Chaucer And Marie De France Essay Research

Chaucer And Marie De France Essay, Research Paper

In his The Miller’s Tale Chaucer presents a side of the courtly love tradition

never seen before. His characters are average middle class workers rather than

elite nobility. There is an interesting comparison between the Miller’s

characters and those in two of Marie de France’s lais that share very close plot

lines. Instead of being idealized Chaucer’s characters are gritty. Instead of

being involved in "courtly love" there is some evidence that the

relationship between Alison and Nicholas is one of lust. Chaucer’s use of the

lower class makes the absurdity of what they are doing stand out. In the lais of

Marie de France, Guigemare and Yonec, are built on the same archetype which is

the same as Chaucer’s Miller’s tale uses. Marie’s lais can give provide a set of

"ground rules" for this archetype. The two lais share several similar

elements. They both contain the same three central characters, who possesses

fundamental similarities, the same beginning plot line and several of the same

themes. The first character shared by the two lais is the story’s villain, the

aged husband. He is a powerful lord who is much older than his wife. Because he

is conscious of this fact, he worries constantly that his wife will betray him,

so he locks her up. He is both the least and most important figure in the story.

He’s important because without his presence and actions the story could never

take place. But he has very little actual interaction with the other two more

central characters. The husband in Yonec is never described as meeting either

his wife or her lover. In Guigemare the husband, wife and Guigemare are only

together when the two lovers are discovered. The figure of the beautiful,

imprisoned wife is the second central character. She is the quintessential

damsel in distress, beautiful, noble (and with the exception of her one true

love) chaste. The third character is the valiant lover who rescues the unhappy

and imprisoned damsel. In both Guigemare and Yonec this character is a knight,

and like his lover, the damsel in distress, he is the stereotypical "knight

in shining armor." He is described as being afflicted by love, and says he

will die without it. He will go to any extent for his true love. As with

characters both Guigemare and Yonec share a similar plot line. The young wife is

locked up by her jealous husband. Then by some magical means her lover is

transported to her. After some protestation from the woman, and some wooing from

the knight, the two become lovers, until they are discovered and separated.

After this point the two plots diverge. Also central to both stories is the idea

that these extra-marital affairs are not improper. In Guigemare, the lady’s maid

says to the knight: "The man who wishes to love my lady must keep her

constantly in his thoughts and, if you remain faithful to each other, the love

between you will be right and proper." (pg. 49) Obviously fidelity is

important, but not forced fidelity. Love is more important than marriage in

these lais. It’s also important to note the chastity of the lovers. There is no

mention of contact between the imprisoned wives and their husbands. In Yonec the

Lord of Caerwent takes his wife for the purpose of child bearing, but she is

imprisoned for seven years before meeting her lover and no children are

evidenced from the text. Guigemare has never been in love before he meets his

true love. This gives the love and actions between the pairs seem even more

pure, and also makes it seem to be less sinful. Love is a powerful force in both

these stories. It is not only the driving force behind the character’s actions,

but it also causes them physical affliction. Marie de France writes in Guigemare:

"But love had now pierced him to the quick and his heart was greatly

disturbed. For the lady wounded him so deeply he had completely forgotten his

homeland. . .The knight remained alone, mournful and downcast. He did not yet

realize the cause, but at least he knew that, if he were not cured by the lady

his death would be assured." (pg. 48) To Guigemare at least love is the

most important thing there is. This consideration is even more striking by the

fact that Guigemare either could not or would not fall in love while in his own

land. So those are the basic elements involved in the "imprisoned

wife" archetype used by Marie. In The Miller’s Tale Chaucer uses same basic

plot line, and similar characters. One of the largest differences between the

Chaucer’s characters and Marie’s characters is their level of wealth and their

position in society. This causes them to be portrayed in a different manner than

Marie’s rich, noble characters. The first of the three major characters is

present largely unchanged. He is not of course a king or lord, but John the

carpenter is obviously a man of at least some amount of wealth, evidenced by the

fact that he has a house that is big enough that he can rent rooms from. He is

also more present than the jealous husband of Marie. He does not lock his wife

up in a tower and stay far away from her. Unlike the husbands in Marie’s lais he

still has contact with his wife. The two sleep in the same bed (as we see when

Absalom tries to sing to Alison). John’s level of jealousy is not as great as

that of Marie’s husbands. When he awakens to hear Absalom singing to his wife he

does nothing. And as Absalom continues to try to woo John’s wife away from him

in his presence, he still does nothing. The king in Yonec kills his wife’s

lover, in Guigemare he at first attempts to do the same. He even allows a man,

Nicholas, to be near to his wife. The only man allowed close to Guigemare’s

lover is a priest who had "lost his lower members." Alison, Chaucer’s

imprisoned wife, is less of the ideal than her counterparts in Marie. Certainly

she is beautiful. But her is beauty is slightly flawed. She is "graceful

and slim like [a] weasel." By comparing her with a weasel Chaucer makes

Alison seem to be dirty and untrustworthy. Morally the comparison between Alison

and her counterparts in Marie is more confusing. Chaucer describes her as having

a "wanton eye." But her protestation seems to be more real, and

Nicholas seems to have gone to farther lengths to make her his lover. When

Nicholas professes his love to her Chaucer describes her reaction as such:

"[She] twisted her head away hard/ and said, ‘I won’t kiss you, on my

faith;/ why let me be,’ she said, ‘let be, Nicholas, or I’ll cry

"Help!" and "alas!"” (pg. 155) Alison seems quite adamantly

opposed to becoming Nicholas’ lover here, as opposed to the wife in Yonec, who

simply needs proof that her lover to be is Christian. Her refusals, and then

Nicholas only winning when he had "pushed her so hard" sounds, at

least to the modern reader, to be rape. But just lines later she swears a vow

with Nicholas. The shifts made by the women in Marie are not nearly so drastic.

At no point in Guigemare or Yonec do you get the feeling that the women will

refuse either of their lovers. Their protests are almost just for propriety

sake, the medieval version of playing hard to get. But in Alison’s refusal there

is no apparent support for her actions shortly thereafter. Possibly the reason

for Alison’s shifting actions is due to Chaucer’s image of women at the time, as

was argued against by Christine de Pisan. The figure of the rescuing lover is

divided into two parts by Chaucer. Pleasant Nicholas is the actual lover, but

Absalom is the stereotype of the courtly lover. Aside from the fact that he

actually becomes her lover Nicholas shares very little with the knights of Marie

de France. He is not especially handsome, being described as looking "as

meek as a maiden." Also unlike Guigemare certainly he is not chaste, nor is

this his first love. Chaucer writes: "he knew all about secret love and

pleasurable consolations." (pg. 151) This makes the love between Alison and

Nicholas seem to be less pure. Instead of Alison being the only woman for him,

as is Guigemare’s lover, she may just be another in a string of many. Absalom,

on the other hand, possesses many more of the qualities that one would expect

that a lover in a story about courtly love would have. He is described as being

handsome, or at least well groomed. He involves himself in what could be

described as "courtly" pursuits such as dancing (Chaucer says that he

knew twenty different steps) and can play two instruments. His attempts at

winning her love are more traditionally romantic. He sings under her window,

sends her gifts and even money to try to earn her love. Like Marie’s knights

Absalom is "afflicted" by love. Alison causes him to stay awake at

night. But he is also "a little squeamish/ about farting and prim in

speech." (pg. 157), not the most masculine of characters. The Miller views

John’s marriage to Alison as a mistake. He says: "People should marry

according to their condition,/ for youth and age are often at odds." (pg.

153) In considering what happens to the two lovers at the end of the story there

is no indication that Chaucer thought that what they were doing was wrong. It

would seem that if their actions where thought to be incorrect then they would

have been discovered, and some sort of misfortune would have resulted (to cite a

more extreme case, the Jews in the Prioresses Tale). But instead, of being

punished they get away with their affair. Absalom gets his revenge on Nicholas

with a hot poker, but John the carpenter seems to be the ultimate loser.

Nicholas and Alison get away with their night of passion, and he’s made to look

like a fool in front of the whole neighborhood. Class is the major difference

between the characters of Chaucer the Miller’s Tale and Marie’s lais. Marie’s

lovers are idealized, what each knight and lady should strive for. Chaucer’s

lovers are dirty, animal like and raucous. The Miller’s Tale is a parody of the

courtly love tradition. But the fact that Chaucer uses the lower classes as his

characters makes his story even more absurd. Instead of being wise they are


Chaucer, Geoffrey The Canterbury Tales trans. Kent & Constance Hieatt;

Bantam 1964 de France, Marie The Lais of Marie de France trans. Glyn Burgess

& Keith Busby; Penguin 1986


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