Marriage in the 'Marriage Group Tales' of The Canterbury Tales

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004
29 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1. Introduction

2. Historical Background
2.1 Marriage in the Middle Ages
2.2 The Concept of Courtly Love

3. Marriage in the Canterbury Tales
3.1 Tales about Marriage
3.2 The Constitution of the “Marriage Group”

4. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale as the Initiation of the “Marriage Debate”
4.1 Sources, Structure and Themes of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue
4.2 The Wife of Bath’s Tale
4.2.1 Summary of the Tale
4.2.2 Sources, Structures and Themes
4.3 Marriage as Mastery of the Woman

5. The Franklin’s Tale as the Conclusion of the “Marriage Debate”
5.1 Summary of the Tale
5.2 Sources, Structure and Themes
5.3 Love as the controlling principle

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The Canterbury Tales are a collection of twenty-three tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. A frame tale embraces the different tales which are told by a group of pilgrims on their way from Southwark to Canterbury where the group wants to visit the sacred shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. In order to make their pilgrimage more enjoyable, the pilgrims decide that each pilgrim tells two stories on their way to Canterbury and two on the return trip. The Host will then decide which was the best tale. However, The Canterbury Tales are incomplete. With all of the thirty pilgrims telling four stories, there should have been a hundred and twenty tales in all according to the original plan. But Chaucer only completed twenty-three tales.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrimage was a social as well as a religious event. Different social classes were mingled together. All the three strata of fourteenth century English society are represented in the tales – the nobility, the clergy and the commoners.

The themes in The Canterbury Tales are as various as the pilgrims are. Some tales deal with the corruption of the Church and religious malpractice. Therefore, a number of churchmen and churchwomen are depicted and often treated ironically. Another important theme in the tales is the corruptness of human nature which can be linked to the theme of the decline of moral values. Chivalry is depicted in some tales, often closely connected to the concept of courtly love. The position of women in the Middle Ages as well as their position in marriage relationships are themes which appear in some way or the other in almost all of the tales. Four of the tales have even been called the “Marriage Group”.

The following paper is going to deal with marriage in the “Marriage Group Tales” of The Canterbury Tales. The first part of this paper will examine the importance of marriage in the Middle Ages and the position of women in medieval society. Then, the development of the idea of courtly love will be presented.

In a second part, this paper is going to give a short survey about all the tales dealing with marriage. The idea of a “Marriage Group” in The Canterbury Tales will then be presented.

The last section of this paper will deal with two of the tales which constitute the beginning and the end of the “Marriage Group”, namely the Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and the two tales will be summarized. Important sources, themes and structures will be presented. Then, their view on marriage will be analysed, especially taking into consideration their function as the initiation and conclusion of the “Marriage Debate”.

2. Historical Background

2.1 Marriage in the Middle Ages

In medieval time, an opposition existed between two models of marriage – the secular and the ecclesiastical. The secular model of marriage was created to safeguard the social order; the ecclesiastical model was created to safeguard the divine order.[1] However, in the early Middle Ages, the secular model was the common one, as marriage was in this time seen as a civil contract, a marriage pact concluded between two houses. It was primarily designed to control the patrimony, to maintain or even enlarge the family possessions and to tie family bonds.

The Church did not create a regularly used wedding liturgy until the twelfth century when marriage became a sacrament. For the Church, the primary purpose of marriage was procreation. Another official reason was the avoidance of fornication – that is, unsanctified sex. Other acceptable motives were the reconciliation of enemies, money and beauty.[2] However, the control of the Church over the marriage ceremony did not become absolutely formal until the Council of Trent (1545-1563). From this time on, marriages had to be concluded in the presence of one priest and at least two witnesses.[3]

Marriage was an exchange of property, that is to say, the woman was being given by her father to her husband. The union of property and money were what was being celebrated – not the union of two lovers. Marriage was like a purchase trade for the families. It became particularly important in feudal times. Through marriage, one family was linked to another. This could be of great significance in business affairs and even in war. Only the eldest son of a marriage became the heir of the family property, thus keeping it undivided and strong. To avoid marriages between persons of unequal social degrees, the Magna Carta of 1215 laid stress on the fact that marriage should be between pares, that is to say, persons of the same social standing.[4]

Marrying was not a choice of the women but it was determined by the will of the parents and fellow kinship. It was done by arrangement. The guardianship of the woman was transferred from the father to the future husband, making it impossible for the women to ever obtain a sense of independence. “Even if not an heiress, a woman under feudalism spent most of her life under the guardianship of a man – of her father until she married, of her father’s lord if her father died, and of her husband until she was widowed.”[5]

The average age of consent for a female was seven years; however, the marriage could not take place until the girl reached twelve and the boy fifteen.[6] Nevertheless, the Church often did not dare to prevent or annul marriages which had already taken place.

After the marriage had been arranged by the parents and all financial questions had been settled, there usually was a betrothal ceremony[7] which took place before witnesses. During the time before the actual marriage took place, banns were read out in Church for three times to allow everyone to come forward and give reasons why the marriage might not be allowed to happen. If no reasons were provided, bride and groom met at the church door, as the wedding ceremony took place outside the church door. The groom gave a ring to his bride which should symbolically serve as his dowry.[8] After that, the exchange of vows took place[9]. Then, the couple entered the church where a bridal mass was celebrated. The couple knelt down for a further blessing of their marriage. The bridal mass was followed by a feast for which the father of the bride usually paid for. The formal part of a marriage ended with the blessing of the bridal bedchamber and bed by a priest.[10]

From the day a female was born, she was taught how to become a good wife. Women were expected to be subservient, to love, honour and obey their husbands and to produce the offspring. Given that wives were completely in the hands of their husbands, the fact that wife-

beating was common during medieval times is hardly surprising. The right to beat their women was even allowed to the husbands by law, as shown by the following extract from the thirteenth century French law code, Customs of Beauvais:

In a number of cases men may be excused for the injuries they inflict on their wives, nor

should the law intervene. Provided he neither kills nor maims her, it is legal for a man to

beat his wife when she wrongs him.[11]

But women also had important duties. They were in charge of the household economy and the female servants which usually meant a lot of responsibility.

Housekeeping in a big household in the Middle Ages was certainly a great burden,

involving the provision of clothes and food for a large family and for all the servants,

and providing entertainment for many guests as well.[12]


[1] Cf. Georges Duby, Medieval Marriages. Baltimore, London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978, p.3.

[2] Cf. Frances Gies and Joseph Gies. Women in the Middle Ages. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1978,

p. 34.

[3] Cf. Angela M. Lucas, Women in the Middle Ages – Religion, Marriage and Letters. Brighton: The Harvester

Press, 1983, p. 71.

[4] Cf. Ibid., p. 85-86.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cf. Ibid., p. 89.

[7] Cf. Appendix I.

[8] Cf. Appendix II.

[9] Cf. Appendix III.

[10] Cf. Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women – A Social History of Women in England 450-1500. London: Phoenix

Press, 20035, p. 107-109 and

[11] Frances Gies, p. 46.

[12] Angela M. Lucas, p. 132.

Excerpt out of 29 pages


Marriage in the 'Marriage Group Tales' of The Canterbury Tales
University of Trier
Englische Sprachwissenschaft
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ISBN (eBook)
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Incl. 8 pages appendix
Marriage, Group, Tales, Canterbury, Englische, Sprachwissenschaft
Quote paper
MA Simone Petry (Author), 2004, Marriage in the 'Marriage Group Tales' of The Canterbury Tales, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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