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Courtly Love in The Canterbury Tales

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1791 words Published: 6th Jun 2017

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In all periods, in all forms of literature, love has always found its place within the words of its authors. The ideas and meanings readers create about love can change drastically from one reading of a text to another. However, it is safe to say that when reading a tale of courtly love, the type of love is immediately recognizable thanks to the peculiar behaviour, desires, and extreme heartache of the characters. The experience of love the characters feel is put to an extreme that is unrecognizable to what we know as modern day love. Almost all of the Canterbury Tales contain love and lovers who act upon the conventions and standards of courtly love. Chaucer was greatly influenced by the courtly romance of his predecessors. In this paper I intend to give a brief history of courtly love and explore the influences of courtly love on Chaucer and how it is echoed within his Canterbury Tales.

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It is difficult to define courtly love when scholars such as C.S Lewis, D.W Robertson, E.Talbot Donaldson and Gaston Paris disagree with both the nature and origin of it. Alexander J. Denomy puts it nicely as he defines courtly love as “a type of sensual love and what distinguishes it from other forms of sexual love, from mere passion, from so-called platonic love, from married love, is its purpose or motive, its formal object, namely, the lover’s progress and growth in natural goodness, merit, and worth.” Courtly love contains an important social component. In the poetry of the troubadours, social promotion is an important theme, particularly when it comes to love. William of Poitriers is the highest of nobility as he is the first troubadour. He proclaimed that love can transform a courtly man into a churl, and a churl into a courtly man. The troubadours find it very important that the woman whose love they seek must be of some nobility, “at the same time, they claim that love, though unrequited, makes them better, inspiring in them an emulation of the beloved through which they hope to become worthy of the elevated love for which they long” (Manson 239-240).

Courtly love is a highly ritualized practice. Generally, courtly love is practiced only between a woman and a man of noble status who are not married. Usually the characters would be a squire, or a knight and a woman with an aristocratic background. Courtly love is seen as ideal and above intercourse. True love was seen to only exist outside of marriages. Marriages had nothing to do with love as they were arranged more often than not. Having a wife was looked at the same way as owning another piece of property to a husband. The medieval teaching of marriage focused on Pagan and Christian views. The first purpose of marriage is to multiply the human race; the second purpose of marriage is to avoid fornication. Kelly states that “other motives were admissible, too, especially the nobler ones of peace-making or the encouragement of love between in-laws, but also less noble ones of desire for the intended’s beauty or wealth…mutual love between the spouses is notably absent from their lists” (Kelly pg 247).

In the common society of the medieval world there is ordinary love. Some of Chaucer’s tales are of ordinary love; these tales are called “fabliaux”. It is easy for one to spot fabliaux from a courtly love tale as the characters in fabliaux’s react to lust; they react to love in its most non complex state, its natural state. All forms of love begin with lust, but to be able to master the art of courtly love, one must take themselves out of the simple state of lust and take it to a superior extremely sensual state of love; its power is elevated to a point of worship. In order to achieve this sense of love the man has to endure “suffering” for the love he seeks. After he goes through the suffering he is able to rise above the lust and begin to “serve” the women with courageous deeds and beautiful language.

An example of one of Chaucer’s fabliaux’s is The Millers Tale. This tale is lusty and vulgar yet the characters, although somewhat immoral, have more depth and personality than the characters in The Knights Tale. Above I have noted that marriage is not typically placed in with courtly love tradition, although in his book The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis states that adultery does have its place in courtly love. He suggests that “a wife is no superior. As the wife of another, above all as the wife of a great lord, she may be queen of beauty and love…but as your own wife, for whom you have bargained with her father, she sinks at once from a lady to a mere woman” (36-27). Chaucer plays upon this idea in The Millers Tale. It is a criticism of courtly tradition, it is similar to The Franklins Tale and The Merchants Tale in that it is about a young squire who cuckolds another mans wife and enters into an affair. Even though it is not traditional for courtly love to be associated with a married woman both The Franklins Tale and The Merchants tale use this idea of stealing a mans wife. Both of the young squires, Damian and Aurelius covet another mans wife, but of course only one commits adultery.

