5 Classics from the Middle Ages I Recommend (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Recommend a classic from the Middle Ages.

Star Divider
5 Classics from the Middle Ages

The Obvious

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. If you know very little about medieval literature, you’re probably familiar with The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. All of these I do, in fact, recommend, although I admit it took me a while personally to warm up to The Canterbury Tales and appreciate them, and I literally studied medieval literature in grad school. So they’re worth reading, but you don’t have to start there, and I wouldn’t sweat it if they’re not your thing. Also, there is the small problem that there isn’t really an original/definitive King Arthur OR Robin Hood tale. There are just a lot of stories from different authors and years during the Middle Ages, so if you’re interested in these things, you have a lot to choose from. Have at it. (The more obscure the stories are, however, the less likely there will be a modern English translation of it.)

For King Arthur (and his knights) stories, check out:

For Robin Hood stories, check out:

The Less Obvious

1

Silence

Silence French Romance

Silence is the story of a girl who is secretly raised as a boy because the king has decreed that women can no longer inherit, and her parents want her to have their estate after they die.  Silence wrestles with her identity throughout the story, knowing she has the body of a woman but recognizing that she acts like a man and enjoys playing a male role in society.  Nature and Nurture get into some heated arguments over what makes someone’s gender.

Read my full post: 5 Reasons to Read the French Romance Silence.

smaller star divider
2

The Lais of Marie de France by Marie de France

A collection of twelve short stories recorded by Marie de France and translated into prose.  The stories are classic lais Marie heard told during her lifetime, often featuring brave knights, lovely ladies, and a bit of magic.

Read my full review here.

smaller star divider

The Song of Roland

An 11th century epic poem that takes place during the reign of Charlemagne. It tells the story of Roland, who is guarding Charlemagne’s rear as the army departs Spain, how his stepfather betrays Charlemagne and the Franks, and how he pridefully refuses to call for aid as he and his party become overwhelmed by enemy forces.

smaller star divider
four

Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer

A classic love story that has been told and retold (Shakespeare wrote a play, too), featuring star-crossed lovers during the Siege of Troy. If you thought Chaucer only wrote The Canterbury Tales, you’ll be pleased and surprised by the nuance with which he tells the story of Troilus and Cressida and how they fall in love and experience tragedy.

smaller star divider

Amis and Amiloun

Amis and Amiloun cover

In this medieval romance, two knights (unrelated but very similar in appearance) swear a troth plight to be true to each other in wrong or right. The ethicalness of this oath comes into question when Amiloun agrees to fight as Amis in a trial by combat—where Amis is clearly in the wrong and deserves to lose. As a result of his decision, Amiloun is struck with leprosy, but is this a punishment from God or simply a trial he is willing to endure for his love of Amis? And is there anything Amis can do to repay him?

Read my full review of “Amis and Amiloun”.

Read the full text of “Amis and Amiloun” online (in Middle English).

Briana

Peasant Life in Old German Epics Trans. by Clair Hayden Bell

peasant life in old german epicsInformation

Goodreads: Peasant Life in Old German Epics
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1931

Official Summary

The two epic poems in this volume are among the rare medieval writings which depict the life of ordinary people, and thus they offer significant perspective on daily life in feudal time.

Meier Helmbrecht, a didactic satire, is a vigorous portrayal of the social conditions of folk life; its theme is the decay of knighthood, and it tells the story of a young peasant boy who joins the retinue of a robber knight.  Der arme Heinrich is built on the theme of vicarious sacrifice, and paints a pictue of the relations between a noble landowner and his dependent peasantry.  The two poems, translated from the Middle High German of the thirteenth century, are the first unified, national stories, German in theme and in setting, developed in German literature.

Peasant Life in Old German Epics contains the full text of both poems in line-for-line translations; an introduction placing the poems in their historical and literary settings; and detailed notes and bibliography.  The book is illustrated with a map and six halftone plates.

