Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ as a Revival of Marie de France’s ‘Lanval’
If one was asked to name the epitome of medieval English literature, it is very likely that the answer would be Geoffrey Chaucer. Indeed, this world-wide known poet has played a major role in the development of the English language thanks to his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales, among many others. However, a genius seldom comes up with his or her greater ideas all alone and it is effectively common that famous authors draw their literary works on other writers’ creations. Regarding Chaucer, it has been proven that he did so on Boccaccio or Boethius for instance, but the work that will interest us here is the lai of “Lanval” which was written by Marie de France at the end of the twelfth century. A non-negligible number of similarities can be noticed between this story and Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” which can lead one to wonder if Chaucer’s purpose was to give a second wind to Marie de France’s lai. The Oxford Dictionary defines a revival as a “new production of an old play or similar work” and it seems to preliminarily correspond to what “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is in relation to “Lanval”. Knowing that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales two centuries after the publication of Marie de France’s lais, “Lanval” can thereupon be considered as “old” enough to fit in with this definition. The aspect of “new production” is however more difficult to deal with. Therefore, I would like to suggest that “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” can effectively be designated as a revival or a new production of “Lanval” because both stories globally resemble in their content and more importantly, because they have the same main purpose, which is to empower women. Thus, following a brief introduction that will highlight the general similarities of the two works, this assumption will be proven in the second and main part of this essay by showing that both authors aim at giving power to women.
Before considering “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” as a revival of “Lanval” thanks to their same goal of empowering the female characters, it is necessary to emphasise the fact that the two stories are already practically identical in their content. First of all, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, as well as “Lanval”, take place in a fairy universe. Then, they present similar types of characters. Indeed, the protagonists of both tales are a knight and a fairy creature with magical powers. The reader also encounters in each of them King Arthur and his wife, the queen. The guideline of the plots also highly resembles. Chaucer and Marie de France’s works effectively both tell the story of a knight who is set in a trial and who escapes from a certain death thanks to a fairy woman. Regarding their genre, Esther C. Quinn asserts that “Both are set in the days of King Arthur, draw on fairy love and are testing romances. In Marie’s lai the Fairy Mistress tests Lanval . . . and in Chaucer’s romance the nameless hero is tested by a series of nameless women” (Quinn 211). It is true that the two stories have some features that make one think that they belong to a romantic genre, but the simple fact that it is not the knight who rescues the damsel but the opposite, makes one categorize them in a same unusual category that could be called the “unconventional Arthurian Romance”. It is also interesting to note that both are not detached works but are part of a collection. Indeed, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” belongs to The Canterbury Tales and “Lanval” is part of The lais of Marie de France. Focusing on the narrative style, it is true that they both include an intrusive narrator who cannot help but make observations all along the tale. In “Lanval” for example, the narrator introduces the tale with the following opening: “I shall relate to you the story of another lay” (Marie de France 73). Other comments can be noticed, such as “This knight whose tale I am telling you” (73), “I will not fail to tell you the truth” (74), “the value of which I cannot tell” (74) or “nor can I relate any more” (81). Similarly, Alisoun, the narrator of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, also intervenes while telling her tale, such as when she says “This was the olde opinion, as I rede;/ I speke of manye hundred yeres ago” (Chaucer III: 862-63), “But that tale is nat worth a rake-stele./ Pardee, we wommen konne no thyng hele;/ Witnesse on Myda — wol ye heere the tale?” (III: 949-51), or “The remenant of the tale if ye wol heere,/ Redeth Ovyde, and ther ye may it leere” (III: 981-82). Therefore, it can be assumed that both works are analogous in their founding principles, which tend to make one already think that “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” could possibly be considered as a new production of “Lanval”.