On the other hand, The Knights Tale is not at all fabliaux and represents much of the courtly love tradition. Arcite and Palamon are both characters of noble status, and they are the best and ideal of their type. Chaucer does a wonderful job glorifying his characters to perfection, he makes certain that the reader knows how noble, courageous, and beautiful his characters are, “that gretter was ther noon under the sonne” (863). These characters embody the standards of courtly love; Arcite suffers extreme love pains for Emelye as he has his freedom but does not have access to her. Arcite’s anguish is so great because he cannot see Emelye that it physically changes him. Palamon can not even recognize him. It is made quiet clear that there has never been anyone to feel the pains of love as bad as what Arcite felt. Theseus even acknowledges the extremes of “love-sickness” when he asks “who may been a fool but if he love?” (1799). Palamon also suffers love pains for Emelye as although he can see her through bars, he will never be able to be with her, he will never be able to touch her. Both men suffer for her, and later in the tale both men perform courageous deeds when they decide to fight each other for the chance of being with Emelye. The language in The Knights Tale is quiet extreme and takes every event to a heightened level. Theseus builds a battlefield for the two knights to battle on and he refers to it as “a noble theatre as it was / I dar wel seyen in this world ther nas” (1885-1886). Thus further embodying the greatness of courtly love.

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Andreas Capellanus was surely an influence for Chaucer when it comes to courtly love. “De Arte Honeste Amandi” is essentially a hand book on how to love like a courtier written by Capellanus. “Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of an excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other…”(Capellanus 40). First is the sexual desire, and then is the excessive meditation on the women’s beauty which makes the lover rise above his lust to a realm of innocent passion that makes only the embrace of the love he seeks meaningful. Throughout Capellanus’s hand book on how to love like a courtier are examples of problems in which lovers know no answers. One example of a situation is, if a lover dies, how long one must wait until she may seek a new love (Capellanus 49). The answer is two years. Chaucer uses this span of two years in The Franklins Tale, and it strikingly resembles that of which is read in Capellanus’s “De Arte Honeste Amandi”. In The Franklins Tale Arvergus is sent away for two years on duty. The squire Aurelius has loved Dorigen for two years, and he prays to the gods that the waters stay higher than the rocks for two years, and suffers love sickness for two years. As well, after two years of Dorigens husband beings away she considers having an affair.

Another influence on Chaucer’s writing was Guillaume de Lorris’ Le Roman de la Rose. In this love affair the protagonist greatly suffers for his love. He shows all of the symptoms of love-sickness, as well he listens to the commands given to him by the god of Love. The commands become expected for the young knights in following works of courtly love. Many of Chaucer’s concepts in The Canterbury Tales derived from the courtly ideas in the Rose. An example of how the rose is interrelated with Chaucer’s work is how The Franklins Tale and The Knights Tale resemble it. In the poem a young man is wandering in a garden. He leans over and looks into a well of narcissus; this glance into the well causes him to fall in love with the first thing he sets his eyes upon. When they young lover sees a rose bud, cupid shoots an arrow at him; it enters though his eye and penetrates his heart. The young man removes the shaft from his eye but he will forever have the arrow head lodged into his heart. This idea of love at first sight has held its own place in literature throughout centuries. Chaucer mirrors this representation of an arrow in the heart in The Franklins Tale and The Knights Tale. Aurelius suffers from love, although he appears fine on the outside ” a keen arrow stuck within his soul / A wound that’s only surface-healed can be / A perilous thing, you know in surgery / unless the arrowhead be taken out” (435-438). In The Knights Tale Palamon is struck by love through the eye, “I have been hurt this moment through they eye, / Into my heart” (42-43). In both cases the wounded lovers are inflicted of the gods love, and both will suffer for the one they love.

The medieval period in English Literature spends a lot of time being concerned with love and lovers, surely more than any other period. Almost every one of The Canterbury Tales discusses love is some manifestation or another and almost all encounter lovers. “Chaucer was neither an enemy nor a companion of courtly love. With him the concept remained unchallenged, serviceable for dealing with love elegantly and useless for dealing with it seriously” (Eliason 15). He takes inspiration from authors before him and adds an element of courtly love into his own work that develops the idea with a new sense of creativity and intelligence.


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