“Womanly Noblesse,” one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s earlier short poems, reflects some of the author’s own feminist views as he incorporates a gender role reversal through his characters. During medieval times, men represented authority figures while women played the role of submissive maidens or servants. In the article “Medieval Women,” Chris Trueman explains that the Middle Ages consisted of a male-dominated world in which women “had to know ‘their place’” (par. 1). Chaucer swaps these conventional gender roles as he makes the male narrator in the poem a servant to the mighty woman whom he addresses. This essay analyses “Womanly Noblesse” by examining its background and underlying meaning, and how it relates to Chaucer’s “The Tale of Melibee.” Through this examination, one will see how Chaucer was a feminist writer, as he portrays women as authority figures in his work.
On the surface “Womanly Noblesse” looks like a purely conventional medieval love poem. Because of its conventional façade, the poem is not one of Chaucer’s most popular works. Doctor Rosalyn Rossignol explains in Chaucer: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work that the exact year when Chaucer wrote “Womanly Noblesse” is unknown; however, many scholars believe it is one of Chaucer’s earlier works because it takes the form of a conventional French ballade (305-306). It may be safe to assume that this poem was one of Chaucer’s earlier works since, according to “Geoffrey Chaucer,”an encyclopedic entry that gives a brief overview of Chaucer’s life, “his early work (to 1370) […] is based largely on French models” (par. 3). Consequently, “Womanly Noblesse” would have been written during a relatively politically stable period, before the political powder keg, made up by Richard II, his magnates, and Henry IV, exploded in the late 14th century. So, it makes sense as to why Chaucer did not incorporate any political undertones in this poem. Instead Chaucer uses the poem to voice his philosophy regarding gender roles and love.
The poem consists of three stanzas and an envoy. Chaucer weaves in a theme of courtly love, which helps to camouflage his open-minded views. In The Poetry of Chaucer; a guide to its study and appreciation, Robert Root states that the poem’s three stanzas have an aabaabbaa rhyme while the envoy’s six line have an ababaa rhyme scheme (79). Although Chaucer’s rhymes are simplistic, the rhyme scheme is elaborate. The simplistic rhymes support some parts of the lighthearted tone that appears from time to time in the poem. The rhythm created almost makes it seem as if the narrator in the poem is serenading the lady he addresses. The effect created by the rhythm adds to the poem’s traditional character. On the other hand, Chaucer’s gender role reversal concept emerges in the connotation behind some of the words used in the poem.
In the first stanza of “Womanly Noblesse,” Chaucer begins by writing, “So hath my herte caught in remembraunce / Your beaute hool, and stedfast governaunce / Your vertues alle, and your hy noblesse / That you to serve is set al my plesaunce” (lines 1-4). The speaker insinuates that his heart already belongs to the woman he addresses, when he states that his heart is taken by his memory of her beauty and appealing character. He immediately admits that he would be willing to serve and please her in any possible manner. Chaucer uses repetition in the last half of the stanza, as he makes the speaker continue to praise the woman and reiterate that his heart belongs to her and no one else. These ideas are seen again in the envoy at the end when the speaker reemphasizes, “Thinking that I have caught in remembraunce / Your beaute hool, your stefast governaunce” (lines 32-33). The use of the word “serve” in the first stanza implies that the male narrator is submissive in nature, which is uncharacteristic of the traditional male figure in the Middle Ages. Also, the way that the narrator expresses his strong infatuation with the lady portrays how enslaved he is by his love.
In general, the main focus in the first stanza is on pleasure and how the narrator wishes to dedicate himself to please his lady. However, his tone of infatuation shifts to a dark, obsessive tone in the second stanza when he claims, “You for to serve with al my besinesse, / Taketh me, lady, in your obeisaunce / And have me somewhat in your souvenaunce. / My woful herte suffreth greet duresse” (lines 12-15). As a token of acknowledgement for his servitude, the speaker pleads to the lady to keep him in her memories. Then he talks about how his woeful heart remains in a state of suffering, as he awaits the lady’s response.
These lines reflect Chaucer’s general thoughts on the pain individuals must experience when they love another person. Being in a relationship, whether it be with a lover, a friend, or a family member, means that there will be moments in which people will fight when they disagree with each other; however, if love truly exists in the relationship, they will also forgive themselves and continue to support each other. Through this mixture of an exulting and self-deprecating tone, Chaucer suggests that one cannot love without experiencing some form of hurt. Chaucer also re-emphasizes the submissive character of the narrator in the aforementioned lines when the narrator begs the woman to keep him in her memories. Men in the Middle Ages were expected to show authority and not weakness in front of women. In “Womanly Noblesse,” Chaucer portrays the male speaker in such a way that the speaker renders himself emotionally vulnerable.
