is later on described as “squeamish” and seems to be a bit of a dandy.) This is supported by the description of the young man’s fancy shoes, which were the latest fashion. His scarlet hose could simply be the example of the dandy Absalon trying to wear the latest and most bold fashions, or could be a mocking of his office. Since scarlet was one of the colors of the curtains in the tabernacle of the Temple in Exodus, (Pleij 15) and was often used for priestly vestments (such as at Pentecost) the mockery of a sacred color worn by a young clerk setting out specifically to commit adultery would probably not be lost on Chaucer’s readers.

Modern fashion does not include a taste for the combination of red or scarlet with light blue (the light blue of Absalon’s jacket.) To our eyes this would seem to be a garishly mismatched set of garments, perhaps even clown-like. This is definitely how Absalon is portrayed, for he is the victim of the jokes of Alison and Nicholas in this Tale (though Nicholas gets some comeuppance from him in the end, too). Medieval fashion allowed the combination of light blue and scarlet, however, so this may be an entirely modern reading. Suffice it to say, however, that Absalon, like many a young lover who fancies himself successful with women, took great pains with his appearance and clothing. His white surplice would have fit well in church, and was perhaps his one concession to the solemnity of his position.

The next color term occurs when Nicholas is roused from his “sleep” or trance by the superstitious and alarmed carpenter. “Drive away night-hags, white Pater-noster” the carpenter says as part of the prayer he says over Nicholas when he tries to wake him. A Pater-noster was the “Our Father” prayer in Latin, and the white Pater-noster was a kind of sing-song warding-off charm disguised as a prayer. There are several variations, including the “Now I lay me down to sleep” poem said by children. This poem, a “sort of magic-working parody of an older Latin prayer.” (Carrington 132) This would have only served to make the Carpenter look foolish, for he is trying to ward off evil spirits from the pretending Nicholas, who is using this ploy as part of his plan to dupe the Carpenter. This sort of magical superstition was made fun of in the lower classes, and Chaucer is not immune to it.

Later, when Nicholas is instructing John the carpenter on how to rig up the kneading tubs for the coming inundation, he compares their escape by flotation as “merrily, I undertake, as any lily-white duck behind her drake.” (Chaucer 99) This is a direct allusion to Nicholas’s and Alison’s treachery, because the two of them are anything but “lily-white”. Also, the picture of a duck “behind her drake” is a pointer to what Alison, the duck, is doing behind her husband’s (the drake’s) back with Nicholas.

When Absalon makes his fatal kissing error at the window, Chaucer is careful to point out that the night is “black as coal.” (Chaucer 103) This is, of course, a necessary plot device to make sure that Absalon mistakes Alison’s bottom for her face due to lack of light. (The Middle English contains not one but two references to earthy black substances, pitch and coal: “Derk was the night as pich, or as the cole/” Benson 75) However, it should be noted, that, while also fitting the meter, the comparisons that Chaucer drew were to two grimy earth-substances (not, for example, “black as obsidian” or “black as a beetle.”) This is an earthy, lower-class story, and Chaucer takes care to choose his similes accordingly.

Finally, when Absalon returns to take his revenge on Nicholas and Alison, he significantly offers Alison a “golden ring” (Chaucer 104). This is a continuation of the theme of Alison as being a woman of easy virtue, bordering, perhaps, on prostitution. Absalon, in his contempt, makes it clear that her virtue (whether she is being faithless to her husband, or faithless to Absalon) can be bought by such a trinket, hearkening back to the description of her metallic finery at the beginning of the tale. In fact, instead of a golden ring, Nicholas, attempting to “improve upon the jape” (Ibid) receives a painful burn from a hot coulter, and the parallel between gold/red and flame is continued.

Color symbolism can mean many things, and not all of these interpretations, of course, were either intended by Chaucer or perceived or discovered by his readers. The fact that Chaucer uses so many rich and varied color terms, and finds them so important in descriptions of human beings, however, indicates that they must have had some significance. For example, instead of just telling us that the Miller was a cheat, disliked by the villagers, and of a lecherous nature, Chaucer layers on poetic allusions to his attributes through color terms, all of which were subject to interpretation. It could be viewed that Chaucer did less direct judgment on his creations, and rather left the suggestions of value judgments, partially revealed or incited by color terminology, up to his readers. It is an extremely rich field of study, and this one poem of 667 lines contains many color terms and myriad possible interpretations. There may be many more color terminology connotations which are not yet understood by literary historians, and there may have been further subtleties, ironies, and jokes provided by Chaucer’s rich color-filled descriptions of his characters and their attributes.

Works Cited

Benson, Larry D., Gen. Ed. The Riverside Chaucer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.

Brewer, Derek. Tradition and Innovation in Chaucer. London: Macmillan Press, 1982.

Carrington, Evelyn. “A Note on the White Paternoster.” The Folk-lore Record. Vol. 2, 1879, pp 127-134.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Neville Coghill. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Davis, Norman, et al. A Chaucer Glossary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1979. (Consulted only, not directly quoted)

Heather, P. J. “Color Symbolism.” Parts II-IV. Folklore. Vol. 60, Nos. 1-3. March – September, 1949.

Howard, Donald R. Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987.

Kerker, Milton. Charles Dickens, Fagin, and Riah. Best of Jewish Theological Seminary Magazine, 2003. 29 June, 2007.

Langdon, John. Mills in the Medieval Economy: England 1300-1540. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Pleij, Herman. Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Sherbo, Arthur. English Poetic Diction from Chaucer to Wordsworth. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1975.

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Forbidden Love: A Comparison of “The Merchants Prologue and Tale” and “The Duchess of Malfi”

March 27, 2019 by Essay Writer

Despite the varying contexts with which they wrote their work, as well as the vastly different tone and content, both Chaucer in ‘The Merchants Tale’ and Webster through ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ explore the theme of forbidden love- or forbidden lust- and its attractions and implications. Whilst Chaucer’s humorous fabliau of adultery and grotesque miss-matches certainly contrasts with the twisted tale of status and gender imbalance in Webster’s tragedy, both writers appear to indicate in their respective texts the contradicting forces of the negative consequences of forbidden relationships, as well as their intense magnetism.

Chaucer, through the relationship between May and Damyan, explores the concept that a romance’s main attraction could be its forbidden nature. Damyan’s ‘love’ for May is most often described in the pain he experiences by not being with her, such as his ‘langwissheth for love’ and the attraction. Whilst May’s character seems to be predominantly motivated by lust- at the first opportunity she gets her and Damyan “had dressed/ in swich manere it may nat been expressed”, implying that their romance is driven by sexual impulse rather than romantic love. Chaucer’s poetry being a fabliaux, the characters are not fully realized and serve rather stock characters to serve the story, and by the point of Damyan’s love letter to May she had not been given any dialogue. This further implies that their attraction for each other does not extend beyond lust. Furthermore, the concept of May’s sole interest in Damyan being his status as forbidden and unattainable is stressed by their sexual engagement in the tree- Eve’s had the choice of all the fruit in the garden of Eden but sought out the fruit of the tree of knowledge because of its forbidden nature.

