Term Paper: British Literature Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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British Literature

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are an almost complete portrayal of the society and the modes of thinking of the Late Middle Ages in England, through the great number of characters and the different tales they recount on their way to a pilgrimage. Both the characters and the tales are representative for Chaucer's epoch and their variety manages to cover a great number of aspects of life in the Middle Ages. On the theme of love, and the relationships between women and men, Chaucer was inspired by many of the most popular writings in his time, both the ancient ones, like Ovid, or more recent like Theophrastus, the correspondence between Heloise and Abelard or Guillaume de Lorris' The Romance of the Rose.

The Romance of the Rose was a very well-known poem of the time, begun by the French Guillaume de Lorris and continued by Jean de Meun, who actually added the greatest part of it, of about eighteen thousand verses. As the title suggests, the poem is an allegory in which a young man falls in love with a rose, a symbol of the woman. Chaucer was very familiar with the text, as he had translated the poem from French, and the influence of many of the ideas about love as presented in The Romance of the Rose is felt throughout The Canterbury Tales. Thus, obvious parallels can be drawn between the Old Woman's advice to Bel Acueil, a presumably a young woman, although she is addressed as a young man because of her name, and the Wife of Bath's prologue to her tale.

However, although Chaucer follows many of the ideas in The Romance of the Rose, critics have noticed that he actually departs many times from the ideas expressed in the French poem. The main subject of the two episodes, the Wife of Bath's prologue and the Old Woman's advice, is that of courtly love, with an emphasis on the behavior of both men and women in their relationships to one another. The form in which these ideas are introduced, both in Chaucer's text and in The Romance of the Rose, is that of a series of tirades coming either from the speaker directly or with the speaker as intermediary, addressed by women to men or by men to women. There is thus, a ceaseless contention between women and men, in which both sides make accusations, mainly about betrayal and fickleness in love.

On the surface, the Wife of Bath's prologue in Chaucer is very similar to the advice the old woman gives in The Romance of the Rose. Both speeches are made by old women, who talk about their pasts and mainly about their many love-affairs. One difference between the two speeches would be that the woman in The Romance of the Rose speaks so as to give advice to the younger one on how to behave in a love relationship, while the Wife of Bath seems to speak in defense of her own character and of the five marriages she has had.

It is very important to notice that both texts, in tune with Medieval tradition, see courtly love as an art, that is as a specific form of human behavior, for the practice of which many skills and purposeful designs are needed. Love is not perceived as a mere state of the soul, its particularities lie more in its outside frame, or in its performance:

Fair, gentle son, with your sweet, tender flesh, I would like to teach you the games of love, so that when you have learned them, you will not be deceived. Shape yourself according to my art, for no one who is not well informed will be able to get through without some loss. Now make sure you listen and pay attention and commit everything to memory, for I know all about it."

The advice that the Old Woman gives in The Romance of the Rose treats specifically of the way in which love should be performed, so that it might be to the young woman's best interest. The discourse she puts forth seems to be a feminist one, a sort of reply to the antifeminist ideas uttered by the Jealous Husband, in another famous episode from The Romance, and which has also been source of inspiration for Chaucer.

The Old Woman's discourse starts out with the confession that she speaks from experience, not having been to the "School of Love," the same idea with which the Wife of Bath begins her own speech.

Next, the woman speaks about the delights and pleasures that love offers, and advises the young woman to take advantage of her charms while the thing is still possible. Again, love is seen as a series of games or playful encounters between men and women, which should be enjoyed and tasted to the full, but which can also be very cruel and dangerous if the proper skills needed for them are not learned.

Next there follow a few advices on a woman's appropriate behavior in society and the different things she needs so as to make she maintains her gracefulness at all times. These pieces of advice also point to the idea that love is seen like a game in which there is much pretending and in which women and men have to play specific roles. The advice is all directed to young women and the means by which they might deceive men, for example, according to the Old Woman, they should visit as many rich men as possible, while deluding each of them that he is the only one receiving their favor:

It is good to frequent rich men if their hearts are not mean and miserly and if you are skilled at fleecing them. Fair Welcome may attract as many of them as he likes, provided he gives each to understand that he would not take any other lover for a thousand marks in fine powdered gold[...]"

The most important part of the advice however, and the one that was especially elaborated by Chaucer, is that in which the Old Woman advocates that in performing all these love tricks, women do nothing more than to follow nature, instead of following the moral laws that have been added only as outward limitations to their behavior:

Moreover, women are born free; the law has bound them by taking away from them the freedoms Nature had given them. For Nature, if we apply our minds to the question, is not so stupid as to create Marote simply for Robichon, nor Robichon for Mariete or for Agnes or for Perrete; on the contrary, fair son, you may be sure that she has made all women for all men and all men for all women, every woman common to every man and every man to every woman."

To support the idea of the naturalness of this fickle behavior of women, the Old Woman uses a well-known motive which has been borrowed from Boethius: the woman in society is like a bird in the cage, that will take advantage of the first opportunity to flee and regain its freedom:

When a bird from the green woodland is taken and put in a cage, where he is most carefully and delicately cared for, and sings for the rest of his life with a joyful heart, or so you think, he still longs for the leafy wood which it was his nature to love, and would like to be in the trees, however well fed he may be. It is his constant thought and endeavour to recover his freedom."

The Wife of Bath's discourse makes very similar statements about the art of love. Also, as it shall be seen, Chaucer's text is more complex on this point, both in terms of the ideas it sets forth and in its form. As Jill Mann has observed in her critical study entitled Feminizing Chaucer, it is quite clear that the text of the Romance of the Rose stays within the realm of anti-feminist tradition practiced by most authors when discussing courtly love. Although the discourse of the Old Woman might seem feminist in advocating freedom and acting on natural impulses for women, it quite obvious that the woman only voices men's ideas about how women think and act. Chaucer however, although without excluding the antifeminist ideas from his texts, puts them in a different light. Both in the Wife of Bath's prologue and in other texts from the Canterbury tales, he departs from the traditional view of the woman as lustful and fickle, and purports that the fickleness in love is due to a general human tendency for change and novelty, and that this tendency is characteristic of both man and woman:

What Chaucer adds to his Boethian source is an identification of man's 'propre kynde' as 'newefangelnesse', the ineradicable movement towards change and 'novelries'. It is this same impulse towards 'a newe' that Dido had identified as the source of men's betrayal… [END OF PREVIEW]

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