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Courtly Love in Chaucer and Marie de France

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. 5)

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 foolish.

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