Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2002 v38 i2 p167

"Biheste is dette": Marriage Promises in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. (Critical Essay) NELSON, MARIE.


Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2002 Southern Illinois University

biheste = promise

dette = obligation

"Biheste is dette," said Chaucer's Man of Law when it was his turn to tell his Tale. A promise is an obligation, and the Man of Law, like his fellow pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, had agreed to contribute to an effort to help their travel time pass in ways that would provide both moral instruction and pleasant entertainment for everyone in the group. This essay focuses, however, not on what Mary Louise Pratt refers to as the "natural narrative framework" made possible by the twenty-nine pilgrims' agreement to be guided by the gregarious Host of the Tabard Inn (67), but on another promise, the marriage promise, as it functions within some of their Tales. I will be interested here in the various ways that characters in stories told by the Canterbury pilgrims fulfill, or do not fulfill, their marital obligations, and on the special demands that some characters make of their partners.

The basic quid pro quo debtor-creditor relationship of the marriage agreement, as Joseph Allen Hornsby, citing E.M. Makowski's earlier study of medieval marriage and its canonical sources,[1] spells it out in Chaucer and the Law, will thus provide a useful starting point. Hornsby writes that

Like a monetary debt, the marriage debt was something that was owed by one person to another. But, according to canon law, unlike a monetary debt, the marriage debt was a mutual obligation owed by spouses to one another by virtue of the sacrament of marriage and not by virtue of some exchange for value. The marriage debt was the mutual duty shared by husand and wife to perform sexually at each other's request. It was to be granted freely by one spouse upon the need of the other. This conjugal obligation served to keep the marriage bond solidified through the sexual union of husand and wife. The wife had as equal a right as the husband to exact payment of the debt. Neither spouse had the right to withhold its payment. (101)

Each partner in marriage, then, is both debtor and creditor. When the words of the marriage ceremony were spoken at the church door, the two to be joined in marriage promised "to perform sexually at the other's request." This was part of canon law, the law of the church, and Hornsby points out that the canonist position is well reflected in the Parson's Tale.

The Parson, who preaches a sermon in fulfillment of his commitment to tell a story, says that "a man and his wyf have three reasons to come together," one of which is "to yelden everich of hem to oother the dette of hire bodies; for neither of hem hath power of his owene body."[2] Continuing (and using a meaning of "chastitee" directly opposite in meaning to the Modern English descendant of the French-borrowed word), he praises the woman who, though she may not wish to do so, yields her body to her husband. A woman who does this, the Parson says, "hath merite of chastitee that yeldeth to hire housbonde the dette of hir body, ye, though it be agayn hir likynge and the lust [desire] of hir herte."[2]

"Biheste is dette." The basic law is simple and straightforward. But complexities emerge in the Tales in which the marriage agreement is central to the development of the narrative. The Wife of Bath, for example, both in her Tale of the young knight and the old hag and her autobiographical Prologue to the Tale, is more concerned with the husband's obligation than with the wife's obligation to satisfy the sexual needs of her partner. The old husband of the Merchant's Tale, to consider a second case in which the mutual obligation might be expected to hold (at least with respect to the terms to which Hornsby refers), finds it necessary and indeed is perfectly willing to promise property that was not part of his original marriage agreement in an offer to pay his young wife for her undivided attention to his needs. And the simple quid pro quo of the basic debtor-creditor relationship turns complex in another way when the wife of the Shipman's Tale is able to convert her basic contract to a credit scheme whereby she happily pays what she owes to her merchant husband.

Additional obligations are imposed from the beginning in stories told by the Clerk and the Second Nun. Griselda, the peasant wife of the Clerk's Tale, is obligated to pledge complete obedience to her nobly born husband (whose people are pressuring him to marry), and Dorigen, the wife of the Franklin's Tale, is required by her husband to honor a "rash promise" made to a persistent would-be lover, which, as we shall see, was not--if we consider the requirements for promising set forth by twentieth-century speech act theorists--a promise at all. Finally, St. Cecilia, the female hero of the Second Nun's Tale, requires her newly wed husband to agree to a "chaste marriage," that is, to commit himself to a life of "chastity" in the Modern English sense of the word.

These, then, are the stories to be considered here. All involve, if not explicit performance of the marriage promise, representation of ways in which partners make that promise and honor, or fail to honor, their commitment. The actions of characters who play roles in the tales told by the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, the Shipman, the Clerk, the Franklin, and the Second Nun can therefore profitably be considered within an interpretive context that depends on ideas first introduced by J.L. Austin in a series of lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955 that have come to be generally referred to as speech act theory.[3]

To lay the groundwork for a reading of the Tales just cited, I will turn now to Frank Parker and Kathryn Riley's Linguistics for Non-Linguists. Parker and Riley (17), following a procedure for representation introduced by John R. Searle,[4] lay out the rules for the performance of promises in this way:

             PREPARATORY         SINCERITY       ESSENTIAL      PROPOSITION
 
Commissive   1. S. believes H    1.  S intends   1. Counts as   1. Future act
             wants A done        to do A         obligation     of S
             to do A
 
PROMISE      2. A is some-
             thing S would
             not normally
             do
 
S=Speaker, H=Hearer, A=Act, P=Proposition

First of all, Parker and Riley categorize the PROMISE as an act that falls within a group to which philosophers and linguists have attached the label "commissives." J.L. Austin's definition of "commissive" reads simply and directly: "The whole point of a commissive is to commit the speaker to a certain course of action" (157), and William P. Alston, writing almost fifty years after Austin's introduction of his new way of thinking about what we do when we utter words, keeps the verb commit, with its full meaning of sincere intention, as he introduces this group of speech acts by saying that "Commissives commit a speaker to a certain line of action" (34).

The ESSENTIAL condition of promises is that, more than any other member of the commissives group (Alston includes bet, guarantee, invite, and offer, a considerable reduction from Austin's initial series, in his list), they commit, or obligate, the speaker to do what is promised. The single SINCERITY condition represented in the Parker and Riley table relates to the speaker's intention to do what he/she promises, while the PROPOSITION requirement specifies that a promise must involve a future act of the speaker.

