The Franklin's Tale


The Franklin of the General Prologue is the only pilgrim of social substance apart from the knight, whose pretensions Chaucer seems to spare. He rides alongside the Sergeant of the Law, which argues that he is, himself, a legally minded man (indeed he has been sheriff; knight of the shire; county auditor and head of the local magistrates). He is described as the "St Julian of his country", so open and generous in his hospitality that "It snewed in his hous of mete and drynke". He is described as "sangwyn" (the type which is generally jolly, healthy and good tempered) and he is an Epicurean - one dedicated to pleasurable life through the exercise of virtue. As a "vavasour", he is a landowner, holding title to his lands outright - not occupying them in return for services to another landowner. He is not aristocratic, but rather a member of a newly emerging landowning class who *aspire* to the aristocracy, but are not high born. Clearly the Franklin would like to be a "real" knight, and certainly feels keenly the fact that his own son is a wastrel and a gambler who would rather talk to "cherls" than learn "gentillesse". It becomes clear almost immediately that the Franklin is obsessed by the notion of gentillesse and "trouthe" in marriage.

His Tale is part of the "marriage debate" (the Wife of Bath's Tale, followed by the Clerk, then the Merchant and lastly the Franklin). These stories look at the idea of dominance in marriage ("maistrie"). The Wife of Bath's Tale concerns a totally dominant woman; the Clerk tells of a totally subservient woman; the Merchant of a deceitful woman and a cuckolded man and the Franklin's Tale presents a marriage of harmony and balance - an "ideal" relationship which is based on mutual trust, in which each partner is both a servant and a master.

In his short prologue after the Host has poured contempt on the Franklin's pretensions to "gentillesse", he announces that he will tell a Breton lay (a type of short narrative Romance poem associated with Marie de France, a poetess of the twelfth century who was possibly the half sister of Henry II) The Franklin claims to be a "burel" man and his tale will be plain and unliterary. Despite this announcement we soon realise that he is well versed in the poetic skills of rhetoric, and it is also clear that he is educated and sophisticated.

The tale is a moving and thrilling account of morals and behaviour, the central point of which is a marriage based on mutual trust and absolute equality between the aristocratic Knight Arveragus and his Lady Dorigen. The conflict between them which is the central issue in the Tale is caused by an outside factor - a threat to the security of the marriage to which neither party yields. The device Chaucer uses is a common folk theme - the Damsel's Rash Promise, which is so called because the promise governs a set of circumstances in which chastity is at stake.


Rash promises tend to be made out of a sense of total certainty or moral superiority, or both. In this poem Dorigen, the virtuous wife of Arveragus is propositioned during her husband's absence by a squire , Aurelius. She is so sure of not being tempted that "in pleye" she agrees to show him mercy ( that is, become his lover) if and when all the black rocks on the coast of Brittany are removed.

Through the agency of a magician who is able to create an "apparence" or illusion that all the rocks have disappeared, by causing a very high tide to cover them, Aurelius establishes the condition demanded by her promise. The appalled and sorrowing Dorigen confesses all to her husband, who heroically accedes to the situation "Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man may kepe", and sends her off to Aurelius.


When they meet to commit the sanctioned adultery, Aurelius is so moved by her lamentation that he releases her from her promise. This display of generosity is then mirrored by the magician who, in turn, releases Aurelius from the massive debt he has incurred in order to pay for the illusion to be worked.

The story is not original. Chaucer would have been familiar with it from the Italian master Boccaccio, who tells similar tales in both the Decameron and Il Filocolo, but Chaucer examines the operation under stress of a marriage founded on mutual promises which are being kept, as well as the more conventional "who is the most generous of the three?" question which ends the Tale.

The promises of Dorigen and Arveragus open the Tale. Two-way patience, tolerance and humility are covenanted by the newly weds, and the "maistrie" traditionally exercised by woman during courtship and man in marriage is specifically forsworn: Arveragus' only reservation concerns what the outside world will think, so in *appearance only* the marriage will be conventional. The wedded couple are "in quiete and in reste" and it would seem that Chaucer is, through the Franklin, expressing what he considers the ideal in love


"Who koude telle, but he hadde wedded be
The joye, the ese, and the prosperitee
That is betwixte an housbonde and his wyf?"


Arveragus leaves home to seek honour by knightly exploits in England leaving Dorigen sorrowing in her seaside castle with friends who try unsuccessfully to comfort her. As she looks out to see she is aware of the "grisly rokkes blake", which fringe the shore and pose danger to her husband and all sailors. They seem to her to be a curse, and she curses them, expressing her anger and bewilderment that a loving God who created all things beautiful and for the good of mankind, could also create something so dangerous. It is her dread of the rocks which gives form to her rash promise to Aurelius when he declares himself to her - an ironical twist. Perhaps Chaucer also intends his audience to reflect on the consequences of rash words to God, since Dorigen has asked that "alle thise rokkes blake were sonken into Helle" and the illusion that they have indeed disappeared teaches all the protagonists a sharp lesson about rashness and "trouthe".

