Courtly Love in Chaucer: Characters as Commentary in "The Franklin's Tale," Troilus and Criseyde, and "Parliament of Fowls"

By Noelle E. Equi
2020, Vol. 12 No. 12 | pg. 1/1


Through major works including “The Franklin’s Tale,” Troilus and Criseyde, and “Parliament of Fowls,” Chaucer illuminates the complexity of the popular writing trope of courtly love. His accounts of courtly love border on satire and criticism, both praising the institution of marriage as the protagonist and the unorthodox courtly love dynamic as the villain (as seen in “The Franklin’s Tale) and highlighting the manufactured, tenuous nature of the dynamic (as seen in Troilus and Criseyde and “Parliament of Fowls”). In all, the three works considered together prompt an investigation of the tension between tradition and revolution (orthodox vs unorthodox), as Chaucer makes deliberate choices to frame the tales as courtly love or traditional romances with hidden criticism. Through his veiled criticisms disguised as characters in what appear to be conventional chivalric romance tales, Chaucer illuminates the manufactured, fallacious nature of courtly love and the authenticity and stamina of its opposite, traditional love.

In three of Chaucer’s texts, the Canterbury Tales’ “The Franklin’s Tale,” Troilus and Criseyde, and “Parliament of Fowls,” the concept of courtly love is portrayed outwardly as very romantic and idyllic, but proves more complex with further analysis. In the “Franklin’s Tale” and Troilus and Criseyde, the portrayals of the traditional lover and the courtly lover seem to switch roles: in “The Franklin’s Tale,” Arveragus is portrayed as a courtly lover, but is actually a man of tradition; on the other hand, Aurelius, the true courtly lover, is portrayed as the villain. In Troilus and Criseyde, the entire courtly love relationship between Criseyde and Troilus is orchestrated by the manipulative Pandarus, who defies almost every tenant in French scholar Andreas Capellanus’ late twelfth century text “A Treatise on Courtly Love,” a courtly love doctrine. This manufactured nature of courtly love is also present in “Parliament of Fowls,” where Chaucer juxtaposes nature/natural love and artificial/courtly love, especially in terms of the shallow higher class. Consequently, these accounts of courtly love by Chaucer border on satire and criticism, both praising the institution of marriage as the protagonist and the unorthodox courtly love dynamic as the villain (as seen in “The Franklin’s Tale) and highlighting the manufactured, tenuous nature of the dynamic (as seen in Troilus and Criseyde and “Parliament of Fowls”). In all, the three works considered together prompt an investigation of the tension between tradition and revolution (orthodox vs unorthodox), as Chaucer makes deliberate choices to frame the tales as courtly love or traditional romances with hidden criticism. This is especially evident through his development of characters, commenting on the nature of courtly love through carefully-veiled personified representations of tradition and the unconventional.

Reflections of the Institution: Unlikely Traditionalists

In “The Franklin’s Tale,” Arveragus behaves in a manner (despite his outward description) in contrast to the often lustful, dramatic dynamics of the tradition and the laws outlined by Capellanus, revealing him as a representation of the institution of marriage and not a courtly lover as the audience is led to believe. Although Capellanus claims in his treatise “love rarely lasts when it is revealed” (Capellanus 6), which appears to support Arveragus’ desire for secrecy (the lovers promise to treat each other with equal respect, but Arveragus specifies this agreement only applies behind closed doors), the knight’s behavior contradicts the doctrines of courtly love throughout the tale — not just in relation to his marriage. In his “Treatise on Courtly Love,” Capellanus declares, “a real lover is always fearful . . . . True jealousy always increases the feeling of love. . . . A slight suspicion incites a lover to suspect the worst of his beloved” (Capellanus 6,7). Yet, following his lengthy quest, Arveragus expresses no such emotion; instead, the Franklin describes the knight’s surety in Dorigen’s obedience and faith to the principles of their marriage, stating: “No thyng list hym to been ymaginatyf,/If any wight [man] hadde spoke, whil he was oute/To hire of love; he hadde of it no doute./He noght entendeth to no swich matere” (Chaucer ll. 1094-1097).1 He fully trusts the orthodox system of marriage and the contract-like vows that he and Dorigen exchanged with one another. Despite this, he is described in lofty, romantic detail, with “[health] and [great] honour,/as he that was of [chivalry] . . . the [lively] knight, the worthy man of armes” (Chaucer ll. 1087-88, 1092); however, although the knight outwardly aligns with the expectations of a courtly lover, the Franklin’s description of Arveragus is that of a man tied to tradition, concealed under the flowers of a courtly guise.

