A fascinating study is the history of love and how it has been transformed throughout the ages. It is hard for me, to a degree, to imagine romantic love being nonexistent in a society or viewed as a merely frivolous waste of time as our culture nearly worships it. Yet a reader of the Bible, for instance, may come to the conclusion that today’s idea of romantic love, Eros, was either forbidden or frowned upon as it certainly is not flaunted minus Solomon’s proclamation of the said emotion. Other studies may find that in certain cultures friendship between two males was regarded as a much higher virtue than anything that may make one giddy. Likewise, Augustine abandoned it altogether after his conversion and (if memory serves correctly) Aquinas, though condoning the consummation, condemned the consciousness of ‘being in love’ that alters our state of mind much like intoxicating drink. Every time a foolish act is committed in the name of Eros, Aquinas winks up at us from his grave. And he winks often.
In its many wanderings, Eros has found no better niche in the years than literature. Thus, a pilgrimage to Canterbury would naturally be incomplete without literature’s main character stumbling throughout its pages. My own pilgrimage has been unfortunately cut short this summer as I will be wholly unable to finish The Canterbury Tales. I did, however, make it over halfway and have subsequently decided to divide my posts of the work into categories. Chaucer’s Tales, for those who are unfamiliar with the work, was an unfinished poem written in Middle English which at the time was extremely rare as most poems and literature in general were written in French or Latin. The Tales record 30 pilgrims (each representatives of a medieval occupation or trade) making a journey from the Tabard Inn in London to the town of Canterbury to pay homage to St. Thomas Becket. Chaucer originally planned to have each pilgrim tell two tales, one on the way to Canterbury and one on the way back. The best tale would be awarded a free meal at the other pilgrim’s expense. Our host from the Tabard Inn who decides to accompany them is the judge of the tales. As it was written in the late fourteenth century, Chaucer unfortunately passed before the pilgrims made it to Canterbury as not every pilgrim was awarded the chance to even tell a tale. Nevertheless, we have 23 tales which in some sense give the modern reader a quick view of the whole of medieval society.
As I read 13 of the tales myself, I began to notice a distinct difference between the tales of the laymen and those of the clergy. Whether Chaucer was a Christian or not is not for me to decide, but it is wholly evident that he has some beef with the Catholic church at the time (perhaps at the height of its corruption). Thus, the clergy in the Tales give the reader both an opportunity to laugh at the church as well as commentary on the evils of what was going on with its members. The laymen, however, are no saints themselves but often tell tales poking fun at the ideals of courtly love and the effects of those ideals. For courtly love may have produced a good quality of the chivalrous male who will go to great lengths in the protection of his beloved, but it also brought along the wickedness of romantic adultery. Eros became an out for any sort of evil under the sun as courtly love demanded that the love struck fool not only seek a woman of high repute but one that had already been won by another. The greatest paradox for the courtly knight was his duty to serve his king and take his queen. The knightly code told him to be loyal to his leader while courtly love told him to seek the unattainable of unattainable women, his king’s wife, and this along with basic commentary on chivalry, is the backdrop of many of Chaucer’s tales. The reader is asked to laugh at the death of Eros.
The Knight’s Tale
In the Knight’s Tale, the first and longest of the tales, the reader is presented with a story of two knights who fight over their love for a woman who has no desire to be with either of them. Palamon and Arcite are two prisoner’s of war in Athens, and fate has it that they both fall in love with a beautiful woman named Emelye whom they can only see from outside the window of their cell. Immediately the reader notices that their love is nothing but a physical attraction for a beautiful woman, courtly love demands nothing more. Arcite is eventually released though not allowed to enter Athens and Palamon remains. We are then presented with an interesting dilemma: who is more fortunate? Palamon is fettered but at the very least is given the (depraved) blessing of ogling Emelye while Arcite is free but can no longer view what his heart longs for. In short, both men grow in their jealousy of one another as they inwardly pine away for the hopeless situation. Eventually Arcite does make it back into Athens undercover, and Palamon escapes prison. The two happen to meet and decide to duel for Emelye. An intervention spares both, and the two are given a year to gather troops and prepare for a tournament in which the winner will win Emelye. The misogyny is going strong until Chaucer decides to let the reader in on Emelye’s feelings. It is almost comical as both knights are pining away and yet the one they are fighting for is indifferent (as she should be) to either of their offers. Nevertheless, she has no say in the matter as all three pray to different gods for help. The gods come to a compromise. Both men will get what they truly desire and though Emelye will not be granted celibacy, she will at least be given the knight who loves her the most. The tournament ends in a victory for Arcite who during his victory dance falls off his horse and dies. Palamon is then declared the winner and given Emelye. They live happily ever after. The story is one that sees all the characters have a sort of happy ending yet with a grain of salt. Arcite is given victory in the tournament but never has the blessing of being with Emelye. Palamon is a defeated knight but gets the woman. Emelye has to be with a man she does not want to be but at least he loves her more than any other man. In short, Chaucer seems to be making fun of the whole idea that the paradox of the knight can ever actually be realized while at the same time pointing out that the women in the situation rarely have a say in the matter. Two themes that will make its way into other tales.
