Experience and the Judgment of Poetry: A Reconsideration of the Franklin's Tale
Gerald Morgan. Medium Aevum. Oxford: 2001.Vol. 70, Iss. 2; pg. 204, 22 pgs
Abstract (Document Summary)
Morgan discusses "The Franklin's Tale," a part of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." He demonstrates that a sound understanding of the Franklin's Tale rests upon a sincere and informed admiration for chivalric ideals and an acceptance of obedience as a proper duty of a faithful and loving wife.
Full Text (12234 words)
Copyright Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature 2001
Words realize nothing, vivify nothing to you, unless you have suffered in your own person the thing which the words try to describe. (Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, chapter 28)
In the interpretation of a literary work such as the Franklin's Tale, itself linked to the Squire's Tale as part of Fragment V and set in the context of The Canterbury Tales as a whole, our object is not truth as such in the philosophical sense, and certainly not the endorsement of a set of moral or spiritual beliefs, but rather the truth of a text. What is important here is the identification of the ideas and assumptions that give a literary artefact life and point on the one hand and order and coherence on the other. In what follows, therefore, I am not arguing a case for or against the institutions of chivalry and marriage as such, and even less for the obedience of women to men, in or out of marriage. But I do seek to demonstrate that a sound understanding of the Franklin's Tale rests upon a sincere and informed admiration for chivalric ideals and an acceptance of obedience as a proper duty of a faithful and loving wife. We may grant a historical justification to the ideals of chivalry and marriage even if we cannot on our own account concede to them a moral justification. And we must go further and say that Chaucer himself is likely also to have conceded the moral case for a knight's pre-eminence and a wife's obedience, for the knight represents in his person the uniting of the moral virtues, and obedience has the character of a moral virtue.1
Chaucer is not our contemporary but the contemporary of Froissart, and shares many of the beliefs and even prejudices of his age that we ourselves do not wish to share.2 He believes in a hierarchy of classes and ranks from the king downwards in which each man and woman is accorded a well-defined place. He would approve (I am sure) of the seating arrangements at Camelot with `pe best burne ay abof' (SGGK, line 73) and at Hautdesert with 'vche grome at his degre' (SGGK, line 1006), and so has set out the Canterbury pilgrims in the General Prologue in order of rank (`of what degree', 1.40) from the highest to the lowest with a fundamental division between nobles or gentils and commons, that is, between the Knight to the Franklin on the one hand and the Five Guildsmen to the Pardoner on the other.' The English are still renowned (or notorious) for their attachment to class distinctions such as these. But clear-cut class distinctions do have the advantage of conferring stability and security on matters of personal and social status. Every one knows his or her place, whether just or unjust, congenial or irksome. The Franklin undoubtedly knows his place too. He is a gentleman, but the lowest in rank among the gentils. He looks up to and admires the Knight (his social and moral superior), but has no fear of being confused with social climbers like the Guildsmen.4
The prestige of the institutions of chivalry remained unimpaired throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and was still largely intact at the beginning of the Great War.5 Chaucer's placing of the estate of fighters with the Knight at its head (1.43-117) before the religious estate represented by the Prioress, Monk, and Friar (1.118-269) in the sequence of portraits in the General Prologue is a simple recognition of that prestige.6 The high valuation set by Chaucer on the military estate is certainly consistent with the thought of a knight like Geoffroy de Charny in the Livre de chevalerie, written for the French King, Jean II, and his Company of the Star, founded in 1352. The life of Geoffroy de Charny shows that the ideal of knighthood represented by Chaucer's Knight is by no means remote from contemporary aspirations and heroic achievement. Froissart describes Charny as 'le plus preudomme et le plus vailant de tous les autres',7 and fittingly he dies at Poitiers in 1356 holding and defending the Oriflamme of St Denis. The vocation of a knight, as Charny explains, involves a continuous preparedness for death and willingness to die, so that it requires a personal integrity and devotion to God greater even than that called for in the priesthood.8 Indeed the link between the two estates is affirmed by Chaucer in the placing of religion at the core of his Knight's inspiration and achievement, and his example is followed by Spenser in a later age in respect of the Red Cross Knight. Dante places his ancestor Cacciaguida, who died fighting in the Holy Land at the beginning of the Second Crusade in 1147 under the Emperor Conrad III, in paradise in the heaven of Mars (La divina commedia, Paradiso, xv.139-44).9 Cacciaguida's death is the death of a Christian martyr, and it earns for him the peace of paradise (Paradiso, xv.145-- 8). There is abundant evidence for the persistence of crusading idealism among English knights throughout and beyond the period covered by the long career of Chaucer's Knight.10 Henry of Grosmont, Earl of Derby and Duke of Lancaster, and father of Blanche, the subject of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, distinguished himself in 1343 `fighting against the enemies of God and Christianity' with Alfonso XI, King of Castile (1312-50), `at the sege ... / Of Algezir' (1.56-7).11 Sir Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, was at Antalya ('Satalye', 1.58) in Turkey in 1361 and at the capture of Alexandria in Egypt in 1365.12 A later Earl of Derby (the future Henry IV) went on crusade with the Teutonic Knights `in Pruce' (1.53) in 1390 and 1392.13 Chaucer's attitude to the crusades is not much different from that of Dante, and it is probably shared even by Gower in so far as it can be reconciled with the theory of the just war.14