Review

Overview

I picked up Peasant Life in Old German Epics because, it’s true, I don’t believe I have a read a medieval text that presents any peasants as serious characters.  Most texts, if they mention peasants at all, depict them as crude shepherds or other mockable characters, present only for a few lines or so as they do something like give the main character, generally a noble knight, directions or otherwise conveniently advance the plot for their social betters.  And of course peasants of the time did not produce literature and so never wrote about themselves.  So I was considerably interested to find this book in the library, containing two long narrative poems with actual peasant characters.

Meier Helmbrecht

Translator/editor Clair Hayden Bell suggests in the introduction that these poems are sympathetic to peasants…and perhaps that is comparatively so.  After all, she notes that in Meier Helmbrecht, the protagonist himself is a peasant, and though he’s a scoundrel, he’s given an unusual amount of what one might call interiority for literature of the thirteenth century.  Personally, I wouldn’t call this a positive representation of peasants, however.  As noted, our “hero” is a thief and a murderer, and the whole point of the story is how he gets his just punishment for daring to attempt to rise from the peasant class to earn a place at court (aka marauding with a local robber knight).  Bell notes that there was actually some social mobility between the peasant classes and lower knight class in Germany at this time (certainly not something one really sees in England or France in the Middle Ages), but the poem certainly frowns upon this attempt at mobility.

The “good” peasant of the story is Helmbrecht’s father, who spouts wise words about how necessary farmers are to society as a whole, and who argues that true nobility is related to one’s character, not one’s social class.  But he also knows his place and consistently argues that his son should not attempt to rise above his station and should be content being a peasant.

Plot-wise, I found the story quite interesting.  It’s sometimes heavy on the dialogue as people make lengthy speeches about their intentions, morals, etc., but this is hardly unusual for literature of the period and shouldn’t really put any reader off.

Der arme Heinrich

The second poem, Der arme Heinrich, features a knight who is struck by leprosy as the protagonists.  The peasants—a couple and their virtuous young daughter—are side characters but still quite central to the plot.  These are genuinely good characters, as they take in their sick and ostracized master when no one else will and care for him with true compassion.  Again, I don’t know that the poem is exactly a manifesto for the greatness of peasants, when the message seems to be that their goodness is equated to their loyalty to their noble master, but it certainly is much more sympathetic to peasants than most of medieval literature.

The poem also delves a bit into the realities of peasant lives, (though not nearly as much as Meier Helmbrecht does) as the characters come to realize that much of their good fortune is dependent on their master being a relatively generous one.  If he dies of his leprosy, they will lose much.

Final Thoughts

The translator does note at the beginning of the book that she is translating both poems more for content than for form, though she would like to stick to as close to a line-by-line translation as possible, so those readers who own an edition of the original Middle High German text can easily compare it with the English.  She does, more or less, retain the rhyming couplets that both poems were composed in, though frequently the lines do not scan and several of the “rhymes” do not rhyme at all.  It’s fine if one is reading for the plot; the translation is certainly not good poetry in its own right.

The explanatory notes at the back of the book are extremely useful, and the introduction also gives readers a nice overview of both poems, as well as what is known about their authors.  Though I studied medieval literature, much of my reading has been restricted to England and France, so this gave me some useful background into the German tradition.

I have a hard time in general persuading people that medieval literature is interesting and worth reading, but these two poems really do stand out from the crowd for their subject matter.  They should be appeal to people interested in the stories, the history of the period, or both.  If nothing else, they’re short, at under 2000 lines each, so they’re not much of a time commitment for the uncertain reader.

5 starsBriana

Classic Remarks: Is “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” Feminist?

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!


Do you think “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer is feminist?

Canterbury Tales

Anyone who has ever taught a class about the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale will know that students love the Wife of Bath, and the number one thing they love about her is how feminist she seems.  She speaks her mind! She’s been married multiple times! She shows her husbands she has a say in the relationship, too! And her tale is about punishing a knight who raped a maiden!  However, all the essays in the world encounter a major problem: Can you call someone feminist who existed before feminism was even a concept?