More than just similar in their content and structure, these two works seem to reach an identical goal: to empower women. Either it is in “Lanval” or “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, the female protagonists are praised for their beauty and are able to draw power over men from it. In Marie de France’s lai, the description of the main female character, the maiden, already spotlights her physical attractiveness, when it says that she “surpassed in beauty the lily and the new rose when it appears in summer”, “Her body was well formed and handsome” and that “she was whiter than the hawthorn blossom” (Marie de France 74). Later in the tale, her charm is confirmed by the narrator’s description of her arrival in King Arthur’s Court: “There was no one in the town, humble or powerful, old or young, who did not watch her arrival, and no one jested about her beauty. She approached slowly and the judges who saw her thought it was a great wonder. No one who had looked at her could have failed to be inspired with real joy” (80). If the narrator praises so much the outstanding looks of the fairy woman in “Lanval”, it is because her beauty contributes to her empowerment over men. In this sense, Emma Caitlin Briscoe explains that:
[The maiden’s] attractive appearance alone, is enough to wield power over male characters. Her physical attributes act as sources of power; the varying levels of eroticism, sexualized details and descriptions, used to illustrate these women in Marie de France’s Lai de Lanval can be read as subtle, and occasionally overt, power plays meant to reconstruct the position of women within power binaries. (Briscoe 12-13)
It is true that the beauty of the heroine of “Lanval” is a source of power that she uses against men. For instance, she takes advantage from it to catch the court’s attention when she approaches the king during the trial and “in the sight of all, [lets] her cloak fall so that they [can] see her better” (Marie de France 81). The effect of such demonstration is that the king “rose to meet her, and all the others honoured her and offered themselves as her servants” (81). Contrary to the maiden, the female protagonist of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” possesses an attractiveness that is less obvious, as she is often referred to as an old and ugly figure. She nevertheless also draws power from it after her transformation at the end of the tale, when Chaucer writes that “And whan the knyght saugh verraily al this,/ That she so fair was, and so yong therto,/ For joye he hente hire in his armes two./ His herte bathed in a bath of blisse./ A thousand tyme a-rewe he gan hire kisse” (Chaucer III: 1250-54). In this passage, once the knight sees the new physical appearance of the old lady, he takes the woman in his arms and kisses her, all along with his heart racing. Considering his previous denigrating attitude towards the old lady, his acts can be interpreted as a way for him to give himself away to her and this shows that the heroine of the tale is also able to draw empowerment from her beauty.
Beyond their physical appearances, the female protagonists of “Lanval” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” get power from their acts and speeches as well. Indeed, as Quinn explains, “In the context of this male-oriented literature, which celebrates knightly helpfulness, Chaucer, like Marie, reverses the tradition of the rescue of damsels” (Quinn 216). In both tales, the only one who can save the knight from a certain death is the maiden and the old lady respectively. Thus, the life of the two knights depends entirely on the female protagonists of each story which, of course, give them a non-negligible power. In “Lanval”, the maiden highlights her role of rescuer when she asks the king “As regards the boast he made, if he can be acquitted by me, let your barons release him!” (Marie de France 81). In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, the old lady’s supremacy is even more blatant because, as Quinn explains it, the reader faces “the final irony of the tale, that the knight is humbled, domesticated, perhaps redeemed, not by a courtly lady, but by a seemingly poor, old woman who is his wife” (Quinn 216). Female empowerment can also be noticed elsewhere in the tales. For instance, in “Lanval”, the maiden imposes the confidentiality of her relationship with Lanval through the following words: “I admonish, order, and beg you not to reveal this secret to anyone! I shall tell you the long and short of it: you would lose me forever if this love were to become known. You would never be able to see me or possess me” (Marie de France 75). Through this order, the maiden is the one who sets the rules of their relationship and is therefore in a position of superiority in relation to the knight. Furthermore, the narrator reinforces the maiden’s power by dragging some evidences throughout the story, such as when it says that the fairy girl “commanded” (75) or that Lanval “had [her] allowed him” (75). In the “Wife of Bath”, the old lady proceeds in a similar way. For example, after that the knight has been acquitted, she expresses herself in front of the Court and says:
“Mercy,” quod she, “my sovereyn lady queene! Er that youre court departe, do me right. I taughte this answere unto the knyght; For which he plighte me his trouthe there, The firste thyng that I wolde hym requere He wolde it do, if it lay in his myghte. Bifore the court thanne preye I thee, sir knyght,” Quod she, “that thou me take unto thy wyf, For wel thou woost that I have kept thy lyf”. (Chaucer III: 1048-56)
In this passage, Erin Dee Moore explains that “The old wyf . . . manipulate the knight – she will not allow a prospective marriage opportunity to pass her by . . . she uses tactics to her advantage in interrupting the knight’s trial. She waits until the knight is acquitted before she announces her claim on him” (Moore 27). Indeed, if she had waited the end of the trial to make her demand, it is very likely that, in private, the knight would have turned it down. Thus, as Chaucer implies when he writes “But al for noght; the ende is this, that he/ Constreyned was; he nedes moste hire wedde,/ And taketh his olde wyf, and gooth to bedde.” (Chaucer III: 1070-72), the presence of another powerful woman, the queen, forces the knight to accept the old lady’s request. Another striking example of the old lady’s power can be noticed when she gives the knight an ultimatum and that the latter is forced to make the difficult choice between a beautiful but perhaps cheating wife or an old and ugly but faithful wife (III: 1213-27). Hence, all these illustrations demonstrate that, through their speeches and acts, the maiden and the old lady are both empowered in comparison with the knights.
Apart from the maiden and the old lady, the queens are also female characters that stand out in each tale thanks to the power they possess as women and not just because they own some imperial power. Indeed, in “Lanval”, after that the knight refused her sexual advances, the queen complains about him to her husband. The king reacts strongly to his wife’s accusations and orders that “if Lanval could not defend himself in court, he would have him burned or hanged” (77), which are severe punishments for having simply upset the queen. It is true that she is said to “[have manipulated] the situation, portraying herself as the victim of insult to her husband, and through him puts Lanval on trial and almost sees him punished” (“Wife of Bath/Lanval”). Her power over the king is noticeable several times through the story. For example, when “The king pressed them hard because the queen was waiting for them” (79) or later, when it says that “[the king] summoned all his barons so that they might deliver their verdict [because] the queen, who had been waiting for them such a long time, was getting angry” (80). Thus, it is not the authority of a queen that is highlighted in “Lanval”, but more the power of a woman over her husband. The queen in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is also an authoritative figure and she exercises her superiority over her husband as well. Although she only appears at the beginning and at the end of the tale, the queen possesses a non-negligible role thanks to the power she possesses. It can firstly be seen, when the king orders:
That dampned was this knyght for to be deed, By cours of lawe, and sholde han lost his heed — Paraventure swich was the statut tho — But that the queene and other ladyes mo So longe preyeden the kyng of grace Til he his lyf hym graunted in the place, And yaf hym to the queene, al at hir wille, To chese wheither she wolde hym save or spille. (Chaucer III: 891-98)
Moore’s explanation of this scene is that “By placing the knight on trial, the queen and her court want to assert their power over the knight. This a tactical maneuver to get a man to recognize female desire . . . The queen asks to try the knight, not because she wants to save his life, but because she wants him to vocalize feminine desire” (Moore 28). Extrapolating on this idea, it is true that not only does the queen steal the king’s authority in this passage, but she also forces the criminal to publicly acknowledge something in favour of all women. Therefore, it can be assumed that, either in “Lanval” or “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, the queens, as female figure, are also empowered in comparison to their husbands.