PREPARATORY conditions of course vary. Readers of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales will remember that as Chaucer lay in Southwark at the Tabard Inn, ready to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury, he met with twenty-nine other pilgrims with the same intention. The group is convivial, the Host at the Tabard is a "semely" (impressive) man, and when he asks the travellers for their permission to present them with a plan they raise their hands in assent[5]:

   "This is the poynt, to speken short and pleyn,
   That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye,
   In this viageo shal telle tales tweye journey
   To Caunterbury-ward, I meneo it so, mean, intend
   And homward he shal tellen othere two,
   Of aventures that whilom han bifalle." (Prologue 795-800)

Each pilgrim is to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two stories on the way back to London. As the Host continues, the pilgrim who tells "'Tales of best sentence and most solaas,'" that is, stories that succeed best in achieving the purpose of moral instruction and providing the group with pleasurable entertainment, will be rewarded by a dinner paid for by all the other pilgrims when the group returns to London. There is also a penalty for failing to follow through. Any member of the group who refuses to abide by the judgment of their self-appointed leader will be obligated to pay not just his own travel expenses, but the travel expenses of the whole group.

The "soper" the Host has just provided has been excellent, the wine strong, and the plan clearly set forth. The twenty-nine pilgrims promise to be guided by the Host, and though four times twenty-nine tales do not get told, it would seem that they make their promises fully intending to do what they say they will do. Chaucer's framing narrative serves its purpose. Twenty-nine tale-tellers, knowing that "biheste is dette," set forth.

The Man of Law's response to the Host's request to tell his story, when his turn comes, can stand as an example of the pilgrims' general intention to do what they have promised:

   "Hooste," quod he, "depardieux, ich assenteo; agree
   To breke forwardo is nat myn entente. agreement
   Bihesteo is detteo, and I wole holde fayn promise, obligation
   Al my biheste, I kan no bettre sayno." (39-42) say

The Man of Law's assertion that "Biheste is dette," with its rather ostentatious display of the terminology of his trade, is in accord with what has just been presented concerning the connection between making a promise and the obligation to fulfill that promise. The Man of Law "assents," says that yes, he will take his turn, he does not intend to violate his agreement, he knows that a promise is an obligation, and he intends to eagerly fulfill his obligation. What more could he say? He has, in fact, in a manner often attributed to practitioners of the law, unnecessarily stated his intention in triplicate.

The Man of Law's story of the long-suffering Custance, however, will not be considered here, for a reason that the following short selection will make apparent. Custance's father gives her in marriage to a man of wealth and power who lives in a far country. We hear the Man of Law, perhaps as part of a strategy for gaining the full attention of his listeners, express his sympathy for the plight of Custance:

   Allas! what wonder is it thogh she wepte,
   That shal be sent to strange nacioun
   Fro freendes that so tendrely hire kepteo, protected, sustained
   And to be bounden under subjeccioun
   Of oono, she knoweth nat his condicoun? (267-71) one man

His question of course is not a genuine request for information about the weeping of Custance, but a rhetorical question. And then the Man of Law follows his non-question with a statement that

   Housbondes been alleo goode, and han ben yooreo;
   completely, for a long time
   That knowen wyves; I daro sey yow na moore. (272-73) need

Who can trust the judgment of a man who makes a statement like this? It would seem better to begin with the story of a woman who speaks of her own experience with marriage.

The Wife of Bath, as she tells her travelling companions, has been married five times, beginning at the age of twelve. She speaks of her three old husbands, and tells how she made them work at night to pay their marriage "dette":

   The thre were goode men, and riche, and olde;
   Unnetheo myghte they the statuto holde scarcely; law, statute
   In which that they were bounden unto me.
   Ye wooto wel what I meene of this, pardeeo! know; par Dieu
   As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
   How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynkeo! (197-202) work

Her listeners, of course, do know well what she means, but it may serve our analytical purposes to ask if her three rich old husbands were fully honest in the pledges they made at the church door. Should a man who makes a marriage promise be certain that he is able to fulfill his promise? or should a belief in his ability be sufficient to satisfy the SINCERITY condition? If so, and if old husbands, like the Reeve, who speaks of having a "'hoor heed and a grene tayl'" (3878), believe themselves able, this should, it seems, be enough to satisfy the SINCERITY condition.

As for Alisoun of Bath, it is reasonable to doubt that her promises met the ESSENTIAL condition for promising--that she intended her spoken words to count as acknowledgment of her obligation to perform sexually at her partner's request. Her philosophy of marital obligation may perhaps be evident in this short passage from her Prologue:

   A wyso womman wol bisye hire evere in oono wise, one thing
   To gete hire love, ye, ther as she hath noon.
   But sitho I hadde hem hoolly in my hond, since
   And sith they hadde me yeveno al hir lond, given
   What sholde I taken keepo hem for to pleseo, care, please
   Buto it were for my profit and myn eseo ? (209-14) unless; pleasure

A "wise woman," which I take to mean a woman who knows what is in her own best interests, will find a man to love her. The Wife of Bath, however, already has control of her husbands' property (presumably acquired though successive marriage settlements), and therefore has no need to make efforts to please unless such efforts can lead to greater wealth or pleasure.

Now, returning to the husbands' obligation, in her continued narrative of her first three marriages the Wife of Bath relates her husbands' "bad luck in bed," for which she would chide them, to her own demand for payment, which we can take to be monetary payment--in return for her payment of the marriage debt she owes them.

   Namely abedde hadden they meschaunceo: bad luck
   Ther wolde I chide, and do hem no plesaunceo; pleasure
   I wolde no lenger in the bed abyde,
   If that I felte his arm over my syde,
   Til he had maad his raunsono unto me; ransom, payment
   Thanne wolde I suffreo hym do his nyceteeo. (407-11)
   allow; foolishness

The story of her own life, told in a Prologue that is considerably longer than her Tale, presents an account of the Wife of Bath's failures to follow the marriage rule of "biheste is dette." But let us turn now to the way the "biheste" that is "dette" is handled in her Tale, and to a marriage promise made by a "lusty bacheler" (lively young man) that itself constitutes a fulfillment of an earlier promise.

A young knight of King Arthur's court, as we learn early in the Wife of Bath's Tale, has been sentenced to death by King Arthur for raping a defenseless young woman. He has only one chance to escape the penalty of execution: he must find an answer to the question, "What do women want most?" When, after months of fruitless search, he meets an old hag, described by the Wife in terms of her extreme physical ugliness,[6] she says she will give him the answer if he will promise, in return, to grant the next request she makes of him. She is asking that he make a very open-ended promise, but he does promise to do the next thing she asks of him and then returns, with the old woman, to the court of King Arthur, where he gives Arthur's queen the answer that can save his life. At this point the old hag immediately leaps up and demands that he honor the promise he made to her when he met her earlier. Her request? The young knight must now agree to marry her.

