Celebrating Critical
Writing Conference

$100 Award for a College Essay

College of Humanities and Fine Arts
University of Northern Iowa


"Gentilesse: It's Not Just for the Nobility Anymore"

Raegan T. Bricks
Luther College

In the 14th century, class distinction was of great importance. The class to which one belonged determined the clothes one was allowed to wear, the color of that clothing and even behavior. In Geoffrey Chaucer's General Prologue and The Canterbury Tales , we can find any number of characters with these behavior distinctions if we examine them. The Knight, for example, is described as a worthy man of "trouthe and honour, freedom and curtesie" (I, 46). He is of a noble rank, and therefore his behavior is one of good reputation (honour). Conversely, Both the descriptions of the Reeve and the Miller in the General Prologue are quite unflattering; their verbal cutting into each other's tales demonstrates the stereotypical "churlish" behavior of the lower class. The word gentilesse, which comes up several times in the Canterbury Tales, is most often defined as descriptive of nobility -- so those from noble class are "gentil man" and "gentil woman." The Knight as a member of the noble class is gentil because of his title. Members of the clergy can also fit into the gentilesse category. Though the Reeve and the Miller being crude and churlish would not fit into this category, Chaucer does not limit gentilesse to the noble class alone. He instead broadens the definition to include those characters who are patient, steadfast and able to endure great hardship and who will give their will over to the will of God. The hag in the Wife of Bath's Tale and Griselda in the Clerk's Tale are both perfect illustrations of Chaucer's view of non-nobility gentilesse. The hag and Griselda exhibit gentilesse because they are virtuous, dedicated to God and positive forces of change for those around them.

In the Wife of Bath's Tale, the hag delivers a hundred-line speech in which she argues that gentilesse is defined by one's good deeds and not by one's social status. The hag and the Knight, newly man and wife, are lying in bed when the hag asks her husband what she has done wrong that he "walweth and he turneth to and fro" (III, 1085). His response is that he acts that way because she is so loathsome and of such low lineage; this prompts her long speech on gentilesse. She tells her husband that gentilesse is not determined by one's birth, "descended out of old richesse" (1110), but is the title given to one who is almost always virtuous and tries to do as many good deeds as he or she can (1113-15). Examining Chaucer from a historical perspective in "Chaucer and Gentility," Nigel Saul states: "Chaucer's Avoidance of economic criteria to define gentility was wholly in accord with the contemporary outlook. Gentility was viewed at the time as a quality, and was accordingly assessed in qualitative terms" (49). In lines 1117-24, the hag then explains to the Knight that the quality of gentilesse can come only from God. Ancestors cannot hand down their virtuous character that made others call them "gentil men" (1123); they can only give their descendants the earthly status. Chaucer here demonstrates the difference between nobility and gentilesse. He appears to comment that there is earthly gentilesse and spiritual gentilesse -- gentility that is obtained by birth and gentility that is obtained through a life of generosity and steadfast faith in God.

Calling his wife loathsome and of low lineage, the Knight appears to have forgotten that having no obligation other than kindness and virtue, the hag has saved his life. In what seems to be a direct response to his abuse and misconception of his own gentility, the hag tells her husband that a man who has noble ancestors and is praised and respected because of his noble birth may still commit sinful deeds (1146-58). Regardless of his social status, the Knight is then nothing but a churl. The hag freely gives of her time and tells him the answer to his yearlong quest just in time to save his life. She is his savior, yet he does not notice her virtue and gentilesse.

In "Class Distinction in Chaucer," Derek Brewer looks historically at Chaucer's motivations and society's movement from the "nobility" definition of gentilesse (63). He claims that Chaucer had a moral interest in the "gentry/churl antithesis." The characteristics of the Pardoner, Physician and Knight, as well as those of the hag and Griselda, show that class status and moral structure do not necessarily go hand-in-hand on the social ladder. As mentioned in the introduction, certain classes are expected to act in certain ways. Chaucer, however, does not stick to these rules when creating characters such as the Pardoner of the hag, for instance. Brewer writes that the "gentils can thus hardly be determined by external social standards" (64). Saul also states that from Chaucer's remarks about gentility throughout the tales, "it is clear that the winning of worldly wealth held little appeal for him" (49). He also adds that "like Dante (Chaucer) judges people according to their worth" (49). Here Saul defines worth in terms of virtue, truth and loyalty, not economic status (49). And Brewer himself states that "it is how you choose to behave that, very largely and in theory, makes you gentil" (64).

