What is the connection between inner virtue and outward action? Are gentlemen and gentlewomen well-behaved because they are of noble birth, or are they noble because they are well-behaved? These questions lie at the heart of one of the great debates in medieval English literature. They ask what the true relationship between lineage and virtue might be, and they question a longstanding correlation between fame and inherent worth. On one side of the debate there are medieval chronicles and romances (stories of adventure) that maintain the status quo of medieval feudalism. These are texts that insist that noble behaviour is determined by ancestry: a knight will be chivalrous because he is of noble blood; a lady will be courteous because she is high-born. There are other works of literature, however, that challenge this assumption, that do not take for granted the idea that gentility, or gentleness, is in-born. In many ways this was a radical challenge in an age when monarchs reigned with divine right, and when manorial lords often gained their rights to rule over land and property through inheritance.
In the following exercises we will look at a few examples from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English literature that consider this assumed connection between noble action and noble birth. Our main text will be Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, which is part of his story-telling collection The Canterbury Tales.
The first task, then, is to read the Wife of Bath’s tale:
*Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn. (Oxford, 1987; repr. 2008).
This edition gives the original Middle English, but it provides glosses for the difficult words and a full set of explanatory notes in the back. If you are having difficulties with the language (which is not uncommon!) you might first want to read it in translation. There are many good translations of The Canterbury Tales available, including some on the web, but here is one good edition:
*Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, trans. by Nevill Coghill (London, 1951; repr. 2003).