Who Is the Mooste Fre?
This essay suggests that when the puzzles have been solved, the obstacles overcome and the story concluded, Chaucer proposes a radical idea in The Franklin’s Tale: that nobility is a matter of character, not rank.
The question posed by the Franklin at the end of his tale, asking which of his characters ‘was the mooste fre’, or generous, is a deliberately difficult one, since at every turn of the tale there is ambiguity and paradox, making neat, ordered interpretation difficult. The puzzles themselves, however, become an essential part of an understanding of both the Franklin and his tale.
The Franklin, a wealthy man of status, but not a nobleman, flatters the Squire and tells a story of knighthood, chivalry and courteous behaviour. It is a tale, though, which questions those ideals. This is particularly apparent in his presentation of Arveragus, the knight, and Aurelius, the Squire, in their behaviour towards Dorigen.
After the traditional courtly love courtship, Arveragus and Dorigen make what in modern parlance would be a prenuptial agreement, which challenges medieval expectations of relationships between the sexes. Instead of post-marital power being in the exclusive hands of the male, Arveragus swears that he ‘sholde upon him take no maistrie/ Again hir wil’. Such an idea is central to a number of the Canterbury Tales, and the Wife of Bath in particular would prick up her ears at this. The attitudes of society are not forgotten, though; Arveragus will keep ‘the name of soveraintee… for shame of his degree.’ Society is not ready for such a radical relationship, or Arveragus recognises that it is somehow incompatible with his status as a knight. This has the effect of making us keenly aware that the ideal balance in their relationship – ‘hir servant and hir lord… bothe his lady and his love’ – creates a tension of contradictory impulses. It is a tension which comes to a head when Arveragus leaves for England, ‘to seke in armes worshipe and honour’.
While this action may question his status as an ideal husband, Chaucer’s language makes the claim again when Arveragus learns of Dorigen’s promise to Aurelius. Despite the shock of her news, his manner is described as ‘glad chiere’ and ‘freendly wise’, and with remarkable restraint, his answer is ‘Is ther oght elles, Dorigen, bur this?’ His earlier marital promises seem to be fulfilled as he shows how much he values his wife’s ‘trouthe’, which is, he says, ‘the hyeste thing that man may kepe’. He is putting his wife’s independent honour above his claims as a husband, but readers may well query his prioritising of Dorigen’s promise to Aurelius over her promise to him, made in marriage before God. If he seems to be demonstrating his avoidance of ‘maistrie’, his sudden reversion to absolute control is shocking:
I yow forbade, upon peyne of deeth,
That nevere, whil thee lasteth lyf ne breeth,
To no wight telle though of this aventure.
The threat of death is disturbing and the force of the imperative undeniable, but perhaps we can resolve the problem to some extent by noting the Franklin’s description of Arveragus’ physical state: ‘he brast anon to wepe’. Chaucer encourages us to consider his psychology: a man who has tried to maintain the ideal of his marriage promises in the most exacting of circumstances, but a man who ultimately cracks under the pain of seeing his wife go to another man. This demonstrates the difficulty, and the fragility, of those ideals. Arveragus here is presented as an essentially human figure, not an idealised knight from a courtly love romance.
Aurelius, on the other hand, is a Squire, an aspirant knight, depicted with all the qualities of a courtly lover – ‘He singeth, daunceth, passinge any man’. His approach to a married woman, though, is inappropriate, and though Dorigen’s response is in itself paradoxical – the rocks are her concern because they separate her from Arveragus and threaten his safety, so her promise to be unfaithful is motivated by fidelity – Aurelius’ response is much more revealing. In his lover’s distress, he claims that Dorigen’s rejection will cause him to ‘die of sodeyn deth horrible.’ Far from dying a ‘sodeyn deth’, the Franklin te1ls us that Aurelius lies in torment ‘Two yeer and moore’.