Aurelius prays to Apollo and Diana (Lucina) "that of the see is chief goddesse and queene" for help in his plight and in due course, after two years of languishing in bed, is put in touch with the wizard who creates the illusion through "magic natureel" that the rocks have disappeared. When Dorigen is challenged to fulfil her promise, she launches into a long formal rhetorical complaint to Fortune citing hosts of famous women who preferred death to dishonour and the violation of their chastity. Chaucer takes all the examples from a contemporary medieval text, the Adversus Jovinianum of Saint Jerome, which is in favour of virginity and against marriage. The effect, though, is comic. Dorigen's 22 examples of women who prefer death to dishonour begin seriously, but rapidly descend into bathos, with the final example being a woman who shows her "parfit wifehood" by putting up with her husband's bad breath! After two days of lamenting, Dorigen merely runs to Arveragus and confesses her stupidity, leaving it to him to sort out what she should do.

Some critics have been bothered by what they see as the unreality of Arveragus' instruction to Dorigen to keep her promise to Aurelius, but the context of the marriage - the frame of multiple promises which the couple live by, make it the only thing that this decent and sensible man could suggest. It has the ring of emotional truth, being the essence of sharing and it is immensely painful to both partners. Arveragus almost breaks as he tells Dorigen how she may limit the damage


"I yow forbede, up peyne of deeth,
That nevere, whil thee lasteth lyf ne breeth,
To no wight telle thou of this aventure, -
As I may best, I wol my wo endure, -
Ne make no contenance of hevynesse,
That folk of yow may demen harm or gesse."

He actually has her escorted to the garden where she is to meet Aurelius, being instinctively sure that "It may be wel, paraventure, yet today". Arveragus weeps and Dorigen is beyond tears when Aurelius meets her and asks her where she is going. Her simple admission "Unto the garden, as myn housbonde bad, My trouthe for to holde, allas! allas!" causes a change of heart in Aurelius, who cannot "doon so heigh a cherlissh wrecchednesse agains franchise and alle gentillesse". He releases her from her promise with a legal quitclaim and calls her "the treweste and the beste wyf that evere yet I knew in al my lyf"

His generosity is mirrored by the clerk (magician), who releases Aurelius from his debt of a thousand pounds for the illusion. The Tale ends very abruptly with a rhetorical question from the Franklin, concerning the nature of "franchise"


"Lordinges, this question, thanne, wole I ask now,
Which was the mooste fre, as thinketh yow?"


In this conclusion to the "marriage debate" Chaucer makes his case against courtly precept and social custom, as well as against the religious ideas expresses in medieval times. The case he makes establishes his own highly civilised and indeed Epicurean idea of "gentillesse" in general and in particular, in marriage.

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The Franklin's tale and the Squire's tale are complementary, pursuing the same matter from subtly different social positions. Both examine the contradictions which exist in a society involved with the ideals of chivalry and England in the second half of the fourteenth century was preoccupied with problems of this sort. Chaucer treats the subject in a subversive way, deliberately disconcerting his audience, encouraging ambiguity and debate and asserting fundamental Christian values.

The Squire is a young man who is described as the epitome of young and fashionable chivalry. he has inherited his status and will in due course become a knight. The Franklin, however, completely lacks a chivalric dimension and has no inherited status. The "vavasour" occupied an ambiguous position on the fringes of the aristocracy and had no contemporary social significance. They were , however, able to perform and assume many of the duties and functions associated with knighthood - many of them did not bother to assume knighthood because of the expense, and the Franklin certainly gives the impression that money in the hand or in land or possessions is rather more important in reality than the social status to which he would like to aspire. Chaucer's own ambiguous position as a "esquire", on the fringes of society, but excluded from real aristocratic connections by virtue of birth, makes him rather similar to the Franklin. He, too, is a member of a "new" social order - freemen of substance, but not truly "gentil", the social inferiors of knights and esquires whose duties they frequently fulfilled. The upward social mobility of this group, to which the Franklin most certainly belongs, caused tension between the social groups. It is possible that one of Chaucer's aims in the Franklin's Tale is to alert his audience to this fact and to state that the notion of "gentilesse" is not so much a right of birth and breeding, but a fundamental human trait which can be found in any man regardless of his lineage. The language of the Franklin is peppered with the techniques of rhetoric, although he describes himself as a "burel" (plain) man and claims to know nothing of the technique. He is guilty of a little showing off, although for the most part his language is direct and his narrative is skilled, unlike the poor squire, whose tale becomes bogged down in rhetorical language. There is more than a little condescension in the Franklin's words to the Squire at the beginning of his Tale, and although he claims never to have learned rhetoric, he is well able to use it when he speaks. Rhetoric is an art of persuasion in which the speaker attempts to entertain, instruct and perhaps question his audience. It was one of the "seven liberal arts" upon which medieval education was based. There were three branches of rhetoric - preaching, letter writing and poetry and it is the last which the Franklin means by rhetoric. It was the poet's task to embellish the subject of his discourse, with various devices; repetition, digression, generalised statements, examples (illustrations of points by reference to some story from life or literature), circumlocution, laments and exclamations. The Franklin, despite his protestations of ignorance, uses all the devices with skill.

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Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope