The Canterbury Tales
The Man of Law’s Tale: Breaking Down the Role of Religion
The Man of Law’s Tale is in many ways marks a new beginning in the middle of the Canterbury Tales, a break from the bawdy and secular tales that precede it. While Chaucer could have made it a more straightforward recentering of the tales on a Christian theme, Chaucer makes it more complex by introducing a foreign religion, Islam, into the tale. Certainly one of the major questions that arises when any student of Chaucer does a close reading of the Man of Law’s Tale is “why?” What purpose does Islam serve in this tale, and why only here, and not other places in the tale? Articles by Carolyn Dinsaw, Susan Schibanoff, and Kathryn Lynch offer some insight.
Carolyn Dinshaw’s article “The Law of Man and its ‘Abhomynacions’” reads the Man of Law as literally that: “a man made up of law” (118). In the tales, he serves as a representative of patriarchal ideology itself. It is his duty therefore to tell a tale that supports the view of women as subordinate to “and dependent upon patriarchal protection” (119). The characters in his tale consequently fall into the requisite binary categories of those that fit the traditional patriarchal structure and those that are a threat to it2E The most notable members of the latter group are the mothers-in-law, potential or actual, presented in the tale. These women’s actions subvert the established gender roles and as Dinshaw argues later int he article, represent underlying incestual forces in the narrative.
Supporting the interpretation of the Man of Law as a literal representation of law itself, Dinshaw points to the legal speech in the tale’s prologue: the Host begins by reminding the Man of Law of his promise to the group to tell a tale, and the Man of Law responds with an agreement to make good on his promise. Dinshaw uses this legal foundation of the Man of Law’s Tale to undergird her argument of the commoditization of not only his tale-telling, but of the women in the tale itself: “[f]or the Man of Law, the two kinds of profit that tales and commodities offer–moral and monetary–are indissolubly linked” (121). After all, the Man of Law himself insists that he has heard the story from an old merchant, which as Dinshaw points out, reminds us that “the story is delivered directly from the world of commerce” (122).
The article discusses the role of women as commodities to be traded, beginning with an exploration of Custance as narrative and progressing to women traded in marriage. The article then turns to an examination of incestual evidence in the tale, from the prologue’s insistence that the tale will avoid incest, to evidence of circumspect deliacy in expurgating remnants of incest from Chaucer’s version compared to other versions (“[i]n the mos popular versions of the Constance legend, the ‘accused queen’ flees unwanted sexual advances of her father”). The article ultimately uncovers an interesting interpretation of incest in the tale: “the jealousy of the mothers-in-law, which [the author] read[s] as potentially incestuous desires of mothers for their sons” (132).
What I found most interesting about this article is that Carolyn Dinshaw reads the Man of Law’s name in itself as fundamental to the meaning of the tale itself. The Man of Law as representative of law itself, specifically patriarchal law, gives a certain slant to a close reading of the tale in this light. His agenda in telling the tale is to advance the traditional ideal of patriarchal dominance. Custance in this tale is “thoroughly subject to ‘mannes governance’ and dependent upon patriarchal protection” (119). In this reading of the Man of Law’s Tale,the Other could be those characters that subvert the traditional patriarchal ideal: the mothers-in-law. Diametrically opposed to the Man of Law’s patriarcal ideology, these Women of Law “[pose] a radical threat to masculine prerogative” and “are not so easily ignored or absorbed into supports of the patriarchal structure” (132). While I’m not quite completely sold on the incestuous undertones Dinshaw insists permeate the tale, I agree with much of her interpretation.
Susan Schibanoff’s article “Worlds Apart: Orientalism, Antifeminism, and Heresy in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale” begins with a discussion of the tale as a “new beginning” in the middle of the Canterbury Tales, “in contrast to the secular romance and bawdy fabliaux that constitute the first four tales” (60). But her reading of the Man of Law’s Tale does not focus on the self-corrective nature of the tale, or its exemplary nature as a model of a pilgrammage, but rather on a reading as “Chaucer’s sole textual confrontation with medieval Christianity’s strongest religious rival, Islam” as well as Chaucer’s “only referecnce to the prophet Muhammad and to the Qur’an” (60). In her article, Schibanoff aims to answer the question “why, at this particular juncture in the Canterbury Tales and nowhere else, Chaucer turns our attention to an alien faith, to a faraway place, to a distant time” (60). What she suggests is that the Man of Law’s tale serves to strengthen Christian brotherhood among the pilgrims by “deflect[ing] attentian from the potentially explosive class rivalry by confronting the fractious men…with another world, another time, and ultimately with the Other, in order to forge a sense of community” (61).
Schibanoff argues that it is the Other that the Man of Law uses to strengthen the Christian brotherhood of the pilgrims: he “constructs the Other in tightly intertwined guises in his tale–as Saracen or Muslim, as woman, and as heretic” and he ” repeatedly performs a reductive rhetorical maneuver in order to induce Christian fraternity among the pilgrims” (61). The Man of Law’s strengthening of Christian brotherhood by depicting Islam is effected through a focus on Islam’s apparent similarities with Christianity rather than its differences, in what Schibanoff calls the “rhetoric of proximity” that “figure[s] Islam as an insidious heresy that mimics Christianity” (62). By showing the similarities between the mainstream and the Other, fear will incite the audience to widen the contrast between the two to maintain ideological stability in their separation. The majority ofthe article explores the various instances of the Man of Law’s exploiting the similitude of two entities–Christianity and Islam, male and female–in order to force the audience to reevaluate and strengthen the contrasts between them.
Susan Schibanoff’s article is straightforward for the most part, but could stand another pass at the carving knife: it is at its best when it focused on the tale itself, but seems to lose its focuse along with its reader (at least this one) when it strays into discussion of the history of heresy, Biblical creation stories. It gets back on track when it returns to discussion of the tale, however, so all is not lost. Discussion of the tale takes the form of analysis of its “airtight case against the Other” (61), in this case Islam. An interesting twist on this reading of the Man of Law’s Tale, is not that the tale stresses the contrasts between the two extremes, but rather their similarites–a “rhetoric of proximity” (62). The narrator portrays the danger of Islam not in its physical and ideological distane from Christianity, but rather in its proximity and numerous silimarities. Islam’s remarkable closeness to Christianity is evidenced by the numerous religious conversions in the tale. It is this analysis that is the true gem of the article, and what makes it a worthwhile read for any student of this particular tale.
Kathryn L. Lynch’s article “Storytelling, Exchange, and Constancy: East and West in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale” aims to show that Chaucer portrays Islam in the tale not to “scapegoat an alien religious tradition but rather to use cultural difference as a way of talking about larger issues of freedom and constraint in storytelling” (410). Again we have an exploration of the dominant culture of the West contrasted with the Other of the East. In addition to the common peculiarities and idiosyncracies typically evoked in depictions of the East, ranging from “peculiar rituals, religious doctrines, and customs” to “generalized abundance and technological innovation” (411). The latter description of the East, as a culture of “generalized abundance,” or an “economy of excess” is problematized in Chaucer’s tale: Lynch notes that “the tale seems to project onto the East both ungovernable extravagance and strict exchange, mutability and its own form of rigidity” (415).