Furthermore, when Arveragus leaves, Dorigen mourns his absence wholeheartedly, distraught in every aspect, as Capellanus describes the distance of a courtly love: “the true lover is continuously obsessed with the image of his beloved” (Capellanus 7). However, because of the lack of Arveragus’ perspective due to his absence, as Mandel describes, the “pole of consciousness in the story . . . [is] predominantly Dorigen’s” (Mandel 281); consequently, as Mandel further states, “the appurtenances of courtly love serve merely to adorn a tale that is actually not about a pair of courtly lovers but about a married woman who wants to deflect the unwanted advances of a young man who approaches her under the banner of courtly love” (Mandel 281). As a result, although Dorigen’s love for her husband aligns with the principles of courtly love in Capellanus’ treatise, Arveragus does not return the same devotion, and their marriage is devoid of the courtly love that the Franklin’s narration mimics around their romance.

Similarly, in Troilus and Criseyde, Pandarus does not operate under the same principles of courtly love that the poem constructs and dramatizes around the lovers’ narrative; instead, he works fraudulently, constructing their relationship through measures in direct contrast to the chivalric doctrine and instead aligning himself with tradition. In an effort to convince Troilus to reveal his love for Criseyde, Pandarus demands that the prince reveals his secret, consequently attempting to force Troilus out of the courtly love tradition. He exclaims “thef, how shalt hyre name telle,” physically shaking Troilus until the warrior finally admits “thanne is my swete fo called Criseyde!” (Chaucer pg. 55, ll. 869-875).2 In “A Treatise on Courtly Love,” Capellanus states “love rarely lasts when it is revealed” (Capellanus 3); however, Pandarus quite violently extracts this secret from Troilus in the very beginning of the poem, acting outside of the courtly love doctrine despite his direct role in orchestrating the “chivalric” relationship.

He acts similarly in influencing Criseyde, who is a widow, bidding her to free herself from the confines of her status. Because of her widowhood, Criseyde wears black to signify her status (Chaucer pg. 25, l. 309); likewise, according to Capellanus’ treatise, widows should maintain their mourning and dress for at least two years until returning to normal life: "two years of mourning for a dead lover are prescribed for surviving lovers” (Capellanus 3). Despite this requirement, Pandarus urges Criseyde to overcome her grief and be happy, demanding that she remove her “warning clothes” that signify widowhood: “. . . cast youre widewes [widow’s] habit [clothing] to mischaunce [to the devil]” (Chaucer pg. 75, l. 222). He further mentions to Troilus that because Criseyde is a widow, she will/should marry again, as she would not be able to resist the desires of love (Chaucer 61, ll. 974-980). Consequently, through his disrespect of widowhood in the courtly love doctrine, Pandarus contradicts the chivalric dynamic’s principles and further distances himself from the tradition.

Furthermore, Pandarus forces Criseyde to be a part of the courtly love relationship with Troilus even when she appears to be uncertain, stretching to great lengths of manipulation in order to essentially trap his niece. According to Capellanus, “no one can love who is not driven to do so by the power of love” (Capellanus 3); however, Pandarus functions outside of this tenant throughout the poem, constructing a false courtly love dynamic through deceit — not love. As Helterman describes, “. . . Chaucer’s Pandarus not only repeats the charge [of Troilus’ inevitable death should Criseyde not love him] four times, but also adds his own certain death to Criseyde’s crime in not loving Troilus” (Helterman 19). Pandarus further demonstrates this dissent from the courtly love tradition by physically manipulating Criseyde as well, forcing Troilus’ letter into her dress when she hesitates to take it: “‘refuse it naught’ quod he, and hente hire faste,/And in hire bosom the letter down he thraste” (Chaucer pg. 125, ll. 1154-55).3 Determined to make the relationship work despite the will of Criseyde, the object of affection, Pandarus commands and controls his niece on multiple levels, illuminating the manufactured nature of their alleged courtly love (which is not based in love at all, but on lies).

