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Love Part 13: Chaucer

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Nobody can escape love, says Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde; nature forces it onto people as she sees fit. The universe calls us to love: "God loves, and grants that love shall be eternal / All creatures in the world through love exists." Love "saves mankind from wickedness and shame" and "converted thee from all wickedness." And if we don't love, Nature tries to change our mind, it will stike back, come to you, well up:

And loveless hearts, let them by Love be bent
To learn to love, and thus in pity grow,
But faithful hearts may Love keep ever so!

But much of Chaucer's poem, about a knight falling in love with the beautful Criseyde, is not about how great and beautiful love is, but how horrible and stressful it is. Like Cupid, God shoots an arrow of love-at-first-sight disease at the independent knight, "though he thought that nothing had the might / To curb the heart of such a one as he / Yet with a look, no longer was he free, / And he who stood but now in pride above / All men, at once was subject most to Love.” But, Chaucer replies, “scorn not Love…For still the common fate on you must fall / That love, at nature’s very heart indwelling, / Shall bind all things by nature’s might compelling / …men of greatest worth have deepest loved / …For wisest men have most with love been pleased.”

For for the woman especially, love is bondage. At one point she has a "cloudy thought," “Alas, since I am free, / Should I now love and risk my happy state / And maybe put in bonds my liberty?...who loveth not, no cause hath to complain.” She does not fall in love with him on appearances: "No, moral virtue, firmly set and true, / That was the reason why I first loved you." And another knight bases his choice (a "burden") on her "goodness." So we have a mix of the Plato-Aristotle love for virtue's sake theme, and the medieval love-at-first-sight as well.

The Clerk's Tale is a ghastly story about a rich knight marrying a poor woman, testing her loyalty in a Job-like way by taking away her new born children, only to find out at the very end that the story is not about sexist attitude towards women. It's not about that, says the author directly: “This story’s told here, not that all wives should / Follow Griselda in humility, / For this would be unbearable / But just that everyone, in his degree, / Should be as constant in adversity." And then he gives women a battle cry: “Strong-minded women, stand at your defense, / …suffer no man to do to you offense." And to the controlling men:

For one thing, sirs, I safely dare to say,
That friends each one the other must obey
If they’d be friends and long keep company.
Love will not be constrained by mastery;
When mastery comes, the god of love anon
…Love is a thing as any spirit free;
Women by nature love their liberty
And not to be constrained like any thrall,
And so do men, if say the truth I shall.

Free Bird!

Yes, just like the song, women who are treated badly will leave. They will choose "worms" over a "golden cage":

Take any bird and put it in a cage
And do your best affection to engage
…although its cage of gold be never so gay,
Yet would this bird, by twenty thousand-fold,
Rather, within a forest dark and cold,
Go to eat worms and all such wretchedness.
…above all things his freedom he desires.

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas 
Love Part 11: Dante
Love Part 12: a Real Love Letter


Geoffrey Chaucer

Posted by Matt Smith at 08/25/2011 10:11:12 AM