Arveragus or The Victory of Trouthe Over Truthfulness
By Isabelle Roughol
The Franklin’s Tale, one of the many stories comprising the Canterbury Tales, is one of Chaucer’s most celebrated and most contradictory works. This tale set in medieval Brittany narrates the uncanny marriage of the knight Arveragus and his lady Dorigen. This unlikely union was based on mutual trust, love and truthfulness and knew neither the rule of the lady that was typical of courtly love, nor the domination by the husband that was expected of a traditional marriage. In the controversial scene that will be discussed here, Arveragus orders Dorigen to give herself to a man to whom she had made the reckless promise of giving her love if he could accomplish an impossible deed. Critics have argued back and forth for centuries on the topic of knowing whether this scene (and the tale’s outcome) showed the validity of the marriage agreement or, on the contrary, its total utopia. Indeed, how should Arveragus’ reaction be interpreted? Does he stay true to his marriage vow by sending his wife to a forced adultery? And what does it say about the couples’ values and the validity of their engagement? In my opinion, Arveragus violated the marriage agreement because he valued trouthe to others and knightly honor before trouthe to his wife and to his own promise. His actions were motivated not by the mutual promise the loving couple had made to each other but by the desire to save the couple’s honor in the face of society and to abide by the principle of trouthe, not truthfulness.
In order to answer the question of whether Arveragus violates his marriage vows by ordering his wife to Aurelius, one must first carefully analyze said vows and determine exactly what kind of marriage is that of Arveragus to Dorigen. The courtship preceding their marriage is described in the first few lines of the tale as typical courtly love. The term “courtly love” comes from the French “amour courtois” (and its vernacular equivalent “fin amor”), a type of courtship and devotion to a lady that was introduced by Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of France then England, her daughter Marie of Champagne and granddaughter Queen Blanche of Castille. Dr Schwartz of California Polytechnic State University describes it as the reign of the lady over the knight who courts her, a authority relationship very much modeled on that of a knight and his liege lord.
Courtly love was celebrated by troubadour poets and was a basis of European medieval literature, and the beginning of Chaucer’s tale seems to be no exception. Indeed the text shows that Dorigen is a lady of the high society and Arveragus longs for her:
She was among the loveliest under sun
And came from kindred of so high a kind
He scarce had the temerity of mind
To tell her of his longing and distress. (Chaucer 337)
Arveragus however wins his lady’s heart by being submitted to her will and accomplishing praiseworthy deeds:
But in the end she saw his worthiness
And felt such pity for the pains he suffered,
Especially for the meek obedience offered,
That privately she fell into accord
And took him for her husband and her lord. (Chaucer 337)
However the marriage that is to ensue this courtship is not as typical and that’s where Chaucer innovates. Arveragus offers that their marriage be based on trust and truthfulness, and that neither should ever show jealousy nor try to exert authority over the other. It is important to notice that Arveragus is introduced as a very noble character: he offers his wife “so free a rein” from his own accord, even though the rules of the time compelled him otherwise (their marriage stays traditional in the eyes of others, their agreement remaining secret), and even though he showed Dorigen “meek obedience” while he was courting her. Chaucer presents Arveragus as a very virtuous character, moral and extremely generous with his wife: while she exerted complete authority during courtship, he decides to relinquish his own in marriage. As a result, readers can expect great things coming from him.
It is equally important to note that while trouthe is the value upon which the agreement is based, the couple promises to be true to each other, not to value truth above all in any circumstance and to anyone. In their vows Arveragus and Dorigen constantly refer to each other, as shows the presence of many pronouns:
He freely gave his promise as a knight
That he would never darken her delight
By exercising his authority
Against her will, or showing jealousy,
To which Dorigen replies:
God grant there never be betwixt us twain,
Through any fault of mine, dispute or strife.
Sir, I will be your true and humble wife, (Chaucer 337-338)
Trouthe is what the promise is based on but it is not the promise itself. The promise is respect and truth to each other, obedience but not authority.
Finally, we should also note that Arveragus poses one condition to this agreement: that it should remain private and that it should never stain his honor.
Save that his sovereignty in name upon her
He should preserve, lest it should shame his honour. (Chaucer 338)
After such an ideal marriage agreement comes the time to try its practicability. Arveragus leaves for two years of battle and noble deeds and Dorigen waits in worry and despair. So far, the marriage is safe. No one, not even his wife expected Arveragus to stay home by her side. The rules of knighthood compelled him to go fight. Derek Brewer, Professor Emeritus of English literature at the University of Cambridge explains the importance of honor to knights and to the entire gentile society (that is the aristocracy of the time), including Dorigen. Brewer writes, “a knight acquires honour and worship essentially by fighting bravely, by the exercise of arms, which is his predominant duty.” Medieval knights fought for God and their lord and were to be the champions of Right and Justice. Brewer adds that “[Arveragus’s] absence is the measure of his devotion. ‘I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not honour more.’” Honor is indeed vital to Arveragus, which will be the downfall of his marriage agreement.
The agreement is broken on Dorigen’s side the second she makes that reckless promise to Aurelius. Even though she certainly did not mean it literally, the few words that “she added playfully” (Chaucer 343) after refusing Aurelius did cause “betwixt [them] twain through fault of [hers].” (Chaucer 338) But what about Arveragus’s side?
