Juxtaposing Courtly and Carnal Love in The Canterbury 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, the concept of courtly love has pervaded Western literature. The reality of carnal love, however, is much older. Chaucer juxtaposes these two drastically different types of romantic relationships in the first two stories of The Canterbury Tales. Through his gentle, poetic description of Emily in “The Knight’s Tale” and his frankly sensual description of Alison in “The Miller’s Tale,” Chaucer establishes the woman as the object of desire for two opposing kinds of conquests. The first type of conquest—that of courtly love—is nobler in its spiritual goal of uniting two souls destined to be together. The second type of conquest—that of carnal love—is much baser and more animalistic, seeking only to unite two lusty bodies. Chaucer seems to champion the latter as more applicable to the real world, however, even if it employs lewd methods. Chaucer likens Emily to all of the beautiful, natural elements that have become standard bases of comparison for women in European literature. He compares her to flowers (lines 1035-38), symbols of innocence and fragility. Her hair is golden, which alludes to innocence, as well. The saying “pure as gold” exists, after all. In another sense of the word, golden hair is most common among children, perhaps the most common symbols of innocence. Many

brunette adults, for instance, had light hair as children before it darkened with age (and thus accumulated sins). Chaucer elaborates upon Emily’s hair, explaining that her braid measured “a yerde long” [a yard long] (line 1050); during that age, long hair represented a woman’s chastity and femininity. If these factors alone do not convince the reader of Emily’s virtue, Chaucer even explicitly calls her an “aungel” [angel] (line 1055) as he mentions her melodious singing voice. He continues to say that she appears fresh and bright (line 1066), as if she glows with a heavenly aura. Chaucer does not describe Emily’s body in a risqué, or even especially specific, manner. In his article, "The Knight's Tale: The Dialogue of Romance, Epic, and Philosophy,” John Finlayson writes the following: "The details--rose, lilies, yellow hair, sunlight--and the adjectives--fair, fresh, new--are as stereotyped here as they are in an Elizabethan sonnet… we have instead an image of light, flower garlands, yellow hair, and the freshness and vigor of early morning...This impressionism evokes the emotional response of the viewers, Arcite and Palamon, while at the same time locating Emily firmly as Youth and Beauty, rather than Ms. Emily of Athens. Specificity and greater individuality are reserved for Alison in the next tale, because her role has less to do with eternal and elevating Love than with the stirrings of another, less exalted eternal, Lust." (Finlayson 132-133).

Emily is a somewhat vague, rather typically beautiful woman of her historical period. Isolt or Guinevere could have easily assumed the same physical description, for instance. Finlayson’s statement underscores what he previously points out in his essay: "A principal characteristic of romance is its formalism of language, gesture, and story--what might be considered its deliberate exclusion of naturalism" (Finlayson 130). In contrast, Chaucer’s description of Alison is much more natural—natural to the point of caveman barbarism. Whereas Chaucer is subtle and polite in describing Emily, he points out Alison’s sheer sexiness much more bluntly, viewing her through the lens of a man solely focused on sex. The first feature he mentions is her body “gent and delicate” (line 3233) as opposed to her virtue or sweet face. He then details her girdle, apron, and hips— concentrating on the very section of the body most interesting to men in 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 she makes a conscious effort to appeal to men. Plucking one’s eyebrows must have been an especially painful process in the Middle Ages, when women did not dampen torn-up hair follicles with disinfectant or properly clean tweezers after using them. After observing her

plucked brows, Chaucer likens Alison to a pear tree. In medieval times, the ideal figure for a woman was pear-shaped, meaning a small bosom and a little waist that flared out into ample hips that signaled fertility.

Because human females do not undergo an estrous cycle (i.e., experience an “in heat” period) like most other mammals, men must subconsciously seek other signs in potential mates. Wide hips increase a woman’s ability to safely give birth, especially during a historical period known for its primitive medicine. Numerous women, namely frail, small-hipped ones, died in childbirth during the Middle Ages. A ‘healthy’ woman is one eager men like Nicholas consider fit to produce babies; a woman ready for babies is, also, one essentially ready for sex. Chaucer also says Alison is “softer than wolle”[wool] (line 3249). Wool is a crass slang term for a woman’s vulvic pubic hair, evidencing Chaucer’s vulgar, sexist view of Alison. It is only after Chaucer has so heavily alluded to Alison’s vaginal area and her desire to please men that he starts to discuss her other features. She has a “shynyng…hewe” [shining complexion] (line 3255) and a lovely singing voice (line 3257), but even those descriptions contain sexual undertones. The image of a shining complexion references the sweat formed during lovemaking. Additionally, many men consider a woman’s voice a very erotic feature because it differs noticeably from their own. Next, Chaucer talks about Alison’s penchant for dancing and playing (line 3258), but, given the overt sensuality of previous descriptions, that could easily mean that Alison is ready to play the game of love (and thus lovemaking.) Alison’s mouth, low neckline, and legs then take on the center of attention. Obviously,

