Parlement of Foules Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

The occasion of Parlement of Foules was the marriage of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. Since the convocation of the birds in the story takes place in the spring, it is possible that in selecting Valentine’s Day—the day on which lovers traditionally choose mates—Geoffrey Chaucer was referring not to the customary date of February 14 but to May 3, the date of Richard and Anne’s betrothal. This was also the feast day of Saint Valentine of Genoa. Although this saint was generally known only in the vicinity of his hometown, Chaucer had visited Genoa and may have heard his name. While the poem primarily celebrates the royal nuptials, it seems to serve a secondary function. Through the contention of the birds, Chaucer very subtly and gently questions the wisdom of certain practices and ideologies among the nobility.

In 1376, Chaucer, an emissary for the royal family, traveled to France to negotiate a marriage contract between King Richard (then ten years of age) and Marie, the five-year-old daughter of King Charles V of France. By means of this alliance, England hoped to end the Hundred Years’ War that had raged between the two countries. Unfortunately, Marie died suddenly in 1377; nevertheless, England resumed negotiations the following year, proposing that Charles’s younger daughter, Isabel, be the bride. When Isabel also died, a proposal was made for the hand of Catherine, Charles’s one remaining daughter, who was then an infant. These negotiations were interrupted by political events, but, in 1380, Richard married Anne, the sister of Wenceslas, king of Bohemia. This alliance had been proposed and partly executed by the Vatican.

At the time of the wedding, Richard was fourteen years old, and his wife was about thirteen years of age. Although the young monarchs reputedly enjoyed a compatible marriage, it is doubtful that either of them had much, if any, power to make decisions regarding their union. Thus, when Chaucer has Dame Nature decree that the eagle’s must “agre to his elecciou, whoso he be that shulde be hire feere,” he may be implying that, even in noble families, individuals should be allowed some measure of control regarding marriage partners. Later, the formel eagle herself asks Nature for a year’s respite in which to make her decision, even though she is under the goddess’s “yerde,” just as noble children are under the control of their parents, the state, and, in some cases, the Church.

Throughout the poem, Chaucer questions not only...

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