Similarly, in the Duchess of Malfi the Duchess’ love for Antonio originally appears to have been inspired by the containment of her sexual feelings by her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand. The juxtaposition of the scene in which her brother’s declare her “lusty widow” and implore that she let “not youth, high promotion, eloquence…sway your high blood”, immediately followed by her claim that she will “wink and choose a husband” seem to imply that her initial attraction to Antonio emerges not because of his personal merits or qualities, but rather her magnetism to the forbidden. Her choice of Antonio for a partner only solidifies this argument. Marrying any man would anger her brother Ferdinand, who rallies against the idea of the Duchess remarrying despite the ideas of the time- a widow, who had far more power and authority than an unmarried woman, was encouraged to get married as soon as possibly as she was seen as a threat to the patriarchal order. However, her marriage to a man far below her status presents a more conventional forbidden romance than just her brothers telling her not to. Social mobility was a much-feared concept, and the Duchess’ disregard for social norms, represented by her telling Antonio to “raise yourself/… (her) hand to help you”, could signify a specific attraction that she cites in Antonio- his forbidden nature as someone below her in status.

That said, Webster portrays the Duchess’ love for Antonio as a far less amoral romance than that of May and Damyan’s in the Merchants tale. Despite the Duchess’ arguably stronger moral compass than the Cardinal and her sounder mental state than Ferdinand, she naturally stands as inferior to her brothers because of the patriarchal ideals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Her decision to marry Antonio is forbidden only because the will of the Duchess is suppressed by her brothers, and her marriage to Antonio in part seems to justify their romance as holy and moral, the Duchess asking “what can the Church force more?”. The presence of Cariola makes the marriage between the Duchess and Antonio legally and morally bound in the religious context of Webster’s time, and the Duchess’ defiance of what her brothers deem forbidden, rather than what the Church does, arguably puts the Duchess on the moral high ground and makes her seem a more sympathetic character.

This is a direct contrast to the forbidden nature of the romance between May and Damyan, in which the two directly violate the sanctity of the marriage bond by committing infidelity. Rather than exploring Damyan’s moral turmoil over pursuing a married woman, or engaging sympathy for May through her marriage to the old and lusty January, Chaucer presents both of the two as morally weak. This is highlighted by May and Damyan’s copulation taking place in “a tree… charged was with fruit”, a play on the image of the original sin beginning at the tree of knowledge, in the garden of Eden. Chaucer’s comparison of May to Eve in this way is fairly unforgiving, and her increasing calculation, motioning Damyan to climb the tree as she says to January that “(she) is no wenche” contributes to the idea that her pursuit of the forbidden Damyan is immoral and calculated.

Although both the Duchess and May’s pursuit of forbidden tastes results, initially, in satisfaction (emotionally or sexually), in some ways both Chaucer and Webster present manifestation of forbidden tastes as disturbing, rather than ‘sweet’. Ferdinand’s obsession with his sister’s sexual actions is increasingly disconcerting throughout the play, and the audience’s view of his character is heavily influenced by his craving of the forbidden. Whilst the Cardinal certainly shows distaste at the idea of the Duchess having sex (to his knowledge) outside marriage in Act II scene 5, he remains relatively impersonal and merely shows aversion to the idea of the Duchess ‘sleeping beneath her’, expressing contemptuously “shall our blood… be thus attained?”. In contrast, Ferdinand shows extreme, unfiltered rage at the idea, fuming “I (will) hew her to pieces”, and his anger at the man who impregnated his sister implies a jealousy that is very disturbing in a brother. His references to the Duchess’ “milk” and “blood” show an unsavory obsession with her body and his generally unpleasant behavior could be Webster’s way of conveying to the audience that that which is forbidden and immoral should not be ventured into.

Similarly, Chaucer presents January’s legal, but arguably transgressive, marriage to May as unsavory and grotesque. Although January’s marriage to May is not unethical in a religious sense- he ironically goes the extra mile to make sure that he is married before having sex with May so that he may have “leveful procreacioun”- and the context of the time rendered it not an uncommon situation for a far older man to marry a young woman, Chaucer nevertheless creates the image of January’s relationship with May as repulsive, if not humorous for the audience. Chaucer’s description of January as having a beard “lyk to the skin of a houndfish”, and “the slake skin aboute his nekke shaketh” is repellent, and juxtaposing his eagerness to have sex with May sitting “as stille as stoon” almost creates the idea that January had violated her, and that age gap between them makes his lust for her morally, if not religiously and legally, forbidden and illicit.

Furthermore, Webster and Chaucer further explore the idea that the exploration of the forbidden is destructive and only ends in failure by the consequences of those who sought it. Ferdinand’s mental health is visible throughout the play, with his threatening his sister with his “father’s poniard” after little aggravation, but his instability becomes unignorable once he learns that his sister was pregnant, his ravings leading the Cardinal to ask “Are you stark mad?”. The audience’s disgust for Ferdinand peaks at the death of the Duchess, a demand of Ferdinand that was influenced by the merging of hate, religious expectation and his sexually repressed feelings toward her, and the harm that the forbidden sexual feelings he had towards her are amplified in his almost immediate regret, stating “cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young”. Once the jealously and lust he once likely felt towards her is largely dispelled through her death, his judgement appears less clouded, and through this Webster implicitly challenges the notion that forbidden tastes are ‘the sweetest’; rather suggesting that they are the most deceptive and destructive, and perhaps outlining the consequences for not following the contemporary moral guidelines.

Chaucer’s portrayal of the pursuit of the forbidden is similar to Webster’s when it comes to the culmination of the relationship between May and January, in that January’s amoral indulgence in ‘forbidden tastes’ only ends in his own failure and cuckoldry. Whilst The Merchant’s Tale’s ending of deceit and a potential pregnancy is told lightly by the Merchant- in comparison to Webster’s response of killing both Ferdinand and the Duchess- the conclusion of the story would no doubt be disturbing to both the Merchant’s and Chaucer’s male audience. In the context of the late 14th century, and continuing for many centuries after, being a cuckold was one of the greatest shames a man could bare in society- it implied that he could not control his wife, a member of the fairer sex, and that he was not satisfactory at sexually satisfying her. Although January’s blindness (both physically and mentally) to May’s infidelity make him seem foolish and it wouldn’t be difficult for men of the time to distance themselves from him, his “palays hoom he hith (May) lad” implies that many men may think they are in charge, and are ‘leading the woman’ so to speak, when in fact that may be just what the women wants them to believe. May’s main motivation for her infidelity seems to be that she “preyseth nat his pleying worth a bene”, something which we can only assume is due at least partly to his old age. In presenting January’s cuckoldry as penance for his seeking of the ‘morally forbidden’ May, Chaucer is effectively presenting the pursuit of forbidden tastes as not worth the harm they cause, in the same way as Webster presents Ferdinand’s lust of his sister as his undoing.

In conclusion, both Webster and Chaucer present the manifestation of multiple forbidden or immoral relationships, but the difference between the former and the latter’s take on them is significant. Almost all the romantic relationships explored in the Duchess of Malfi are in some way taboo or controversial, and they almost all end up in tragedy. Although by both a 17th century and a modern audience the Duchess may be looked at as reckless and “ambitious”, her willingness to challenge the men who have constrained her is admirable and most would agree she died a moral woman. In contrast, the character of May, also challenging society’s expectation of a chaste women (although arguably in not as commendably a way) is looked at with scorn by the audience, may not get to heaven and she will live her life in immorality, but she will likely relish in it- she has January’s money and will get sexual satisfaction from Damyan. From this we can conclude that perhaps forbidden fruits are the sweetest, but that if one is to indulge in them, they must be prepared to deal with the possibly sour aftertaste.

