Chaucer's Stance on Courtly Love

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Troubadours and courtly love spread to Northern France because of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Queen of France and Queen of England during mid-12th Century. Soon after the spread through France, the rules and principles of courtly love were developed.

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he makes a mockery of several popular traditions, one being that of courtly love. While medieval French poem "Romance of the Rose" is courtly love perfectly told, some critics say that Chaucer grew tired of telling these same tales. Rather than being a miserable about his plight, he wrote tales of courtly love, but he made fun of them subtle ways so as not to offend any of his listeners.

George William Dodd once argued that this tactic of Chaucer’s is what made him such a masterful writer. "The Knight’s Tale" seems to a perfect story of chivalry and courtly love, but once you delve deeper into the story, you see that Chaucer is mocking those very same ideals.

"The Miller’s Tale" is a clear and complete mockery of courtly love, but the comedy in it is what kept audiences in his era from growing irritated and offended by it.

"The Franklin’s Tale"; on the other hand, seems to be an ideal story, and it is. It’s an ideal story about an ideal marriage, which is in complete opposition to the ideals of courtly love. After going through each tale, it seems fair to argue that Chaucer used his characters to voice his own low opinions of courtly love.

On the surface, "The Knight’s Tale" looks as if it’s a tale that’s praising courtly love. It seems to have all the elements of chivalry and gentilesse, but as Victoria Wickham wrote in her 2007 review "Chaucer's Prioress", “Chaucer is clearly making fun of the notions of chivalry and courtly love” (7) in this tale.

As modern-day readers, we see that the mockery begins from the first moment that Arcite and Palamon lay eyes on Emelye, and we see divine love parodied in Palamon's initial response to Emelye. Palamon and Arcite both compare their love for Emelye to their love for God, which is exactly where Chaucer's mockery lies. Considering that these tales were written in the Middle Ages, it is widely recognized by critics that it would have been considered indecent and irreverent to match lust with divinity. Using religious terminology in their praises for Emelye is Chaucer’s first jab at courtly love.

Arcite and Palamon both cry and wail over Emelye, which is a major aspect of courtly love. The problem was that Emelye never heard there cries in Part One of the tale. When Arcite expresses his love for Emelye, Palamon is the one who hears it. It’s almost like Arcite is revealing himself to Palamon. That scene alone is a mockery in and of itself. The second aspect of the tale which shows that Chaucer is mocking courtly love is the fact that Arcite and Palamon’s love for Emelye put them at war with each other. One major purpose of courtly love was to bring pleasure and happiness to someone’s life. By Chaucer putting to very close cousins against each other due to their love for the same girl shows that Chaucer believes courtly love is nothing but a trap, a false hope that drives humans mad.

Chaucer scholar, Edward Reiss, famously compared these jabs to what he believed to be another mockery of courtly love; the Temple of Venus. The Temple of Venus is similar to both the Temple of Mars and the Temple of Diana, in that they show how men have been destroyed in wars because of love. Love is desire that leads to the fall of man. Reiss once opined that “Chaucer’s picture of it in "The Knight’s Tale" amply illustrates the medieval commonplace that worldly desire leads to mans death”. It appears that Chaucer was of the belief that love and marriage only work if physical desires are put aside in order to achieve true love. Once a couple becomes old, physical desires will perish along with their youth. What should be left is a strong emotional bond.

Another mockery in the tale is that neither Arcite nor Palamon have ever spoken to Emelye. For a while, she really does not know that they exist. Chaucer is presenting a story line where the two male lovers don’t even know if the lady wants either of them back. This is a mockery because the ideal is called courtly love, not unrequited love. Readers find out that Emelye doesn’t want either of the men, she wants to remain a virgin. The fact that Emelye is being forced to marry presents another mockery, because Chaucer is showing the unhappiness that courtly love and its inherent tension bring to a person. To make matters worse, and to add to the hilarity of the tale, there is a strong chance that Emelye may not even be a woman. She may be just a young girl, and Arcite’s loneliness could have been what led him to his obsession over her.

In Part Four of the tale, a simple duel over a woman becomes a huge spectacle, another tool Chaucer employs to mock the ideal he had grown so tired of writing about. The duel becomes so big that a couple of kings from foreign nations are in the audience watching. Chaucer is making Arcite and Palamon’s love battle a form of entertainment rather than a noble act. By the end of the tale, after Arcite wins, he is killed in an earthquake. Before he dies, he gives Emelye to Palamon. This notion of passing along a lover is completely against courtly love ideals, and Chaucer is showing the lack of depth in Arcite’s feelings for Emelye. It almost feels like the duel was for personal gain rather than purely being for the gain of a lady’s heart. If it was solely for Emelye, then how could Arcite just forget about his fight with Palamon and give his lady away so easily?

In "The Miller’s Tale", Chaucer isn’t so subtle about mocking the traditions of courtly love. One of the ways that we see mockery in this tale is through the ways that Nicholas and Absolom approach Alisoun. Nicholas and Absolom are clear opposites in their ways. Absolom follows the rules of courtly love to the tee. He is described as a courteous man who

“Hath in his herte swich a love-longynge/

That of no wyf took he noon offrynge” (3349-51).

