Chaucer and the Suppression of Romantic Energy

The origin of Complaynt D’Amours has been a subject of debate among Chaucerian scholars- many do not consider it to be one of the works of Chaucer at all.  Yet, as a poem, it follows many of the conventions of several other works that historians almost unanimously agree to be written by Chaucer. It belongs to the “complaint” genre of poetry, a genre that was prevalent at the time and one that Chaucer was schooled in. It is tied in thematically to Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules, a poem for which Chaucer is more famous for. But beyond these more narrow connections, the poem reflects Chaucer’s philosophical view towards gender at a larger level. In this work, Chaucer delves into a world of love that he, purely by his social standing, is expected not to explore. Through this and other works, Chaucer comments on the universality of human emotions: the desire for interpersonal connections and the anguish that those faced with rejection suffer are both emotions that anyone can potentially feel.

As a complaint, this is not atypical of Chaucer’s works. Indeed, the complaint was a genre that Chaucer had a good deal of experience with. The complaint’s status as a full-fledged genre was actually a bit of a point of contention among the writers of Chaucer’s time. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Chaucer himself offhandedly referred to the complaint as a separate genre of poetry (Dean, 3), distinct from other such works. Examples of his complaint poetry can be seen not only in his various short works, but in Troilus and Criseyde as well. The complaint was a common poetic archetype at Chaucer’s time. It typically-but not as a rule- featured a male speaker decrying some wrong, often the instance of unrequited love. In Chaucer’s world, a society in which the everyman would be compelled to obey the moral teachings of the church and the legal rulings of the feudal government, sexuality and romance were constrained. Such complaint poems do not merely express frustration at the speaker’s failure to win the heart of the object of his unrequited affections: they also serve as an indirect criticism of the tendencies of the society in which the speaker is not free to pursue his longings. As is typical of a complaint poem, Complaynt D’Amours is laden with imagery that seems to characterize the speaker almost as a sort of martyr. He would choose to “love hir best, although she do me starve.”  (Chaucer, 92) Not merely starved for womanly affection, the medieval man may be starved for the ability to pursue such affection. Complaint poems such as this posit an interesting dilemma that could challenge the value of the church’s stance on love outside of marriage. What is the moral standing of an individual awash with unrequited love that he chooses to humbly not pursue? Are these longings for a relationship that will never be consummated sinful in nature? These sorts of themes are addressed in many of Chaucer’s works, such as “Troilus and Criseyde.” While some complaint poets may have coupled their stark, realistic view of the amorous woes of the common man with a chauvinistic, cynical view towards women, Chaucer’s complaints afforded them not only with a degree of respect but, beyond that, a degree of agency. Such can be seen in Troilus and Criseyde, which views the plight of the titular female character, with sympathy and understanding, seeing her as a victim of a system biased against her (Mitchell, 114.) While this poem, by its very nature as a complaint poem, cannot give an explanation of the world from the object of the narrator’s desires perspective, it can nevertheless afford the woman with her own ethical weight of consideration. The speaker’s agony is not out of any of the woman’s misdeeds, but simply out of his acknowledgment that her hand is one that he shall never be capable of pursuing.
                Complaynt D’Amours is thought, at least among some scholars, to have been part of a cycle of romantic writings commemorating the king’s love, this particular one being written in 1384. This would put the work between Chaucer’s writing of the Knight’s Tale and his writing of Troilus and Criseyde, according to Chaucerian scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly(Kelly, 127). It directly references Parlement of Foules near the end, on lines 84 and 85: “This compleynte on Seint Valentynes day, Whan every foughel chesen shal his make,”(Chaucer, 84-85) carrying the same thematic connection to Valentine’s Day as Chaucer’s previous work. The poem itself is awash with pained affection, much like Chaucer’s other complaint poems. Interestingly, the speaker frequently makes reference to the female figure of interest’s servants, and frequently attests that he wishes to serve her, making statements such as “Were me, as wisly God my soule save,To seyn a thing through which ye might be wroth;And, to that day that I be leyd in grave,A trewer servaunt shulle ye never have;”(Chaucer, 72-75). The speaker’s desire to “serve” the object of his affections is uncanny, and it is a recurring theme within the work, even present at its conclusion. At a glance, this might smack of a pre-modern form of feminism. Chaucer’s works, after all, often have a slant in favor of an egalitarian view towards the genders.  However, the speaker does not view the object of his affections as something that is inherently powerful, nor does he seem to view such fealty as an intrinsically normal thing. The service he is referring to is, of course, also a clever allusion to the notion of matrimonial servitude- a husband and wife are bound in serve to one another. In a sense, Chaucer here is not commenting on the intrinsic value of either of the genders. Rather, Chaucer’s position is more that of a traditional humanist than that of a modern day feminist. From a historical perspective, this sort of interpretation of Chaucer fits his background quite well. His enemies, after all, were not primarily concerned with the disempowerment of women. Rather, the worldview that Chaucer spoke out against was one of indifference towards the plights of the masses and of absolute religious control. Chaucer’s ideas were not thought to be dangerous because he was pushing for the inversion of the gender dichotomy, but rather because he wrote of the hypocrisies and needless divisions that plagued the real world. To view Chaucer purely as a feminist or an enemy of feminism would be to retrofit modern sentiments into his works. Yes, Chaucer’s position towards the genders is a worthy point of contention, for it is difficult to discern his intentions in many of the poems he wrote, but he was living in a time where women were not the only oppressed segment of society. While Chaucer showed some progressive leanings in some of his works (such as the Wife of Bath’s Tale) Chaucer confronted problems faced by the people of his time, regardless of the individual’s gender.