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Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ as a Revival of Marie de France’s ‘Lanval’

March 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

If one was asked to name the epitome of medieval English literature, it is very likely that the answer would be Geoffrey Chaucer. Indeed, this world-wide known poet has played a major role in the development of the English language thanks to his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales, among many others. However, a genius seldom comes up with his or her greater ideas all alone and it is effectively common that famous authors draw their literary works on other writers’ creations. Regarding Chaucer, it has been proven that he did so on Boccaccio or Boethius for instance, but the work that will interest us here is the lai of “Lanval” which was written by Marie de France at the end of the twelfth century. A non-negligible number of similarities can be noticed between this story and Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” which can lead one to wonder if Chaucer’s purpose was to give a second wind to Marie de France’s lai. The Oxford Dictionary defines a revival as a “new production of an old play or similar work” and it seems to preliminarily correspond to what “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is in relation to “Lanval”. Knowing that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales two centuries after the publication of Marie de France’s lais, “Lanval” can thereupon be considered as “old” enough to fit in with this definition. The aspect of “new production” is however more difficult to deal with. Therefore, I would like to suggest that “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” can effectively be designated as a revival or a new production of “Lanval” because both stories globally resemble in their content and more importantly, because they have the same main purpose, which is to empower women. Thus, following a brief introduction that will highlight the general similarities of the two works, this assumption will be proven in the second and main part of this essay by showing that both authors aim at giving power to women.

Before considering “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” as a revival of “Lanval” thanks to their same goal of empowering the female characters, it is necessary to emphasise the fact that the two stories are already practically identical in their content. First of all, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, as well as “Lanval”, take place in a fairy universe. Then, they present similar types of characters. Indeed, the protagonists of both tales are a knight and a fairy creature with magical powers. The reader also encounters in each of them King Arthur and his wife, the queen. The guideline of the plots also highly resembles. Chaucer and Marie de France’s works effectively both tell the story of a knight who is set in a trial and who escapes from a certain death thanks to a fairy woman. Regarding their genre, Esther C. Quinn asserts that “Both are set in the days of King Arthur, draw on fairy love and are testing romances. In Marie’s lai the Fairy Mistress tests Lanval . . . and in Chaucer’s romance the nameless hero is tested by a series of nameless women” (Quinn 211). It is true that the two stories have some features that make one think that they belong to a romantic genre, but the simple fact that it is not the knight who rescues the damsel but the opposite, makes one categorize them in a same unusual category that could be called the “unconventional Arthurian Romance”. It is also interesting to note that both are not detached works but are part of a collection. Indeed, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” belongs to The Canterbury Tales and “Lanval” is part of The lais of Marie de France. Focusing on the narrative style, it is true that they both include an intrusive narrator who cannot help but make observations all along the tale. In “Lanval” for example, the narrator introduces the tale with the following opening: “I shall relate to you the story of another lay” (Marie de France 73). Other comments can be noticed, such as “This knight whose tale I am telling you” (73), “I will not fail to tell you the truth” (74), “the value of which I cannot tell” (74) or “nor can I relate any more” (81). Similarly, Alisoun, the narrator of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, also intervenes while telling her tale, such as when she says “This was the olde opinion, as I rede;/ I speke of manye hundred yeres ago” (Chaucer III: 862-63), “But that tale is nat worth a rake-stele./ Pardee, we wommen konne no thyng hele;/ Witnesse on Myda — wol ye heere the tale?” (III: 949-51), or “The remenant of the tale if ye wol heere,/ Redeth Ovyde, and ther ye may it leere” (III: 981-82). Therefore, it can be assumed that both works are analogous in their founding principles, which tend to make one already think that “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” could possibly be considered as a new production of “Lanval”.

More than just similar in their content and structure, these two works seem to reach an identical goal: to empower women. Either it is in “Lanval” or “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, the female protagonists are praised for their beauty and are able to draw power over men from it. In Marie de France’s lai, the description of the main female character, the maiden, already spotlights her physical attractiveness, when it says that she “surpassed in beauty the lily and the new rose when it appears in summer”, “Her body was well formed and handsome” and that “she was whiter than the hawthorn blossom” (Marie de France 74). Later in the tale, her charm is confirmed by the narrator’s description of her arrival in King Arthur’s Court: “There was no one in the town, humble or powerful, old or young, who did not watch her arrival, and no one jested about her beauty. She approached slowly and the judges who saw her thought it was a great wonder. No one who had looked at her could have failed to be inspired with real joy” (80). If the narrator praises so much the outstanding looks of the fairy woman in “Lanval”, it is because her beauty contributes to her empowerment over men. In this sense, Emma Caitlin Briscoe explains that:

[The maiden’s] attractive appearance alone, is enough to wield power over male characters. Her physical attributes act as sources of power; the varying levels of eroticism, sexualized details and descriptions, used to illustrate these women in Marie de France’s Lai de Lanval can be read as subtle, and occasionally overt, power plays meant to reconstruct the position of women within power binaries. (Briscoe 12-13)

It is true that the beauty of the heroine of “Lanval” is a source of power that she uses against men. For instance, she takes advantage from it to catch the court’s attention when she approaches the king during the trial and “in the sight of all, [lets] her cloak fall so that they [can] see her better” (Marie de France 81). The effect of such demonstration is that the king “rose to meet her, and all the others honoured her and offered themselves as her servants” (81). Contrary to the maiden, the female protagonist of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” possesses an attractiveness that is less obvious, as she is often referred to as an old and ugly figure. She nevertheless also draws power from it after her transformation at the end of the tale, when Chaucer writes that “And whan the knyght saugh verraily al this,/ That she so fair was, and so yong therto,/ For joye he hente hire in his armes two./ His herte bathed in a bath of blisse./ A thousand tyme a-rewe he gan hire kisse” (Chaucer III: 1250-54). In this passage, once the knight sees the new physical appearance of the old lady, he takes the woman in his arms and kisses her, all along with his heart racing. Considering his previous denigrating attitude towards the old lady, his acts can be interpreted as a way for him to give himself away to her and this shows that the heroine of the tale is also able to draw empowerment from her beauty.

Beyond their physical appearances, the female protagonists of “Lanval” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” get power from their acts and speeches as well. Indeed, as Quinn explains, “In the context of this male-oriented literature, which celebrates knightly helpfulness, Chaucer, like Marie, reverses the tradition of the rescue of damsels” (Quinn 216). In both tales, the only one who can save the knight from a certain death is the maiden and the old lady respectively. Thus, the life of the two knights depends entirely on the female protagonists of each story which, of course, give them a non-negligible power. In “Lanval”, the maiden highlights her role of rescuer when she asks the king “As regards the boast he made, if he can be acquitted by me, let your barons release him!” (Marie de France 81). In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, the old lady’s supremacy is even more blatant because, as Quinn explains it, the reader faces “the final irony of the tale, that the knight is humbled, domesticated, perhaps redeemed, not by a courtly lady, but by a seemingly poor, old woman who is his wife” (Quinn 216). Female empowerment can also be noticed elsewhere in the tales. For instance, in “Lanval”, the maiden imposes the confidentiality of her relationship with Lanval through the following words: “I admonish, order, and beg you not to reveal this secret to anyone! I shall tell you the long and short of it: you would lose me forever if this love were to become known. You would never be able to see me or possess me” (Marie de France 75). Through this order, the maiden is the one who sets the rules of their relationship and is therefore in a position of superiority in relation to the knight. Furthermore, the narrator reinforces the maiden’s power by dragging some evidences throughout the story, such as when it says that the fairy girl “commanded” (75) or that Lanval “had [her] allowed him” (75). In the “Wife of Bath”, the old lady proceeds in a similar way. For example, after that the knight has been acquitted, she expresses herself in front of the Court and says:

