In Chaucers day women were thought of in lesser regard than men. Their positions in the community were less noble and often displeasing. The Canterbury Tales, written by Chaucer, is about a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Along with the narrator (Chaucer), there are 29 other Canterbury pilgrims. Not surprisingly, only three of them are women: the Prioress, the associate of the Prioress, and the Wife of Bath. Each traveler is to tell two tales to make the journey to Canterbury and back more enjoyable.
The Host, Harry Bailey, is in charge of the group and will decide what is in the best interest of them all. Thus, the journey begins as do the tales. Even though the times suggest women are weak and powerless over men, Chaucer has a way of showing their capabilities through the stories. Although, their abilities are not always positive. Disguised in the form of love stories, Chaucer portrays how women easily lead men to their downfall.
This is most evident in the tales told by the Knight, the Miller, the Franklin, and the Nuns Priest. In the Knights Tale, two cousins fall for the fair Emelye. They are both in love with her after glancing at her from a prison tower. Not only has Emelyes beauty made Arcite and Palamon love her, but it has made them become hostile towards each other. “We strive as did the houndes for the boon: – they fought all day, and yet, hir part was noon; there came a kite, while that they were so wrothe that bare away the bone bitwix hem bothe.
And therefore, at the kings court, my brother, ech man for himself – there is non other,” proclaim both (104). After Arcite is banished from Athens, he mourns his fate of never being able to see Emelye again so much that his appearance drastically changes. He decides to return to Athens, under a pseudonym, where he will be able to see her again. Meanwhile, Palamon grows weak in the prison tower because he fears Arcite will return and capture his love, Emelye. Neither of the men have ever spoken to her or stood near her, yet they insist on fighting and grieving over her.
Emelye clearly has mastery over these two men. Arcite states, “..to Athens right now wol I fare! Ne for the drede of deeth shall I not spare to see my lady that I love and serve. In hir presence I recche not to sterve” (111). His willingness to die for Emelye gives her command not only over his actions, but also over his life. When Arcite and Palamon are sentenced to battle for Emelyes love, Palamon is badly injured and Arcite dies due to an injury caused while riding his horse in victory. A single woman has not only brought about a feud between related men, but the injury of one and the death of another.
When Emelye prays to the goddess Diane she asks for the one who loves her most to wed her. Rather than praying for a peaceful end and a restoration of the mens friendship she seeks her own gratification. Through the series of events Chaucer implies that Emelye is to blame for the final outcome. She is the cause of Arcites death. The Millers Tale is an obvious case of a mans downfall being caused by a woman. The scenario is about an older carpenter, married to eighteen-year-old Alison, who takes in a young, handsome lodger named Nicholas.
Nicholas falls in love with the mans wife and wants to pursue an affair with her. Due to the jealous nature of the husband, they try to hide it from him. Although the plot is not at all innocent, the details of the adulterous couples actions makes the story even more scandalous. In order to be alone for a night, Nicholas tells the carpenter that he envisions a flood that threatens Oxford. He then urges the carpenter to fasten some boats to the ceiling of the house so he will be safe when the flood comes.
Nicholas instructs him to cut the ropes when the water approaches so the boats will float. The carpenter is so oblivious to what is going on that he obediently does what Nicholas suggests. The “..sely carpenter beginneth quake; him thinketh verailich that he may see Noehs flood come wallowing as the see to drenchen Alison, his honey dere. He weepeth, waileth, maketh sorry cheere..and goth and geteth him a kneeding-trough, and after, a tubbe and a kimelin, and prively he sent hem to his inn, and heng hem in the roof in privitee” (178). He is put to suffer all for the sake of Alison and Nicholas being together.
During that night a series of humorous events occur which lead Nicholas to scream, “Help! Water! Water! Help, for Goddes herte,” aloud (183). Upon hearing the shouting, the carpenter thinks that Noehs flood has arrived. He foolishly cuts the ropes tying the boats to the roof and crashes to the ground. All the neighbors come out to see what has happened and they discover that Alisons husband has broken his arm with the fall. To add insult to injury, Alison and Nicholas claim that he is crazy and has prepared for a flood that he made up in his mind. The humiliation that Alison has put her husband through ruins his nobility.
He is now thought of as a lunatic when in fact he was taking heed of the flood that Nicholas had warned him about. By way of The Millers Tale, Chaucer illustrates how women are accountable for the destruction of men. Although The Franklins Tale seems to be about chivalry and doing what is right, there is an underlying theme. Dorigen is without her husband for so long that she becomes grief stricken and lonely. One day she decides to attend a picnic where Aurelius, a man who is secretly in love with her, confesses to her his undying love. She rejects his attempts and he becomes very depressed.
In order to lift his spirits and at the same time crush them even more she says, “Aurelie by heighe God above, yet wold remove all the rockes, stone by stoon, that they ne lette ship ne boot to goon. I say, whan ye han made the coost so cleene of rockes that there nis no stone y-seene, than I wol love you best of any man – have here my trouth – in all that ever I can” (350). Both know that the task is impossible to do. Thus, leading Aurelius into deeper despair. Her faithfulness to her husband is admirable, but at the same time it is causing the degeneration of another man.
She is in a catch-22 situation. If she agrees to love Aurelius, she would be betraying her husband who loves her very much. Yet if she stays true to her counterpart Aurelius slowly dwindles away. Either way she is the cause of a mans ruin. In The Nuns Priests Tale, Chaunticleer is led to his near demise by his favorite wife, Pertelote.
After Chaunticleer dreams that a fox tries to seize him from the yard, he tells Pertelote about it. She denounces him for fearing his dream and calls him a coward. “Avoi! fy on you, hertless. Alas, for by that God above now han ye lost mine hert and all my love! I can not love a coward, by my faith. For certes, what so any woman saith, we all desiren, if it might be, to han husbondes hardy, wise, and free..ne him that is aghast by every tool, ne noon avantour – by that God above,” proclaims Pertelote (245).
Chaunticleer responds to this with several examples of dreams revealing the future and suggests to his wife that they speak of merrier things. Later on a fox named Duan Russel chases after Chaunticleer as he is innocently gazing at a butterfly. The foxs slyness allows him to capture the cock by telling Chauntincleer that he only wants to hear him sing. If it were not for the commotion caused by all the hens in the yard Chaunticleer would have been killed by Duan Russel. Pertelotes refusal to comfort Chaunticleer in his time of need causes him to cast aside the warning in his dream.
Perhaps if Pertolete had been more concerned with her husbands welfare, instead of reflecting on his cowardice, she would have advised him to be cautious since he is so distraught by his vision. Her own selfish interests almost had Chaunticleer killed. Ultimately, these four stories in The Canterbury Tales depict how women are the cause of a mans downfall. Although the roles are not positive, Chaucer has given females a significant purpose in his book. Through these tales told by men, it is easy to see that a womans superiority is not in government or in the work field, but, most certainly, over a mans nobility and life.