The Canterbury Tales: Boy meets Girl or Girl meets Boy
The function of love, mastery, and patience in the Franklin’s Tale as well as other similar fragments in The Canterbury Tales, act as necessary virtues in determining the strength and value of a relationship where some aspects are considered unusual during the context in which the stories were written. Love in the milieu of the Franklin’s Tale calls for the voluntary act of equality between lovers in order for love to remain strong and eternal. The mutual understanding of equality enables both characters to withstand the tests of their relationships through their selfless devotion with the other. On the other hand, the Wife of Bath’s Tale contradicts the aforementioned themes of equality through a reversal of roles wherein women function as manipulators in a relationship in order to truly appreciate the altruistic concept of love and devotion.
The Franklin’s Tale narrates the story of a young knight and a young woman who fall in love with each other through the advances of the young man through courtly love. They eventually marry and the young knight proposes that their marriage would place their social status equal with each other but he proposes that he should be making the decisions in order not to arouse suspicion. The young woman gladly accepts, and for a time, they live happily. The introduction of the tale is essential in analyzing the following passage in terms of the relationship among love, mastery and patience. The story itself is an atypical example of the usual stories concerning courtly love wherein the protagonist of the story wins the woman in the beginning whereas common stories narrate the process of courtship itself, thus taking into consideration the difference of themes used. The Franklin’s Tale focuses on the idea of relationship itself rather than the ritualistic courtly love practices. Chivalry in this context is the nobility of the young man as a husband, not as a knight, in a more interpersonal perspective wherein he willing bestows equality with his spouse as a sign of pure love and not out of chivalrous duty. The concept of equality between men and women, especially during the medieval period, was unheard of and considered as a taboo; men had the highest position in society whereas women, though they were considered subjects of moral refine among men, were still considered second class as they were dutifully bound in marriage and their husbands. The Franklin’s Tale is then a breakaway from the common conceptions of love, marriage, and social relationships during the medieval period in the attempt to explicate the real and nobler notions of the aforementioned themes. In its literal perspective, the Canterbury Tales is a series of stories told by 29 pilgrims on their way to the Cathedral of Canterbury on an inn at the beginning of their journey. The pilgrims represent characters from different social levels such as the nobility, religious, peasants, etc. The stories are told in order to win supper that will be paid by the group and the winning story will be determined by the innkeeper. In this sense, the franklin in the story narrates his tale in a manner that purports his social position; the way he addresses the issues at hand necessarily imply a sense of social climbing in hopes of asserting himself above his other companions, most especially the noble class such as the knight and squire.
The following passage in the tale depicts the declamation of the franklin concerning the ultimate value of love with equality functioning as a foundation of a happy relationship. The narrator speaks of equality as a necessary precursor to the success of a relationship willingly given by both sides. The passage goes against the status quo of the period concerning the societal function of men over women as it implies equality in the context of relationship, though not necessarily purports the importance of women to a higher level. However, in essence, the passage remains supports a more altruistic and ideal concept of love which eventually conquers any problem, even society.
For there’s one thing, my lords, that’s safe to say; lovers must each be ready to obey the other, if they would long keep company. Love will not be constrained by mastery; when mastery comes the god of love anon stretches his wings ands farewell! He is gone. Love is a thing as any spirit free; Women by nature long for liberty and not to be constrained or made a thrall, and so do men, if I may speak for all. Whoever the most patient under love has the advantage and will rise above the other; patience is a conquering virtue. The learned say that, if it not desert you, it vanquishes what force can never reach (Chaucer 363).
The first lines of the passage imply confidence on the part of the narrator as he boldly exclaims the importance of equality through obedience on the part of lovers. In medieval times, it is considered that the man as head of household has total dominion over the family or relationships; therefore the opinions of women are taken into little or no consideration. In context, the passage takes into account the social welfare of women when it comes to their roles as well as asserting an equal relationship with men. It may be considered as an unusual situation where it cannot be freely or immediately accepted by society. However, love is also mentioned to be an important factor and functions in its pure sense. In order for love to blossom and remain strong, equality or sovereignty is important; sovereignty in this sense is the equal power of women over their husbands, especially in the familial sense. Thus, both sides are equal through willed obedience. Mastery in this sense is considered mere consent or forced obedience which totally destroys the relationship. Obedience, patience and equality in the sense of the tale are important in the relationship in order to be considered true. Thus, equality is stressed in terms of love as a voluntary act in order to attain a true relationship.