To determine the degree of obligation the knight has to make this second promise, we need to look back to the language of his earlier agreement. When the knight tells the old woman he meets on his quest that he must learn "'What thyng it is that wommen moost desire'" and offers to "'wel quite youre hire'" (1007-8), to repay her well for her help, she responds with these words:

   "Plighto me thy troutheo heere in myn hand . . .
   pledge (v.), pledge (n.)
   The nexte thyng that I requere thee,
   Thou shalt it do, if it lye in thy myght,
   And I wol telle it yow er it be nyght." (1009-12)

The knight responds, "'Have heer my trouthe . . . I grante'" (1013), and with these words he promises to grant her next request--and perhaps we can assume that he takes her hand, as she requests, in a nonverbal affirmation of his spoken words.

It will perhaps strain the requirements of promising as Parker and Riley present them, but at this point we can see that the Speaker, the young man, does apparently understand that the Hearer, the old hag, wants something to be done. What he understands is that she wants him to make an open-ended promise. Promising an old woman that he will grant a request that she has not yet made if it lies within his power is not, of course, something that a young knight would normally do, but there are special circumstances here. He has been sentenced to death! He needs the answer that will save his life. And his act of speaking, as his use of the words "trouthe" (pledge) and "grante" (agree) reveals, most certainly constitutes an assumption of obligation. As for the old woman's role in this story of mutual obligation, she says she will give the knight an answer that King Arthur's queen will agree is the right one, and she does.

The future time at which the knight must do what he has promised comes, as far as he is concerned, all too soon, but it may, in considering the narrative function of the promise itself, be useful to take a step back in the narrative sequence to recall the trial in which he was sentenced to death. At this point, the queen, given permission to do so by King Arthur, promises to spare the life of the knight if he can find an answer to her question within the traditional year and a day. The knight has now returned within the allotted time. The queen agrees (as the old woman said she would) that he has found the answer to her question, and all present agree that he should be permitted to continue to live. At this point, the old woman steps forth to insist that the knight honor his promise to her. Speaking to the queen she says,

   "Mercy . . . my sovereyn lady queene!
   Er that youre court departe, do me right.
   I taughte this answere unto the knyght;
   For which he plighte me his trouthe there,
   The firste thyng that I wolde hym requereo require
   He wolde it do, it  lay in his myghte." (1048-53)

With these words she establishes the knight's obligation before the queen and before the court. Then, turning to the knight, she says,

   "Bifore the court thanne preyeo I thee, sir knyght ask
   . . . that thou me take unto thy wyf,
   For wel thou woosto that I have kepto thy lyf. know; preserved, saved
   If I seye fals, sey nay, upon thy fey!o" (1054-57) good word

She has not spoken false. He cannot say "nay." All the young knight can say is "'Allas and weylawey!'" But it lies within the power of the "lusty bacheler" (he is unmarried) to fulfill his earlier promise by making a new promise, this one a marriage promise.

The promise the knight now makes, despite the fact that the Wife of Bath has chosen to re-tell a story set in an earlier time when the land was filled with "fayerye," not with ever present representatives of the Church, involves the "mutual obligation owed by spouses to one another by virtue of the sacrament of marriage." He must, when he is brought to bed after wedding the old hag the next day, live by the rule that states, as Hornsby has it, that the "marriage debt was the mutual duty shared by husband and wife to perform sexually at each other's request." He now experiences "greet woe." In bed, "He walweth and he turneth to and fro" (1085). But, after further instruction, which is to say after a long sermon delivered by his bride, the knight learns to surrender the right to decide what he wants to his wife and finds her transformed into a compliant woman of exceptional beauty, which she continues to be until the end of their married days. And thus ends our first story of a marriage promise honored.

The Tale the Wife of Bath tells is a fantasy. In what real world can a woman, even if she is supremely wise, stay young and beautiful forever? And, we might also ask, even as we acknowledge that you can't buy love, in what real world can success in love be totally disassociated from money? The story the Wife of Bath tells of her own life is a story told by a realist, one in which the marriage "dette" picks up monetary implications that have come, with great consistency, to be associated with the Modern English word "debt." The Merchant, who tells the next Tale to be considered here, may claim to have sufficient experience to know what all married men know, but he does not choose, even when the Host urges him to do so, to tell the story of his own two-month marriage. Having simply claimed that his brief experience grants him the authority to speak of the woe that is in marriage, he proceeds directly to his Tale.

The Merchant develops a story involving an old husband-young wife relationship. January, the Merchant tells his listeners, is a man who, having lived a prosperous life and having followed "his bodily delyt / On wommen" (1249-50) for sixty years, has now decided to marry. That he recognizes his choice will involve obligation is at least superficially recognized in the Merchant's report that he is choosing at this point "to lyve under that hooly boond / With which that first God man and womman bond" (1261-62). The way his thinking about the simple "biheste is dette" contract is conditioned by associations with money then immediately emerges--"Noon other lyf . . . is worth a bene [bean]" (1263); "Than is a wyf the fruyt of his tresor [treasure]" (1270)--and continues to be expressed in his defiance of Theophrastus's counsel against marriage:

   "A wyf is Goddes yifte verrailyo;  truly
   All othere manere yiftes hardilyo,  surely
   As londes, rentes, pasture, or communeo, land held in common
   Or moebleso--alle been yiftes of Fortune moveable possessions
   That passen as a shadwe upon a wal." (1311-15)

January does not stop with this categorical assertion of the enduring value of the wife, a gift of God, and the passing value of earthly riches, the gifts of Fortune. He speaks of the wife's willingness to help the husband work toward a better life if he is poor (1342), and he claims that a wife is keeper of her spouse's "housbondrye" (1380, economy, household goods). When January turns to consideration of the choice of his wife, it is clear, however, that his primary requirement involves her ability to satisfy his sexual needs. If she cannot do so, he may turn to a life of "avoutrye" (adultery), and thus--the monetary concern asserts itself again--his heritage will fall into strange hands because he has no heirs (1435-40). And so, disregarding the good advice of his sensible friend Justinus, January chooses a young woman named May to be his bride.

January believes that each partner in marriage must "'leccherye eschue / And yelde hir dette whan that it is due'" (1451-52). For his part, he is ready to leave his lecherous past behind but boasts that his "'lymes [are still] stark and suffisaunt / To do al that a man bilongeth to'" (1458-59). His head may be "hoor," he says, but his heart and all his limbs are as green as the laurel tree, which stays green all year.

