Chapter 5: "Hooly Chirche," the Sacrament of
Marriage, and Thematic Finalization in The Canterbury
The issue of marriage in the Canterbury Tales has long been held as a kind of hostage to the notion that Chaucer created a marriage group in his sequence of stories consisting of the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, the Clerk's Tale, the Merchant's Tale, and the Franklin's Tale. G. L. Kittredge's view of that sequence, along with his argument that Canterbury is essentially a dramatic work of art, which stipulates that each tale must somehow be appropriate to its teller, has influenced most subsequent opinion on the issue of marriage in the Tales. William W. Lawrence, for instance, writing some thirty-five years after Kittredge, has argued that much confusion would have been avoided if critics had limited discussion to tales which deal only with the question of "mastery" and "sovereignty" between husband and wife in marriage (123). Lawrence feels that too much leeway has been taken in attempts to include other tales in the discussion of marriage.
Another peripheral issue that arises here is the one connected to the notion that the Shipman's Tale was thought to belong to the Wife of Bath at some early stage of Chaucer's work on the project. As a number of critics have pointed out, the Shipman's Tale is concerned with the issue of sex and money, with sex as a use commodity in the economic structure of fourteenth century society. Since Chaucer engages the issue explicitly in his work, it seems appropriate to recognize the possibility that some aspect of his social milieu must have brought it to his attention as an artist. In that specific context, it is possible to argue that the Shipman's subject shares a certain affinity with the Cook's Tale, which is specifically concerned, apparently, in its unfinished state, with prostitution in marriage at an entirely explicit level, since the wife of Perkyn Revelour's "compeer" "swyved for hir sustenance" (I.4422). One can also make precisely the same argument about the Wife of Bath, at least in her Prologue, since she has clearly profited from her first three marriages on the basis of an exchange of sex for money and land. D. W. Robertson, Jr. argues that the Wife of Bath has converted "her Pauline 'marriage debt' into a means of prostitution, apparently for the sake of ostentatious dress, a common target for moral censure . . . during the fourteenth century" (404). Taking this idea one step further, we have the merchant's wife in the Shipman's Tale trading, or selling, sex to a monk for 100 francs to pay for a dress she has purchased on credit. The implication that a religious, under holy orders in the church, has exchanged money for sex widens the scope of Chaucer's "prostitution" stories from churlish behavior in the Cook's Tale, a situation one might only expect, to a middle ground in society demonstrated in the Wife of Bath's Prologue, to a situation in which a person under vows in "hooly chirche" makes a purchase of sex in the Shipman's Tale. With the inclusion of the Merchant's Tale, where the old knight Januarie chooses May like a commodity in the "commune market-place" (IV.1583) of his mind, the issue is expanded to include the aristocracy in this coda as well. In other words, Chaucer moves this idea through every level and layer of fourteenth century society.
The development of an ancillary theme of prostitution as part of a marriage contract in Chaucer's work cannot be taken as coincidental to his overall design and, since it directly involves two of the pieces usually assigned to Kittredge's marriage group, the perception of how the Wife of Bath's Prologue and the Merchant's Tale function in that overall design needs to be reexamined. Perhaps the only way to facilitate such a discussion now is to forget for the time being that Kittredge ever made his argument and to ignore the fact that it has exerted so much influence over the development of critical attitudes since its inception. This is not to say that Kittredge's idea is irrelevant, meaningless, or incorrect. Rather it is meant only to suggest that his idea of a marriage group, when strictly limited in its application to promote the idea that Chaucer expresses no other concern about the state of fourteenth century marriage, except that it encompasses a struggle between husbands and wives over the issue of sovereignty, may both miss and obscure a much more significant problem that Chaucer means to address in the Canterbury pilgrimage.
As Robert Burlin has pointed out, "the sacrament of marriage, with all of its ethical and theological implications, was an inescapable fact of human society as Chaucer knew it" (96). In that expanded context, then, the possibility that marriage reaches beyond a single concern seems obvious when one considers the fact that fully seventeen of Chaucer's twenty-four Canterbury Tales, in one way or another, deal with marriage directly as part of their theme, or embrace marriage as a plot device that generates a significant aspect of the story. Since only four of the seventeen stories dealing with aspects of marriage are connected to Kittredge's marriage group, the other thirteen must have been included for some other purpose. One way of evaluating what that purpose may have been is to step completely away from the notion that Chaucer's interest in marriage was essentially secular, concerned only with a form of the "battle of the sexes," and pursue the issue instead from a point of view foregrounding the fact that marriage in Chaucer's day was exclusively perceived as a sacrament of "hooly chirche," carrying with it a complex of ethical and theological issues as Burlin suggests, and not just as a way in which individuals expressed a secular relationship to each other in the social milieu of the time. It is both important and necessary to pursue this issue consistent with fourteenth century paradigms rather than from the point of view of twentieth century ones.
Raising the issue of sacramental life in this context is meant to point outward from Chaucer's individual attitudes about marriage, whatever they might have been, toward a wider concern over issues involving identifiable aspects of Chaucer's fourteenth century ideological horizon. Since it is clear from a sociological point of view that artistic expression comes into existence because of, and is often determined by, the circumstances that exist in the artist's social milieu, in his or her ideological horizon, it seems appropriate to pursue this issue from a perspective and standpoint that privileges the state of "hooly chirche" affairs as they existed during the period of Chaucer's work on the Canterbury Tales. The issue of marriage, then, approached from the point of view that it was preeminently a sacrament of the church which directly affected nearly every lay-person in the realm, opens Chaucer's use of it as a plot device to a wide range of evaluation centered on, but not exclusively limited to, the systemic abuses residing in the agency, and among the agents, who were responsible for administering this particular sacrament of the church in Chaucer's time.
Chaucer critics have generally resisted the idea that he was much concerned with the problems of abuse that existed in the fourteenth century church. In what can be taken as a variation on the notion that Chaucer rarely refers to contemporary events in his poetry, Thomas R. Lounsbury, for instance, notes that Chaucer "may have seen, and doubtless did see, [the church's] evils as clearly as others; but he was not the one to set about the task of its regeneration, or to denounce with bitterness those who had brought it into the condition in which it was" (470). Lounsbury rationalizes this view of Chaucer's reticence to speak out by suggesting that "there would have been danger in expressing sentiments or advocating doctrines that were looked upon with disfavor by the established church" (459). William W. Lawrence takes a similar stance by observing that Chaucer could not have been "blind to the scandals in the church at the time when the Canterbury Tales were written" (165). Several obvious scandals and abuses listed by Lawrence include "the Great Schism (1378 on), the corruption of the minor clergy and of ecclesiastical parasites, the indecent scramble in high places for money, preferment, and power" (165). Lawrence then says that "the reason why there is so little reflection of the problems and distresses of the day is . . . that these were deliberately avoided" by Chaucer (166).
Finally, Stephen Knight approaches the problem in a different way by arguing that Chaucer was prone to articulating a perfectly orthodox view of the church. He notes in the Second Nun's Tale, for instance, that "[f]or the first time in the Tales, the orthodox voice of Christianity is heard without apology, embarrassment or irony" (147). One problem here, among several others, is that the church, as Marc D. Glasser points out, had found it necessary to severely condemn the practice of chaste marriages in the seventh century and the Nun's putting one forth as an ideal in the relationship between Cecile and Valerian may border on heresy (7). It is difficult to reconcile Knight's statement with that fact. David Aers, taking a less rigid position, has argued that "the historical research of the last fifty years . . . has shown the model of a uniform, homogenous, static medieval culture and society to be untenable" (226) and that fact tends to make it more prudent to argue that Chaucer's poetic perception is not always, and in every case, identical to, and consistent with, an authoritative, officially orthodox position.
Verification to support the notion that Chaucer was both capable and inclined to articulate marriage as an essential sacrament of holy church comes readily to hand, however, not from sources external to his Canterbury project, but from the text of the Parson's Tale. Many critics of Chaucer's work have hesitated, for one reason or another, to credit the performance and words of the Parson with Harry Bailly's injunction that they should "knytte up wel a greet mateere" (X.28). Some have objected on the grounds that the Parson's point of view casts too much of a religious aura over the merriment, frivolity, and sheer humor of the fabulous stories that have preceded his rather lengthy, dull and humorless, recital of sins and their remedies. One valuable contribution the Tale makes to critical evaluation, and one that has been mostly overlooked, is that it clearly tells us, not what Chaucer believed, but what he knew, about the sentence and doctrine of fourteenth century Christian faith. If an idea is expressed in the Parson's Tale, after all, it becomes difficult to argue that Chaucer may not have been aware of the concept because it only exists now in this or that obscure patristic source to which Chaucer may not have had access during his lifetime. In short, if the Parson says it, Chaucer, even if he may not have personally believed it himself, certainly knew it. At the same time, of course, there is no reason to assume, simply because the Parson says it, that Chaucer himself did not believe in and accept the doctrine as being perfectly true and credible.
