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Chaucer on Sex & Marriage. The Pilgrimage The Aristotelian View The Three Tales. The Pilgrimage. Image of Life: a company of pilgrims, “who happened together in fellowship.” Represents society -- in reality, not idealized.

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chaucer on sex marriage

Chaucer on Sex & Marriage

The Pilgrimage

The Aristotelian View

The Three Tales

the pilgrimage
The Pilgrimage
  • Image of Life: a company of pilgrims, “who happened together in fellowship.”
  • Represents society -- in reality, not idealized.
  • Many ranks, types. Mixture of believers & hypocrites, saints and sinners.
some relatively positive
Some -- relatively positive
  • The Knight: gentle & courageous. A model of chivalry.
  • The Clerk of Oxford: disinterested love of learning.
  • Is the Knight perhaps too chivalrous (so many battles)?
  • Is the Clerk too extreme in his dedication, neglecting his financial needs?
perfect types
Perfect Types
  • The Parson and the Plowman -- are without question ideal pastor & layman.
  • The Franklin: described as a hedonist (“Epicurean”), yet a generous, hospitable and wise landowner. He may represent earthly (natural) happiness and virtue, as opposed to the supernatural virtue of the parson & plowman.
fiction and reality
Fiction and Reality
  • Chaucer cleverly interweaves fiction and reality:
    • Chaucer himself is one of the 30 pilgrims.
    • The tales are stories within a story.
    • In the Merchant’s tale, the characters refer to the Wife of Bath, one of the characters in the larger story.
  • Chaucer may be suggesting that we are like characters in a divine drama.
aristotle on sex
Aristotle on Sex
  • The difference between man & woman is a deep one, but not one of essence.
  • Sex differences intensify as one moves up the chain of life:
    • In plants, each organism typically has both sexes.
    • In animals, male and female sexes are in different organisms, who must use perception and movement to find each other.
Aristotle didn’t know about asexual reproduction among lower animals (protozoa, sponges): if he had, it would have strengthened his case.
  • According to Aristotle, the process of sexual differentiation reaches its peak with human beings: our rational souls are suffused with maleness or femaleness.
  • In humans, the two sexes must come together not only physically, but also rationally.
The two sexes complement each other not only physically, but also soulishly, psychologically.
  • For Aristotle, marriage is a kind of friendship, the most important kind.
  • Husband and wife have distinct, complementary spheres of authority: the wife over the internal management of the household, the husband over external relations.
chaucer s marriage tales
Chaucer’s Marriage Tales
  • The Wife of Bath
  • The Merchant
  • The Franklin
the wife of bath s prologue
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue
  • The woman of Bath characterizes marriage as involving a kind of economic exchange involving sex & property.
  • She also identifies a number of psychological and rhetorical factors that influence the balance of power (especially control of joint property).
  • Represents insights of experience, folk wisdom (“she knew the oldest dances”)
rhetorical psychological factors
Rhetorical & Psychological Factors
  • The asymmetry of desire for intercourse. Unavailability increases desire, worsening the asymmetry.
  • Manipulation by guilt and blame (used on the first three “good” husbands)
  • Stories and proverbs (the book used by the 5th husband).
  • Violence and victimhood/remorse (5th husband).
the prologue vs the tale
The Prologue vs. the Tale
  • The Prologue displays gritty realism: depicts marriage, warts and all.
  • On balance, positive? The Woman staunchly defends the married state. Fifth marriage ends happily: mutual kindness, feminine authority.
  • The Tale begins roughly -- with a rape, and the rapist on death row.
  • But then it transmutes into a charming fairy tale.
the point of the tale
The Point of the Tale
  • The question: “what do women really want?” (Stumped Freud.)
  • Note the profound change in the character of the rapist: he ends by yielding sovereignty to his wife.
  • Note too that the sovereignty is voluntarily yielded by the husband: not taken by force or trickery.
courtly love marriage
Courtly Love & Marriage
  • The answer: women want the selfsame authority over their husbands they enjoy over their lovers.
  • The tradition of courtly love: ordinarily quite separate from marriage. The lover seeks to please his beloved above all else.
  • Chaucer is recommending, in effect, the incorporation of courtly love within marriage.
the merchant s tale
The Merchant’s Tale
  • “January” decides to marry “May”: a not-too-subtle use of names.
  • January’s reasons for marriage are entirely self-centered: concern for his soul, desire for a beautiful young wife, who will satisfy his needs with a minimum of trouble.
  • In effect, he treats the acquisition of a wife as the purchase of a property.
january s folly
January’s Folly
  • January selects a woman without property or status, thinking that this will ensure his control over her.
  • For Aristotle, it is the mark of the “barbarian” that the husband treat his wife as a piece of property, like a domesticated animal.
  • January is consistently foolish: foolish in getting married, foolish in choosing his mate (without thought to her character), foolish in trusting Damien.
folly vs virtue
Folly vs. Virtue
  • This folly inheres in January’s lack of virtue. Lacking virtue himself, he is unable to recognize its deficit in others.
  • Note that the queen of the fairies gives a bold answer to May, but is not responsible for January’s credulity.
  • Like the wife of Bath’s first 3 “good” husbands, January is easily manipulated and scolded into submission.
the franklin s tale
The Franklin’s Tale
  • The Franklin is a wonderful character: this-worldly, no saint, but good and wise, an ideal landowner and citizen.
  • The story is marvelous: poignant, plausible in characterization. Depicts an ideal marriage, characterized by mutual sovereignty.
dorigen arveragus
Dorigen & Arveragus
  • Arveragus vows never to exercise his authority against Dorigen’s will.
  • He will preserve his authority only in name, for the sake of his honor.
  • A synthesis of the dynamics of courtly love with the form of marriage.
similarities to aristotle
Similarities to Aristotle
  • The wife rightly exercises authority over all matters internal to the household. Only a foolish, tyrannical husband would seek to interfere with his wife’s legitimate authority, rooted in her natural aptitudes.
  • The husband’s role: generating income, managing the external relations of the household, including civic politics.
the point of the tale1
The Point of the Tale
  • “Lovers must be ready to obey one another, if they would long keep company.”
  • Ideally, we look for “lordship set in servitude.” This reflects Christ’s teaching that the greatest Christian is the servant of others.
  • Patience is the “conquering virtue”. True power is rooted in self-mastery.
  • The role of “nobleness” (code of honor) as a source of virtue.