Marital Wisdom in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales might well be the cardinal literary élan of the Middle Ages. Before considering Chaucer’s contribution to marriage, let us begin with a brief look at his legacy. By the late fourteenth century, it had become commonplace for the last couple hundred years to take a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket, but no one had yet made a story out of it—let alone a verse narrative where the characters on the pilgrimage each tell their own tale. Chaucer also countered expectations by choosing to write in the vernacular English rather than in the expected literary Latin, in statu quo res erant ante Chaucer. And though he didn’t invent iambic pentameter, he used it in rhyming couplets, propelling it to become the standard English verse form for centuries, used especially often by Shakespeare.
This “father of English poetry” gadflied his countrymen with a witty treatment of English society. Though it was nearly impossible to shift classes in the Middle Ages, Chaucer moved among, if not transcended, them. He was born a commoner, but through his intellectual facility, he gained acceptance and mobility in the aristocracy. Drawing on his varied class experiences and keen understanding of human nature, he could write astutely about all levels of society—using poetic wit, satire, logos, and pathos to gently spur his countrymen toward truth, toward a heightened understanding of themselves and others.
In The Canterbury Tales we find a panoply of colorful characters from a wide cross-section of English culture, who each tell a most fascinating tale. And here, both the character and the tale matter, though sometimes the emphasis falls on one more than the other.
One particularly dynamic character is the all-too-human, bawdy, passionate Wife of Bath—a rather pitiful character, yet one whose frankness must have initiated a needed fresh perspective in Chaucer’s day. In the Middle Ages, marriage happened by arrangement, involved the exchange of property, and functioned for the purpose of procreation. Most couples did not marry for love or for physical attraction.
Enter the Wife of Bath, whose very being is contrary to societal expectations. In her Prologue, which is longer than her tale, we learn much about her and her provocative views: she has had, without shame, five husbands; she advocates respect for women; she is comfortable with sexuality; she prefers experience over authority; and finally, she proposes that wives should have sovereignty over their husbands—a point she supports well by explaining how she gained mastery over each of her five husbands.
The Wife of Bath’s tale is an exemplum, a story told to illustrate a point. The tale features a knight in King Arthur’s day who must search far and wide to discover the answer to the question: What do women most desire? If he cannot uncover the answer in a year’s time, he will lose his head. He eventually finds the answer from an old homely woman, which is the very point the Wife of Bath most wants to convey: Wives want mastery over their husbands.
Because of the Wife of Bath’s tart feminism and dauntless persona, it is quite common in our “liberated” age to extol her as a testament to a progressive idea of women and marriage. But this should come as little surprise. We find in texts and characters the interests of our age; indeed, we find ourselves.
And because of this, we tend to overlook the many wise spiritual and theological points the Wife of Bath makes in both her prologue and her tale. She references Christ and Scripture more than a dozen times. For example, gentilessė, “virtuous character,” is not a matter of birth, but of moral action—and even more so, a matter of God’s grace:
For gentilessė comes from God alone.
Then comes our very gentilessė of grace;
It was no thing bequeathed us with our place (ll. 1162-1164)
Or in these lines:
Christ wills we claim of Him our gentilessė,
Not of our elders for their old richesse. (ll. 1117-1118)
Here is a large, earthy feminist with a rotund amount of worldly and Scriptural wisdom. The Wife of Bath is altogether one very interesting and thought-provoking creation. With this said, however, I must confess that I am not quite as taken with her as many contemporary readers are—but not because of her feminism or her views of wifely sovereignty. Certainly, much can be gained by considering her rollicking perspectives.
The real reason I am not so taken is because of The Franklin’s Tale—for it contains Chaucer’s most thoughtful and salubrious idea about love and marriage. The Franklin, with his multi-layered tale of love, patience, and fidelity in marriage, affirms a proper balance between two extremes: the complete sovereignty rumpused by the Wife of Bath; and, though not discussed here, the interminable patience and near-imbecilic acquiescence of Griselda in The Clerk’s Tale.
As is evident from the passage (above right), the marriage of Arveragus and Dorigen in The Franklin’s Tale is a model marriage—one of mutual sacrifice for the other; one of mutual consent, faith, trust, and love. Here we find a perfect pitch, an Aristotelian mean—a balance that reflects the indelible words of St. Paul in Ephesians 5:22-25: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. … Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.”
Certainly many commendable things can be said of the Wife of Bath. She’s a great deal of fun, upsurging from the tale in almost Quixotian esprit. But I don’t think she best reveals the profundity of Chaucer’s wisdom on the subject of love.
Love will not be constrained by mastery.
When mastery comes, the God of Love anon
Beateth his wings and farewell—he is gone! (ll. 764-766)
The natural bird imagery to express this truth in marriage brings to mind a pertinent quote by R. Morris, a late nineteenth-century literary critic:
Even Chaucer’s love and reverence for books gave way before an eager desire to enjoy the beauties of nature in that season of the year when all around him was manifesting life and loveliness. Not less evident is Chaucer’s high estimation of women, and his perception of a sacred bond, spiritual and indestructible, in true marriage between man and woman.
In The Franklin’s Tale Chaucer finds his fluid stride—the spiritual plenty of mutual love and sacrifice—the laying aside of one’s own interests and life for the other. Perhaps this age’s preference for the Wife of Bath reveals a glutinous irony: just who is the more wise and free in marriage—the medievals or the postmoderns? After all, our paradigms of liberated sovereignty bellow from Hollywood the values of our age: ephemeral marriages and solipsistic autonomy—and these without the authenticity and spirituality of the Wife of Bath, or the saintly love and mutual surrender in The Franklin’s Tale.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2014 edition.