Hence, when the Parson reaches his third example of the harms caused by Luxuria he notes that
The thridde harm is the filthe thurgh which they breken the comandement of God, and defoulen the auctour of matrimoyne, that is Crist. For certes, in so muche as the sacrement of mariage is so noble and so digne, so muche is it gretter synne for to breken it, for God made mariage in paradys, in the estaat of innocence, to multiplye mankynde to the service of God. And therfore is the brekynge therof the moore grevous; of which brekynge comen false heires ofte tyme, that wrongfully ocupien folkes heritages. And therfore wol Crist putte hem out of the regne of hevene, that is heritage to good folk. (X.881-883)
Here, clearly expressed, is the heart of the issue of how Chaucer's Parson perceives the activities of every individual character in the Tales who commits adultery in the course of his or her fictional life. Chaucer's view of the same issue is probably the same, since the Parson's pronouncements are essentially orthodox. He also explains why this view of the violation of the sacrament is so compelling:
Understoond eek that Avowtrie is set gladly in the ten comandementz bitwixe thefte and manslaughtre; for it is the gretteste thefte that may be, for it is thefte of body and of soule. And it is lyk to homycide, for it kerveth atwo and breketh atwo hem that first were maked o flessh. (X.886-887)
He also notes that under the old law of pre-Christian times the sin of adultery was indeed a capital offense punished by stoning the guilty parties.
With respect to the notion that Chaucer is reluctant to criticize or condemn the practices of abuse among the clergy, the Parson addresses the issue of churchmen who engage in breaking their vows of celibacy to pursue sexual relationships with members of their parishes. He says, for instance, that
Yet been ther mo speces of this cursed synne; as whan that oon of hem is religious, or elles bothe; or of folk that been entred in ordre, as subdekne, or dekne, or preest, or hospitaliers. And evere the hyer that he is in ordre, tho greeter is the synne. (X.890)
He notes as well that the sin of adultery here is compounded by the fact that people in holy orders simultaneously are guilty of the "brekynge of hire avow of chastitee" (X.891) and that they thereby become "the special traytours of God and of his peple; for they lyven of the peple, to preye for the peple, and while they been suche traitours, here preyer avayleth nat to the peple" (X.893). The point of this observation, as we shall see, is that any religious taken in notorious and uncorrected sin ultimately fails, precisely as the Parson says, to mediate successfully God's grace and mercy to his or her parishioners and underlings. Chaucer makes this point as explicitly clear as it can be made.
The problem these comments are meant to expose is that one often finds it difficult to uncover useful statements about the relationship of individuals to the sacraments of "hooly chirche" in studies of Chaucer's work, since most critics traditionally ignore that aspect of fourteenth century ideology, believing it to be largely beside the point in assessments of Chaucer's sociohistorical point of view. For that reason, then, it becomes necessary to look elsewhere for responses to these kinds of problems in Chaucer's literary milieu. P. M. Kean, in a discussion of the relationship between Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest in Langland's Piers Plowman, distinguishes the first two concepts from the third by noting that "Dowel and Dobet are to be lived or acted by man, but Dobest is something which acts on him" (81). In commenting on the figure of the bishop in the second part of Langland's poem, Kean argues that he "stands . . . for a way in which man actually has power over sin . . . through the mediation of the Church, which stands between purely human well-doing (Dowel and Dobet) and the goodness of God which man cannot reach unaided" (81-82). Kean goes on to say that "Dobest differs from the other two in that it involves something which is not available to man without the intervention of God's grace and the mediation of the Church" (83). It is also clear, she notes, "that Langland places great emphasis on the position of the Church as intermediary" and that in this respect Langland "would seem to be wholly orthodox" (82). Kean also notes that Langland had little to say about major controversial topics of the day, including, but not limited to, "the relation of the sacramental life of the Church (which he seems to take for granted) to the individual" (109). Michael P. Kuczynski has argued that the "twin psalmic themes of human sinfulness and divine mercy . . . are the chief buttresses of Langland's poem."
The point of referring to this assessment of Langland is twofold. Firstly, it brings to the foreground the fact that a major tenet of fourteenth century religious life, as an aspect of everyone's ideological horizon, postulates that all individual Christians must depend upon the church and its sacraments to stand as a force of mediation between their sinful lives and the all-encompassing grace of God. Without the church (Dobest), according to Kean's assessment of Langland, which she sees as "wholly orthodox," man has little or no hope of salvation. One can also assume that what works for Langland must also be appropriate to Chaucer. What this circumstance invites, of course, is an examination of the state of "hooly chirche," not so much in the sociohistorical moment of Langland, but rather in the time of Geoffrey Chaucer; and not at some unspecified time during his life either but only during that period of time when he was actually writing the Canterbury Tales--not before 1378, and no one claims he started that early, but only after that fateful year in the sacramental life of the church.
The reference to that particular year as a point of departure for examining the state of "hooly chirche" in Chaucer's milieu rests on the fact that the beginning of the Great Schism can be fixed on September 20, 1378, when the French cardinals elected Clement VII to replace Urban VI, who had been deposed by them on August 9. Thirty years later, on June 5, 1408, at the close of the Council of Pisa, the person most responsible for efforts in France to end the Schism, Simon de Cramaud, who had articulated and pursued the via cessionis for Charles VI, read out the following decree deposing the two schismatic popes:
The holy synod representing the universal church, sitting as a tribunal in the present case against Pedro de Luna and Angelo Correr, formerly known as Benedict XIII and Gregory XII, decrees that all their crimes are notorious, and that they have been and are schismatics, fosterers of schism, notorious heretics deviating from the faith, ensnared in notorious crimes of perjury and violation of their oaths, and notorious scandalizers of the church; and that they have been notoriously incorrigible, contumacious, and stubborn in these respects. For these and other reasons they have rendered themselves unworthy of every honor and dignity, even the papal; and the synod decrees that they are ipso facto deposed and deprived of all right to rule or preside, by God and the sacred canons. At the same time the synod, by this definitive sentence, deprives, deposes, and cuts off the aforesaid Pedro and Angelo, prohibiting them from acting as supreme pontiff. And the synod decrees that the Roman Church is vacant.
According to Howard Kaminsky, Simon de Cramaud had used nearly identical language in outlining his position of via cessionis in his treatise "On Subtraction of Obedience" in preparation for the Third Council of Paris in 1399, when France and the Valois princes voted to subtract obedience from Benedict XIII (282 and 243). He also notes that Simon had "sent a copy [of the treatise] to Richard II of England sometime in 1397 with a covering letter exhorting the king to act" in the effort to force the resignation of the Roman pope (207-208). In 1397, of course, England owed obedience to Boniface IX, who preceded Gregory XII. Whether or not Chaucer had ever seen Simon's treatise on subtracting obedience from the pope is impossible to determine. That he knew of the combined efforts of the ruling families of England and France to end the Schism, even that he knew of Simon de Cramaud's long history of leading that effort for Charles VI, seems a reasonable assumption based on the fact that John of Gaunt had long been England's "point-man" in that effort. Chaucer's long association with John of Gaunt makes it a reasonable assumption that he was fully aware of Gaunt's participation in English/French efforts to end the Schism which date from as early as 1389. A proper question might be whether Chaucer ever mentions Simon in the text of his Canterbury pilgrimage.
The best answer to that question is to acknowledge that Chaucer never refers to Simon de Cramaud by name. At this point one cannot help but say that following in the footsteps of J. M. Manly, by arguing that Chaucer refers to him in the Franklin's Tale by virtue of his academic credentials, is a critical gesture so fraught with perils of every kind that it would probably be best to demur but for the fact that the clerk of Orléans is so very probably Simon de Cramaud. Pure and absolute historical coincidence aside, and it is so difficult to accept coincidence of such magnitude, Simon de Cramaud received his doctorate in laws at the University of Orléans in 1375. It is also true that while a student there he held a canonry "with the office of scholasticus" after June 15 of the same year (Kaminsky, 74). In describing the clerk of Orléans, the Franklin says he was, at the time Aurelius's brother knew him, "a bacheler of lawe" (V.1126), who also studied astrology and magic. Hence, one cannot dispute the simple fact that Simon was a clerk of Orléans prior to the beginning of the Great Schism and that he spent the greater part of his life working toward a solution to the church's most serious problem at the end of the century. It is also true that Simon may have been the most dominant force in both England and France for resolving the Schism during the entire duration of the conflict. Since most scholars accept a date of composition for the Franklin's Tale at some point during the middle 1390's, it is not completely beyond the limits of reason and logic to seek other evidence in the text of the tale to support the notion that the man who makes the black rocks of Brittany disappear is none other than an actual clerk of Orléans, who was known to most of Europe by the name Simon de Cramaud.
