While both “Morte Darthur” and “The Miller’s Tale” display some characteristics of a satirical approach in which human vices are attacked in a whimsical manner through irony, comedy, and folly, they are actually quite different in their literary genre and style. “Morte Darthur”, an adventurous tale with an imaginary setting that perfectly idealizes the chivalrous knight-hero and his noble deeds done for the love of his lady, is a classic example of a tragic medieval romance.
A fabliau, of which “The Miller’s Tale” is an example, takes a comical approach with the typically large cast of colorful characters: the blissfully ignorant husband, the foolish Casanova, the insatiable young wife, and the avaricious clery members whose disingenuous interests lie in only satisfying themselves. Although both tales utilize the classical aspects of courtly love, the medieval romance glorifies the devotional characteristics, while “The Miller’s Tale” focuses on subject matter that is overtly sexual in nature.
This approach is typical of the fabliau-style that deals with the seedier elements of courtly love traditionally left out by writers of more elevated genres. John Edwin Wells, in his 1916 Manual of the Writings in Middle English, “concluded that the fabliaux’s impropriety led to their rapid disappearance” (Furrow). From a modern perspective, it reads like a “grunge romance” that relies on puns and word manipulation to achieve it’s desired “shock” effect.
Although both Chaucer and Malory use satirical elements to demonstrate the absurdity of implementing the contradictory, idyllic, and impractical conventions expected within courtly love on an everyday basis, they do so in a very different manner. This paper will use specific aspects of courtly love to provide a comparison of each literary genre and illustrate how the use of traditional courtly love conventions used within these two works exemplifies the romantic mentality of the era.
Passion, long indoctrinated by the Church as sinful to 11th and 12th century citizens, was becoming acceptable and even expected within the noble circles during the Middle Ages. Knights returning home from the crusades brought new views of romance and relationships adopted from adversaries whom revered and adored their women. Secret rituals of romance developed in which women, traditionally suffering the deeply-rooted abuses of a patriarchal society whose moral double standard allowed men to philander as they wished while women pretended to be unaware, embraced a new relationship ideology wherein women had the upper hand.
It became virtuous for a man, called a knight-hero, to be the “faithful champion of his lady” (McDonald), even dueling fellow knights for her honor when necessary. Upon his death, Malory’s Sir Lancelot was lauded as “the courtiest knight that ever bore shield… the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse” (Malory 455). It was within this setting that the conventions of courtly love- the medieval practice of noble men chivalrously expressing love and admiration for usually older and more socially priveleged women- developed.
These rules addressed commitment, personal characteristics of the hero-knights, and emotional involvement within the extramarital relationship. They set forth a code thought to be intended as a behavioral guide for lovers to follow. This concept of courtly love became embedded in the lives of the nobility of the time, and, in keeping with literary tradition, also became the subject of some of the most famous poems and stories to emerge from medieval times, including both” The Miller’s Tale” and “Morte Darthur”.
The moral undertones inherent in a work dealing with adulterous subject matter suggest that many literary works exploring courtly love are in response to the oppression advocated by the Church for so long, and this suddestion is evident in both “The Miller’s Tale” and “Morte Darthur”. Commitment is a central theme within both tales, although since “marriage is no real excuse for not loving” (Capellano), commitment to whom remains ambiguous.
Within these works, neither female character feels a marital commitment, yet both feel a strong commitment to their lovers: Guinevere to Sir Lancelot, and Alison to “Nicholas, this hende whom she loveth so” (Chaucer 245). Sir Lancelot’s commitment is also to his lover instead of his employer, who also happens to be his lover’s husband. It is important to note that “lovers” in both “Morte Darttur” and “The Miller’s Tale” did not necessarily refer to sexual partners, “for love at that time was not as love is nowadays” (Malory 442), but to the emotional connection between two people.
At the time marriage was either an institution of convenience or a strategy used to increase familial ties within the nobility and ruling classes; it almost never had anything to do with personal choice or love. In fact, courtly love was typically not practiced within a marriage. Instead it provided a means for people to feel and express the love that was missing in their marriages, while holding on to the financial and social advantages that the marital relationship provided.
Courtly lovers had secret, lustful trysts which tended to escalate into a mental and sometimes physical affair. However, it was expected that once an affair began, the lovers would be fully committed to one another, as Capellano expressly stated, “No one can be bound by a double love. ” Malory especially uses commitment to carry through another inportant theme of the conventions of courtly love: emotional involvement. Deep feelings were expected of the male hero-lover, who was constantly “Vexed by too much passion… eats and sleeps very little… ale in the presence of his beloved… his heart palpitates… constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved” (Miller). “He suffers from love sickness… cannot eat or sleep and his health begins to fail. Smitten through the eyes, the beloved’s image is imprinted in his heart/brain” (McDonald). This was how Lancelot felt after his beloved Guinevere’s death, whereupon he “never after ate but little meat, nor drank, till he was dead, for then he sickened more and more and dried and dwined away” (Malory 454).