Lynch reads the Man of Law’s prologue not as a new beginning, but rather as “attempting a new beginning” (417). She admits that it can read as a spiritual reorientation of the Tales, as the host seems to focus on the time and the reading of shadows, in “a kind of companion piece to the Parson’s Prologue, where the lengthening shadows of the day’s end call the pilgrims to spiritual attention” (417). But Chaucer is rarely so transparent; his “placement of the exotic East in the lawyer’s care where it is mangled and misconstrued works against such an optimistic prognosis” (417).
Lynch explores the tale’s depiction of East versus West, and conludes that “the tale remains trapped by Western chauvinisim” and “that it returns repetitively and unproductively to its campaign against the ‘Other’”(417). In the end of the tale, she argues, the polarization between East and West remains, with the question of how to read the character of Custancewho floats passively through the tale from beginning to end: the answer is found in her name — “Custance does signify constancy” (419). Passively existing between the poles of East and West, from the beginning of the tale to the end Custance “holds the same value, powerful though unspoken, in every location, every circumstance, every language” (419).
Kathryn Lynch’s article is clearly written and well organized, and would benefit anyone doing a close analysis of the Man of Law’s Tale. Particularly interesting is that the author bookends the article with quotes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on the subject of men who seek the “White Whale” but at the same time need “food for their more common, daily appetites.” The relevance of the epigraph quote to Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale at first eluded me, but upon completing the article Lynch makes it clear that in both the Melville quote and in Chaucer’s work, balanceis necessary. The Man of Law’s Tale draws a distinct line between the West and the Other, but existence on either side is unbalanced. Lynch suggests that the Squire’s Tale gives the Man of Law’s Tale a literary balance that it sorely needs: “[t]it for tat may work for trade, but storytelling, love, and forgiveness require at least some of the excesses of the exotic East” (419).
All three of the articles offer readings of Islam in the Man of Law’s Tale as the Other, a concept that serves to soften Chaucer’s attack on the religion: it is not Islam itself that Chaucer attaks, but rather he uses the contrast between Islam and Christianity to make other arguments. I am not entirely convinced that Chaucer is not attacking Islam in this tale, because he covers himself well. These articles do make a strong case for Islam in the tale as the Other, not singled out for attack, but evoked for the purpose of serving as a foil to Christianity in order to inspire Christian fraternity among the Pilgrims. It seems that there are more questions to answer now than there were at the beginning of this paper; more articles, I believe, is the only answer.
Analysis of the Knight in the Canterbury Tales
The overall purpose of the Canterbury Tales is to show the story of the thirty pilgrims who travel to Canterbury, who are derived from different parts of society. They tell stories to one another to help pass time on the way. Although very famous, these tales were never finished nor revised. Originally written in Middle English during the Medieval times, the Canterbury Tales have been rewritten into the modern English language. The tales were one of the first major literature pieces and Chaucer began them in 1387 all the way until he passed in 1400. My pilgrim is the most respected character in the Canterbury tales which is the Knight. The Knight’s Tale is the first tale told and he is known as a person of high social standings. Throughout the tale, the Knight is significant and worth remembering.
The Knight is considered part of the high society. He is a part of the nobility estate, and he’s characterized by being a man of honor, nobility, and loyalty. He is very polite and calm, and Chaucer also said that he was a man of honor. Chaucer supports this by saying that he had an outstanding reputation. He explains how the knight was at all the wars, including fifteen mortal battles, while fighting for faith. This shows the knight’s bravery and worthiness. He was described as the perfect king.
The Knight wore a tunic that was stained by rust. He wore dark clothes and he didn’t necessarily have a bright appearance, although his horses were good. His hair was curly and described as looking like it had been curled with a curler. He was a twenty year old who wasn’t tall but wasn’t short. He was fast and strong. Chaucer also describes him as “fresh as is the month of May”, where his tunic was short but had long sleeves. The description of Knight reflects his personality. By making it clear that his horses were “dressed” and covered better than he was, it shows that he put others first. It presents how he cares for others. It’s also ironic how he dresses dark because he is known as a bright person. His stained tunic contradicts his personality in a way because he is shown as strong and of high class, while his clothes prove weak and less fortunate.
The description of the Knight makes it seem as if he is calm and gentle. He was a passionate lover, courteous, and willing to serve. He knew how to dance, draw, and write, and that refers back to being joyful and lighthearted. These descriptions of his ethics and respectfulness represent how high his moral standards were. He stood for chivalry and always did the respectful things. This followed him and helped him become respected among the other pilgrims. In a way, his elegance and nobility brought out his morals. He represents the perfect knight of that time.
The Knight travels on fine horses. From the description of his horses, we can assume that he is ranked highly in society. In the prologue, it says that “His horses were good, but he was not gaily dressed.” It seems as if they were taken more care of than he was. They were made sure to be in good condition with having the needs necessary. It was also said that the Knight handsomely rides his horses. You can infer that this implies that his horses are good quality and worth showing off. The Knight is clearly proud of horses and it is apparent that they are taken well care of.
Chaucer thinks very highly of the knight in the prologue. He characterizes him as someone who is truthful and courteous. He also makes him to represent the traits that a good knight should portray. Chaucer makes him seem like a perfect individual. Although there is a gentle satire, he says that the knight “loved chivalry”. Very subtly, he mocks the chivalry aspect that the Knight has because everyone has imperfections, but he also explains how he is worthy with a good reputation. He approves of the Knight and looked at him with high standards.
A modern day counterpart to the Knight would be a soldier. They share many characteristics and similarities. They are both highly respected in society and have good moral standards. They both fight in wars to keep their people safe, and they are both honorable. Another thing is, is that they are both gentle in a sense. Although they are powerful and have the ability to kill, they don’t harm unless it is necessary. While the knight returns from an expedition, this can be compared to soldiers returning to their families from war. The Knight’s overall job is to fight in war for his country, and that is the exact job for modern soldiers today. Overall, it can be agreed that both soldiers and the Knight is loved and doing good for the people with the great things that they do.
The Knight’s Tale is mainly about the story of Palaman and Arcite. The king of Thebes, Theseus, imprisons them in a tower that only has one window. One day while looking out of the window, they spot the queen little sister, Emilye in the garden. They both become head over heels for her and argue about who should get her love in return, but later they stop fighting because they come to terms that being trapped in the tower is holding either one of them back from having a chance. Eventually, a friend of Arcite helps him escape from the tower. He comes into contact with Emilye but doesn’t admit his love for her. Once Palamon escapes many years later, they meet up and arrange a fight. They gave each other a year to create their teams and the winners of the fight will be able to have Emilye. On the day of the fight, Emilye prays for Diana, the Roman goddess of chastity to keep her single but she admits that she will be fine with any outcome. Arcite ends up winning, but due to harsh injuries, he dies. On his deathbed, he grants Palamon to marry Emilye.
Analysis Of The Wife Of Bath From The Canterbury Tales By Geoffrey Chaucer
Every “Abril” in fourteenth century England, everyone from the aristocrats to the peasant class, excluding the royals and serfs, was required by the Church to make a pilgrimage to a holy destination. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, rife with satire, thirty pilgrims journey together to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, England. To begin their adventure, the group meets in Southwark outside London. In an attempt to prevent boredom and make the journey more interesting, one of the pilgrims named Harry Bailly, who is the Host, recommends that each pilgrim create four stories. Each pilgrim is to create two tales on the way to the shrine and an additional two tales on the trip home for a total of 120 tales. The pilgrim chosen by Harry Bailly who creates the most interesting and moral story will win a meal paid by the other twenty-nine “losers” at the Tabard Inn upon the group’s return. Although Chaucer intended 120 tales, only twenty-two tales were actually completed, along with an additional two fragments. Through the incorporation of the tales into the poem, The Canterbury Tales becomes a literary frame. Chaucer the Pilgrim, the narrator for the entire journey, illustrates the stories of each pilgrim. One of the pilgrims, the Wife of Bath may be one of the most eminent figures in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. To portray the Wife of Bath’s lavish lifestyle and independent mindset, Chaucer uses satirical elements to embellish her life further. Chaucer has the uncanny ability to match tale to teller.
