Society, the Breton Lay and the Franklin's Tale

Dr. Patricia Silber / Marymount College

Hire freendes sawe hir sorwe gan to slake

And preyde hire on knees, for Goddes sake,

To come and romen hire in compaignye. (V.841-43)

Throughout the Franklin's Tale characters enjoy company, and the activities it generates, to a degree beyond that of most players in the Canterbury Tales. This presence of friends, relatives, and associates is evidence that the tale consciously evokes the society from which the characters emerge. Further, these characters show a keen concern for public opinion; consider Arveragus's "To no wight telle thou of this aventure" (V.1483). Most significantly, perhaps, is a social status that does not always rise to the level of aristocracy, seen especially in the role of the clerk of Orleans. In short, the Franklin's Tale addresses the concerns of an actual society in ways that are not found in most romance.

I propose that the reason for the prominence of the social context here lies in Chaucer's conscious choice of the Breton lai as a genre for this tale, and for his care in observing the conventions of the form throughout. A closer look at social references in the extant lays strongly supports the view that Chaucer inserted them into his poem in imitation.

The lays place considerable emphasis on social order as well as on human relationships. Sir Orfeo's concern is nearly as much with the continuing well-being of the state as with recovery of the abducted queen. Equitan comes to an evil end because he neglects his royal responsibilities to pursue a woman of inferior status.

Similar demands of society are present in the Franklin's Tale, not just peripherally, but centrally. The social milieu detailed in this tale thus fits the social background of other Breton lays, both French and English. Is this coincidence or intent? There is good reason to believe that Chaucer was familiar with the lay form and that he used its social dimensions with enormous art.

Chaucer is far too careful a worker to use the term Breton lay simply to evoke a romantic subject and a geographical background. He was well aware of the ways in which the lay departed from romance conventions and used them fully and skillfully, embroidering in the same way, although for a different purpose, that he did conventions of the metrical romance in Sir Thopas.

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