There are several stories in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer that seek to explore the issue of medieval love and marriage, in both its idealized form and the opposite of the blissful ideal that is seen in The Franklin’s Tale.

With chivalric behavior, attention to honor, and kind, equal treatment of women at the core of the ideal, most stories in Chaucer’s work can be seen in how they compare versions of marriage against the Franklin’s standard. Following the idealized version of marriage in The Franklin’s Tale, “Chaucer goes on to explore how such an ideal would be tested by real world circumstances" (Hume, 2008, p. 287) by presenting readers with alternative versions of what marriage is in the ideal view versus in the real world. What emerges is a structure that sets the Franklin’s Tale at the top and The Wife of Bath herself (and the bawdy tale she tells) at the bottom.

In the middle of this structure is the Merchant’s Tale, which is a fabliau that is at comedic because it pits the idea of idealized marriage against realities. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight serves as a standard of customary noble and chivalrous behavior that marks the Franklin’s Tale as the most noble and makes the Wife of Bath seem even more sinister than Morgan La Fey. Through the three tales by Chaucer and with the guide post of Gawain and the Green Knight lighting the way, this essay will seek to explore medieval marriage in its idealized and comedic fabliau manner that pokes fun at the code of honor and its relationship to marriage that transcends more than just Chaucer works.

The Franklin’s Tale and the Canon Yeoman’s tale (full summary and analysis here) is the most closely related to the ideas about love, marriage, and courtly romance as expressed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and is one of the less comedic pieces that expresses ideas about the perfect or ideal marriage. The Franklin’s Tale has many of the same elements of idealized romantic love that are seen in other works of medieval literature, although interestingly, the object of love is not someone distant or difficult to attain, it is within the context of a marriage. McCarthy (2002) states that, “lovesickness is something that we see a lot of in The Canterbury Tales: other sufferers are Arcite, the falcon in the Squire’s Tale, and another of the characters of the Franklin’s Tale, Aurelius…. Dogigen is an unusual member of this company in that she is married to the object of her desire" (p. 513). This is the kind of idealized marriage that one might see in other stories about nobility and the main character in the Franklin’s story, Avergus goes to great lengths to talk about how one should ideally behave in a marriage. Instead of seeing marriage as a legal and religious union alone, Averagus sees himself as being her servant. The Franklin describes their marriage arrangement, “of his free will he swore hire as a knight “ (Chaucer, 11057)“In medieval English marriage formulas, women promise obedience in marriage and men do not…. “In the Franklin’s Tale, instead of exercising this right to his wife’s obedience that marriage gives him, Arveragus promises at the tale’s outset to act within marriage as a lover does outside it, and to obey his lady, Dorigen" (V.745-50) (McCarthy, 2002, p. 513).

The Franklin’s Tale offers one of the only examples of perfectly imagined courtly love, although the lovesickness it causes is not caused by want of a desired woman, it is desire between a man and his wife. The other stories involve similar themes, although they tend to play with them and even poke fun at them, especially in the story the Wife of Bath tells. In short, the Franklin’s Tale is the idealized reflection of a perfect marriage in a perfect society and has much more in common with the notions of chivalry and honor in the Knight’s Tale than with any of the other stories told by commoners in the traveling company.

The Wife of Bath represents the complete opposite of the idealized marriage put forth in The Franklin’s Tale and could not be more different about the concept of marriage and romantic love in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Wife of Bath herself has a personal story that demonstrates her lack of regard for marriage as a binding union and has been married five times. Instead of feeling as though a man should sweep her off her feet and serve as a knight in an equal, loving kinship, she strongly advocates that women should have complete control over their husbands. Her lack of regard for the meaning of marriage in terms of longevity comes out in the tale she tells and in the details about her life and she has no problem rejecting some of the most basic aspects of a binding medieval marriage. Medieval marriages consisted of “two separate steps, both of which were required to create a binding union: the initiation of marriage, where both parties exchanged words signifying consent to marry each other, and the completion or perfection of marriage through sexual consummation"(McCarthy, 2002, p. 503). McCarthy goes on to note that women were obliged through marriage to make themselves available for sex as a legal part of the marriage agreement, but she has little issue with withhold sex in order for her plans to materialize. She is a larger than life personality and in her very nature, she stands in direct contrast to the idealized versions of romantic love and marriage expressed in the stories told by the Knight and Franklin and is not aligned with the women’s idealized behavior in the world Gawain occupies either.