“My trouthe for to holde—allas, allas!”: Dorigen and Honor in “The Franklin’s Tale”
THE CHAUCER REVIEW, Vol. 42, No. 3, (2008)
Perhaps the most oft-quoted (and debated) words in the Franklin’s Tale are those of Arveragus when he admonishes Dorigen that she must keep her promise to sleep with the squire Aurelius should he succeed in the task she playfully set him, for “Trouthe is the hyeste thing that man may kepe” (V 1479). The question is, exactly what kind of trouthe does Arveragus mean, and how does this trouthe apply to Dorigen? In addressing the first part of this question, we must bear in mind that trouthe is perhaps the single most multivalent word in Middle English. Its meaning had not yet been largely reduced to factual veracity, as it has in Modern English—in fact, this aspect of trouthe’s meaning was still relatively new in Chaucer’s time. For most of the Middle English period, trouthe comprised a wide range of interrelated meanings.
The MED gives no fewer than sixteen different definitions of the word trouthe, including ‘loyalty’ (to one’s kin, one’s country, one’s beloved, one’s God); ‘adherence to vows and promises’; ‘constancy’; ‘honor, nobility, integrity, or moral soundness’; ‘honesty’; ‘character or behavior that conforms to religious or divine standards, righteousness, or holiness’; ‘faith,’ especially Christian faith, the tenets of Christian belief; ‘absolute truth,’ usually identified with spiritual reality; ‘factual information’; and ‘justice,’ usually in the context of natural law. These definitions are further complicated by the awareness that each definition is often implicated in or evoked by one or more of the others. Indeed, the MED offers its definitions with the caveat that, although quo- tations have been provided to illustrate each of the various senses of trouthe, it would be a mistake to assume that any quotation is exclusive in its illustration of a given meaning, for the word “and the concepts it expresses defy rigid categorization.”