Courtly Love in Chaucer and Marie de France In his The Miller’s Tale Chaucer presents a side of the courtly love tradition never seen before. His characters are average middle class workers rather than elite nobility.
There is an interesting comparison between the Miller’s characters and those in two of Marie de France’s lais that share very close plot lines. Instead of being idealized Chaucer’s characters are gritty. Instead of being involved in “courtly love” there is some evidence that the relationship between Alison and Nicholas is one of lust. Chaucer’s use of the lower class makes the absurdity of what they are doing stand out.
In the lais of Marie de France, Guigemare and Yonec, are built on the same archetype which is the same as Chaucer’s Miller’s tale uses. Marie’s lais can give provide a set of “ground rules” for this archetype. The two lais share several similar elements. They both contain the same three central characters, who possesses fundamental similarities, the same beginning plot line and several of the same themes.
The first character shared by the two lais is the story’s villain, the aged husband. He is a powerful lord who is much older than his wife. Because he is conscious of this fact, he worries constantly that his wife will betray him, so he locks her up. He is both the least and most important figure in the story.
He’s important because without his presence and actions the story could never take place. But he has very little actual interaction with the other two more central characters. The husband in Yonec is never described as meeting either his wife or her lover. In Guigemare the husband, wife and Guigemare are only together when the two lovers are discovered.
The figure of the beautiful, imprisoned wife is the second central character. She is the quintessential damsel in distress, beautiful, noble (and with the exception of her one true love) chaste. The third character is the valiant lover who rescues the unhappy and imprisoned damsel. In both Guigemare and Yonec this character is a knight, and like his lover, the damsel in distress, he is the stereotypical “knight in shining armor.
” He is described as being afflicted by love, and says he will die without it. He will go to any extent for his true love. As with characters both Guigemare and Yonec share a similar plot line. The young wife is locked up by her jealous husband.
Then by some magical means her lover is transported to her. After some protestation from the woman, and some wooing from the knight, the two become lovers, until they are discovered and separated. After this point the two plots diverge. Also central to both stories is the idea that these extra-marital affairs are not improper.
In Guigemare, the lady’s maid says to the knight: “The man who wishes to love my lady must keep her constantly in his thoughts and, if you remain faithful to each other, the love between you will be right and proper.” (pg. 49) Obviously fidelity is important, but not forced fidelity. Love is more important than marriage in these lais.
It’s also important to note the chastity of the lovers. There is no mention of contact between the imprisoned wives and their husbands. In Yonec the Lord of Caerwent takes his wife for the purpose of child bearing, but she is imprisoned for seven years before meeting her lover and no children are evidenced from the text. Guigemare has never been in love before he meets his true love.
This gives the love and actions between the pairs seem even more pure, and also makes it seem to be less sinful. Love is a powerful force in both these stories. It is not only the driving force behind the character’s actions, but it also causes them physical affliction. Marie de France writes in Guigemare: “But love had now pierced him to the quick and his heart was greatly disturbed.
For the lady wounded him so deeply he had completely forgotten his homeland. . .The knight remained alone, mournful and downcast.
He did not yet realize the cause, but at least he knew that, if