In fact, it is precisely because of the black rocks, and the fact that the clerk manages to make them disappear, that one thinks initially of a person like Simon in this context. Christ said to Peter: "thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 17: 18). Medieval thinking had it that St. Peter, the rock upon which Christ built his church, was also the first pope of the Roman Obedience. As everyone in Chaucer's audience knew, every pope after St. Peter elected to fill a vacancy in the church became the occupant of his throne and through the doctrine of apostolic succession an unbroken line of papal authority was renewed and maintained stretching back over 1400 years to the day Christ identified St. Peter as the first pope, as the rock upon which the church would be built. The connection, then, between the pope and St. Peter, and by extension from that to the notion of having the rock represent the papal throne itself, makes it possible to argue that Chaucer meant his audience to identify the black rocks along the coast of Brittany with the fact that there were two popes occupying the papal throne during the Schism. That, in fact, comes to be precisely the problem confronting all Christians during the final twenty-two years of Chaucer's life and the entire duration of the Schism. Both popes could not be the true Vicar of Christ simultaneously and it became impossible for anyone to know with certainty which might be true and which might be false. Removing the true Vicar of Christ from the throne, and leaving the false one in place, would forever destroy the notion of apostolic succession that granted the pope's authority in the first place. Hence, the Schism persisted for forty years before Simon de Cramaud's via cessionis removed both popes together so that a third one could be elected to continue the true succession. The Council of Pisa (1408) accomplished that goal, or would have, with the election of Alexander V, but failed ultimately because Benedict and Gregory both refused to resign. After Pisa, there were three popes until the election of Martin V in 1417.
One issue in need of clarification at this point concerns the problem of why Chaucer depicts the clerk of Orléans as a practitioner of magical arts. James F. Royster argued many years ago that the University of Orléans in Chaucer's day was known to have many students there who were "addicted to the study of necromancy" and that Chaucer was simply reporting "the actual conditions at the University." That explanation, while perfectly reasonable and appropriate, does not carry us beyond admitting that Chaucer's motivation is always accessible to meaningful resolutions. Royster also notes that Chaucer included a list of "tregetoures" and witches in the House of Fame (1271-1275) and that among the group he named was Simon Magus (380). The Parson says that
Certes symonye is cleped of Simon Magus, that wolde han boght for temporeel catel the yifte that God hadde yeven by the Hooly Goost to Seint Peter and to the apostles. And therfore understoond that both he that selleth and he that beyeth thynes espirituels been cleped symonyals. (X.783-784)
In the same passage, the Parson argues that the sin of simony "is the gretteste synne that may be, after the synne of Lucifer and Antecrist" (X.788). Simon the Magician, therefore, became associated with the greatest sin a person can commit, not because he was a magician ("tregetour"), but because he attempted to purchase the benefit bestowed on one by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Simon de Cramaud, according to Howard Kaminsky, while perhaps not the worst practitioner of simony in the fourteenth century church, nevertheless benefited considerably from his association with the papal see at Avignon during the Schism. Kaminsky notes that "the pontificate of Clement VII . . . had been enormously advantageous to [Simon}" (107). In a period of ten years, for instance, he was appointed Bishop of Agen (30 May 1382), Béziers (7 August 1383), and Poitiers (24 November 1385), before becoming the Patriarch of Alexandria (17 March 1391), a position which gave him oversight duties for the administration of the holy see at Avignon (Kaminsky, 80-104). He held the final position until the Schism was resolved in 1417. Kaminsky notes that
Simon was . . . a collector of benefices; and in one of his arguments for the via cessionis, he confessed that he personally would resist even a general council's decision against the legitimacy of the Avignon line, for that would subject his own benefice titles to cancellation. (78)
The point here is that Chaucer's reference to the clerk of Orléans as being a "tregetour" associates him with Simon Magus, the person for whom the sin of simony was named. Simon de Cramaud, while condemning the sin of simony in others, and not unlike Chaucer's Pardoner either, fully embraced it himself as a way of amassing a considerable fortune from his benefices in the church he was attempting to reunite. Simon's opportunities for advancement, as Kaminsky points out, were directly related to the existence of the Schism.
Chaucer's allusion to the presence of necromancers at the University of Orléans in the Franklin's Tale, while based on observable conditions at the time, and clearly part of his technique of referring to contemporary circumstances in his fictional creations, opens his discourse to the act of consciously evaluating a natural synergy among three persons named Simon. Simon Peter, Simon Magus, and Simon de Cramaud are drawn together in the Franklin's Tale, in a kind of parodic trinity, that expresses Chaucer's intent to address the issues of the Great Schism in his Canterbury project. Bernard McGinn, in his study of the angel pope and the papal antichrist, notes that the tradition of the dialectic between good and evil forces in the papacy reached its culmination in the Schism. He says that, "although neither pope had the slightest claim to sanctity, the predictions of Angel Pope and Papal Antichrist appeared to have been given ringing confirmation by events." Richard K. Emmerson and Ronald B. Herzman, arguing from the ground of the same tradition that McGinn traces, have demonstrated that "Simon Magus, who after the miracles following Pentecost attempted to purchase the Holy Spirit . . . became in medieval exegesis one of the most significant types of the Antichrist." Chaucer's use of magical elements in the Franklin's discourse, as a means of finalizing the denouement of the tensions he has created in it, point to the fact that Simon de Cramaud, by virtue of the fact that he has profited from the Schism as a "collector of benefices," is at least implicated in the process of furthering the aims of the Antichrist in contemporary fourteenth century society. The Antichrists Chaucer sees in society are embodied in the two schismatic heretics who occupy the throne of St. Peter in Rome and Avignon, neither of whom can be called angelic.
There is already considerable evidence in hand supporting the idea that Chaucer was concerned with matters pertaining to the Schism in the Franklin's Tale, specifically the Squire's participation in the Norwich crusade and the possibility that Arveragus's absence in England was part of the direct response of the French crown to the English via facti against the Avignon papacy of Clement VII. The black rocks which threaten Averagus's safe return, and which drive Dorigen to make her rash promise to commit adultery with Aurelius, if he can make them vanish, can be taken to represent the two schismatic heretics that occupy the throne of St. Peter during the Great Schism, the rocks which are made to disappear by a clerk of Orléans. Dorigen's long complaint against the rocks in the Tale seems to bear out this view of their allegorical significance:
Eterne God, that thrugh thy purveiaunce
Ledest the world by certein governaunce,
In ydel, as men seyn, ye no thyng make.
But, Lord, thise grisly feendly rokkes blake,
That semed rather a foul confusion
Of werk than any fair creacion
Of swiche a parfit wys God and a stable,
Why han ye wroght this werk unreasonable?
For by this werk, south, north, ne west, ne eest,
Ther nys yfostred man, ne bryd, ne beest;
It dooth no good, to my wit, but anoyeth.
Se ye nat, Lord, how mankynde it destroyeth?
An hundred thousand bodyes of mankynde
Han rokkes slayn, al be they nat in mynde,
Which mankynde is so fair part of thy werk
That thou it madest lyk to thyn owene merk.
Thanne semed it ye hadde a greet chiertee
Toward mankynde; but how thanne may it bee
That ye swiche meenes make it to destroyen,
Whiche meenes do no good, but evere anoyen?
I woot wel clerkes wol seyn as hem leste
By argumentz, that al is for the beste,
Though I ne kan the causes nat yknowe.
But thilke God that made wynd to blowe
As kepe my lord! This my conclusion.
To clerkes lete I al disputison
But wolde God that alle thise rokkes blake
Were sonken into helle for his sake!
