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Conduct Shameful and Unshameful in The Franklin’s Tale

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 99-139 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0022

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“Dictus vero Johannes fatetur quod promisit ipsam ducere in uxorem sub hiis verbis, ‘Volo te ducere in uxorem si bene facias.’ “ [The said John admits that he promised to marry the woman with these words: ‘I will take you as my wife if you conduct yourself well.’]

Registrum primum, Act Book, Ely, 1381

“If I am a bright housewife, I may be ashamed because too much of my work is too exclusively muscular.”

—Silvan Tomkins

In the marital negotiation that opens The Franklin’s Tale, Dorigen and Arveragus premise their marriage on an interlocking set of conduct obligations applying to both sexes. Dorigen, having observed Arveragus’s worth, vows to be a “humble trewe wyf” and permits him to possess “swich lordshipe as men han over hir wyves.”1 And Arveragus pledges obedience to Dorigen’s will, on the condition that she preserves his “name of soveraynetee, / That wolde he have for shame of his degree” (V.751–52). Each would be wife or husband only if certain behavioral conditions are met: her wifehood is conditioned on his display of gentillesse, and his husbandhood on her consent to his name of soveraynetee.

The agreement set out here falls, in certain respects, under what R. H. Helmholz has categorized as “conditional marriages.” In his analysis of marriage litigation in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England, Helmholz notes a particular category concerned with disputes over the precise meaning of various conditions stipulated in marriage contracts, especially those involving a woman’s conduct. In a 1365 marriage case in York, for example, a man contended that he had agreed to marry a woman “sub bono gestu suo” [under the condition of her good conduct]. In 1381, a man in Ely claimed that he had pledged to a woman, “Volo te ducere in uxorem si bene facias” [I will take you as my wife if you conduct yourself well]. And in a 1417 Norwich case, a man testified that he had promised marriage only if a woman could demonstrate “bonam gestionem” [good conduct]. According to Helmholz, such conditional matrimonial contracts caused real difficulties of legal interpretation. The courts did not possess any useful tradition of precedents to help clarify the ambiguities, nor were they able to establish definitive rulings.2 The records of the 1381 Ely case, he notes, offer no conclusive ruling or legal clarity.

The origins of medieval theories of conditional marriage have been traced by Bartholomew Timlin to the School of Bologna in the twelfth century.3 Gratian, the first to speak of giving marriage consent with a condition, picked up Augustine’s discussion on the validity of marriage to an infidel on the condition of his or her conversion. John Faventinus contended that marital conditions must not be against canon or civil law. Alexander III (Roland Bandinelli) asserted that marriage engagements are contracts, and he distinguished present consent from future consent. Condition of present consent (consensus de praesenti sub condicione), however, was rejected by Huguccio of Pisa, who allowed conditional sponsalia de sponsalia de futuro and affirmed that sexual consummation makes marriage unconditional. To Tancred of Bologna, a thirteenth-century Dominican canonist, present consent may be declared with a condition, but the condition must refer to a future event. The theoretical debates also centered on the honorableness of conditions, the verification of which would validate a marriage immediately. By the second decade of the thirteenth century, the doctrine of conditional marriage was met with wide approval by canon lawyers.4

In a crucial sense, contractual disputes over conditions of female conduct centered on the contested meaning of si bene facias, and I want to suggest that a similar semantic difficulty exists in Dorigen and Arveragus’s marital contract. What exactly is the sense of shame that Arveragus possesses or of the “name of soveraynetee” that he demands? The idea of shame, rather than eliminating maistrie and upholding the Franklin’s ideal of “an humble, wys accord” (V.791), reintroduces the question of a power differential into their marriage and constrains the free love to which, purportedly, they subscribe. Shame is therefore integral to Arveragus and Dorigen’s marriage because it realizes and measures the efficacy of the conduct...

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