Chaucer is not only subject to the prejudices of his own age, but he is also free from the prejudices of our own (if we can be generous enough to admit of some on our own account). Some interpretations of Chaucer gather strength from the preoccupations of our own time and place rather than from the text of Chaucer's poetry, and hence we have been obliged to accustom ourselves in recent years to the idea of Chaucer's Knight as 'a shabby mercenary without morals or scruples'.15 It is an uncritical idea that does violence to Chaucer's text, but there is a danger that by continued repetition it will acquire credibility.16 If the Knight can be reduced and degraded after this fashion, what chance has a country gentleman like the Franklin further down the social scale? It appears that any interpretation of the Franklin's Tale, however unlikely, can be justified by reference to an assumed ignorance, obtuseness, or pomposity on the Franklin's part. The Franklin is not a knight, but neither is he a parvenu. He is a substantial landowner who knows the value of landed wealth, and is therefore fit to exercise the responsibilities of administration and tax-collection in the shire (1.359). He has represented the shire in Parliament on many occasions (1.356) and as a justice of the peace (1.355) finds the distinguished lawyer congenial company (I.331). Such a man has an easy familiarity with rhetoric (V.716-27), is a lavish host (I.339-54), and is also (much to the point when it comes to his tale) a humane judge of his fellow men and women. He reserves his greatest admiration for the Knight and the Knight's son, the Squire, and here too his judgement is discriminating, for the Knight is a great warrior and a great man, the defender of the faith and the upholder of justice, and the Squire, for all the excesses of his youth, has the makings of a worthy successor. If, like Edward Condren, we dismiss the Franklin as `simply a showoff (p. 152), we shall be apt also to dismiss Arveragus, the worthy knight of his tale, as a show-off too, and, indeed, Condren unsurprisingly concludes that `to Arveragus, as to his Franklin creator, all is for show' (p. 163). It is hard to know what is cause and what effect here, whether the misinterpretation of the tale or of the teller. What is certain is that the Franklin is not the creator of Arveragus, but is simply the instrument of Chaucer's art. It is Chaucer who has created the Knight and the Franklin alike, and also the knights, squires, and ladies within their respective tales. As a justice of the peace in Kent from 1385 to 1389 and also as a knight of the shire for Kent in 1386, Chaucer himself is on familiar terms with knights, squires, and franklins (not to say lords and magnates) and the world of affairs that they inhabit. If we are to find incoherence in the tales we may as well attribute it to Chaucer himself rather than to his distinguished tellers. Chaucer does, it is true, at times have fun at the Franklin's expense, but equally he has the good humour and self-deprecating wit to have even more fun at his own expense. Thus the Franklin has been assigned his Breton lay because in him (as in his creator) expressions of generosity will carry conviction and possess authority.
Both the social status and experience of life of Chaucer and the Franklin are helpful (if not actually necessary) for an insight into the dilemma that confronts husband and wife in the tale.17 Thus it is helpful to know at first hand the faithfulness, sincerity, and contentment of married love, and Chaucer by the agency of the Franklin reminds us of them at the beginning of the tale (V.803-- 5):
Who koude telle, but he hadde wedded be,
The joye, the ese, and the prosperitee
That is bitwixe an housbonde and his wyf?
But earthly joy is always circumscribed by Chaucer by an awareness of its frailty and limitation. The Franklin's Tale is a story with a happy ending, but the complications of the tale remind us that in life itself happy endings are rare. For most of the tale we are uncomfortably close to the realms of tragedy and moral compromise. Even the best of marriages can founder, broken perhaps by misfortune, misjudgement, the moral inadequacy of those outside the marriage, or one's own moral inadequacy. Human joy is always at the mercy of external forces. At the same time there remains the possibility of the recovery of joy by some unexpected or unforeseen blessing or by the redemption of sin. The Franklin's Tale, then, makes a great demand on the experience of life of its reader, and the substitution of imaginative experience for lived or actual experience is seldom equal to it. But it is precisely this experience of life on which the resolution of the tale depends, and which it in turn illuminates. This is why, indeed, the tale is assigned to a Franklin and not a Clerk. Like the Wife of Bath the Franklin has had a rich experience of life. In his imagined parliamentary career he would have seen the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the great men and women in the public life of his time, for the 1370s and 1380s are turbulent decades in the history of Parliament.18 His rich and varied parliamentary experience leaves him with his humanity intact, but surely not with a sentimental view of life.
From this point of view the linking of the Franklin's Tale and the Squire's Tale is immensely significant and by no means entirely to the Franklin's own disadvantage. In interrupting the Squire's Tale (a tale surely in need of interruption), the Franklin praises the Squire for speaking `so feelyngly' on the subject of betrayal in love, 'considerynge', that is, his 'yowthe' (V.675-6). Critics have seized on what they take to be the Franklin's ineptitude in his treatment of the young man.19 But the Squire is indeed very young (`twenty veer of age he was, I gesse', I.82) and compares as yet unfavourably with his father, the Knight. He is carried away by the enthusiasm of youth and has still to learn the lessons of discretion and restraint, not least in the art of storytelling. Surely Chaucer has said all that needs to be said on the subject of falseness and betrayal in love (the Squire's subject), and for all its colour and exoticism the Squire's Tale is not in reality worth continuing with, whereas by contrast the Franklin's Tale is a consummate and finished work of art.20
We have had out fill (mostly in the romances of writers of lesser statute than Chaucer) of adventures, battles, and marvellous events (V.658-60):
But hennes forth I wol my proces holde
To speken of aventures and of batailles
That nevere yet was herd so grete mervailles.
