Prologue to the Franklin's Tale
The old Bretons, in their time, made songs, and the Franklin’s Tale, the narrator says, is to be one of those songs. However, the Franklin begs the indulgence of the company because he is a “burel man” (an unlearned man) and simple in his speech. He has, he says, never learned rhetoric, and he speaks simply and plainly – the colors he knows are not colors of rhetoric, but colors of the meadow.
The Franklin's Tale
The Franklin's Tale begins with the courtship of the Breton knight Arviragus and Dorigen, who came to be married happily. Their marriage was one of equality, in which neither of the two was master or servant; and the narrator comments specifically that when “maistrie” (the desire of the Wife of Bath and the women in her tale) enters into a marriage, love flaps its wings and flies away.
However, soon after their marriage, Arviragus was sent away to Britain to work for two years. Dorigen wept for his absence, despite the letters that he sent home to her. Her friends would often take her on walks where they would pass the cliffs overlooking the ocean and watch ships enter the port, hoping that one of them would bring home her husband. However, although her friends’ comforting eventually started to work, Dorigen remained distressed by the grisly, black rocks visible from the cliff-side, near to the shore. She asked God why he would create “this werk unresonable” (this unreasonable work), whose only purpose was to kill people. Her friends, seeing how terribly Dorigen feared that whatever ship brought her husband home would crash on these rocks and sink, provided further distractions.
One day, her friends had organized a party and a dance in a beautiful garden. It was at this dance that Aurelius, a squire, danced in front of Dorigen, who was as fresh and well-dressed as the month of May. His singing and dancing were better than any man’s, and he was one of the most handsome men alive. Unbeknownst to Dorigen, Aurelius had been in love with her for two years, but had never dared tell her how he felt. It was during the dancing, then, that Aurelius addressed Dorigen, wishing that he, and not her husband, had been sent across the sea, before begging her to have mercy on him and revealing his love.
Dorigen responded by sternly rebuking Aurelius, telling him that she would never be an untrue wife, and had no intention of cuckolding her husband. And then, “in pley” (playfully, flirtily, in fun), Dorigen added that she would be Aurelius’ love on the day that all of the rocks were removed from the coast. This made Aurelius sigh heavily: “Madame”, he said “this were an inpossible!” (an impossibility). The dance ended and the guests went home, except for poor, sorrowful Aurelius, who fell to his knees, and holding his hands to heaven, prayed to the gods for mercy.
Arviragus then returned from abroad, and Dorigen was delighted to have him back. Two years passed, and Aurelius lay in torment, and without comfort – except, that is for his brother, a clerk, who suggested that he meet a student of law at Orleans who was versed in the sciences of illusion and “magyk”. Heading toward Orleans, the two came across a young clerk, roaming by himself, who greeted them in Latin, and claimed to know why they came. And before they went a step further, he told them exactly what they were travelling to achieve.
Aurelius leapt down from his horse, and went with this man to his house, where he fed them and showed them wondrous illusions of various kinds. The man eventually agreed to remove the rocks from the coast for a thousand pounds; “Fy on a thousand pound!” responded Aurelius, “This wyde world… I wolde it yeve” (“Never mind a thousand pounds! I’d give you the wide world!”), and promised to pay the man.
The next morning, having stayed at the man’s house, they travelled to Brittany, where, by illusion, the man made it so that, for a week or two, it would appear that the rocks had vanished. Aurelius, who now knew that there was no obstacle to his deal with Dorigen, said grateful prayers, and eventually came to his lady and explained to her, in courtly, formal terms, how he had fulfilled their bargain. She stood astonished, entirely white, never thinking that such an occasion could arise, and went home, despairing.
Arvigarus was out of town, and Dorigen was overcome with grief, realizing that she must forfeit either her body or her reputation. She thought about the numerous instances in which a faithful wife or a maiden destroyed herself rather than submitting herself to another. She cited the maidens of Lacedaemon who chose to be slain rather than defiled, Hasdrubal's wife, who committed suicide during the siege of Carthage, and Lucrece, who did the same when Tarquin took her by force.
