Geoffrey Chaucer: Middle Ages (1343–1400)

The Franklin’s Tale
The Prologue

“In faith, Squier, thou hast thee well acquit,
And gentilly; I praise well thy wit,”
Quoth the Franklin; “considering thy youthe
So feelingly thou speak’st, Sir, I aloue thee,
As to my doom, there is none that is here
Of eloquence that shall be thy peer,
If that thou live; God give thee goode chance,
And in virtue send thee continuance,
For of thy speaking I have great dainty.
I have a son, and, by the Trinity;
It were me lever than twenty pound worth land,
Though it right now were fallen in my hand,
He were a man of such discretion
As that ye be: fy on possession,
But if a man be virtuous withal.
I have my sone snibbed and yet shall,
For he to virtue listeth not t’intend,
But for to play at dice, and to dispend,
And lose all that he hath, is his usage;
And he had lever talke with a page,
Than to commune with any gentle wight,
There he might learen gentilless aright.”

“Straw for your gentillesse!” quoth our Host.
“What? Frankelin, pardie, Sir, well thou wost
That each of you must tellen at the least
A tale or two, or breake his behest.”
“That know I well, Sir,” quoth the Frankelin;
“I pray you have me not in disdain,
Though I to this man speak a word or two.”
“Tell on thy tale, withoute wordes mo’.”
“Gladly, Sir Host,” quoth he, “I will obey
Unto your will; now hearken what I say;
I will you not contrary in no wise,
As far as that my wittes may suffice.
I pray to God that it may please you,
Then wot I well that it is good enow.

“These olde gentle Bretons, in their days,
Of divers aventures made lays,
Rhymeden in their firste Breton tongue;
Which layes with their instruments they sung,
Or elles reade them for their pleasance;
And one of them have I in remembrance,
Which I shall say with good will as I can.
But, Sirs, because I am a borel man,
At my beginning first I you beseech
Have me excused of my rude speech.
I learned never rhetoric, certain;
Thing that I speak, it must be bare and plain.
I slept never on the mount of Parnasso,
Nor learned Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Coloures know I none, withoute dread,
But such colours as growen in the mead,
Or elles such as men dye with or paint;
Colours of rhetoric be to me quaint;
My spirit feeleth not of such mattere.
But, if you list, my tale shall ye hear.”

We know little of the personal life of Geoffrey Chaucer.  The extant records show him to be both skilled and versatile, but we can only divine his character from his work.  He translated Boethius’  In Consolation of Philosophy into English, which apparently shaped his worldview, but his Canterbury Tales reveal a man more interested in savoring the journey of daily life than the arrival into perfect heaven.

In his book, The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds, said the following:

Chaucer, like Homer, writes about a journey, but as a Christian he has a different goal. Homer wanted to go home, but Chaucer’s pilgrims want a piece of man’s true home: paradise. The pilgrim is heading for a piece of heaven on earth, the shrine with its relics, but he must pass through the cities of man and through the wilderness.

Homer’s hero, Odysseus, is a storyteller, and so are Chaucer’s pilgrims. Homer’s stories bring him glory, but the stories of the pilgrims entertain and educate men on the Way. Chaucer is a pioneer of edutainment, and no story in Canterbury Tales is so bawdy as to lack a moral—even if a mistaken one.


Is your focus more on your present journey, your past or your destination?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.



John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.


D I G  D E E P E R

On Idealism and Limitations

Diane Vincent

Happily-ever-after is where “The Franklin’s Tale” begins. Hardly thirty lines are devoted to Arveragus and Dorigen’s embodiment of late-medieval romantic ideals: the lady’s beauty and nobility, the knight’s many quests and feats, his long suffering of love-pangs and devoted service to her, and finally her realization of his worth and pity for him.

Once married, Dorigen and Arveragus attempt to keep some of the core romantic ideals of the medieval code of courtly love in conjugal love. Arveragus, freely and unprompted, promises to remain her lover insofar as he rejects the “mastery” often thought the husband’s due and promises instead to continue his service of his beloved by following Dorigen’s will in all things. She, in response to his generosity, pledges to be his true wife, who will never willfully grieve him. Their marriage is established not by a contract or exchange of services—though we do see such a contract define the relationship between Aurelius and the magician—but by the utterly gratuitous gift of the lover and the free response of his beloved.

