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Tim Meester Chaucer 12/15/10 “New Men” Magic in The Franklin’s Tale In Chaucer’s England, there emerged a group of individuals born outside of the traditional nobility who were able to ascend to higher levels of social status owing to changing ideas of class. These “new men” refer to “those lower gentry and civil and legal professionals who attained office and privilege in significant numbers under the Tudors” (Middleton, 15). The new man identity has a strong connection to a particular character in “The Franklin’s Tale” – the Magician. The presence of the Magician characterizes and reveals the motives and methods of the “new men” as represented by Chaucer in the Franklin’s performance, as well as in the General Prologue. The meaning of the Middle English word that Chaucer assigns to the Magician forms the basis of our understanding with regard to the motives and methods of the new men. In medieval England, the “Tregetour” was known as “an entertainer, a sleight-of-hand artist, a juggler, an illusionist” (M.E.D. a) as well as “a deceiver, charlatan” (M.E.D. c). Tregetoures in the “Franklin’s Tale” are described as entertainers, “Swiche as thise subtile tregetoures pleye/For ofte at festes have I wel herd seye” (FranT, 1141-1142), as well as illusionists: “Somtyme a castel, al of lym and stoon -/And whan hem liked, voided it anoon” (FranT, 1149-50). Chaucer’s Magician proves his talent as an illusionist when he projects images of knights jousting in his home, but more impressively, when he uses natural magic to feign the concealment of the large rocks near the shore of Brittany. Yet the greatest deception associated
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with the Magician lies not in his mastery of natural magic but rather, in a trick that doesn’t have an explicit presence in the tale – sleight-of-hand. The true artfulness of the sleight-of-hand lies in the fact that it doesn’t belong exclusively to the craft of the Magician, but more subtly, to the cunning of the Franklin. The Franklin uses sleight-of-hand to liken himself to the Magician in order to project characteristics of the new man identity onto the Magician. In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes the Franklin as a “housholdere” who has a generous food supply: “It snewed in his house of mete and drinke” (GP, 345). The description of the Franklin as a generous homeowner encapsulates his identity as a new man. By the time Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales, franklins had amassed an enormous amount of wealth and power as landowners, which would have distinguished them from other villagers in their communities (Specht, 91). The privilege to own land as an untitled class (a privilege traditionally exclusive to the nobility) was the franklins chief opportunity to ascend in the social hierarchy. The Magician’s association with the new man seems elusive on a superficial level, because the Franklin identifies him as a clerk. Yet, beyond that illusion of identity, one discovers a character described remarkably similar to the Franklin: Hoom to his hous, and maden hem wel at ese. Hem lakked no vitaille that mighte hem plese. So wel arrayed hous as ther was oon Aurelius in his lyf saugh nevere noon (Chaucer, 223, 1185-888). The description of the Magician as a landowner with a generous food supply complicates his specific identity as a clerk because the description suggests a more than coincidental association with the Franklin. Yet the Franklin isn’t the only new man that the Magician is likened to, he
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also reminds the reader of the tavern owner Harry Bailey. There are two major similarities between the Magician and Harry Bailey that are associated with the essential identity of the new man: entertainment and generosity. Both the Magician and Bailey are thought of as entertainers. The Magician entertains at feasts with his illusions and natural magic, whereas Harry Bailey entertains the pilgrims at his tavern and encourages the pilgrims to tell stories on the way to Canterbury in order to make an otherwise boring trip entertaining: “And wel I woot, as ye goon by the weyek/Ye shapen yow to talen and to pleye”(GP, 771-772). The idea of telling stories is caught up in a complicated system of generosity strategically designed to empower Bailey. Like the Franklin and the Magician, Chaucer describes Bailey as a generous host: “He served us with vitaille at the beste./Strong was the wyn, and wel to drinke us leste” (GP, 749-50). The idea of generosity is central to the new man’s strategy of gaining