It’s a tough question, one which people sometimes try to skirt by calling the Wife of Bath “proto-feminist” and moving on.  I think it’s more complicated than that, but for the sake of this post I’ll say that the Wife of Bath (particularly her Tale) does seem interested in increased equality between men and women, though she doesn’t have a 100% percent modern view of what that looks like and seems primarily interested in women being able to gain power in their marriages (basically the only place women had any power or social standing in the Middle Ages).  That is to say, the Wife of Bath doesn’t seem particularly interested in single women being respected or women being able to support themselves or anything like that.  Those would have been incredibly foreign ideas in medieval England, so much so that they simply don’t  occur to her–or really anyone.

However, yes, the Wife of Bath wants women to have sovereignty within their marriages, which is  the entire theme of her tale.  The story opens with a knight raping a maiden, and everyone is outraged and demands King Arthur dispense justice (already pro-woman).  Normally, “justice” is death, but Queen Guinevere proposes an alternative: If the knight can come back to court in a year and a day and tell her what women most desire, his life will be spared.  This is a very tidy plot, with related crime and punishment. The knight harmed a woman, and now he must learn to understand women to atone for his crime.  (Again, pretty pro-woman.)

The real puzzle comes at the end of the tale, however. If you’re reading this post, you probably know the plot of the tale: the knight finds a woman who gives him an answer to the riddle (Women most desire sovereignty) in exchange for his agreeing to marry her. He agrees because he wants to live, but the problem is that she’s an ugly old hag, and he’s not really into that. But, plot twist: On the night of the wedding, the hag (his wife) offers the knight another deal.   He can choose for her to be ugly and faithful to him or for her to be beautiful and potentially unfaithful.  The knight really wants her to not be ugly, but he also doesn’t want her sleeping with other men, so this is a dilemma. Unsure what to pick, he tells her to choose what she wants.  (He gives her sovereignty.)  Giving her sovereignty is the correct answer, so his wife tells him he can have everything, that she will be both beautiful and faithful:

‘Kiss me, and we won’t quarrel any more,
For I’ll be both to you, upon my honour!
That’s to say, beautiful as well as good.
May death and madness be my lot,’ she said,
‘If I am not a wife as good and true
As ever wife was since the world was new,
And if I’m not as pretty as a queen,
As ay empress that was ever seen
From east to west, before tomorrow’s dawn,
Then you can deal just as you like with me.
And now, lift up the curtain and see.’ (250)

Is this feminist? I’d say yes, since the wife seems to be making the decision to be both beautiful and faithful of her own free will.  A couple lines later, the narrator notes that “she obeyed him in all things,” but that also seems to be her decision.  There’s no implication that the knight is forcing her to do anything.  Everything–from getting married in the first place, to offering him the decision of how she will look and act, to choosing to obey him always–appears to have been her idea.  It sounds limiting from a modern perspective, yet she appears happy, and I suppose that’s what feminism aims for.

At any rate, the Wife of Bath has her own commentary on the story she just told:

And may Christ send up husbands who
Are meek and young, and spirited in bed;
And send us grace to outlive those we wed;
And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives
Of those who won’t be governed by their wives;
And as for all old and ill-tempered skinflints,
May heaven rain upon them pestilence! (250)

These final lines actually seem contradictory to her tale in some ways.  Is the knight really meek?  Or governed by his wife? We may not have enough details about their married life to know definitively.  We do know that the Wife of Bath wants women to have power in the marriages, but “sovereignty” doesn’t always have to be flashy or forceful.  The Wife might boss her own husband[s] around, but if the lady in her story finds happiness in doing what most pleases her husband, that seems fine too.

*Translation by David Wright (The Canterbury Tales, Oxford University Press)

If you are participating this week, please leave us your link in the comments!

Briana

5 Reasons to Read Medieval Literature

Classic Literature Event

This July Pages Unbound is celebrating classic literature with a collection of guest posts. Today Briana shares five reasons you should read literature from one of her favorite time periods: the Middle Ages. (That’s roughly 1100-1500 in England.)


Medieval romances are great for fantasy fans.

If you love fantasy, medieval romances are the genre for you. Knights, dragons, damsels in distress.  It all starts here.  And there’s an enormous variety of stories to read.  Most people think of chivalric romances (things like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), but there are also romances about historical figures and about saints.  These are equally as interesting and often very weird. If you want to read about cannibalism, check out some stories about Richard the Lionheart.