It may be useful here, in considering the SINCERITY of January's marriage promise, to turn to Peter Grundy's felicity requirements. The promiser's utterance, Grundy says, adding a requirement to the requirements represented in the Parker-Riley diagram, must affirm

* that what he offers is in his power to deliver

* that it is desirable to the person to whom he makes the promise

* that what is promised was not going to happen anyway. (90)

January may have boasted about his power to deliver, and May may not "walweth and turneth to and fro" as the young knight of the Wife of Bath's Tale did, but the Merchant does say, after the activity of the wedding night is over, that "She preyseth nat his [January's] pleyying worth a bene" (1854), thus extending the money metaphor to express the bride's judgement of her newly wedded husband's physical performance.

As the story unfolds, January, deluded as he may originally have been and unaware, it would seem, that his wife finds his squire Damyan to be a more appealing lover, adds incentives in his effort to make what he has to offer as a husband more desirable. He builds a pleasure garden that the god of gardens could hardly describe and offers additional economic benefits as well. His own property belongs to January with no encumbrances that we know of, so he can, if he chooses, give it to his wife when he wants to. What January, who becomes very possessive and jealous when he loses his sight, now promises May in an attempt to keep her faithful to him is property that would, in time, become hers anyway, but, greatly concerned with his present vulnerability, he adds this promise of immediate acquisition to what May might earlier have expected. May can, he says, gain the love of Christ, honor for herself--and this is what he can offer--"'al myn heritage, toun and tour'" (2172) if she will be faithful to her marriage vows. Continuing, January says,

   "I yeve it yow, maketh chartreso as yow lesteo; charters, deeds; please
   This shal be doon to-morweo er sonne reste, tomorrow
   So wisly God my soule brynge in blisse
   I prey yow first, in covenanto ye me kisse." (2173-76)
   covenant, agreement

With the words "I give it to you," followed by a granting of permission to secure legal formalization of the gift of property just made, January has added an element to his side of the already existing debtor-creditor relationship. In doing so he uses the word "chartre," which suggests a legal strengthening of his side of the agreement. He not only gives May what she can reasonably expect to receive in time; he gives it to her in advance and, in addition, gives her permission to secure written proof of possession. Then, with his use of "covenant" with reference to the kiss with which he asks May to reaffirm her marriage promise to him, he fills in her side of the escalated agreement.

Norman Davis, Douglas Gray, Patricia Ingham, and Anne Wallace-Hadrill, the editors of A Chaucer Glossary, provide "deed," as in "title deed," as a synonym for the word "contract." They also include the word "contract" in their definition of "covenant." May may not be required to put her promise in writing, but the kiss she is to give in return, at least according to January's intention, is to function as a reaffirmation of her marriage vow. May, assuming that she grants the kiss (the Merchant does not tell us that she does), does reaffirm her side of the agreement, and reference to Kent Bach and Robert M. Harnish's definition of "contract" as a subcategory of commissives in which "S and H make mutually conditional promises; fulfillment of each is conditional on the fulfillment of the other" (50) makes it apparent that, in terms of speech act theory as well as the legal practice of Chaucer's time, the debtor-creditor relationship between January and May--though January may now have begun to feel uncomfortable about it--is still essentially binding.

That promises are made and formalized with written documents and with a kiss, however, does not necessarily mean that they will be fulfilled. January may ask for a kiss as convenant, but a number of Chaucerians, following a "there's no fool like an old fool" line of thought, have agreed that he is willing to be deceived because he wants to be deceived, he wants to believe that May is faithful. I agree, but with this qualification: at this point January at least knows that love can be purchased only by a man willing and able to pay a very high price. He also knows that he needs to have, and asks for, a "covenant." But the promise she is asked to make in return for immediate acquisition of January's worldly goods means as little to May as her marriage vow. In perhaps the most blatant deception to be found in the Canterbury Tales, she pretends to be pregnant and asks January to allow her to use his back as a stepping stool that will enable her to climb into a pear tree to pick the pear that will satisfy her hunger. The gods--personifications from a familiar fantasy world--intervene at the point when May and Damyan join together in a sexual embrace in the pear tree, with Pluto restoring January's sight and Proserpine providing May with the lie that convinces January of her innocence. This is not the full-fledged fantasy of the Wife of Bath's Tale, but January is nevertheless able to deny the truth of what he has just seen with his own eyes and continue to believe that he has a loving wife who will honor her commitment to him.

We may recall that Hornsby points out, in his definition of the word "dette" as it applies to the marriage promise, that "the mutual obligation [was] owed by spouses to one another by virtue of the sacrament of marriage and not by virtue of some exchange for value" (emphasis mine). We have, however, just seen an instance in the Wife of Bath's Prologue of her demand for "raunson" before she will honor her obligation and, in the Merchant's Tale, of a husband's voluntary provision of additional incentives to a wife who, he hopes, will continue to satisfy his needs as he wishes, that is, by restricting her favors to him alone. Before considering the complexities of the debtor-creditor relationship as it develops in the Shipman's Tale, it may be useful to return, for a moment, to the basic mutual indebtedness of the husband of the Tale, a merchant, and his wife.

Each of the two partners is at the same time a debtor and a creditor. A simple debtor to creditor relationship can be represented as

while the creditor to debtor relationship can be expressed as

D = Debtor, C = Creditor

Since each partner in marriage is both debtor and creditor, the person who owes a debt and the one to whom a debt is owed, their obligations of marriage can be pictured in this way:

The complexity--and the humor--of the Shipman's Tale, as Thomas Hahn demonstrates in "Money, Sexuality, Wordplay, and Context in the 'Shipman's Tale,'" results from the ways in which money and sexuality are linked by the three characters of its fabliau triangle: sexuality offers the wife opportunity for financial gain, both from the monk Daun John and from her husband; for the monk sexual adventure is made possible by his financial responsibilities, which provide reason for him to travel, and by his access to capital; and for the Merchant anxiety brings impotence or frigidity, while economic success produces renewed sexual vigor. Perhaps Hahn goes too far in describing the effects of the merchant's single-minded pursuit of profit, but it can certainly be said that it gives his wife opportunity to complain to the visiting monk.

