What is Love: An Examination of Courtly Love and Chaucer’s View On It
Geoffrey Chaucer’s definition of love that is explored in his work is based on courtly love. This type of love is heterosexual in nature and involves a passive woman and aggressive man. The man “courts” the woman and often she does not have a say with who she ends up marrying. Courtly love places a greater emphasis of the man’s feelings than the woman’s comfort. What Chaucer does in his works “The Parliament of Fowls” and “The Knight’s Tale” draw more attention to how women feel in this situation. Where men are focused on romantic partnership, women, in these works, are focused on self-fulling lives. While Chaucer does work within the confines of courtly love and expectations for women to be married, he extends the definition of love to caring more for one self’s than for another man.
The male eagles in “The Parliament of Fowls” display the negative aspects of courtly love by fighting over who is more worthy of her while the female eagle must watch on Nature’s hand. Chaucer makes the royal eagle seem most worthy, even going so far as to have Nature recommend him to the female eagle. “‘The tercelet egle, as that ye knowe ful weel / The fowl royal aboven every degree, / The wise and worthy, secree, trewe as steel,’” (Chaucer, “Parliament” 10) However, there are two other eagles who believe they are more worthy of the female eagle’s love because they have loved her longer or they love her more than the other two. The second eagle says, “‘I love hire bet than ye doon, by saint John, / Or at the leeste I love as wel as ye, / And lenger have sered hire in my degree,’” (12) while the third eagle says, “‘But I dar sayn I am hir tweest man, /As to my doom, and fainest world hire ese.’” (12) The three eagles try to make their claim to the female eagle’s love, but she is forced to watch and does not have any say at that moment. While the male eagles can claim they love the female eagle, Chaucer uses this to show how suitors are more likely to put on a show for whom they courting than to take into consideration of the lady’s feelings.
Palamon and Arcite in “The Knight’s Tale” become so obsessed with Emelye and her beauty that they go from cousins and brothers in arms to enemies, all because they both “love” the same woman. They go into a similar argument the male eagles went into about who deserves Emelye’s love. Palamon believes him to be more inclined to this love because he saw her first. “‘Now certes, false Arcite, thow shalt nat so! /I loved hire first, and tolde thee my wo /As to my counseil and my brother sworn,’” (Chaucer, “Knight” 45) While Palamon did technically see Emeyle first, Arcite believes he saw her first and loves her more. “‘And thou art fals, I telle thee outrely; /For par amour I loved hire first er thow.’” (45) The declarations of love these men make are within seconds of seeing her for the first time and have more to do with infatuation than love. This doesn’t stop them from calling each other false and ultimately destroying their friendship over Emeyle. The arguments Palamon and Archite make, all without Emeyle knowing who they are, represent the problematic nature of men who participate in courtly love.
The female eagle in “The Parliament of Fowls” represents a form of agency women did not have in courtly love and may represent how many of them felt when multiple men they barely knew express their “love.” When Nature tells her to choose, the female eagle requests the goddess to do something else for her, which she grants. The female eagle asks to wait a year before deciding on a mate.
“‘Almighty queene, unto this yeer be goon,
I axe respite for to avise me,
And after that to have my chois all free:
This al and some that I wol speke and saye:
Yet gete namore although ye do me deye.’” (Chaucer, “Parliament” 16)
When given the choice, the female eagle chooses none of her suitors and wanted time left for herself. It is remarkable that she even got the option to choose a mate, and even more that she was able to deny all her suitors. Perhaps this is reflective on other women who are subjects in courtly love, and perhaps Chaucer saw this. The female eagle gets to be a sort of fantasy for possibly real-life ladies in court and provide a fictional escape for these women.
Emelye loves herself more than she loves two strangers in “The Knight’s Tale” and wishes to have no romantic partner. While her story does end differently than the female eagle’s, she still represents a mindset that high-class women might’ve held; if anything, her ending makes the story more tangible for these women. Right before the tournament, Emelye prays to Diane, the chaste goddess, and begs to not have marry either man but remain a virgin and a hunter.
“‘Chaste goddesse, wel wostow that I
Desire to been a maiden al my lif,
Ne nevere wol I be no love ne wif.
I am, thow woost, yet of thy compaignye,
A maide, and love hunting and venerye,
And for to walken in the woods wilde
And noght to been a wif nd be with childe.
Noght wol I knowe compaignye of man.’” (Chaucer, “Knight” 86)
Emelye doesn’t want to change her way of life for a man she barely knows. Becoming a wife would mean giving up hunting to raise a child and love a husband. Except she has no choice because Theseus, the king, has commanded her to marry the winner. Emeyle is forced to marry a stranger, making her more representative of women who were in similar positions. A higher-ranking man gets to decide which man is more worthy of lady’s love, and often that worth is based on his own physical or political strength. Emelye’s fate, though tragic when considering her pray, is more indictive of ladies of the court in Chaucer’s time.
Chaucer offers different point of views in courtly love in “The Parliament of Fowls” and “The Knight’s Tale” to express his own feelings of it and perhaps even relate to women who were courted at the time. “The Parliament of Fowls” offers a fantasy in this regard, not only because birds participate in courtly love, but because the female eagle can choose not to mate with any of the male eagles. She has power and authority over her love life, unlike Emeyle who marries Palamon. And while “The Knight’s Tale” has a less empowering figure and makes Emeyle a passive figure after her prayer to Diane, this could be a representation of the Knight as a character and narrator, not Chaucer as an author. The ending could be a way to point out a flaw in the Knight, especially when comparing the ending of the two tales. Chaucer’s view of love isn’t courtly love, it’s self-love, and he does so through the struggles of the female eagle and Emeyle as they are being courted.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Knight’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, Penguin Books, 2005, pp. 35–114.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Parliament of Fowls.” The Langley Press, 2016.