In a class on Chaucer yesterday, a group of Torrey sophomores (hi, Lewis group!) examined Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with an eye on the theme of marriage.
Chaucer scholars disagree about the order and coherence of the Tales, but only a pretty obtuse reader would miss the fact that these Canterbury pilgrims are having an extended argument about marriage. Specifically, they are opining about who’s got control in the marriage relationship.
That astonishing woman, the Wife of Bath, declares forcibly that sovereignty belongs to the wife, and the sooner husbands will admit that, the better things will be. She has worn out five husbands, and is looking for the sixth, wink wink. Her prologue and her tale, in diverse ways, make a strong and overt case for female sovereignty, Mighty Matriarchy. Never mind that what she really wants is for a certified Real Man to put up a good fight instead of collapsing under her first assault; the point is she wants to rule.
The Clerk follows with a tale about a case of female submission (Griselda!) that goes to such an extreme of self-abnegation that it’s hard to look at, especially as the tyrannical husband becomes increasingly mad with power and cruelty. This tale is mainly a misfire, and even the Clerk tacks on a religious moral only obliquely related to the horror story.
Let’s avert our eyes also from the Merchant’s tale (old January gets married), and let it be sufficient to say that the course of love doesn’t run exactly smooth there.
We rounded off our class discussion with the Franklin’s tale, and his theory that mastery has no place in marriage, because as soon as it shows up the god of love takes flight. Instead of asking who wears the pants in the marriage, husband and wife must extend to each other that conquering virtue, patience. This is the way to happiness and love. The question of authority must not even be raised!
The Franklin’s tale, and his marital philosophy, is not necessarily the final word from Chaucer. But it did help these sophomores come to equilibrium after the vertigo of the Wife (Tyrant Woman!), the Clerk (Tyrant Man!), and the Merchant (Girls Gone Wild!). Before the Franklin, a balance of power seemed like the summum bonum; after him, something like mutual submission in a post-authoritarian climate begins to seem possible.
But here’s something odd. Nowhere among the possibilities advocated by these speakers was there an old familiar biblical and traditional teaching regarding male headship. Instead, the opening note is the Wife of Bath’s strong case for female headship. Wouldn’t it be a dramatic improvement if the Wife of Bath were a response to a previous speaker who advocated male headship? Chaucer chose, instead, to let her tale start the argument. The somewhat inept Clerk then answers her with a tale of male tyrrany. The equilibrium we move toward with the Franklin expunges all possible discussion of male headship. The notion becomes unspeakable.
Why, of all possible views, is this the one that does not find an advocate among the Canterbury pilgrims? At this point, a courageous interpreter would make a declaration about what Chaucer himself is teaching. I can only muster a guess at what Chaucer might be teaching, while freely admitting that I’m making a hypothesis about the invisible cat (“Of course you can’t see him, that proves he’s here, get it? He’s invisible!”)
Chaucer might be organizing the marriage arguments around an empty space where the traditional, non-tyrannical, Christian idea of male headship in marriage would be located. But “the Christian idea” of marriage, as Paul makes clear, is a mysterion, a witness to the sacrificial love of Christ the Lord. Insert here: the ethics of Philippians 2, the ethics of God the Son! Perhaps male headship in a marriage, whatever it might look like in practice, is best promulgated indirectly. A shrewd author, one skilled in the art of effective disclosure, would bring this unspeakable thing into effect in a narrative, without ever taking the risk of putting it into words. Once the battle of the sexes has begun, “wives, submit to your husbands” is the love that dare not speak its name, since it will look like just another contender in the power game. The apostle Paul negotiated similar terrain when he had to bring apostolic authority to the Corinthians, whose expertise was forming a new fighting faction every time a new teacher spoke with authority. Real authority in a world of counterfeit authorities has to be wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove.
Too esoteric? A Straussian Antifeminist Chaucer? Kierkegaard takes a new pseudonym to write a Southern Baptist marriage manual? Maybe so, guilty as charged. But it was a good class, with students who did the hard work of attending to the living voice of The Canterbury Tales .