Chaucer on Love, Knowledge and Sight (Chaucer Studies)

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Here I think we will respond to the poetry more fully if we recall some basic points about marriage in Chaucer's period. Marriage was primarily a transaction organized by males to serve economic and political ends, with the woman treated as a useful, child-bearing appendage to the land or goods being exchanged. Weddings were often arranged and sometimes solemnized when children were in their cradles. Grown women could also be summarily married off.


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Conventional male attitudes to this institution, and the place of women in it, are well displayed in two works contemporary with Chaucer, the book translated by Eileen Power under the title The Goodman of Paris , and The Book of the Knight of the Tower. The former was written by a man of over sixty to his fifteen-year-old wife, and includes a host of exempla to show the woman her duties of unquestioning submission and minute attention to the husband's every need, while insisting she should love him devotedly.

The following is a representative illustration: 2 For to show what I have said, that you ought to be very privy and loving with your husband, I set here a rustic ensample. Of domestic animals you shall see how that a greyhound or mastiff or little dog, whether it be on the road, or at table, or in bed, ever keepeth him close to the person from whom he taketh his food and leaveth all the others and is distant and shy with them; and if the dog is afar off, he always has his heart and his eye upon his master; even if his master whip him and throw stones at him, the dog followeth, wagging his tail and lying down before his master to appease him, and through rivers, through woods, through thieves and through battles followeth him.

This sentiment is perfectly conventional and it is worth noting how it lacks any reflexivity, how closed it is against any critical voice. Chaucer would subject this male voice of 'reason' to some profound poetic scrutiny, however complacently entrenched it was in his culture. The Knight of the Tower demonstrates just how well entrenched it was, for he assumes that the best attitudes are utter subservience on the part of women and unquestioning domination on the part of men, supported by male aggression and physical violence towards women in a culture of discourse quite alien to self-criticism or reflexivity.

One typical example of the work's outlook is its account Page Mention of St Paul may encourage readers to wonder whether Christian teaching about marriage significantly altered this situation. The answer is that it offered no serious challenge to the situation outlined, and did much to sanctify these attitudes. Readers concerned to follow the theologians' ideas about marriage, love and sex are fortunate in having the fine study by J. What this demonstrates exhaustively is that orthodox Christian tradition consistently separated love both from sexuality and the primary purposes of marriage.

The failure occurred in a society whose mating customs made procreation, not love, the most prominent value of marriage. Page Before moving on to Chaucer's work we should acknowledge the existence of important counter-tendencies to the dominant ideologies and practices we have sketched. Scholars such as J. Frappier and M. Lazar have shown how the oppositions between fin' amors and marriage in earlier troubadour poetry were gradually superseded in courtly literature of northern France in the later twelfth century, a process involving transformation of both fin'amors and images of marriage.

The incorporation of passionate, noncoercive mutual and sexually vital love into marriage was a vision which obviously contradicted the power relations of the period and Page Unlike Criseyde, the Wife of Bath may seem to resist the prevailing order with abundant energy and dedication. Her project for survival is to make spaces in the culture for her own energies to find expression. He dramatizes the affirmation of the established culture in her negation of it, creating an aesthetic representation of the way subordinate groups or individuals may so internalize the assumptions and practices of their oppressors that not only their daily strategies of survival but their very acts of rebellion may perpetuate the outlook against which they rebel.

Their penetration of dominant ideology and practice is distorted and displaced into a significant conformity with the established values which they are opposing. In grasping and embodying this dialectical process Chaucer was meditating on his own patriarchal culture, its values, its organization of love, sexuality and marriage.

Before the publication of Alfred David's fine study of Chaucer, The Strumpet Muse , one would have had to argue this case about her rebellion and conformity at some length, but his chapter on the Wife makes this unnecessary. In Page The issue of procreation and marital sex is another area where the presence of rebellion and conformism is striking. The Wife's text includes some memorable celebrations of her wish for sexual fulfilment and happiness, something always condemned by authoritative Christian tradition, as the Wife knows very well Il.

Pursuing Chaucer

She makes it clear that it is sexual pleasure she relishes as a good in itself. The delights she recounts from her fifth marriage. Indeed, Joseph Mogan, in an article on 'Chaucer and the Bona Matrimonii', observed that 'Alison is not drawn as trespassing a given theological framework but as advocating a new theology entirely, and in this she is much ahead of her time. Even her rebellious experiments with sexuality freed from the corrupting economic determinants of the medieval marital institution show the effects of orthodox ideology, for here too she perpetuates and mirrors central aspects of the tradition she opposes.

As the latter separated love and sexuality, downgrading and dehumanizing sexual relations, just so the Wife presents her own sexuality in terms of an impersonal force and a sexual organ quite abstracted from the complete human being, body and soul: Ye shul have queynte right ynogh at eve.

He is to greet a nygard that wolde werne Page Of course, the Wife also has a complex self-awareness as in her moving meditation of her past and present, ll. Before leaving her, we will look at the final recorded marriage in which she attempted to continue her rebellion in a manner which could unite what medieval Christianity and society sundered -- love, sexual happiness and marriage ll.

This is a most promising though inevitably belated development. But Chaucer's imagination was so engaged with the realities of his own culture in relation to the Wife's consciousness and actions that he did not allow the fifth marriage to achieve any straightforward transcendence of these realities.

First, as Alfred David noticed, she continues to envisage it in terms of the market, human relations seen as the exchange of commodities ll. Second, Chaucer shows the powerful presence of the dominant culture she wishes to oppose in the way it has shaped the man's expectations and values. These, the poet conveys, are not admirable.

