Pity and Promises in The Franklin’s Tale

The test of a great story is whether or not it carries a true representation of reality. The various themes explored in The Canterbury Tales point us to enduring questions: what is a good marriage? What is the most fitting employment in life? What is the nature of knowledge, and can a good clerk also be a good person? How should we understand justice? Is it better to serve the demands of the city or instead focus on personal and familial matters? Should all oaths be honored? These and many other questions point us in the direction of the true, the good, and the beautiful. In the Tales we are invited to consider which story, and its corresponding poet, is best above all others.

In old England, a Franklin was a lower-class freeman. He may have owned land but was certainly inferior to the gentry or the aristocracy. Chaucer’s Franklin has a beard ‘white as a daisy’ and is generally considered a sanguine man, living in delight, dipping his morning bread in wine. He is an Epicurean. He is a model of hospitality, like Saint Julian, with great supplies of food and wine at his home. The Franklin has also worked a variety of jobs, including being elected to Parliament many times. Perhaps that is where he learned the art of interruption when he previously interrupted “The Squire’s Tale.”

“The Franklin’s Tale” is the twelfth tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and it proceeds as follows: The Franklin begins his tale with a brief praise of the old and “gentill” Britons, and he asks for a pardon because he is, ironically, poorly educated having never slept on Mount Parnassus, nor has he read the writings of Marcus Tullius Cicero.

In “Armorica,” or the land that is called “Brittany,” not far from coastal town of “pendmark” -the old region of western France populated by the English, there lives a noble knight and his lady. She takes pity on his many sufferings so she marries him. Their marriage is founded on pity. Privately, he agrees to serve and care for her in marriage, while publicly he maintains the image of sovereignty to protect his status as a knight. Thus, in the dialectic on marriage that occurs throughout The Canterbury Tales, the Franklin has introduced a distinction between private and public goods, political tensions in marriage (in other words the Franklin disagrees with the Wife of Bath). Marriage requires submission and the sweet release of freedom from both parties privately, according to the Franklin.

The knight’s name is Arveragus of Kayrrud. He goes to England for a year or two to seek a good reputation in battle, in being a knight -for ‘the book says thus’ (implying the Franklin is recalling a book. Perhaps he is more educated than his false humility shows). Arveragus’s wife is named Dorigen. She remains at home in grief because her husband is gone. She prays to God (not to any of the Greek or Roman gods as other characters will later do) and she laments the many treacherous rocks along the coastline, which may prevent men from returning home.

One day, on the sixth of May she travels to a beautiful garden party where a lively squire called Aurelius, ‘a servant of Venus,’ confesses his love for Dorigen. In taking pity, she tells Aurelius that she will give to him her heart, only if he can remove all the rocks that line the shoreline. It is a nonsensical offer, but in making this bet she avoids hurting Aurelius, thus likely causing him to commit suicide. In torment at the absurdity of the promise, Aurelius prays to Apollo, Lord Phoebus, and with a little help from his brother, Aurelius goes to Orleans to consult a scholar about how to make the all the coastal rocks disappear. Upon arrival, they are immediately greeted by a wandering clerk who says hello in Latin. The clerk takes pity on Aurelius (again, “pity” serves a pivotal role in the story) and he digs deep into his astronomical study to create an illusion that the rocks of Brittany have been removed. His work is akin to “magic” and “astrology,” according to the Franklin. And when all the rocks appear to be removed, Aurelius goes to his love, Dorigen.

In the end, all the characters forgive one another: Arveragus returns from England and he forgives his wife and instructs her to fulfill her promise, but when Aurelius hears this, he forgives her oath, and the wily clerk from Orleans also forgives Dorigen for his mounting debts in exchange for the astrological trick. The Franklin closes his tale by asking fellow travelers which character is the most free in their opinion. Thus concludes “The Franklin’s Tale.”

According to the Franklin, scholars are, at best, clever tricksters. Also a good marriage requires mutual submission to one another, while publicly giving a different impression, and oaths are meant to be honored, but forgiveness, rather than debt, is the path of the superior man. In an attempt to answer the Franklin’s question to the group, perhaps the least free of the characters is Dorigen, because she makes her oaths based on “pity” -she chooses to marry Arveragus as a result of pity, and she offers a nonsensical chance to Aurelius also because of pity. However, in the end pity is what leads to forgiveness granted to each character. There is a combined defense of courtly love (a la “The Knight’s Tale”) as well as a demonstration of trickery (a la “The Miller’s Tale”) being used for noble ends.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s