Many authors have been influenced by the Middle Ages.

As pre-modern literature, medieval texts can sometimes be overlooked by those who value the “modern.”  However, nearly every subsequent literary period has been influenced by the Middle Ages.  You can see traces of it in Shakespeare.  There was an enormous medieval revival during the Romantic period (think Ivanhoe or some of Keats’s poems).   And modern fantasy writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both professional medievalists.  You can even find hints of the medieval in the books of children’s and YA authors like Merrie Haskell and Rosamund Hodge.

Medieval texts are often more accessible than you think.

Actual Middle English can be tricky to read for those without practice. (The difficulty often depends on things like which century the text is from and which part of England it’s from.  Chaucer’s language is far more readable than many other medieval authors’.)  However, translations into modern English are incredibly easy to find, and many texts are available online, completely free.  (The same is true for medieval texts originally written in other languages, like Latin or French.)

Medieval texts also address modern themes.

People often conflate the Middle Ages with the Dark Ages, and popular culture often suggests the Middle Ages were an awful, backward time when no one was educated and women were treated like trash.  The reality was very different, and much more complex.  Some women like Christine de Pizan and Marie de France were writers themselves.  There were also highly revered women mystics who published their experiences.  Even popular fiction explored gender roles, in romances like The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle and Silence.

Medieval writers also explored race, religion, and science.  If there’s a modern debate you can think of, medieval writers were probably already in the debate themselves.  (No promises you’ll always love their conclusions, but that’s part of the fun.)

There’s something for everyone.

As readers, we often have a tendency to assume homogeneity in literary time periods.  We assume the nineteenth century was essentially filled with people writing like Wordsworth or Keats. We assume everyone in the sixteenth century was writing like Shakespeare. (Who can even name a text from the sixteenth century that isn’t drama anyway? What prose do we associate with the century?)  The same is true of the Middle Ages.  Many people’s one brush with the period is with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (or just a few of the tales).  However, the variety of texts you can read is wide.

Chivalric romances are some of my favorites and, as I said, a great place to start for those who enjoy fantasy.  However, there’s so much more.  Saints’ lives.  Mystic works. Fabliaux (funny, potentially crude tales). Dream visions.  Travel narratives. Stories about the Middle East. War tales. And, of course, all sorts of historical chronicles, philosophy, and other nonfiction. If you like a genre, it’s possible you’ll find a version of it in the Middle Ages. Or you’ll discover something new.

Briana

Amis and Amiloun (by Anonymous)

Amis and AmilounInformation

Goodreads: Amis and Amiloun
Series: None
Source: Borrowed
Published: Thirteenth century

Summary

In this medieval romance, two knights (unrelated but very similar in appearance) swear a troth plight to be true to each other in wrong or right. The ethicalness of this oath comes into question when Amiloun agrees to fight as Amis in a trial by combat—where Amis is clearly in the wrong and deserves to lose. As a result of his decision, Amiloun is struck with leprosy, but is this a punishment from God or simply a trial he is willing to endure for his love of Amis? And is there anything Amis can do to repay him?

Review

The critical discussion of Amis and Amiloun tends to focus on the idea of “trewthe” (modern “truth,” with connotations of loyalty, nobleness, virtue, etc.). This is understandable as the two protagonists swear an oath of exactly the nature that would have troubled medieval moral thinkers, and which continues to trouble readers today: Amis and Amiloun are such good friends that they promise to support each other in any cause, regardless of whether that cause is right. The question scholars have, then, is whether the story condones this. Are Amis and Amiloun rewarded for such a strict definition of “trewthe?” Should we be happy about the way the tale plays out for them?

I think this question is interesting, as Amis and Amiloun go through a lot of trials that made their oath seem questionable, and yet everything does seem to wrap up with a happy ending. I also think there’s absolutely no way to get around the fact that, yes, this romance is interested in troth plights and questions of “trewthe.” But since people don’t generally engage in troth plights these days, I think the next pressing question is whether this romance would be interesting to someone who doesn’t already have some type of academic (or just happily nerdy) interest in the Middle Ages. Can the story be compelling to someone who is never going to be in this situation?