Thus, as the Franklin comments, Arveragus succeeds in having both his lady and his love. By contrast, that famous medieval lover Lancelot could only ever have his love, since Guenevere was Arthur’s lady, and while he may be praised for his devotion to her, his passion could only ever attain to the temporary fulfillment of sex, rather than the lasting union of a happy marriage.

Elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales, too, romantic idealism does not fare well. We laugh or cry over the pilgrims’ cynical views of marriage, in which any mutual love has disappeared and one spouse dominates or deceives the other. But the Franklin emphasizes repeatedly that Dorigen and Arveragus are faithful spouses and passionately devoted lovers. Their ability to remain lovers and spouses is, in part, what the tale puts to the test. And as much as the plot of “The Franklin’s Tale” relies on exaggeration and elements of fantasy, the lovers’ endeavor to translate their romance into their married life had real-life implications, because the behavior of English lovers was actually influenced by the ideals of the courtly lover’s humble service and courtesy as well as of the ennobling power of love.

Of course, the best way to test the romance of a marriage is to send one spouse away for a long time (and include the risk of death for good measure) and to present the other with a seemingly perfect substitute lover. In Aurelius, we have all the outward trappings of the ideal courtly lover. He sings and dances better than any man alive (ever). He is also the handsomest man alive, young, rich, strong, popular, a prolific poet, and, conveniently, a near neighbor. Like Lancelot, he goes mad when rejected and is willing to sacrifice everything to attain his lady. “A servant in the game of Venus,” he is love-sick, without question, but it’s also clear that love is a game—however deadly—that he’s playing.

His rhetoric is almost perfect, but beneath the veneer of courtesy he reveals the churlish heart he only owns up to later. Chaucer is careful to make it clear that Aurelius only achieves the illusion of satisfying Dorigen’s condition, just as he only achieves a barely coherent illusion of humble service when he confronts Dorigen with his claim on her. “You know what you promised. Not that I challenge anything of you by right, sovereign lady, but by your grace” is a far cry from Arveragus’s gift of freedom to her. Aurelius’s shallow commitment to courtly love only becomes ennobling when he gives up the vulgar passion that had lain hidden beneath the elegant flourishes of love’s game. What’s more, in renouncing his ill-gotten power to constrain Dorigen’s affection, he gives himself the gift of freedom from Venus’s rule, from the passion that has been dominating his life for years to his detriment, to the sorrow of his brother, and to the deep distress of Dorigen and Arveragus.

Though a far nobler lover than Aurelius, Dorigen also suffers from play of courtly love. It is when the scene is set for love—after a jolly dance in a garden in the springtime of Love—that she playfully adds the impossible task to her refusal of Aurelius’s advances. She intends her words to reinforce her emphatic rejection of his plea, since she knows her condition “will never happen.” But by rhetorically playing Venus’s game and giving the lover an impossible quest to achieve, she has implicitly agreed to abide by Venus’s rules.

As much as her marriage to Arveragus successfully realizes the ideals of courtly love—service, humility, faithfulness in spite of suffering, and generosity—their marriage is no game. Dorigen understands and embraces the exclusive claims of conjugal love, but her careless play puts her in the impossible bind of having to choose between honor of word and honor of body. Her dilemma is impossible not only because failing in “truth” attends either choice, but also because it is precisely in conjugal love that honor of word and body are inextricably linked; to lose either is to lose both, and thereby to lose herself.

No wonder death is such an attractive option. Though we might protest that such an empty vow couldn’t be binding, no one in the tale rejects its force. That ultimately her truth can be preserved only in the context of forgiveness shows the limits of our ability to speak and fulfill the truth of our words. Our promises, even when freely and consciously made, are subject to our limitations as much as to our wills.