The Squire is finally cut short at a moment of steepling eloquence at the opening of only Pars Tercia of his tale. It is, of course, Chaucer who decides that we have had enough of the Squire, and the Franklin is merely the instrument of that decision. The Franklin carries out his appointed task with the practised skill of a parliamentarian, but his own studied courtesy towards the Squire leaves himself exposed in his turn to the rudeness of the Host (V.695):
'Straw for youre gentillesse!' quod oure Roost.
The Host finds the subject of nobility, whether of birth, status, or virtue (the three concerns are linked in the Franklin's words to the Squire at V.679-94), a source of irritation as of one who belongs to a different world. But generosity or nobility of mind and spirit is not a quality so lightly to be set aside, and if the Franklin were himself indeed a man of straw he would not have survived for long in the ruthless world of contemporary politics. The Franklin is not underestimated in this manner by his creator, and Chaucer ensures that it is the amiable Franklin and not the discourteous Host who is given the last word (V.700-4, 707-8):
'I prey yow, haveth me nat in desdeyn,
Though to this man I speke a word or two.'
`Telle on thy tale withouten wordes mo.'
`Gladly, sire Hoost,' quod he, 'I wole obeye
Unto your wyl; now herkneth what I seye ...
I prey to God that it may plesen yow;
Thanne woot I wel that it is good ynow.'
At the end of the tale that follows there is no further comment by the Host. Nothing more indeed is to be said after such a consummate performance.
The Franklin's Tale describes not merely a happy marriage, but a marriage in a state of crisis brought about by no special ill-will, imprudence, or negligence on the part of husband and wife, but by an unpredictable and unpredicted set of events and circumstances and by the operation of external forces working against them. Here too is an argument from experience. No human state can ever be certain, not even a relationship solemnised by matrimony and grounded in virtue and love. However unpredictable life may be, at least its unpredictability can be assured, and some unpredictable things will be for the worse, not for the better. The sacrament of marriage must address this reality in human experience, and propose a means of negotiating it.
The Franklin introduces us at the beginning of his tale to a knight and a lady. The knight is inspired by the lady to chivalrous action, and the lady takes pity on his humble devotion to her (V.729-43). The focus here is on the generic, not the individual, so as to emphasize the general compatibility of the man and the woman (V.730-1):
Ther was a knyght that loved and dide his payne
To serve a lady in his beste wise.
An equality of age is implicit in the loving attachment that arises between the two and also in the absence of a specific reference to age. The implication is that age constitutes no barrier between them, as it does in the case of the old husbands and their young wives in the Miller's and Merchant's Tales. In the Merchant's Tale the disparity in age is embodied in the very names of the husband and wife (January and May). Furthermore, Dorigen is a lady of `heigh kynrede' (V.735) whereas May is `of smal degree' (IV.1625). In other words the marriage in the Merchant's Tale is a mismatch in terms of social position as well as age. The gulf in social status between husband and wife is taken to an extreme in the Clerk's Tale, where Walter, a marquess from a family with a long claim to lordship (IV.64-5), is not merely `sanguine nobilis', as Petrarch's Latin has it (I.20), or `moult noble de lignaige' as in the French translation (Le Livre Griseldis, 1.6-7), but `the gentilleste yborn of Lumbardye' (IV.72).21 The Marquess Walter is clearly established as a member of the higher nobility, whereas Grisilde by contrast is the daughter of the 'povrest' of the 'povre folk' of the village (IV.200, and 204-5). Perhaps it would have been better for them both had Walter's choice fallen upon one of his own station in life, a 'markysesse' (IV.283), as Grisilde herself surmises (not in the sources) when she hears the rumours of an impending marriage. It seems that Walter and January alike have settled on wives socially beneath them as posing no threat to their lordship within marriage. Walter in particular is accustomed to the immediate obedience of those beneath him (IV.66-7):
And obeisant, ay redy to his bond,
Were alle his liges, bothe lasse and moore.
In the Franklin's Tale Dorigen is at least the social equal of Arveragus. The love of the knight in this case is not directed, therefore, to a woman used to the ways of subservience, but to the ways of freedom and respect. Dorigen, unlike Grisilde, is a free agent, free to bestow or to withhold her love.
The relationship of Dorigen and Arveragus is a relationship based on love, not on lordship and wealth. The condition of a lover is of one who seeks to do the will of the beloved and not to impose his or her will on the beloved, and who wishes good things for the object of love rather than the mere fulfilment of desires. Dorigen is indeed impressed by the manifest signs of love in the knight, that is, his `melee obeysaunce' (V.739). She sees that he loves her and does not wish to tyrannize over her and that he is a man she can trust as a husband. But the knight in his turn is not an abject lover, subject to the whims and caprices of a great lady, as Lancelot is so subject to the Queen in Chretien's Chevalier de la Charrete, but a warrior who has achieved `many a greet emprise' (V.732). Here is a distinction in the knight himself between the virtue of obedience and the condition of servitude, so that it is clear that the pledges the knight makes to the lady proceed from his free will as a knight.