Abosolom puts Alisoun on a pedestal. He would take his guitar and sing to her like the troubadours did, and in line 3376, he swears to be her servant and submits to her. According to literary critic George William Dodd, in the beginning of a one-sided romance, the symptoms were suffering or sickness, sleeplessness, confusion and loss of words in the lady’s presence, trembling and fear to offend the lady, and the fear that someone will find out the truth.

In line 3372, we see that Absolom falls into a sorrowful state, pining away for his lady. He only sings to Alisoun at night so as not to be seen by her husband. Chaucer takes his parody one step further by describing Absolom in a feminine manner. It has been widely noted that he is the only character that Chaucer describes as being "lovely". The adjective “lovely” was supposed to be a term only used for Chaucer’s women.

Nicholas on the other hand is far less noble. He orders Alisoun to be his love when he grabs her thigh and says “Lemman, love me al atones” (3280). Nicholas’ charm doesn’t lie in his romanticism; it lies in his intelligence and charisma. Nicholas really isn’t a charming man, but he is smart, witty, and opportunistic, and he's incredibly skilled at using these qualities to get what he wants, which is usually some sort of sexual gratification. Nicholas devises plans to trick Alisoun’s husband so that they can spend a night together. One important issue that Donaldson tackles is the third principle of courtly love, which is that love must be secret. The main reason this was a principle was because things would get ugly if the husband ever found out. Nicholas’ master plan wasn’t just a way for him to be with Alisoun for one night, it was also a way of humiliating her husband. Many critics have interpreted Nicholas’ plan as a way to make adultery more pleasurable for himself, believing it to be more of an indulgence than a way of protecting Alisoun. By misusing one of the principles of courtly love, Chaucer is proving its inherent fallacies.

"The Miller’s Tale" is riddled with this kind of misuse. Many biblical references are made in the tale and this presents a certain divine and unearthly element, but Chaucer experts have written that this divinity is overshadowed by the lust that his characters have, because every lover is out for his/herself. In the end, readers witness divinity meeting human nature, with all its weakness and flaws.

"The Miller's Tale" presents love as heedless. While the two male lovers contrast in their ways, Alisoun’s character mocks courtly love the most. She acts virtuous at the very beginning of the tale"

“She was a primrose, a pig’s eye/

For any lord to lay in his bed/

Or yet for any good yeoman to wed” (3268-70).

At first she refuses Nicholas and it seems as if she’s pious and loyal. Almost immediately after rejecting Nicholas; however, she submits to him. Courtly love never allowed for women to submit to men, but Alisoun did so, and she did so rather quickly.

In lines 3294-7, Alisoun reinstates the rules of courtly love by explaining that her husband is very jealous and can’t know about the affair between her and Nicholas. By the end of the tale, the only character who properly follows the courtly rules ends up embarrassed and alone.

Notice how different the depictions are from the rest of the tales

While some critics argue that Chaucer went back and forth between mockery and praise in order to keep his tales interesting, "The Franklin’s Tale" subtly criticizes courtly love and idealizes marriage. Marriage, in Chaucer’s time, was usually arranged and done purely for financial purposes rather than love. For this reason, courtly love existed in order to keep individuals pleased. The idea of a good and equal marriage where neither party submits would be in direct opposition to the ideals of courtly love. Chaucer seems to voice his personal opposition through his characters, Arviragus and Dorigen.

Before Arviragus and Dorigen get married, Arviragus is a traditional knight. He submits himself to Dorigen and cries over her until she agrees to marry him. Traditionally, once a couple got married, the relationship became monotonous and the man took his place as the master. Once Arviragus and Dorigen get married, rather than taking control, Arviragus gives her the power in the relationship. He does this in order to

“lede the moore in blisse his lyves” (744).

Rather than taking her spot on the pedestal, Dorigen comes down and vows to keep the marriage equal. The Franklin then goes on to express his views on marriage. He says,

“That freendes everych oother moot obeye/

If they wol longe holden compaignye/

Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye/

When maistrie comth, the God of Love anon/

Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon” (762-6).

The Franklin also states in lines 768-70 that both men and women desire liberty. Through the Franklin’s speech, readers experience marriage through Chaucer's point of view, because ultimately, Chaucer is the voice behind the Franklin.

Another aspect of the tale is that a huge part of Arviragus and Dorigen’s marriage is based on truth. Truth, in this tale, leads to integrity. Integrity was unheard of in courtly love because courtly love was all about sneaking around. Instead of hiding her promise to Aurelius, Dorigen tells Arviragus about it. This form of open honesty was not compatible with courtly love ideals, and to top it all off, Dorigen doesn’t even want to sleep with Aurelius. She only makes this promise in order to save her husband.

The fact that Dorigen was completely satisfied and happy in her marriage was unheard of in the era of courtly love. By Chaucer depicting a successful and solid marriage between Arviragus and Dorigen, he proves that courtly love is a false idol. None of the characters in "The Franklin’s Tale" are mocked because none of them are true courtly lovers. In essence, courtly love is criticized through the idealization of marriage.

Throughout Canterbury Tales, readers witness the ridiculing of an idealized tradition. Chaucer either continuously misuses or subtly makes fun of the courtly principles laid out by Andreas Cappellanus, but in a time where this convention was still highly revered, the fact that Chaucer was able to mock courtly love without offending his audiences not only shows that he was a forward thinker, but it also proves just how brilliant of writer he truly was.