Finally, the criticism of chivalry that can be drawn from the two tales is another aspect that contributes to the empowerment of women. Several critics have actually claimed that what differentiates “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from “Lanval” were the authors’ and narrators’ views on chivalry. However, what I would like to argue here is that both tales maintain the same position regarding this subject. The only difference between the two is that Chaucer’s criticism is more obvious than Marie de France’s but that both tales, by belittling knights, contribute to enhance women’s power. Indeed, in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, Chaucer’s denunciation of the knighthood is unequivocal: “The chivalric code states that you are to treat females with respect. In Chaucer’s tale we see large amount of disrespect with regards to the Knight in question . . . he rapes a maiden, disrespects [the old lady] by telling her she is both old and ugly and not fit to be with him” (“‘Lanval’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’”: Commonalities and Differences Between the Numbered Lines”). Through these acts, it appears clearly to the reader that the knight of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” possesses a real aversion to women. What consequently empowers women here is that, at the end of the tale, even this misogynist knight lets the old lady decide the fate of the rest of his existence:
This knyght avyseth hym and sore siketh, But atte laste he seyde in this manere: “My lady and my love, and wyf so deere, I put me in youre wise governance; Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance And moost honour to yow and me also. I do no fors the wheither of the two, For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me.” (Chaucer III: 1228-35)
In Marie de France’s lai, Sharon Kinoshita underlines several “anti-feudal” aspects (Kinoshita 270). For instance, Kinoshita claims that “Where Lanval treated the feudal bond linking him to his lord the king as inviolable, Arthur . . . is less scrupulous, putting his vassal on trial for his alleged insults to the queen” (272). It is effectively surprising that the words of an exemplary and devoted knight such as Lanval become inaudible to the king’s ears against the false accusation of the queen. As demonstrated above when discussing the queen’s authority, the words of the latter are more convincing to King Arthur than the explanations of his most loyal knight. This can seem surprising knowing that chivalry is usually considered as a central pillar of the Middle Ages. The most striking example is probably the behaviour of Lanval, who is thought to be the archetypical knight thanks to his devotion to the king and his chivalrous attitude. Kinoshita effectively explains that:
“In the end, Lanval is striking precisely for its titular protagonist’s rejection of feudal and chivalric values alike. Taking literally all the clichés of courtly discourse – honouring his lady over his lord, choosing love over reputation – he abandons Arthur’s court, voluntarily choosing an oblivion that be unthinkable to an epic hero like Roland and a romance hero like Erec or Yvain” (272)
Thus, what gives power to women here is that even the ideal knight prefers to give up on his professional duty to flee with the female protagonist of the story. It can therefore be assumed that both Marie de France and Chaucer, through the criticism of chivalry, contribute to empower women.
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “Lanval” are shaped in a similar way, both telling the story of a knight sentenced to death but saved by a fairy woman. The two stories take place in a fairy universe and can be qualified of “unconventional Arthurian Romance”. Furthermore, some particularities, such as the narratorial intrusions, bring them even closer. However, what really makes the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” a new production of “Lanval” is the fact that both tale aim at empowering women. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that through the description of the female protagonist’s appearances, speeches and acts, the authority of the queens and the general criticism of chivalry, the purpose of these two tales is to give women power over men. Thus, in addition to the general similarities of the stories, the fact that they possess the same goal allows one to claim that Geoffrey Chaucer’s work can be considered as a revival of Marie de France’s lai.
Briscoe, Emma Caitlin. Female Agency, Eroticism, and Empowerment in Marie de France’s Lai de Lanval. 5 May 2015, vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/56669/ Briscoe_EC_T_2015.pdf;sequence=1. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue. Edited by V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson, W.W. Norton, 2005. De France, Marie. The Lais of Marie de France. Translated by Glyn S. Burgess, Penguin, 2012. Kinoshita, Sharon. “Cherchez la femme : Feminist Criticism and Marie de France’s Lai de Lanval.’” Romance Notes, vol. 34, no. 3, 1994, pp. 263–273. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43802247. “‘Lanval’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’”: Commonalities and Differences Between the Numbered Lines.” Shannon Lately, 25 Feb. 2014, shannonodumblogbritlit.wordpress.com/2014 /02/25/lanval-and-the-wife-of-bath-commonalities-and-differences-between-the- numbered-lines/. Moore, Erin Dee. Feminine Desire and Power in th Arthurian Tradition. 2007, http://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu:180526/datastream/PDF/view. Quinn, Esther C. “Chaucer’s Arthurian Romance.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 18, no. 3, 1984, pp. 211–220. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25093882. “Revival. Definition of revival in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/revival. “Wife of Bath/Lanval.” MBA, MBA, 4 Dec. 2017, ascendnaamba.org/papers/wife-of-bathlanval-3741.
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