There are few more telling works of literature that speak to the challenges, passions and social order of the medieval period.
Throughout the host of stories that comprises Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the concept of love in the Canterbury Tales emerges in multiple forms and instigates a majority of the happiness, sadness, misery, and comedy that occurs. As a central theme that is threaded throughout all of the stories, the reader begins to gain a sense that love in itself, while worthwhile, is ultimately to be avoided as it causes embarrassment, pain, and constant struggle—whether that struggle and strife is comedic or serious in nature.
Two ways in which Chaucer explored the theme of love was through the form of the fabliau and through the tale of courtly romance. These two types of stories are quite opposite from one another in terms of style, content, and context and elicit quite different reactions and each provide the reader with different signals about how love is the source of great misery in the end. While in sum, these are lighthearted tales that are not meant to condemn the reader to the grim view that love is meaningless or a negative experience, through the embarrassment and other misfortunes love causes, it is still to be avoided—if possible, at least.
Many of the stories in The Canterbury Tales feature foolish characters who suffer a comedic downfall because of their blindness in love or from lovesickness in general and conform to the fabliau. A fabliau is a comedy that is not meant to convey traditional notions of medieval romance but rather to poke fun at aspects of love (and society more generally) by using plot devices such as the foolish husband whose wife flirts with other men and who is taken advantage of and who are more generally, foolish or hilariously unsavory people. Courtly romance requires a different story with characters that are less bumbling, lightly deceitful, and hilarious and who instead conform to medieval notions of chivalry and proper, nobler gender relations. One issue that emerges in Chaucer’s exploration of love as a theme is that love itself is presented differently according to the social classes of the characters. For instance, the ideal courtly lovers are the Knight and the Squire with their courtly romantic aspirations that are all-consuming and related to ideas of chivalry and honor but down the line as the working class and peasant characters are introduced, this type of love does not appear except perhaps in a parodied form, as in the case of the Wife of Bath, for instance.
Before examining the torturous state of love through the form of the fabliau, it is best to offer an example of its opposite through a depiction of courtly romance and the ideals of courtly love. Chaucer uses noble characters such as the Knight and the Squire to present the medieval ideal of the courtly romance and describes these characters as heroic and manly but in the case of the Squire in particular, hopeless romantics who are skilled at writing and singing songs and wooing women, as well as being inclined to pine away for the women they desire at length. Chaucer’s description of the Knight embodies many of the aspects of the ideal man in a courtly romance. As he says of him, “…he loved chivalrie, / Trouthe and honour, freedom and curtesie" (General Prologue 45-46) and is by all accounts, a balance between gentle nobility and masculinity in terms of his war prowess. He is well-worn in heroic battle, was wise, fair, and gentle and possesses many of the qualities of an ideal medieval member of the nobility.
While there is no discussion of his abilities as a suitor, his son also meets many of the criteria of an honorable noble man of medieval times and also fits the description of a courtly lover perfectly. Chaucer describes him as “A lovyere and a lusty bachelor, / With lokkes cruller as they were leyd in presse" (General Prologue 80-81). Unlike the Knight, who is described more in terms that are related to his heroism, this is clearly the courtly romantic figure with his soft curls and focus on courtly love. Furthermore, the Squire has the innate skills of a courtly romantic figure as, “He was as fresh as is the monthe of May. / Short was his gowne, with sleves long and wyde; / Wel koude he sitte on hors and fair ryde ; / He could songes make and wel endite / Juste and eek daunce and weel purtye and write" (General Prologue 90-95). The Squire in particular is literally made to entertain and woo women with his abilities not only to ride upon a horse in manly fashion, but also to sing and write, presumably love poetry and romantic songs.
The tale that the Knight tells is resplendent with perfect examples of courtly romance. The Duke, Theseus is a perfect example of a noble hero who spares his enemies and puts himself in mortal danger to retrieve the remains of the mourning women’s husbands and is much aligned with the description of the Knight that Chaucer offers in the General Prologue. The two brothers, Palamon and Arcite, are parallel to the Squire in that they pine with love for a woman they cannot have until they are literally sick with desire, as Palamon says, she “is cause of al my crying and my wo" (l.1100). Their competing desire grows so strongly that the two men who, before they go after the same woman were the best of friends, are willing to fight to the death to win her hands. Even though this story reflects the perfect ideal of courtly romance, it is not suggesting that romantic love is something that is positive or desirable. Although love is put on a pedestal as something worth dying for in courtly romance, there is not the sense in this story that this is a truly beneficial act and it is clear that romantic love causes more stress and hardship than it does ease or happiness. By the end of this tale of courtly romance, an honorable man is dead for a woman who would rather remain virginal, which seems to be a cruel fate after suffering the equally cruel hardship of lovesickness and the duel that ensued.
The description of the Knight, the Squire, and the noble tale the Knight tells stands in stark contrast to the drunk and unruly Miller who begins his tale by warning the company that his is not to be held accountable for anything he says since he has had too much to drink. This is the first marker that the tone has moved quite instantly away from notions of courtly romance and is now entering the bawdy realm of the fabliau. Gone are the references to the golden ages of the ancients with mighty rulers and highly desirable noble women to lust after and instead, the reader is presented with a new way of looking at love from the viewpoint of a commoner. Instead of a tale about noble warriors who are humane with their enemies and of other warriors who wish nothing more than to have their love, this tale involves a common element in the fabliau; the cuckold and a woman who sleeps with different men and who is the object of sexual fancy for several. This is a hilarious respite from the woeful and rather drawn-out prose of the Knight with its long, poetic diatribes that invoke more sophisticated settings and ancients gods and goddesses and by this very nature of language and content it is a fabliau and again, love is something that makes fools of otherwise good and honest people and is not worth the trouble, even if one is to go as far as Nicholas in his elaborate scheme to win a night with a woman whom he cannot have permanently. The carpenter is well aware that his young wife is desirable and “he loved [her] moore than his lyf" (3221). He does recognize that his love could be put in jeopardy as “she was yong and wylde, and he was old, / And demed himself been like a cokewold" (3223-3225) and sadly, for the sake of comedic drama and fabliau, he is the butt of the joke, if only due to his simplicity. To punish the Miller for his bawdy tale featuring a carpenter, he tells another tale of a dishonest person who is cunning and ruthless who also becomes a cuckold, although not only for the love his wife, but his daughter as well.
In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, love is a prominent theme that is expressed in terms of both the comedic fabliau and in the context of courtly romance. Regardless of which form is used to tell a story, Chaucer’s tales generally represent romantic love as dangerous and undesirable—as coming with a great deal of trouble and strife. While this strife could be as serious as was the case in the Knight’s Tale where two blood brothers are pitted against one another to the point of death or comedic, as in the case of the Miller’s Tale where a husband is “rewarded" for true love by being made a mockery of, love is a problem that is unavoidable but that comes with disastrous circumstances.