The basic Tale itself can be briefly summarized. The narrator begins by focusing on the husband and wife of the story. The husband is rich, and therefore thought to be wise, while the wife is sociable, and therefore requires a good deal of money to live as she chooses to live. At this point, the narrator seems to assume the voice of a female speaker when, using first person plural pronouns, he warns,

   But wo is hym that payen mooto for al! must
   The selyo housbonde algateo he moot paye, hapless, in any event
   He moot us clothe, and he moot us arraye,
   Al for his owene worshipe richely,
   In which array we daunce jolily,
   And if that he noght may, par aventureo, by chance
   Or ellis list no swich dispence endure,
   But thinketh it is wasted and ylost,
   Than moot another payen for oure cost,
   Or leneo us gold, and that is perilous.o (10-19) loan, dangerous

The monk is then introduced (25-52), with details about his friendly relationship with the merchant-husband and his gregarious nature. The merchant, announcing that he must go to Brugges, a commercial center, on business , invites Daun John, the monk, to visit before he goes (53-62). The monk arrives, bringing gifts. Then, on the third day of his visit, while the merchant is in his counting house, the wife complains that her husband is selfish, both with money and with love (158-72). His stinginess has caused her considerable distress, about which she does not hesitate to tell the monk, but her immediate need is for a hundred francs to repay a creditor for a loan for the "array," the fine clothing, she must wear to maintain her husband's reputation as a successful businessman. She asks the monk for a loan, he promises the money, and their embrace makes it clear that their exchange will involve sex as well as money (202-3).

The plot thickens as the wife chides the husband, the husband complains, and the monk borrows money from the husband--without the wife's knowledge (269 ff.). The husband expresses concern about repayment. Money, he says, is his "plough" (288), but, provided he can expect prompt satisfaction of this monetary debt, he is happy to help his friend the monk. The husband goes on his business trip. The wife gives the monk sex for money. The husband returns and tactfully asks the monk for repayment of the loan. The monk says he has already paid it back. He gave it to the wife. The husband chides the wife for causing him embarrassment. He would certainly never have asked his friend to pay back his loan if he knew he had already given it to the wife. And the story concludes with the wife's promise to pay her husband with sex, not money.

This account of exchange hardly suggests the cheerfulness with which the wife accepts her responsibility to pay her marriage "dette," assuming that paying this debt will also take care of the debt which, it is now revealed, has--indirectly, in the form of a loan to his friend the monk--been taken care of by her husband.

   "But sith I se I stonde in this disjoynto, awkward situation
   I wol answere yow shortly to the poynt.
   Ye han mo slakkere dettourso than am I! debtors
   For I wol paye yow wel and redily
   Fro day to day, and so be I failleo, fail
   I am youre wyf; score it upon my tailleo, tally, tail
   And I shal paye as soone as ever I may,
   For by my troutheo, I have on myn array, troth, pledge
   And nat wasto, bistowed every deelo; wastefulness, bit
   And for I have bistowed it so weel
   For youre honour, for Goddes sake, I seye,
   As be nat wrootho, but lat us laughe and pleye. angry
   Ye shal my joly body have to weddeo; as pledge
   By God, I wol nat paye yow but abedde!
   Forgyve it me, myn owene spouse deere;
   Turne hiderward, and maketh bettre cheere." (411-26)

The wife makes no complaint, but she will actually be paying the same debt twice. She has already paid the monk in their sex-for-money exchange (which, as the Shipman tells the tale, provided pleasure to both parties), but she will now "pay" her principal creditor, her husband, as well. She is, in fact, happy to pay her husband, who is her creditor in two senses. She owes him her marriage "dette," and she also owes him for the money he, not the monk, actually paid for her fine new "array."

With her suggestion that the debt be scored upon her "taille," besides making the obvious sexual pun, Thomas W. Ross explains in Chaucer's Bawdy, the "quick-thinking and sexually insatiable wife" is able to assert her willingness to both pay her marital "dette" and the hundred francs her husband has (without intending to) provided for her clothing expenses. The Shipman's listeners' understanding of the double meaning would depend on their recognition that one meaning of "tayl" relates to the wife's obligation to satisfy the sexual needs of her husband (which have been intensified by his recent business success), while the other relates to "tally," a noun derived from the verb "tailler," to cut, used with special reference to notches cut on sticks to record loans (218-19). And with what Ross suggests may be a third meaning related to "Tale," the Shipman concludes with "God us sende / Taillynge ynough unto oure lyves ende" (433-34).

In the Franklin's Tale and the Clerk's Tale, the next two contributions to the common good to be considered here, the emphasis is less on physical expression of love than on honor and obedience. The Franklin begins his Tale in a spirit of apology--he has never learned to use the high rhetorical style--but his Tale, as he begins, shows at once that he knows the rules of courtly love. A knight serves a lady, hardly daring to speak of his love, until she, recognizing "his wo, his peyne, and his distresse" (737) and persuaded by his "meke obeysaunce" (739), agrees to take him as husband and lord. The lady's recognition of her suitor's "meek obedience" and her agreement to take him as her "lord" immediately suggest that the mutual debtor-creditor relationship agreed upon here, in contrast to the stories to which we have just given attention, involves a responsibility on the part of each partner to obey the other.

The knight, because he is of lower birth than his lady, needs to have the "name of soveraynetee." He must, to satisfy his own sense of self-respect, be considered by others to be the master. But he promises

   That nevere in al his lyf he, day ne nyght,
   Ne sholde upon hym take no maistrieo mastery
   Agayn hir wyl, ne kitheo hire jalousie, show
   But hire obeye, and folwe hir wyl in al,
   As any lovere to his lady shal,
   Save that the name of soveraynetee,
   That wolde he have for shameo of his degree. (746-52)
   embarrassment

The lady, in turn, plights her troth with these words:

   "Sire, sith of youre gentillesse
   Ye profre me to have so large a reyneo, so loose a rein
   Ne wolde nevere God bitwixe us tweyne,
   As in my gilt,o were outher werreo ne stryf. through my fault, war
   Sire, I wol be youre humble trewe wyf--
   Have heer my troutheo--til that myn herte breste." (754-59) pledge

This exchange, then, constitutes the marriage agreement of Averagus and Dorigen, and the promises of both meet all the requirements of promising. Each partner wishes to please the other, both speakers assume obligations--with Arveragus promising never to be jealous and to obey Dorigen in every way, providing that she agree to a public representation of his role as master, and with Dorigen promising never to cause, by any of her actions, disagreements between them. And their acts of promising relate to what they are determined will be an ideal rest of their lives.

The future, however, brings a serious challenge to Dorigen. After a year and more of the "joye, the ese, and the prosperitee / That is bitwixe an housbonde and his wyf" (804-5), Arveragus sails to England to achieve the success in arms befitting a knight, leaving Dorigen behind to lament and to see "the grisly rokkes blake" of the Brittany coast as an insurmountable obstacle to her husband's return. In Arveragus's absence, a second suitor, Aurelius, presented by the Franklin as fresher and jollier in array than the month of May, pursues Dorigen.