Thise rokkes sleen myn herte for the feere. (V.865-893)
One need only pause for a moment of figurative displacement here to recognize an undercurrent of discourse in this statement, a redirection, as it were, from a purely physical impediment along a shoreline threatening sailors to a spiritual malignancy in the church which condemns all believers to eternal death and perpetual confusion. In Dorigen's mind, of course, the rocks are simply that--a dangerous natural barrier along the coast that seems to be a "foul confusion" capable of causing the deaths of "an hundred thousand" men. A "foul confusion," natural or otherwise, is also another way of signifying the existence of a force that causes men to sin and Chaucer's irony here is directed at the fact that the two popes are not part of God's "fair creacion" but are the result of a college of cardinals who put their own material self-interest above the sacramental needs and obligations of their holy office when they created the Schism. Dorigen cannot understand why a "parfit wys God and a stable" would create such a dangerous "werk unreasonable." She was clearly not alone in her distress over the fact of the existence of the church's two schismatic heretical popes. God's providential governance, which never acts in vain, has nevertheless produced "thise grisly feendly rokkes blake." This question, of course, begs the issue of Providence and Free Will that Chaucer addresses in the frame structure of the Canterbury Takes. Dorigen answers that part of the question as everyone always does: God's design is beyond our comprehension and whatever He does is "for the beste."
Her assertion that the rocks create only chaos and do no good whatsoever, but only disturb man's peace to the south, north, west, and east, across the whole face of the known world, in fact, tends to suggest that their effects reach far beyond the mere coast of Brittany. As the agency of mankind's destruction, the black rocks seem to contradict God's onetime charitable feelings for his creation. As the principal agents of God's love and grace in the world, through the mediation of "hooly chirche," as we have seen, the popes have always been the human focal point of God's "greet cheirtee." This passage, however, clearly suggests that this circumstance has been radically altered, since these new agents of God, His new "meenes," are meant only to destroy mankind. Her reference to the absence of charity in the contemporary milieu is a well documented element of the condition of the world just prior to the apocalypse. The reference is derived from the Gospel of Matthew (24: 11-12) where Christ warns the apostles that "many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold."
If the rocks do represent the two schismatic popes, then the passage expresses a profound crisis of faith because Dorigen voices the hope that the rocks will sink to the very depths of hell. The biblical passage this concept is spun from argues that the rock of St. Peter will stand even against the gates of hell. Here, however, after nearly twenty years of Schism, the wish is that the two popes, who have destroyed as much as built man's hope of salvation, will be consumed in that fire for all the harm they have caused. Dorigen's appeal to God to remedy the fear striking to her very heart is probably not at all unlike the fear most Christian's suffered over the fate of their eternal souls during the years of the Great Schism. This is true because any sacrament received from the hand of a schismatic heretic would condemn a Christian's soul to eternal hell. It would not save anyone from that fate. Her conclusion to give up the "disputison" of the issue to the clerks is not at all unlike what actually happened at the time either. Finally, the fact that a clerk of Orléans causes the rocks to disappear, if only temporarily, and even if he is not Simon de Cramaud in Chaucer's mind, expresses the truth of what actually happened in the resolution of the Schism itself, because a clerk of Orléans did, in fact, cause the disappearance of the two schismatic popes.
Turning this discussion back to the subject of marriage in Chaucer's Canterbury project as a whole only requires one to acknowledge the fact that the disappearance of the black rocks creates for Dorigen and Arveragus the possibility that the sanctity of their marriage vows will be placed in jeopardy, if not destroyed outright, by her promise to commit adultery with Aurelius if, in fact, he can make the rocks disappear. The black rocks create the problem for the couple in the first place, since their existence along the shore is what causes Dorigen to make the rash promise to Aurelius. Any sacrament from a schismatic heretic is likely to do exactly that and, under such circumstances, one can naturally assume that their disappearance will also solve that problem. That, however, is not exactly what happens. The removal of the schismatic popes, even if only a temporary covering up, or concealment, of their existence under a high tide, perhaps of moral outrage of the kind Simon de Cramaud expresses in his decree at Pisa, sets in motion the wheel of necessity that compels Dorigen to keep the promise she made to Aurelius which causes her to break the one she made to Arveragus. In other words, she is compelled by her foolish promise to the squire to violate the sacramental vow of marriage and fidelity she first took with her husband. Over possible objections that the Franklin's Tale is not meant to establish a Christian discourse, D. W. Robertson, Jr., points out that "marriage is a sacrament, the first, in fact, to be established by Christ" and argues that Christian ideals do enter the realm of the story's pagan setting (281-282). Arveragus, of course, forces Dorigen, even against her will, to keep her "trouthe" to Aurelius.
Given the point at which Chaucer created the Franklin's Tale (1393-1397), fully twenty years before a solution to the Schism was actually worked out (1417), and with nothing more than Simon de Cramaud's treatise on the subtraction of obedience at hand (sent to England in 1397), where even the subtraction itself would not be instituted against the Avignon papacy until 1399 by the French crown, his perception of the successful removal of the schismatic popes could not have been anything more than a hope and a promise for the future. Simon's words, even if they did condemn the popes as notorious schismatic heretics, did not make them disappear in a way any more effectively real than the way the clerk of Orléans in Chaucer's story makes the rocks along the coast vanish. Simon says all the right words, like any accomplished lawyer who may also be a "tregetoure," but the underlying systemic abuses in the church cannot be corrected, or even effectively addressed, with mere linguistic phrases and tricks--as the Franklin says: "But thurgh his magik, for a wyke or tweye,/ It semed that alle the rokkes were aweye" (V.1295-1296). Even the Council of Pisa, with all the authority of the church behind it, in 1408 only managed the addition of a third schismatic pope to the two already plaguing the validity of its holy mission and sacraments. The point here is that the sacrament of marriage itself is the problem, since its sacramental character is conflicted by the schismatic heresy of the Vicars of Christ who control its administration from two opposite and contending obediences. Chaucer sets it up this way so that the removal of the most obvious and visible obstructions to a fruitful sacramental life in the church, when they are thrown aside, initiates the mechanism that leads to the abandonment of the vows it is meant to sustain and protect. What this suggests is that the initial marriage contracts, the first promises made by Dorigen and Arveragus to each other, were flawed from the beginning, and were not capable of sustaining themselves in the face of any threat whatsoever to their supposed validity and sanctity. The threat comes from inside the chivalric order of society in the person of Aurelius. If a simple, irresponsible promise made under the duress of a compelling fear can overturn the most hegemonically powerful institution in medieval life, then there must be something seriously amiss at the heart of that institution.
Seeing to the heart of this problem in all its Chaucerian complexity is possible, if somewhat difficult, by starting at the beginning of Chaucer's Canterbury project, with an examination of the marriage theme he develops in Fragment I of the Ellesmere sequence. One fact to keep firmly in mind here is that the Franklin's Tale, structurally speaking, finalizes the first half of the 12-spoked, and spoken, wheel-like sequence of stories in Chaucer's design. Hence, it stands as the end of the sequence initiated by the Knight's Tale at the beginning. Their connection to each other--Knight to Franklin--creates a circular story-telling strategy not at all unlike a fourteenth century cartwheel. In the Knight's Tale itself, marriage is promoted as a social cure for the disorder that is created by the chivalric love of Palamon and Arcite for Emelye. Left unregulated the two love-sick knights threaten the stability of Theseus's kingdom by their desire to fight, unabated like wild animals, for Emelye's affection. Theseus solves the problem by making Emelye the prize in an organized, state-sanctioned tournament which will end in the victor being married to her in a public ceremony in the presence of Theseus's full parliament. Anne Middleton, by evaluating the conflict between chivalry and marriage in Chaucer's work, notes that "[t]he ardant desir of Palamon, Venus's knight, finally triumphs in, and is contained by, marriage, overthrowing both individual martial prowess (Mars's knight) and celibacy (Emelye's wish), making the young warrior and former enemy into Theseus's loyal ally" (128). This transformation from vicious, rebellious knight, a "wood leon" (I.1656), who has escaped from Theseus's perpetual prison, to married lover creates order out of chaos in the Knight's Tale.
An important distinction between Theseus's marriage plan to resolve the disorder caused by chivalric love in the Knight's Tale and the marriages that are depicted in the other three tales in the first section of Canterbury concerns the fact that the first one is pagan while the other three are Christian. The pagan marriage holds out the promise of restored order, whether actually ever realized or not; whereas, the other examples are implicated by design in a process that illustrates the degeneration of civil and domestic order on account of the illicit sexuality associated with adultery. An important aspect of the distinction here depends upon Chaucer's selection of generic types for the three stories that follow the Knight's speech performance.