The promises that the knight makes to the lady are entirely specific, as of one in earnest. They are as follows. First, never to take upon himself authority over her against her will (V.746-8). Second, never to show jealousy to her, that is, not in any way to be possessive of her in respect of other men who may (and surely will) desire her, but to respect her and so to have confidence in her will to be faithful to him (V.748). Third, to obey her will as a lover must, that is, to continue to serve her and to act for her good (V.749-50). And, finally, to make and fulfil these promises as a knight but not to the prejudice of his status as a knight. This final condition has been the cause of some uncertainty in the interpretation of the tale and of no little censure of the knight. Here we must understand that the public reputation of a knight is the honour that is accorded to virtue and so cannot in principle be sacrificed.22 It is not fitting for a knight to be reduced to a state of uxoriousness, like Erec when he first marries Enide (Erec, lines 2430-6111), or abject servitude, like Lancelot at the tournament of Noauz (Charte, lines 5339-6056) when he obeys the Queen's command to do his worst (`au noauz', Charrete, lines 5645, 5654, 5842, and 5853).23
The knight in the Franklin's Tale offers the lady as much as honour will allow, and she recognizes that he does so because of his generosity of spirit (V.753-5,758):
She thanked hym, and with ful greet humblesse
She seyde, `Sire, sith of youre gentillesse
Ye profre me to have so large a reyne, ...
Sire, I wol be youre humble trewe wyf.'
Here 'gentillesse' must mean not merely nobility of birth, but the largeness of spirit or magnanimity appropriate to those greatly blessed by fortune in their birth. Generosity to this degree is a rare virtue (it is indeed the condition of love), and of its nature it deserves to be reciprocated. It can only be reciprocated by humility and faithfulness in the lady, but is often abused by fickleness and pride, as by the Queen in Le Chevalier de la Charrete when she is coldly dismissive of the knight who has laboured so mightily on her behalf for even his momentary hesitation before mounting the cart (Charrete, lines 3924-- 99, 4458-500). By contrast, the humility of the lady in the Franklin's Tale is doubly stressed (V.753, 758). In this way the lady does not take advantage of the knight's generosity, but in humbly conforming herself to his will she upholds his dignity as a knight. Indeed, she addresses him twice in the space of five lines by his formal title as a knight, 'Sire' (/.7754, 758).
This pattern of generous submission on the part of the knight and humble obedience on the part of the lady is set forth (surprisingly on the face of it) in the conclusion to the Wife of Bath's Tale. The knight who submits to the judgement of the wife (III.1228-35) in the explicit recognition of her sovereignty or mastery over him (III.1236-8) finds himself offered both goodness and beauty in his wife (111.1239-54) and that goodness includes the virtue of obedience (III. 1255-6):
And she obeyed hym in every thyng
That myghte doon hym plesance or likyng.
Here obedience gives pleasure, including and perhaps especially sexual pleasure. This is certainly the force of the collocation `plesaunce and lykynge' when used by Malory of the consummation of the love of Lancelot and the Queen in the Knight of the Cart episode of `The Book of Launcelot and Guinevere':
So, to passe uppon thys tale, sir Launcelot wente to bedde with the quene and toke no force of hys butte honde, but toke hys plesaunce and hys lykynge untyll hit was the dawnyng of the day; for wyte you well he slept nat, but wacched.24
The obedience of the wife at the end of the Wife of Bath's Tale is thus associated with delight rather than hardship, for it is above all the expression of love. Here it must be understood that obedience like any moral virtue has its origin in personal freedom, and so rests upon an inner assent of the will whereby one wills to submit oneself to the will of another. It presupposes humility in its recognition of a superior authority and also the need for a superior authority.
This ideal of mutual service and love is the ideal that is enshrined in Christian marriage, and it is the point of departure for the Franklin's Tale (V.761-3):
For o thyng, sires, saufly dar I seye,
That freendes everych oother moot obeye,
If they wol longe holden compaignye.
Indeed, the Franklin's Tale begins at the point at which the Wife of Bath's Tale ends. It cannot be insisted too often that the tales have priority over the tellers in The Canterbury Tales. The tales of the Wife of Bath and of the Franklin conform to the perspectives of their tellers (a woman whose freedom has been usurped in marriage and a gentleman whose humanity makes him appreciative of generosity in loving), but the arguments of the tales are grounded in moral truths independent of their tellers and in this respect the tales are continuous. Such moral and philosophical coherence extends not merely to The Canterbury Tales as a whole and to Chaucer himself as their teller, but to the pervasive truths of western moral philosophy in so far as one might suppose that philosophers such as Aristotle and Boethius have access to them.
This is an argument for the coherence of the tales as fashioned by the presiding genius of the artist Chaucer. It does not allow us to offload difficulties of interpretation onto characters within works, whether conservative and selfimportant landowners or hysterical wives (if the Franklin and Dorigen are justly characterized as such). Nor can we offload them onto Chaucer as author by way of ironic interpretations of the narrating voice. The tales have to make sense in terms of the concepts to which they themselves make appeal, that is, to the freedom of the will, to control and submission in human relationships, and to moral virtues such as generosity, humility, and faithfulness in love, and patience in suffering. The Franklin's Tale is shaped by these moral and philosophical ideas, and that is why they are set out at such length in the opening lines. In this way the beginning of the tale anticipates its crisis and resolution.
