The Book of the Duchess and Other Poems
Exploring “Fin Amors” Within Fountain of Love and The Book of the Duchess
Fin amors, or refined loving is a staple within medieval literature. Showcasing the romantic relationships of noblemen, fin amors expresses the struggles and games that are played between a man and woman during courtship. Similar to unrequited love, fin amors focuses itself around women holding the power in a relationship, and therefore remaining aloof to a man’s advances. This behavior by the woman forces the man to place her on a pedestal, therefore idealizing her, and wanting her even more. Within Guillaume De Machaut’s Fountain of Love, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess the concept of fin amors takes center stage and drives the subject matter of the poem. Together, both poems consist of oblivious insomniac narrators who witness another man’s grieving over their respected romantic relations. Neither of the narrators have a love interest of their own, but rather they relay the stories of the men they come across and their woes in love.
Though the Fountain of Love and The Book of the Duchess have their differences, they both share the common theme of fin amors, and more specifically the subject matter of women possessing all of the power within the relationship, lamenting lovers, and women being idealized and placed on a pedestal. One of the key elements of fin amors is overzealously idealizing one’s lover. Within The Book of the Duchess and Fountain of Love, both Jean, duc de Berry and the man in black fawn over their women. Berry argues that his wife is a “sweet and lovely lady,” (Machaut 287), a lady in “whom all good dwells,” (288) which seems to be more qualities of her character and virtue, rather than her physical beauty. This is important within the context of the poem, because Berry does not want his wife to be unfaithful to him while he is gone overseas. However, within Fountain of Love, the man in black is also concerned about Lady White’s virtue, but he seems to focus more centrally on her flawless appearance. The man in black claims that Lady White has an exceptionally nice neck with a: Whyte, smothe, streight, and pure flat Withouten hole or canel-boon As by seming, had she noon (Chaucer 942-944) Herein, the man in black is literally saying that Lady White is so flawless and her chest is so nice and full that it does not even look like she has collar bones, which is just a ridiculous accusation and a perfect example of idealizing a woman. In reality, most women have collarbones, but not Lady White, because she is the perfect example of a human woman, which is absolutely mad and also illustrates the narrator’s delusion when it comes to her.
After providing a head to toe, in depth description of Lady White and all of her aesthetically pleasing faultless proportions, the man in black finally speaks of her virtue, arguing that “she loved so wel hir owne name.” (1018)—ultimately meaning that she had a pleasant reputation and was not throwing herself around to whatever man she pleases. Lady White being protective of her virtue and picky with her potential suitors plays perfectly into the concept of fin amors. Since Machaut’s Fountain of Love follows the lament of Jean, duc de Berry who is forced to leave his beloved wife because he is to become a prisoner of war. Berry worries himself sick over the possibilities of what will happen to his wife if and when he leaves, contending, “if your pure heart is given in love to another, I should be so mortally wounded that sooner or later I should die or go mad because of it.” (Machaut 287). Since Berry is so concerned about infidelity and the preservation of his wife’s virtue or honor, this becomes the main topic of his lament. Paralleling his own story to that of Ceyx and Alcyone, Berry bewails, “I can think nothing but of desolation, in which my longing overcomes my hope, and joy does not know the way to my heart, but sadness knows the right way there very well.” (288). Instead of trusting that his wife will stay faithful to him, Berry is haunted by the idea that she may not. In reality, it is very strange to compare the somewhat safe separation of Berry and his wife to the story of Ceyx and Alcyone—because therein, Ceyx died, and Alcyone is grieving his death, she is not worried about him having relations with other women. Yes, there is distance between Berry and his wife, and yes the outcome of Berry’s imprisonment is not clear, but to compare their love to that of Ceyx and Alcyone seems off kilter.