Beryl Rowland, in her assessment of Chaucer's use of the fabliau form, has suggested that his models, from the standpoint of plot, are
single and clear-cut with a denouement that seems inevitable; it makes a steady progression unusually involving some kind of sexual conflict whereby one character or group of characters is outwitted by another; it exploits stock types and keeps the attention focused on action rather than character by employing certain conventions of behavior which the audience can readily anticipate and accept. The wife is inevitably lecherous, and also cunning enough to outsmart her menfolk; the priest displays the greed and sensuality that incur their own punishment; husbands and peasants are so boorish and stupid as to deserve victimization. (205)
Rowland then evaluates the ways in which Chaucer altered these basic elements of the genre. Robert E. Lewis, in his study of Chaucer's place in an English tradition of comic writing, notes that the fabliau tradition has always been connected to romance genres in that "the parody of the courtly language of love from the specifically English romance is already there" in earlier examples of the fabliaux (255). E. Talbot Donaldson also emphasizes the fact that fabliaux generally tend to parody romance traditions where "the ideals [of romance] are subjected to the harshly naturalistic criticism of the fabliau" (29). Derek Pearsall points out that concepts of time in the fabliaux are always limited to "the present, and the tale is offered as a report on contemporary life" (40). Not to be overlooked in this context, of course, is the fact that Chaucer's real-time chronotope in the frame makes these stories seem more credibly universal and pertinent to contemporary issues than they might have been otherwise. Pearsall also notes, in general, that the genre creates a "systematic belittling of bourgeois ignorance and stupidity," and expresses that point of view as "an aristocratic taste" (41). Pearsall also wonders why earlier critics thought the genre was ever "associated with the lower classes of society, except as a reflex of that comfortable opinion that low moral standards are to be associated with the lower classes" (41).
This final point becomes significant in Chaucer's use of the genre because he tends to violate the principles of its traditional function as an aristocratic view of bourgeois society when he has his churls (Miller, Reeve, Cook) tell tales implicating other churls in the ridiculous exploits of gulling and cuckolding that occupy the plots of his fabliaux. The important point to remember is that the most notable plot in the genre concerns the ignorant, foolish husband who is outwitted and turned into a cuckold by the conspiracy of his wife and her younger, more clever and virile, lover. The issue of adultery in sacramental marriage, then, becomes a significant factor in the generic choice Chaucer makes for the final three speech performances in Fragment I of his Canterbury project. As noted earlier, formalist critics tend to subordinate a content to the form that expresses it and that attitude leads to the notion that Chaucer chose fabliaux here because he wanted to demonstrate his ability to create credible examples of that genre. The argument here goes the other way around: Chaucer chose a content, sacramental marriage conflicted by adultery, to address the issue he raises in the Knight's Tale, and used the traditional genre that expresses his content--the fabliau. His ultimate purpose, of course, is to illustrate the disastrous effects that years of unresolved Schism have caused in society and he goes about his plan very systematically.
In the Miller's Tale, the adulterous union comes to fruition through the manipulation of Nicholas, an Oxford clerk, who presses his desire-laden suit for Alison's affections in terms that mock, ridicule, and parody standard love-sick complaints in courtly romance. Nicholas employs, or plays with, concepts that mock courtly love in order to win Alison; but, in his depiction of Absolon, Chaucer turns the discourse of courtly love around by having him take such ideas all too seriously. Absolon's fate is then sealed by the fact that he embraces the wrong kinds of ideals and the kiss he receives from his lady love is perfectly appropriate to his misplaced idealization of the naturalistic world he inhabits in the genre of typical fabliau comedy. Alison's initial resistance to Nicholas is swiftly overcome and she tells him how he must seek some private opportunity to consummate their sexual union because her jealous husband will kill her if he discovers her infidelity (I.3288-3297). This same construct reappears in virtually identical form in the Merchant's Tale in Fragment IV, where another old man (Januarie) marries a wife (May) who is much too young for him. The Merchant informs us that Januarie, after he becomes blind, is so jealous of May that he never takes his hand from her body (IV.2087-2096). After Nicholas expresses his desire, Alison convinces him to wait and, at the first opportunity, while John, Alison's carpenter-husband, is away on business at Osenay,
Hende Nicholas and Alisoun,
Acorded been to this conclusioun,
That Nicholas shal shapen hym a wyle
This sely jalous housbonde to bigyle;
And if so be the game wente aright,
She sholde slepen in his arm al nyght,
For this was his desir and hire also. (I.3401-3407)
While it is true that the Miller's Tale presents a view of marriage conflicted by adultery, the perception created here by the Miller that Nicholas and Alison share a mutual desire for each other generates the sense that an actual relationship exists between them. They reach an accord for a single conclusion of how best to advance their mutual and shared desire. The fact that Alison rejects Absolon also suggests that she is capable of choosing a course involving loyalty to a lover and is not simply swayed by every offer of illicit sex that comes her way. The "wyle" that Nicholas shapes to achieve their mutual accord, complicated and elaborated to a point of absurdity though it may be, elevates the realization of their "love" for each other to a level that requires, or demonstrates, a capacity for intellectual engineering absent from the tales that follow it in the Fragment.
Derek Brewer, in his recent study of the Reeve's Tale, notes that "Chaucer is writing for courtiers and he appeals to the amusement of a superior social class contemplating the absurd pretentiousness of a low-class character priding himself on a wife who herself is pert and proud because she is the illegitimate daughter of a priest" (77). Chaucer's decision to place this story in the mouth of a churl does tend to conflict the notion of a single-minded motivation to entertain "courtiers" and the immediate relevance of the validity of Brewer's observation may tend more in the direction of revealing Chaucer's ultimate concern with the long-standing effects of sexual abuse in the church, every priest takes a vow of celibacy, as he works them through the theme of how marriage has become generationally conflicted by adultery in the sacramental life of "hooly chirche." If a priest does not keep his "trouthe" of celibacy, should anyone expect the people he marries to abide by their vows of fidelity? The idea of youth versus age Chaucer exploits in the tale tends to point at a generational extension of the problem, since the mother's daughter may also end with an illegitimate child of her own. There is no reason to believe that the clerk has turned out a better man than the priest either. Derek Pearsall, in his study of Chaucer's comedy cited earlier, argues that the "couplings in the night [which occur in the Reeve's Tale] are acts of vindictiveness rather than desire, and are described in language that gives no access to pleasure or feeling of any kind" (46). Stephen Knight notes that the "nasty collocation of sinful parson, snobbish wife and grasping tradesman lacks the sprightly vigour of the Miller's tale."
In citing these three critical observations of the Reeve's performance, each of which is completely appropriate to the tale, one cannot escape the sense that Chaucer has deliberately undercut the very elements of human value that inform the Miller's Tale, making it a delight, in order to create a stark contrast against the way the Reeve responds to an identical, shared social milieu. In other words, the same ideological horizon has been split into separate and conflicting accounts of the same inescapable circumstances. The conflict between Miller and Reeve in the frame locks these tales to each other and, in short, one cannot avoid the fact that the Reeve's Tale functions on a completely different set of social values than the ones Chaucer has used in the previous performances.
In the Reeve's performance, Aleyn decides to force his sexual attention on the miller's daughter, Malyne, in order to exact revenge against her dishonest father, a miller, who has stolen half the grain he brought to the mill. He tells his companion, John, another clerk, that by "lawe" he has a right to seek just compensation for his loss:
That gif a man in a point be agreved,
That in another he sal be releved.
Oure corn is stoln, sothly, it is na nay,
And we han had an il fit al this day;
And syn I sal have neen amendement
Agayn my los, I will have esement. (I.4181-4186)
Aleyn, then, simply enters Malyne's bed and copulates himself to "esement" for the loss he has suffered. John, who does not wish to be outdone by Aleyn, moves the baby's cradle from the foot of the miller's bed to the foot of his own and, when the wife gets up to relieve herself in the darkness, takes advantage of the mistake she makes in choosing a bed when she returns to one place instead of the other. The only guile involved, in contradistinction to Nicholas's elaborate plan, is the removal of the cradle from one place to the other. The desire evident in both clerks does not concern their sexual partners directly because both women are nothing more than passive opportunities for "esement." The clerks' only concern is that the illicit sexuality will effectively cuckold the miller and compensate them for his thievery. Malyne tells Aleyn as he leaves her bed where the stolen corn can be found and he also recovers his material loss before they make their hasty departure.