power over their superiors. In an insightful study of the meaning of gift-giving in archaic societies, Marcel Mauss argues that on the surface gifts seem simply generous and are given with no ulterior motives, but in truth they work like contracts and determine rank and power within and between tribes: “To give is to show one’s superiority, to show that one is something more and higher, that one is magister. To accept without returning or repaying more is to face subordination, to become a client and subservient, to become minister” (Mauss, 72). Harry Bailey’s generosity to the pilgrims embodies Mauss’ idea of a contract system caught up with the dynamics of rank and power. Bailey’s generosity appears to have no strings attached, but in truth his generosity is used strategically to position himself as magister. He precedes his proposal for a story contest by giving the pilgrims plenty to eat and drink so that,
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feeling indebted to him, they are more likely to accept his proposal. Yet his real intention isn’t simply to persuade them to accept the proposal; the proposal is just another form of generosity concocted to empower him more. The pilgrims ascribe a value to entertainment, so as an entertainer Bailey provides a seemingly generous service and therefore the pilgrims feel even more indebted to him. Having gained the upper hand over his superiors, Bailey persuades the other members of the party to agree to a contract: each pilgrim will tell four tales each and the best one will be rewarded by him with a free dinner upon their return to the tavern. The single condition to the contract, not surprisingly, is that all must submit to Bailey’s authority: “And if you lyketh alle, by oon assent,/Now for to stonden at my jugement” (GP, 777,78). The Magician and the Franklin use the same method of generosity to usurp their superiors. In the “Franklin’s Tale” the Magician negotiates with Aurelius, his class superior, only after he has given Aurelius a generous dinner: “At after-soper fille they in tretee” (FranT, 1219). This puts pressure on Aurelius to reciprocate the generosity by agreeing to pay the Magician a large sum of money for his services. Chaucer describes the Franklin doing something remarkably similar in the General Prologue: His table dormant in his halle always Stood redy covered al the longe day. At sessiouns ther was he lord and sire; Ful ofte tyme he was knight of the shire (GP, 353-56). The passage contextualizes the specific method by which the Franklin controls his superiors: he offers to have parliament at his home, and as the host he prepares a generous dinner before proceeding with negotiations; in this context and only in this context, he becomes “lord and sire.”
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This brings up a startling question: if the Franklin meant for the Magician to simply be a clerk, why would he puzzle the pilgrims listening to the story with a description that bears such a close resemblance to his own identity and that of Harry Bailey? The answer reveals the hidden motives and methods of the new men. The Franklin refers to the Magician as a clerk so as to prevent his listeners from drawing an explicit connection between himself and the Magician. Meanwhile, through sleight of hand, the Franklin covertly operates vicariously through the character of the Magician as a way to supplant his superiors in the context of his tale; revealing, no doubt, that the Franklin’s methods are very similar in craft to those of a magician. In his tale, the Franklin uses the character of the Magician to disrupt the social hierarchy, making it possible for characters of a lower class to control characters belonging to a higher class. Aurelius takes advantage of the Magician’s illusion, concealing the rocks of Brittany in order to control two of his superiors: Averagus and Dorigene. As a knight, Averagus naturally belongs to a higher social rank than Aurelius the squire, and Dorigene comes from a “heigh kinrede” (FranT, 735). If Aurelius can exert his control over his superiors in the context of an illusion, it follows that the character most empowered in the tale is the master of the illusion, the Magician – a character who belongs to the lowest class in the tale. The Franklin places a special emphasis on the Magician ruling squires. Not only does the Magician by implication control Aurelius, but also at home, the Magician rules over another squire: To him this maister called his squyer, And seyde him thus: “Is redy oure soper? Almost an houre it is, I undertake, Sith I yow bad oure soper for to make” (FranT, 1209-1210).
