- Chaucer and the Culture of Love and Marriage by Cathy Hume
Beginning at least with G.L. Kittredge’s discussion of the so-called Marriage Group, a variety of historicist readings have explored Chaucer’s representations of lovers and married men and women against the background of medieval canon law, theology and the liturgy, contemporary writings, patristic literature, and the institutional and ideological phenomena of late medieval England. These frameworks have posited the relevance of social, cultural, and political events to contemporary expectations of male and female behavior in love and marriage, and moreover, to expectations of Chaucer’s literary figures.
In Chaucer and the Culture of Love and Marriage, Cathy Hume similarly situates Chaucer’s stories about courtship and marriage in the historical milieu in which they were written. However, Hume suggests that prior studies have “less than fully contextualized” Chaucer’s works (4). Looking beyond “the writings of the Church Fathers, twelfth-century theology and legal codes ... sermons, wills and records of legal cases,” Hume addresses two understudied sources, advice literature and a body of letter collections, in which to locate [End Page 280] evidence of fourteenth-century ideals and practices of love and marriage (5). This material, according to Hume, becomes a new framework for appreciating the “horizons of expectation” with which Chaucer’s contemporary readers would have approached his work. Within this context, modern readers can learn how fourteenth- and fifteenth-century readers might have responded to his lustful, loyal, and lovelorn characters.
Thus, while the introductory survey of recent historical-literary scholarship on the history of love and marriage in late medieval England provides a foundation for the eight chapters that explore Chaucer’s preoccupation with these subjects, Hume’s most original contribution is her assessment of advice literature for women, a set of texts concerned with the virtuous living of a wife, courtly and marital behavior, as well as the more practical rules of marriage; and English letter collections dated from the fifteenth century, composed by gentry and merchant families, including the Pastons, revealing the negotiations of marriage, illicit flirtations, and other transactional activities of real medieval marriages and amorous relationships. Hume works under the assumption that, although some of her sources were written after the death of Chaucer, ideals in relation to love and marriage were preserved up until the late fifteenth century. Using advice literature and letter collections, Hume convincingly reconstructs the expectations of audiences who received Chaucer’s poetry, offering modern scholars a fresh approach to late medieval reception history.
The first four chapters of this study concentrate on married life and the roles constructed for husbands and wives in the Franklin’s Tale, Clerk’s Tale, Ship-man’s Tale, and Merchant’s Tale. Hume reads Dorigen in the Franklin’s Tale in the context of the Paston Letters to remind us that Chaucer’s wives share many more experiences with real medieval wives than with literary predecessors, and in particular, that they share the concern for upholding their honor in marriage and their reputation. The advice literature which surrounds the Griselda story that Chaucer rewrites in the Clerk’s Tale portrays the obedience ideal ambiguously, rather than as unequivocally necessary, and ultimately supports Chaucer’s endeavor to show that limits must be placed on the testing of the wife and to highlight the ethical problems of a wife’s docility and submission. Walter’s own disobedience, furthermore, points to Chaucer’s more serious interrogation of the hierarchies of marriage. In the Shipman’s Tale, the wife manipulates her domestic, wifely roles as hostess, social networker, housekeeper, and business assistant, and reflects medieval wives’ behavioral roles, which were sometimes at odds with the principles of coverture in late medieval England. Hume’s study of the Merchant’s Tale argues for May’s similar subversion of wifely roles to suit her own ends.
The final treatment of the Canterbury Tales include readings of aristocratic marriages in the Man of Law’s Tale and the Knight’s Tale. The chapter on the former suggests the familiarity of the Constance of Anglo...