“Mercy,” quod she, “my sovereyn lady queene! Er that youre court departe, do me right. I taughte this answere unto the knyght; For which he plighte me his trouthe there, The firste thyng that I wolde hym requere He wolde it do, if it lay in his myghte. Bifore the court thanne preye I thee, sir knyght,” Quod she, “that thou me take unto thy wyf, For wel thou woost that I have kept thy lyf”. (Chaucer III: 1048-56)

In this passage, Erin Dee Moore explains that “The old wyf . . . manipulate the knight – she will not allow a prospective marriage opportunity to pass her by . . . she uses tactics to her advantage in interrupting the knight’s trial. She waits until the knight is acquitted before she announces her claim on him” (Moore 27). Indeed, if she had waited the end of the trial to make her demand, it is very likely that, in private, the knight would have turned it down. Thus, as Chaucer implies when he writes “But al for noght; the ende is this, that he/ Constreyned was; he nedes moste hire wedde,/ And taketh his olde wyf, and gooth to bedde.” (Chaucer III: 1070-72), the presence of another powerful woman, the queen, forces the knight to accept the old lady’s request. Another striking example of the old lady’s power can be noticed when she gives the knight an ultimatum and that the latter is forced to make the difficult choice between a beautiful but perhaps cheating wife or an old and ugly but faithful wife (III: 1213-27). Hence, all these illustrations demonstrate that, through their speeches and acts, the maiden and the old lady are both empowered in comparison with the knights.

Apart from the maiden and the old lady, the queens are also female characters that stand out in each tale thanks to the power they possess as women and not just because they own some imperial power. Indeed, in “Lanval”, after that the knight refused her sexual advances, the queen complains about him to her husband. The king reacts strongly to his wife’s accusations and orders that “if Lanval could not defend himself in court, he would have him burned or hanged” (77), which are severe punishments for having simply upset the queen. It is true that she is said to “[have manipulated] the situation, portraying herself as the victim of insult to her husband, and through him puts Lanval on trial and almost sees him punished” (“Wife of Bath/Lanval”). Her power over the king is noticeable several times through the story. For example, when “The king pressed them hard because the queen was waiting for them” (79) or later, when it says that “[the king] summoned all his barons so that they might deliver their verdict [because] the queen, who had been waiting for them such a long time, was getting angry” (80). Thus, it is not the authority of a queen that is highlighted in “Lanval”, but more the power of a woman over her husband. The queen in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is also an authoritative figure and she exercises her superiority over her husband as well. Although she only appears at the beginning and at the end of the tale, the queen possesses a non-negligible role thanks to the power she possesses. It can firstly be seen, when the king orders:

That dampned was this knyght for to be deed, By cours of lawe, and sholde han lost his heed — Paraventure swich was the statut tho — But that the queene and other ladyes mo So longe preyeden the kyng of grace Til he his lyf hym graunted in the place, And yaf hym to the queene, al at hir wille, To chese wheither she wolde hym save or spille. (Chaucer III: 891-98)

Moore’s explanation of this scene is that “By placing the knight on trial, the queen and her court want to assert their power over the knight. This a tactical maneuver to get a man to recognize female desire . . . The queen asks to try the knight, not because she wants to save his life, but because she wants him to vocalize feminine desire” (Moore 28). Extrapolating on this idea, it is true that not only does the queen steal the king’s authority in this passage, but she also forces the criminal to publicly acknowledge something in favour of all women. Therefore, it can be assumed that, either in “Lanval” or “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, the queens, as female figure, are also empowered in comparison to their husbands.

Finally, the criticism of chivalry that can be drawn from the two tales is another aspect that contributes to the empowerment of women. Several critics have actually claimed that what differentiates “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from “Lanval” were the authors’ and narrators’ views on chivalry. However, what I would like to argue here is that both tales maintain the same position regarding this subject. The only difference between the two is that Chaucer’s criticism is more obvious than Marie de France’s but that both tales, by belittling knights, contribute to enhance women’s power. Indeed, in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, Chaucer’s denunciation of the knighthood is unequivocal: “The chivalric code states that you are to treat females with respect. In Chaucer’s tale we see large amount of disrespect with regards to the Knight in question . . . he rapes a maiden, disrespects [the old lady] by telling her she is both old and ugly and not fit to be with him” (“‘Lanval’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’”: Commonalities and Differences Between the Numbered Lines”). Through these acts, it appears clearly to the reader that the knight of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” possesses a real aversion to women. What consequently empowers women here is that, at the end of the tale, even this misogynist knight lets the old lady decide the fate of the rest of his existence:

This knyght avyseth hym and sore siketh, But atte laste he seyde in this manere: “My lady and my love, and wyf so deere, I put me in youre wise governance; Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance And moost honour to yow and me also. I do no fors the wheither of the two, For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me.” (Chaucer III: 1228-35)

In Marie de France’s lai, Sharon Kinoshita underlines several “anti-feudal” aspects (Kinoshita 270). For instance, Kinoshita claims that “Where Lanval treated the feudal bond linking him to his lord the king as inviolable, Arthur . . . is less scrupulous, putting his vassal on trial for his alleged insults to the queen” (272). It is effectively surprising that the words of an exemplary and devoted knight such as Lanval become inaudible to the king’s ears against the false accusation of the queen. As demonstrated above when discussing the queen’s authority, the words of the latter are more convincing to King Arthur than the explanations of his most loyal knight. This can seem surprising knowing that chivalry is usually considered as a central pillar of the Middle Ages. The most striking example is probably the behaviour of Lanval, who is thought to be the archetypical knight thanks to his devotion to the king and his chivalrous attitude. Kinoshita effectively explains that:

“In the end, Lanval is striking precisely for its titular protagonist’s rejection of feudal and chivalric values alike. Taking literally all the clichés of courtly discourse – honouring his lady over his lord, choosing love over reputation – he abandons Arthur’s court, voluntarily choosing an oblivion that be unthinkable to an epic hero like Roland and a romance hero like Erec or Yvain” (272)

Thus, what gives power to women here is that even the ideal knight prefers to give up on his professional duty to flee with the female protagonist of the story. It can therefore be assumed that both Marie de France and Chaucer, through the criticism of chivalry, contribute to empower women.

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “Lanval” are shaped in a similar way, both telling the story of a knight sentenced to death but saved by a fairy woman. The two stories take place in a fairy universe and can be qualified of “unconventional Arthurian Romance”. Furthermore, some particularities, such as the narratorial intrusions, bring them even closer. However, what really makes the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” a new production of “Lanval” is the fact that both tale aim at empowering women. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that through the description of the female protagonist’s appearances, speeches and acts, the authority of the queens and the general criticism of chivalry, the purpose of these two tales is to give women power over men. Thus, in addition to the general similarities of the stories, the fact that they possess the same goal allows one to claim that Geoffrey Chaucer’s work can be considered as a revival of Marie de France’s lai.

