attitudes of marriage in the cantebury tales

Attitudes of marriage in
Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

Krupa Desai
Period 3-English H IV
Ms. Saddik
May 24, 1999


Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, demonstrate many different attitudes and perceptions
towards marriage. Some of these ideas are very traditional, such as that illustrated in the Franklin’s Tale. On the other hand, other tales present a liberal view, 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 depict the attitudes towards 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" (Robertson, 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" (Bennett, 113). The Canterbury Tales show many abuses of this sacred bond, as will be discussed below.
One example of corruption in marriage is The Miller’s Tale. This tale includes a lecherous clerk, a vain clerk, and an old man entangled in a web of deceit and adultery construed by a married women. It is obvious in this story that almost each of these characters show complete disregard to the institution of marriage. The two men, Nicholas and Absalon, both try to engage in adulterous affairs with Alison, the old man’s wife. Both of the men are guilty of trying to seduce Alison, which shows their indifference towards the sanctions and laws of marriage. Still Alison, who should be the wiser, also breaks the laws of marriage. She takes Nicholas because she wants to, just as she ignores Absalon because she wants to. Lines 104-


109 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 commandment,
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, in turn, led him to keep a close watch on her whenever possible. The Miller’s main point in his story is that if a man obtains what he wants from God or from his wife, he won’t ask questions or become jealous. Apparently the miller feels that the male is after his own sexual pleasure and doesn’t concern himself with how his wife uses her "privetee" as pointed out in lines 55-58:

"An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf
Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf.
So he may fynde Goddes foyson there,
Of the remenant nedeth nat enquere."

Stories like the Miller’s tale are still popular in today’s society, those which claim that jealousy and infidelity arise from marriages between old men and beautiful young women.


Another story which contains a rather liberal point of view of marriage is The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The wife of bath clearly has a carefree attitude towards marriage. She knows that the woes of marriage are now 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 in lines 1-3 in her prologue:

"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. She also claimed 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 percept therof hadde he noon:
Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
But consellyng is