Analyse the encomium on marriage showing how Chaucer reveals attitudes to marriage. How might a modern reader respond? An encomium is a formal expression of praise, a tribute. Chaucer makes use of this literary convention in his epic poem, ‘The Merchant’s Tale. ‘ Through this encomium, which has been described by some critics to be ‘one of the most amazing instances of sustained irony in all literature,’ Chaucer reveals various attitudes towards marriage, through his use of language, style and irony.
The fact that Chaucer has chosen an encomium in which to reveal to the audience different attitudes towards marriage, in itself conveys the attitude revealed. The sermon style immediately calls into question whether or not the digression is to be taken literally or if it is in fact used by Chaucer to ironically reveal to the reader the Merchant’s true attitude towards marriage. The exaggerated language of praise supports this theory, as it can be seen as almost sardonic.
The first issue concerned with, what critics know as the ‘marriage encomium,’ does not involve the meaning of the sermon, but rather who it is speaking. It could be the Merchant who narrates the tale, or it could be the thoughts of the main character of the tale, Januarie, the elderly knight. However, one must recognise within the encomium, a complete disquisition of marriage, conveyed through Chaucer’s use of irony, which is most probably the point of view of the disenchanted Merchant.
To begin with, the Merchant expresses the benefits of having a wife and dismisses the cynical view of women as wives. He cites the taking of a wife as being a ‘glorious thing,’ especially when a man is ‘oold and hoor. ‘ This is immediately seen to be ironic, to both a modern and medieval audience, as the Merchant has already explicitly expressed his belief that marriage only brings ‘weeping and wailing. ‘ To name his own wife a ‘shrew’ and then go on to call marriage a ‘glorious thing’ is rather humorous, allowing the audience to enjoy and be aware of the insincerity of the Merchant.
Chaucer uses irony effectively here, to convey the Merchant’s true attitude towards marriage. It can be seen that Chaucer expresses and reveals the Merchant’s attitude towards marriage through his language throughout the encomium. The highly rhetorical and exaggerated style of speech suggests the insincerity of the Merchant. This is seen effectively when the Merchant praises marriage: “O bisful ordre of wedlock precious, Thou art so murye, and eek so virtuous,” (L135-136)
The language used here is almost hyperbolic, and to clearly convey the insincerity of the Merchant, Chaucer uses a rhetorical device called an apostrophe, where the narrator addresses an object. This is the tone and style of a sermon, highly suitable for the Merchant’s exaggerated language. Through this technique, Chaucer is able to express the Merchant’s real view of marriage. Chaucer’s use of language also conveys to the audience the Merchant’s attitude towards women within marriage. The Merchant uses the ‘language of Merchants’ and refers to wives as being made for a husband, much as Eve was Adam.
“Women are created for man’s comfort. ” (L112) This belief that a woman’s sole purpose is to accommodate men, coupled with the Merchant’s long list of different types of property reveals clearly to the audience where the Merchant’s values lie. It is here that Chaucer reveals the Merchant’s attitude towards women within marriage to the audience. Like Januarie, it is clear that the Merchant regards women merely as a possession; it is therefore apt that Chaucer has Januarie searching for a wife in the market place.
After this clear character insight, the audience is able to clearly see Chaucer’s clever irony, when the Merchant goes on to talk about marriage being a ‘ful greet sacrament. ‘ The use of the word ‘sacrament’ links to the Roman Catholic attitude towards marriage, as it is one of the seven sacraments. However, the Merchant has previously made clear his view that a wife is a husband’s possession, his property. This quite clearly contradicts the idea of marriage being a sacrament, as there is no mention of love involved in the marriage.
Chaucer is using irony and contradicting statements to highlight the inconsistencies in the Merchant’s sermon. It is through this that the audience is made aware of the insincere attitude in the encomium. This is further supported later in the poem, when Januarie talks of wishing to be ‘wedded hastily. ‘ Again, there is no mention of love between the couple, it is presented more so as a business transaction, linking to the language of the Merchant. Within the encomium, the Merchant praises the notion of an old man marrying a young woman of ‘tendre of age.
‘ It seems that Chaucer is displaying the almost lecherous attitude towards marriage held by some older men, as this is not a Medieval or Roman Catholic convention. Both a modern and Medieval audience would recognise the notion of an old man taking a young wife as unnatural. This goes against the Roman Catholic idea of marriage as a sacrament; it would have been seen as unnatural and wrong. The Merchant expresses the belief that this is acceptable and then goes on to use Biblical references in his encomium. Chaucer is using irony here, to undermine the Merchant’s argument, as he is contradicting his beliefs.
He is going against Catholic normalities, but yet cites examples from the Bible. In the Merchant’s subsequent appeal to the Adam and Eve exemplum as a precedent for Januarie’s project, we have the first of numerous double-edged scriptural references that could very easily contradict the very argument at hand. This is seen again in the Merchant’s reference to female Biblical figures such as ‘Rebekke’ and ‘Abigail. ‘ The Merchant wishes to illustrate his belief that a wife is a great aid to a husband, calling forth the examples of these apparently good women.
However, Medieval audiences would have understood that each of these women were in fact deceitful, sly and cunning. A modern reader may be unfamiliar with these Biblical figures, so irony used here by Chaucer may be unrecognised. Overall, Chaucer effectively reveals attitudes towards marriage through his use of style, language and irony within the encomium. Through presenting a rhetorical and highly insincere digression, Chaucer is able to convey to both a modern and Medieval audience different attitudes towards marriage.