The Wife of Bath is an example of true beauty in Medieval society with “gap teeth, set widely” and large hips. Additionally, Chaucer mentions that the Wife of Bath’s face is “bold …, handsome, and in a red hue”. The Wife of Bath’s beautiful complexion and enjoyment of socializing “indicates a good-natured gregariousness”. Having been married to five men, the Wife of Bath knows how to manipulate men into pleasing her.
A widow and a member of the middle class, the Wife of Bath has gained wealth through the inheritances of her five husbands and her successful cloth-making business. The Wife of Bath makes “kerchiefs … of finely woven ground” and sells them to others to provide for herself. As a member of the working middle class, the Wife of Bath justifies that a woman can be financially successful through employment and that “the dependency status of women in medieval society” can change. Additionally, in the General Prologue, Chaucer implies that the Wife of Bath dresses tastefully with hose “of the finest scarlet red / And gartered tight; her shoes were soft and new”. The Wife of Bath’s “well set-up appearance, as has been suggested, is in keeping with the strong directness of her character”. The Wife of Bath also rides “easily on an ambling horse”, concluding that “her clothing and the horse that she rides suggest prosperity”. Chaucer has also added satirical elements to embellish the life of the Wife of Bath, “hinting at qualities such as pride, wrath, envy, and lust”. More specifically, satirical elements can be seen in the fact that the Wife of Bath has been married five times “in addition to other ‘company’ in youth”. Through the Wife of Bath’s Prologue about her five husbands and her Tale about a knight searching for the key to love, many important details about her life are uncovered.
Chaucer first begins to develop the Wife of Bath’s character in her Prologue, which introduces her “spirited vindication of her way of life — that is, of marriage and sexuality”. Although the Wife of Bath has had multiple marriages, she believes nothing is wrong in her doings because the five marriages have all been approved by the Church. Still, many may question how one can truly and faithfully love all five husbands, especially if the Wife of Bath is open to the idea of a sixth husband after the death of the fifth. Additionally, during the pilgrim’s discussion about virginity and marriage, the Wife of Bath defends that marrying multiple times does not and should not be criticized. Although many of the pilgrims support Christ’s belief in one marriage in a lifetime, the Wife of Bath asserts that God never intended for everyone “to follow in His footsteps” and implies “she never heard a definition of those numbers”. The pilgrims continue to examine Saint Paul’s belief that the wife and the husband owe each other “the ‘marriage debt’ (that is, sexual pleasure)”. The Wife of Bath evidently agrees that both should be responsible to pay. Toward the end of her Prologue, the Wife of Bath alludes that she has had three “good” husbands, who treated her as an equal in the relationship, and two “bad” husbands, who consumed the power in the marriage. The Wife of Bath has found that she is happiest in a marriage in which she attains the power, which is proven when she says, “I’ll have a husband yet / Who shall be both my debtor and my slave / And bear his tribulation to the grave”. In other words, she would obtain control by accusing her husband of being at fault.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue endorses her personality because her Prologue proves that each marriage has left a lasting impact on her character and has developed her into a more independent women. During her first marriage, the Wife of Bath realized she wanted to hold the power in the relationship; her obtaining of power can be seen in her other marriages. The Wife of Bath learns to gain the power by refusing to sleep with her husbands “until they give her control of their property”. Additionally, the Wife of Bath’s fourth husband had a mistress, and she is proud to assert “that she was his Purgatory on Earth” by causing him to suffer when she pretended to be interested in another man. Through the Wife of Bath’s past discussed in her Prologue, readers can see that her previous life and marriages affect her profoundly.
Additionally, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue is well-suited for her lifestyle. The Prologue is largely Christ and saints’ beliefs about a religious marriage. While the Wife of Bath protests that her marriages were all Church-approved “at the church door”, most of the other pilgrims would argue the marriages were anything but Christian. The Prologue’s central topic about Christ’s definition of a good Christian marriage is ironic because the Wife of Bath believes she is moral by describing that her marriages comply with Christ’s definition of a religious married life by finding the loopholes.
The other pilgrims have varying reactions to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. The Pardoner, for example, interrupts the Wife of Bath in the middle of her Prologue announcing, “I was about to take a wife; alas! / Am I to buy it on my flesh so dear? / There’ll be no marrying for me this year!”. Clearly, the Pardoner has no interest in marrying anymore for fear that his wife will arrogate all of the power. On the other hand, the Summoner and the Friar are amused by the Wife of Bath’s Prologue because of its length and her imprudent past. The Friar sarcastically says, “This is a long preamble to a tale!”, to which the Summoner replies, “You’re spoiling all our fun with your commotion”. The other pilgrims are able to learn further about the Wife of Bath’s life and prepare for her Tale, which is a Breton lai.
The lessons behind the Wife of Bath’s Tale illustrate “that a happy marriage actually occurs when there is mutual love, respect, and kindness”, meaning that the Wife of Bath is happiest in a relationship in which she and her husband share the power, a concept that flouts the social standards. As the Wife of Bath is talking to the other pilgrims on the journey about her “happy” marriages, she reveals that her criteria for a successful marriage are achievable in Middle Ages society. Another important feature about the Tale is that the knight surrenders his dominance, rather than simply giving it away forcefully such as in situations the Wife of Bath has created for her husbands. The Wife of Bath unwittingly wants this “token submission on the part of the husband” in marriage but has never had a relationship thus far.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is well connected to her lifestyle for many reasons. The Wife of Bath’s Tale about a couple happily sharing power together in a marriage is her ideal marital relationship, which is what she has always been trying to achieve in each of her marriages. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is appropriate for her because she wants independence in a marriage. The woman in the Tale is granted independence from her husband as the Wife of Bath has been yearning for this type of freedom from her husbands.
The Tale evokes a debate among the other pilgrims, as some argue that it invokes a “‘marriage debate’ among … the Merchant, Clerk, and Franklin”. The other pilgrims agree that the Wife of Bath’s Tale does support her beliefs and morals as the Tale reflects her desires in life. Through her actions, the Wife of Bath proves that any woman can “live the best life that she can for herself in a repressive, male-dominated society”. Thus, the Wife of Bath is truly unlike any other character in The Canterbury Tales, and the themes in her Tale match her beliefs in life and marriage.
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer has the uncanny ability to match tale to teller. As the thirty pilgrims travel to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine, twenty-four tales are shared; each has a unique moral teaching and plot line which profoundly suits the teller’s personality and past. The Wife of Bath incorporates her outrageous past into her tale creating a meaningful yet valuable lessons from her tale. The most prominent lesson of her tale is to give women equal power in a relationship, as the link will then become stronger for the two people.
