There is an introduction to the Tale in which the Franklin praises the story told by the Squire, in particular his matchless “eloquence”, remarkable in one so young. This shows that the Franklin likes to keep well in with the aristocracy and admires rhetorical skills. The Squire has used the device of diminutio or self-deprecation and the Franklin will copy this in his turn. It is an affected modesty, intended to gain sympathy and, in this case, takes the form of claiming to be plain and blunt, incapable of fancy speech. It may be a false trick and the speaker may use many of the devices of which he says he is ignorant. The Franklin is a man of practical affairs, unsure of his status regarding those with titles, and will try to please and impress them even though he does not fully understand their ways.
He compares the Squire with his own son who seems to be the only snag in the man’s comfortable and cheerful way of life: he would swap valuable land worth twenty pounds a year for a son with the judgement of this youth. Despite the father’s scolding of his son, the lad continues to gamble and waste all his possessions, keeping poor company rather that that of gentlemen who might teach him the respected quality of “gentillesse” or noble ethics and behaviour. For some reason, this comment irritates the Host, possibly because the Franklin himself is not “gentil”, truly aristocratic, nor is the Host, or because he fails to realise his social standing. He rebukes the Franklin, disparaging “gentillesse” in a vulgar manner, using “thou” which was impolite at that time. The Host wants the contest to proceed quickly but the Franklin will get his revenge and tell a Tale about “gentillesse” as he believes in it as a quality. Meanwhile he replies with apologetic submission and hopes he will not displease people. He is polite, bourgeois, charming, complimentary to others and believes in the values of nobility and aristocratic conduct. We expect him to tell a Tale to satisfy gentlemen or women.
There is discussion amongst scholars as to whether or not Chaucer intended a “Marriage Group”, meaning that he wanted some Tales to form a debate about the nature of marriage. The main serious contenders would be The Wife of Bath, the Merchant, the Clerk and the Franklin whose story deals with both courtly love and a working marriage which avoids jealousy, domination or “maistrie” and favours tolerance and the couple’s understanding of each other. Yet the story has various themes or interests such as the importance of promises, irrational fears, Fate, reversals of fortune and female psychology.
The Franklin says he has choosen a known form for his Tale, the Breton lay, suitable for his character with its slightly old-fashioned atmosphere and its gentility. Magic was accepted as a feature of the Breton lay, though wondered at, and this explains its presence here. The plot has something in common with Boccaccio’s Il Filocolo but the differences are so great that it is not worth pursuing this comparison. Rather than examining sources it is profitable to analyse the Tale as it stands within the framework of the whole work.
More rewarding, therefore, is the idea that the Frankin has listened to the Wife of Bath with her robust feminism and confessions of misbehaviour and the Clerk with his Tale of the ultimate in submissive female conduct. In particular, he wants to answer the Merchant whose bitter story of marital deception seems to have struck him deeply. The main personalities are similar in that they are a knight, his wife and a squire and the setting in a beautiful garden is analagous but the wife is faithful and the meeting for adultery never fulfilled. The couple reach a resolution together and it would seem that the Franklin would like to please the titled pligrims with a warmer version of sexual relations which has no connection with a low-life fabliau as he is socially ambitious.
The Franklin’s Tale
In the very first lines of his story, the Franklin emphasises its pedigree as deriving from the lays of the “olde gentil” Bretons. “Gentil” is a strong word encompassing all the qualities denoted by nobility and he uses it as the third word to draw attention to it and please the aristocrats amongst the pilgrims. It is an appropriate choice for him as both the Tale and Teller are somewhat old-fashioned. He connects the lays with song and pleasure in reading and so seems to be about to concentrate on enjoyment rather than scandal or instruction.
He then excuses himself as a “burel” [plain, homely] man and asks them to forgive his blunt speech as he has never learned the arts of rhetoric as laid down by Cicero and must therefore talk in a “bare and pleyn” manner. The rules of rhetoric come from classical times and were admired in the Middle Ages, formulated by Geoffrey de Vinsauf in his Poetria Nova. Chaucer satirises this in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and so we may be sure that he is familiar with the precepts which are complex but may be broadly classified as methods of amplification or abbreviation of material for effect. However, this disclaimer by the Franklin is, in itself a rhetorical device, that ofdiminutio, and, when he expands on the matter in lines 10-19, he is using interpretatio as well as circumlocutio in the oblique reference to the haunt of the Muses, Parnassus. The “colours” of rhetoric were the techniques for embellishing material and the Franklin uses many of them whilst protesting his ignorance of such elevated methods. In this way he simultaneously gains sympathy for his modesty and approval for his skills. It would be tedious to point out every example of his use of these devices but it is profitable to look out for some of them. For example, he puns on the word “colours” by using it more literally for flowers in the meadow or paintings with which he is familiar and this is adnominatio during the disclaimer of understanding of its other sense.