An actor portraying King Richard II

King Richard II(as depicted, here, by an actor in a performance of Shakespeare’s play “Richard II”) was thought of as “effeminate” by his enemies, a contention that Chaucer would frequently argue against in his poems.

a man facing a giant

Giants were often used by poets to represent a sort of violent virility. Chaucer, along with some of his contemporaries, may have written many of his poems as arguments in favor of less aggressive, more civic behavior

While Chaucer spoke sympathetically of the woman seeking to become her own person, he also spoke sympathetically of the man who faced contentions that he was not masculine. Many of Chaucer’s tales deal with conflicting notions of Masculinity. He would frequently write in female characters as exemplars for nobility, as can be seen in his Clerk’s Tale, or, more directly, The Tale of Melibee. Historically, Chaucer had good reason to write in such characters: he was a loyal follower of King Richard II, a man whose adversaries frequently used rhetoric associating him with femininity. In featuring a female character as a princely exemplar, Chaucer is in a way indirectly countering the arguments of the anti-Richardian faction (Beidler, Rudey 167). Complaynt D’Amours falls right in line with Chaucer’s stories of men who embody their masculinity not with violence and aggression, but with maturity and self-discipline. A form of patience and diplomacy that could be viewed as, in a sense, “emasculate,” but one that could be viewed-from the perspective that Chaucer argued for -as fitting for a man. This would square away with the suggested context of the poem’s authorship, with the poem being printed in 1834 as part of a series of similar works explicitly constructed as tributes to Richard II. This, alongside the poem’s status as a complaint poem, strongly suggests that Chaucer, or at the very least one of his close contemporaries, may have been the author of the work.

Ultimately, while the authorship of Complaynt D’Amours cannot be conclusively determined, it is very much a work typical of Chaucer and his peers, an emotional diatribe that is emblematic of the longings and fears of the people who lived in Chaucer’s time. It embodies the basic characteristics of the “complaint” genre of poetry, and it stresses a message much in line with the humanist school of thought. Complaynt D’Amours should not be interpreted as an inherently feminist or antifeminist work. Rather, given the probable context of the poem, Chaucer’s other writings within the genre, and the content of the text itself, it is in fact a treatise on the universality of love, delivered from the perspective of someone faced with rejection.

Sources:

Weisl, Angela Jane. Conquering the reign of femeny : gender and genre in Chaucer’s romance. Cambridge; Rochester, NY, USA: D.S. Brewer, 1995. Print.
Patterson, Lee. Acts of recognition : essays on medieval culture. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. Print.

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. Chaucer and the cult of Saint Valentine. Leiden, the Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1986. Print.

Dean, Nancy. “Chaucer’s Complaint, a Genre Descended from the Heroides.” Comparitive Literature 19.1 (1967): 1–27. Print.

Cox, CatherineS. Gender and Language in Chaucer. University Press of Florida, 1997. Print.

 Gross, Karen Elizabeth. “Chaucer, Mary Magdalene, and the Consolation of Love.” July 2006.

Beidler, Peter G. Masculinities in Chaucer : approaches to maleness in the Canterbury tales and Troilus and Criseyde. Cambridge; Rochester, NY, USA: D.S. Brewer, 1998. Print.

Mitchell, J. Allan. “Romancing Ethics in Boethius, Chaucer, and Levinas: Fortune, Moral Luck, and Erotic Adventure.” Spring2005 2005.

Chaucer, Geoffrey(allegedly), Complaynt D’Amours. Accessed at Echaucer, on September 27, 2012 http://machias.edu/faculty/necastro/chaucer/texts/short/compldam07.txt .

Ransom, Daniel J. “Imprecise Chaucer.” Apr. 2009.
Posted in Historical and Literary Analysis