Chaucer’s Treatment Of Marriage In Miller’s Tale And The Wife Of Bath’s Prologue

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In the following essay I will look at Chaucer’s treatment of marriage within the Canterbury Tales, focusing in particular on the ‘Miller’s Tale’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’s prologue’ , by focusing on these tales, I will be able to look at the parallels and common themes of the tales. I will look at how the institute of marriage was portrayed in Chaucer’s day from representations of the ideal and conventional to values and attitudes toward topics such as; adultery, sex and divorce, which are exemplified in the tales I have chosen. This we will enable us to see Chaucer’s treatment of marriage.

Chaucer has a fascination with the opinions and interactions of a range of individuals, which includes their unique practices and social conventions, as demonstrated in the Canterbury Tales, where we see a broad and diverse range of people. One area of particular interest is that of marriage and the ideals and practices surrounding it, Chaucer shows us the good and bad, dealing with common themes of love, justice and relationships between men and women. Before looking at the individual tales, we need to look at Chaucer’s times and the social perceptions and norms of marriage, in order to establish a context to his work and see if there are underlying assumptions that may have influenced his treatment of the marriage. During Chaucer’s time, marriage would have, primarily been for financial and political gain, with women acting as peace weavers, to either secure their families political status or to create an advantage; by marrying well, women would ensure their long term financial security, whilst enabling the future political alliances, of her family. For men, marrying successfully would also provide suitable allies both financially and politically, it is important to remember that when a woman married, she would often relinquish all rights to her finances. Women of the peasantry would have enjoyed the benefits of marriage with more freedom, although the structure of betterment did still apply, Chaucer addresses the issues of his own patriarchal culture. In terms of marriage in the religious sphere, it was a sacred union, that saw the coming together of flesh and spirit, Christ and Church, the Churches views on marriage and women were highly influential. The Church believed that Eve was made from Adam’s rib, making women automatically more inferior, this meant that women of low birth, would generally suffer a life of drudgery, women of aristocratic birth, would be afforded an education within a nunnery or at home but were still viewed in terms of financial worth, Knuetze believed that; “The wife’s ideas about marriage are shown to coincide with ideas, which were developing in Chaucer’s society as a result of social and economic changes in fourteenth century England” , could this be why Chaucer chose to represent marriage through the eyes of a woman?.

‘The Wife of Bath’s prologue’ is a dramatic monologue, expressing ‘The wife of Bath’s’ views on men and marriage, it is one of the most detailed and enlightening accounts, illustrating her perceptions and presumptions, by giving her a voice, Chaucer changes the complexion of viewpoint; “The wife commands matrimony, she asserts the sovereignty of wife over husband. She gives several flings at the ill-natured remarks that the Clerks have made about women” . She represents the emergent group of women, who did not fit clearly into any one of the three estates, as although she is wealthy, she is not from an aristocratic background, her physical appearance creates some discord, as she wears red, which has connotations and associations to religious figures and aristocrats. The ‘Wife of Bath’s’ attitude toward marriage is complex, as despite her mockery and criticism of her many husbands, five in total, she does seem to be an advocator for marriage; “welcome to sixte” , she also proclaims herself an expert on marriage and being a wife; “Of which I am expert in al myn age” . ‘The Wife of Bath’s prologue’ is believed to have been inspired by the monologue- ‘La Vielle’ in the ‘Romande La Rose’ which details a young woman’s lectures on how to outwit men, the Wife of Bath shares the belief that a woman should have control of their husband; “An housbonde I wol have-I bwol nat lette-which shal be bothe my detour and my thral” , she goes on to discuss the woes of marriage, in a satirical manner that implies women are manipulative, which is highlighted in her communication with those that interrupt and challenge her; “you say that all we wives our vices hide. Till we are married” this ironic and traditional viewpoint forms part of the popular ‘Molestia Nuptarium’ or ‘Pains of marriage’, which initially at least portrays to the reader a multi-faceted relationship with marriage, a viewpoint Chaucer highlights in his dealing of the topic of marriage.

The prologue sees the beginning of the marriage group within the Canterbury Tales, where the relationship between man and woman and in particular man and wife is the chief concern and looks at the roles they play within the institute of marriage; “The Wife of Bath first sets forth her convictions in regard to matrimony and the experiences by which these convictions are fortified” . Chaucer explores, evaluates and implants the ideals of each of the speakers, which in turn illustrates their character and opinions, he satirizes the roles that women have in marriage, highlighting the little respect that they receive from their husbands, The Wife of Bath, openly opposes the concept of being controlled by a man, mockingly detailing the control she had over her older husbands; “A wys wyf, if that she kan hir good, shal beren hym on honed the cow is wood” . “The Wife is not sowing discord pilgrims, she is defending herself and her sex“ This suggests that’s the role of the Wife, is to offer an alternative perspective to the ideas of a submissive woman, for an evocative and alternative perspective, she vocalises her belief that chastity is not a requirement for a successful match and that marrying more than once is acceptable, these views can be seen in the following passage;

“Wher can ye seve in any manere age

That hve God defended marriage

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 woman to been oon,

But conseillyng is no comandement,

He putte it in oure owene juggement”

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This shows how she rebels against the conventional attitudes, feeling she had been chastised for her beliefs, by dramatizing the affirmation of the established culture in the actions and attitudes of the Wife of Bath, Chaucer negates these attitudes, this creates a stark contrast to the misogynistic views of the other more conventional speakers, as can be found in the Franklin’s Tale. The Wife of Bath, wants control over her situation and ultimately an argument in defence of her multiple marriages, believing that the woes of marriage were inflicted on the men in the marriage not the women, although she herself was rendered deaf in one ear from the physical abuse of her last husband; “And yet was he to me the mooste shrewe; That feele I on my ribbes al by rew” Again Chaucer challenges preconceptions and ideals of marriage.