In the lecture she gives to her husband, the hag re-emphasizes that "thy gentilesse cometh from God allone" who gives us the true "gentilesse of grace" (1162-63). She perfectly exemplifies Brewer's argument when she next rebukes her husband for calling her loathsome and of low lineage. She expresses her belief in God and says: "Al were it that myne auncestres were rude,/ Yet may the hye God, and so hope I,/ Grante me grace to lyven vertuously,/ Thanne I am gentil, whan that I bigynne/ To lyven vertuously and weyve synne" (1172-76). In further support of the hag's claim, Brewer states that "gentilesse has become a moral ideal, a virtuous nobility of character, independent of external social rank. It is personally chosen and evinced in personal behavior" (65). This hag of the lower class, because she lives virtuously, has been given gentilesse by the grace of God. And, in turn, her virtue elevates her husband. After the hag's gentilesse speech, she tells her husband that he can choose for her to stay the way she is or transform into a beautiful maiden. He decides to let that be her choice: "Cheseth yourself which may be moost plesance/ And moost honour to yow and me also" (1232-33). "By conceding mastery," Saul argues," and thus, according to the hag's terms, exhibiting virtue, he gains his eventual reward' (45). The hag is a positive force in her husband's life. She saves his life; she teaches him what true gentilesse is; and finally, she brings out his own virtue for which both are rewarded with a faithful, happy marriage.

Griselda is another of Chaucer's examples of gentilesse exhibited in a character of the lower class. Like the hag, she is virtuous, a positive force in the life of her husband, Walter, and also gives her life over to God. As Helen Cooper points out in The Shape-shiftings of the Wife of Bath," "the definition the hag gives of true nobility, of virtue independent of high birth, is in turn embodied in the Wife's counter-type, Griselda" (168). Both the hag and Griselda illustrate Chaucer's spiritual gentilesse. The hag's gentilesse shines through in her interactions with her husband. She saves his life and in part also his soul. Similarly Griselda's spiritual gentilesse shines through in her interactions with her own husband. As his morality decreases and he becomes more severe, Griselda's virtue increases.

Many critics agree that Griselda is one of Chaucer's greatest examples of virtuous gentilesse. In "Nominalism and the Clerk's Tale Revisited," Rodney Delasanta attempts to look at Griselda's relationship and submission to her husband from a religious perspective. He explains this second type of spiritual gentilesse and how Griselda exemplifies gentilesse. Delasanta discusses humanist voluntarism, voluntarism meaning any theory that regards will as the fundamental agency or principle. He states that "both the voluntarism of God' s radical freedom which determines ... the moral goodness of an action and the voluntarism of the fideistically (meaning exclusive reliance of religious matters upon faith) free response of the human will to God's ... surfaces dramatically in the Clerk's Tale" (214). Delasanta refers to another critic, Robert Stepsis, who argues that the best way to understand Walter's unpredictable and bizarre actions is "to see him as a figure of God defined by 14th century nominalist theology ... an omnipotent God whose freedom is absolutely unconstrained and subject to no law, not even to his own" (209). According to Stepsis, Delasanta explains, Griselda then represents "the radical obedience of human will -- untrammeled by the inadequacies of human reason -- to the inscrutabilities of this voluntarist God."