The Cook's Tale takes this same idea, that sex is a commodity capable of being exchanged on an economic level, and makes it the only issue in the story. The marriage between Perkyn Revelour's "compeer" and his wife is turned so far around from the sacrament of Christian marriage that it ceases to be one at all. That the woman "swyved for hir sustenance" suggests she will accept anything offered in a monitory or barter economy that has a value equivalent to her sexual favors, whatever that value might be. A significant concept in the Cook's Tale that helps to focus Chaucer's intent in the sequence of fabliaux at the end of Fragment I is expressed in the reason given for Perkyn Revelour's dismissal from his apprenticeship, stated first in proverbial form and then in more specific terms:
"Wel bet is rotten appul out of hoord
Than that it rotie al the remenaunt."
So fareth it by a riotous servaunt;
It is ful lasse harm to lete hym pace,
Than he shende alle the servants in the place. (I.4406-4410)
This statement, since it is functionally disengaged from the issue of adultery and prostitution which terminates the Cook's Tale, speaks to the wider issue of how the "revelour's" behavior threatens to destroy social order on a more extensive scale than the one directly involved in Perkyn's guild affiliation. His presence in the shop corrupts everyone there. The master, under whom Perkyn serves his apprenticeship, protects his business from corruption by expelling the "revelour" whose actions continuously threaten his mastery, his order, his proprietorship over the working force that generates and sustains his personal income. That act, and the way in which Chaucer expresses it through the Cook's voice, carries us directly back around to the very issue that ended the Knight's Tale. The social dimension of the "revelour's" presence in the microcosmic milieu of the guild revisits the broader implications of the presence of love-sick knights in a chivalric society. Theseus's solution of marriage between Palamon and Emelye is juxtaposed to Perkyn's ultimate social destination in the house of a man who agrees, apparently for economic reasons, to become a perpetual, and continuously turned, cuckold by virtue of the fact that his wife commits adultery for money.
The Knight's view of his own conclusion to the romance of Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye, his view of marriage as a solution to disorder in society, is no less "romantic" than the other elements of his story:
For now is Palamon in alle wele,
Lyvynge in blisse, in richesse, and in heele,
And Emelye hym loveth so tendrely,
And he hire serveth so gentilly,
That never was ther no word hem betwene
Of jalousie or any oother teene. (I.3103-3106)
One can, of course, take the Knight's word for it, since he has the final authority to determine how his narrative will end and, were his tale to stand alone, "withouten any compaignye," as Arcite does when he dies, there would be no grounds for questioning the validity of his point of view. Questions, however, do arise and are provoked by the chaos and disorder that follows naturally from the three stories Chaucer assigns to the Miller, Reeve, and Cook as he rounds out Fragment I of the Canterbury Tales. The fact that the Knight specifies jealousy here as one of the conflicts that can harm marriage anticipates the role it plays in the Miller's and Merchant's speech performances. The theme of marriage, often subordinated to other problems in the four tales, often overlooked and even ignored completely by modern critics, cannot be so easily dismissed, from a sociological point of view, when one accepts the notion that the problems generated by love-sick knights in courtly romance, and even perhaps in chivalric society itself if anything like the Knight's subject matter can be taken as historically relevant and real, are perceived as social disorders that can be remedied by marriage. Everything in the Knight's Tale leads to that denouement, to that conclusion. Chaucer has the Miller, the Reeve, and the Cook object to that point of view by giving them stories that show a detailed degeneration and disintegration of the values inherent in a Christian sacrament ranging from adultery committed for the sake of a mutual desire between lovers, to a quasi-legal recovery of loss through revenge, to a simple and straightforward economic exchange of sex for money. The high-minded view of the Knight, genuine in its own right, is nevertheless pulled thematically toward prostitution by the progression of stories in Fragment I. The Cook's Tale, a deliberate compositional fragment, functions clearly as a thematic finalization for the issues Chaucer raises and acquits in the first section of his pilgrimage. The final tale in the group needs no other word to finish the theme of marriage conflicted by adultery and sexual excess given up in exchange for money that terminates the sequence.
Several other problems that demand attention here concern the issue of Chaucer's reason for juxtaposing the Knight against the churls in Fragment I. That serves obvious sociological purposes. A formalist approach to this problem, on the other hand, one which perceives plot devices in distinction from genre choices and promotes issues of form over concerns about the nature of content, might argue that marriage is simply a plot device in the fragment and that the content of all four tales can be reduced to what is only typical of romance and fabliau genres in general. In other words, a formalist approach would have it that Chaucer is not commenting directly on the actual state of marriage in fourteenth century life but is only following the dictates of his generic choices, romance and fabliau, when he juxtaposes a high-minded, eminently successful, marriage in the Knight's romance to the low-minded, adulterous, relationships he portrays in the churlish tales of Miller, Reeve, and Cook. In short, one can argue that Chaucer means nothing at all by placing these stories together in a single compositional and thematic unity, that he is simply following the dictates of his source material, a fact made evident by his choices of genre distinction. The other possibility, of course, is that Chaucer favors the Knight's view over the one presented by the churls and believed that the "gentil herte" never ran to adultery.
A major problem with that point of view is the distinction Chaucer formulates between the idealized marriage between Palamon and Emelye, which is wholly confined to his narrator's point of view, and the other three examples of marriage relationships which are not idealized at all. The difference rests on the fact that the first marriage is clearly meant to be taken as a pagan union between man and wife conducted under the watchful eye and grace of Jupiter (I.3069); whereas, the others are just as clearly examples of the enactment of a Christian sacrament. At the same time, the argument that the difference is meaningless because it is subordinated to a concern over a distinction between aristocratic versus churlish values, and that we only get what we should expect from opposite ends of the social hierarchy--noble marriage, even if pagan, occurs between noble people; and adulterous marriage, even if Christian, occurs between churlish people--is conflicted by Chaucer's repetitious use of similar concepts and themes in Fragment IV of the Ellesmere sequence.
Most of the parallels that interconnect Fragment I to the sections that follow it are contained in the Miller's Tale. Nicholas, a clerk at "Oxenford" (I.3187), as we learn from the first line of the tale, foreshadows Chaucer's other clerk of "Oxenford" (I.285), as we learn in the General Prologue, who tells the story of Walter and Grisilda. One can even argue that the problem John the carpenter has in the Miller's Tale is that he does not, or cannot, exercise enough control over his wife's behavior to prevent himself from becoming a cuckold at the hands of the other clerk of Oxenford. The control Walter exercises over his wife is precisely the kind, in its absolutism, that would prevent her ever betraying her "trouthe" to her husband in the way that Alison betrays John. In fact, that is what Walter seems to be looking for in his testing of Grisilda, a sign that she has betrayed him. He never finds anything to confirm his fear and suspicion because of the exemplary character that Grisilda displays. The contrast between the two stories rests in part on the distinction separating Walter and John, marquis to churl, and between Grisilda and Alison, both of whom are churls, but who remain distinct from each other by virtue of Grisilda's display of obedience to Walter's authority, where Alison shows no particular loyalty to John.
In the Merchant's Tale, a story received by most critics as one of Chaucer's most venomous accounts of human folly, he revisits the theme of the fate of an old husband (Januarie) taking a young wife (May) with the same result: the husband is made a cuckold by a man in whom he lodges his trust. John never suspects Nicholas and Januarie never mistrusts his squire, Damyan. Chaucer addresses the issue of social status by making Januarie a member of the aristocracy while leaving May in a lower class. Chaucer's mixture of class status in these stories, moving up from churl to aristocratic status for the husbands and making all the wives members of lower degrees, allows him to focus our perception of true and false behavior more on the characteristics of individuals than on the characteristics of members of social classes as such. In other words, there is a very deliberate effort to disassociate types of behavior from the stereotypical expectations of class affiliations in the characters he has created. This strategy is surely a deliberate effort on Chaucer's part to escape from the notion that churls behave badly while aristocrats behave well. One can even argue, from a sociological point of view, that Januarie's experience of marriage is meant by Chaucer to answer the claim made by the Knight that marriage creates peace and harmony out of the chaos explicit in a real sociohistorical milieu.
