In his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer fully explicates the cultural standard known as curteisye through satire. In the fourteenth century curteisye embodied sophistication and an education in French international culture. The legends of chilvalric knights, conversing in the language of courtly love, matured during this later medieval period. Chaucer himself matured in the King’s Court, and he reveled in his cultural status, but he also retained an anecdotal humor about curteisye. One must only peruse his Tales to discern these sentiments.
In the General Prologue, he meticulously describes the Prioress, satirically examining her impeccable table manners. In the Miller’s Tale Chaucer juxtaposes courtly love with animalistic lust, and in various other instances he mentions curteisye, or at least alludes to it, with characteristic Chaucerian irony. These numerous references provide the reader with a remarkably rich image of the culture and class structure of late fourteenth century England. “Wel coude she carye a morsel, and wel keepe / That no drope ne fille upon hir brest.
In curteisye was set ful muchel hir lest. “(General Prologue, 130-2) Here, in the description of the Prioress, Chaucer mocks her etiquette by so specifically describing it, and in doing so he also mocks her conception of sophistication. For Chaucer, sophistication represented more than table manners and “Frenssh of Stratford at the Bowe. “(General Prologue, 124,5) Curteisye required an intimate, first hand knowledge and experience with French culture. This Prioress had learned her French in an English convent school, hardly the equivalent to Chaucer’s travels in France.
Chaucer creates the feeling that the narrator is basing his statements not only on the nun’s actions but also on her attitudes. The details of her dainty manners prove to the reader that she truly believes that she appreciates curteisye, making her seem even more nave. Chaucer continues in his description, adding comments on her emotional state, “She wolde weepe if that she saw a mous / Caught in a trappe,”(General Prologue, 144-5), and her neat appearance. All elements combine to illuminate a woman who could only ever attempt to find curteisye, never truly achieve it.
In the Miller’s Tale, the reader finds one of the most humorous passages by Chaucer: Now sire, and eft sire, so bifel the cas That on a say this hende Nicholas Fil with this yonge wif to rage and playe, Whil that hir housbinde was at Oseneye (As clerkes been ful subtil and ful quainte), And prively he caughte hire by the queinte, And saide, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille, For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille,” And heeld hire harde by the haunche-bones, And saide, “Lemman, love me al atones, Or I wol dien, also God me save. 163-72)
Quite literally, Nicholas caught Alison by the crotch to draw her near to him, and then held her there by her haunches, or rear end. Standing alone, that image provides an element of base humor, but when that event is coupled with Nicholas’ words, a dramatically ironic, and altogether funny, scene arises. Nicholas is wooing Alison with the words of courtly love (“love me al atones, / Or I wol dien,”), the respectful standard of the time, but he simultaneously gropes her in the must vulgar method possible.
Here Chaucer plays with the idea of curteisye; he is not mocking someone’s attempts at it, but rather in his juxtaposition he exposes an element of curteisye not usually recognized. The reader gets the impression that this scenario occurred with greater frequency than courtly stories ever implied. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the seductions of Gawain by Bertilak’s wife possessed an air of innocence; the flirtatious dialogue between knights and their lords’ wives was not only accepted but expected. Chaucer suggests that not every courtier was so innocent and reverent in his motives.
Often the literary genius of Chaucer shines through in his actual diction. In the above passage, Chaucer uses language to emphasize his ironic depiction of courtly flirtation. Usually when a character speaks in courtly language, the author biases his word choice to French, since French was the formal language of the Court and people associated with the Court spoke French-derived English on a daily basis. Chaucer avoids that practice here and selects words based in Germanic-derived English, or Anglo-Saxon.
Words like “ich,” “wille,” and “spille” and others persisted from Old English, and Chaucer’s use of them through Nicholas gives the passage a decidedly rough tone, corresponding to Nicholas’ sensual actions. Nicholas’ language might have been courtly, but his intentions were definitely not as delicate as French. Chaucer utilized satire throughout the Canterbury Tales, and he illustrated as much about his culture, and especially curteisye, with his satire as he did with the stories and characters themselves.