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The Magician barking orders at his squire servant resonates with the Franklin’s cook in the General Prologue: “Wo was his cook, but if his sauce were/Poynaunt and sharp, and redy al his gere” (GP, 351-52). On this level, the Franklin consciously demotes the quire from the ruling class of nobles, to the subservient and vulgar class of cooks. The idea of degrading a squire to the role of a cook expresses not only the Franklin’s subconscious desire to rule over the pilgrim Squire in the context of the tale; it also identifies (albeit hyperbolically) a social reality in Chaucer’s England. Corresponding to the rise of the new men, the social prestige associated with nobles was rapidly losing its luster, because the privileges traditionally reserved for the nobility were now increasingly available to untitled new men (Strohm, 1). The Franklin then, belongs to a class of shrewd individuals utilizing radical ideological changes in order to climb the social ladder. The desire to rule over individuals ranked above them naturally became the chief motive of the new man. Their method of gaining power over their superiors, as has already been mentioned, is generosity. This becomes particularly clear if one analyzes the Franklin’s conversation with the Squire in the introduction of “The Franklin’s Tale.” The introduction to the “Franklin’s Tale” reveals the Franklin’s motive to supplant his social superiors. The Franklin’s flattery of the Squire contains a hidden aggression: Consideringe thy youthe, So feelingly thou spekest, sire, I allow the: As to my doom, there is non that is here Of eloquence that shal be thy pere (675-78) Taken at face value, the Franklin’s flattery of the Squire seems very generous because he claims that no other pilgrim can equal the Squire in eloquence as a storyteller. Yet, the compliment
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immediately appears inauthentic because it’s not very likely that the ambitious Franklin would willingly downplay his own value as a storyteller for the sake of the Squire, especially considering the fact that the pilgrims stories are competing with each other in Harry Bailey’s contest. In truth, the Franklin’s flattery strategically positions him as the superior to the Squire. On one hand, just by making judgments in regard to the best storyteller, the Franklin implicitly positions himself as an authority. On the other hand, the flattery has a condescending tone, because the Franklin qualifies the value of the Squire’s storytelling abilities in the context of his youth. As the elder to the Squire, the Franklin implies his own superiority in the context of the age difference. This becomes all the more apparent when he compares his son to the Squire: “He were a man of swich discrecioun/As that ye been” (FranT, 685-86). On one level the passage seems to just go along with the Franklin’s feigned high opinion of the Squire, but on another level it reveals the Franklin’s aggression towards the Squire’s superior class and a desire to equal and/or exceed it. “Discrecioun” can mean, “the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, moral discernment or judgment” (M.E.D. 1.a). This doesn’t seem to deviate too far from the Franklin’s flattery, because he seems to not only acknowledge the Squire as a wise and virtuous man, but he also implies the Squire’s superiority to his own son. Yet another meaning of “discrecioun” transforms flattery into aggression, and gives us a sense of the Franklin’s true motives. A third meaning of “discrecioun” has a special emphasis on honor and class: “an honorific title of one asked to exercise official discenment” (M.E.D. 5). The Franklin’s anxiety lies not just in a disappointment over his son’s moral inferiority to the Squire, but more importantly, he envies the Squire’s superiority to his son in terms of class. In Chaucer’s England, a franklins’ social prestige was achieved primarily through legacies. It was necessary, therefore, to have a son who could not only maintain the position of
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his forefathers, but also gradually climb the social ladder. (Specht,108). In short, the Franklin expresses his concern over the future of his legacy owing to the immoral conduct and imprudence of his boy. Yet regardless of all of this, the Franklin retains his own sense of superiority to the Squire through sleight-of- hand. “Discrecioun” can also mean, “the power to decide or judge, the authority to dispose of sth” (M.E.D. 3). As mentioned before, there are two ways that the Franklin implies his superiority to the Squire: by the fact that he passes judgment on the Squire’s storytelling abilities and by the fact that he is older than the Squire. Yet the Franklin’s sense of superiority isn’t confined to some fantasy of having the power and authority to judge the Squire and his story – his description as “lord and sire” and “knight of the shire” links him to the connotation of “discrecioun” which designates an honorific title. As “knight of the shire,” “a shirreve” and “a countour,” the Franklin is expected to exercise official discernment. This reflects the fact that in Chaucer’s England, new men were able to ascend the ranks of the social hierarchy “through the skilled and specialized services they were able to provide” (Strohm 1). The Franklin’s flattery then, can be read simply as a seemingly kind generous act that conceals a hidden desire to become the superior of the Squire. Like Harry Bailey, the Franklin plots to position himself as an authority figure in the presence of one superior to him through the use of generosity. The Franklin’s desperation to be considered the Squire’s superior gives us an insight into the motive of his story. The central theme of “The Franklin’s Tale” is the idea of “gentillesse.” Traditionally the term refers to “nobility of birth or rank” (M.E.D. 1a). More broadly the term means: “Nobility of character or manners; generosity, kindness, gentleness, graciousness” (M.E.D. 2a). Gentillesse, in specific, is the value that the Franklin wishes his son would aspire
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to: And he hath levre talken with a page Than to commune with any gentil wight Where he mighte lerne gentillesse aright (FranT, 692-94).