Many critics argue that he stayed true to his word because by valuing truth above all he valued the foundation of his marriage. R. E. Kaske argues that Arveragus was teaching Dorigen a lesson when he ordered her to Aurelius, because he knew that the squire would never go forward with the adultery and would be touched by Arveragus’s generosity (which is indeed what happens). The idea seems to me slightly far-fetched: there is no textual evidence in the Franklin’s Tale of such a foresight on Arveragus’s part. On the contrary, he seems quite upset at the prospect of his wife’s forced adultery and, as University of Mississippi professor Timothy Flake argues, he shows his pain and humanity in subtle ways despite his trying to appear as a strong honorable knight.
And on the word he suddenly burst out weeping
And said, ‘But I forbid you on pain of death,
As long as you shall live or draw your breath,
That you should ever speak of this affair
To living soul; and what I have to bear
I’ll bear as best I may; now wash your face,
Be cheerful. None must guess at this disgrace.” (Chaucer 355)
What’s more, saying that Arveragus foresaw Aurelius’s reaction implies that he is not indeed the praiseworthy character he is depicted to be. It would mean that Arveragus was not ready to give his wife to Aurelius, and that he only sent her to him because he knew nothing would happen. With this interpretation, Arveragus is not a gentile noble character who sacrifices his personal happiness to keep trouthe. He is only manipulative and cunning.
I will agree with Flake that Arveragus does not break his marriage vows by the simple fact that he orders Dorigen to Aurelius and does not listen to her opinion on the topic. Their marriage agreement states that there will not be one partner constantly dominating the other in the relationship, and they agreed at the same time to always obey each other. That might seem contradictory but it’s not: one partner can obey the other so as to satisfy them in one situation, and vice versa, without being entirely submitted to them. After all, Arveragus promised to “obey in all with simple trust” and Dorigen to be a “true and humble wife”. It’s possible to have temporary dominance of one or the other partner in the couple without it turning into the total domination of one.
Where I disagree with Flake however is when he argues that Arveragus stayed true to his marriage vows because he respected the trouthe and helped his wife stay true to her word as well. It is necessary to differentiate trouthe itself from trouthe to each other and saving a marriage from preserving marriage vows. I agree with Flake that Arveragus stayed true to the principle of trouthe but it is Flake’s interpretation of the marriage vows that is flawed, hence our opposing conclusions.
There is no doubt that Arveragus keeps trouthe by ordering Dorigen to Aurelius. By doing so, he saves his honor as a knight: it won’t be said that he didn’t stay true to his word, or that he prevented his wife from staying true to hers. He did what had to be done in regards to the social conventions and the value that the entire society he partakes in places on trouthe.
What’s more, Dorigen is equally part of the gentile society and values trouthe just as much as Arveragus does: it can be considered an act of love that her husband helped her stay true to her values and beliefs by taking some of the burden of guilt off her shoulder. Arveragus’s love for Dorigen is strongly connected to trouthe and honour. She needs to keep her word for him to still love her:
I would rather be stabbed than live to see
You fail in truth. The very love I bear you
Bids you keep truth, in that it cannot spare you.
Truth is the highest thing in a man’s keeping. (Chaucer 355)
By making Dorigen keep her word, Arveragus saved his love for her and therefore saved their marriage.
However he might have saved their marriage, but not their marriage agreement, for the very thing he orders means they will not be true to each other anymore. The ending of the tale bears little importance: the fact that the squire and the magician were converted to gentilesse indeed shows the value of trouthe but again it is not the mutual truthfulness that was stated in the marriage vows. That is where Flake’s interpretation is I believe flawed: it considers Arveragus’ and Dorigen’s promise as a mere statement of the highest value of trouthe, when it is in fact a promise of trouthe to each other by a loving man and woman.
In short, Arveragus kept trouthe by allowing his wife to keep trouthe to Aurelius. He kept trouthe to society and the values his society holds highest, therefore saving his and his wife’s honor. It can even be argued that he saved his marriage by maintaining the values that made him love his wife. But he did not stay true to the promise he had made of them always being true to each other.
What does that say about Chaucer’s beliefs on love and marriage? Every critique tries to make it the conclusion of their essays but it is hard to know to the contemporary reader, hence the diversity of opinion. Many 21st century readers would say it merely means that one shouldn’t make rash promises, or take anyone’s word at face value. Maybe Chaucer meant that the marriage ideal is impractical and utopist. My own interpretation is that the agreement proved impossible in that situation, yet it does not invalidate it permanently. But maybe us readers mistakenly identified The Franklin’s Tale as part of the marriage group and focused the debate on the marriage vows when it really tells much more about knighthood, honor and trouthe.
Brewer, Derek. Tradition and Innovation in Chaucer. London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1982.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Franklin’s Tale”. The Canterbury Tales. Pages 337-358.
Flake, Timothy H. “Love, Trouthe, and the Happy Ending of the Franklin’s Tale”. English Studies. 1996, 3. Pages 209-226.
Kaske R.E. “Chaucer’s Marriage Group”. Chaucer the Love Poet. Edited by Jerome Mitchell and William Provost. University of Georgia Press, 1973.
Lawler, Traugott. “Delicacy vs. Truth”. New Readings of Chaucer’s Poetry. Edited by Robert G. Benson and Susan J. Ridyard. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.
Schwartz, Debora B. “Backgrounds to Romance: Courtly Love”. Medieval Literature class. California Polytechnic State University, March 2001.
Severs, J. Burke. “The Tales of Romance”. Companion to Chaucer Studies. Edited by Beryl Rowland. Toronto: New York University Press, 1968. Pages 229-246.
© Isabelle Roughol