Courtly Love in Chaucer Courtly Love in Chaucer In the “Franklin’s Tale,” Geoffrey Chaucer satirically paints a picture of a marriage steeped in the tradition of courtly love. As Dorigen and Arveragus’ relationship reveals, a couple’s preoccupation with fulfilling the ritualistic practices appropriate to courtly love renders the possibility of genuine love impossible. Marriage becomes a pretense to maintain courtly position because love provides the opportunity to demonstrate virtue. Like true members of the gentility, they practice the distinct linguistic and behavioral patterns which accompany the strange doctrine of courtly love. The characters’ true devotion to the relationship becomes secondary to the appearance of practicing the virtues of truth, honor, and generosity.
After establishing the inverted hierarchy of values, Chaucer paints a bleak picture of the potential for love and relationships in a world in which a distinction needs to be made between secular and private roles. Dorigen differentiates between “hir housbonde” and “hir love” (250) and Arveragus distinguishes between “his lady” and “his wyf” (125). Immediately, Chaucer signals the practice of chivalric courtship as the knight who is of noted “heigh kinrede” (63) ceremoniously completes the “many a labor” (60) of a courtly lover. The description of the duties that must be undertaken by a classic courtly lover seeking a wife for social fulfillment corruptss the image of courtship being motivated by the existence of true love. The emphasis on the inconvenience with which Arveragus, “dide his payne” (57) suggests he performs “many a greet empryse” (59) out of obligation and convention rather than as a part of a genuine amorous pursuit.
The weakly disguised presence of the”ye” in each of these words announces Arveragus’ awareness of the eyes of the courtly audience observing his performance. The concern with the outward appearance of the relationship extends to Dorigen as she dutifully accepts his proposal as a means of repaying the “distresse” (65) undergone by her lover. The brief description of the couple’s courtship covers only 13 lines, suggesting that the relationship’s foundation has little time to progress beyond the preliminary stages of lusty, physical attraction before the marriage is instated. Framing the already bleak portrayal of this “accord,” (69) a word typically used to refer to business agreements or compromises, is the contractual terminology of their agreement which further downplays the emotional foundation of the relationship. Instead, the negotiated terms that “frendes everich other moot obeye” (171) indicate that the lovers are settling for amicable companionship.
The agreement itself is ridden with contradictory terms trying to reconcile the tensions between the inner sphere where passionate love resides and the outer sphere which operates under the codes of courtly love. The two agree that Arveragus will be her “Servant in love, and lord in merrage” (121), but the in reality these two social positions are mutually exclusive, indicating the impossibility of the success of this relationship. One of the two will have to be the dominating figure for it to survive, but then this will eliminate the possibility of love which “wol nat ben constreyned by maistrye” (92). The “lawe of love” (126) in the medieval period mandates that a husband is the lord of his wife, and Arveragus grants her sovereignty only within the scope of their private life because he must uphold the tradition of male domination in the outside world. Arveragus’ promise to becomes a way to demonstrate that ” [p]acience is a heigh vertu” (101).
Always aware of the connection between his actions and his rank he states, “Save that the name of soveraynetee, / That wolde he have for shame of his degree.” (79-80). If the two truly were in love, these sorts of issues would not need to be settled or would even arise because a couple would assume that a wife would be true to her husband and that he would treat her with respect and honor. Instead, marriage is being used to further one’s opportunity to perform noble and virtuous roles, explaining the struggle between a lover’s commitment to his personal or public life. Chaucer foreshadows the improbable success of this duality with the Dorigen’s proclamation, “Ne wolde never God bitwixe us tweyne” (171). Not only does this contain a double negative, suggesting that a force will indeed disrupt this arrangement, but the phraseology also indicates that their relationship will be without God who should be a uniting force in any marriage. Chaucer takes pains to mention that “[t]he joye, the ese, and prosperity” (132) of their relationship last only a”yeer and more” (134).
Chivalric love’s preoccupation with appearances impels behavior that stymies the success of love. In addition to the previously noted irony of a lover undergoing a painful courtship to win his desired object, Arveragus undertakes additional burdens under the charade of being a good lover. Chaucer criticizes the requirements of courtly love by placing such pursuits directly at odds with their objects. Arveragus self-imposes a two-year separation from Dorigen is an effort “to seke in armes worshipe and honour.” (139). Why must a husband leave his wife to prove he is worthy of her love? His decision to leave his bride after only a year of marriage suggests the value he places upon success in the public eye overrides the need to be attentive to his private affairs. In fact, Arveragus pursues this task with more enthusiasm than he shows in any of his interactions with this wife.