I would say yes. Amis and Amiloun isn’t quite the “knight off on adventures in the wild” story that many readers associate with medieval romances, but it certainly has a lot going on, and will appeal to readers who like plots that are routinely shaken up. There’s a hint of court intrigue, a romance with a beautiful woman, a trial by combat, a saint-like section as Amiloun deals with his leprosy, and more. There’s an evil wife, and a faithful servant, and a deceptive steward. There’s everything one could want from a medieval story, besides the questing through foreign lands bit.

I also think the moral complexity is interesting even if the reader will never have to think about troth plights in their own live. The modern day parallel questions are perhaps: Should I support my friend even when I know they did something wrong? Should I help them lie? Should I help them avoid a punishment I know they deserve? How far would I be willing to go to help a friend? Amis and Amiloun nicely shows these questions aren’t new, and they never really had easy answers.

Amis and Amiloun isn’t the first romance I would recommend to convince someone that reading medieval literature can actually be fun, as well as quite approachable in translation. (I did recommend Silence for that, though Silence is longer and therefore more of a commitment.) However, Amis and Amiloun is a good story and touches on a lot of topics that interested medieval readers and should still appeal to readers today.

4 stars Briana

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Retrospective

Tolkien Event 2016

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is life, death, and immortality. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound is hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring guest posts and interviews!


It’s no secret that my love of medieval literature is partly derived from Tolkien. He introduced me not only to the feel of the Middle Ages and romantic literature through The Lord of the Rings, but also to fundamental texts like Beowulf and Pearl. So when I had to write an English literature research paper my senior year of high school, I turned to Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (a very good translation that has earned a lot of scholarly respect, much to the surprise of people who still only think of Tolkien as a fantasy author and not also a highly respected medievalist). As I sit through grad school seminars now, re-looking at Sir Gawain once in a while, it’s striking to me how perceptive my high school self was about ideas like “anti-quests” and how much I still think the poem, ultimately, presents Gawain as a hero.

My paper opens:

“A challenge, a quest, and a touch of the supernatural embodied in a brilliant green knight–the opening scenes of the medieval alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight point to a traditional romance. Further reading, however, upends the impression. For Gawain embarks on an anti-quest, a mission not to find but to lose, to give himself up to death. It will not be the destination that matters, but the journey. Along the way, Gawain will discover, through failure, that he is more human than saint, but it is this very humanity that will make him the greatest knight of all.”

This remains my overarching interpretation of the open: Gawain is a good man, the greatest of Arthur’s knights, even though he has flaws. The incredible difference between Gawain and the rest of Arthur’s court is that he tries. He tries to defend Arthur’s honor, he tries to keep his promise to meet the Green Knight and seek his own death, and he tries to follow the ideals of chivalry even when it’s hard.

There are a number of opposing arguments to this interpretation, but so far none of them have swayed me. Last year. one of my professors astounded me (and the rest of the students) by commenting that the Green Knight never actually challenges Gawain to a Beheading Game. This is true, though generations of scholars have mislead readers by consistently referring to it as the “Beheading Game,” in capitals, as if it’s a serious and well-known tradition. Yet Tolkien’s translation of the Green Knight’s challenge reads:

“If any so hardy in this house here holds that he is,
if so bold be his blood or his brain be so wild,
that he stoutly dare strike one stroke for another,
then I will give him as my gift this guisarm costly,
this axe–’tis heavy enough–to handle as he pleases” (34).

One stroke for another, that’s it. No decapitation specified. My professor’s argument, then, is that Gawain is brash and a cheater. He finds a loophole: make the strike a fatal one, and he’ll never have to suffer one in return. He’ll get the axe, free of charge. But this is lowly. The “correct” way to meet the challenge is, apparently, to give the Green Knight a tiny nick, a scratch, and suffer something just as minor in return. Gawain’s failure to see this strategy is a black mark on his character.