Stereotypes In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
While reading The Canterbury Tales, it’s hard to not think about what made the author, Geoffrey Chaucer, write these various numbers of comical stories. Each story has an incredibly different theme to it and Chaucer never finished writing all of the stories like he had planned. After doing research, these stories seem to be strongly influenced by the implementation of status labels. What was once a simple time without many labels quickly turned to a complex way of life where one’s worth was determined by numerous factors. Society had gone from three basic categories to a world with labels of birth, wealth, profession, and personal ability. Chaucer took this major change as an opportunity to write about the stereotypes formed and even somewhat ridiculed them through his works.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is about a man whose punishment is seeking out what women want most in life. This man goes on a hunt and meets this old woman who tells him the secret is that women want control of their husband’s life and their own lives. The old woman then asks the man if he would marry her, he becomes disgusted at the idea but is eventually forced to consent. The man is miserable and talks very ugly of his new wife but she does not get upset. She asks her new husband if he would rather her be loyal and ugly or beautiful and unfaithful. He says that he trusts her judgment and says for her to choose. Since he gave her control over it, she became both loyal and beautiful and they lived happily.
I believe this story was influenced by the stereotype that’s held around women during this time period. It is said that Chaucer enjoyed writing and wrote for entertainment of himself and friends and family This tale is taking a jab and women and what they want in life. I don’t believe that is what women really want but it made a good story and Chaucer grew up in a time where women were seen as objects and not people.
Another example of a stereotype written into one of Chaucer’s stories is the Knight’s Tale. This story begins with two knights who while in prison fall in love with the same woman. One is released but forbidden from Athens so he gets a disguise and returns to work for the woman. The other knight escapes prison and there is a tournament set up so the two knights can fight over the woman. One wins but is then fatally knocked off of his horse, so the other marries the girl.
Chivalry was obviously a big part of this time period, so it’s not a surprise that it was portrayed in one of the tales. In my opinion, Chaucer put this in his work because men were taught to grow up with chivalry, even though not all did. The knights in the story fought until one of them died just to win this woman, which shows great bravery and that they would have done anything to end up with this woman.
Love triangles and objectifying women play a strong part in the next tale, The Miller’s Tale. It starts with a student who seduced his landlord’s wife to spend a night with him while he also convinced his landlord that the second flood would be approaching soon so that he would be busy preparing for the flood. Another young man is also secretly in love with the landlord’s wife so he goes to her window to ask for a kiss when she sticks her rear out of the window and releases gas. The young man then gets mad and goes and gets a hot poker and returns for another kiss. This time, the student decides to stick his rear out but he gets branded and screams for water causing the landlord to believe that the flood was here.
This tale has two young men stepping out of their “social status” and competing for a woman that should be considered out of their league due to her status of being a married woman. This is very unlike things that happened during Chaucer’s time because most people would not cheat because almost everyone was very religious and the Bible said that cheating and lying was a sin, so this was out of Chaucer’s normal storylines based on society.
The Reeve’s Tale starts out with two students who keep getting cheated by the miller out of grain, so they go to the mill to watch the grind the corn so the miller can’t steal any of it. The miller unties their horse so they go running after it and the miller steals some of the flour. The students just stay at the millers house after they catch the horse because it’s so late. They know the miller stole flour so one student seduces the miller’s daughter while the other seduces his wife. Once the miller realizes what had happened, he tries to beat the students but his wife thinks he is one of the students so she beats him over the head and the students return their stolen goods and escape.
As was mentioned earlier, most people were very religious in these times because they had no idea why you wouldn’t be. The Reeve’s Tale has a theme of an evil end will come to an evil man. A proverb is mentioned at the end of the telling of this story that accompanies that message also. Chaucer was a Christian and was portraying the Biblical work in his own work because he is a religious man.
Another tale that portrays a stereotype in society would be The Clerk’s Tale because it starts with a man who decides he needs to test his wife’s courage. He does this by telling her that he thinks he needs to kill their children and she agrees whatever he wants. He does not actually kill the children however, he does send them away to his sister. His final test is having her prepare for his wedding with a new woman. She obeys all of her husband’s requests and afterwards he informs her that she is and always will be his wife.
In The Clerk’s Tale, Chaucer is mocking the idea that women must follow every man’s order or else she isn’t worthy of being a wife. Again, the stereotypical thought that women are below men and men can do whatever they want. The clerk even mentions afterwards how there aren’t many women like that nowadays.
The Pardoner’s Tale is a story about three boys who heard of this thing called death who keeps killing people, so these three drunken boys go on a hunt to find death and kill him. An old man tells them that they will find death under a tree, but instead they find bushels of gold. They plan to sneak the bushes of gold home once its night so no one can see them. One of them goes into town to get snacks and drinks while the other two stay behind to watch the bushes and also plan a way to kill the other so they don’t have to share the money with him. While the one boy was headed to get snacks he also got added poison to two bottles of wine so he also didn’t have to share the gold with them. Once the younger one comes back, he is automatically killed, then they decide to sit and have a glass of wine. Then they also immediately die, so no one ends up with the gold.
Money plays a big part in stereotyping: if you have a lot of money, you’re most likely positively stereotyped, and vice versa. The Pardoner’s Tale shows that money isn’t everything though, Chaucher was born into wealth and a good life, so he was playing around with the aspect of money and what it means in that day and age because he knew the positive side of having money. .
Chaucer had many different influences from the surrounding society while he was writing; women, money, and chivalry. As the labels we sadly still know and use today became so influential in Chaucer’s time, he chose to not fall victim to the labels. Instead, he poured himself into writing the tales and almost making fun of the labels. The Canterbury Tales, in their satirical format, have become commonly used in college classes throughout the US.
Chaucer’s Knight – Polarity and Logical Inconsistency
In the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the first character portrait presented is that of the Knight. Though the knights of Chaucer’s time were commonly perceived as upstanding, moral, Christian leaders in society, underlying Chaucer-the-Pilgrim’s largely complimentary and respectful portrayal of the Knight is Chaucer-the-Poet’s slightly sarcastic and accusatory version of the depiction. By comparing and contrasting these two representations of the Knight, the reader realizes that the Knight is a character of dichotomy and contradiction, neither wholly “good”, nor wholly “bad”.
While Chaucer-the-Pilgrim’s portrayal of the Knight is one of a man with a high moral character, Chaucer-the-Poet subtly inserts hints that the Knight is not as respectable and honorable as he appears. Chaucer-the-Pilgrim relentlessly overpraises the Knight. He uses some form of the word “worthy” to describe him four times in the 36 lines of the Knight’s portrait (in lines 43, 47, 50, 68). The reader is told that the Knight “loved chivalrye/ Trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisye” (45-46). He was also “evere honoured for his worthinesse” (50) and had been “at many a noble armee”(60). Aside from being “a verray, parfit, gentil knight” (72), the Knight was a decent, nice person, in general. “He nevere yet no vileinye ne sayde/ In al his lyf, unto no maner wight” (70-71) and he was “meke as is a mayde” (69).