Thus, the knight, lover, and husband, Arveragus, enters into the relationship with Dorigen of his own free will, and is bound to her by his freely given vows and promises. He does not take upon himself 'maistrie / Agayn hit wyl' (V.747-8) even when he commands her to keep her promise, because his wife Dorigen has promised in her turn to obey him. In other words he exercises 'maistrie' in accordance with and not contrary to her will as her will is expressed in her promise to be a `humble trewe wyf (V.758).25 He does not 'kithe hire jalousie' (V.748). The issue does not arise for him even though he has been away from her for two years (V. 1094-6). And even when he finds his position as husband compromised by a promise that his wife has made to a would-be lover he does not become angry with her, but is gentle and compassionate (V.1467-9). He is so far from being jealous or possessive that he makes no claim upon her by virtue of her prior promise to him. He simply forgoes his right.26 He does 'obeye' her and 'folwe hit wyl in al' (V.749) in accepting the validity of the promise that she has made (given freely and without reference to him) to the squire, Aurelius. In so far as she has made a promise she has expressed her will, and therefore Arveragus accepts it. He has no wish to infringe the moral autonomy of his wife. But he does continue to care about his status and dignity as a knight, that `name of soveraynetee' that is owed to his 'degree' (V.751-2), as one who is himself faithful in his promises, true to his word, and honourable in his actions. And he acts out of that sense of honour in forbidding his wife to disclose their private agreements in public (V. 1481-6). He shows here a due regard for reputation in society at large. This is not hypocrisy when public reputation is allied to private virtue. It is what his sense of honour compels him to do, and for a knight that is a matter of life and death. Hence he enjoins silence on his wife `up peyne of deeth' (V.1481). These are not the words of a cruel man, for as such they would contradict his 'freendly wyse' (V.1467), but rather his awareness of the grave and indeed desperate state in which he and his wife find themselves. Moreover, it is the reputation of his wife rather than his own reputation that he is most concerned to protect and uphold (V. 1485-6):
`Ne make no contenance of hevynesse,
That folk of yow may demen harm or gesse.'
He will endure the loss of honour that this entails for him by himself and in private (V. 1484). The loss of honour is a moral catastrophe for the knight, but he willingly takes it upon himself in circumstances not of his own devising and beyond his control.
For her part the lady and wife, Dorigen, is humble as a wife in turning to the husband for help in her dilemma (V. 1459-66), and in obeying his command to go to the squire in order to keep her word despite the distress it occasions (V. 1511-13). She is not only a humble wife, but also true. Thus she pines inconsolably at the two-year absence of her husband (V.814-46), is anxious for his return (V.847-56), and fears for his safety in respect of the `grisly feendly rokkes blake' (V.868) off the coast of Brittany (V.857-94). As a faithful wife she indignantly rejects the overtures of the lovelorn Aurelius and sends him away in despair (V.979-1011). But her feminine compassion and her wifely preoccupation open up her defences inadvertently, for `in pley' (V.988) she promises to love Aurelius if he can throughout the coast of Brittany 'remoeve alle the rokkes, stoon by stoon, / That they ne lette ship ne boot to goon' (V.993-4). Her oath is to all intents and purposes another convincing attestation of faithful wifehood, for it underlines the fact that her anxious thoughts rest on the chivalrous knight and not the lovelorn squire. The seeming, but not actual, removal of the rocks (V. 1296) is an unanticipated and horrifying misfortune for the wife (V.1339-45), and leaves her with an insoluble dilemma of conflicting loyalties, for her desire to remain `trewe unto Arveragus' (V.1424) is constant. The importance of fidelity as a guiding principle in her conduct is indeed illustrated at this point in her complaint to Fortune by six examples (V.1424-41). But although Dorigen herself could not possibly have anticipated such a crisis in her married life, it is precisely unlooked-for misfortune of this kind that the complementary marriage vows of husband and wife are designed to negotiate. Dorigen no less than Arveragus attaches importance not only to virtue but also to the reputation for virtue. Hence as the first sequence of seven examples in her complaint to Fortune focuses on the virtue of chastity (V.1367-423), and the second sequence of six examples on the virtue of fidelity (V.1424-41), so the third and final sequence of nine examples focuses on wives honoured and praised for chastity and fidelity (V.1442-56).27 The wife is at one with the husband on the great principles of truth and honour. But how to translate such principles into action when so much is unclear and when great passions have been aroused? In the dilemma faced by Dorigen the judgement of Solomon is required (and critics continue to debate the merits of the case), But agents cannot deliberate indefinitely. They must act. And the action of the husband must be guided by love for the wife, and to that end honour and life itself must be sacrificed if needs be.
The setting of the Franklin's Tale is no doubt a pagan setting, but the tale is informed throughout by Christian values, for example, the repugnance of suicide (for Dante worse than murder, and probably for Chaucer too),28 and above all respect for marriage as one of the seven sacraments of the Church and so a source of grace. The dilemma of the Franklin's Tale is defined and worked out within this network of assumptions.