There are, of course, other significant differences between the Miller and Merchant in the way they perceive human relationships. In the second tale a heavy emphasis is placed on Januarie's perception that Christian marriage will bring him an earthly bliss not unlike the one associated with paradise (IV.1637-1654). Justinus, one of the old knight's advisors, does suggest with heavy irony that Januarie's belief may be true because his young wife may turn out to be his "purgatorie" (IV.1670), "Goddes meene and Goddes whippe" (IV.1671), that will cause Januarie's "soule up to hevene skippe/ Swifter than dooth an arwe out of a bowe" (IV.1672-1673) when he dies. That prediction turns out to be true because of the suffering Januarie endures as the result of his wife's adultery. In contrast, there is little direct reference to Christian marriage in the Miller's Tale and Chaucer seems more explicitly concerned with that issue in his second telling of the fate of an old man who marries a younger wife. The focus of attention also shifts from the characters who create the cuckold in the Miller's Tale (Nicholas and Alison) to the one who is its victim in the Merchant's Tale (Januarie). The most significant shift of emphasis, however, is the one moving away from the activities of churls, where the marriage is Christian by implication, to the fate suffered by the aristocratic Januarie, where the marriage is overtly described in Christian terms. Any sense that Chaucer limits the existence of adultery to churlish marriages in Canterbury is soundly refuted by the Merchant's speech performance, since aristocratic Christian marriages are also plagued by the same problems that visit the churls in Fragment I. One should also consider the Manciple's Tale in this same context as another example of how an "aristocratic" marriage can go wrong.
E. T. Donaldson, in his study of the Merchant's Tale, has argued that Chaucer's "poem is thus constantly affronting our aesthetic sense, bringing our emotions into play in such a way as to confuse our moral judgment, which finds no safe place to settle" (34-35). J. D. Burnley, in an effort to establish a focal point upon which to build a consistent moral response to the poem, has suggested that Chaucer's use of liturgical "termes" from the marriage rituals of the fourteenth century church has brought the "reflections on marriage contained in the poem firmly into the context of the liturgy" (20). Burnley argues that the moral focus of the poem's intent is contained within the limits of Januarie's garden of "sensual delight" which is depicted by Chaucer in terms that "form an insistent and tightly woven conception of the function of marriage in human existence, but their very insistence elicits an opposition to this viewpoint which is drawn . . . from the ideal Christian interpretation of marriage expressed in the liturgy" (21). Finally, Burnley notes that "the conceptual content of the work expands beyond its bounds to form part of a complex network of values and ideals, secular and religious, which contrast with and condemn the actions portrayed in the narrative" (24). The contrast between the liturgical terms of the marriage, then, and the actual conduct of the marriage partners in the Tale, specifically in the garden, create the ground upon which it becomes possible to recognize and articulate the moral form of Chaucer's intent in the Merchant's Tale. With such a clear distinction between word (litergy) and deed (adultery) in the marriage, it becomes possible to register Chaucer's moral condemnation of the marriage his Merchant depicts.
Another way of saying virtually the same thing is to recognize the fact that Chaucer has taken the official word (liturgy) of the Christian sacrament of marriage, connected as it is to "the image of the divine union between Christ and the Church" (Burnley, 22), and has turned it into a "ful vicious" parody of everything marriage is supposed to be in an idealistic reflection of human relationships. This is simply a case of Chaucer's double-voiced discourse. The official word of the church carries us in one direction, toward the recognition of the sanctity of sacramental marriage, while the actions of the narrative propel us in an opposite, even profoundly parodic, one. As Burnley points out, however, Chaucer's strategy has created profoundly difficult problems for many critics of the poem, especially those who cannot reconcile the fact that "[s]o negative and cruel a conception is scarcely acceptable as the work of so humane and sympathetic an author" (18). Rather than characterize the Merchant's Tale as "un-Chaucerian," because it may not conform to formalistic conceptions of his work, it might be better to recognize the fact that calling Chaucer "humane and sympathetic" may reduce him to a figurative "popet" (VII.1891), who never drew a breath of fourteenth century air. The question implied here is one of why Chaucer would write a parody of the sacrament of marriage when he so consistently avoided the issues of abuse in the fourteenth century church.
One should take note of the fact that Chaucer's second use of the line stating that "pitee renneth soone in gentil herte" in the Merchant's Tale, points us back to the ideal, but pagan, marriage he created in the Knight's Tale, where he also uses that same line. His purpose in doing so may be to call attention to the issues of social chaos likely to be caused by the chivalric code's insistence that adultery is a necessary component of human marriage relationships in the upper, aristocratic levels of society. By giving us Januarie and May in the Merchant's Tale, where the actual adultery is depicted in a garden walled away from the world by the context of a liturgical and sacramental marriage, he shows us how totally demeaning and degrading that code of chivalry can become when it actually occurs in one of his stories. In one sense, then, Chaucer's Merchant tells us exactly how valid the Knight's view of marriage might be in a naturalistic context that denies the existence of private, walled-off gardens of earthly delight. That Chaucer allowed the Merchant's misogyny to impregnate "the whole piece with a mordant venom, inflaming what originally had been created for the sake of mirth," as Bertrand H. Bronson has argued, but that he "could [not] have foreseen this effect" is to miss the point of the performance in several profound ways.
The venomous and cruel Merchant's Tale is a mirror, not of idealistic Christian marriage, nor of an idealized pagan version of it either, but of the profound crisis that confronted every Christian in every realm of Christendom brought about by the intractable and pervasive schismatic heresy that threatened to destroy the very foundations of Christian belief and faith for all time. Chaucer's response to the crisis in faith in the Merchant's Tale is not nearly so horrible as the reality of the pestilence, war and schism he was forced to confront every day of his life as he worked to fashion his Tales of Canterbury out of the ideological horizon of his sociohistorical milieu. The final judgment underlying the surface of any aspect of his response is the fact that a schismatic heretic cannot mediate God's grace and mercy to sinful man. Not only did Geoffrey Chaucer never live in a little, walled-off garden of earthly delights, he also confronted the fact that it was highly unlikely he would ever gain entry to the eternal garden of salvation promised by Christian theology. These two inescapable facts of Chaucer's Canterbury context make the Merchant's Tale an inevitable expression of the real world in which he lived. Richard Neuse's recent observation that "where the earthly paradise is rejected the world's garden threatens to become a prison yard, even a realm of dead souls where Januarie and May in their palace rule over a perpetual winter" (129), becomes a fair summary of the state of affairs as they existed in Chaucer's fourteenth century world of schismatic heresy. This context draws its intrinsic force from the Parson's reflection that marriage was a sacrament make by God in the garden of Eden before man sinned (X.882).
This same issue, drawn out of the Knight's Tale and Fragment I of the Ellesmere sequence, is expanded in Fragment II of Chaucer's Canterbury project when he moves into the Man of Law's Tale, which acts as a bridge between the first four stories about marriage and his subsequent examination of the theme in what follows in Fragments III, IV, and V. One can argue that the Merchant's performance in Fragment IV is primarily an expansion and culmination of a concept he introduces in Fragment II, in the Man of Law's performance. Critical perceptions of that performance, however, tend again to look away from the issue of marriage in the tale because there is a sense that Chaucer's decision to assign the story of Custance to the Man of Law is a revisionary afterthought born of his indecision and lack of planning in the execution of his literary production. That opinion is fed by, and is wholly dependent upon, the narrator's statement, in the Prologue, that he speaks in prose where the tale itself turns out to be in rime royal stanzas. He says: "I speke in prose, and lat him rymes make" (II.96). The assumption this leads to is that Chaucer had originally assigned the Tale of Melibee to the Man of Law but then changed his mind without bothering to correct the "error" in the Prologue. That assertion is essentially a groundless speculation. The Man of Law does not refer in any conceivable way in his Prologue to the Tale of Melibee.
In fact, what he may refer to is the original source of his own tale. Margaret Schlauch, in her introduction to the source material Chaucer used for the tale of Custance, says: "Chaucer used as direct source a lengthy passage in the Anglo-Norman Chronicle of Nicholas Trivet" (155). The Chronicle itself, written in Anglo-Norman French, is composed, from beginning to end, not in rime royal stanzas, but in prose. Therefore, one can argue that the Man of Law, when he says "I speke in prose," is referring to his original source. He then tells us his "intention" to allow Chaucer to make "rymes" out of his speech performance--"and lat him rymes make." And that, indisputably, is exactly what Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet, did. Characters in Chaucer's work, as we have seen in the discussion of the theme in the frame structure, do not, and cannot, control what Chaucer, who created them all, chooses to do when he compiles, from memory, what occurred during the course of his fictional pilgrimage.
