Courtly love is a recurring theme in The Canterbury Tales. How does the concept of courtly love develop over the course of the book? Focus your discussion on three tales.
Courtly love was one of the most pervasive themes in the literature of Chaucer’s time. According to this conception of love, romance is an ennobling force that can raise the male lover—usually a knight—to heights of bravery in the service of his lady. The beloved, in turn, is the epitome of feminine perfection and often difficult, if not impossible, to attain as a romantic partner. Passion and devotion are emphasized throughout, and the spiritual dimension of love is valued above the physical. The entire courtly love relationship is figured in a heavily stylized and idealized manner according to an established model. While Chaucer presents a fairly traditional picture of courtly love at the beginning of the Knight’s Tale, he goes on to deconstruct the concept by introducing elements of jealousy, gender conflict, and lust as the various tales progress. By the end of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, it is clear that, as an idealized concept, courtly love cannot be applied to relationships where real human emotions are concerned.
The Knight’s Tale presents ideal characters for a story of courtly love. Chaucer draws on pastoral and divine imagery to present Emelye as the perfectly feminine love object, comparing her beauty to fresh May flowers and her singing to that of heavenly angels. Palamon is a royal knight who feels as if he is pierced in the heart when he sees Emelye. The knight pining for the beautiful maiden fits the conventions of courtly love exactly; however, Chaucer refuses to make this a straightforward tale. Rather than battle beasts or foreign enemies to win his lady, as we might expect, Palamon must instead fight his closest friend, Arcite. The duel ends with Arcite’s death, which leaves Palamon and Emelye despondent over the loss rather than happy that they are finally united. While the Knight’s Tale features highly conventional players, it refuses to let the concept of courtly love exist in a vacuum. Rather, the tale shows how love can inspire jealousy, which can lead unexpectedly to violence and sorrow.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale moves us further away from an idealized depiction of courtly love. Here too are knights and fair maidens, but they are hardly the conventional archetypes. The knight in this tale is not a noble man, but a rogue: The first action we see him engage in is the rape of a young woman. Likewise, the fair maidens in the tale are far from chaste, as friars and, presumably, men such as the knight routinely molest and/or rape them. These are not honorable players engaging in the stylized rituals of courtly love. Indeed, love of the transcendent, elevating variety plays little role in this tale, as power is revealed to be the true object both men and women desire. The knight, who dominates a woman by raping her, ultimately finds that what women want most is to dominate their own mates. This illuminates the dark side of the courtly love model, in which the knight is seen as the lady’s servant and she his mistress. The Wife of Bath’s tale is true to the underlying power dynamics of this conventional relationship—a notion that is strengthened by the presence of an authoritative female monarch who directs a submissive knight—but in this context those elements seem far from noble or admirable.
Finally, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale presents a comic parody of courtly love, set in a most atypical setting. In an old widow’s barnyard, we are introduced to a magnificent cock named Chanticleer who loves a “faire damoysele,” the hen Pertelote. Though they are personified as the kind of handsome man and lovely maiden who might engage in the rituals of courtly love, Chaucer quickly turns our attention to their animalistic lust. Chanticleer has seven wives, and Pertelote willfully submits to him as he “fethere[s]” her “twenty tyme / And trad[s] hir eke as offe” (411–412). This image of the two fiercely and busily copulating directly counters a central tenet of courtly love, in which the spiritual element of romance is valued above the physical or erotic. Chanticleer and Pertelote go on to spend most of the tale either copulating or arguing with one another. These birds don’t have the idealized love of Palamon and Emelye or the dramatic power struggle between the knight and the women in the Wife’s Tale, but rather a “real” marriage, with all its imperfections. The domestic setting enhances the notion that this is an ordinary, everyday union.
As the pilgrims tell their tales, Chaucer progressively proves that the tropes and conventions of courtly love are not useful tools for describing real relationships between complex people. In this way, Chaucer’s treatment of courtly love mirrors his larger project: to move literature away from fairy tales or idealized narratives toward simply presented stories of ordinary people, told in their own, everyday language.