During his continuous manipulation, Pandarus calls on proverbs and traditional wisdom to influence the carefully-designed lovers. In effort to convince Criseyde to love Troilus, he threatens that her beauty will fade with age, so she must act quickly: “to late ywar, quod Beaute, when it paste;/and Elde daunteth Daunger at the laste” (83, l. 398).4 The use of this proverb ties Pandarus to tradition, as he uses the wisdom of the past to persuade Criseyde — this allusion contrasts the potentially controversial, unorthodox teachings of courtly love. Russell acknowledges that courtly love was considered a “heresy” by some religious scholars, as the late-eleventh century French concept was “a revolutionary world view in that it placed human love at the center of the universe” (Russell 31) in contrast to the orthodox religious doctrines. Accordingly, Pandarus also references proverbs from the Bible (in this quote, specifically Ecclesiastes 4:10), a deliberate, meaningful choice by Chaucer as the setting of the poem predates the creation of Christianity: “the wise seith, ‘Wo him that is allone,/For and he falle, he hath non help to ryse” (Chaucer pg. 47, ll. 694-95).5 As Helterman explains, “with his verbalizing, Pandarus forces Troilus [and Criseyde] into a rigid formalism and wordiness that militates against the intimacy of true love” (Helterman 18). Rooted in tradition, Pandarus’ teachings attempt to create a chivalrous relationship reflective of a perfect courtly love, but actually construct its antithesis: a “mask of love” (Helterman 14).

In “Parliament of Fowls,” moreover, traditional love is represented through the instinctual mating rituals that ultimately result in harmony, guided by Nature. Following his walk through the paradisal garden, the narrator encounters the goddess Nature and her gathering of birds of all species, separated into hierarchies of their own, where they have gathered to choose mates — through this process guided by Nature, they are guaranteed harmony. The narrator describes “bifore the noble goddesse Nature,/. . . eche of hem did his besy cure/Benignely to chese or for to take,/By hir accord, his formel or his make” (Chaucer ll. 368-71)6. Nature bestows her creatures “with pleasaunce [desire]” to choose their mates (Chaucer l. 389); as Peck states, “this urging manifests itself as love impulse” (Peck 295). The fowl of lower classes follow this natural dynamic, each selecting their mates in a traditional fashion, guided by this authentic instinct. At this point, though, the romantic tone of the piece is interrupted, and “tension between love and politics determines the poem’s plot” (Peck 296); courtly love is introduced to the narrative.

Ultimately, the courted female eagle in the poem decides to wait and does not accept any of the suitors’ chivalric offers, instead remaining true to the wishes of Nature and traditional, authentic love. She states that she will not serve Venus or Cupid in a true fashion yet, because she did not find love: “I wol nought serven Venus ne Cupyde/For soothe as yet, by no manere wey” (ll. 652-53)7, suggesting that the chivalric/courtly love boasting between the male eagles was not true love at all, despite their steep promises. Following her announcement, the birds who found mates through natural, traditional love process celebrate, while the royal eagles who failed are left out: “And whan this week al brought was to an ende,/To every foule Nature yaf his make/By even accords, and on hir wey they wende./And, Lord, the blisse and joy that they make!” (ll. 666-669)8. This immense celebration underscores the bliss that true love, achieved through the natural process that Nature designed, would bring to authentic lovers. By preventing the courtly love dynamic from being completed, the poem “resists the kind of closure that its structures lead us to expect” (Williams 172), and highlights the unfulfillable nature of the chivalric concept. Through this juxtaposition between the artificiality of the courtly love tradition and the genuineness of natural love, “. . . Dame Nature looks after the larger issues despite the squabbles, keeping accord possible even amidst man’s caprice” (Peck 302), and thus remains the most true force throughout the poem, indicating the resilience of tradition.