On the other hand, in The Book of the Duchess, the man in black’s issue with fin amors is much more validated, due to the fact that Lady White is dead, making the parallel to the Ceyx and Alycone story more fitting. The man in black curses against fortune, claiming that it is false for taking away his love, and that it also cheats and betrays. Since fortune took Lady White away, the man in black contemplates committing suicide, saying: By oure Lord, it is to deye sone. For nothing I leve it nought, But live and deye right in this thought (Chaucer 690-692) Without his love, the man in black has nothing to live for—until the narrator reminds him that suicide is a sin and an undesirable outcome, because if he carried through, the man in black would no longer get into heaven. Through the mentioning of Medea, Phyllis, Dido, and Ecquo, all women who are desserted by living lovers and therefore causing most of their suicides, the narrator talks the man in black out of the idea. By listing off these women who had love go wrong, the narrator is paralleling the man in black to them—and the man in black also parallels to Alycone within the story of Ceyx and Alycone. This role reversal illustrates the man in black’s extreme emotion and devastation over the loss of Lady White.
Lastly, the exploration of the power dynamics between the men and women within The Book of the Duchess and Fountain of Love illuminate the true nature of fin amors. In Fountain of Love, Berry argues that his body is a “hostage,” (Machaut 285) to his wife, and that she “does not know the wound that my heart feels through her sweet face.” (287). Herein, Berry’s wife has all of the autonomy. Berry will be overseas unable to influence her choices, therefore she has the agency to run wild and do what she wants in theory, free of judgment from her husband. Ultimately, Berry realizes that this is a definite possibility and argues that, “that beautiful creature will soon have forgotten me, who will never forget her,” (297) and that he must “wait upon your [her] mercy.” (287). The concept of mercy when comparing and contrasting the two works is fascinating. Within The Book of the Duchess, the man in black also pleads for “mercy” (Chaucer 1219) from Lady White. This moment in the poem is the culmination of the man in black’s stalking and overall wearing down of Lady White who, “loved [him] as man may do his brother.” (892). In the courting stage of their relationship, Lady White possesses all of the power in true fin amors fashion. When the man in black finally earns her love he is thrilled, and then she dies—which also compliments the tradition of fin amors.
Through the lens of fin amors, both Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess and Guillaume De Machaut’s Fountain of Love deal with the subject matter of women possessing power, or agency within a relationship, women put on pedestals, and lamenting and sorrowful lovers. When comparing and contrasting the two works, one is able to acquire a clear idea of the pain of noble courtship within medieval times. Although the man in black and Jean duc de Berry’s situations in love were quite different, they ultimately both ended up miserable slaves to their lovers.
Historical Context: The Black Knight
Most of Chaucer’s works contain references to famous historical, classical, and mythical figures. This trend holds true in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. Most strikingly, The Black Knight plays a hefty role in the story. Because of the character’s emotional state as well as his personal connection with Chaucer, The Black Knight proves an intriguing character in Chaucerian studies. By examining the historical context of The Black Knight, the reader better understands Chaucer’s purpose for writing the story, while also allowing for close analysis of allusions made within the text. In order to examine the historical context of the Black Knight, one must know to whom Chaucer refers in that allusion. It is widely asserted that Chaucer intends the audience to know that The Black Knight is John of Gaunt, “the third son of King Edward III and King Philippa” (Rossignol 192). During his lifetime, which spanned 1340 through 1399, John of Gaunt was Earl of Richmond and the Duke of Lancaster (Dictionary of the Middle Ages 7:134). Due to his high social status, it is evident that John of Gaunt was a well-known figure during Chaucer’s time. According to the Dictionary of the Middle Ages, John of Gaunt was “England’s leading Magnate,” after his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster (7:135). Likewise, “in the 1370s John played a major role in the affairs of England,” though he lost popularity later in his life due to his support of John Wyclif (7:135). After Blanche’s death, John