kissing and other sexual acts involve the mouth, while the breasts and legs also form focal points in bedroom activities. Finally, Chaucer explicitly says what he has been hinting at all along: “She was a prymerole, a piggesnye/For any lord to leggen in his bedde/Or yet for any good yeman to wedde” (lines 3268-3270). In other words, Alison is perfect for bedding. So when Nicholas first spies her, he cannot help but resist such an inherently tantalizing beauty. It is equally important to note not only Chaucer’s descriptions of Emily and Alison’s physical appearances, but also their actions. Their behavior firmly distinguishes courtly and carnal love, and Chaucer’s criticism of the former as too lofty. Consider how Emily is pure, while Alison only feigns purity. Alison does, after all, very quickly succumb to Nicholas' advances. He simply sheds crocodile tears before she agrees to sleep with him, indicating that she merely played coy in initially declining him. In contrast, Emily sincerely has no desire to marry, preferring hunting and gathering flowers as her maidenly pastimes. Neither knight so much as piques her interest, even though Chaucer describes both as attractive men. By feigning purity akin to Emily’s, Alison mocks such a chaste lifestyle and therefore mocks the whole idea of courtly love—something “The Miller’s Tale” accomplishes as a whole. Alison’s raunchy behavior as an enthusiastic adulteress is well-suited to the comedic genre of fabliau

tales. Henry Seidel Canby claims the following about fabliaux in his article, “The English Fabliau”: “One’s only justification for approaching these contes à rire with anything but laughter must be a desire to search into the qualities which make ‘lewed peple loven tales olde,’ and especially the nature of the humor which preserves those called fabliaux from age to age” (Canby 200). If the reader does not laugh about Alison and Nicholas’ libidinous affair, then he obviously does not see how much fun Chaucer pokes at traditional courtly love stories. Alison finds happiness by committing sin, not shrouding herself in innocence like Emily. Despite all her goodness and

purity, angelic Emily does not win in her struggle to avoid marriage, while devilish Alison earns exactly what she wants. While Emily suffers a destiny she has always feared, Alison enjoys zero societal ostracism for committing adultery, and Nicholas as her bedfellow. James H. Morey states the following his article, “The ‘Cultour’ in the ‘Miller’s Tale’: Alison as Iseult”: “Of the four main characters in the Miller’s Tale, only Alison’s actions and intentions are not thwarted, and she is much more at home in the world of fabliau than Emily is in the world of romance…the woman wins” (Morey 378). According to Chaucer’s tales, then, it seems that men will more likely meet success if they chase after the objects of carnal love. In “The Knight’s Tale,” Palamon—not Arcite, who serves at Emily’s chamber page for three years without ever once trying to seduce her—ends up marrying

Emily. In “The Miller’s Tale,” Nicholas, not the faithful, supportive John, or the kind, charming Absalom, wins Alison’s heart. Courtly love—with all its romantic ideals about loving from afar and paying homage to a lady as you would a goddess—proves ineffectual. You may never join souls with the woman of your dreams, but getting her in bed seems infinitely more likely. In contrasting Emily and Alison, Chaucer distinguishes courtly from carnal love and how the latter leads to happiness and satisfaction in a way courtly love cannot. In fact, Chaucer shows just how pointless and unrealistic courtly love is, especially by underlying the fates of each woman at the end of her respective tale. Chaucer, applauding the efficiency of men displaying romantic candor and holding realistic expectations in love, makes it clear that the value of sex (and sexiness) should not be underestimated.

Canby, Henry Seidel. “The English Fabliau.” PMLA, Vol. 21. New York: Modern Language Assocation, 1906. Finlayson, John. "The Knight's Tale: The Dialogue of Romance, Epic, and Philosophy." The Chaucer Review, Vol. 27, No. 2. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1992 Morey, James, H. “The ‘Cultour’ in the ‘Miller’s Tale’: Alison as Iseult.” The Chaucer Review. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1995.

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