The Franklin's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

''The Canterbury Tales'' is a complex work with many interrelated parts, so it can be useful to start with a basic overview of each character and the story he or she tells. In this lesson, we'll learn about the Franklin and summarize his prologue and tale.

The Franklin: A Member of the Medieval Middle Class

In the late medieval period in which Chaucer wrote, a franklin was a free landowner who didn't owe rent or military service to the king. Chaucer's franklin is wealthy, and has been involved in minor government roles, acting as county sheriff, local accountant, and a representative in parliament. He is not a peasant, but he does not belong to the noble class, either.

He is somewhat unique because he is a member of the medieval middle class, which was a new economic group in the mid-14th century. Today's equivalent of his role would probably be a member of local government, like a mayor or a city council member, who owns a large home in a desirable neighborhood. However, the Franklin has a limited education, and he doesn't use the courtly language of the intellectual or noble classes.

The Franklin in The Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript
The Franklin in The Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript

The Franklin's Prologue

In The Canterbury Tales, the Franklin's tale follows the Squire's. The Squire is a member of the aristocracy, so he would be trained in courtly etiquette and use somewhat artful language. No doubt feeling that the Squire is a hard act to follow, the Franklin apologizes in advance for his cruder language in his prologue. By mentioning the songs and stories of ''thise olde gentil Britouns (these ancient gentle Bretons),'' he shows that he has some knowledge of European storytelling tradition. However, he warns that his style will be ''bare and pleyn (bare and plain),'' not lyrical. Despite his moderate wealth and importance, the Franklin presents himself as a humble companion to his audience.

The Franklin's Tale

As if to make up for this, the Franklin chooses to tell a story involving characters from the noble class, which would have been considered appropriate and tasteful in Chaucer's time. By doing this, he distinguishes himself from the Miller and the Wife of Bath, whose ''racy'' stories involve sex and gender relations among the lower classes.

His story concerns a knight named Arviragus in Brittany (which became part of France in 1532). He wins over a noble lady, Dorigen, by promising that he will continue to be subservient to her if she marries him. In turn, she promises that she'll never give him cause for grief, and they live in married bliss for a year in a castle by the sea.

Then Arviragus travels to England to build his reputation and lives there for two years. Dorigen is lonely and depressed without him, and her friends try to comfort her. At first, they join her in watching the ships come and go from the nearby cliffs, but Dorigen becomes saddened knowing none of them carries Arviragus. She also fears that the large sharp rocks below may one day wreck his ship.

Knowing this, her friends entertain her in other ways and places. One spring day, they throw a lavish feast in the garden, where Dorigen notices a young talented squire called Aurelius. Aurelius has secretly been in love with Dorigen for years and declares his love for her. She announces that she cannot be unfaithful to her husband unless Aurelius can remove every rock from the coasts of Brittany. Devastated by this seemingly impossible task, Aurelius appeals to the gods to help him. In the meantime, Arviragus returns home, and the couple are overjoyed to be together again.

Dorigen and Aurelius at the garden feast. Illustration by Mary Eliza Haweis
Dorigen and Aurelius at the garden feast. Illustration by Mary Eliza Haweis

Aurelius is in torment for two years. Then his brother remembers a book of magic in Orleans, France. They travel there and meet the brother's friend, a clerk who is also a wizard. He offers to use his magic to remove the rocks for the price of a thousand pounds. Aurelius agrees, and the three men return to Brittany. Through intricate magic, the clerk creates the illusion that the rocks have disappeared. Aurelius announces to Dorigen that the rocks are gone, demanding that she keep her promise.

Rocks on the Brittany coast at Penmarch
Rocks on the Brittany coast at Penmarch

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