With consummate sophistication, courtly love idealizes the vice of lust as a beautiful sentiment and spiritual longing that only the so-called holy gift of “love” can satisfy. Chaucer’s satire on innovative theories of marriage and the heresy of courtly love validates the wisdom of the Church’s teaching on hierarchy, fidelity, and indissolubility.

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Mitchell Kalpakgian, as he considers courtly love, as depicted in Chaucer’s “The Franklin’s Tale,” and in marital love as taught by the Church. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

The great books or classics of Western civilization reflect the enduring ideals and universal truths that represent a Perennial Philosophy, that is, the sum of the world’s accumulated wisdom over the ages that establishes a living tradition of moral standards and civilized customs. This Perennial Philosophy has enjoyed preservation and continuity from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to Vergil’s Aeneid to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Shakespeare’s plays. Other great writers who have transmitted this worldview and upheld this classical-Christian tradition include, to name a few, Jonathan Swift, Dr. Johnson, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens. The classics of literature always provide a standard of comparison to measure the new with the old and recognize the way things ought to be as opposed to the way they are—what Russell Kirk called “the normative consciousness.”

Although the Perennial Philosophy has endured throughout the ages and passed the test of time, in every historical period it suffers attacks from the heretical, radical, or untraditional ideas of prominent writers or thinkers who substitute a lie for the truth, a novel theory for established knowledge, or a revolutionary idea for common sense. For example, Chaucer’s “The Franklin’s Tale” depicts the heresy of courtly love that challenges Christian teaching about love and marriage. Shakespeare’s Macbeth portrays the objective nature of conscience and the reality of natural law that combats Montaigne’s subjective view of conscience and denial of natural law in “On Repentance” where he writes “I rarely repent… my conscience is content with itself, not as the conscience of an angel or a horse, but as the conscience of a man.” Dr. Johnson’s work exposes the fallacies of eighteenth-century thought like primitivism that glorified the Noble Savage and oversimplified the pursuit of human happiness with formulas like “Return to Nature.” Jane Austen’s novels present the world of difference between the conventional views of marriage in her age (“a proper match”) that gave priority to economic considerations and social connections as opposed to the timeless truths about true love that stress moral excellence, common ideals, and real attraction—the convergence of “sense and sensibility” to cite the title of one of her novels.

In Chaucer’s “The Franklin’s Tale,” Arveragus and Dorigen invent their own vows of marriage to replace the traditional Christian promises of matrimony that require husbands to love their wives and wives to obey their husbands. They agree to eliminate authority and hierarchy in their relationship to prevent all form of strife and argument.

They imagine their novel approach to marriage offers a more enlightened view than outdated traditional ideas. In public Arveragus will act with sovereignty as the head of the family, but in private neither husband nor wife can restrict the freedom of the other:

He’d never assert the slightest mastery,
Or oppose her will, or show his jealousy,
But simply obey her, and follow along in her dust
(As any lover, with his lady, must),
Except the title of lordship must be in his name….

Thus marriage does not bind Arveragus and Dorigen to one another in the oneness of marriage but grants to both unlimited freedom without special commitments to the other spouse. According to their pact, they will avoid the battle of the sexes and all misunderstandings that ruin the harmony of marital bliss and will act as if “Love is completely free of slaves and masters.”

Sounding full of promise, this abstract theory of marriage, however, fails its first test and proves impractical. During the knight’s absence in war, Dorigen pines in loneliness and fear for the safety of her lord. Diverted by her friends to join them in merriment and pastimes, Dorigen captures the heart of the courtly lover Aurelius who knows of Dorigen’s marriage but pleads for her hand in love lest he suffer and die of a broken heart:

Madame, have pity on my wounds, so sharp
And painful. A word from you can save or kill me….
Have mercy, O sweet one, or I will surely die.”

Medieval courtly love views married love as prosaic, unromantic, and boring, lacking the mystique of erotic passion and the heightened intrigue of assignation that it finds only in forbidden, adulterous relationships as depicted in the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere.

While Dorigen resists the advances of Aurelius’s unsolicited love, she does not absolutely refuse his proposition, teasingly promising that she will requite his love if he can remove all the rocks from the shores of England to assure her husband’s safe homecoming. Vowing fidelity to her husband but qualifying her refusal, Dorigen, like a sentimentalist with false compassion, apologizes for her rejection of the courtly lover’s bleeding heart, tempering her answer with a coy suggestion. Moved by his sorrow, she agrees to love him on one condition she regards as impossible: “The day that all along this coast and plain / You take away those boulders rock by rock,” she promises. “Then I will love you best of any man.” In Dorigen’s eyes she is only appeasing Aurelius with a far-fetched promise she never expects to fulfill. Nevertheless, with the trickery of a magician who covers the rocks with the high tides and gives the illusion of disappearance, the courtly lover completes his task and expects the reward of Dorigen’s love. Aghast at the consequences of her rash promise, Dorigen suffers the greatest crisis of her married life, fearing that either death or dishonor will be her tragic fate.

