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The Canterbury Tales: Courtly Love, Romance & Marriage

Instructor: Holly Childers

Holly has taught at the college level and holds a law degree and a master's degree in history.

Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' reflect the ways of love, romance, and marriage in the Middle Ages through the eyes of the nobility, the peasantry, and a woman.

The Canterbury Tales

If you have ever sat around a campfire telling stories, then you should have a good sense of the setting of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The reader learns in the Prologue of 29 pilgrims who made their way from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in the Canterbury Cathedral. The host creates a game among the travelers. Each of them will tell a story, and the best storyteller will receive a free meal upon their return to London. In this lesson, we'll look at how many of these stories look at love, romance and marriage.

Canterbury Tales

Courtly Love in The Knight's Tale

One aspect of Medieval chivalry, a code of rules knights were required to follow, was the moral of courtly love. Courtly love was the love of a knight for a woman of noble heritage, usually above the knight's own social class. It was a ritualistic admiration of a lady of high birth, usually unrelated to marriage or sex.

'The Knight's Tale' tells of a courtly love triangle between two knights, Arcite and Palamon, both of whom revere Lady Emily, the sister of Queen Hippolyta. Both Arcite and Palamon fall in love with Emily upon seeing her for the first time. Their love is described as all-encompassing, and both Emily's presence and absence cause the knights to experience emotional and physical pain. Arcite and Palamon spend years yearning for Emily and scheming to defeat the other for her love. Ultimately, the two knights fight in a bloody battle to win her hand. 'The Knight's Tale' highlights the characteristic features of courtly love: all-encompassing, frustrated, jealous, and ritualistic.

Courtly Love

The Rejection of Courtly Love in The Miller's Tale

By contrast, 'The Miller's Tale' is a baudy satire that ridicules courtly love, showing, in contrast, love, romance, and marriage among the peasantry. In the tale, the wife of a carpenter is unfaithful to her much older husband. The carpenter's wife is seduced by Nicholas, a clever scholar, who is described as skilled in love. She is also wooed by a cleric, Absalom, who seeks to win her love by singing and offering her gifts, in traditional courtly manner. The carpenter's wife rejects Absalom's manners of courtly love in a scene in which Nicholas farts out a window on him. The carpenter's wife also schemes with Nicholas to embarrass and shame the cuckold carpenter. Love in 'The Miller's Tale' is unfaithful, ribald, and tawdry, in stark contrast to the high morals of courtly love.

Romance and Love in The Wife of Bath's Tale

The Wife of Bath and the 'Wife of Bath's Tale' provide another view of romance and marriage in the Middle Ages: that of a woman. In the prologue to her tale, the Wife of Bath deems herself an 'expert' in marriage and discusses her five marriages, emphasizing the roles men and women play in marriage. She tells the pilgrims that three of her husbands were good, and two were bad. The three good husbands were rich and old. They loved the Wife of Bath, and, in return, she exerted control over them. The fourth husband had a mistress, or paramour. Out of anger and jealousy, the Wife of Bath was in turn unfaithful. She wed the fifth husband, Jankin, the only husband given a name, out of love, not for money. But Jankin was mean and spent his free time reading a book about vile and cunning women. The Wife of Bath became so jealous that she tore pages out of his book while he was reading and hit him. Jankin, in turn, struck her in the head with such force that she was nearly dead. Jankin begged for her forgiveness and promised never to strike her again. Jankin gave her governance of the house, and she made him burn his book.

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