The Franklin’s primary usage of gentillesse seems to refer to “nobility of character.” On the other hand, Harry Bailey’s interjection, “Straw for your gentillesse” (FranT, 695) indicates that the term in the context of this story is confined to those of noble birth, because he criticizes the Franklin for using it. From this approach, the “Franklin’s Tale” can be read as an attempt by its author to prove that the term can be applied to him. “The Franklin’s Tale” can be read as a rhetorical strategy concocted by the Franklin to persuade the pilgrims of his right to invoke the term gentillesse. The Franklin cleverly argues that Aurelius, having just relinquished his contract with Dorigene, has just as much reason to be called gentle as Averagus: “Thus can a squyer doon a gentil dede/As well as can a knight, withouten drede” (FranT, 1543-44). Since the squire belongs to the class of nobles, it isn’t necessarily out of order to refer to them as “gentil.” However, the Franklin cleverly uses the idea of Aurelius’ inferior class to Averagus to set the tone for a more important moment. The real weight of the argument appears when the Magician (here called a clerk) makes the same claim: “But if a clerk coude doon a gentil dede/As wel as any of yow, it is no drede” (FranT, 1611-612). The Magician, insofar as he’s understood as a clerk, clearly would not have had a noble birth. Thus his claim to gentillesse is radical, but nevertheless, persuasive. When he lifts Aurelius from the burden of paying him, the Magician clearly exhibits a noble character. The Franklin poses an implicit question: Why should “gentilesse” be applied exclusively to those who were born into
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the nobility, if those born outside of it are just as capable of exhibiting a noble character? The craftiest part of the Franklin’s rhetoric is that the trajectory of the argument for the squire and clerk are positioned in a way that embodies a social hierarchy. For instance, first the Franklin argues that a squire can do a gentle deed just as much as a knight, then the Magician/clerk argues that he is just as capable of doing a gentle deed as a knight and squire. If we were to follow this logic in terms of class, the next speaker would be a franklin. The Franklin establishes such a logic to suggest that he is justified in invoking gentilesse. Although it seems like the Franklin simply values gentillesse, his real motive is to collapse the aspect of the term that connotes noble birth and replace it with the more broad meaning of generosity. The Franklin conjures up the Magician to imagine a situation where it would be conceivable to modify the specific connotations of “gentillese” in reference to being born noble, to its more broad definition of generosity; thereby giving the term relevance not just to nobles, but to non-nobles as well. In doing this, the Franklin brings attention to and disintegrates the arbitrary class boundaries that prevent him from attaining the same social prestige as the Squire. This sense of arbitrariness is projected onto the term “trouthe.” “Trouthe” defines what it means to be noble and is an essential aspect of a knight’s identity. In “The Franklin’s Tale” the term is used in the context of a series of contracts between characters: Averagus and Dorigene form a contract of marriage predicated on Averagus’ promise that he will never impose upon her free will (FranT, 213-14). Dorigene gives her “trouthe” to make love to Aurelius if the rocks on the shore of Brittany ever disappear (FranT, 219). Finally, Aurelius makes an agreement to pay the Magician a generous amount of money in exchange for the use of his talents as an illusionist to conceal the rocks on the shore of Brittany (223). In the end, the contracts seem arbitrary because they are all voided in the end. The fact that the Magician’s
