Marriage is shown to be something that stifles and somewhat entraps women, as courtly love towards them turns them into objects with little agency that exist as props for the men to settle their own differences. For example, in “The Knight’s Tale,” the character of Emily is extremely passive, and truly unable to make her own changes in a situation which sees her being fought over by two cousins who battle for her hand in marriage. Here, marriage is not based on love, but infatuation; Arcita and Palamon fight each other over her, each attributing their own ideal of womanhood over her (Arcita claiming he sees her womanhood, and Palamon comparing her beauty to Venus) (Finlayson 126). Emily, meanwhile, prays to Diana to tell the gods that she does not wish to marry, but this comes to no avail. To that end, Emily is a silent protagonist in her own story, with her one bit of agency ignored. Diana, instead, tells Emily that the Gods decided her fate already:
“Among the high gods it has been affirmed, And by eternal written word confirmed, That you shall be the wife of one of those Who bear for you so many cares and woes” (Chaucer 766)
In this story, marriage is simply a way to sacrifice for the greater good, with greater ideals than love and passion at stake.
Weddings themselves are explicitly compared with funerals in this story, as the funeral of the losing knight (in which she is “the most affected of the company”) is contrasted with the wedding, which happens “in all bliss and melody” (Chaucer 776, 780). Here, marriage is claimed to bring an emotional catharsis after the devilish death by duel that had occurred, but the joy seems hollow in that respect.
While some women, like Emily, are trapped in a marriage and see no way out, other women trapped in marriages seek to find a way to find what power they can discern from marriage. The Wife of Bath, for example, turns her marriage into a position of authority, dictating the rules by which she lives her life and engages with her husbands. Here, more explicitly than elsewhere in the Tales, love and marriage is equated to economics, indicating that the Wife of Bath is given a bit more freedom and autonomy because of her wealth. She essentially barters her sex for money, which then gives her true power (Carruthers 216).
Essentially, the Wife of Bath recognizes her sex and love as a commodity, which she then uses to her advantage. The Wife of Bath does not behave the normal way a woman in a marriage would (like Emily), refusing to conform to wifely expectations and instead controlling her husbands through her ability to grant them access to sex. Enticing the Knight through her convincing that she will be faithful to him because of her ugliness, she successfully gains control over him.
Between Emily and the Wife of Bath, the contrasting ways love and marriage are depicted in The Canterbury Tales are illustrated. Both women see marriage as the ultimate goal of a woman, but take two decidedly different perspectives on how to address it. Emily, in “The Knight’s Tale,” laments the prospect of being married and does what little she can to protest the very idea of marriage. To that end, she is used as a prop for unrequited male love and sexuality, instead of being able to exert her own agency. The Wife of Bath, meanwhile, accepts the inevitability of marriage, but shows a woman who twists it to her own advantage. By controlling the flow of sexual love and gratification to her husband(s), the Wife of Bath is able to gain wealth and power on behalf of whomever she marries. To that end, marriage is shown to almost be more powerful than love, as marriage binds a man to a woman. Once this bind takes hold, she can leech off that power by controlling the amorous love that is inherently expected of women in these times. In this way, The Canterbury Tales offers an unconventionally dichotomous way of looking at the woman’s earthly duty to be married, regardless of love or adoration for her husband.
Carruthers, Mary. “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions". PMLA 94 (2) (1979): 209–222.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Broadview Press, 2012.
Finlayson, John. "The ‘Knight's Tale’: The Dialogue of Romance, Epic, and
Philosophy". The Chaucer Review 27 (1) (1992): 126-149.