Suffering inconsolable sorrow and pondering suicide, Dorigen’s strange behavior and emotional stress upset her husband who finally seeks some explanation for her excessive grief. In hearing of her foolish promise to Aurelius, he, unbelievably, has no reactions of anger or jealousy, comforting his wife with gentle words that carry no reproof: “And is there nothing else, my dear, but this?” He reasons that honor requires Dorigen to keep her ridiculous promise of adultery to a philanderer rather than honor her marital vows, insisting “You’ll keep the oath you’ve sworn, now by my faith!” and “An oath is the noblest thing a man can honor.”

Thus Chaucer exposes the imprudence of Arveragus and Dorigen’s eccentric theory of marriage that presumes to eliminate marital conflicts by renouncing the hierarchy of marriage to achieve perfect equality and total freedom. The couple who enter such an agreement do not marry for love but for reputation and respectability as in the case of Arveragus who insists on the appearance of lordship without the moral obligation of marriage to defend his wife from courtly lovers and to condemn the evil of adultery. Dorigen shows the same degree of folly. She imagines that their arrangement of harmonious marriage with complete autonomy for both spouses poses no dangers.

Chaucer’s satire on innovative theories of marriage and the heresy of courtly love, then, validates the wisdom of the Church’s teaching on hierarchy, fidelity, and indissolubility.

A husband and wife in their roles as the head and the heart of a family do not share identical roles. A husband has a right to expect the fidelity of his wife, and the wife has a right to expect the protection and care of her husband. The mutual giving and receiving of love in Christian marriage is not exactly equal in the sense of sameness, quality, or degree but generous, charitable, and sacrificing as husband and wife serve one another.

In the marital agreement of Arveragus and Dorigen, man and woman are not helpmates who cooperate to create a loving relationship but autonomous individualists who live independent lives that absolve them of the responsibilities and duties of marriage. The two do not become one in body and soul, in mind and heart. Their theory of marriage is self-serving, welcoming the status and respectability of the marital state and the bliss of love’s delights, but renouncing the inevitable trials and tribulations of matrimony summarized in the familiar words of the vows: for richer and for poorer, for better or for worse; in sickness and in health. The lord and lady’s love contract renounces love’s crosses, and their marriage fails its first test: Dorigen cannot firmly say “No” with passion and conviction and reject Aurelius’s flattering compliments, and Arveragus—to circumvent all complications and confrontations caused by Dorigen’s foolish promise—allows infidelity, provided that the adulterous affair remain private and avoid scandal. They expect marriage always to be easy, accommodating, and expedient with no demands, problems, or sufferings of any kind. They enjoy a “no fault” marriage.

Exposing nonsense, Chaucer also unmasks the falsehood of courtly love that poses as a religion with Aurelius’s appeals to Dorigen’s “mercy” and “pity” and with prayers to Phoebus for a “miracle” to make the rocks disappear: “Lord Phoebus, see the tears run down my cheek, /And let my sorrows and pains awake compassion.” False compassion and sentimentalism pose as true love, and courtly lovers rationalize the deadly sins of lust and adultery in the name of the deities who wound them with arrows erotic passion that inflict the suffering of unrequited love, an uncontrollable desire that demands “grace” from the lady or a miracle from a god. With consummate sophistication, courtly love idealizes the vice of lust as a beautiful sentiment and spiritual longing that only the so-called holy gift of “love” can satisfy.

For Chaucer only the Church’s traditional teaching presents the whole truth of marriage. It offers the weight of authority, the realism of human experience, and the greatest possibility for the happiness of husband and wife. The nature of marriage remains unchangeable, and no alternative theory or experimental relationship equals the vow of fidelity, the gift of self, and the fact of indissolubility. As modern ideas about love fantasize about the equivalence of cohabitation and marriage and equate same-sex union with traditional marriage, they fail to confront the tragic consequences of the sentimental love and idealized exaggerations of courtly love make lust look glamorous and confuse being sweet and nice with being giving and loving.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in August 2018.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The End of The Song” (1902) by Edmund Leighton (1852-1922), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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