On the other hand, The Wife of Bath’s Tale presents a slight deviation from the notion of equality through the dominance of women over men. As narrated in the Franklin’s Tale, the voluntary act of equality in relationships comes from the initiative of men. In this context, it is already considered unusual in the sense that men posses an innate power of supremacy and to willingly withhold this right is unacceptable. Thus the voluntary act of equality is not an action of chivalry or an adherence to the code of knighthood but is given for the noble purpose of love. According to the franklin, equality firmly establishes the relationship and grants strength to overcome any obstacle. However, The Wife of Bath’s Tale forces men to be equal through a dominant hold over the relationship in order to force out the equality. The prologue of the tale narrates the life of an old lady who had been married five times and her experiences therefore establishes herself to be an authority on the subject of marriage. The prologue is essential in understanding her tale as she talks in an authoritative manner in which she alludes to biblical examples in reinforcing her arguments concerning her marriages and deceives her audience with a sudden admittance of lies. The prologue itself is already an allusion to the theme of dominance presented in the tale as she views her ‘good marriages’ (first three husbands) as a relationship wherein she manipulates the behavior of her spouses. She however, marries them for their money which she considers to be good. Ironically, her ‘bad’ marriages were motivated by her love but instead backfire upon her when they treat her cruelly. The tale begins during the golden days of King Arthur infused with mystical creatures such as fairies and incubi. One day, a young knight sees a maiden and immediately consumed by lust, rapes her. According to the law, the penalty that awaits the young knight is death through decapitation. However, the case is brought to the queen and offers another second chance for the man to save his life. The wise king agrees and the queen poses a challenge to the knight: to spare his life, he must undertake a quest to know what women really want in the world and to report his answer. Failure means death. The knight inquires with the women of the country but sadly cannot give a definite answer. Some wanted sex, money and other frivolities, but many of them wanted freedom. As the day of his impending doom nears, the knight encounters a group of women in a forest. He approaches them to ask his life-saving question but encounters an ugly woman. She offers her help and the knight gladly relates her story with the promises to reward her efforts. The ugly woman makes the knight to swear himself to her in return and guarantees his life with the answer. Without any choice, the knight concedes. The old hag and the young knight in presence of the court relays the answer to the queen: women want sovereignty or power over their husbands. They deem this to be an appropriate answer and the knight goes free. However, the old woman asks for the knight in marriage and he eventually agrees. The most important aspect of the tale is set in the following passage:
To have me old and ugly till I die, and be to you a true and faithful wife, and never to displease you all my life; or else to have me beautiful and young, and take your chances with a crowd of men all flocking to the house because of me, or to some other place as it may be. Choose for yourself which of the two you please. (Chaucer 249).
In relation to the prior promise made by the knight for her efforts, he places himself in an inescapable situation. The old hag presents him a choice; to have her young and unfaithful or ugly yet devoted. The knight responds: “’my lady and my love, my dear wife too, I place myself in your wise governance; choose for yourself whichever the most pleasant, most honorable to you and me also. All’s one to me; choose either of the two; what pleases you is good enough for me’” (Chaucer 250). Thus, the hag turns into a beautiful and faithful woman as she deems the answer to be the best – the authority to choose for herself.
Thus, the context of equality, love, and patience in relationships as narrated in The Wife of Bath’s Tale is represented with the dominance of women over men. The young man is inevitably placed in a situation where he has no choice and therefore follows the dictates of the old hag. Ironically, the young knight’s own actions lead him to his own predicament (i.e. rape) where women become the boon of man and further implying dominance in the tale. However, his answer may be interpreted into two possibilities: one, the young knight may have realized his shortcomings and understood the nature of women that he willingly bestowed the ability to choose or his experiences with women have provided him the ability to give a correct answer. Thus, equality in this sense remains unclear through the presence of manipulation and dominance on the part of the old lady. In contrast with Franklin’s Tale, the nature of love is concerned with strengthening the relationship itself through obedience and equality as a voluntary act while love in The Wife of Bath’s Tale is related with dominance in leading the mindset to the understanding of equality.
Both accounts are contradictions of the given social status quo on the relationship of men, women, and society. On one hand, equality is bestowed willingly for the sake of love and mutual respect while on the other hand, freedom and dominance on the part of women is necessary to understand true love with a reversed approach on the common relationship conceptions. In addition, both accounts are a response to the prevailing social norms during the medieval period where each story represents an attempt to combat the stereotypical role of men and women as dominant and submissive individuals, respectively. On the subject of governance, both accounts are responses to the problem posed by society in terms of social classes and gender classification. Each account stresses the presence of classification and the multitude of religious and social beliefs that account for the lack of universal moral and social codes. As a response, men and women become equal either through mutual understanding or manipulation. The Franklin’s Tale adheres to the idealistic concepts of courtly love such as fidelity, respect, and equality while The Wife of Bath’s account asserts the function of women in society as a dominant and manipulative force in relationships.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. trans. David Wright. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.