The Poem

“The Franklin’s Tale” is one of the stories in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a work in Middle English that, though unfinished, is considered one of the masterpieces of English literature. Like most of The Canterbury Tales, “The Franklin’s Tale” is written in iambic pentameter couplets. It is 896 lines in length. Although the poet was working on The Canterbury Tales from the 1380’s until the year of his death, this story cannot be dated with any certainty. It is also a matter of conjecture as to where Chaucer meant to place “The Franklin’s Tale” within the larger narrative. However, expressing as it does Chaucer’s own ideals of behavior, clearly “The Franklin’s Tale” would have been a cornerstone of the completed work.

The story is told by an important, wealthy landowner, elderly but still vigorous, who delights in fine food and drink and prides himself on his hospitality. However, his tale does not focus on worldly pleasures but rather on moral issues, the demands of honor, the true definition of gentility, and the substance of an ideal marriage.

“The Franklin’s Tale” is set in Brittany. It begins with the marriage of a lady, Dorigen, to Arveragus, a knight who has taken great pains to win her. Arveragus takes the unusual step of setting up the marriage as a relationship between equals, with the sole proviso that in public his wife will treat him as her sovereign. In a...

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Forms and Devices

In the prologue to his story, the Franklin claims that it is a retelling of a Breton lay. However, scholars have not been able to find such a source. Moreover, they point out that “The Franklin’s Tale” is quite different from lays modeled on those by Marie de France, the French poet of the late twelfth century who invented or at least popularized the genre. Her stories focused on extramarital relationships; there was no “natural” explanation for the supernatural events in them; and her aristocratic characters were types, while those in “The Franklin’s Tale” are highly individualized. Whatever Chaucer’s reasons for having the Franklin call his story a Breton lay, it would be more accurately classified as a moral tale.

The Franklin also prefaces his story with an apology for his linguistic limitations. He is a plain man, he says, not a courtier skilled in rhetorical devices. However, in telling his tale, the Franklin does utilize a number of rhetorical devices that are identified in medieval texts. One of them is the digression, like that early in the tale when the Franklin interrupts his story for a disquisition on marriage that continues for some thirty lines. Such digressions, in which a writer moved from the particular to the general and then returned to the particular, were used to make sure that readers or listeners did not miss the point of the story. Similarly, the Franklin frequently pauses for sententiae, proverblike truths such...

(The entire section is 439 words.)