Since “The Miller’s Tale” is an older, satirical portrayal of the courtly love concept, his approach to Nicholas’ emotional commitment is a much less serious one. Nicholas “still in his chamber lay, and eet, and sleep, or dide what him leste” (Chaucer 246). It therefore makes sense that the statement true “love can deny nothing to love” (Capellano) is not an instruction but an observation only applicable when the love in question is pure and the emotional involvement in the relationship is strong. Along with a strong emotional attachment, the treatment of the lover are addressed heavily within the conventions.
The conventions explicitly set forth that object of affection is to be held in the highest of regards, esteeemed in the utmost possible way, her desires always respected. The interpretation of each author takes a very different approach to following these ideas. Chaucer’s character Nicholas completely disresped the admonishment of the conventions stating “that which a lover takes against the will of his beloved has no relish” (Capellano). He pursued Alison so heavily that he “spak so fare, and profred him so faste, that she hir love him granted atte laste” (Chaucer 243).
Malorys protaginist, Sir Lancelot, has more respect for the conventions, showing a sincere desire to do only what is in the best interests of his beloved Guinevere, promising to “save [her] from all manner adventurous dangers” and admonishing her to “have no doubt, while I am a man living I shall rescue you” (Malory 444). Malory demonstrates his hero to have an ideal adoration and affection for his lady, “every act of a lover end[ing] in the thought of his beloved” (Capellano), while Chaucer’s characters are self-serving and unappreciative of genuine affection, as Alison demonstrated when “she maketh Absalon hir ape” (Chaucer 245).
Both tales rely on the conventions of courtly love to develop their works, yet their unique approaches are a direct reflection on the changing nature of societal views of love as the Middle Ages progressed. Some of the social implications of courtly love included an opportunity for salvation that was previously attainable only through the Church, advancement opportunities for less wealthy/ prominent knights, and temperance of the tortuous violence so prevalent during the Middle Ages.
As the humanist movement progressed and people became morally enlightened, courtly love earned respect and admiration. Instead of being a ridiculed concept, it became a coveted relationship. This acceptance explains why Chaucer portrayed the subject satirically while, later, Malory opted for a more serious and legitimiate approach that exemplified the “military prowess, courage, and loyalty…. that] became the themes of twelfth-century romances, which not only relate knightly adventures but try to define the nature of the military, moral, social, and amatory code that came to be called chivalry” (Lull). Within a larger historical context, courtly love can be viewed as a “humanist” revolt agaignst the puritanical views embraced by Catholic Church. While the early Middle Ages were dominated by a prudish theoracy, later Middle Ages embraced chivalry for its appreciation of femininity as a noble spiritual and moral force.
Not surprisingly, the work of Malory is known by scholars to “usually have a strong moral thrust” (Fellows). In this light courtly love can even be thought of as the first “Feminist Movement”. Through the readings of “The Miller’s Tale” and “Morte Darthur”, both Chaucer and Malory do a beautiful job of providing chronological evidence of these social changes as they happened through interesting literary works that both educate and entertain readers hundreds of years into the future.
Capellanus: Andreas. “The Rules of Love.” Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds. Ed. Robert Miller. New York: Columbia UP, 1977. 298-299. English 241 Blackboard Website. Wake Technical Community College. 27 Feb 2013.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Miller’s Prologue and Tale. The Middle Ages. Ed. E. Talbot Donaldson. 9th ed. New York: Norton, 2012. 264-80. Vol. A of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Stephen Greenblatt, gen.ed. 3 vols. Print.
Fellows, Jennifer. Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1996. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 03 March 2013. Furrow, Melissa. “Middle English Fabliau and the Modern Myth.” Folder 1-18. English 241. Wake Tech Libraries. Web. 01 March 2013. Lull, Raymond. “The Book of the Order of Chivalry.” The Middle Ages. 2012. . English 241 Blackboard Website. Wake Technical Community College. Web. 01 March 2013.
Malory, Sir Thomas. “Morte Darthur.” The Middle Ages. Ed. Alfred David and James Simpson. 9th ed. New York: Norton, 2012. 480-500 Vol. A of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Stephen Greenblatt, gen.ed. 3 vols. Print.
McDonald, Rick. “The Conventions of Courtly Love.” British Literature Study Questions. The University of Utah. 7 Jan. 2004. .English 241 Blackboard Website. Wake Technical Community College. Web. 28 Feb 2013. Miller, Robert P, ed. Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. 298-299. Print. English 241 Blackboard Website. Wake Technical Community College. Web. 27 Feb 2012.