Chaucer’s Complaint of Mars: Love and Fate in the Middle Ages

Mars. Oxford, Bodleian MS Fairfax 16, fol. 14v. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

The Fairfax frontispiece of the Bodleian Library Manuscript, depicting Mars and Venus beneath God

For many people living in fourteenth century love was complicated. Not only did one have to win the heart of their lover, but also hope that none above them had other designs in mind. The average man during this time was bound in a number of ways. First and foremost, he had to respect his liege’s wishes, no matter if his lord was the man collecting the rents on his land, or the man he had sworn fealty to. In many of Chaucer’s other works dealing with the subject of love, such as The Man of Law’s Tale and The Clerk’s Tale, both love and fate work hand in hand to bring about a happy ending for their respective heroines. In contrast to these works, The Complaint of Mars represents love and fate as the two extremes fighting for control over the hero. Historically, The Complaint of Mars has been seen as an allegory of courtly love affairs in medieval England, using the struggles of the gods as a metaphor for the upper gentry (Williams, 132-33). Others have seen the entire poem as being an account of certain astronomical events that occurred during Chaucer’s time, in which Mars and Venus, and Phebus are personifications of the planets they represent (Dean, 128). Geoffrey Chaucer uses The Complaint of Mars to paint a compelling picture of love, claiming that it is a control mechanism created by God which torments people and forces them to follow their predetermined paths. Chaucer also illustrates the conflict between fate and free will, using Mars’ love affair with Venus and his struggle to overcome his star-written fate and be reunited with his love as an example of a man refusing to accept his fate.

The poem itself describes the relationship between Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war, who has fallen madly in love with her. Venus commands Mars to “nevere, in her servise, he nere so bold no lover to dispise.” Additionally, she “forbad him jelosye et al, and cruelte, and bost, and tyrannye (Chaucer, 34-37).” In return for his obedience to her, she would return his love. But Phebus (Apollo, the god of the Sun), learns of their affair, and comes to Venus’ palace to “brenne hem with his hete.” While Venus flees and hides in Mercury’s tower, Mars is left behind in her palace to face Phebus. Chaucer uses this introduction to the actual complaint to break with some of the conventions set up by his contemporaries and by himself in some of his other works. For one, Chaucer portrays Venus as a powerless victim who abandons her lover when he urges her to flee, a direct contrast to Custance in The Man of Law’s Tale, for instance. Custance, while being passive in her actions, still presented a more favorable picture of women than Venus. This suggests that The Complaint of Mars is going to take a decidedly different turn from what a medieval reader was likely to expect. Furthermore Mars, previously portrayed as an exemplary knight, does a most unchivalrous thing: He begins to complain.

Mars starts his complaint while slowly following Venus across the heavens. Even though he is fated to never lay eyes on Venus again, Mars is forced to chase after her, compelled by his love for Venus and the heavenly movements that govern his every move. In the first part of the complaint, Mars describes how he, after being created and brought here by “him that lordeth each intelligence,” gave his service to Venus. He goes on to say that he has promised his heart to Venus, and that he will love her no matter what she does to him:

What wonder ys it then, thogh I besette

My servise on such on that may me knette

To wele or wo sith hit lyth in her myght?

Therfore my herte forever I to her hette,

Ne truly, for my deth, I shal not lette

To ben her truest servaunt and her knyght.

 

(Chaucer, 182-87) This passage suggests that from the first, Mars was fated to fall in love with Venus, just as he was fated to lose her forever, as he states himself at the end of the same stanza: “For this day in her servise shal I dye. But grace be, I se her never wyth ye (Chaucer, 189-90).” Grace in this case being the favor of God, who alone has the power to change Mars’ fate. While Mars seems eager to gain God’s favor at this point, he quickly changes his mind in the second and third parts of his complaint.

File:Venus and Mars.jpg

Venus and Mars” by Boticelli (circa 1483) Depicting Venus and a sleeping Mars in bed, while satyrs play with Mars’ arms.