“Perhaps the “lust he sette in swich labour” (140) indicates Arveragus’ preference to be a warrior lover in the public sphere instead of a servant in his private sphere. On the battlefield, he can through virile performance release some of the sexual frustrations which develop from the constraints in his marriage. Assuming this is true, his departure represents a revolt against his powerless position in his marriage. Dorigen strengthens the possibility of marital bliss existing only as a pretense when she pines away for her husband not as one would secure in the belief that he will return to her, but as if she is apprehensive about his desire to voluntarily leave the battlefield. He sends her “lettres hoom of his welfare,” (166) establishing that her worries extend beyond mere concern with his health.
Although Dorigen’s reaction to the separation from her husband is marked by her profound sense of grief, there seems to be a melodramatic insincerity in her response. She weeps “as doon these noble wyves whan hem lyketh,” (146) suggesting her mourning is a ploy to win her friends sympathies and their attentions to “every confort possible in this cas” (154). Perhaps she is behaving in concert with the belief that true lovers suffer from a physical and emotional malady, amor hereos. Her belief that “with good hope lete hir sorwe slyde” (175) further establishes the facade of grief is easily replaced with a face of good cheer when it befits her interests. The already weak links in this marriage culminate in Aurelius’ pursuit of Dorigen.
The very fact that Aurelius undertakes the methods of a courtly lover in an attempt to covet another man’s wife implies that in this courtly environment the sacred vows of truth in marriage are commonly corrupted by adultery. Although Dorigen rejects his advances and pledges to grant him her love only if he performs a task she deems impossible, it shows the fault of a society operating under a system where relationships exists only when they fulfill predetermined conditions. If Dorigen faithfully enters her promise of truth to her husband, she would not respond to Aurelius as she does- “Than wol I love yow best of any man / Have heer my trouthe in al that evere I can” (326). The last few words imply that truth in marriage is all but impossible for its promisors to uphold. Dorigen’s conflicting words “Ne shal I nevere been untrewe wfy” (312) reveal the inevitable failure of her pledge of faithfulness.
Once Arveragus discovers Dorigen’s promise to Aurelius, his humble reaction reflects the state of imbalance in the marriage. The ridiculous length with which Arveragus goes to maintain his adherence to the idea that “[t]routhe is the hyest thing that man may kepe” (807) is incompatible with the behavior of a man deeply in love. Although their marital vows provide grounds for Dorigen to avoid fulfillment of her promise, he releases her to commit adultery “with glade chere in freendly wyse’ (795). His response seem highly inappropriate, perhaps there is a pun on the word fiendish, considering that he values the pledge of truth to an outsider who plots to sabotage the preexisting truth in the relationship with his wife. He values the societal maintenance of truth to such an extreme degree that he would rather “dye in sorwe and in distresse” (924) than allow his wife to tarnish her commitment to truth less it be a reflection upon him.
Concurrently, he treats truth hypocritically by forbidding Dorigen upon the “peyne of deeth” (809) of telling anyone of this affair. There lies a contradiction in his pledge to kill her if she threatens his honor while he concurrently allows himself to be cuckolded which is also a peril to his honor. Explaining this discrepancy could be the possibility that he dispatches her as a demonstration of his “maistre” (75) over her actions- the one condition that eliminates the possibility of love. The tears could be either a melodramatic attempt to feign his concern for her well being or a realization that he sacrifices a bit of honor in gaining dominance in the relationship. Marriage becomes a conduit for men to display their “grete gentillesse” (851) instead of a union of lovers. After Dorigen’s careless promise to Aurelius, she becomes a pawn in the high stake display of chivalric behavior.
The concerns with rank emerges as a challenge of gallantry and honor which forces the knight, squire, and the philosopher to release each other from their truths. The fact that they are so willing to part with their pledges demonstrates the value placed upon words is directly tied to how it reflects upon social standing. The virtue of generosity becomes so entangled with the self-interests that no one commits acts of good will without ulterior motives of personal gain, framing this irony is the Franklin’s question “Which was the moste free, as thnketh yowe?” (950). If a world places a higher position on truth in external interaction than it grants to private relationships, true love in the courtly tradition of behavior targeted to further self interest can never survive. In the tale’s conclusion, Dorigen and Arveragus place the masks they wear when facing the outside world and reunite in a farce of mutually contentment. Perhaps “never eft ne was there angre hem bitwene” (881) although the wording suggests likewise, but even assuming that there is no discord, there appears to be no passionate love either.