What makes Geoffrey Chaucer such compelling reading is his creation of a riveting conversation between the ideal and the everyday: can Dorigen and Arveragus remain lovers and spouses when confronted with not just their temptations but also with their limitations? Such tensions are the root of much of Chaucer’s well-known, and often biting, satire, but it’s likewise the root of his insight into human relationships.

Here, in “The Franklin’s Tale,” we see the ennobling pursuit of an ideal lived out in the strains and trials that the world can place on even the most ideal of relationships. While it may be hard to be faithfully married to an ideal, it’s impossible to stay passionately married without one. Arveragus’s generosity to Dorigen and to Aurelius, though shocking, is as he says, “well-paid,” and not only by the faithful love of his wife and by Aurelius’s sacrifice. More than that, he is well-paid insofar as his and Dorigen’s pursuit of a passionate conjugal love offers a chance for a boorish faker to abandon Venus’s empty game and finally begin to become a noble man.

Diane Vincent, PhD, is an assistant professor of Medieval Literature at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).


Sex, Symbol, and Satire: Day 1

Gulliver’s Travels
Jonathan Swift

“Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”

This week we look to Jonathan Swift and his masterwork Gulliver’s Travels.  The story is familiar, but widely misunderstood.  Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the sanitized and highly abridged version consumed by contemporary audiences omits the bits that scandalize some surprised readers.  Swift was a master of satire and his use of symbols was filled with power and nuance.

As Karen Swallow Prior writes in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me:

Symbols are powerful. And we live in a symbol-saturated society. The power of symbols comes from the reality they represent. Very few of our experiences are unmediated by the symbols of an experience that enter our consciousness long before the actual experience. We see ads touting the smiles toothpaste will bring us before we have all our teeth. We watch commercials showing how much fun we’ll have if we drink a certain brand of beer before we’ve lost the joy of blowing bubbles. We hear songs about romantic love before we have our first crush. Before we’ve even reached puberty, we watch sex as it is portrayed in the movies and television, imagine it as it is described in books, and laugh about it from jokes whispered by schoolmates. It’s hard to imagine things otherwise.

A symbol is something that represents something else. This chapter discusses symbols of sex and the power of those symbols.

What are other kinds of powerful symbols in our society?

Psalm 119:105

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Dig Deeper

Literature, Liturgy & The Arts

Jonathan Swift


Jonathan Swift

When Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, the author’s name did not appear on the book. The title page read “Travels into several remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver …” Many people accepted this as fact. Travel books of the time told many tales that were no more strange than the imaginary adventures of Gulliver. One sea captain even claimed that he knew Captain Gulliver well.

Other readers condemned the book as full of exaggerations.Although it became one of the most famous books for children, it was not written for children. It was savage satire aimed at the human race. The tiny Lilliputians are vain, malicious, and bloodthirsty. The king and the court of Lilliput are a parody of the English king and court. The giants of Brobdingnag are amiable, but commonplace and insensitive. Laputa is full of the foolish philosophers and scientists whom Swift despised. The Houyhnhnms are horses who use degraded men, Yahoos, as men use horses elsewhere. Looking at mankind through the eyes of horses, Swift sees people as vicious, greedy, and ignorant.

From its first appearance Gulliver’s Travels delighted its readers instead of shocking them. In spite of his bitterness, Swift took a dry delight in making his narrative sound real even when it was fantastic. Children could enjoy the marvelous adventures of a traveler among pygmies and giants, on a flying island, and in a country where horses talk. Gulliver’s Travels soon became a children’s classic.

A large part of what Swift wrote is made up of pamphlets on political or ecclesiastical affairs and must be read in the light of history. But A Tale of a Tub, a satire on false religion, and The Battle of the Books, a burlesque of literary controversy (both published in 1704), are still read for their comic ridicule of human folly. Drapier’s Letters (1724), written to expose a minor scandal in the government of Ireland by the English, lifts the issue to something universal—the human rights of men against tyrants. The Journal to Stella is a brilliant picture of a brilliant age.

“Swift, Jonathan,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Geoffrey Chaucer

“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day
When every fowl cometh to choose his mate,
Of every kind that men think may;
And that so huge a noise gan they make,
That earth and air and tree and every lake
So full was, that underneath was there space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.”