Cuckoldry in the Tales
Chaucer makes it clear in his general prologue that his characters function on their own and he is not responsible for their tales. He makes the disclaimer again preceding the Miller’s Tale as the disclaimer is certainly needed since the Miller’s tale would have been a highly scandalous story for that time period. The whole notion of the courtly paradox is evident in his story though the Miller is nothing short of a reprehensible personage who takes the paradox and applies it to a different setting: one of a carpenter, John, who is housing a young clerk, Nicholas. The carpenter is an old man and an aspect of literature familiar in that time period was the ‘cuckolding’ of the old man. John has a young and beautiful wife, Alison, who runs off with Nicholas and with his help tricks her aged husband. John is none the wiser, and in this tale all the characters, including a parish clerk who functions as yet another courtly lover after Alison, suffer some sort of hurt. The tale is told in a humorous manner and appears to be poking fun at old men who take young wives, but the joke falls flat, at least in my opinion. Adultery is not a funny subject and unless Chaucer was displaying a scenario poking fun at courtly lovers (the parish clerk), it is hard to laugh at the tale.
The Reeve, meanwhile, is a carpenter himself and takes the tale personally. He follows the Miller’s Tale and presents an even bawdier tale in which a Miller is tricked by two young clerks. The miller in this story is a deceitful miller in any case who steals from his clients. Yet when he unmercifully steals from these two clerks, both his daughter and his wife are taken advantage of. The tale does not seem to be making any deep social commentary from my perspective. He appears to be simply speaking from his own hurt feelings and his tale offers no witty ending like the Miller’s. The courtly ideal has certainly corrupted three clerks and a clergyman who sought something they were never permitted to have.
The Knight’s story seems to have come full circle as the Merchant decides to have a little fun at his expense. In his tale, an old knight, January, who has been living a life of pleasure-seeking marries a young woman, May, and like the carpenter John, he is cuckolded by a young squire. Once again the courtly lover has committed a great sin as he deceives his own knight he is supposedly serving. In this story, the knight becomes blind which does not add much to his being deceived but that it makes it easier. Pluto, a god, gives January his sight back at the very moment he is being tricked. However, May lies to him saying she was not being unfaithful but was fighting for his eyesight. He is ironically still blinded at the end of the tale. Chaucer’s commentary here may be a direct reflection on the blindness of Eros, or the blindness produced by it. In the end, it would not have mattered whether January was blind or not, he still would have been deceived and May and the squire would have sought each other in the name of Eros. These three tales, meant to be funny, display the negative effects of courtly love. Love becomes, as it did for Arcite and Palamon, nothing more than a physical pining for a woman that is off hands. It is in this sense highly trivialized to the point where it is a meaningless act of self-gratifying pleasure. Lust is meanwhile elevated, and the caring, compassionate lover of one’s soul is lowered into the ground. And this new love that was raised into existence during this time period has long influenced us even today, though not completely. For the Reaper has absconded with Eros dragging her patiently and without expression from the now placid and melancholy visages of the robbed. The nail was wrought and hammered with the needful duty of a man at work as Eros was laid in her coffin — a baby in her crib at night with nothing but light through a pale window, a rising moon reflecting a long set sun. True love has been silently set in her grave, the reflections of that setting sun casting ghostly images on her stoned figure and the new love now resurrected — a shadowy specter haunting and possessing her subjects leading them to her abode. A “house leading to hell, descending to the chambers of death.”