Through Chaucer-the-Pilgrim’s continually reiterating the Knight’s prowess in battle (he uses half of the lines in the Knight’s profile to discuss his battle resume), perhaps Chaucer-the-Poet is suggesting that the Knight is not as wonderful as Chaucer-the-Pilgrim believes. In striking contrast to The Pilgrim’s favorable portrayal of the Knight, The Poet depicts the Knight as an unnecessarily, overly violent person. In speaking of all the battles and wars the Knight had participated in, the reader learns that “thereto hadde he ridden, no man ferre” (48). It seems that the Knight had been at just about every major battle of his time, including the Crusades, but not limited to them, as “at mortal batailles hadde he been fifteen” (61). The Pilgrim’s comments that the Knight “was late y-come” (77) from war and still wore a tunic “bismotered with his habergeoun” (76) might be the Poet’s way of hinting that the Knight has something to confess, or get off of his proverbial and literal chest, something that couldn’t wait long enough for the Knight to change his clothes and rest a little while. That line may symbolize that the Knight has allowed his exploits on the battlefield to go beyond the exterior and affect him internally, perhaps within his soul, by fighting simply to fight. However, it was not uncommon in Chaucer’s time for men to fight for personal glory as well as for the Lord. Therefore, while Chaucer-the-Poet’s comments and excessive depictions of the Knight as bellicose do not necessarily mean that the Knight is a bloodthirsty maniac, they do cast some doubt on his “meke” personality.
From Chaucer-the-Pilgrim’s perspective, the Knight is a shining example of a Christian. He fought in the Crusades. He dutifully is making the Christian pilgrimage to the place of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, and is by default fulfilling the role of the leader on the trip. He is so Christian that, in his hurry to fulfill his duty of going on the pilgrimage, he doesn’t even stop to change his tunic, “al bismotered with his habergeoun” (76).
On the opposite end of the spectrum of spirituality, Chaucer-the-Poet’s diction clearly implies that the Knight is not a good Christian man. The Pilgrim casually mentions that the Knight had fought “as wel in Cristendom as in hethenesse” (49), “sometime with the lord of Palatye,/ Ageyn another heathen in Turkye” (65-66), establishing The Poet’s juxtaposition between Christianity and paganism. The Bible plainly states that man cannot serve two masters. However, Chaucer-the-Poet states just as plainly that the Knight had fought “in his lordes werre”(47). Thus, the Knight fought on both sides of the battlefield, for God as well as for heathens. Though fighting for God was widely accepted and excusable in Chaucer and the Knight’s time, and fighting for glory and prestige in honorable tournaments was also commonly accepted, there was no excuse for a man to be a traitor, to join the enemy’s side. Especially when that enemy is as hated as the “infidels” of Chaucer’s time were.
It is difficult for the reader to reach a conclusive judgment on the Knight’s character. On one hand, the Knight appears to be an exemplary member of society, as knights of Chaucer’s time were expected to be. On the other, the Knight has committed questionable acts that cast doubt on his morality. However, the reader must take into account that the Knight, like the rest of Chaucer’s characters, is a human being, who makes mistakes and cannot be expected to be perfect all of the time. Thus, the best conclusion that the reader can come to is that the Knight, underneath his label as a wonderful man and a perfect knight, is a man who has made mistakes and is still attempting to live up to his society’s expectations of him. The Knight’s hypocrisy and hidden guilt serve Chaucer’s purpose of mocking societal values and class hierarchy. They also set the stage for the many more pages of dichotomous, hypocritical characters that the Pilgrim and Poet are about to introduce. However, unlike the Knight, some of Chaucer’s characters are, in fact, unquestionably wholly “bad” or wholly “good”.
Merchant’s Tale: Analysis of Genre and Main Ideas
In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which gives them greater powers of perception but also causes their expulsion from Paradise. The story creates a link between clear vision and the ability to perceive the truth which, in this case, causes mankind to fall from a state of blissful ignorance to one of miserable knowledge. In the Merchant’s Tale, vision and truth do not enjoy such an easy relationship. Vision is obstructed at both the metaphorical and the literal level, and the subversion of the fabliau genre challenges the idea of truthful representation. The Merchant’s Tale destabilizes the notion of representation itself, problematizing man’s relation to truth.
Chaucer uses a very strange metaphor to describe January’s quest for a wife. The teller likens the old knight’s mind to a mirror that has been set up in a common market, catching the image of every maiden who passes. January undertakes a near obsessive mental cataloguing of all eligible women:
Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace
By his mirour; and in the same wyse
Gan January in with his thoght devyse
Of maydens which that dwelten hym bisyde. (ll. 1584-7)
The more familiar the reader is with the conventions of the fabliau genre, the more likely he is to feel that something is not quite right. First of all, the life of the married couple before marriage and the story of how that marriage took place is not properly the subject of fabliau at all and here Chaucer devotes considerable space to it (Pearsall 4/12). Second, there is something so discomforting about the old man’s search his mind becomes a surveying mirror, capturing these women with its gaze it is difficult to imagine a reader who would find this metaphor humorous. For modern readers, it is perhaps impossible to read this description without being reminded of video surveillance. By this point in the story, Chaucer had made the reader aware that the fabliau form will not be strictly followed: in addition to taking upper class people as characters and situating itself in a vice-ridden city (Pearsall 4/12), the tale deals with images like this mirror that are much more unsettling than standard fabliau fare. This destabilization of genre seems to call representation itself into question; the reader is not allowed the comfort of being firmly situated in a genre, and instead is made aware of Chaucer’s play with storytelling’s conventions. Such awareness of storytelling’s malleability should naturally make the reader more wary of any “truth” that might present itself.
The mirror itself challenges the link between representation and truth the images January sees are reconstructions/reflections, rather than the women themselves. Furthermore, the mirror is not even real. It is the poet’s metaphor, itself another kind of reconstruction, and so the reader becomes twice removed from these women who are being represented. January bases his non-visual assessment of these women not on direct interaction but on hearsay; it is their reputation among the people that determines what he thinks of their characters (ll. 1591-2). The mirror becomes a metaphorical space in which January can appraise both physical beauty and reputation. As a series of images, these reconstructions are simultaneously physical, social, and metaphorical, and yet all fall short of giving January what he needs. The mirror presents no “truth” in a way that can save January from being cuckolded. The text forcibly makes the point in a line which is both metaphor and foreshadowing: “For love is blynd alday, and may nat see” (l. 1598). In addition to being a reference to January’s later literal blindness, the line calls the problem of the mirror to the reader’s attention. What good is a “mirror” for a man who is, metaphorically (and, later, literally) blind? The idea of seeing as the direct path to truth, as laid out in Genesis, becomes inapplicable here. Vision is no longer a clear window between the subject and the truth. Instead, it is a kind of reconstruction, as flawed as any kind of representation, especially considering the limitations of this particular subject.
In addition to problematizing the relationship between vision and truth, January’s blindness challenges notions of representation by stretching the limits of the fabliau genre. First, his handicap makes him a victim in a way that invites more pity from the reader; pity inhibits the effectiveness of the humorous elements of the story, disqualifying one of the defining characteristics of what makes a fabliau. Second, his blindness makes the key fabliau element of clever trickery somewhat difficult. Although May and Damyan very cleverly trick January, this trick seems almost artificially inserted why such elaborate lengths to deceive a man who is blind? Like Damyan crouching in the garden (Pearsall 4/12), this trick seems excessive as if the characters knew they were in a fabliau story and had to fulfill their one requirement to make the cut.