Works Cited

Briscoe, Emma Caitlin. Female Agency, Eroticism, and Empowerment in Marie de France’s Lai de Lanval. 5 May 2015, Briscoe_EC_T_2015.pdf;sequence=1. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue. Edited by V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson, W.W. Norton, 2005. De France, Marie. The Lais of Marie de France. Translated by Glyn S. Burgess, Penguin, 2012. Kinoshita, Sharon. “Cherchez la femme : Feminist Criticism and Marie de France’s Lai de Lanval.’” Romance Notes, vol. 34, no. 3, 1994, pp. 263–273. JSTOR, JSTOR, “‘Lanval’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’”: Commonalities and Differences Between the Numbered Lines.” Shannon Lately, 25 Feb. 2014, /02/25/lanval-and-the-wife-of-bath-commonalities-and-differences-between-the- numbered-lines/. Moore, Erin Dee. Feminine Desire and Power in th Arthurian Tradition. 2007, Quinn, Esther C. “Chaucer’s Arthurian Romance.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 18, no. 3, 1984, pp. 211–220. JSTOR, JSTOR, “Revival. Definition of revival in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries, “Wife of Bath/Lanval.” MBA, MBA, 4 Dec. 2017,

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An exploration of the nature of decision-making in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

February 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer presents decision-making in a variety of ways, including through the relationship between fate, knowledge and freedom of action, ideas that are at the centre of medieval philosophy. Troilus claims to not believe in total free will, but rather a passive free will of succumbing to his own death wish, whilst both Troilus and Criseyde are seen to curse the gods throughout the poem for affecting their lives so badly, essentially replacing any sense of free will with fate and dooming them to be tragic lovers. Chaucer presents Troilus’ decision-making as particularly flawed in that it is relative to himself alone; Troilus attempts to prove how necessary it is to love Criseyde with very little logic, using instead a decision-making process that is encompassed entirely in his own imagination. Troilus states that love must exist as it is possible to imagine it, making him question his decision of love to the very core of his beliefs. In contrast, Criseyde values rational processes of thought and her own free will, making intelligent and informed decisions. This makes it far more intriguing when Chaucer explores Criseyde’s internal dialogue of thoughts than Troilus’. This is shown in the following quotation: ‘Allas! Syn I am free,/Sholde I now love, and put in jupartie/ My sikernesse, and thrallen libertee?/ Allas how dorst I thenken that folie?/ May I naught wel other folk aspie/ Hire dredfull joye, hir constreinte, and hire peyne?’[1] (Book II, 771-776) The particular interest for the reader in these internal dialogues lies in the knowledge that Criseyde’s conscious decision to love Troilus could potentially remove her freedom of thought; the ‘dredfull joye’ of other people is not dissimilar to her own feeling of apprehension when she first learns that Troilus has chosen to love her. However, it is important to note here that the initial introduction between Troilus and Criseyde was merely a meeting set up between two friends. With this in mind, it is plausible that the decision to love on Troilus’ part was perhaps a marginally calculating one, as befriending a person was sometimes used as a strategy to form unions amongst those in court and to better one’s own social standing. Troilus decides to view Criseyde first and foremost as a friend, secondly as a lover: ‘hire love of friendship have I to the wonne/ and also hath she leyd hire feyth to borwe’[2] (Book II, 962-963).

A totally different style of decision-making can be seen with Pandarus, whom Chaucer displays as competent yet still very human and accessible to the reader. Pandarus adopts the role of an unrequited lover, making him appear instantly less indecisive than a person unsure of their romantic intentions. However, Pandarus’ irrational level of reasoning should not be overlooked; this is used in order to coerce Troilus into telling Pandarus his most closely guarded secret: the fact that he loves Criseyde. This shows that Pandarus has a tendency to act in an illogical fashion. The sheer tenacity of this is shown in his decision to continue pushing Troilus until he receives an answer, resorting to physically shaking him for a response: ‘And with that word he gan hym for to shake,/And seyde, “Thef/thow shalt hyre name telle”/’[3] (Book 2, 36-38). Troilus is understandably frightened by these actions, prompting Pandarus to become yet more irrational in his choice of actions, choosing to seek the help of his niece to help Troilus, a less than logical decision. Whilst Pandarus is not in the least practical in his decision-making, he does have a tendency to oversimplify problems and not empathize fully with other characters, making him seem emotionally detached. In the process of decision-making itself, instead of coming to a rapid conclusion concerning his actions as Troilus might, he offers verbal summaries of situations, unfailingly lacking in a final solution. This is evident in his response to Troilus’ grief at losing Criseyde; he quotes ‘newe love out chaceth ofte the olde’[4] (Book 4, 414). This reading of Zanzis is highly ironic and once again shows the flaws in Pandarus’ decision-making, as it was this same effect that ‘newe love’ has on the old that leads Criseyde to tragedy in the first instance. Pandarus’ limitations become very visible to the reader here, in that he has no capability for positive or comforting response, only the ability to make decisions of retrospect, in the hope that Troilus may take from it a little short-lived happiness. It is also significant to note that whilst Pandarus’ ability to make informed decisions becomes gradually more limited, Chaucer chooses to display the opposing style in the narrative voice. The tone becomes detached and progressively more expansive from this point onwards, eventually becoming a detached voice able to comment objectively from the point of view of an outsider.

The final decision-making technique to be explored is on the part of Chaucer himself, and his conditioning of our responses to relationships in ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ throughout the text, often in order to achieve a comedic effect. An example of this is the structure of Book V. This is the point at which Chaucer chooses to give the reader significantly superior knowledge to Pandarus, undermining his authority in a comical fashion and distancing the narrator from him. When Troilus interpretation of his dream as symbolizing Criseyde’s unfaithfulness to him is dismissed by Pandarus, Chaucer subtly manipulates the reader to know that the dream was actually prescient. This further enhances the distance between the omniscient narrator and Pandarus, who is desperately in need of control and freedom of thought whilst those are the two things he ultimately lacks. Chaucer’s careful decision to shape the text in this way allows certain ironies to take place, but is inconsistent with the narrative voice that changes between ideas so rapidly, reflecting both the illogical decision-making technique of his main characters and Troilus’ never-ending introspective nature.

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Chaucer’s Visions: When the God of Love Reveals the Love of God

February 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Love Visions, Chaucer uses the medieval tradition of dream exposition to comment on the societal draw toward the love idealized in a subset of medieval literature. Throughout the first three poems, Chaucer deftly parodies societal norms: his exaggerated descriptions and overly dramatic characters provide subtle hints to the ultimate goal of the poems. The last poem, The Legend of Good Women, takes Chaucer’s admonition of the superficial love presented in many books of his time even further. In this final poem, Chaucer not only rejects that the love praised in legends is truly love, but asserts that the only true love comes from God. Through his meticulously crafted love vision, Chaucer asks readers to turn from their worldly perceptions of love and look to God for authentic, satisfying, and perfect love.

The Legend of Good Women begins much like Chaucer’s other poems in Love Visions: a lovesick Chaucer falls asleep and has a dream. When he awakens in the dream world, the God of Love and Alcestis, his queen, approach him. The God of Love is furious with Chaucer because he “[lied] about [the God of Love’s] devotees/Misrepresenting them in [his] translation” (lines 249-250). The God of Love feels cheated out of his followers and goes as far as to call Chaucer’s work in the earlier poems “heresy” (256). This backdrop provides the foundation for Chaucer’s commentary on this false love.

Beginning with his initial encounter with the God of Love, Chaucer the poet establishes a distinct parallel between the God of Love in the vision and God the Father in reality. He utilizes religious terms when discussing the God of Love, who describes his followers as having a “love of purity and righteousness” (297). Alcestis even refers to the ballads Chaucer has written as “hymns to [the God of Love] for holy days” (410). The language used in the conversation between the God of Love, Alcestis, and Chaucer closely resembles the language used in accounts of the Christian God and his relationship with his followers.

Furthermore, the entire situation is reminiscent of the traditional Christian belief about the Judgement Day. Chaucer is set before the God of Love and must listen as his sinful actions performed on earth are recounted before a host of witnesses (230-231). This allusion is meant to be ironic, however. The God of Love, in this poem, is the dream-world equivalent to God the Father, while Alcestis takes on the role of Jesus Christ. Beyond the environment and rhetoric of the god and his queen, though, the nature of the God of Love and Alcestis are imperfect attempts to achieve the standard of deity set by the Christian God.