Dorigen reaffirms her commitment to Arveragus when she rejects Aurelius with this answer to his request that she "have mercy" on him. Now that she knows what Aurelius is asking for, she says

   "By thilke God that yaf me soule and lyf,
   Ne shal I nevere been untrewe wyf
   In word ne werk, as fer as I have wit;
   I wol been his to whom that I am knyt.o joined, contracted
   Taak this for fynal answere as of me." (983-87)

But she follows this "final answer" with another promise, a promise made "in play," which is to say, in the language of folklorists, a "rash promise,"[7] and which, in terms of speech act theory, is no promise at all since it does not satisfy the SINCERITY requirement.

Dorigen says to Aurelius,

   "Aurelie . . . by heighe God above,
   Yet wolde I graunte yow to been youre love,
   Syn I yow se so pitously complayne.
   Looke what day that endelongo Britayne from end to end
   Ye remoeve alle the rokkes, stoon by stoon,
   That they ne letteo ship ne boot to goono-- prevent, go
   I seye, whan ye han maad the coost so clene
   Of rokkes that ther nys no stoon ysene,o seen
   Than wol I love yow best of any man;
   Have heer my trouthe,o in al that evere I can." (989-98)
   promise, pledge

Her phrase "'by high God above'" would seem to suggest a sincerity of intention, as would "'Have heer my trouthe.'" The Chaucer Glossary editors' rendering of the formal phrase into Modern English is "Take my word" (72), and the implication is that Aurelius is to take Dorigen's word as her promise.

Dorigen's "promise" to love Aurelius relates to an act that she could possibly perform in the future, but the felicity of her speech act does not depend upon her ability to do what she says she will do, but on his accomplishment of an impossible feat. Dorigen's immediately following "'Wel I woot that it [Aurelius's removal of the rocks] shal never bityde'" (1001) can be taken as a denial, then, of any commitment on her part to the performance of the future act in question. Besides, she says, it is foolish of Aurelius to hope for love from another man's wife "'That hath hir body whan so that hym liketh'" (1005), thus acknowledging her commitment to her husband.

This, however, does not stop Aurelius from taking Dorigen at her word. Acting as if he believes her promise to be sincere, he finds a magician who will (for a thousand pounds) make it seem that all the rocks have disappeared. The magician does what he promises to do. Then Aurelius, reminding Dorigen of her "promise," asks that she meet him in a garden in three days' time, since no rocks can now be seen. Astonished, she says,

   "Allas . . . that evere this sholde happe!
   For wendeo I nevere by possibilitee thought
   That swich a monstreo or merveilleo myghte be!
   extraordinary thing, marvel
   It is agayns the proces of nature." (1342-45)

But Aurelius and Arveragus, who has now returned, take the words she spoke to Aurelius to be a genuine promise. Arveragus, acting out of concern for his wife's honor (and disregarding his marriage vow always to obey her), commands Dorigen to go to the garden to meet Aurelius, and Dorigen obeys. But Aurelius, releasing Dorigen from her "promise" to him, does not require her to violate her marriage vows; the magician releases Aurelius from his obligation to pay a thousand pounds for the marvel that could have led to his enjoyment of another man's wife; and the Franklin closes his story by asking his fellow pilgrims: "Which was the mooste fre [generous of spirit], as thynketh yow?" (1622).

As nearly as we can tell from Chaucer's text no one ventures an answer, but the Tale itself testifies to the quality of generosity ascribed to the Franklin in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. The man in whose house it is said to "snew . . . of mete and drynke" (345) has answered the Host's General Prologue demand that he remember the promise that every one made to "'tellen atte leste / A tale or two, or breken his biheste'" with a well-told Tale in which a marriage "dette" is honored.

And now the Clerk's Tale--another story in which obedience plays an important role. Once again, a promise becomes a starting point for a remarkable series of events. The promise made by patient Griselda (I can hardly recall her name without the adjective), the wife of the Clerk's Tale, not only involves an Act that she, the Speaker, would not normally perform, it represents an Act that she could never in a million years have imagined herself performing.

The Clerk, responding to the Host's demand that he not preach as friars do in Lent and that he avoid the high style people use when they write to kings, tells of a simple peasant girl who, having heard that the marquis Walter has been persuaded by his people to marry, stands by the gate of her father's humble property and thinks to herself as the time for Walter's wedding approaches:

   "I wole with othere maydens stonde,
   That been my felaweso, in oure dore and se associates
   The markysesse, and therfore wol I fondeo try
   To doon at hoom, as soone as it may be,
   The labour which that longetho unto me; belongs
   And thanne I may at leysero hire biholde, leisure
   If she this wey unto the castel holdeo." (281-87) continues

Griselda intends simply to get enough of her day's work done to justify her taking time off to see the bride of the marquis of Saluzzo pass by. She is surprised when the marquis himself stops by her door, but, in answer to his question, "Where is youre fader?" she leads him directly to her father Janicula, whom Walter immediately asks for his daughter's hand in marriage.

Janicula grants his permission, and Walter proceeds to make his specific demands. He will make his marriage promise, but first Griselda must promise him her complete compliance. These are Walter's terms, and they include not simply obedience, but a total agreement not to complain in any way--not by laughter, not by any evidence of pain, not by word or facial expression:

   "I seye this: be ye redy with good herte
   To al my lusto, and that I frely may, desire
   As me best thynketho, do yow laughe or smerte, [it] seems
   And nevere ye to gruccheo it, nyght ne day? complain about
   And eeko when I sey 'ye,' ne sey nat 'nay,' also
   Neither by word ne frownyng contenance?
   Swere thus, and heere I swere oure alliance." (351-57)

If she can promise an obedience this total, he will marry her.

Griselda answers. Trembling with fear and protesting her unworthiness, she agrees to Walter's conditions:

   "Lord, undigneo and unworthy unworthy
   Am I to thilkeo honour that ye me beedeo, this, offer
   But as ye woleo yourself, right so wol I. wish
   And heere I swereo that nevere willyngly, swear, promise
   In werk ne thoght, I nylo yow disobeye, wish not
   For to be deed, though me were looth to deye." (359-64)

Griselda makes her promise to Walter in both non-explicit and explicit form. The non-explicit promise, which does not require the use of a speech act verb, is expressed as a positive statement and can be rendered into Modern English as "Just as you wish, I will also wish," or, less formally, "I will want exactly what you want." The explicit form of the promise also involves the use of the first person nominative singular pronoun, which is followed by "swere" (a present tense verb of speaking) and then by the PROPOSITION, a very inclusive statement concerning her future obedience. This second statement precludes any possible violation of the marriage terms to which Griselda now commits herself. Though she acknowledges that she does not wish to die, Griselda says she would rather die than fail to live up to her agreement.