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illusion changes the direction of the contract makes the contracts themselves seem like just illusions. Finally, the only character that breaks his “trouthe” in the end is the character to which the term most closely belongs – Averagus the Knight. The condition of his marriage to Dorigene was that he wouldn’t impose upon her free will. Yet, when she tells him that she doesn’t to fulfill her “trouthe” and make love to Aurelius, Averagus says: “Ye hul youre trouthe holden, by my fay!” (FranT, 229). If a character belonging to the class where “trouthe” chiefly applies brushes its significance aside, then it truly becomes arbitrary. Yet the Franklin isn’t interested simply in bringing attention to the arbitrary nature of “trouthe,” rather, he’s trying to insert a value system of his own as a way usurp his superiors. At the end of his tale, the Franklin leaves the other pilgrims with a question to ponder: “’Lordinges, this question thane wolde I aske now:/Which was the moste free, as thinketh yow?” (FranT, 233). The pilgrims aren’t asked which character kept their “trouthe,” instead it emphasizes a value that trumps it, one that empowers the new man: generosity. It’s no surprise then that the character that exhibits the most generosity is the one most associated with the new men – the Magician. The Magician is the most generous in the story because he gives the gift that cannot be repaid. Aurelius requites Averagus’ generosity by backing down from his contract with Dorigene, so he is arguably more generous than Averagus. Aurelius, however, is unable to requite the Magician for his services and therefore becomes minister to the Magician. In the context of the tale, the Magician gets the last say, “Thou hast y-payed wel for my vitaille” (FranT, 1618). This of course, reminds us of Harry Bailey, who so selflessly offers to be the source of entertainment for the group. Read in this light, Bailey’s interjection in the introduction to “The Franklin’s Tale” doesn’t so much criticize the Franklin for overreaching his class boundaries, rather, it reveals the
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new man method of gaining power. “Straw for your gentillesse!” reminds us of the straw cutting that takes place to determine the order of storytellers. Immediately after the interjection, Bailey reminds the Franklin that he’s obligated to tell a story: What, Frankeleyn! Pardee, sire, wel thou wost That eche of yow mot tellen ate leste A tale or two, or breken his biheste (FranT, 696). Earlier in the essay, it was established that Bailey positions himself as superior in the context of a contract requiring all pilgrims to tell stories on the way to Canterbury; the best story, in turn, is rewarded by Bailey. The stories in The Canterbury Tales then, can be read as a series of entertainments told by characters in an attempt to gain power in a system that rewards the most generous tale. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not Harry Bailey and the Franklin are secretly aligned, because every pilgrim in the “Canterbury Tales,” regardless of their class, must requite their debts to the new men. In conclusion, the character of the Magician characterizes the motives and methods of Chaucer’s new men, as represented in the “General Prologue” and the Franklin’s performance. A magician by definition uses tricks and illusions to disrupt the natural order of things. In the context of The Canterbury Tales, new men use tricks to disrupt the social hierarchy as a way to gain power. As a character, he is likened to both the Franklin and Harry Bailey as a generous host. The idea of generosity speaks to the way in which all three characters usurp their superiors – with tricks. As the real magician, the Franklin conjures up the Magician in his story in order to disrupt the social hierarchy. In the context of the story, the Magician uses magic to control his superiors and at the end, he is empowered by another trick that belongs to the new man – generosity. Through the power of the tale itself, the Franklin collapses concepts associated with
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the nobility that prevent him from acquiring the highest social prestige reserved for the nobility. Ultimately, this all leads to the understanding that the Franklin is empowered by a new man system, established by Harry Bailey.

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