The start of the Tale uses the archaic term Armorica for Brittany and the vocabulary is that of the courtly love convention whereby the knight suffers for his lady and goes to great lengths to serve her. Frequently his efforts are to no avail but here the knight, as yet anonymous, succeeds with his chosen but also nameless lady. At this point the characters seem blandly stereotyped. The woman is the most beautiful under the sun and high born, so far above the knight that he scarcely dares tell her “his wo, his peyne, and his distresse.” At last, because he is so worthy and conforms to the ideal with “meke obeysaunce”, she takes pity on him and comes to an agreement to marry him and accept his lordship over her. She is essentially compliant and he is, to the Franklin, an ideal figure because of his routine behaviour as a knight. So that their lives will be blissful, he makes a solemn vow, the first of several in the Tale, that he will never take upon himself “maistrie” or domination over her against her will nor show jealousy. This is a reference to the Wife of Bath and Clerk who both made “maistrie” a theme. He will obey her and follow her will as any conventional lover would but there is another note here which is inconsistent: he is concerned for his reputation, and wants the “name of soveraynetee”, the appearance of having the upper hand in order not to bring shame on his status as a husband.
She thanks him humbly, referring to his “gentillesse” in offering her such freedom and makes a pledge in return: God forbid that there should ever be between them any quarrel through her fault and that she will be submissive and faithful until she dies. This mutual contract will ensure peace and quiet in the marriage. The word “trouthe” is another strong word, meaning a solemn promise which involves the whole person in its serious intent. The Franklin is representing noble people here without fully understanding them as he is not titled but he also hints at where cracks in the relationship might open: these vows are too abstract and ideal and the personages not yet humanised but merely conventional. The romance sounds like courtly love on the surface but departs from that convention by the couple’s marrying wich does not conform to the highest ideal of chivalric love since “maistrie” is likely to intrude to spoil the union. We wonder how the arrangement will work when married life starts in its reality.
The Franklin, because of this departure from the genre and because he wants to answer the Wife of Bath, embarks on a digression on the topic of “maistrie” or domination of one partner by the other. A digressio is permitted by the rules of rhetoric as a device of amplification provided it is relevant and controlled so that the speaker returns to his thread quite soon. This musing refers to the relationship at the heart of the story whilst discussing the question of supremacy in general terms or sententiae. The Franklin addresses the gentlemen in his audience directly as he claims that, in an ideal marriage, the lovers must obey each other in everything if they want enduring compatibility. Domination of one by the other causes the god of love to beat his wings and fly off. Love should be free as a spirit and, in a nod to the Wife, he acknowedges that women desire liberty and will not accept constraint as a slave and that men are the same.
The one who is the most “pacient” or tolerant of fortune will have the advantage, he states, and this hints at a note of doom as we query what this couple will have to bear. The quality of endless patience was the topic of the Clerk’s Tale and the Franklin accepts that it achieves results that rigour cannot. The vague reference “as thise clerkes [scholars] seyn” is a misuse of the technique of quoting authorities as the allusion should be precise and specific, although the Franklin may here be denoting the pilgrim Clerk. People must not complain at every word but must learn to suffer – at this point he wanders off his subject as indicated by the “filler”, “so moot I goon” [as I live or breathe, roughly translated]. Perhaps he is excusing himself in advance when he says that anyone may do or say something amiss out of anger, sickness, configuration of the planets, wine, sorrow or change in disposition. Such a wrong should not always be avenged and any man who knows how to manage himself must use temperance.