And apparently she does live up to her basic marriage promises. The people are well pleased with Walter's choice, and though they would rather Griselda had borne him a son they rejoice in the birth of a daughter. Time passes, Walter's testing of Griselda's ability to fulfill her marriage promise begins, and Griselda shows herself to be true to her formally spoken word.

When Walter announces that he is going to take her daughter away, she even includes her daughter as an obedient respondent to Walter's command when she says

   "Lord, al lytho in youre plesaunceo. lies, pleasure
   My child and I, with hertelyo obeisaunceo, sincere, obedience
   Been youres al, and ye mowe save or spilleo destroy
   Youre owene thyng; werketh after youre wille." (501-4)

Again, in response to Walter's assertion that he has to take her son away too, Griselda says

   "I have . . .  seyd thus, and evere shal:
   I wolo no thyng, ne nylo no thyng, certayn, wish, do not wish
   But as yow list.o Naughto greveth me at al, wish, nothing
   Though that my doughter and my sone be slayno,-- slain
   At youre comandement, this is to sayn. . . .
 
   Ye been oure lord, dooth with your owene thyng
   Right as yow list; axeth no reedo at me. counsel
   For as I lefte at hoom al my clothyng,
   Whan I first cam to yow, right so . . . .
   Lefte I my wyl and al my libertee,
   And took youre clothyng; wherfore I yow preye,
   Dooth youre plesaunce, I wol youre lusto obeye." (645-58) desire

At this point, though her original marriage promise expressed a reluctance to die, Griselda now says that if she just had the "prescience" to know what he wished, she would obey without being told what he wanted--and even that she would gladly die if it would please him.

Griselda's response (which I present at some length to show the extremity of obedience to which her sense of obligation to her marriage promise requires of her) to Walter's assertion that he is taking a new wife and she must return to her father's house is,

   "My lord . . . I wooto, and wisteo alway, know, knew
   How that bitwixen youre magnificence
   And my poverte no wight kan ne may
   Maken comparison; it is no nay.
   I ne heeld me nevere digneo in no manere worthy
   To be youre wyf, no, ne youre chamberereo. chambermaid
 
   "And in this hous, ther ye me lady maade--
   The heighe God take I for my witnesse,
   And also wysly he my soule glaade--
   I nevere heeld me lady ne maistresse,
   But humble servant to youre worthynesse,
   And evere shal, whil that my lyf may dure,
   Aboven every worldly creature." (814-26)

Griselda asks only that she not be required to walk naked back to her father's house, and finally, in response to Walter's request to prepare his house for his wedding to his new bride, she expresses her willingness to do so with

   "Nat oonly, lord, that I am glad . . .
   To doon youre lust, but I desire also
   Yow for to serve and plese in my degree
   Withouten feyntyngo, and shal everemo; weariness
   Ne nevere, for no weleo ne no wo, good fortune
   Ne shal the goosto withinne myn herte stenteo spirit, cease
   To love yow best with al my trewe entente." (967-73)

This is enough, and more than enough, to demonstrate the extent to which Griselda fulfills her marriage promise. As the Clerk ends his Tale, Walter reveals that the new "bride to be" is Griselda's daughter and restores her son to her as well. Walter and Griselda live happily to the end of their days, as does Griselda's father, who is brought to live with them at court. Their daughter is married to one of the worthiest lords of all Italy, and their son succeeds his father as marquis of Saluzzo.

The Clerk closes his Tale by saying that women like Griselda are now very hard to find. He then recalls the Wife of Bath and her ideas about "maistrie," and the following "Lenvoy," attributed to Chaucer, calls upon women to assert themselves, to act as boldly as the Wife of Bath acts, to show their beauty if they have it, to be generous in spending if they do not have beauty, to work to make friends, and to be as cheerful and light as a leaf on a linden tree. So much for promises of total obedience to husbands. Let them be the ones to weep and wail.

And now to the Second Nun's contribution, the last Tale to be considered here. We know next to nothing about this story teller. The General Prologue says simply, "Another NONNE with hire hadde she [the Prioresse], That was her chapeleyne [assistant]" (163-4), and we learn little more from her own Prologue, which consists of four stanzas on the sin of Idleness, a prayer to the Virgin Mary, and an etymological commentary on the name of the female hero of the Tale she will tell.

The Second Nun introduces St. Cecilia by telling of her prayers to God, whom she beseeches to allow her to keep her virginity, and then, in the second stanza of her Tale, she tells her listeners about the marriage of Cecilia to a young man named Valerian. We are not told what their wedding promises were. What we learn--and what Valerian learns on their wedding night--is that Cecilia has an angel who loves her with a great love, and who protects her. As Cecilia tells her husband,

   "And if that he may feelen, out of dredeo, anxiety
   That ye me touche, or love in vileynyeo shame, dishonor
   He right anono wol sleo yow with the dede, right away, slay
   And in youre yowthe thus ye shullen dyeo; die
   And if that ye in clene love me gyeo, protect
   He wol yow loven as me, for youre clennesseo, purity, chastity
   And shewen yow his joye and his brightnesse." (155-61)

Valerian, presented at this point with two alternatives--approach his bride with carnal intention and die, or abstain from any suggestion of sexual intent and live--asks to see that angel and says that if Cecilia loves another man he will kill them both (163-68). What Valerian has done, then, in terms of speech act performance, is 1) request to see the angel, and 2) threaten to kill his wife if what she says is not true.

Cecilia sends her husband, who has not yet made the promise she hopes for, to see St. Urban for confirmation of what she has just told him. Urban greets him with joy, and an old man appears with a holy book on which these words are written in gold:

   "Oo Lord, o feith, o God, withouten moo, one, more
   O Cristendom, and Fader of alle also,
   Aboven alle and over alle everywhere." (207-9)

The old man disappears, and Valerian, convinced that Cecilia has spoken the truth, is christened on the spot by St. Urban. He returns to his home, ready to accept Cecilia's conditions and to be joined with her in what is to be a "chaste marriage."