The story’s use of classical and Christian myth continues the problematizing of representation. Pluto and Prosperpyna arguing like medieval Christian scholastics in the middle of a fabliau carries the destabilization of genre to a new extreme. Vision and truth come into play here again: Pluto, in wishing to grant January his sight, seems to be operating from the basic assumption that vision is a clear window between a man and the truth: “Thanne shal he knowen al hire harlotrye” (l. 2262). Prosperpyna, rather than argue against giving January his sight back, insists that vision will not help the man, because “I shal yeven hire [Mayus] suffisant answere” (l. 2266). The intervention of language, May’s “suffisant answere,” creates a gap between sight and truth. The scene of discovery and un-discovery is rife with Biblical parallels: the act of adultery is taking place in a pear tree, which, in the Middle Ages, was represented as the type of tree that bore the forbidden fruit (Thompson 4/16). The beautiful garden parallels Paradise; the Augustinian interpretation of the forbidden fruit as sexual sin links the act of adultery in the story to the first sin of Adam and Eve. Yet despite all these parallels, the Merchant’s Tale’s climax inverts the relationship between truth and sight set down in the Eden story. The first couple’s eyes are opened; at great cost, they see the truth of their own nakedness. January’s eyes are opened, but his regained sight does not help him to see the truth of his wife’s adultery. May re-interprets the scene she constructs her own representation of what was happening in the pear tree and convinces her husband of a gap between sight and truth: “Til that youre sighte ysatled be a while, / Ther may ful many a sighte yow bigile” (ll. 2405-6). His readiness to believe her ensures his continued metaphorical blindness.
The Merchant’s Tale problematizes man’s relationship to truth by destabilizing representation. Although at the end of the story the reader knows more than January about what has transpired in the garden, the tale does not allow the reader to sit comfortably with a secure grasp of the “truth.” Chaucer’s stretching of the fabliau genre and the role of stories in the text call attention to the malleability of representations Biblical imagery has been appropriated and inverted, and stories themselves (May’s lie is a skillfully told story with a strategic purpose) have been used to obscure the truth. And while May’s lie hides a truth to which the reader is privy, Chaucer leaves the reader with an image that reminds him of what he cannot know: “And on hire wombe he stroketh hire ful softe” (l. 2414). Of course, this image brings up the unanswered question of whether or not May is pregnant, as well as a second question of the child’s fathering (Pearsall 4/12). The potential child becomes an opaque representation. Its existence represents a knowable fact; that is, a pregnancy reveals that there was an act of sexual intercourse between May and a man. But the child becomes an opaque sign because the true identity of the child’s father would be a mystery not only for the reader and January, but for the adulterers as well.
Chaucer’s Depiction of the Merchant and View of Marriage
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th Century, featuring several tales loosing linked together that revolve around typical medieval lifestyles, virtues and preoccupations with many modern day parallels. In the Merchant’s Prologue, the Merchant’s attitude is imposed by distaste for the sacrament of marriage, which he describes as a form of “cursedness”, ironically reverting the conventional idea of marriage being a blessed sacrament. He implicitly stresses throughout that it is nothing but an emotional detriment to men, especially with Chaucer’s use of the semantic field of despair – “sorwe”, “care”, “soore”, “wepyng and waylaying” – so that the reader is absolutely aware about the Merchant’s fixated perspective, being that marriage will arise only these melancholic emotions. His language contains a regular rhyme metre that is flexible and enables the words to flow easily as the pilgrims journey to Canterbury. His sustained bitter tone carries his negative interpretation that is a consequence of the dislike for his wife, becoming increasingly self-pitying throughout. Having been married a mere two months (“monthes two”), enduring pain throughout each wake and sleep of this period, the merchant is so far deep in his sorrow that he has no strength to retell his own tale and must relay another.
The powerful opening of the Merchant’s Prologue is intended by Chaucer to echo the prior epilogue of the Clerk’s Tale, concluded by the Clerk’s final comments “and let him care, and wepe and wringe and waille”. The reader immediately assumes this will proceed a story of personal woe and sorrow as the Merchant continues these miserable descriptions of the consequences of marriage which he, similar to the Clerk, perceives as leaving a man “wepyng and waylyng”, with the use of alliteration quite comically here emphasising his distress with its exaggerated and elongated pronunciation of the vowel sounds. This is followed by reiterating the grief and sorrow he experiences – “care and oother sorwe” – which is later repeated to exaggerate the depths of despair he has been cast into. Chaucer’s primary application of these verbs and adjectives are used in conjunction as an accumulative list, to increase the chance of pathos from the pilgrims, who in fact are strangers to him, and so to convey him as the undeserving victim. He describes his constant suffering as occurring “on even and a-morwe”, being every evening and morning, which melodramatically creates imagery of his perpetual tribulation lasting eternally and without fail. He proposes the forceful statement that many other married men suffer alike when he says “and so doon other mo/ that wedded been”. This leaves no ambiguity, as he irrefutably sets the standard of marriage for the entire population of wedded men. These descriptions leave the reader anticipating the details behind his suffering.
His initial presentation of his wife is extremely negative, evident through Chaucer’s use of the superlative “worste” when the Merchant states that he has “a wyf”. This may startle the reader, since the Merchant speaks so harshly of his wife to these unacquaintanted pilgrims. He makes the first comparison with his wife to the “feend” (devil) who she would “overmacche” if she was married to him, for she is far worse than him. Again, this extreme imagery the Merchant develops will bewilder the reader since there is no explanatory details to her behaviours. He later refers to her as a “shrewe”. Chaucer uses this metaphor to put the Merchant’s wife in light of being a nuisance rodent animal, who acts violently and brutishly when not given what she desires. This firmly embodies the contemporary misogynistic perceptions of women. He makes a second antithesis of the Clerk’s Grisilda, who with her “grete pacience” succeeds trails inflicted by her husband so is deemed, by the contemporary audience, as the ideal wife. Grisilda’s exceptional obedience – and lack of “cureltee” that his own wife shows apparent persistent signs of – outshines his wife in every way. The reader can assume that from the Merchant’s subtle yearning for a wife like Grisilda that there is a likelihood for perfection in marriage, but the Merchant being so isolated in his despair does not make light of this possibility. It is her cruelty that has fixated his negative perspective on all existing and future marriages. Early in the Merchant’s Tale he discusses anti-feminist literature of the period, referring to author Theofraste who claims the married woman has sole interest in spending half the money between herself and her spouse – “she wolf claime half part al hir lyf” – which reinforces the misogynistic view of the Merchant, despite saying Theofraste may be lying.
Chaucer’s character then explores the possibility of him being “unbounden” from his marriage when he uses the metaphor for marriage being a trap (“snare”), which strongly suggests he believes marriage forcedly encapsulates men into a state of no return, and of no prosperity as he wishes he could succeed when he says “also moot I thee”. From this, the reader will not make any connotations of love from these images the Merchant creates. This clear criticism of marriage begs the question of why he got married in the first place.The Merchant continues to degrade the value of marriage and makes the impression that married men must unite as one in their emotional turmoil, evident through Chaucer’s use of inclusive address when the Merchant says “we wedded men”. This suggests that he feels more united with other married men than to his own wife.
He makes a direct reference to the Host when he says “A, goode sire Hoost” which effectively highlights to the reader his desperation and plea towards the Host, or for anyone he can reach out to in midst of his despair, to pay attention and to empathise with his suffering. After stating he has been wedded for only two months (“I have ywedded bee/ this monthes two”) the reader may be surprised at this early depression, and perhaps question the sincerity of his testimonies or at least be suspicious. Chaucer has portrayed him as an arrogant man claiming to be an expert on marriage on foundations of such limited experience, hence the reader may begin to reduce in fondness or grow doubtful of the Merchant.