Chaucer stresses the obsessive egocentricity of Aurelius’ love. Taken literally, his prayer to Apollo requires a suspension of the whole cosmic order. His prayer focuses entirely on the rocks and a flood which might cover them. This attention to the rocks, rather than praying for Dorigen to change her mind, suggests the self-obsession of his love, rather than a real interest in the woman herself. On the other hand, he has accepted that Dorigen’s promise has been made in order to reject him, so removal of the rocks is his only option. In that case, he knows that what he is seeking is directly opposed to the wishes of the woman he claims to love. In addition, he prays not for the removal of the rocks, ‘stoon by stoon’, but for a flood to cover the rocks. He is praying for deceit at the outset of his quest, rather than seeking to fulfil it. The attractive, singing and dancing young man has become a much more complex and difficult character.
The Role of the Magician
The element of deceit in the fulfilment of Dorigen’s challenge is confirmed with the appointment of the magician from Orleans to carry out the task. The clerk has all the right credentials, which he demonstrates in a portfolio of amazing effects, culminating in a vision of Aurelius dancing with Dorigen. The more fantastic the vision, though, the clearer it is that it is only illusion. Chaucer, through the Franklin’s narration, reminds us of this. Described are ‘Forestes, parkes’, ‘a fair river’, ‘a plain’ but all this happens within the clerk’s house. The clerk brings his entertainments to an end when ‘he clapte his handes two,/And farewel! Al oure revel was ago’, further emphasising their transitory, insubstantial nature. The clerk travels to Brittany to do exactly what he has offered; Aurelius promises to pay a handsome fee for a highly professional deception of Dorigen.
Aurelius’ speech to Dorigen, when he reveals his success in the quest and his expectation of the promised reward, exemplifies this further. Chaucer has created a masterpiece of crafty ambiguity. On the one hand, Aurelius approaches her again as the humble courtly lover, but also demonstrates that it is in fact he that holds the power, warning her of the consequences should she ‘breke [her] trouthe’. He reminds her of the promise like a barrister setting out evidence, full of unctuous politeness (‘my soverein lady’), but listing ‘a gardyn yond’, ‘swich a place’, ‘youre trouthe plighten ye’, adding the crushing ‘God woot, ye seyde so’. The apparently subservient courtly lover, with deft charm, traps Dorigen completely, rendering her helpless before he concludes with his emphatic killer blow: ‘the rokkes been aweye’. In this speech, the squire’s educated felicity with language is misused; it puts the damsel in distress. The language of courtly love in Aurelius’ speech is shown to be hypocrisy, and in this way Chaucer challenges another ideal of the literary convention.
In the tale, the chivalric values of both Knight and Squire are questioned, and, in some instances, found wanting. The dénoument puts these issues into focus: while Aurelius finally acknowledges Dorigen’s ‘distresse’, it is nor that which motivates his volte-face, but recognition of the ‘grete gentilesse’ of Arveragus, ‘a worthy knight’. Finally he recognises what chivalric and ‘gentil’ behaviour ought to be; it has been demonstrated by a knight, and as an aspirant knight, he needs to follow the example and show himself ‘worthy’. He has to demonstrate that he can do ‘a gentil dede/As wel as kan a knight’.
This concern with rank and behaviour is even more apparent in the magician; when he has heard the tale in ful1, he says ‘a clerk koude doon a gentil dede/As wel as any of yow’. There is a natural connection between the behaviours of a squire and a knight, but the clerk’s claim is far more radical, crossing the boundary between the common man and the nobility. Noble actions are a feature of nobly-minded people, not the preserve of the nobility itself. Here Chaucer is echoing the lesson the old woman teaches the young knight at the end of The Wife of Bath’s Tale.
This is where the Tale’s puzzles begin to clarify the Franklin’s objective. It is a key lesson for the Franklin himself, whose financial status, learning, love of the finer things of life, hospitality and manners suggest his own hankering for status akin to that of a knight, which is denied him because of his rank.
His final question to his listeners puts the knight, the squire and the clerk alongside each other for equal consideration. Both Arveragus and Aurelius at different times represent the ideals of chivalric behaviour, but both men’s treatment of Dorigen can be questioned, as we have seen. This might suggest that Chaucer’s and the Franklin’s aim is to promote the clerk, separated from considerations of ‘gentilesse’, having no contact with Dorigen, and behaving as generously as the others. This could be read as the Franklin’s real aim: to invite his audience to consider that nobility is not the preserve of knights and squires.
A version of this article first appeared in emag Issue 34, December 2006