The dignity of marriage is rooted in the principle of consent, and this indeed is the essence of marriage. The sacrament of marriage confirms and does not deny the freedom of the wills of lovers. Married lovers are equally bound by the vows they freely make to God and the promises they freely make to one another in the presence of God. The promises the lovers make to love and honour one another are raised to the status of vows by being directed firstly and principally to God. But the marriage vows are not identical for the husband and the wife, although they are mutually reinforcing, and they clearly allow for a differentiation of roles within marriage. The man declares to the woman that he will `love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health' and plights his troth or pledges his word `to love and to cherish' her until death separates them. The woman declares to the man that she will `obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health' and she gives her troth `to love, cherish, and to obey' him until death separates them.29 This is the form of the vows in The First Book of Common Prayer of Edward VI in 1549, and they had taken essentially the same form in liturgies in England throughout the fourteenth century (and possibly for long before that).30 In particular, we may note that the vow of obedience on the part of the wife is a stable element in English manuals and missals of the fourteenth century. The woman promises in Latin `obedire et servire' and in English to `be bonair and buxom', a collocation emphasizing notions of kindness, gentleness, graciousness, and obedience. Thus under `bonair(e' adj. MED gives the senses (a) `of kind disposition, good-natured, kind, affable; gracious, courteous, gentle', and (b) `meek, humble; obedient, submissive, subservient', and under 'buxom' adj. the senses I (a) `humble, gentle, obedient, submissive', and 2 (a) `obedient to a person, command, law'. J. Wickham Legg cites a fourteenth-century manual of York use in which the bride is asked in Latin and in English as follows:
N. Uis habere hunc virum in sponsum et illi obedire et servire. et eum diligere
et honorare ac custodire sanum et infirmum sicut sponsa debet sponsum ...
N. wyll yow have this man to thi husband and to be bwxum to hym, luf hym,
obeye to hym, and wirschipe hym, serue him and kepe hym in hele and in seknes
and ... be to hym als a wyff suld be to hit husband ...31
He also cites a fourteenth-century manual of Sarum (Salisbury) use to the same effect:
Ich N. take the N. to my weddyd housbonde to hau and to holden fro this day
forward, for bettere, for wers, for richere for porere, in seknesse and in helthe to
be boneyre and buxsum in bedde and at borde, tyl deth us departe ...32
Differences in terminology do not disguise the remarkable continuity in doctrine concerning marriage from the medieval period to the present day, and indeed the Franklin's Tale itself confidently relies upon the presence of such doctrine in the remote past. The Franklin as teller and Chaucer as poet propose nothing in this respect that is novel, but fully share this ideal of a civilized relationship between the sexes. These deeply considered and long-- tested values and beliefs need to be understood if the terms of the moral dilemma of the Franklin's Tale are to be comprehensible, for they presuppose and do not reject the notion of a woman's obedience within marriage. The wife's act of obedience to the husband is therefore defined by and limited to a situation in which she herself is loved, comforted, honoured, and cherished. The dignified status of a wife is far different from that of a serf or feudal subject.
Freedom and mutuality are at the core of the married relationship, so that we can define (and, if we wish, judge) the conduct of the man and the woman by reference to them. The man must love and honour the woman who obeys him as Christ loved the Church. Now Christ gave his life for the Church. As the Parson puts it (X.929):
Man sholde bere hym to his wyf in feith, in trouthe, and in love, as seith Seint
Paul, that a man sholde loven his wyf as Crist loved hooly chirche, that loved it
so wel that he deyde for it.
Even so, as the Parson himself concludes, the husband must sacrifice everything for the wife, including his own honour and his very life if needs be. When the ship is about to founder (and it is for such a human catastrophe, actual or metaphorical, that the marriage vows have to allow), the husband sends the wife to the lifeboat and prepares himself to go down with the ship. This is an inflexible rule of conduct.
Hence the marriage vows taken by the husband rule out all acts of petty tyranny on his part, and indeed it is a great evil when a wife becomes the plaything of a husband's will. The Marquess Walter continues to treat Grisilde as a feudal subject even after his marriage to her. Strictly, the vows of marriage have abrogated the former relation of lord and feudal subject. They did so in the case of Queen Victoria, who was in every respect superior to Prince Albert save that of wife.33 The Clerk of Oxenford is clear that Walter has no right to test his wife in the way that he does, for it is unnecessary in itself and is bound to cause Grisilde fear and anguish (IV.455, 460-2). The Clerk's censure of Walter is distinctive of Chaucer's treatment of the tale, and is repeated before the second testing of the wife in another addition to the source (IV.621-3). When Walter tests Grisilde for a third time by publicly repudiating her as his wife (IV.736-49) his conduct is described at the beginning of the fifth part of the tale as `after his wikke usage' (IV.785; not in the source). Such wilful domination by the man over the woman is neither envisaged nor encouraged by the marriage vows. The husband can only look with assurance to his wife for obedience if he acts out of love and honour himself, and it is the certain knowledge that he is so doing that invests his actions with a true authority. Walter thus effectively breaks his marriage vows in dishonouring his wife.
In the Merchant's Tale the notion of wifely obedience is reduced to a point of degradation and absurdity. Obedience becomes a servile complaisance and the wife herself a mere drudge (IV.1344-6):
Al that hire housbonde lust, hire liketh weel;
She seith nat ones `nay,' whan he seith `ye.'
`Do this,' seith he; `Al redy, sire,' with she.
The effect of these lines is broadly comic, but they carry with them at least a hint of the menace that an overbearing husband can have for a gentle but vulnerable wife. They do not stand and cannot be construed as a credible view of the virtue of wifely obedience.