I disagree. While Gawain’s jumping to “death” as an appropriate end for the challenger is needlessly violent, and there probably is some criticism there in the poem about cruelty in pursuit of honor, I still have to respect Gawain for being the only knight to do anything at all. Arthur himself has to attempt to accept the challenge before Gawain intercedes; everyone else was going to allow this unknown interloper to mock the cowardice of Arthur’s court. And when Gawain’s “loophole” doesn’t work out because the Green Knight keeps living with his head unattached, he accepts the consequences. He diligently goes to accept his payment stroke a year and a day later. Along the way, he also exhibits other knightly virtues, such as being a respectful guest to his host and rejecting the amorous but adulterous advances of a beautiful woman.

So if Gawain fails one more time by accepting a supposedly magical girdle in an attempt to “cheat” and save his life from the Green Knight’s payback beheading stroke, I find it hard to blame him. There are a lot of other sins tied up in taking the girdle–lying to his host, believing in magic rather than the grace of God, failing to face death bravely–but why do these have to negate his virtues? And why should I, or other readers, find these sins unforgivable if the Green Knight himself, the one whom Gawain most offended, absolves him? Gawain isn’t perfect, but he set out on a journey to test himself that no one else would even start. If he discovered that he has limitations, he didn’t “lose;” he learned something valuable about himself and how he can proceed in the future.

And so I conclude my paper with words I still believe:

“When Gawain returns to Camelot, the court laugh at his tale. Their perception of the green girdle and its significance are colored by their personal lack of experience. They, who never left Arthur’s halls, who never had the course to take the challenge and begin the journey, failed at the outset. In the end, they are lacking not only in glory, but also in understanding.

“As Gawain recounted his tale, he must have lingered over what they considered to be all the wrong parts. He must have told the tale as the poet did, focusing on morals and choices rather than fell monsters and intrepid deed. Thus, their laughter. The court choose to see the girdle at face value, what it would be if Gawain’s quest were what it initially appeared to be–another strange adventure in a land full of such adventures. To them, the girdle is a sign of bravery and not of shame, and so they adopt it as their own. Consequently, Gawain is left on an elevated plateau where he stands alone in faith, knowledge, and moral courage–the greatest knight of all.”

Works Cited:

Tolkien, J[ohn] R[onald] R[euel], trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. New York: Ballantine, 1975.

Medieval Women by Eileen Power

Medieval WomenInformation

Goodreads: Medieval Women
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1975

Official Summary

Throughout her career as a medieval historian, Eileen Power was engaged on a book about women in the Middle Ages.  She did not live to write the book but some of the material she collected found its way into her popular lectures on medieval women.  These lectures are now brought together, edited by M. M. Postan, and reveal the world in which women lived, were educated, worked, and worshipped.  Power gives a vivid account of the worlds of the lady, the peasant, the townswoman, and the nun.  The result is a historical yet intimate picture of a period gone by yet with resonances for today.

Review

Although this book is old by academic standards (Power passed away in 1940, and her husband published these lectures 1975), Medieval Women still offers a useful and accessible overview of women in the Middle Ages.  The book is divided into three chapters that succinctly cover the options women had during the Middle Ages—lady, peasant, or nun—and two more chapters that cover general ideas about women during the period and education for women.  Readers may pick and choose which sections are most interesting to them, or read the book in order.

Though each lecture is relatively short (and nicely broken up with an assortment of reproductions of medieval artwork), Power concisely addresses the major points of each topic and refutes the most common myths.  She explains, for example, that not as many women were educated by nuns as people might think, and that the ideas presented about women in medieval texts (primarily written by male nobles and clergy) may not accurately reflect how women acted or were perceived in everyday life—particularly by peasants who would not have access to those texts.

Once in a while Power’s arguments do seem dated.  For instance, she praises the aim of chivalry to “raise up” women as people to be served or venerated, with the argument that at least this was better than the tendency to see women as sinful descendants of Eve.  Today, many scholars argue that actually chivalry did little to expand roles for women.  However, the book as a whole is generally accurate.  M. M. Postman did some minor editing to account for new research done between Power’s death and the publication of her lectures.  Also, the historical facts tend to hold, while Power’s interpretation of them is often what is outdated.