Chaucer refers frequently to religion and saints, for instance when the Merchant criticises his wife he swears truth “by Saint Thomas of Ynde”, and from this casual approach to swearing oaths suggests to the reader a man who has little faith and whose values in religion can be speculated. The reader could also assume that the Merchant married his wife purely for religious reasons; the contemporary audience believed the sacrament of marriage mirrored the union between the married and Christ. Marriage, being a crucial element of Catholicism at the time, was necessary to enter heaven. Since there was a strong belief of afterlife, there was much prevention done to ensure tranquility after death. Therefore the Merchant’s intentions for marriage may be deemed self-satisfying, only so he would enter heaven, which is ironic since he presently experiences no means of satisfaction. Chaucer may be warning the readers of the ramifications of solely selfish behaviour, as demonstrated by the Merchant, which will have a diametrically opposite outcome than intended.
When listing the criticisms of his wife and their marriage, the Merchant emerges as an arrogant character and as a man with lack of perception for the true nature of marriage. Conventional attitudes to the nature of marriage were regarded as a mercantile transaction and the consolidation of title so marriage was rarely undertaken for love. This may be the case for the Merchant, hence his failure in marriage. By the end of the prologue, the reader’s sympathy for the Merchant may be challenged as he increasingly absorbs himself further into self-pity and deeper into depths of despair.
Chaucer’s Description of Medieval Feudalism
The Canterbury Tales is an estates satire, that not only points out the shortcomings and inequalities, but also the inauthenticity, that exist under feudalism’s code of social stratification. Examples of these characterizations of the estates are found widely throughout the general prologue and the pilgrims’ tales.
The first example of inequality in The Canterbury Tales that is encountered as a result of social stratification is religious, or clerical, inequality. The Prioress, the Monk, and the Friar are all ecclesiastics of the first estate and are the most inauthentic characters in the book. The Summoner and the Pardoner both work for the church and are the worst characters in the book. The Clerk, the Parson, and the Plowman are all of the lowest estate both socially and financially but all practice morality in such a way that would be expected of those of the first estate. The parallel drawn here is that clergymen were appointed by the King, the most powerful man in England save for the Pope. Professor Richard Abels states in his article “Medieval Kingship in Late Twelfth- and Early Thirteenth-Century England: the Reigns of King Henry II and King John” that “Henry II also wished to restore royal control over the English church as enjoyed by Henry I by…having at least a veto over ecclesiastical elections, controlling appeals from English clerics to Rome, and maintaining right to try clerics in royal courts under common law after they were tried in ecclesiastical court under canon law.” Thus, the closer one was to royalty, the less likely they were to ever have to face the consequences of their misdeeds.
The economic inequality between the estates prove to be just as the characters of the first estate all have financial prosperity at the sake of those that they are supposed to serve. For instance, the Pardoner says in his prologue, “I mean to have money, wool and cheese and wheat/ Though it were given to me by the poorest lad/ Or poorest village widow, though she had/ A string of starving children, all agape.” This is not in contrast with the fact that those serving the church during the Middle Ages under feudalism did not have to pay taxes. The church received its money in the form of tithes from those in the third estate. Those tithes were used to pay the clergymen, who were appointed by the King. Unchecked powered and an unlimited access to unearned money led to secularization of clerical officials. An example of such secularism is found in the description of the Prioress in the general prologue “She wore a coral trinket on her arm,/ A set of beads, the gaudies tricked in green,/ Whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen/ On which there first was graven a crowned A,/ And lower, Amor vincit omnia.” The Parson, by contrast, is the most morally upstanding character in the book and the least wealthy. “His business was to show a fair behaviour/ And draw men thus to Heaven and their Saviour.” The economic inequality shown due to unfair distribution of wealth is a common motif throughout The Canterbury Tales. It can even be argued that the more wealth, or higher social standing a character has, the more morally destitute the character is.
The third kind of feudal inequality as expressed in The Canterbury Tales is gender inequality. The Wife of Bath was scrutinized heavily as an overly sensual and immoral character, even though men in the book including the Pardoner and the Friar had sexual affairs of their own out of wedlock. During the Middle Ages, women were placed in the “feminine estates:” virgin, wife, and widow. Dr. Debora B. Schwartz, in her article “The Three Estates” states “it is interesting to note that a woman’s estate was determined not by her profession but by her sexual activity: she is defined in relationship to the men with whom she sleeps, used to sleep, or never has slept.” This is proven true in The Canterbury Tales by the fact that the Wife of Bath was not called by her real name, Alisoun, by any of the other pilgrims throughout the story. Her whole plot line was about her as a wife, and widow, and how she looks upon those who overvalued virginity with disdain. The Wife of Bath said of herself “I’ll persevere; I’m not pernickety./ In wifehood I will use my instrument/ As freely as my maker me it sent.” Her declaration is viewed as an act of rebellion, or even blasphemy, by the other pilgrims; however, when the men make the same confessions to enjoy extracurricular activities similar to Alisoun’s, it is regarded as unimportant.
Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is definitely meant scrutinize and condemn the inequalities that were prevalent under feudalism in the Middle Ages. Chaucer speaks out against this inequality through the Wife of Bath, who herself detested the double standards and unfairness that followed as a result. He uses characters like the Monk, the Pardoner, and the Nun to further elaborate the point that the most privileged people under feudalism were those that had sworn to live lives without any luxuries. The Canterbury Tales is an effective estates satire because it examines the inequalities of society without overtly categorizing complex characters as either “good” or bad.” Through this work, readers are able to understand the inherent inequality that comes in social caste systems and that those inequalities are often facilitated by those of the highest social standing.
A Medieval Game of Geoffrey Chaucer
Perhaps no medieval work of literature is as rich in the concept of games and play as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The tales are framed by the very idea of a game, i.e. the game of telling stories while on a pilgrimage. However, the real games in the tales are those that emerge through the stories that the pilgrims tell. For example, “The Miller’s Tale” and “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” highlight that games that women play in the context of their relationships with men. The fact that the two female characters in question are both named “Alison” adds to the irony and perhaps implies that Chaucer is also playing a game with the reader.
The first Alison encountered in both Bradshaw and Ellesmere’s standard order of the Canterbury Tales is the Alison of “The Miller’s Tale.” This character’s attitude and strength seem to be connected to her age, as she is described first and foremost as “wilde and yong” (117). Because she is so young and her husband, John the Carpenter, is so old and controlling, it is no surprise to the reader that she is so easily convinced to have an affair with the young clerk, Nicholas. While it is Nicholas who first makes advances, Alison is an active participant in the affair, and takes part in the plot to trick her husband: “Nicholas and Alisoun / Accorded been to this conclusion, / That Nicholas shal shapen hem a wile” (293-95). Besides implying that Alison is enjoying the affair, this is the reader’s first real clue as to how active of a participant Alison is in the upcoming game of deception. Her true “play” comes in not much later when the other love-struck clerk, Absolon, asks to see her. She responds harshly, cursing him and his request in the name of twenty devils (605), and then comes up with the idea to trick him into kissing her “naked ers” (626). It is also important to note that Alison is the only one that is not punished for the part she plays. While Nicholas ends up burnt, John breaks his leg and is considered crazy, and Absolon has kissed Alison’s rear, Alison herself does not suffer in the slightest. With this, Chaucer invites the reader to view Alison as the one with the power in this game. Even before the Wife of Bath’s perspective is introduced, the idea that women have the control in such situations has already been voiced.