The sacrament of matrimony does, however, presuppose the desirability of obedience in a wife, and it establishes a number of expectations on the part of a woman. Obedience as a moral virtue is actively willed by the obedient person and not imposed by a superior will. It is above all the gift, and a supreme gift next to love itself, of a free person. The Wife of Bath's Tale shows that it can only proceed from the woman's complete liberation from the man, and indeed is derived from his concession of control to her. The Clerk sets out to demonstrate the inwardness of this virtue in Grisilde: `She was ay oon in herte and in visage' (IV.711). Properly, then, wifely obedience is the expression of abundant and overflowing love in the woman for the man, and as such it enhances her own worth as well as that of the husband. It is to be called for in the only context that can safeguard it, namely the professed determination of the man to love and worship her.
But the gift of obedience is a priceless and enormous gift, and derives its excellence precisely from the preciousness of the will as the highest of human goods. From this point of view Aquinas recognizes obedience as more praiseworthy than other moral virtues (ST, za zac. 104, 3):
Inter virtutes autem morales tanto aliqua potior est quanto aliquis majus aliquid
contemnit ut Deo inhaereat ... Et ideo per se loquendo laudabilior est obedientiae
virtus, quae propter Deum contemnit propriam voluntatem, quam aliae virtutes
morales, quae propter Deum aliqua alia bona contemnunt.
(The gradation of moral virtues is this: the nobler the good it forgoes for the
sake of God, the higher is the virtue ... In these terms, the virtue of obedience is
more praiseworthy than other moral virtues, seeing that by obedience a person
gives up his own will for God's sake, and by other moral virtues something less.)
Obedience is classified by Aquinas under respect for a superior (observantia), the third of the potential parts of justice (ST, 2a 2ae.80, i ad 3), but it belongs no less with the virtues of religion and piety (ST, 2a 2ae. 104, 3 ad I). Submission to God or to a parent is more natural than submission to some other human being (inevitably fallible, however eminent), and it calls for a great leap of faith by a woman if she is to bind herself by way of obedience to some other man. Chaucer with his fine sensitivity to the experience of women expresses his sense of the enormity of the vow of obedience in the Man of Law's Tale, for a lawyer would understand only too well the implications of a solemn and binding contract, and knows too that the order of justice requires submission to a higher will, namely God or the divine providence.34 In marrying, Custance has to submit to the unpredictable will of her husband (II.267-71):
Alias, what wonder is it thogh she wepte,
That shal be sent to strange nacioun
Fro freendes that so tendrely hire kepte,
And to be bounden under subjeccioun
Of oon, she knoweth nat his condicioun?
Later, Custance herself expresses the sam idea in words that are no less telling (II.286-7):
`Wommen are born to thraldom and penance,
And to ben under mannes governance.'
Custance, like other noble heroines, shows her heroism simply by enduring misfortune. It is fitting, therefore, that Chaucer should present the argument for providence in the Man of Law's Tale in relation to the experience of a woman, for in respect of providence it becomes necessary for all human beings to accept that happiness and misery are ultimately fashioned by a superior power.
The moral implications of obedience are more appropriately treated by a philosopher than a lawyer, and they are so treated by Chaucer in the Clerk's Tale. The Clerk of Oxenford, as we know, is steeped in the thought of Aristotle (General Prologue, I.293-6), and in his tale he presents the argument for obedience in its most extreme and demanding form so as to tease out the moral implications. The argument is provocative and challenging, and indeed has caused no little offence to generations of readers, but there is no reason why the thought of a scholar should be easy to grasp or readily assimilable at the level of popular prejudice or fashionable opinion. The moral virtue of obedience is tested by the Clerk in an abstract and logical way beyond the human capacity to fulfil it in order to expose to view its inherent nature. The Clerk himself acknowledges as much at the end of his tale (IV.1142-8). There is a lesson here for men as well as women, and for those of high rank as well as low: `every wight, in his degree' (IV.1145). The tale itself does not imply that it is either possible or desirable for one human being to be obedient to the will of another human being as Grisilde is to the will of Walter. Doubtless the Clerk would agree with Aquinas (the greatest of the medieval Aristotelians) that obedience is not to be given to a superior if it contradicts the will of God (ST, 2a 2ae.104, 5 sed contra), and what God's will for husbands might be is plainly set down in the sacrament of matrimony. There are indeed times when an evil will must be resisted. Thus the 'sergeant' (IV. 519, 524) or legal officer35 who comes to take Grisilde's daughter away (IV.519-39) is also obedient to his lord's will (IV. 528-3 2). But obedience can lead such a man to `doon execucioun in thynges badde' (IV. 522; Chaucer's addition), and it does so here. By his actions in suggesting that he intends to slay the child (IV. 535-6) he shows himself to be not so much obedient as cruel; he is `this crueel sergeant' (IV. 539). A distinction is thus made between a true and a false obedience, and Aquinas explains that one is under no obligation to obey unjust commands (ST, za zae.104, 6 ad 3). When the sergeant comes a second time to Grisilde to take away her son, the moral ugliness of his action is reflected in the description of him as 'ugly' (IV.673), a telling detail not to be found in the sources. There is a contradiction here between the outward appearance and the inner intent of the sergeant, for he treats the little child with loving care after he has taken it away from the mother (IV.68 5-6). But Grisilde's obedience involves no such outward contradiction, for she is an innocent and hapless victim, powerless to thwart the will of her husband and feudal lord. Thus, by contrast to the ugly sergeant, she shows an example of perfect patience and love, without trace of deceit, malice, or cruelty in the face of intolerable suffering (IV.687-95).