Cecilia and Valerian are about to commit themselves to a marriage that only seems to be a precise opposite of the marriage agreement presented at the beginning of this essay. If we consider the more common kind of marriage and the "chaste marriage" of the Second Nun's Tale within the context of the Parson's Tale, we can see that, though the promises they require involve opposite courses of action, both actually serve a common purpose. The Parson, following his established pattern of first describing a sin to be avoided and then prescribing "remedies" for that sin, gives attention to the marriage in which husband and wife promise to satisfy their mutual needs as the first "manere of chastitee," or remedy for the sin of "Luxurie," or lust. He presents the "clene wydewe's" abstention from further sexual involvement after the death of her husband as a second "manere of chastitee," and then he turns to a third "remedy," which he presents in these terms: " certes [certainly], if that a wyf koude kepen hire al chaast [chaste] by licence [permission] of hir housbonde, so that she yeve [gives] nevere noon occasion that he agilte [would do wrong], it wer to hire a greet merite" (p. 322). The wife who is permitted to remain "chaste" achieves great merit for herself if she never gives her husband occasion to violate their agreement. The reciprocity here is different, but it is nevertheless a relationship of reciprocity that enables both partners to protect themselves from the sin of lechery. The wife herself does not sin, and she does not tempt her husband to do wrong.

The question we must ask with reference to the Second Nun's Tale, however, is this: do Cecilia and Valerian actually promise each other that they will live together in a chaste marriage relationship, with each abstaining from any requests for the satisfaction of sexual need? If we can take nonverbal acts as performance of acts of promising--which has been a possibility ever since Austin first posited his questions about how we do things with words[8]--the answer is Yes, and we can read the scene that tells of Valerian's return from his visit to St. Urban as an enactment of a marriage ceremony.

Returning to his home, Valerian finds Cecilia standing with an angel who holds two crowns in his hand, crowns of lilies and of roses. John L. Lowes pointed out some time ago in an essay titled "The Corones Two of the Second Nun's Tale"[9] that the roses and lilies of the two crowns enroll Cecilia and Valerian at once in the noble army of Martyrs and Virgins. What I am interested in here, however, is the question of how the two crowns function in a mutually made marriage promise. As the Second Nun tells the story she inherits from the Legenda aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, the angel gives one of the crowns to Cecilia and the other to Valerian, "hir make" (her spouse).

The Second Nun attributes the words of a spoken promise to the angel, who says of the crowns from Paradise he holds in his hand,

   "Ne nevere mo ne shal they roten bee,
   Ne lese hir soote savour, trusteth me,
   Ne nevere wight shal seen hem with his ye,
   But he be chaast and hate vileyne." (228-31)

With these words the angel promises that the crowns, which cannot be seen by any unworthy person and which represent the ideal behavior to which Cecilia, and now Valerian as well, aspire, will endure without change forever. But this is the angel's promise, not the promise of a man and woman prepared to join in marriage.

The fact that Cecilia and "hir make" (her spouse) receive the crowns, with their implicit promise of challenges to come, can be taken, however, as acceptance of the conditions of their marriage promise. Cecilia and Valerian are now committed, as the angel tells them, to keep the crowns they have just been given "'with body clene and with unwemmed [spotless, undefiled] thought'" (225-6). This is the marriage promise they have made, and their resolute adherence to the terms of that promise and to the faith that gives them reason to make it endures until both their lives end in martyrdom.

I am tempted to take on a Parson's role and speak in judgment. I could say, then, to one of my fellow pilgrims, the Wife of Bath, "You must realize that in asking those old husbands to pay you were failing to honor the promises you made at the church door." And I might say to the Second Nun, "I can understand your acceptance of the martyrdom that would inevitably follow your decision to refuse to worship the Roman gods, but should you have encouraged Valerian--and his brother and the Roman soldier Maximus as well--to make that same decision without making them aware of the probable consequences?" Taking this course of action might well lead to direct addresses to other characters within the Tales, for they are as real to me as the Pilgrims who fulfill their promises to the Host. I might then find myself asking January why he didn't at least listen to the warnings of his wise friend Justinus and telling Walter he had no right to ask Griselda to promise absolute obedience, and worse, to expect her to honor a promise that would have consequences she could not possibly have predicted. For that matter, Dorigen might get a reprimand, too, and advice to just say "No" instead of attempting a graceful, tactful answer. But it will be better, I think, simply to acknowledge that there is much to be learned from what our contemporaries say about what we do with words, especially since much of what they say--and here I have given attention just to promises from the Canterbury Tales--can increase our understanding of Chaucer's masterful use of language and deepen our sense of thankfulness for his gift from the past that we are permitted to share.

[1] "The Conjugal Debt and Medieval Canon Law," Journal of Medieval History 3 (1977): 99-114.

[2] The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 321-22. Canterbury Tales citations will be to this edition.

[3] The lectures were published in 1962 under the title How To Do Things with Words. The marriage promise, incidentally, was one of the first acts to which Austin drew attention. He immediately follows "CAN SAYING MAKE IT SO?" a rhetorical question he asks in Lecture I, with another question: "Are we then to say things like 'To marry is to say a few words?'" (7), which I take to be a demand for a response like "Yes, and those words are binding."

[4] Searle provides comparable representation for request, assert, question, thank (for), advise, warn, greet, and congratulate in Speech Acts 66-67.

[5] Here it would seem that the group, with its shared gesture, is performing a nonverbal act of assenting, or giving permission, to the Host to present his plan. It seems fully possible, then, as Austin suggests (119), that acts of "perlocution," which he first defines as consequences of acts of "illocution,"can be nonverbally performed. (Alston's Illocutionary Acts, it should be noted, however, provides extensive revision of Austin's explanation of the relationship between "illocution," which relates to specific acts performed, and "perlocution," which he related in a general way to the effects of such acts.)

[6] "A fouler wight ther may no man devyse" (999) is her descriptive phrase, which is to say that this woman is the epitome of ugliness.

[7] See Riverside note, p. 895.

[8] See, for example, Austin's presentation of the waving of a stick as an act of warning or threatening, and the raising of hands as an example of possible "tacit consent" (119-20).

[9] PMLA 26 (1911): 315-23.

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Pratt, Mary Louise. Toward a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Ross, Thomas W. Chaucer's Bawdy. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1972.

Searle, John R. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. London: Cambridge UP, 1969.

MARIE NELSON, a Professor of English at the University of Florida, is the author of a number of essays on Old, Middle, and Modern English literature, and two books, Structures of Opposition in Old English Poetry and Judith, Juliana, and Elene: Three Fighting Saints.

   



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