Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"Biheste Is Dette": Marriage Promises in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"Biheste Is Dette": Marriage Promises in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Article excerpt

biheste = promise

dette = obligation

"Biheste is dette," said Chaucer's Man of Law when it was his turn to tell his Tale. A promise is an obligation, and the Man of Law, like his fellow pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, had agreed to contribute to an effort to help their travel time pass in ways that would provide both moral instruction and pleasant entertainment for everyone in the group. This essay focuses, however, not on what Mary Louise Pratt refers to as the "natural narrative framework" made possible by the twenty-nine pilgrims' agreement to be guided by the gregarious Host of the Tabard Inn (67), but on another promise, the marriage promise, as it functions within some of their Tales. I will be interested here in the various ways that characters in stories told by the Canterbury pilgrims fulfill, or do not fulfill, their marital obligations, and on the special demands that some characters make of their partners.

The basic quid pro quo debtor-creditor relationship of the marriage agreement, as Joseph Allen Hornsby, citing E.M. Makowski's earlier study of medieval marriage and its canonical sources,[1] spells it out in Chaucer and the Law, will thus provide a useful starting point. Hornsby writes that

Like a monetary debt, the marriage debt was something that was owed by one person to another. But, according to canon law, unlike a monetary debt, the marriage debt was a mutual obligation owed by spouses to one another by virtue of the sacrament of marriage and not by virtue of some exchange for value. The marriage debt was the mutual duty shared by husand and wife to perform sexually at each other's request. It was to be granted freely by one spouse upon the need of the other. This conjugal obligation served to keep the marriage bond solidified through the sexual union of husand and wife. The wife had as equal a right as the husband to exact payment of the debt. Neither spouse had the right to withhold its payment. (101)

Each partner in marriage, then, is both debtor and creditor. When the words of the marriage ceremony were spoken at the church door, the two to be joined in marriage promised "to perform sexually at the other's request." This was part of canon law, the law of the church, and Hornsby points out that the canonist position is well reflected in the Parson's Tale.

The Parson, who preaches a sermon in fulfillment of his commitment to tell a story, says that "a man and his wyf have three reasons to come together," one of which is "to yelden everich of hem to oother the dette of hire bodies; for neither of hem hath power of his owene body."[2] Continuing (and using a meaning of "chastitee" directly opposite in meaning to the Modern English descendant of the French-borrowed word), he praises the woman who, though she may not wish to do so, yields her body to her husband. A woman who does this, the Parson says, "hath merite of chastitee that yeldeth to hire housbonde the dette of hir body, ye, though it be agayn hir likynge and the lust [desire] of hir herte."[2]

"Biheste is dette." The basic law is simple and straightforward. But complexities emerge in the Tales in which the marriage agreement is central to the development of the narrative. The Wife of Bath, for example, both in her Tale of the young knight and the old hag and her autobiographical Prologue to the Tale, is more concerned with the husband's obligation than with the wife's obligation to satisfy the sexual needs of her partner. The old husband of the Merchant's Tale, to consider a second case in which the mutual obligation might be expected to hold (at least with respect to the terms to which Hornsby refers), finds it necessary and indeed is perfectly willing to promise property that was not part of his original marriage agreement in an offer to pay his young wife for her undivided attention to his needs. And the simple quid pro quo of the basic debtor-creditor relationship turns complex in another way when the wife of the Shipman's Tale is able to convert her basic contract to a credit scheme whereby she happily pays what she owes to her merchant husband. …

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