Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, "Franklin's Prologue and Tale"

Genre:   (FT) The prologue starts (in many manuscripts) with the Franklin's interruption of the Squire, the Knight's son, whose tale may be spinning out of control into the byways of a multi-strand oriental romance. It also may be that he has suggested that his tale will deal with a taboo subject which the Franklin hastens to avoid by pushing himself forward. Whatever the cause, the break in the telling sequence is rough and filled with awkwardness. The Franklin's compliments to the Squire are forced and strangely qualified, and the Host's interruption of the Franklin calls into question the wealthy landowner's pretensions to "gentilesse."

        The tale, itself, purports to be a "Breton lai," a genre most famously represented by the works of Marie de France (see the "Wife of Bath's Tale" comments for more on this genre). The knight, Arveragus, and his lady, Dorigen, set up a typical chivalric romance household (knight out fighting each other, lady fighting off seducers in the hall), but the tale is heavily influenced by the Franklin's emerging class-consciousness. In effect, the tale argues that a non-noble may be as generous ("fre" or full of "largesse") as one with a noble title and birth. This obviously links his understanding of noble character to the short poem, "Gentilesse," as well as to the loathly lady's speech in the "Wife of Bath's Tale."

        The "Retractions" is a rather common manuscript-tradition literary genre in which an author essentially withdraws his "authority" from the circulating manuscripts which contain his worldly or licentious works.  Sometimes authors write that they are doing this on their deathbeds as a means of preparing their souls for final judgment.  Though Chaucer never says this, his list of works includes much of what he is known to have written in his lifetime, as well as one which has not survived ("the Book of the Leon").  This completeness of reference, as well as the prayer with which it closes and its apparently sincere tone, suggests it may have been such a death-bed act.   This text circulates with "Parson's Tale" as a complete unit in every manuscript preserving it, and when preserved, ParsT and Ret always end the manuscript.

Characters:   the knight, Arveragus; his lady, Dorigen; their squire, Aurelius; his brother and a clerk of Orleans who knows "magyk natureel," or a form of wisdom closely allied with our modern natural sciences as opposed to the summoning of demons, etc.

Plot Summary:   Arveragus weds Dorigen with an unusual marriage contract in which she rules except in outward appearances. While Arveragus is fighting in England, his wife in Brittany becomes deeply concerned by the dangers posed by the rocky coast and is overheard by her squire (Aurelius) lamenting their existence. He loves her, and tricks her into pledging to give in to him if he will cause the rocks to disappear. This he appears to do with the help of a clerk from Orleans, but at the cost of his inheritance. Arveragus, returning from the wars, learns from Dorigen of the terrible vow which she now must perform, and the resolution of this dilemma leads to the Franklin's asking of the knight, lady, squire, and clerk "Which was the moost fre, as thynketh yow?"


Issues and general research sources:

  1. How do the Canterbury Tales tellers use the supernatural or the comically unlikely in their tales to reveal otherwise invisible social or moral forces? If "demons" are our worst impulses, personified, what are the faeries and magicians of the Wife of Bath's and Franklin's tales? How do these personal drives relate to the struggle among the estates (and emerging classes) which we see among the tale tellers?
  2. As part of George L. Kittredge's "Marriage Group" (an interpretive convention rather than a certain part of Chaucer's intentions), this tale has been taken by some to illustrate an ideal solution to the problem of power and authority in marriage. At least it could easily be argued that the Franklin thinks it is such a resolution to the problem as presented in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. Does its solution to the relationship problem satisfy you?
  3. If the Franklin thinks each character sacrificed something of equal value at the end of the tale, this suggests they may be equated in the teller's mind. How does that equation construct the Franklin's sense of each character's social stature, and what does that tell you about his own character?
  4. The Franklin ends his tale with a question to the audience that seeks to frame their reading of the tale as a judgment of characters' relative "fredom," which the RC glossary tells us is primarily (C14) still identified with noble status, being "non-servile" (L. 1622).  Given that each character in this tale is in a chain of promised service to another, what kind of judgment is the Franklin asking us to make?  This narrative structure resembles the "demande d'amoure" which ends many of the "court of love" judgments recorded in Andreas Capellanus' Art of Courtly Love.  The speaker in these cases asks which of the lovers in the case loves the best.  In this case, what is the Franklin asking in his "demande d'estate," and what does it represent as a challenge or answer to the Squire?
  5. To better understand the force of oaths in "Franklin's Tale" and elsewhere in "Canterbury Tales," let's play the parts in Sir Thomas Littleton, Littleton's Tenures in English, "Homage," "Fealty," "Attournment".   (Lyttleton's Tenures in English was a manuscript written ca. 1480, but it recorded ceremonies Lyttleton feared were being forgotten so that his son, a law student, could learn them properly.)

Recent Sources on Franklin's Tale--

Otis-Cour, Leah,  "True Lover/False Lover, Franquise/Dete: Dichotomies in the Franklin's Tale and Their Analogue in Richard de Fournival's Consaus d'amours." Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism, 2012; 47 (2): 161-186.   The tale's French analogues offer a chance to compare Chaucer's (or the Franklin's) treatment of lovers' tests in two different cultural contexts.  To what ideologies does the tale owe its conventionally interpreted denoument (i.e., even clerks can be "fre"--an Anglo-Norman word meaning "generous without stinting," by implication, wealthy enough and unattached to that wealth so as to be capable of bestowing it without hindrance upon another. Marxist and Deconstructive criticism can help unpack this problem.

Kao, Wan-Chuan.  "Conduct Shameful and Unshameful in The Franklin's Tale." Studies in the Age of Chaucer: The Yearbook of the New Chaucer Society, 2012; 34 (1): 99-139.  The motives driving both Dorigen's and Arveragus' behavior seem tied to "shame," a powerful element in courtly culture because it attacks both the invisible entity, "reputation," and the visible "face" with which one signifies one's identity to the court.  Are both these characters' "shames" the same, or do they risk considerably different forms of shaming behavior?  Feminist and Marxist criticism would seem ideal methods to take advantage of Kao's study.

 Pearcy, Roy .  Epreuves d'amour and Chaucer's Franklin's Tale.”  Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism, 2009; 44 (2): 159-185.  Pearcy compares the "proof of love" motif as Chaucer encountered it in Boccaccio's Il Filocolo with the "Franklin's Tale" treatement of the same theme.  With Finlayson's article (below), this literary historical study would be an important grounds for almost any analysis of Chaucer's tale.

Finlayson, John.  “Invention and Disjunction: Chaucer's Rewriting of Boccaccio in the Franklin's Tale.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature, 2008 Aug; 89 (4): 385-402.  Finlayson compares FrT with another source Chaucer was well-acquainted with, and examines the Decameron's analogue with an eye to determining what Chaucer might owe to it.  With Pearcy (above), this article would be important early (introductory) background for almost any paper on the tale.

Hume, Cathy .  “'The Name of Soveraynetee': The Private and Public Faces of Marriage in The Franklin's Tale.”  Studies in Philology, 2008 Summer; 105 (3): 284-303.  Hume's study of the distinction between public and private space in FrT has obvious connections with WoBT (especially compared with "Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle," its analogue), and with other tales in which married couples' private misfortunes or secrets mean differently when given public exposure (the tales of the Miller, Man of Law, Clerk, Merchant, and others).  The whole public/private context for interpreting any signifier's significance can be applied to all sorts of other evidence.  Hume's method is widely useful outside the immediate application to marriage and FrT.

Go to English 211, Syllabus View.

Go to English 330: Chaucer Seminar, Syllabus View.