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The Theme of Governance in the Canterbury Tales

Updated on June 24, 2014

In the first fragment of the Canterbury Tales the theme of governance deteriorates and melts away. The fragment begins with the General Prologue where everyone is being cooperative and happy being governed under one man. The fragment then shifts to the Knight's Tale where we have a constant struggle between chaos and governance; to the complete loss of governance in the Miller's Prologue.

In the General Prologue you have all of these different personalities and status', and surprisingly everyone is merry and agrees that the owner of the tavern will be in charge of this tale telling contest on the way to Canterbury. So the Host elects the Knight to tell his tale first since he is the most honorable and noble, and everyone agrees.

The Knight's Tale itself, shows how difficult it is for nobility or governance to dominate chaos. Theseus is constantly trying to keep order from the beginning of the tale to the end. His first encounter of this is when he is stopped by Theben women who plead with him to give their husbands a proper burial. The next big disruption would be when Theseus finds Arcita and Palamon battling without a judge or audience. So he erects this Colosseum where the two men will battle it out properly and with an audience. The next disruption is at the end when Arcita dies and Emily is left unmarried. Parliament is expecting a marriage so Theseus decides that Palamon will marry Emily. All of the voices in this tale are being stifled by Theseus, who seems to be speaking for everyone and this leads to utter chaos seen in the Miller's Tale.


In the Miller's Prologue things start off fine, until the Miller disagrees with the Host's choice of the Monk telling his tale next. The Miller is clearly drunk during this debate and just plain refuses to do things in an orderly fashion.The Miller insists that his tale is a legend and can match or beat the Knight's tale. Then the Reeve intervines and they battle it out and the Host gives up and bails. Here we have an explosion of voices that mimic the voices of Palamon and Arcita that should have been heard in the Knight's Tale. The Miller acts as this model of how good people become ungoverned, by people like him who refuse governance or any kind of order. They feel governance is dictating what they can and can't do and people like the Miller can't be reasoned with.

At this point the Host has lost total control of his group and has to find some way back in, to create order again. I'm not convinced that there is any type of effective model of governance since they all fail, but then again maybe that's what governance is set up to do in this tale. Chaucer may be saying that with governance comes chaos and that one who is in charge will always be faced with problems he must fix.

The Host doesn't truly regain his order again until the Parson's tale, where everyone agrees that he should go next.

The Wife of Bath Prologue & Tale


Now the theme of governance doesn't just exist with those on this pilgrimage, but within each story that they tell. We've already seen it in the Knight's and Miller's Tale, but this theme is also seen in the Wife of Bath's Tale and The Clerk's Tale.

In the Wife of Bath's Tale we get to see what women desire most, control and power (governance) or equality. In the prologue the readers learn that the wife has control over her husbands body for his entire life; and after she gained this control she became this ideal wife, the ideal woman. In lines 1064-1068 we see the Knight standing up and asking that e let his body go, this is indeed a reminder of the Knight's crime of forcing his body onto a woman. In these lines the Knight is referencing back to the prologue where the idea of a having sovereignty over her husbands body is first seen.

"The knyght answerde, 'Allas and weylawey!
I woot right well that swich was my biheste!
For Goddesl ove, as chees a newe requeste!
Taak al my good, and lat my body go!'"

(1064 – 1068)

Further on in lines 1236-1241 see the Knight yielding to the governance of a woman.

"'My lady and my love, and wyf so deere,
I put me in you're wise governance.
Cheese yourself, which may be moost plesance
And moost honour to yow and me also.
I do no fors the wheither of the two;
For, as yow liketh, it suffiseth me.'
(1236 – 1241)

These lines show that the understanding what his wife desires most, governance. She wants to be in charge and have a say, instead of yielding to men she wishes for them to yield to her. Then the wife goes one step further and asks that her husband verbally acknowledge that she has taken full control. It isn't enough for him to yield to her she has to hear him admit to his yielding.

'Thanne have I gete of yow maistrie,' quod she,
'Syn I may chese and governe as me lest?'
'Ye, certes, wyf' quod he, 'I holde it best.'
(1243 – 1245)

In this tale the Wife uses her governance to dominate over her husband just as he used his body to force his dominance on women. it's as if she is using the governance to teach him a lesson about how to treat women.

Wife being beaten by her 5th husband
Wife being beaten by her 5th husband | Source

The Clerk's Tale takes a different approach to governance, where a husband refuses to give up his sovereignty to a wife, so instead he creates this kind of fearful obedience in his wife that she will never challenge him like in the Wife Bath's Tale. Walter, the king, instills this fearful obedience in cruel and unimaginable ways. He takes each child Griselda has and tells her that he is having them killed and she willingly gives up her child for the slaughter. The readers see this throughout the tale, and with each test Griselda obeys her husband even at the end when he tells her he will t younger bride and she will be the new wife's maid. Governance is used in way that illustrates how under different types of governance people react differently. Walter fears so much that his wife will take away his sovereignty that he rules with fear, in order to keep the kind of reign he wants.


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