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Juxtaposing Courtly and Carnal Love in The Canterbury Tales: A Comparison of Emily and Alison in “Knight’s Tale” and “Miller’s Tale”

Juxtaposing Courtly and Carnal Love in The Canterbury Tales: A Comparison of Emily and Alison in “Knight’s Tale” and “Miller’s Tale”

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Published by Christine Stoddard
An essay concerning two of Chaucer's stories in The Canterbury Tales. Learn more about Christine and her creative projects at www.christinestoddard.com.
An essay concerning two of Chaucer's stories in The Canterbury Tales. Learn more about Christine and her creative projects at www.christinestoddard.com.

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Published by: Christine Stoddard on Dec 02, 2009
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05/11/2014

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 Juxtaposing Courtly and Carnal Love in
TheCanterbury Tales:
A Comparison of Emily and Alison in “Knight’s Tale” and“Miller’s Tale”
 From the birth of Tristan and Isolt’s monumental romance, theconcept of courtly love has pervaded Western literature. The reality of carnal love, however, is much older. Chaucer juxtaposes these twodrastically different types of romantic relationships in the first twostories of 
The Canterbury Tales
. Through his gentle, poetic descriptionof Emily in “The Knight’s Tale” and his frankly sensual description of Alison in “The Miller’s Tale,” Chaucer establishes the woman as theobject of desire for two opposing kinds of conquests. The first type of conquest—that of courtly love—is nobler in its spiritual goal of unitingtwo souls destined to be together. The second type of conquest—thatof carnal love—is much baser and more animalistic, seeking only tounite two lusty bodies. Chaucer seems to champion the latter as moreapplicable to the real world, however, even if it employs lewd methods.Chaucer likens Emily to all of the beautiful, natural elementsthat have become standard bases of comparison for women inEuropean literature. He compares her to flowers (lines 1035-38),symbols of innocence and fragility. Her hair is golden, which alludes toinnocence, as well. The saying “pure as gold” exists, after all. Inanother sense of the word, golden hair is most common amongchildren, perhaps the most common symbols of innocence. Many
 
brunette adults, for instance, had light hair as children before itdarkened with age (and thus accumulated sins). Chaucer elaboratesupon Emily’s hair, explaining that her braid measured “a yerde long”[a yard long] (line 1050); during that age, long hair represented awoman’s chastity and femininity. If these factors alone do not convincethe reader of Emily’s virtue, Chaucer even explicitly calls her an“aungel” [angel] (line 1055) as he mentions her melodious singingvoice. He continues to say that she appears fresh and bright (line1066), as if she glows with a heavenly aura. Chaucer does notdescribe Emily’s body in a risqué, or even especially specific, manner.In his article, "The Knight's Tale: The Dialogue of Romance, Epic, andPhilosophy,” John Finlayson writes the following:"The details--rose, lilies, yellow hair,sunlight--and the adjectives--fair,fresh, new--are as stereotyped hereas they are in an Elizabethansonnet… we have instead an imageof light, flower garlands, yellow hair,and the freshness and vigor of earlymorning...This impressionismevokes the emotional response of the viewers, Arcite and Palamon,while at the same time locatingEmily firmly as Youth and Beauty,rather than Ms. Emily of Athens.Specificity and greater individualityare reserved for Alison in the nexttale, because her role has less to dowith eternal and elevating Love thanwith the stirrings of another, lessexalted eternal, Lust." (Finlayson132-133). 
 
Emily is a somewhat vague, rather typically beautiful woman of her historical period. Isolt or Guinevere could have easily assumed thesame physical description, for instance. Finlayson’s statementunderscores what he previously points out in his essay: "A principalcharacteristic of romance is its formalism of language, gesture, andstory--what might be considered its deliberate exclusion of naturalism"(Finlayson 130). In contrast, Chaucer’s description of Alison is muchmore natural—natural to the point of caveman barbarism.Whereas Chaucer is subtle and polite in describing Emily, hepoints out Alison’s sheer sexiness much more bluntly, viewing herthrough the lens of a man solely focused on sex. The first feature hementions is her
body 
“gent and delicate” (line 3233) as opposed to hervirtue or sweet face. He then details her girdle, apron, and hips—concentrating on the very section of the body most interesting to menin terms of lovemaking. To continue with the steamy portrayal,Chaucer discusses her undergarment and calls her eye “likerous”[flirtatious] (line 3244). Alison’s plucked eyebrows indicate that shemakes a conscious effort to appeal to men. Plucking one’s eyebrowsmust have been an especially painful process in the Middle Ages, whenwomen did not dampen torn-up hair follicles with disinfectant orproperly clean tweezers after using them. After observing herplucked brows, Chaucer likens Alison to a pear tree. In medieval times,the ideal figure for a woman was pear-shaped, meaning a small bosomand a little waist that flared out into ample hips that signaled fertility.

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