In the following part Mars begins to talk about the various misfortunes that would befall lovers such as himself in their search for love, and that there is no one whom he can tell his own misfortune to, or who would be able to help him or cure him of his pain. The only person who would listen is Venus, but he does not wish to burden her further:

To whom shal I than pleyne of my distresse?

Who may me helpe? Who may my harm redresse?

Shal I compleyne unto my lady fre?

Nay, certes, for she hath such hevynesse,

For fere and eke for wo that, as I gesse,

In lytil tyme hit were no fors of me.

Alas, that ever lovers mote endure

For love so many a perilous aventure!

 

(Chaucer, 191-99) The fact that no one is willing (or able) to help him suggests that Mars has stopped looking to God for help, most likely because God is unwilling to change Mars’ fate, and that he has resigned himself to being a slave of his love.

He goes on to say in the third part of the complaint that God constrains people to love against their will, and that the small joy they gain from being in love is nothing compared to the pain and distress it will cause them in the long run:

Lyk a fissher, as men alday may se,

Baiteth hys angle-hok with som plesaunce

Til many a fissh ys wod til that he be

Sesed therwith; and then at erst hath he

Al his desir, and therwith al myschaunce;

And thogh the lyne breke, he hath penaunce;

For with the hok he wounded is so sore

That he his wages hath for evermore.

 

(Chaucer, 237-44) Chaucer paints God in an antagonistic light in this passage, saying that he uses love in order to bait unsuspecting people, giving them a little taste of what they want, only to take it away from them and causing them endless suffering for the rests of their lives. This critique suggests a disillusionment with the Church on Chaucer’s part, reflecting his support of the Wycliffite movement against Ecclesiastical power in England. Historically, This type of anti-Christian thinking was not supported by the general population, but was likely to be applauded by some of Chaucer’s contemporaries who shared his political views of the Church.

In the fourth part of his complaint, Mars goes on to say that the person or thing we love is not the cause of our pain, but rather the creator who caused his creation to make any who own it to feel sorrow:

For thogh my lady have so gret beaute

That I was mad til I had gete her grace,

She was not cause of myn adversite,

But he that wroghte her, also mot I the,

That putte such a beaute in her face,

That made me coveyten and purchace

Myn oune deth – him wite I that I dye,

And myn unwit that ever I clamb so hye.

 

(Chaucer, 264-71) Chaucer once again antagonizes God in this passage, this time saying that he is responsible for making Venus so beautiful, and that it is God’s fault that Mars fell in love with her and that he can no longer live without her. Chaucer also writes at the end that Mars is also partly to blame, since he was foolish enough to fall for Venus, but the majority of the fault still lies with her creator. By comparing a man’s love for a woman with love for a pretty piece of jewelry, Chaucer creates an elaborate metaphor comparing a skilled craftsman with “the Creator,” saying that they are both at fault when people fall in love with their creations, since one cannot blame a piece of jewelry for being pretty, just as one cannot blame women for being beautiful.

Chaucer uses the construct of a love story to tell the reader about the evils of love, how men will give their all in a foolish quest to attain the thing that they crave, even though the fates have spoken against them. In his complaint, Mars paints us a picture of a diabolical God who tortures people by baiting them with love, seemingly for his own amusement. Furthermore, Mars warns the reader to avoid his fate, which only seems possible by ignoring God’s “bait,” and never falling in love in the first place. This, according to Chaucer, is one’s best bet of avoiding a similar fate.

 

Sources:

  1. Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Complaint of Mars.” Compiled by: NeCastro, Gerard. eChaucer. University of Maine at Machias, 31 March 2011. Web. 8 Sept. 2012.
  2. Dean, James. “Mars the Exegete in Chaucer’s Complaint of Mars.” Journal of Comparative Literature 41.2 (1989): 128-130. Print.
  3. Williams, Sean. “Chaucer’s The Complaint of Mars.” Explicator 54.3 (1996): 132-134. Print.
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Posted in Historical and Literary Analysis