The narrator continues to express the ache his love for the woman has caused him when he says, “And loke how humblely, with al simplesse, / My wil I conforme to your ordenaunce, / As you best list, my peynes to redresse” (lines 14-18). While the narrator’s unsettling obsessive tone in the stanza continues, the speaker declares that he wishes to dedicate the rest of his life to the lady. Consequently, he implies that he is willing to become her slave when he uses the word “serve” for the second time in the poem when he says, “You for to serve with al my besiness” (line 12). He continues to diminish himself in status, by claiming that he will be taking on the submissive role in the relationship. Moreover, the lady is depicted as the authority figure and as the one that will determine the man’s fate by accepting or rejecting him. Here, Chaucer empowers the female character as he reveals that she will make the final decision regarding this relationship proposal.
The gender role reversal becomes even more obvious in the last stanza when the speaker indirectly compares the woman to the concepts of Fortune and Justice, portraying her as a larger than life entity. The male narrator says, “In your service; swich, lo! Is my chaunce, / Abyding grace, whan that your gentilness / Of my gret wo list doon allegeaunce, / And with your pite me som wyse avaunce, / In ful rebatyng of my hevinesse” (lines 20-24). In the last few lines of this stanza, the narrator states that he awaits the lady’s decision regarding whether or not she will accept him. He mentions that that only she can cure him from the pain of anticipation and rejection.
The words Chaucer uses in this stanza, including “chaunce,” “alleggeaunce,” “rebatyng,” and “outrance,” imply that that the woman represents Fortune and Justice. In The Shorter Poems, A.J. Minnis says the following in regard to “Womanly Noblesse,” “[…] he [the speaker] sees the lady as both Fortune, suggested by ‘chaunce’ (19), and Justice, suggested by ‘alleggeaunce’ (=alleviation), ‘rebatyng’ (=abatement), and ‘outrance’ (21-5)” (479). Fortune and Justice are the powers that essentially determine one’s fate, especially in the medieval world. The allusion that the lady embodies Fortune and Justice makes her an all-powerful being, like a god. In this sense, Chaucer empowers the female figure in such a way that she becomes the narrator’s raison d’être and the master of his fate.
One can gain a better sense of the importance of the indirect mention of Fortune and Justice when one analyzes “Womanly Noblesse” in terms of Chaucer’s “The Tale of Melibee.” Some of the dialogue in “The Tale of Melibee” gives the reader insight as to what Fortune and Justice mean to people in the Middle Ages. In the tale, Prudence tries to convince her husband, Melibeus, that testing his luck by getting involved in a battle for which he doesn’t possess the resources to win is extremely precarious. She mentions the role Fortune plays in their lives in the dialogue that follows, “‘Certes,’ quod Prudence, ‘if ye wol werke by my conseil, ye shul nat assaye Fortune by no wey, ne ye shul nat lene or bowe unto hire, after the word of Senec, for ‘thynges that been folily doon, and that been in hope of Fortune, shullen nevere come to good ende’’” (lines 1447-1449). Through Prudence’s lines one can infer that it is through Fortune that a situation can end well or badly. In the medieval world, Fortune plays an essential role in determining one’s fate; consequently, because it determines the outcome of most events, Fortune becomes a powerful entity.
In “The Tale of Melibee,” Prudence also says, “ ‘I holde and bileeve that God, which that is ful of Justice and of rightwisnesse, hath suffred this bityde by juste cause resonable” (line 1409). By saying that God is full of Justice in “The Tale of Melibee” and by suggesting that the lady in “Womanly Noblesse” embodies Justice, Chaucer compares the woman to God. In a way, he makes her a god-like being when he hints that she controls the man’s ultimate fate. Chaucer bestows the ultimate power to the female figure in his poem.
In the end, “Womanly Noblesse” is not just a conventional love poem, but a poem that clearly gives women a position of authority; moreover, it successfully incorporates one of Chaucer’s gender role reversals. While love was a common theme in medieval literature, Chaucer added his own twist by finding a way to incorporate his own unconventional beliefs. The idea that women are more valuable than they are given credit for is certainly refreshing in Chaucer’s work. It is interesting to see how Chaucer introduces his ideals in such an early work like “Womanly Noblesse” and goes on to expand upon them in later works such as The Canterbury Tales, especially in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”
“Geoffrey Chaucer.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (2011): 1-2. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Sept. 2012.
“The Tale of Melibee.” eChaucer. University of Maine at Machias, 2007. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.
Trueman, Chris. “Medieval Women.” History Learning Site. n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2012.
“Womanly Noblesse.” The Online Library of Liberty, 2012. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.