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  • Chapter 4 “Lo, pitee renneth soone in gentil herte”:Pity as Moral and Sexual Persuasion in Chaucer
  • Annalese Duprey

The concept of pity runs almost as frequently through the work of Geoffrey Chaucer as he assures his readers it does in the hearts of the well-bred: “Pite renneth soon in gentil herte” [Pity runs soon in noble hearts], he states, almost verbatim, no fewer than five times in his corpus.1 Recent Chaucerian scholarship engaged with pity has largely focused on the broader category of pathos and writings that can be construed as “religious,” emphasizing the way in which pity collapses the gaps between characters in a the text and its audience to declare “shared humanity and weakness.”2 This emphasis on the religious and on reader response has overlooked the ways that pity functions within Chaucer’s fictitious worlds, in particular the way “pite” negotiates romantic and sexual relations between men and women. This essay will explore the function of pity as a site of moral meaning and hierarchal power in The Merchant’s Tale and The Franklin’s Tale.

Throughout Chaucer’s oeuvre, “wommanly pite” functions as a sure-fire method for men to seduce women: the tale of Dido, in the Legend of Good Women, outlines the steps of the process. When the Carthaginian queen hears Aeneas’s woeful tale of his escape from Troy, her heart is won: “Anon hire herte hath pite of his wo, / And with that pite love com in also; / And thus, for pite and for gentillesse, / Refreshed moste he been of his distresse” [Anon her heart had pity on his woe / And with that pity love came in also; / And thus, out of pity and because of her nobility, He must be relieved of his distress] (lines 1078–81). Provoking feelings of pity in a potential lover is a set piece of erotic strategy going back at least as far as Ovid, who advises in his Ars Amatoria that the pale and wan face of the lovelorn, which makes the healthy man into an object of pity, is a gambit that has never failed.3 The paradigm of lovesickness provides the hopeful man with a fairly guaranteed method of getting the girl: if he demonstrates his lovesick suffering to her, she will undoubtedly take pity on him, and everyone knows that pity means [End Page 55] sexual capitulation. In their eponymous romance, the seed of Criseyde’s love is planted when she reads Troilus’s pitiful letter: she “ne hadde … swych routhe of his destresse; / And how so she hath hard been here-byforn, / To God hope I, she hath now kaught a thorn, / She shal nat pulle it out this nexte wyke” [never had had … such pity on his distress; / And as hard as she had previously been, / I hope to God, she has now caught a thorn / That she won’t be able to pull out next week] (Troilus and Criseyde, 2, lines 1270–73). Similarly, the falcon in The Squire’s Tale loves the false tercelet with a heart “to pitous and to nyce” [too piteous and too ignorant] (5, line 525), and—although her actual feelings are largely hidden from the audience—in The Knight’s Tale Theseus commands his sister-in-law Emelye to marry Palamon out of her “wommanly pitee” (1, line 3083). The Miller’s Hende Nicholas seduces Alisoun by telling her that he will die if he does not have his desire (1, lines 3277–78), and the first word of the Merchant’s Damyan to May is “Mercy!” (4, line 1942), although, as the audience knows, the balm he seeks is entirely carnal in nature.

Pity is such an effective emotional ploy for two reasons. First of all, it is an intensely desirable emotion, since it indicates the gentle heart—the nobility—of the person displaying it. Second, in addition to the suggestions of class latent in pity, it always sets up a very specific power relationship between the parties involved in the exchange. Pity implies a difference of status: the pitiful sufferer is abject, and the assuager is able to relieve this suffering through his or her own bounty. However...


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