eventually remarried twice more, finally marrying his mistress, Katherine Swynford, which made John the brother-in-law of Geoffrey Chaucer (7:135). It is clear that John of Gaunt was not only a well-known figure to Chaucer’s readers, but also to Chaucer himself. Though it is evident that Chaucer was aware of basic facts (and possibly more) of John’s life, it is pertinent to examine how and why Chaucer includes the Black Knight in his Book of the Duchess. Chaucer includes John of Gaunt as The Black Knight in an effort to turn the tables on the traditional dream vision. The dreamer encounters The Black Knight in his dream. During his dream, he becomes “war of a man in blak” who is extremely lovesick (lines 445-470). Whereas a typical dream vision would include the dreamer seeking guidance from a guide he encounters on his journey, Chaucer uses the lovesick Black Knight character as a twist on the guide who, in The Book of the Duchess, receives counseling from the dreamer himself. Throughout the work, the Black Knight speaks of his lady Blanche, who most scholars assume to be Blanche of Lancaster, John’s first wife. Because the whole story revolves around the knight’s lovesickness caused by the loss of Blanche, most acknowledge that Chaucer wrote the story for John in honor of Blanche of Lancaster “who died in September of 1368” (Dictionary of Middle Ages 3: 281). Many people also assert that Chaucer did not write the story immediately following the death of the duchess, but instead wrote the work “for one of the later and highly elaborate annual commemoration services” created by John in memoriam of his first wife (Benson 329). By allowing The Black Knight to tell of his love for Blanche, Chaucer commemorates not just Blanche’s life but also the love between Blanche and John. Because Chaucer wrote the work with John of Gaunt as the intended audience, an extremely influential man during Chaucer’s life, it is a possibility that Chaucer also wrote this first major work in an effort to get his foot into the door of the literary world of the time. In Chaucer A to Z, Rosalyn Rossignol asserts that “The Book of the Duchess is generally acknowledged to be the earliest of Chaucer’s major poems” (48). Additionally, others have cited the creation of the work as the force behind John’s encouragement of Chaucer: “Though the duke was not…a man of…great sensitivity, his subsequent benefactions to Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer suggest that he approved of the poem honoring his late wife” (Dictionary of the Middle Ages 3:282). Clearly Chaucer’s career benefited from the creation and popularity of this early work. Though lines can be drawn between John of Gaunt and Chaucer (as well as Chaucer’s success), it is pertinent to also acknowledge the consequences of these assertions. How do these assertions affect the manner in which readers encounter the work? For some, the argument that the story is strictly a eulogy of Blanche for John prompts individuals to read the text at an even closer level in an attempt to prove the fallacy of this assertion. For example, in his article “Chaucer’s Black Knight,” Samuel Schoenbaum argues that the death of Blanche served simply as a “inspiration” for a story about a “profoundly human experience,” rather viewing the Black Knight as a direct characterization of John of Gaunt. He bases his argument on a discrepancy between the age of Chaucer’s Black Knight and the actual age of the John of Gaunt at the time of Blanche’s death (121-122). Sparked by the comparisons made between The Black Knight and John of Gaunt, Schoenbaum reads the text in an effort to disprove the argument. Additionally, the knowledge that the Black Knight was a real person and that the intended audience of the poem was John of Gaunt affects the reader in that it raises more questions and leads to a deeper analysis of Chaucer’s methods. For example, because John of Gaunt would have been a beneficial individual to have as a fan of one’s work, readers can examine how Chaucer uses the work to demonstrate his various abilities. This explains why Chaucer plays around with the conventional dream vision, alludes to many classical and biblical figures, and exhibits skill in using traditional romantic techniques such the blaison while also adding his own flare, which is evident in his description of Blanche (lines 848-1043). It is not mere coincidence that Chaucer’s first major work focuses on the romance of John of Gaunt, one of the most influential English men of Chaucer’s time. Chaucer ingeniously employs The Black Knight character to portray John of Gaunt in the Book of the Duchess and to show his abilities as a writer. This strategic work eventually led to his popularity and John’s benefaction to Chaucer.