Her liberal rebellion against male domination is reflected in her relationship with her first three husbands; “what sholde I taken keep hem for to plese, But it were for my profit and myn ese?” she represents marriage in terms of a barter system, nonchalantly referring to her fulfilment of sexual desire, for her economic survival; “Now wherewith sholde he make his paiement, if he ne used his sely instrument?” does her lack of respect for marriage, come from this belief that women are objects and commodities to be brought? She talks of her own desire for sexual fulfilment and her own happiness- eluding to this in reference to her fifth husband; “in oure bed he was so fresh and gay” . There are very distinct differences drawn between the concept of wifely duties and joyful love making, mocking those that believe sexual organs; “were maked for purgacioun/of uryne”

In contrast ‘The Miller’s Tale’ sees the foundation of marriage questioned, written in the fabliau genre- “A fabliau is a brief comic tale in verse, usually scurrilous and often scatological or obscene. The style is simple, vigorous and straightforward…the fabliau presents a lively image of everyday life among the middle and lower classes” The genre of the Fabliau tends toward the low brow humour, which is in keeping with the character of the Miller, who himself, is a caricature of vulgarity, described as a ‘Churl’ in the prologue “The millere is a cherl, ye knowe wel this” The tale depicts romantic situations within the expectations of the genre and portraying marriage and adultery, mocking the conventional attitudes of marriage, a parody of the Knight’s tale, which was an idealised representation of love; “The Miller, is not simply keeping to the bargain of telling a tale, but is more specifically providing an answer to the Knight’s view of things” . This automatically creates a discord with the perceptions of romantic love, reinforcing Chaucer’s challenge to societal expectations.

The Miller who is not idealised and is described in terms of a domestic sphere, recasting the characters and themes of the knight’s courtly romance, into the comedic version we see in the Miller’s Tale. The narrator warns us that we might find the Miller’s Tale offensive, and that anyone who is sensitive may, wish to choose a different tale, there are a number of the pilgrims that too would be assumed to take offence, the Reeve voices his concerns; “…it is a synne and eek a greet folye, to apeyren any man, or hym defame, And eek to bryngen wyves in swich fame” . Although both have philosophical dimensions, the Knight’s Tale is more concerned with moralising, the Miller’s Tale parodies this by offering the listener a lighter and more humorous alternative.

In the Prologue, the Miller proudly states that “One shouldn’t be too inquisitive in life / Either about God’s secrets or one’s wife. /God’s plenty all you could desire / better not enquire” which sees and expression of the attitude that men shouldn’t care about their wives. In the ‘Miller’s Tale’, Nicholas and Absolon, vie for the affections of Alison, who ultimately commits adultery, Alison makes a conscious decision to betray her husband, she is sexualised and described in detail, using animal imagery; ‘skittish colt’ , by mocking the concept of ‘courtly love’ and illustrating the relationship in terms of sexualised desire. The Miller's Tale is a story of adultery and demonstrates the consequences of the abuses of marriage, 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 ate 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…”

In contrast Alison’s husband demonstrates a dedication and love for his wife that supersedes his concern and awareness, at their age difference and her generally erratic disposition, the ‘Miller’s Tale’ draws a parallel to the ‘Wife of Bath’s Prologue’ as both illustrate the relationship of an older man with a younger woman and the associated pit falls that can come from such to ensure their ancestral line.

The character of the Miller and his subsequent tale is in keeping with expectations for his estate therefore each tale is told and is reflective in its values as its teller, by mirroring the language of the Knight he mocks his pretensions and belies his own base nature, which serves to highlight the disparity between their respective values, the Miller is a more complex character than described in the prologue, he embodies all the worst traits of the emergent mercantile class, does this representation through the eyes of a none idealised figure, tell us about Chaucer’s attitude and treatment of marriage? By sexualising the wives in the two tales, Chaucer addresses the sexual element of marriage, and to a degree feminism- Emelye in stark contrast is idealised and retains the virginal expectations of the time, there is no intention to marry Alisoun, it is not considered, it is more a question of achieving gratification, by winning her affection and ultimately the associated sexual gratification- means it is passion based rather than a question of love.

Absolon and Nicholas behaviour is the antithesis to the concept of the religious union, their base natures and desires, act as a stark contrast to that of her husband John, they mock and openly disregard the sanctity of marriage, is Chaucer showing us this, as a representation of marriage, or to warn those that may indulge in adultery of the potential pit falls? The situation that John finds himself in, within the Miller’s tale, has religious overtones, with strong reference to the floods in which Noah built the Ark- by aligning John with the religious figure is he elevating Johns position within the story? John’s belief in his marriage and religion are idealised views of both, which by association vilifies the behaviour of those involved in the affair and on a larger scale portrays them as the negative side of marriage.

Chaucer offers a broad range of views on marriage throughout the Canterbury Tales, his deals with marriage by creating multi-dimensional frameworks by which the reader can decide their own opinion, using a combination of idealised and vilified characters to offer up differing opinions, reflecting the complexities of the institute of marriage.

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Chaucer’s Treatment Of Marriage In Miller’s Tale And The Wife Of Bath’s Prologue. (2021, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from
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