The God of Love seems to lack all of the qualities that God the Father embodies: omniscience, justice, and patience are notably absent from the God of Love’s character. He is known for his blindness in judgement, and is quick to anger when he meets Chaucer (169). The disparity between the God of Love and God the Father widens further when Alcestis chastises the God of Love for dealing so harshly with Chaucer. Alcestis reminds the God of Love that he “hears many a tale that’s feigned,” and tells him to consider that “perhaps this man has been wrongly accused” (327, 338). This reveals some of the God of Love’s unsettling characteristics. Chiefly, Alcestis’ statement shows that the God of Love cannot discriminate between truth and lie. If he has been fooled by lies before, then it is not inconceivable that he has judged incorrectly in the past. Her admonition itself also implies that the God of Love is inept. An omniscient and perfect god should not need a reeducation in how he should act. In the same speech, Alcestis advises the God of Love to give Chaucer grace at the expense of his righteousness. She proposes that the God of Love “show some grace/Dismiss [his] rage and show a kindly face” (396-397). The God of Love then gives his duty of executing judgement to Alcestis (439-443). Within a few lines, the God of Love’s credibility is significantly diminished. The God of Love is neither just nor righteous in his decisions, and he shirks his own responsibility when the decision becomes difficult. In the initial pages of the poem, Chaucer shows that the God of Love is not to be trusted.

Although Alcestis intercedes on Chaucer’s behalf, she too falls short of the expectations set by the God of reality. The events involving Christ and Alcestis are comparable: out of love, Alcestis took her spouse’s place and “chose to die,” and she was ultimately elevated to a glorified position beside the God of Love (500-505). However, the comparison ends there. Alcestis gives the God of Love poor advice and offers grace that comes with a price. She warns Chaucer: “You’ve won your favor; closely hold thereto,” before explaining Chaucer’s penance for his sin (468). In her warning, Alcestis makes clear that the grace given to Chaucer is dependent on his ability to fulfill her request, not on her own nature or some superordinate power. Like the God of Love, Alcestis achieves less than what her title warrants of her.

Though he praises Alcestis for her virtues, the God of Love demands that Chaucer “write the legend of this perfect wife/First writing others of a lesser brand” (539-540). It is odd that in order to accomplish the God of Love’s goal of obtaining followers and showing the people on earth the nature of love, the God of Love does not want Chaucer to write about the exemplifier of this love, Alcestis, who he claims “taught what perfect love should always do” (534). Instead, he tells Chaucer to write about women who have imitated but not quite reached Alcestis’ maturity in love. Because of this, the God of Love effectively sets Chaucer on a mission with inadequate evidence of his version of love. It is no wonder, then, that Chaucer’s stories of the martyrs for love leave much to be desired.

The manner with which Chaucer recounts the stories of the martyrs is hollow and lacks resonance. Chaucer simply retells the stories of these women in a way that will satisfy the God of Love. He alters some of the stories to paint the women in a better light, although he claims that “this is no yarn or fable” (702). When discussing Dido and Aeneas, he fails to mention that Dido broke her vow to her late husband by entering into a relationship with Aeneas, and he glosses over the fact the Cupid tricked Dido into falling in love, saying: “be that as it may/I do not care what those old writings say” (1145-1146). The legends seem hurried in their conclusions, with Chaucer either telling the reader to refer to another text for the rest of the story or briefly cautioning against the falsity of men. These endings make Chaucer seem uninterested, as if he did not have a true change in heart after his encounter with the God of Love. Rather, it appears as if Chaucer is using these stories to further destroy the ethos of the God of Love.

In these legends, Chaucer writes representing the God of Love, yet he adds details that suggest the contrary. Within the stories, he makes comments about the Christian God that are odd and interprets biblical verses out of context. When speaking of Dido’s beauty, Chaucer claims: “should our God, creator of heaven and earth/Desire a love…whom should he choose but that sweet lady bright” (1039-1042)? Additionally, at the end of Lucrece’s tale, he says: “For I assure you, Christ himself well says…He never found great faith maintained so well/As in a woman: this is not a lie” (1879-1882). Chaucer manipulates Jesus’ statement about the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:28. While Jesus uses it to refer to trust in God, Chaucer uses the word faith to refer to devotion to love. He seems to be exploiting the reputation of the Christian God to endorse the God of Love’s ideology. The effect of this, however, is a rejection of the God of Love. The reader identifies the incongruity between what Chaucer declares and what is believed to be true about the Christian God. Because it is apparent that what Chaucer asserts about the Christian God is in fact false, these additions lead the reader to conclude that the glorification of the love martyrs described in the legends is also wrong.

The constant mention of the Christian God within the legends also acts as a reminder of the inferiority of the God of Love. With the Christian God in the forefront of the reader’s mind, everything claimed about the God of Love and his version of love is viewed through a Christian lens. Because of this, Chaucer allows the reader to see this dream-world love for what it is: an all-consuming idol with the inability to satisfy man’s needs. Love “burn[s] with passion violent” and is “so vehement” that the lovers are brought to “a piteous end” (731, 599, 904). Although both the Christian martyrs and the martyrs for love die at the end of their tales, there is a sense of unrest that remains at the conclusion of the lovers’ legends. There is no peace at the end of the stories: this love overcomes and overwhelms the women, who place all of their hope in it. Love then proves to be fickle, and their hope is destroyed when their lovers are unfaithful, leaving the women empty and hopeless. Though the tales that are meant to praise these women devoted to the idol of love, Chaucer actually highlights the true, unfailing love of the Christian God.

Unlike the love that the God of Love represents, the love of the Christian God enables faith and hope, sustaining man through the trials of life. This love, as it is described in 1 Corinthians 13, directly contrasts the idolatrous love. While the God of Love sent legends of women with imperfect love to draw the world back to him, God revealed himself to his creatures through Jesus Christ, the exemplification of perfect love. As an act of true love, God maintained his righteousness while providing mankind with a way to be reconciled to him through a grace freely given, while the God of Love forfeited his righteous sense of justice in order to provide Chaucer with a grace that could be lost based on his subsequent actions. In all of these ways, Chaucer demonstrates the extent and depth of God’s love.

When he first speaks with the God of Love, Chaucer tries to explain himself, saying: “It was my wish completely, as God knows/To further faith in love and cherish it/And warn against betrayal and deceit” (461-463). This statement, though located at the beginning of the poem, summarizes Chaucer’s intent for The Legend of Good Women: he desires for this poem to be a testimony of God’s love, so that the people who read it understand more deeply the love of God and are strengthen against the allure of the idols of this world. Through his thorough consideration of the subject matter, Chaucer is able to subtly express the nature of love and reveal the faults of replacing God with an idolatrous love. At first glance, Love Visions, particularly The Legend of Good Women, appears to be a satirical look at the dramatic medieval love stories, but Chaucer uses this appeal to convey a matter of exceedingly greater importance.

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Presentation of Women in Chaucer’s Works

February 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

Women in the Middle Ages generally had little opportunity to provide influence either in life or in literature. Little is known of their lives and thoughts because little was written from their viewpoint. Yet in an age and a society dominated by the “male gaze,” certain of Chaucer’s works take a different track, exploring the concept of women as characters. His presentation of Dido in The House of Fame and Anelida in Anelida and Arcite deviates from the traditional complaint genre, shifting the perspective to that of a female protagonist. Chaucer uses the similar complaints of Dido and Anelida, women who have both been deserted by their false lovers, in an attempt to develop two of the first truly viable female characters in English literature.