Although the Franklin uses the word “therfore” to draw himself and his listeners back into the narrative, it is obvious that he has become increasingly irrelevant and returns only just in time to recapture attention.The knight who is wise because he is experienced and competent wants to live in easy comfort (perhaps a reference to January in the Merchant’s Tale) and so has promised his wife “suffrance” or forbearance and she swears to him that she will be faultless (“gan” has no meaning here). The knight’s motive is merely a quiet life and the mutual vows also raise our suspicions as they are so idealised. This departure from the plot or diversio has also contained the rhetotical device of expolito or making a point repetitively with different words each time.
The Franklin approves of this agreement or “accord” whereby the wife accepts the husband as both servant in love and master in marriage thus making him both submissive and dominant. It is a central paradox to this concept of a union which cannot be analysed rationally although it could work in life – yet we feel it will be sorely tested in this case as there is clearly a complication to come. The Franklin then repeats the advantages stressing how the husband gains his lady and a wife within the contract of marriage. The narrative now becomes more specific and moves forward as, in this “prosperitee” [happy state], the knight takes his wife to his home near Penmarch where he lives “in blisse and in solas”. These words, reminiscent of January’s hopes in the Merchant’s Tale, suggest that marriage is a protection from the troubles of the outside world but we feel it cannot last.
The idealised joy, “ese” [comfort] and “prosperitee” are stated to be beyond description to any other than a married person – a contention which might alienate some of the celibates amongst the pilgrims but the Franklin’s concentration is on the aristocrats and those whose Tales he is answering. Yet after a year and a bit the knight, whose name we now learn, arranges to go away and spend a couple of years abroad in England to seek glory and honour in warfare since all his “lust” [desire] leans towards such feats. Although it was conventional for a husband to leave his wife for long periods it was an accepted cause of distress and many romances took their theme from such difficulties . Also, in this case it seems sudden and rather soon after the wedding, the periods of life together and apart being similar. Perhaps the Franklin (and Chaucer) are aware of this suggestion of a fault on the part of Arveragus as he attributes his behaviour to an unknown source: “the book seith thus”. In his unease he fails to give a precise reference and the clause is little more than a filler, of which the Franklin’s speech has many examples. So far the central figure of Arveragus is somewhat cardboard and two-dimensional, not fleshed out with individual personality and unduly obedient to the concept of knighthood rather than the needs of his wife. He has balanced love against honour and has twisted his obligations to her into concern for social position.
With a clear signal of change of topic such as is common in oral narration, the Franklin switches attention from Arveragus to his wife, who is now named as Dorigen. He is more generally at ease dealing with her than he was with the knight, perhaps because he does not fully understand the aristocracy in its male and conventional form, not being titled himself. She loves her husband as much as her own dear life and is said to sigh and weep because of his absence: “As doon these noble wyves whan hem liketh” [when it pleases them]. This adds a note of insincerity as does the account of her ways of showing grief, a device known as articulus (a list of words without conjunctions): “She moorneth, waketh, wayleth, fasteth, pleyneth” but she is still made more real to us than her husband. Desire for his presence “hire so destreyneth” [torments her] that she counts the world as nothing and her friends, who remain vague and shadowy, comfort her in every way they can. Their life seems without occupation and one cannot resist the suspicion that Dorigen’s behaviour gives her something to do, a useless ornamental activity. The friends exhort her night and day and tell her she is killing herself without reason – there is a note of melodrama here although she retains our sympathy. As well as giving advice they do all thay can to make her leave off her “hevynesse” [sorrow]
With a sententia or general proverb-like statement, the Franklin compares the process of cheering her to the engraving of a stone, an image which suggests that she is always ultimately compliant, however resistant she seems to be at first. Their practical help is contrasted with her exaggerated mourning which may seem stylised but the result is more acceptable social conduct through hope and reason: a touch of credible psychology occurs when it is said that she could not remain always in such “rage” [violent sorrow]. There is some contradiction when her improvement is attributed to Arveragus’ letters telling her that he will soon come back – it is as though the Franklin feels the need to redeem him in our eyes. Shifting emotions and their triggers are a feature of the Tale. The friends see her happier state and now kneel to beg her to come walking with them to drive away “hire derke fantasye” [imagining]. Finally her common sense prevails and she agrees; this is not inconsistent but realistic as she has cause for hope and is young even if of delicate emtional constitution. This rational decision will lead to an irony of situation as their strolls lead her to places where her over-active imagination causes further distressing and sometimes irrational thoughts.