When Arviragus returned home and Dorigen told him the truth of what had happened, he told that he will bear the shame of her actions, and that adhering to her promise is the most important thing. He therefore sent her to submit to Aurelius. When Aurelius learned how well Arviragus had accepted his wife's promise, Aurelius decided to let Dorigen's promise go unfulfilled, refusing to break the married couple’s “trouthe”. He claimed that a squire can indeed be as honorable as a knight. Aurelius then went to pay the law student, even though his affair remained unconsummated, and the man forgave Aurelius' debt, proving himself honorable. The narrator ends the tale by posing the question to the assembled company “Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?” (“Who was the most generous/noble, do you think?”).
The Franklin’s Tale is, as the narrator acknowledges at the start, a Breton lay, a brief romance supposedly descending from Celtic origins, and usually dealing with themes of romance, love and usually containing some sort of supernatural ingredient. Chaucer took the story from Boccaccio’s Decameron though the tale weaves well into many of the other Tales, including the Merchant’s Tale, which is echoed in many of the Franklin’s descriptions.
The tale seems to offer the solution to the problem raised and complicated in the other “Marriage Group” tales in its initial comments that “maistrie” has no place in love. Dorigen and Arvigarus are among the few happy couples in Chaucer’s Tales, and yet one suspects that the problem of “maistrie” is sidelined so as to focus on an entirely different problem, and one close to the heart of the Tales: the problem of language, words, and keeping one’s word.
“Trouthe” is a central word in the tale, meaning “fidelity”, and “truth”, as well as “keeping one’s word”, and the idea of pledging troth (an Elizabethanism) – giving one’s word as a binding promise – is central to the agreements between Dorigen and Aurelius. What the Franklin’s Tale shows us is not dissimilar from the Friar’s Tale - that we have to watch what we say because, like Dorigen’s promise made “in pley”, we never quite know how things are going to work out. The word becomes the marker of the deed, and, not to break her word, Dorigen is almost forced to perform the deed. In a work so concerned with stories and tale-telling, it is significant that Chaucer (as in the Friar’s and Manciple’s Tales) takes time to remind us of the value of each individual word we speak, and write.
The tale itself, of course, also bequeaths a word to both of its audiences (that is, the pilgrim audience of characters and the real-world audience reading or listening to Chaucer) and asks us to evaluate it in relation to what we have heard. “Fre”, the root of our modern word “free”, can mean generous (i.e. to give freely) but also has overtones of nobleness, “good behavior”. Who, then, is the most generous and noble at the end of the tale?
Arviragus, Jill Mann argues, by being noble enough to become a cuckold to preserve his wife’s reputation, sparks off a chain of passivity, which she thinks is an extremely positive thing. Arviragus giving up his rights in Dorigen leads to Aurelius giving up his which in turn leads to the law student giving up his. When one person backs down, Mann interprets, so will the rest of the world.
Mann’s is an interesting reading, but it does not quash entirely the thought that Arviragus’ priorities might be in the wrong order - is it really more important that his wife holds to a bargain (made only in jest) rather than she sleeps with someone she does not want to sleep with?
Or at least, so she says. It is worth noting that, on Aurelius’ first appearance, the tale stresses his good looks and charm, and one wonders precisely what motivates Dorigen, even in jest (and Freud has much to say about the meaning of jokes) to make the bargain. For surely Dorigen is the person who, were the bargain to go ahead, gets the best deal - not only is her husband safely home (and the rocks, for the moment, vanished) but she gets to sleep with both (extremely handsome, so the tale says) men. How, in fact, has Dorigen been generous or free at all?
Is Aurelius perhaps the most generous: willingly giving up the thing he most desired? Perhaps – but we might perhaps also argue that the thing he gave up, he had no real right to have anyway, considering that the “thing” was sex with another man’s wife. The same might be said of the law student, who foregoes only money: a lot of money, but still only money. The question of nobility and generousness completely depends from which perspective you read the tale.
Interestingly, we are never told that Dorigen goes to check whether the rocks have in fact vanished or not. Of course, they only exist as a plot twist within a tale – though one of the things the tale’s final question reminds us of is that an existence in words, like the rash promise that Dorigen made, is an existence we dismiss at our peril.