I have long been the landlord of a colony of Purple Martins.  They are remarkable birds. Each year the first scouts arrive like clockwork on Valentine’s Day to return to their house in our backyard from their winter home hundreds of miles away.  Like Robins, the sight of them brings hope and the first spark of spring.

Our celebration of Valentine’s Day has ancient beginnings but the details are sparse.  Perhaps two actual saints were named Valentine and then again, it might have been just one.  That person also might or might not have sent a letter to a girl and signed it “from your Valentine.”  Oh well, it makes a good story.

Valentine’s Day became an established tradition after the late 1300’s when Chaucer wrote of it in A Parlement of Foules wherein he referred to the holiday as “when every fowl comes to chose his mate” (modern translation).  It’s the romantic allegory of what we call ‘the facts of life about the birds and the bees.’

Even that isn’t exactly true of course.  In his book The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis pointed out that Parlement isn’t a pure allegory but rather a pleasant poem containing some beautiful comparisons.  It doesn’t matter that it isn’t exact.  As Lewis wrote “every reader who loves poetry may safely be left alone with the Parlement of Foules. No such reader will misunderstand the mingling of beauty and comedy in this supremely happy and radiant work—a hearty and realistic comedy, and a beauty without effort or afterthought, like Mozartian music.”

Like love itself, somethings are best enjoyed without scientific analysis. As Chaucer says “the life is short and the craft so long to learn.” Someday, the Bible says, love will be perfected, but that doesn’t take anything away from its significance now. It is still a northern star which guides us to the eternal. Love is not our god, but

God is love

IMG_01811 Corinthians 13

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

D I G  D E E P E R


Valentine’s Day and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parlement of Foules


Geoffrey Chaucer

The commemoration formerly observed on 14 Feb. appears to refer to two Valentines: a Roman priest martyred on the Flaminian Way under the Emp. Claudius (c. 269) and a Bp. of Terni (Interamna) who was taken to Rome and martyred, and whose remains were later conveyed back to Terni. Though the surviving accounts of both martyrdoms are clearly legendary, there are indications that each contains a nucleus of fact; and it is just possible that the kernel of truth in the two legends refers to a single person. The traditional association of St Valentine’s day with courtship and the choosing of a ‘Valentine’ of the opposite sex is connected perhaps with certain customs of the pagan festival of *Lupercalia (mid-Feb.) at Rome, or with the natural season, not with any tradition concerning either saint of the name.


THE PARLEMENT OF FOULES, a 699-line poem in rhyme royal by Geoffrey Chaucer, was written in 1380–90. Composed in the tradition of French romances (while at the same time questioning the merits of that tradition), this poem has been called one of the best occasional verses in the English language. Often thought to commemorate the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382, it describes a conference of birds that meet to choose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day. The narrator falls asleep and dreams of a beautiful garden in which Nature presides over a debate between three high-ranking eagles, all vying for the attentions of a beautiful female. The other birds, each of which represents a different aspect of English society, are given a chance to express their opinions; Chaucer uses this device to gently satirize the tradition of courtly love. He handles the debate with humour and deftly characterizes the various birds. Although the debate on love and marriage is never resolved, the poem is complete in itself and ends on a note of joy and satisfaction.


Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, First Edition. (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 206–207.

Also see

‘Acta’ of both SS. Valentine in AASS, Feb. 2 (1658), pp. 751–62. Note on the SS. Valentine in Anal. Boll. 11 (1892), pp. 471–3. E. M. Fusciardi, Vita di S. Valentino, V. e M., patrono di Terni: Con messa, novena, triduo e preghiere (Terni, 1936). O. *Marucchi, Il cimitero e la basilica di S. Valentino (1890); R. Krautheimer and S. Corbett in R. Krautheimer and others, Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae, 4 (Rome, 1970), pp. 289–311 (in Eng.).

On the origin of the association of St Valentine’s day with courtship, H. A. Kelly, Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine (Davis Medieval Texts and Studies, 5; Leiden, 1986).

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1687.