Only the faithful fulfilment of vows, both the husband's vow of love and the wife's vow of obedience, can sustain a marriage in the face of the inevitable vicissitudes of life. The crisis that overtakes the marriage of Dorigen and Arveragus comes about through no special failing on the part of the married lovers themselves, but from the unwelcome intervention of a third party. Dorigen may well bewail her lot. She has done nothing obviously wrong or deserving of blame, and her innocence is further displayed in the anguish of keeping the promise to Aurelius (V.1499-513). Her sense of moral purity (and of its loss) undoubtedly sharpens our awareness of the moral dilemma. Arveragus ought not to be blamed for commanding his wife to go to Aurelius, and in the tale itself there is no blame corresponding to the Man of Law's censure of the Sultaness (II.358-64, 372) and Donegild (II.778-84) or the Clerk's censure of Walter (IV.75-84, 455-62, 619-23, 696-700). Instead of blame there is caution against a premature judgement (V.1493-8). Arveragus does not send his wife to commit adultery, as Robertson represents it:
When the time comes in the Franklin's story for Arveragus to assert his husbandly authority, all he can do is to advise his wife to go ahead and commit adultery.36
He simply stands over the promise that his wife has freely made (V. 1474):
'Ye shul youre trouthe holden, by my fay!'
That Dorigen herself fully understands such a moral imperative is evident from the complaint to Fortune itself. Promise and command are thus linked in the following narrative. Dorigen makes her way `toward the gardyn they as she had hight' (V. 1504) and, meeting Aurelius, tells him that she is doing so `as myn housbonde bad' (V. 15 z). Aurelius, in a moment of comprehension and regeneration of spirit, is moved by pity not only for the wife but also for the husband (V. 1515 -19):
And in his herte hadde greet compassioun
Of hire and of hire lamentacioun,
And of Arveragus, the worthy knyght,
That bad hire holden al that she had hight,
So Tooth hym was his wyf sholde breke hit trouthe.
Arveragus knows that if he asks his wife to obey him, she will obey him. But he can only ask for obedience out of the strictest necessity, and here he does so out of respect for the sanctity of his wife's own oath and for her moral integrity. If, as a good but lesser man might do, he were to insist that she repudiate her promise to Aurelius as being irreconcilable with her marriage vows, he would in fact be treating her as his moral inferior. It is clear that some contemporary opinion (perhaps medieval Robertsonians) would have justified him in doing so. Gratian in his Decretum (c.1140) draws on St Ambrose in affirming that a wife has no authority to make a promise on her own account since she is subject in these matters to her husband.37 The wife's duty of obedience to a husband is defined precisely in these terms in the Parson's Tale (X.931):
And eek, as seith the decree, a womman that is wyf, as longe as she is a wyf, she
hath noon auctoritee to swere ne to bere witnesse withoute leve of hir
housbonde, that is hire lord.
But Arveragus sees Dorigen not as his inferior but as his equal and by his actions he affirms the validity of her promise to Aurelius.38 Since she is his equal then her promise, or rather oath, is as binding as any he might give on his own account as a knight.
The dilemma of conflicting promises that Dorigen unfolds in the course of her complaint to Fortune cannot be resolved other than by release from one or other of the promises. When she turns to her husband he releases her from her promise to him in an act of chivalrous magnanimity. He does so because he understands her innocence and is filled with loving kindness. This is the `heigh vertu' of 'pacience' that love requires of us in the face of human fallibility (V.771-90), and it corresponds also to the duty of a husband to comfort his wife as well as to love and honour her.
It is not Arveragus who imposes the obligation on Dorigen to meet Aurelius. That is already present by virtue of her promise. Instead he supports her in the need to keep that promise. His love for his wife here is expressed in a way that is deeply injurious to himself and to his own interest, so much so indeed that he is unable to contain his emotion (V.1480):
But with that word he brast anon to wepe.
Such a public display of emotion is a rare thing in a knight, and reveals the pressure of his own inner torment. There is nothing gratuitous, uncomprehending, or self-regarding in his conduct, and in these circumstances he is justified in commanding his wife to keep silence and to conceal any harm done to her from public view.
Such a concern for public reputation is perfectly legitimate if it is in accord with virtue. The moral reality is not that of a preoccupation with an appearance of virtue at the expense of inner worth, but of a proper dignity in public such as to enable one to sustain a private grief.39 No husband, especially not one whose wife continues to love him, deserves the public spectacle of his wife's involvement with another man. No wife deserves the censure of infidelity if she has been trapped against her will and desire into a false situation. There is a limit to what human beings can be expected to endure (as the Clerk has acknowledged in respect of Grisilde), and both Dorigen and Arveragus are close to their respective limits. Moreover, the case is too complicated for ready explanations. And even if more elaborate explanations were to be offered there would be many still unable to grasp the nature and scope of the husband's generosity.40 It is generosity that is the shaping experience of the tale, and that is what makes the Franklin fit to tell it.
The moral dilemma is eventually unravelled by means of the self-sacrificing generosity of the husband, and it can only be unravelled in this way. In self-- sacrifice of this kind lies the true meaning of love, that is, one puts the good of the beloved before one's own good. It is a noble ideal, but not impossibly noble. Human beings do sacrifice themselves for the good of those they love, and the experience of life is such as to show that such sacrifices are often necessary.