Discuss the roles of courtly love in The Canterbury Tales, focusing on three tales. (what does it mean by "roles of courtly love in The Canterbury Tales" ?)

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly, no other period of literature discusses love as frequently as the medieval period. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer begins with these famous lines--

This world nys but a a thurghfare ful of wo,
And we been pilgrymes, passinge to and fro,
Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore--

and, thus, informs the reader that his Tales are symbolic of the lives of human beings, lives which naturally have involvement with love. The Canterbury Tales is what is known as a medieval estates satire; that is, it discusses the nobles, peasants, and clergy by demonstrating how they fall short of the ideals of their respective occupations. So, as a contributing part of his satire, Chaucer employs the theme of courtly love in various manners. [its role]

(1) While the Franklin's Tale makes the best claim to this theme of courtly love as an idealized love in its customary presentation, it yet presents Chaucer's compromise between structures of marriage and realities in his time. The loves are all founded upon mutual respect. Dorigen, the wife does not wish to participate in courtly love, so she sets what she thinks is an impossible task for Aurelius. However, when it appears that she must live up to her agreement, her husband Averagus nobly 

Preferred to die in sorrow and in distress
Rather than let his wife be false to her vow 

Nor does Aurelius behave as a courtly lover because he does not hold Dorigen to her promise when he sees how distraught she is. Courtly love in this tale is antagonistic to happiness and the mutual respect that each person has for the other preserves the marriage.

(2) In the Knight's Tale, courtly love seemingly is the major concern of the tale. But, truly the examination in this tale is that of power and the friendship, love, and peace between the two male characters. Courtly love merely provides the framework for the tale as there are lovers of the higher social rank (although there are two men and no husband involved); there is an ennobling love for a woman who is worshiped from afar; and, the subject is treated seriously with no contempt or parody; the men speak in language appropriate to courtly love; and they both languish for the beloved.

However, the woman never says a word, so for purposes of courtly interest she does not exist; she is not married; she is never considered in any action; moreover, she seems to be disinterested for when she does speak she says she wishes to remain a maiden and never marry,

I/Desire to ben a mayden all my lif
Ne nevere wol I be nove ne wyf

Moreover, at times the men do not act in the manner dictated by their noble class, either. For, they are compared to boars, bears. lions, and tigers, rather than nobles. 

(3) The Squire's Tale parodies courtly love. The tale told by the Squire, the son of the Knight, is incomplete, but the reader can easily discern that such a treatment is farcical. First of all, the tale of a peregrine falcon betrayed by a tercelet is related by the peregrine herself, so it has no viability. Then, the unrestrained and many responses by the peregrine who wallows in self-abasement diminishes the tale, making it comical. Finally, that the peregrine is swathed in bandages and fawned over by a human, being carefully put into a cage, certainly lessens any human concern over the tragic state of the bird, making for farce rather than a serious tale of courtly love. 

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The Canterbury Tales

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