Parlement of Foules

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Critical Evaluation

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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 the establishment of marriage contracts between nonconsenting children but also the principles of courtly love, a mystique of the noble class. In this context, it is important to note the symbolism of his personified birds. Chaucer draws on a long literary tradition of using animals to portray human attributes. His use of birds, in particular, stems from the influence of several French poets who associated them with various types of passion. The eagles, associated in nearly all ancient cultures with divinity, majesty, and power, represent gentlemen of the nobility. High-soaring birds, these suitors hold lofty ideals of pairing and love.

The falcon, or hawk, the spokesperson for the “noble” birds, was the breed most closely associated with the aristocracy, being both a pet and a medium of sport. Noblemen and noblewomen often carried falcons and engaged in frequent hawking expeditions. Moreover, elaborate rituals defined the steps in teaching a falcon to attack its prey. Since these birds were so closely bound to their noble masters, it is fitting that Chaucer’s falcon should voice the sentiments of the aristocracy concerning the choice of a mate “Me wolde thynk...

(This entire section contains 1034 words.)

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how that the worthieste/ Of knyghthod, and lengest had used it,/ Most of estat, of blod the gentileste,/ Were sittyngest for hire, if that hir leste.” Some of the “lower-class” birds, however, offer opinions that counter and challenge the romantic ideals of the nobles. When the turtledove, associated with lifelong fidelity even after the death of a mate, says on behalf of the seed fowl, or country gentry, that a gentleman should love his lady until his own demise, the duck retorts that this mandate is ridiculous. In this scenario, the duck may be seen in two lights. It is possible that Chaucer was drawing on the bird’s usual medieval association with persons of low social standing. In this light, the tercel’s reference to the duck as “cherl” is appropriate. Among the ancient Chinese, however, the mandarin duck was said to couple for life; the strength of its fidelity to a deceased mate supposedly surpassed even that of the medieval turtledove. If Chaucer was familiar with the alleged character of the mandarin, his duck may represent a member of the nobility who questions the social strictures of his own group.

The goose speaks on behalf of the waterfowl. According to some critics, these birds represent the merchant class; according to others, they represent the lowest segment of society. In either case, the goose is not an aristocrat. She therefore is bold enough to counter the courtly principle that women should hold their suitors in disdain in order that they might be “won over,” by stating that a lover should not choose a partner who does not love in return. Rather than considering this a piece of practical wisdom, the sparrowhawk (a bird of the nobility) dismisses it as “a parfit resoun of a goose.”

Through the lower birds’ mundane views of love and the noble birds’ rude rejoinders, Chaucer may have been warning his young monarch of a growing spirit of rebellion among the common people. Unfortunately, King Richard did not perceive the meaning of the avian allegory until it was too late. On June 12, an army of peasants and artisans invaded London, protesting their poverty, their high taxes, and their lack of economic autonomy—situations that had been ignored or dismissed by the nobility. Richard was able to quell the crowd’s agitation with false promises, but the aura of their unrest remained.

On the surface, Parlement of Foules is a poem of lighthearted banter, written to celebrate a wedding. A close reading, however, reveals that it is also a work of social criticism and prophecy.