5.2 The Franklin's Tale

Whit was his berd as is the dayesye;
     Of his complexioun he was sangwyn.
     . . .
     An anlaas and a gipser al of silk
     Heeng at his girdel, whit as morne milk.


Short Summary:

Dorigen and Averagus marry, swearing that neither will ever exert absolute power over the other. Aurelius, a young squire, in Averagus' absence, courts Dorigen, who rejects him by setting what she thinks is an impossible task: remove the threatening rocks from the coast, she promises, and I shall grant you my love. With the help of a learned clerk (to whom he promises an immense fee), Aurelius succeeds (though perhaps only by illusion) and he then demands her love. She tells Averagus, who orders her to keep the assignation with Aurelius. Aurelius, impressed with Averagus' action, in turn releases Dorigen from her promise. The learned clerk, impressed by Aurelius' action, forgives the squire his debt. The question remains: who was the "most free"?

(Students reading this tale for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful).


Contextual Information:
The Franklin labels his tale a Breton lay.  For a contemporary definition of the genre see: Introduction to the Lai de Frein.

Although the Franklin's Tale is a very unusual "Breton lay," it does have elements of romance (see esp. Derek Pearsall, The Canterbury Tales, London, 1985. Moreover, the names of Averagus and Aurelius seem to have been derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Histories of the Kings of Britain, which also contains an account of Merlin's magical moving of rocks (to build Stonehenge); (see iv.15 and vii.10-12).

However, no close analogues to the Franklin's Tale appear in any of the surviving romances. Much more likely is that the tale was suggested by Boccaccio; he used a story of a lover's impossible demands in the Decameron: Decameron; Tenth Day, Fifth Tale.

The same tale in a more elaborate form (with the production of a garden in January rather than removal of rocks as the "impossible" demand) appears in Boccaccio's Filocolo , which many scholars regard as a direct source for the Franklins Tale: Filocolo, Fourth Question.

The version in Il Filocolo concludes with an extended debate on who was the "most free." Chaucer leaves that out, preferring that we come up with our own answers -- but those offered by the characters in Boccaccio's version are most interesting.

Dorigen's "rash promise" has attracted considerable attention; for a contemporary example from what is claimed to be real life see: Book of the Knight of LaTour Landry, chapter 131.

Dorigen's catalogue of women who committed suicide rather than become unchaste is drawn from Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum: Jerome, Examples of pagan chastity.

The idea of a "contract" governing a marriage comes up in one of the exempla told by the "Goodman of Paris": A marriage "contract."

The Franklin's Tale has long been regarded as the culmination of "The Marriage Group," the discussion of marriage that extends at least from the Wife of Bath's Prologue to the the Franklin's Tale, which has traditionally been taken as in some sense resolving the "marriage question" proposed by the Wife of Bath -- who should rule in a marriage? This reading was developed by George Lyman Kittredge as part of his interpretation of The Canterbury Tales as a dramatically realized "Human Comedy." Kittredge's article on "Chaucer's Discussion of Marriage" is one of, if not the most, famous and influential critical articles ever written on Chaucer. Few would agree with all Kittredge says in this article, but it continues to shape much of the debate about The Canterbury Tales down to the present day.

For two approaches quite different from Kittredge's see:

                David Aers, "Chaucer: Love, Sex and Marriage," from Chaucer, Langland, and the creative imagination, 1980 pp. 143-70.
                Jill Mann, "Chaucerian Themes and Style in the Franklin's Tale," New Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol. 1, Part 1, Chaucer and Alliterative Poetry, ed. Boris Ford, pp. 133-153.

As these articles show, interpretations of the Franklin's Tale differ greatly; Kittredge's reading (cited above) is still current and may be right, but it has seemed too neat to many contemporary critics. The Franklin is a man who loves domestic ease and (one assumes) tranquility; compromise, some critics argue, comes naturally to him as the easy way out. Alfred David, in The Strumpet Muse (Bloomington, IUP, 1976 [PR1924.D3], warns that what Kittredge argues is Chaucer's own solution -- "A better has never been devised or imagined" -- deeply appeals to our modern sensibilities and thus is, for that very reason, suspect.

For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Franklin's Tale (and "romances" generally) click here.