Reflections of the Unorthodox: Courtly Complications

In contrast to these clever personifications of traditional love, Chaucer frames the courtly love influences in these texts as negative forces, contrary to how they are conventionally portrayed in chivalric romance tales. In “The Franklin’s Tale,” for example, the Franklin frames the appearance of Aurelius, a genuine courtly lover, as an obstacle to the couple’s marriage, rather than a noble, devoted suitor as Capellanus’ treatise describes. Aurelius, the only character in the poem who is “demonstrably a courtly lover,” is actually “the villain,” or “an impediment to happiness,” as Mandel continues: “he is the adversary who must be overcome, since his adherence to courtly love threatens the married love we [the readers] have been led to applaud” (Mandel 281). The Franklin details Aurelius as the "lusty [squire], servant to Venus " (Chaucer ll. 937). He possesses the devoted passion for his object of adoration (Dorigen) that Capellanus stresses in his treatise, pleading with Dorigen to “have mercy, sweete [sweet], or ye wol do me deye [you will make me die]” (Chaucer l. 978), reflecting the laws of courtly love that did not apply to Arveragus: “the true lover is continuously obsessed with the image of his beloved . . . every action of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved” (Capellanus 7). This courtly lover, however, is presented as the antagonist of the story, or a “threat” to Dorigen and Arveragus’ marriage (Mandel 281); he implores Dorigen to be unfaithful to her husband and love him (Aurelius) instead (Chaucer ll. 970-75), but is met with difficulty, not reciprocal affection. Dorigen instead presents the courtly lover with an impossible task in order to gain her affection (Chaucer ll. 993-95), and her answer affirms her commitment to her husband and the institution of marriage:

“By thilke God that yaf me soule and lyf,
Ne shal I nevere been untrewe wyf
In word ne werk, as fer as I have wit.
I wot been his to whom that I am knit.”
(Chaucer ll. 983-86)

Her response solidifies the courtly lover’s place as an outsider and adversary to tradition; consequently, the Franklin’s portrayal of Aurelius (the one true courtly lover in the tale) presents courtly love in a satirical light, not as the romantic, chivalrous dynamic outlined in Capellanus’ treatise.

Additionally, in “Parliament of Fowls,” the “natural” dynamic that the goddess Nature intended, the reflection of tradition as discussed earlier, is interrupted as the male eagles battle through courtly language and boastful discourse, and their chivalric game reflects the “art of courtly love” outlined by Capellanus in “A Treatise on Courtly Love.” During this parliament, the highest of the fowls’ class hierarchy, the royal eagles, become entangled in a courtly game of chivalric boasting, lacking authentic love; “the only bird with any choice in the matter is the female eagle, a perfect and beautiful specimen who must choose, with Nature’s supervision, among three male suitors” (Williams 171); thus, she becomes the idealized female figure in the courtly love tradition, pursued by her courtly admirers. The male eagles are described as “royal and superior” (Chaucer l. 394), and they must compete to determine who is the worthiest (Chaucer l. 392), reinforcing their regal class and the reference to the game of courtly love. The first eagle states that he belongs wholly to the female eagle, “and ever wol hir serve,/Do what hir list, to do me live or sterve” (Chaucer ll. 419-420)10. His alleged dedication to the female eagle reflects the courtly love that Capellanus describes in his treatise, as the French scholar outlines that a courtly lover must be entirely devoted to his love in every capacity: “the true lover believes only that which he thinks will please his beloved . . . is continuously obsessed with the image of his beloved” (Capellanus 6, 7). Each suitor continues to boast in similar fashions, vowing to sacrifice their lives for the affection of their “beloved," and in their “egoistic fencing [they become] courtly lovers, making [themselves] obedient to [the] ‘lady sovereyne [sovereign]’” (Peck 301). As Williams argues, though, “the debate that follows . . . undermines the validity of such speeches” (Williams 171). They promise their absolute devotion at any cost, but they do so only to invoke jealousy in their opponent and win the courtly game. This courtly discourse between the eagles, then, disrupts the parliament and creates a dispute between nature and “politics” as Peck describes (Peck 295) — this conflict indicates the shallow nature of the upper class, suggesting that their courtly games are only facades.