Within both stories, Chaucer sets up the servile behavior of Dido and Anelida toward their lovers as a direct reversal of gender roles. Initially, the situation appears to conform to the typical ideal of male devotion and service to a noblewoman. Dido is the queen of Carthage, a women of high status in her own right. Her relationship with Aeneas ought to be viewed as a conference of honor upon him, as she is a queen and he, to the best of her knowledge, is merely a wandering seaman. However, the deviation from this traditional presentation swiftly appears. Although Dido’s status is higher, and Aeneas should show her the proper honor and devotion that her higher rank demands, it is she who calls him “hyr lyf, hir love, hir lust, hir lord” and shows him “reverence” (The House of Fame 258-59). Anelida, the Queen of Armenia, is also a woman of high rank in love with a man of lower status. As Dido is noted for the “reverence” with which she treats Aeneas, Anelida’s defining characteristic is declared to be her faithfulness or “stidfastnesse” toward her lover, Arcite (Anelida and Arcite 81). This “stidfastnesse” is so strong that she is described as surpassing both of the women who traditionally epitomize relational faithfulness: Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who contrives to trick all her would-be suitors to avoid being forced to marry one of them, and Lucrece, the wife of the Roman lord Collatinus, who stabs herself after being violated by his treacherous friend. In addition to being a supremely faithful lover, Anelida, like Dido, displays humility in her relationship with Arcite, behaving toward him in a manner that “lowly was and trewe” (AA 142). The subjection these regal women display toward their lovers is not only the first step in Chaucer’s process of unraveling the stereotype of the complaint genre but also gives credibility to their sincerity in the forthcoming complaints.

Had their relationships followed the traditional pattern of male rather than female devotion, the deep pain of abandonment expressed within the two complaints would have rung hollow. One of the sources of both women’s grief is that the natures of their lovers are revealed to be contrary to what they originally seemed. Dido and Anelida are deceived in their men, believing them (and justifiably so) to be equally enamored and committed to the relationships. The phrasing Chaucer uses when describing Dido’s perception of Aeneas – that she “hereby demed / That he was good, for he such semed” (HF 263-64) – gives the impression that their relationship is not as idyllic as it appears at first glance. Anelida, too, believes Arcite to be faithful, when he is in reality “fals Arcite” who proves “double in love” (AA 141, 87). When Anelida grieves the absence of Arcite, she applies the ubi sunt? motif, lamenting “Alas! Wher is become your gentilesse” (AA 246). Both men display the discrepancy between appearance and reality that Chaucer notes in The House of Fame: “hyt is not al gold that glareth” (272). Chaucer also challenges the conception of women as the more mutable sex, emphasizing both the fickle nature of the male lover and the constancy of the female. In the traditional complaint genre, it is the woman who is supposed to be fickle; indeed, the suffering lover’s only hope is that she will change her mind and show him pity. Yet in The House of Fame and Anelida and Arcite, it is the men who display their capriciousness. If Anelida’s defining word is “stidfastnesse,” Arcite’s is “newfanglenesse” (AA 141), signifying his inconstancy in love. He abandons Anelida when he finds “another lady, proud and newe” (AA 144). Aeneas likewise deserts Dido, not for another woman but to pursue his own fame and destiny as the founder of Rome, having displayed “such godlyhede / In speche, and never a del of trouthe” (HF 330-331). Once their lovers have left them, Dido and Anelida express their grief at being abandoned in two very similar complaints. These complaints adhere to the standard complaint genre in form, content, and language, bemoaning the cruelty of the lover and begging for pity to be shown the speaker.

There is, however, one major discrepancy: these are complaints composed and delivered by women rather than men. The very fact that both complaints are presented by women is extremely significant. Unlike the shallow, insipid women of medieval works such as The Romance of the Rose or Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, who are merely blazoned for their beauty and scarcely open their mouths, Dido and Anelida reveal their thoughts in moments of deep and heartfelt pain. As a character’s soliloquy functions in a drama, so the complaints of Anelida and Dido are used to reveal beyond doubt the true thoughts and feelings within their hearts. Dido is a well-known figure from Virgil’s Aeneid, yet her complaint in The House of Fame is uniquely Chaucerian. Though Chaucer takes much of his material from other sources and even goes so far as to summarize the Aeneid in its entirety, he is careful to point to his own authorship in the complain of Dido. He states in line 314 that “non other auctor alegge I”; he does not credit any other author with this portion of the work. Virgil’s focus was more on Aeneas’s great destiny, which necessitated his leaving; Dido’s presence and feelings are presented a mere hindrance to his journey. Chaucer is the first author to portray the other side: the heartbroken, abandoned woman who, unlike Aeneas, cannot simply get on a ship to escape her shame and her grief.

According to Virgil, Dido is a “token woman,” a figure, a convention; through Chaucer, she becomes a character, and not only a character; she is the protagonist of the story. Dido’s complaint expresses her fear of how the desertion of Aeneas will impact her life, both personally and as the ruler of her people. She is certain that her reputation has been ruined by her relationship with Aeneas and his subsequent abandonment of her. Her greatest concern is what “wikke Fame” will have to say about her, “that I ne shal be seyd, allas, / Yshamed be thourgh Eneas, / And that I shal thus juged be” (HF 349, 354-357). This fear of Fame’s judgment is one of the key factors in her decision to end her own life. Her grief at being abandoned, shock at being betrayed, and fear of what life with a ruined reputation holds for her prove too much for the wretched queen, and she stabs herself through the heart, eradicating her shame through her death.

Unlike Dido, who was already well-known by readers of the Aeneid, Anelida is Chaucer’s own invention. Yet he portrays her, too, as more than simply a persona from which to catalogue beauty. Though Chaucer briefly discusses Arcite’s unhappy fate with his “newe lady” (AA 183), the main topic of the poem is Anelida’s complaint. She, like Dido, laments the loss of her lover both in presence and in her esteem. Her pain lies mainly in the “poynt of remembraunce,” for, as long as she cannot eradiate him from her memory, she cannot find a way to escape her grief. Anelida compares this “point of remembraunce” to a “swerd of sorrowe” that has pierced her heart and left an incurable wound (270). Though Anelida speaks of Arcite’s “dedly adversyte” (AA 258) in leaving her, she does not follow Dido’s example; rather, she ultimately realizes that life continues despite the pain inflicted by false lovers. We last see her sacrificing in the temple of Mars “with a sorrowful chere” (AA 356), giving the impression that time may heal her grief. Chaucer’s unique portrayal of the complaint genre, which he uses to express the thoughts and emotions of Anelida and Dido, sets a new precedent in the presentation of women as literary characters. Both women display a depth of thought and an intensity of feeling that have not previously appeared in any female character. The thread, which Chaucer begins, will be spun out through the ensuing centuries, passing from Lady Macbeth to Elizabeth Bennet to Eowyn. They are neither the lovely and insipid objects of the “male gaze” nor the omniscient and reproachful goddesses who orchestrate events; they are real women who feel and suffer and live, not merely characters but protagonists in their own right.

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Passion and Virtue in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale’ and ‘The Rivals’

January 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

In both Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale’ and Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals’, the question of morality is not a straightforward one, as there is tension surrounding the purpose of marriage and traditional social expectations. However, Chaucer’s exploration of passion and whether lust and virtue can co-exist is far more controversial that that of Sheridan, who in a true Georgian fashion, only lightly challenges contemporary attitudes towards morality. In both works, the sense of resolution is limited and slightly ambiguous as the audience is left uncertain as to whether the writers’ promote virtue over passion or simply reject their protagonists’ efforts due to the inevitability of masculine authority in social hierarchy.