By examining some of the statements Griselda makes to her husband, Delasanta shows the character's radical obedience to the inscrutabilities of her voluntarist God. One example he provides is Walter's first test of Griselda after she marries him. He tells her that the people are displeased with her low birth and that he will take care of it, but she needs to assent to him unconditionally (215). Griselda's response is: "My child and I, with hertely obeisaunce,/ Been youres al, and ye mowe save or spille/ Youre owene thynge; werketh after youre wille." Delasanta points out that this is a voluntarist response because Griselda gives up her will to her husband completely and blindly as one would do for the voluntarist God. And perhaps his best example of Griselda's "unquestioning voluntarist submission" is her response to Walter's second lie about the people being disgusted that a child of Janicula's blood should inherit the throne. " 'I have,' quod she, 'seyd thus, and evere shal:/ I wol no thyng, ne nyl no thyng, certayn,/ But as yow < i>list' " (Delasanta 216). The repetition of words such as wol, nyl and wille demonstrate Griselda's complete submission to her husband and, as Delasanta note at the end of his article, her gentilesse shines through because in the finale, "the narrator urges the reader to accept such assays from God ... in order for us to learn to submit to his inscrutable will, to live under 'his governaunce' " (217-218). If Walter is the symbolic God in the Clerk's Tale, then certainly Griselda's complete submission to his will perfectly exemplifies the Clerk's last point.

In her book, "Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows," Margaret Hallissy also supports Griselda as a character who illustrates gentilesse, but she examines her from the perspective of 14th century wifely behavior. Hallissy explains that the type of wife Walter expects in Griselda comes from the ideals detailed in contemporary "courtesy books" (65). The wife must never say no when the man has said yes; she must not "show disapproval by facial expression" ; and she must "conform in thought so that she can do his bidding with a good heart" (65-66). Hallissy says that all these ideals were generally expected of medieval wives and therefore, Griselda would not have been surprised by Walter's requirements of her complete assent to all things but would adhere to his rules immediately (66). Like the hag, Griselda is giving of herself; both wives live their lives doing good deeds. The hag lives virtuously, and Griselda has taken care of her father without complaint. Both give over their will to God, represented by Walter, according to Delasanta's argument. The hag and Griselda are also similar in their low-class spiritual gentilesse -- Hallissy argues that this was a wife's duty in Chaucer's time. She explains that it was believed that women were "morally superior to men (and) in charge of domestic morality" (63). Also, as she quotes Diane Bernstein, " 'a wife (was expected to) compensate for her husband's faults' " (63). Griselda becomes more patient as Walter becomes more evere because it is her "duty" to balance her husband's immorality. This increasing patience and suffering, Hallissy explains, makes Griselda more and more a gentil woman. "Griselde's reply of no emotion and no willfulness is the ideal subscribed in the behavior manuals: as Walter's behavior deteriorates and his abuse increases, Griselde's virtue and patience naturally increase also" (67). Griselda, as the wife of a severe husband in the 14th century, acts just as was prescribed for all wives in her time to act; and because of her actions, endurance and patience, she exhibits gentilesse.

The hag in The Wife of Bath's Tale and Griselda in The Clerk's Tale are characters through whom Chaucer was able to comment on the decaying idea of gentility solely pertaining to the noble class. Both characters exhibit gentilesse not because of their place in society but because they are virtuous and generous; because they give their lives and will over to God; and because they improve the lives of those around them. Working from a historical perspective, Saul, Brewer and Halissy all prove that gentilesse was more than just a right of birth in Chaucer's time. And though looking at it from a religious perspective, Delasanta and Hallissy seem to agree that Griselda acted as was proper for her given the position and demeanor of her husband. The hag and Griselda achieve in the end of their tales what was characteristic of wives of Chaucer's day to accomplish: they both acted as moral beacons for their husbands and raised them to a higher spiritual gentilesse.

 

Bibliography

Brewer, Derek. Tradition and Innovation in Chaucer. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Pp. 3-328. In the Riverside Chaucer. Larry D. Benson, ed. Boston: Houghton, 1987.

Cooper, Helen. "The Shape-shiftings of the Wife of Bath, 1395-1670." Pp. 168-184. In Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer. Ruth Morse and Barry Windeatt, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Delasanta, Rodney. "Nominalism and the 'Clerk's Tale' Revisited." Chaucer Review 31.3 (1997), 209-231.

Hallissy, Margaret. Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows: Chaucer's Women and Medieval Codes of Conduct. Connecticut: Greenwood, 1993.

Saul, Nigel. "Chaucer and Gentility." Pp. 41-58. In Chaucer's England. Barbara A. Hanawalt, ed. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.


Back to List of Award Winners