Chaucer’s Missing Children
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 12 (1995)
The difficulty with an exploration of the role of children in Chaucer’s fiction is that, with the notable exception of the little clergeon of The Prioress’s Tale, scarcely any children make an appearance or figure centrally in the tales. Chaucer provides only a few brief and random glimpses of what the actual lives of children in medieval families might have looked like, the Squire serving before his father at the table in the General Prologue and the sleeping arrangements of the miller’s baby and grown daughter in The Reeve’s Tale, for example. And, despite Chaucer’s focused investigation of the theme of marriage, children are, curiously, missing from the lives of most of his married characters. More curious still is the startling fact that when children do appear prominently in The Canterbury Tales, they are presented as objects of violence. They have their throats cut, they are decapitated, they are kidnapped by their father and apparently murdered, they are abandoned at sea, they are wounded by their father’s enemies, they are imprisoned with their father and must offer him their own flesh as food. These are the children of Chaucer’s tales of morality and religion. They appear within family settings and are most important in their absence as something lost, something injured, or something sacrificed. They are largely symbolic figures manipulated for their qualities of weakness and innocence and important in their absence or in their suffering. Similarly, the predominant representation of the relationship between parent and child focuses on pain and loss in an analogy, sometimes implied, sometimes overt, to the sufferings of Mary as she beholds her child on the Cross. This paper contends that for Chaucer, the most potent literary representation of the parent-child relationship mirrors the relationship between Mary and Christ.