In `The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’ Chaucer depicts Alisoun as a fiery temptress whose controversial perspective of marriage strongly challenges medieval attitudes towards virtue and godliness. This lascivious portrayal of Alisoun would have been deeply displeasing to a medieval audience who would have valued virtuous living and the avoidance of sin above all the elements in Christian teaching. Therefore, Chaucer’s Alisoun would have been a thoroughly indecent figure, as arguably for a medieval audience, the co-existence of lust and Christian values would be impossible. Throughout the novel, Chaucer presents Alisoun as an immoral figure by contemporary standards as she not only chooses to reject the authority of the Church on marriage and instead uses this same authority to justify her own lustful nature. Her controversial stand-point of marriage is presented through Chaucer’s exploration of the “wo that is in marriage,” whereby the “wo” viewed by Alisoun differs to that of the clergy. For the Church, the “wo” in marriage is the act of sex which despite its function as a religious sacrament, was perceived as a dirty act by the clergy which distances a person from God. Alisoun recognises that “virginitee” is a “parfit” state, however she chooses to revel in her promiscuity as she “nil envye no virginitee.” However, Alisoun is not an adulterer, and so her immorality is not through the fact that she engages in sexual acts with her `five housboundes’ but that she has manipulated the authority of the Church to fulfil her sexual desires and remains conspicuously childless in the process, despite recognising that “God bad us to wexe and multiply.” The irony of this claim clearly shows that Alisoun is indeed aware that she is unvirtuous as the only way she can justify promiscuity is by using the patriarchal system. Therefore, despite the fact that some feminist critics would label the Wife as an “anti-patriarchal hero” (Susan Gubar), she ironically reinforces negative medieval attitudes of the day.

Chaucer immediately highlights Alisoun’s misconstrued perspective on the “wo that is in marriage,” which suggests that the act of sex in marriage, although is frowned upon by the clergy, despite it being necessary for child-bearing. Whereas a more modern audience would be perhaps more tolerant of Alisoun’s reasoning due to more liberal attitudes associated with free-love, Chaucer’s presentation of her is far from virtuous in keeping with conservative attitudes of the day of it being immoral, as she remains conspicuously childless, despite her assured claim that “God bad us to wexe and multiply.” Therefore, whereas for the clergy the “wo in marriage” Is associated with immorality, for Alisoun is marks the complete opposite, the idea that she lacks maistree (power), and is subjected to the restrictions imposed by patriarchal society.

Whilst in `The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Prologue’, the Wife’s views are labelled as immoral, In Sheridan’s `The Rivals’, references to sex in marriage are far more implicit, as the characters labelled as immoral are those who pose some sort of challenge to the social expectations of the day. Lydia is the epitome of virginal purity at “love-breathing seventeen” as opposed the “gat-toothed” Alisoun, however her passion lies in seeking knowledge, as she languishes in her bedroom reading texts such as the “The Delicate Distress” and “The Innocent Adulterer,” a thoroughly indecent French novel frowned upon by a Georgian audience. Here, passion is not necessarily associated with sex, however the stigma attached to the longing of female education in the play is viewed with the same distaste as Alisoun’s promiscuity in the ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’. Both writers’ therefore elude that passion, whether it is physical, or in the form of female education, cannot coexist with virtue as virtue can only exist when there is social conformity. Sheridan presents this idea through the dialogue between the older generation in the play, Sir Anthony and Mrs Malaprop, who although are not exempt from Sheridan’s criticism, fiercely believe that “learning does not become of a woman” and that a “circulating library” will cause Lydia to “long for the fruit” of the “”tree of diabolical knowledge.” Sir Anthony’s hot-headed attack on female education paired with references to the role of Eve in the Fall of Man in Genesis suggests that passion is sinful. Chaucer also refers to the Fall of Man in the Prologue when Alisoun speaks of “Eva’s wikkednesse.” Although these texts were written and published in different centuries, it is evident that religion always has and will continue to underpin society’s general perception of passion and lust, largely associated with immorality.

On the other hand, whilst Chaucer’s depiction of Alisoun’s reasoning is flawed, her values presented in the Prologue are to a certain extent, well-justified. In the Prologue, it is clear that despite Chaucer’s portrayal of Alisoun through a medieval male lens which we would expect to condition his viewpoint of women as natural inferior to men, Chaucer appears to criticise the unjust nature of patriarchy. For example, Chaucer proposes the idea that wealth and social status does not necessarily equate to chivalric code of conduct or “gentillesse.” The Knight in the Prologue uses his might to “rafte” the ‘’maidenhed’ (virginitee) of the girl by the river. Consequently Chaucer places the fate of the Knight in the hands of the Queen, thus reversing the idea of male maistree as “the queene, al at hir will’’ chose “wheither she wolde him save or spille.”. Therefore, whilst Alisoun is largely the subject of criticism in the Prologue, Chaucer also highlights the immorality of men. It appears that although wealth and social status can be acquired through “linage” of a “gentil house,” gentillesse is not “planted naturaleelly” as a truly “gentil” man is one who “dooth gentil dedis.” Therefore, despite Alisoun’s `immorality,” it is clear that her attitudes towards chivalry are commendable. This idea is supported by feminist critics such as Jackie Shead have noted that “The quest and its outcome is a salutary lesson to males about not overriding women.” Indeed, evidently Chaucer is not a feminist in the same was that a modern audience would perceive one to be, however he does invite the audience to question what it is to be moral or immoral by social standards and to a great degree, the line between is ambiguous.

Both Sheridan and Chaucer present females as flawed characters however alike to how Chaucer appears to admire Alisoun’s rejection of medieval attitudes towards social-hierarchy, Sheridan also commends Lydia’s efforts to seek independence. Both the Wife of Bath and Lydia arguably have admirable values despite being portrayed as immoral in their society. However, the dark reality of both texts is that their efforts to obtain change is largely futile as in The Rivals Lydia compromises her independence to live in “unalloyed happiness” with Jack and the Knight in the Prologue obtains a wife both “faire and goode” despite his crime. Therefore, both of the endings of these texts reinforce the inevitability of the unjust treatment of women in Patriarchal society. Chaucer makes this apparent through Alisoun’s use of language which undermines her argument in the Prologue. Critic Elaine Treharne argues that in the Prologue, “Chaucer fundamentally accomplished the depiction of a woman who is undermined by her own proxility and hyperbole, and who, furthermore, exhibits virtually all the elements of womens’ stereotypical language.” Evidence of Treharne’s criticism is reflected by Chaucer’s use of hyperbole and vernacular language paired with references with ecclesiastical connotations. For example, Alisoun places great emphasis on the “auctoritee” of the scripture when referencing to “the Apostle,” “the Parables of Solomon” and “Jobes pacience” however, she undermines this authority when adopting language which reinforces her immoral nature such as “my bel chose” (pretty thing- a euphemism for her vagina) and “For hadde myn housbonde pissed on a wal.”

To conclude, both writers provide an indefinite answer the question of whether their characters are immoral or virtuous however through this deliberate ambiguity, it is apparent that there is tension between the views of men and women, ordinary folk and clergy men towards morality and virtue. Both female protagonists are motivated by their desire for independence, whether it is sexually or through female education. Arguably, the immoral presentation of Alisoun is far more controversial than Sheridan’s Lydia, however interestingly both their efforts are unsuccessful due to the futility of passion and lust in patriarchal society.

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