Medieval Women is a thoughtful, highly readable introduction to its topic.  Readers already deeply familiar with the history and literature of the Middle Ages will probably not find a lot of that is new here.  But readers looking to start learning about women of the Middle Ages will do well to start here.

“The Franklin’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Franklin Banner

Summary

When the lady Dorigen’s husband Arveragus goes off to battle, she worries about his well-being, eventually becoming fixated on how his ship will ever safely pass over the black rocks that surround Brittany when he journeys home. In the meantime, Arveragus’s squire Aurelius takes advantage of his master’s absence and professes his love to Dorigen. Appalled at the thought of infidelity, Dorigen exclaims she will only return his love the day that all the rocks of Brittany have disappeared. When Aurelius finds a way to make the impossible happen, however, Dorigen will have to choose between keeping her word and keeping her honor.

Form: Breton lai

Review

“The Franklin’s Tale” is perhaps one of The Canterbury Tales that is most immediately appealing to modern audiences in terms of theme. The couple Arveragus and Dorigen open the story by professing their love to each other and establishing equality in their marriage. Arveragus will act as the superior to retain public opinion, but in reality the two will be a team. The idea is unusual not only for the Middle Ages, but also for Chaucer. Up to this point in The Canterbury Tales readers have been treated mainly to stories of evil wives, submissive wives, and the Wife of Bath’s sort-of-but-maybe-not-really-feminist wife.

The couple’s happiness is endangered, however, when Dorigen unwittingly walks herself into a terrible promise. She wildly exclaims to Arveragus’s squire that she will love him if only he can make the rocks of Brittany disappear and somehow, eventually, he does. Readers will initially notice that the magic of the tale is not particularly well-explained. How the rocks disappear, or at least seem to, we never know. It is also a question Dorigen, the one with most at stake, never asks. The focus quickly moves onto her dilemma: Does she keep her promise to Aurelius, or does she keep her promise (her marriage vows) to her husband?

Many modern readers would probably find the solution to this problem simple. Dorigen never actually “meant” her promise; it was the medieval equivalent of exclaiming “I’ll date you when pigs fly!” So that means she does not have to keep it, right? “The Franklin’s Tale” is not so sure. The second part of the tale is a complex exploration of the importance of language, the value of female “trouthe,” and the question of what men and women owe their spouses. Even if readers do not ultimately agree with the actions and conclusions of the characters, there is plenty of food for thought here.

“The Franklin’s Tale” wins my admiration for presenting a complex female character and for telling a story that combines both the darkness and light of human nature. It is satisfyingly balanced in a way that many of the tales are not. I would definitely consider the Franklin to be in the running for winning Harry’s story competition.

Want more Canterbury Tales reviews? Check out:

The Clerk’s Tale
The Miller’s Tale
The Wife of Bath’s Tale

“The Clerk’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Clerk (Jason Long)

Summary

When a beloved marquis’s people come to him and request that he marry in order to secure his line, he agrees with only one condition: he will choose his wife himself.  Unbeknownst to anyone, he has been eyeing the virtuous maiden Griselda.  She is poor, but she is also the most virtuous woman in the land.  After their seemingly fairytale wedding, however, the marquis becomes increasingly demanding and increasingly skeptical of his wife’s love.  She obeys him literally in everything, but will it ever be enough for him?

Review

“The Clerk’s Tale” is undoubtedly one of the more puzzling, and the more troubling, stories Chaucer offers in The Canterbury Tales.  Up to this point in the pilgrimage, readers have seen portrayals of numerous marriages and numerous wives—but none are quite like this.  Griselda is wifely obedience incarnate; she declares her husband’s will is her will, and that she would kill herself at his command if she must.  So what are readers to make of this?

The two options the audience has seem to be 1) taking the story at face value and assuming that Griselda is supposed to be the model of the perfect wife or 2) looking for indications that this entire charade is absurd and searching for evidence that Griselda’s apparent obedience is actually a sneaky way of undermining her husband’s authority.  Matters are not helped by the fact that the narrator alternately indicates that both approaches are valid.  One moment he extols Griselda’s unmatched patience; the next he tells women they really should not let their husbands treat them like doormats in the way Griselda does.