This argument speaks to a number of issue together. Chaucer planned his work from beginning to end and assigned the tale of Custance to the Man of Law and the Tale of Melibee to himself. He never changed that plan. This is obvious because the actual Man of Law's story extends the theme of sacramental marriage threatened by forces in the social milieu that mean to destroy it. His choice of marriage, furthermore, as a primary thematic element in the first half of the story-telling contest, simply because it is a sacrament of holy church in fourteenth century life, carries with it the suggestion that Chaucer meant to evaluate religious, as well as social, concerns as he developed the progress of his pilgrims' journey toward Canterbury. Marriage, in fact, commands its primacy in Chaucer's overall plan precisely because it is a sacrament of holy church and not because it is just a convenient method among several others whereby a society exercises its need to create and regulate social interaction among its members. Chaucer makes this a specific issue when he juxtaposes the Knight's Tale, where the marriage between Palamon and Emelye is a purely pagan ritual with no overt connections to Christian concepts, and the Man of Law's Tale, where the Sowdan of Surrye converts to Christianity in order to be able to marry Custance at all. The terms of the agreement allowing the marriage are significant because they involve all manner of religious, legal, and sociopolitical institutions:
By tretys and embassadrie,
And by the popes mediacioun,
And al the chirche, and al the chivalrie,
That in destrucioun of mawmettrie,
And in encrees of Cristes lawe deere,
They been acorded, so as ye shal heere:
How that the Sowdan and his baronage
And alle his liges sholde ycristned be,
And he shal han Custance in mariage.
And certein gold, I noot what quantitee;
And here-to founden sufficient suretee. (II.233-243)
In contrast to the stories in Fragment I, the Man of Law's Tale creates the impression that Chaucer really did mean to examine marriage in the context of a Christian sacrament. In this case, the pope, all the church, and all the civil authority of medieval Christian society is brought together in reaching an accord that will permit the Christian daughter of the emperor of Rome to marry the infidel Sowdan of Surrye in a ceremony of sacramental significance. The Sowdan, and all his baronage, must convert to Christianity before that ceremony can be performed, as a way to decrease idolatry in favor of an increase in the spread of Christian law, and an exchange of "certein gold" of an unknown quantity must be made to insure that the basic agreement will be kept in "suretee."
The inclusion of the "odd" detail, the exchange of gold, however, does not guarantee anything, since the Sowdan's mother murders everyone who converts to Christianity, including her own son, and casts Custance into a rudderless boat to see if she can "lerne saille/ Out of Surrye agaynward to Ytaille" (II.440-441). The assertion, then, that all the power of the Western church stands behind the effort to bring about the "destrucioun of mawmettrie" turns out to be tragically false. On another level, mention of the gold draws one to the recognition that Christian sacraments in the fourteenth century, especially after the beginning of the Schism, were mostly concerned with, and corrupted by, the sale and purchase of benefices for the sake of the revenues they generated. The essential point here is that the power of the pope, all the ecclesiastical and civil authority of the Christian world, and a "certein gold," cannot insure the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage in the milieu of the other world, in the world of the infidel. The fact that Chaucer has the Man of Law include the payment of gold for the sake of "suretee" takes up, in a curious backhanded sort of way, the central issue of the Cook's Tale, the issue of the woman who "swyved for hir sustenance" (I.4422). She accepts "certein gold," one presumes, for her sexual favors and commits adultery for money. In the Man of Law's Tale, the money is meant to insure, or support, the favorable execution of an agreement that apparently cannot be expected to succeed on the basis of all the power of ecclesiastical and civil authority generated by medieval Christian society in the world of the infidel unless it is also shored up by "certein gold." In a very real sense, the marriage between Perkyn Revelour's "compeer" and his prostitute-wife carries with it exactly the same power and authority of the pope, all the church, and all the civil authority of medieval society that is invoked in the Man of Law's Tale to secure the sanctity of the marriage between the Sowdan and Custance. The fact that a "certein gold" stands in the way of a sacramental marriage in the Cook's Tale because of prostitution cannot be lost or ignored in the Man of Law's assertion that marriage needs the same thing for its "suretee" in the story of Custance.
That one marriage in holy church falls victim to an exchange of gold for sex, and the other dies from the vengeance of a mother who cannot accept the conversion of her son to Christianity, does not change the fact that both marriages, as different types of the same Christian sacrament, do not, and cannot, stand in the face of more powerful social forces than holy church can successfully defend itself against at the close of the fourteenth century. The afflictions visited upon members of the church in Chaucer's depiction of marriage in the first half of the Canterbury Tales cannot be taken as causeless aberrations in a normally functional social fabric. There are simply too many of them that fail to achieve anything like sanctity. In thematic terms, as well, one must be able to identify precisely why so many of Chaucer's marriages are basically unsuccessful in fending off the intrusion of disruptive forces that cause them to "swonen into synne" (X.1085), as he apparently says of them in his Retractions when he withdraws his support of the tales in which they are depicted.
A simplistic review tells us that the marriages depicted by the Miller, the Reeve, and the Cook are conflicted by adultery. The one in the Man of Law's story is destroyed by mass murder, even when protected by the "suretee" of the church's "certein gold." The Wife of Bath has had far too many husbands for any one of her five marriages to be seen as idealistic. No one argues that the marriage of Walter and Grisilda is an ideal example of the sacrament. The Merchant's depiction of marriage is a bitter parody of liturgical forms that turns nearly pornographically adulterous. The marriage of Canacee in the Squire's Tale, were it to be realized, might end up being incestuous. The marriage in the Franklin's Tale is threatened by adultery. The only one in the first half of Chaucer's design that escapes the promise, or realization, of disaster is the pagan marriage of Palamon and Emelye in the Knight's Tale. Since marriage is a sacrament administered by the church, as Chaucer emphasizes in the Man of Law's Tale, a sacrament, furthermore, that seems to degenerate into forms that adversely affect many aspects and levels of ecclesiastical and secular society, one should probably look to the church itself in Chaucer's age for a reasonable explanation for his diminished expectation that marriage can sustain itself against forces which have always threatened to destroy it. In other words, an answer to a question like this one can best be found by developing an appreciation for the shape and contours of Chaucer's ideological horizon. Something "out there" in the real sociohistorical milieu which constitutes Chaucer's literary production must be responsible for the fact that all his Christian marriages fail to achieve any lasting moral and social validity. That force of disruption, of course, as we have already seen, is the Great Schism and the existence of the two schismatic heretics, as Simon de Cramaud characterizes them, who oversee the administration of all sacramental activities in "hooly chirche."
Their existence, as heads of the corporate body of the church, passes down and outward across all levels of the fabric of Christian life, calling into question, and perhaps even condemning, all sacramental practices in the ecclesiastical estate upon which every Christian depends for his salvation. Schismatic heresy at the top cannot help but contaminate every priest, monk, friar, and nun in the two obediences that existed during the final years of Chaucer's life. In the very act of having a priest, or a canon, or a monk, recite a story on a pilgrimage to Canterbury during the age of schism, Chaucer opens his voice to an examination of the abuses that exist in the church. Every story, as well, that refers to the activities of religious from a lay-person's point of view is implicated in the same orientation to the ideological horizon which has been created by the fact that an all-pervasive schismatic heresy has come to reside in the church.
In the chapters that follow a systematic
effort will be made to outline the narrative strategy Chaucer
employed, from beginning to end, in his Canterbury project to lay
bare the very bones of the effects schismatic heresy played
against his effort to move his company of pilgrims from the
secular realm of the Tabard Inn to the holy city of Jerusalem. To
say that the journey ends before it reaches that goal is to do
nothing more than acknowledge two inescapable facts: Chaucer died
before the Schism was resolved and he could not finalize its
outcome. This gives the journey its appearance of fragmentation,
of incompletion simply because Chaucer did not know how, or even
if, the conflict would ever reach a favorable conclusion.
Secondly, every story in the sequence contains, as part of its
ideological orientation a specific, and often times explicit,
reference to some salient feature of the Schism itself. This
orientation toward the division in the church, therefore, becomes
the theme of the Tales of Canterbury and the remainder
of this study will be focused specifically on uncovering the
relationship that each tale has to that sociohistorical reality.
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D. S. Brewer, "The Fabliaux," in Companion to Chaucer Studies, ed. Beryl Rowland (Oxford: Oxford U P, 1979): 296-325.
Bertrand H. Bronson, "Afterthoughts on the Merchant's Tale," Studies in Philology 58 (1961): 583-596.
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---, "Chaucer's Discussion of Marriage," Modern Philology 9 (1912): 435-467.
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Beryl Rowland, "What Chaucer Did to the Fabliau," SN 51 (1979): 205-213.
James F. Royster, "Chaucer's 'Colle Tregetour'," Studies in Philology 23 (1926): 380-384.
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