Attitudes Toward Marriage in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales demonstrate many different attitudes toward and perceptions of marriage. Some of these ideas are very traditional, such as that discussed in the Franklin's Tale, and others are more liberal such as the marriages portrayed in the Miller's and the Wife of Bath's Tales. While several of these tales are rather comical, they do indeed give us a representation of the attitudes toward marriage at that time in history.
D.W. Robertson, Jr. calls marriage "the solution to the problem of love, the force which directs the will which is in turn the source of moral action" (Andrew, 88). Marriage in Chaucer's time meant a union between spirit and flesh and was thus part of the marriage between Christ and the Church (88). The Canterbury Tales show many abuses of this sacred bond, as will be discussed below.
For example, the Miller's Tale is a story of adultery in which a lecherous clerk, a vain clerk and an old husband, whose outcome shows the consequences of their abuses of marriage, including Nicholas' interest in astrology and Absalon's refusal to accept offerings from the ladies, as well as the behaviors of both with regards to Alison. Still, Alison does what she wants, she takes Nicholas because she wants to, just as she ignores Absalon because she wants to. Lines 3290-5 of the Miller's Tale show Alison's blatant disrespect for her marriage to "Old John" and her planned deceit:
That she hir love hym graunted atte laste,
And swoor hir ooth, by seint Thomas of Kent
That she wol been at his comandement,
Whan that she may hir leyser wel espie.
"Myn housbonde is so ful of jalousie
That but ye wayte wel and been privee..."
On the contrary, Alison's husband loved her more than his own life, although he felt foolish for marrying her since she was so young and skittish. This led him to keep a close watch on her whenever possible. The Miller's main point in his story is that if a man gets what he wants from God or from his wife, he won't ask questions or become jealous; he is after his own sexual pleasure and doesn't concern himself with how his wife uses her "privetee":
An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf
Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf.
So he may fynde Goddes foyson there,
Of the remnant
nedeth nat enquere.
Stories like the Miller's Tale are still popular today, those which claim that jealousy and infidelity arise from marriages between old men and beautiful young women.
The Wife of Bath obviously has a rather carefree attitude toward marriage. She knows that the woes of marriage are not inflicted upon women, rather, women inflict these woes upon their husbands. In setting forth her views of marriage, however, she actually proves that the opposite is true:
"Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynough for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage..."
The Wife of Bath, in her Prologue, proves to her own satisfaction that the Miller's perception of marriage is correct, and then declares that it is indeed acceptable for a woman to marry more than once. She claims that chastity is not necessary for a successful marriage and that virginity is never even mentioned in the Bible, as is seen in the lengthy passage of lines 59-72 of her prologue:
Wher can ye seye in any manere age
That hye God defended mariage
By expres word? I praye yow, telleth me.
Or where comanded he virginitee?
I woot as wel as ye, it is no drede,
Th'apostl, whan he speketh of maydenhede,
He seyde that precept therof hadde he noon:
Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
But conseillyng is no comandement.
He putte it in oure owene juggement.
For hadde God comanded maydenhede
Thanne hadde he dampned wedding with the dede;
And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe,
Virginitee, thanne whereof sholde it...
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