The tendency as a reader is to pick a side and stick with it.  It is easy to say, “Well, medieval people were misogynist so Griselda must actually be meant as a role model.”  It is equally easy to say, “This is ridiculous.  There is no way this story is serious.  The point must be that the marquis demands too much.”   Both approaches, I think, are reductive.  Torn between two portrayals of a woman that are completely opposite, I was unsatisfied with “The Clerk’s Tale” until I read Laura Ashe’s “Reading Like a Clerk in the ‘The Clerk’s Tale.’”

In a nutshell, Ashe argues that the matter of interpretation is at the heart of “The Clerk’s Tale” (perhaps more so than obedience?).  Griselda herself interprets her husband’s increasingly terrible requests as well-intentioned.  She acts on them as if they are so—and thus somehow makes them so.  The clerk, then, is highlighting the fact that nothing, stories in particular, stands on its own.  Tales need to be interpreted.  And he challenges his audience by offering a story that somehow has two valid interpretations.

Suddenly, the clerk seems like an immensely clever fellow, instead of someone who fails to tell a story that makes any sense.  The joke becomes even better when readers remember that the Host had specifically asked the clerk to tell a light, entertaining tale instead of something too dry and scholarly for the rest of the pilgrims.  The Host thinks the clerk has indeed told a fun tale; he takes the story at face value and comments he really wishes someone would tell his wife about this character who is a paragon of obedience.  And the clerk can sit back and snicker that had actually told a complicated tale, and the Host completely missed the point.

Want more Canterbury Tales reviews? Check out:

The Miller’s Tale
The Wife of Bath’s Tale

“The Miller’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Miller Banner

Summary

The young clerk Nicholas is in love with his landlord’s wife Alison.  She will not agree to any tryst with him, however, unless he can manage to get her jealous husband out of their way.  Drawing upon his expertise in astronomy, Nicholas feigns he has a message from God: the world will experience a second Flood, and the only way for the household to survive is if they construct three separate boats, hang them from the ceiling, and wait for the rain to come.  His landlord credulously falls for this story and begins work, giving Nicholas and Alison the perfect opportunity to sneak away together.

Review

As a fabliau, “The Miller’s Tale” is definitely one of the bawdier contributions to The Canterbury Tales, offering a stark contrast to the courtly love story that the knight tells just before it.  Readers will realize fairly early on that they are in for a wild ride; after all, Nicholas rather forwardly grabs at Alison’s crotch while pleading his love to her and is hardly rebuked for the action.  And, of course, the entire plot centers on how Nicholas and Alison can contrive to cuckold her husband.  The raunchiness is definitely enough to amuse many readers.  However, the characterizations, details, and wider themes are also worth looking at.

Alison herself is a very compelling place to start.  Although it may not be entirely clear if one starts reading The Canterbury Tales at the beginning (since the miller’s is only the second tale in the book), most of the stories center on marriages and women.  The question here might then become: how much do readers sympathize with Alison?  For my part, I have trouble excusing or empathizing with adultery in most fiction—and it is worth nothing that, however much a fool her husband might be for believing his tenant had a vision about a second Flood, he was apparently concerned for his wife’s safety.

Nonetheless, the story does not seem to ask readers to dwell on this.  It observes fairly early on that old men should not wed young women; they are too different from each other and the wife is unlikely to be happy.  If one believes this, it in some way excuses, or at least explains, Alison’s behavior.  The ending of the tale also does not do much to bolster the husband’s standing.  Nicholas may get a comeuppance himself, for misusing Scripture and abusing his position of knowledge, but the only one who really escapes unscathed is Alison herself.  And while the audience is laughing at everyone’s antics, moral considerations may get lost in the mix.

I have to admit that “The Miller’s Tale” is not my favorite.  While I do believe it introduces many themes that continue to be raised throughout The Canterbury Tales and does a good job of explicating them within this specific tale, as well, the fabliau may simply not be my genre.  Bawdiness does not really appeal to my sense of humor, and I mostly thought it sad how poorly things turn out for all the characters.  (Even if one side character—Absolon—is fairly amusing.)