Shattering the Dream (Vision)
But if, Sir Knight, you let me knowThe cause of this tremendous ill,As sure as God gives help, I will,If power is granted to me, remove it…”The Book of the Duchess” 548-551Throughout the study of medieval literature, certain trends define the genres. Whether the hero be of a certain estate, conquer insurmountable foes, or finally unite with his lover, specific standards serve to differentiate the epic from the Breton Lai. “The Book of the Duchess” breaks the rules of dream vision literature through its subtle adaptations of the expected elements. Although this passage embodies only one aspect of this adaptation, it serves as a standard of all of the alterations throughout the text. Formerly the focal point of all other dream vision tales, the dreamer becomes a mere accessory in this piece, functioning as a medium through which other tales are exposed. Furthermore, the setting — be it a garden or forest — enables the dreamer to escape from societal distractions; in this passage, however, the dreamer awakens to the bustle of horses and marksmen. The final and perhaps most noteworthy aspect of this anti-dream vision revolves about the fact that the dreamer does not change his former way of living upon awakening from his reverie. Through these aspects, the dream motif strays from its typical parameters while still being recognizable as a tale of that genre.Within this particular tale, the dreamer serves more as the guide figure than a wandering soul. In the opening of this account, the dreamer reads a tale of King Ceyx and Queen Alcyone to grant him reprieve from his insomnia. This tale follows the typical plot of a dream vision wherein the dreamer suffers in life, falls asleep, and finds the answers she seeks within her dream. Chaucer therefore proves his awareness of the formula for the “dream vision” poems but chooses instead to alter that expectation within the actual plot of his poem. Eventually, the dreamer falls asleep, awakens within his own reverie and happens upon a sorrowful knight. This encounter likewise permits the dreamer to expose someone else’s story. Through his questions and intent listening, the dreamer serves as more of a guide figure for the knight. Here, the dreamer witnesses an emotional outpouring and strives to ease the knight’s pain. Acting as little more than a pawn, the dreamer in this tale enables the other characters to unveil their stories and articulate their emotions.Not only does the dreamer serve a different role, but he also finds himself within an atypical dream vision setting. The dreamer awakens within the confines of his bedroom. Although birds, colored windows, and gorgeous weather permeate this space, the dreamer rouses indoors and not in a garden or natural landscape. Although these natural images evoke a vision of a garden, they nevertheless remain elements of a man-made, controlled environment. Therefore the dreamer does not immediately escape the distractions of society. Furthermore, upon hearing the blow of the huntsman’s horn, the dreamer eagerly leaves his garden-esque room to join in the festivities of hunting day. Chaucer breaks the tradition of the genre by portraying a dreamer who initially leaves isolation in favor of the chaos surrounding the hunt. By altering the setting of the story, Chaucer alters the “dream vision.”Overlooking the role of the dreamer and the setting of the dream, Chaucer adapts the most standard aspect of the dream vision: the ending. Traditionally, dream visions end with the dreamer wakening from sleep and choosing to modify his way of life because of the events of the dream. In some cases the dreamer discovers the importance of love, in others the character stops mourning and strives to lead a better life. Here, however, the dreamer makes no noticeable changes. Apparently, the horn sounds, he wakes and decides to record the events of his dream. Likewise, the knight (perhaps interpreted as the fallible or changeable character) makes no changes in his life: he continues to mourn endlessly for his deceased wife. This tale offers no comforting anecdote or lesson to be learned from the tale, thereby straying from the typical dream vision.Although typical dream visions consist of a dreamer, garden setting, and moral, Chaucer modifies these elements to create a world still reminiscent of that genre but perhaps more advanced in its scope. By evidently straying from the anticipated plot, Chaucer invites a dialogue between the readers and the text. Immediately, the readers demand to know the role of the dreamer because he is so notably different from the average dreamer. They question his motives and sympathize with his questions. Furthermore, the setting in this tale is similar to the setting in many readers’ rooms: perhaps the readers read this tale because they cannot sleep and fall into a dream-state. In addition, the readers, being of the first estate, would be familiar with hunting day festivities. Finally, the readers must look at the dream and interpret it for themselves rather than be spoon-fed the moral. Chaucer typically questions convention and modifies his tales to force the readers to do the same. By changing the standards and toying with the expectations of the dream vision, Chaucer challenges readers to question the actual meaning and purpose of the tales.