Consequently, through his veiled criticisms disguised as characters in what appear to be conventional chivalric romance tales, Chaucer illuminates the manufactured, fallacious nature of courtly love and the authenticity and stamina of its opposite, traditional love. From the beginning of the “Franklin’s Tale,” the Franklin “enlists the readers’ sympathies against the courtly lover,” Aurelius, and “for the preservation of the institution which this presence of courtly love attacked:” marriage, the contractual bond between Dorigen and Arveragus (Holman 251). Although Arveragus is outwardly characterized as a potential courtly lover, his mannerisms and actions eventually reveal him as a man of tradition. Furthermore, although Dorigen loves her husband with the devotion associated with the doctrines of courtly love, the lack of reciprocal romance removes the couple from the chivalric dynamic. Throughout Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Pandarus leads the readers (and his pawns, the two lovers) to believe that he is constructing the perfect courtly love relationship; however, through a closer examination of his tactics and actions, his role in the tale and the merits of courtly love become increasingly complex. In almost all of his strategies to orchestrate his plan, he defies Andreas Capellanus’ “A Treatise on Courtly Love,” which outlines the doctrines that must be followed in a chivalric romance: he shatters the secrecy of Troilus’ lovesickness, disregards Criseyde’s widowhood, forces Criseyde to love Troilus through both mental and physical manipulation (not through true affection), and references traditional wisdom (which clashes with the novel, unorthodox nature of the courtly love dynamic). Finally, “Parliament of Fowls” creates a dichotomy between true, natural love and the chivalric, courtly love prevalent in the higher class, underscoring the artificial nature of the latter. The courtly game that takes place between the royal eagle suitors illuminates the shallow nature of the concept, as the chivalric lovers make steep promises with little evidence to support their lofty claims. As a result, the idealized feminine figure of the poem, the female eagle, chooses to continue her search for true love, indicating the difference between natural romance and the artificial charade and preventing the story from fulfilling the structure of a courtly love tale. In all, these complexities buried in the depiction of Chaucer’s characters prompt readers to investigate the merits of this “utopian” chivalric romance, revealing the fragile, manufactured nature of the dynamic.


Capellanus, Andreas. “A Treatise on Courtly Love.” De Amore. 1184-86. (Source from Moodle).

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Dream Visions and Other Poems. Ed. Kathryn L. Lynch. “Parliament of Fowls.” pp. 93-116. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2007.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Franklin’s Tale.” 237-256. Canterbury Tales. 1476. ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson. Third Norton Critical Edition, 2018.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. 1386. Ed. Stephen A. Barney. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2006.

Helterman, Jeffrey. “The Masks of Love in Troilus and Criseyde.” Comparative Literature, vol. 26, no. 1, 1974, pp. 14–31. JSTOR, Accessed 29 Mar. 2020.

Holman, C. Hugh. “Courtly Love in the Merchant's and the Franklin's Tales.” ELH, vol. 18, no. 4, 1951, pp. 241–252. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Feb. 2020.

Mandel, Jerome. “Courtly Love in the Canterbury ‘Tales.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 19, no. 4, 1985, pp. 277–289. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Feb. 2020.

Peck, Russell A. “Love, Politics, and Plot in the ‘Parlement of Foules.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 24, no. 4, 1990, pp. 290–305. JSTOR, Accessed 24 Apr. 2020.

Russell, Jeffrey B. “Courtly Love as Religious Dissent.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 51, no. 1, 1965, pp. 31–44. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Apr. 2020.

Williams, Deanne. “Essay on Dream Visions.” Yale Companion to Chaucer. Yale University Press, 2006. pp. 166-172. (Source from Moodle).


1.) “He has no wish at all to be suspicious/If any person had spoke, while he was away/He had of it no fear./He paid no attention to such matters”

2.) “You must tell me her name”/“Then it is my sweet foe called Criseyde”

3.) “‘Refuse it not,’ he said, and seized her quickly,/And he thrust the letter down her bosom

4.) too late aware, said Beauty, when it has passed;/and old Age subdues haughtiness in the end

5.) “The wise say ‘Woe him that is alone,/For if he fall, he has no one to help him rise”

6.) Before the noble goddess Nature,/each of them took care, every creature,/with a good will, its own choice to make,/And, in accord, his female bird or mate

7.) I will not serve Venus or Cupid/in truth, as yet, in no manner of way

8.) And when this task was all brought to an end,/Each fowl from Nature his mate did take/In full accord, and on their way they went./And, Lord, the blissful scene they did make!

9.) “By that same God that gave me soul and life,/No shall I never be an unfaithful wife,/In word no deed, as far as I have wit./I will be his to whom that I am knit/in matrimony.”

10.) ever will I serve her/do what she please: to have me live or die

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