I’ve read The Canterbury Tales a few times in my academic career, but the only one I had any clear memory of before this read-through was the Miller’s Tale. It was easy to imagine why the Miller’s Tale would have been banned, since it’s a raunchy story full with sex, debauchery, and bad language. The miller even warns us of this, saying, “I am dronke […] And therfore if that I mysspeke or seye,/ Wyte it the ale of Southwerk” (3138-3141). The narrator as well warns us that the story may be offensive. (It is very interesting to look at the way the different characters introduce their tales, often in a way that makes their values and the content of their stories very clear.) The Miller’s Tale begins with a description of Nicholas and Alisoun, the wife of the carpenter who is giving lodging to Nicholas. Alisoun is very attractive and youthful. The miller describes her beauty and likens her to a weasel, a clever and sly animal that also has a similar body type as her. Although she is just eighteen, Alisoun has captured the hearts of multiple men, namely her husband the carpenter, Nicholas, and a vain parish clerk. With the help of Nicholas, Alisoun manages to dupe the other two men, making them both look and feel ridiculous. Alisoun even participates in some activities, such as leaning her butt out of the window for Absolon to kiss, showing she has autonomy and enjoys the tricks she is playing on the other men. The Miller’s Tale, aside from being bawdy entertainment, shows the power that an attractive young woman can have, even in Chaucer’s time. It also shows that inquiring into “Goddes pryvetee,” a euphemism for female genitalia, brings trouble.
While The Miller’s Tale stuck in my memory, I admittedly don’t remember reading the other tales that were assigned to us. I was very surprised to see, however, that they all had a recurring theme: female power and autonomy. The Franklin’s Tale is much more palatable than the miller’s; he says his story “moot be bare and pleyn,” a promise that is a far cry from the miller’s drunken warning that he gives at the beginning of his story (720). The Franklin’s story concerns a woman named Dorigene and her relationship with her husband and a young squire who falls in love with her. Arviagus, her husband, absolutely adores her and does anything she asks. They decide together that their marriage will be one of equality, something extremely abnormal for Chaucer’s time. When Arviragus has to leave, Dorigene is beside herself with sorrow. In an attempt to cheer her up, Dorigene’s girlfriends bring her to a Mayday festival, where she meets Aurelius, a squire who admits he has been pining after her for years. She placates his pleas for love by promising him that if he can remove all of the rocks on the coastline, she will leave her husband and marry him. However she promises, “Ne shal I nevere been untrewe wyf,” obviously not expecting that Aurelius will able to complete his end of the bargain (984). Things get complicated when Aurelius fulfills Dorigene’s request with the help of a sorcerer, right when Arviragus returns. Although Dorigene contemplates suicide in order to protect the sanctity of her marriage, the story ends happily, with Aurelius allowing Dorigene to maintain her honor and stay with her husband.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is where things get a little weird. Set in a barnyard, the priest tells a story about an attractive rooster named Chantecleer and his main hen, Pertelote. When Chantecleer has an ominous dream, Pertelote criticizes him for his cowardice, saying, “Now han ye lost myn here and al my love!” (4100). Chantecleer eventually puts his premonitions aside, and tells Pertelote, “womman is mannes joye and al his blis” (3166). While we find at the end that Chantecleer’s dream was indeed correct, Pertelote regardless has some very strong powers of persuasion. The Second Nun’s Tale is quite different from The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, however, it speaks to female power as well. The prologue sets Cecilia up as a beautiful, virgin saint. I was curious to see what the actual tale was about so I looked up a summary. Cecilia, determined to stay chaste and pure, manages to send her new husband, Valerian, to get baptized so that he can see her guardian angel and understand why she refuses to consummate their marriage. This leads to Valerian converting his brother. Before the two are put to death for being Christians under the Roman Empire, some of the prison guards are also converted. When Cecilia is finally sentenced to death for her actions, she survives two attempts to execute her, and she continues preaching for three days after getting partially beheaded. Cecilia’s undying commitment to her purity and God makes her into a Saint.
All of these women (and a chicken) use their feminine power to get men to do what they want. The Canterbury Tales has a remarkable series of female roles that show the power of women. Intentional or not, Alisoun, Dorigene, Pertelote, and Cecilia make The Canterbury Tales more than a book full of sexual innuendos and dirty language. It becomes a series of stories about strong women who are able to overcome the male power system, in at least some sense, in order to achieve their goals.