Furthermore, the male reacts to the Wife's love and generosity as a conventional domineering husband, the sort admired by the Knight of the Tower ll. He tries to enforce his rejection of mutuality by repetitive and lengthy appeals to the anti-feminist tradition ll. Even the form of speech embodies the tyrannical norms it assumes by precluding dialogue and any concern for anyone but the speaking self.

Chaucer, a poet whose imagination was exceptionally reflexive and able to generate a multiplicity of perspectives, captures the one-dimensional folly of the highly respectable tradition Jankyn deploys. In her rebellion Chaucer has her once more perpetuate and illustrate the male-governed norms of the culture and their structuring of marriage. So total is the continuity with the dominant culture of discourse that she refers to her marital role in the traditional imagery which presented one partner as a human rider, the other traditionally the woman, of course as an animal to be ridden and controlled by the bridle.

Chaucer's critical and reflexive meditations on medieval marriage also inform the Merchant's Tale. Scholars have tended to treat its central relationship as a gross perversion of the admirable medieval sacrament and institution of Christian marriage, to see May and Januarie as extravagantly corrupt individuals who cast no light on the standard assumptions and practices of Chaucer's world from which they are, allegedly, gross deviants.

When Januarie proceeds to purchase himself a wife we must not assume he is being unusual or idiosyncratic. Chaucer images the medieval marriage market in action, displaying how old men like the Goodman of Paris could acquire brides. If readers take Januarie's conduct here as a perverse aberration from a decent norm they not only manifest unnecessary ignorance about Chaucer's society but misread the tale in a way which will consistently overlook the powerful critical dimensions of the poet's imagination engaging with his own world.

Even Justinus, who has received a good press from scholars, actually shares many commonplace assumptions with the old knight. The counsel he offers is obsessed with material possession and his whole approach to marriage is centred on his acceptance that it is another business transaction. He perceives individuals in terms of land, cattle and goods, viewing personal commitment purely as a transference of property rights ll.

Geoffrey Chaucer () - "The Canterbury Tales" (in middle english and modern english)

He wants a wife to be a good and safe investment for the man, telling Januarie to set up an inquiry into her wealth, attitude to property and temper. He has nothing to say about love, mutual responsibility or the self-sacrifice St Paul recommended to husbands ll.


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Chaucer then represents the processes through which the knight decided who to bid for on the marriage market, a process of 'Heigh fantasye and curious bisynesse': Many fair shap and many a fair visage Ther passeth thurgh his herte nyght by nyght, Page Once he has decided on the woman he wants the old knight uses well qualified friends who understand the workings of the marriage market: They wroghten so, by sly and wys tretee, That she, this mayden, which that Mayus highte, As hastily as evere that she myghte, Shal wedded be unto this Januarie.

I trowe it were to longe yow to tarie, If I yow tolde of every scrit and bond By which that she was feffed in his lond. Merchant , ll. The males organize a market transaction in which woman is a commodity and marriage the particular institution which will secure the transaction, stabilize the inheritance of property and, hopefully in the purchaser's eyes, allow the useful enjoyment of his new possession. Still too many scholars vent moral indignation which only attacks individuals while remaining silent about the powerful social forces which constrained and partially limited the choices, relationships and perception of people in that culture.

For instance, Page As if to ensure we do not miss the normality and culturally sanctioned nature of Januarie's conduct Chaucer moves us straight from the market to the church, from the social realities of marriage to the mediator of grace, doctrine and the saving sacraments, one of which is marriage: But finally ycomen is the day That to the chirche bothe be they went For to receyve the hooly sacrement.

Chaucer, Geoffrey

Forth comth the preest, with stole aboute his nekke, And bad hire be lyk Sarra and Rebekke In wysdom and in trouthe of mariage; And seyde his orisons, as is usage, And croucheth hem, and bad God sholde hem blesse, And made al siker ynogh with hoolynesse. The poet examines the church's use of its spiritual and material influence over individual Christians.

In his text the church is clearly decisive in turning the exploitationary and loveless purchase of a young person into a more than respectable union, a sacramental one. In the context, the Page For Januarie, the wife he has acquired only exists to serve his ego, a totally obedient servant, housekeeper and nurse with the added ability to provide sexual gratification and heirs.

His outlook is an ordinary male one, but Chaucer now looks closely at some of the forms of relationship which emerge from it and the institution of marriage, using his art to make us engage with the human consequences of the established realities. Like the orthodox Parson, Page When May seeks to alleviate her unhappy existence it is in an alternative relationship which will not overtly challenge the accepted power relations between husband and wife.

The affair between her and Damyan can only be reasonably discussed when it is taken where Chaucer placed it, within the context of the marriage and the treatment May has received. The relationship is a product of the legitimate marriage. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, I am currently working on two projects, an introduction to literary theory and a novel about the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Cluny Museum in Paris.

The symbolic pilgrim fellowship embodies the answer in its enduring togetherness. Chaucer aligns himself with that other great poet-theologian of the Middle Ages, Dante, as a Christian humanist. He recognizes in art a fragile opportunity: not to reduce reality to a set of dogmatic propositions, but instead to participate in an ever-deepening mystery.

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Chaucer effectively calls all would-be members of the pilgrim fellowship that is redeemed humanity to behave as artists, interpretively responding to God in the finitude of their existence together. Skip to main Skip to footer.


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