This idea continues with the second Alison, the Wife of Bath. The game that is introduced in Alison of Bath’s “Prologue” is the game of manipulation and deception. She states clearly that her first three husbands were “hoolly in [her] hand” and that she thoroughly controlled them (217). She trained them to bring her presents, and “were ful glade whan I spak hem faire,” for when she criticized them it was “spitously” and cruelly (227-29). Mostly, this Alison shows that her power to manipulate lies in her words. She either praises or criticizes based on what is needed to get what she wants.
Critic Elaine Hansen comments that the Wife of Bath “views words as strategic weapons, like sex and money, in the war between the sexes, and she describes her verbal tactics as repayment in kind against the men in her life” (Hansen 28). This “repayment” through language is uniquely connected to the position of women in medieval culture. As implied by the misogynist writings referenced by the Wife of Bath’s last husband, Jankin, women were largely expected to be submissive and obey their husbands. If a woman’s temperament did not meet this standard, it was largely acceptable for husbands to “control” or beat their wives. This idea is especially conveyed in the physical violence Jankin uses against Alison; at one point, he hits her hard enough to make her deaf in one ear (674). A parallel can also be drawn between the Alison of Bath’s situation and the jealous control that John the Carpenter tries to hold over the Alison of “The Miller’s Tale.” In both situations, the women use cunning and language to fight back. While the initial trickery, deception, and language play used to control their husbands is clearly depicted as a game, this contrary view can also be seen as a method of basic survival. The men in this patriarchal structure have social and physical power; the women’s language play and control games are comparatively harmless, but perhaps essential.
It is impossible, of course, to definitively discern the reaction of Chaucer’s original audience. After all, both stories draw on the anti-feminist writings that were popular during the period. However, by having the Alison from “The Miller’s Tale” escape punishment and by having the Alison from “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” succeed in winning the power in her relationship with Jankin, Chaucer seems to be not only showing the importance of the women’s actions, but even endorsing them. However, by having both characters recall the women in anti-feminist writings, their roles as the “winners” in their love games becomes somewhat problematic. Regardless of Chaucer’s intended moral, it is clear that both Alisons have played surprisingly similar games and are similar in their implied or stated values. Also, perhaps because of their less powerful status as women in medieval culture, the women show no remorse about playing tricks on their men; instead, they act more like children who, as Alison from “The Wife of Bath” states, would welcome the chance to do it all again.
Chaucer, Geoffery. “The Miller’s Prologue and Tale.” Canterbury Tales. The Norton Anthology. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 1962. New York: Norton, 2006.
“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Canterbury Tales. The Norton Anthology. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 1962. New York: Norton, 2006.
Hansen, Elaine. Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
A Clerk and an Astrologer Within the Miller’s Tale
Alison in “The Miller’s Tale” is described as young and wild, like an animal: “Thereto she koude skippe and make game/ As any kyde or calf folwynge his dame”, and we know that she would be willing to follow any idea as long as it is “fun”. We observe her childish immaturity in the scenes where she lets Absolon “kiss” her. Similarly, it does not take much persuasion on Nicholas’ part to talk Alison into having an affair with him, as the idea of tricking her husband is a game for her. With impish delight she conspires with Nicholas to create the outlandish plot of convincing her husband that a great flood is coming, and with her husband safely ensconced in a bathtub hanging from the roof, Alison successfully plays with Nicholas.
Differences between Nicholas and Absolon emerge early on, yet although both men compete with each other and with John for sexual access to Alison, true to type, the male rivals actually demonstrate less interest in the female object of their alleged desire than in their own gender and class identity and hence their relations to each other are in a closed sphere of male objectivity.
Nicholas, with his mixture of esoteric learning, outrageous sense of humour and eager pursuit of love is a type still recognisable today. He is introduced as “hende Nicholas”, yet his conduct does not at all answer to the usual sense of the adjective, which implies great courtesy, but rather to a suggestion of approval, which is repeatedly invoked as the Miller refers to his protagonist by this formula. We also learn at once that he is knowledgeable, “hadde lerned art”, and of his interest in astrology. Astrology was seen as a respectable branch of learning, and Nicholas is aware of its power to impress others. The imaginary flood of which Nicholas tells John shows us his cunning, his ingenuity, his contempt for the obtuse tradesman and his confidence. His reputation(earned by genuine astrology in the past) is the linch-pin of his scheme to assist Alison cuckold John. In carrying out his plot, however, Nicholas must act convincingly the part of one struck briefly dumb by what he has foreseen. Though he later will laugh at John’s credulity, before he has had his night of bliss with Alison, he resists the temptation to betray himself by laughter or facial expression. Though John’s comments about the clerk who fell into the marl-pit, “he saugh nat that”, reflect chiefly on his own lack of foresight, they may apply to Nicholas, who, in his over-confidence, receives the punishment Absolon has devised for Alison. Nicholas’ capacity as an astrologer is not compromised by this, however, as he acts on impulse, having “risen for to pisse”, rather than after consulting his “astrelabie” or his “augrim stones”.
Though Nicholas takes astrology fairly seriously, he is otherwise cynical, unscrupulous and blasphemous. He has no honourable intentions towards Alison, although to be fair, he does not deceive her, as his attitude is frankly shown in his direct approach towards her. As a scholar of the university he is in minor orders, and required to be celibate. Though John is fond of him, albeit patronisingly, he regards his host as a fool whom he has no qualms about cuckolding. He is foul-mouthed and uses blasphemous oaths, and a far greater blasphemy lies in his claim of divine authority for his “discovery” of the imminent flood, to say nothing of the use this blasphemy serves.
In spite of this, the Miller contrives that we shall like Nicholas. He does this by making John seem deserving of punishment for his unwise marriage and subsequent jealousy. Nicholas’ youth and attractiveness may make us less critical of his impropriety, and the comic manner of the tale’s telling makes his conduct seem less worthy of censure than would be the case with real people. Nicholas seems a more appropriate partner for Alison than does John, and the Miller’s repetition of the formula “hende Nicholas” encourages us to be more sympathetic towards him.
Absolon, the other male protagonist in “The Miller’s Tale” superficially resembles Nicholas in that he is a handsome young man with musical and other talents. To some he might be attractive, but to Alison, as to the Miller’s audience, he is ridiculous. In his general attire, as in his preparations for his nocturnal visit to Alison, there is fastidious attention to detail: the red hose, the white surplice, the “pointes” and the fashionable shoes; the arraying at “point-devis”, the chewing of grain and liquorice, the placing of the “trewe-love” under the tongue. Absolon also has a superficial notion of love, which issues in a parody of the courtly code, made all the more ridiculous by the everyday setting of the tale. Absolon serenades Alison, sends her a variety of gifts and swears to be her page. He even serenades her, we are told earlier, in the presence of her husband, John the carpenter. When Absolon plans to visit Alison in John’s absence, the reader is struck by what Absolon hopes for, “kissing atte leeste”, and what we know Nicholas and Alison are already doing. Absolon’s reading of the “omens” – his dream and his itching mouth – shows his naivety where women are concerned. This contrasts to Nicholas’s apparent exhaustive knowledge of women. Similar to Nicholas, however, Absolon is lecherous and vain, attempting to use courtly love as a means to seduce the attractive Alison.