Rash Boon

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Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309)

The ‘rash boon’ is a motif in which a character promises to fulfill anything another character wishes for, despite being unaware of the conditions of this favor.


The rash boon features prominently in various medieval texts spanning French, Breton, and Celtic imaginaries – namely Marie de France’s Lais, Gottfried’s Tristan, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the narratives of the Mabinogion. Nonetheless, the motif appears to have roots in Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, Turkish, Persian, and Burmese tales (Rosenberg) – critics have even posited these Eastern tales as analogues to Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale (Rosenberg; Correale; Clouston). As Chaucer and Boccaccio’s access to Asian tales or orators was never documented, the rash boon presents itself as a motif that transects various cultures.


Readers can expect misadventure when characters offer a rash boon, which usually foreshadows losing a loved one or suffering by the character who makes the promise. The tribulations of rash boons give rise to the distinctive features of medieval romance – the adherence to chivalry and the appraisal of love.

Sir Orfeo by Mallory McInnis.

Keeping one’s promise, no matter how rash, is a cornerstone of courtly reputation and chivalry. In the English Breton lai Sir Orfeo, Orfeo uses his musical ability to charm the King of Fairies, who has kidnapped his wife Heurodis. Once the King offers Orfeo any reward he desires, Orfeo seeks Heurodis, and the King, albeit imbued with powerful magic, must acquiesce. Although the King protests, his objection falls short when Orfeo recalled how it was “fouler” (disgraceful) for a king to lie. Another instance of the motif occurs in The First Branch of the Mabinogi, whereby Prince Pwyll has no choice but to hand Gwawl his lover Rhiannon due to his promise to Gwawl (Davies). This motif thus illuminates how courtly integrity and the significance of public reputation prevail over characters’ supernatural or courtly might. In fact, these courtly preoccupations are so crucial that they apply to courtly love, too.

Love is unpredictable, and therefore must be tried and tested in the form of rash boons to be deemed true. Similar to Orfeo’s trial of love, an episode of Gottfried’s Tristan concerns the Irish knight Gandin, who refuses to play his rote unless King Mark offers a rash boon. King Mark then loses his wife Ysolde to Gandin, but gains her back through Tristan’s rash boon – Tristan plays his harp and gets Gandin to reward him with the best clothes in his tent, deceiving Gandin into handing back Ysolde. Rash boons have pushed Orfeo and Tristan to great lengths in order to win their lovers back, affirming their genuine affection. Both instances present rash boons as double-edged in the context of love – a loved one can be forsaken, yet gained back with the surety of true love.

Literary critic John Pitcher also perceives rash boons as an “articulat[ion of] the logic of desire” (62). In The Franklin’s Tale, Dorigen promises herself to her admirer Aurelius, if he can remove all the coastal rocks (Chaucer). One can interpret this boon as indicative of the magnitude of Aurelius’s desire, as he goes to great lengths to fulfill Dorigen’s request. However, Dorigen’s boon, while intended to reject Aurelius, insinuates her “latent, repressed desire for him.” (Pitcher, 62) Through a Freudian lens, Pitcher proposes the rash boon as a means for desire when words fail – because Dorigen identifies as a faithful wife, her repressed desire manifests in the impossible fantasy of removing rocks (Pitcher, 62). Accordingly, rash boons not only help delineate characters but also characterize their desires.


Chaucer, Geoffrey, -1400. The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale from the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Clouston, W. A. The Damsel’s Rash Promise: Indian Original and Some Asiatic and European Variants of Chaucher’s Franklin’s Tale. See Description, 1931.

Correale, Robert M. Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales. DS Brewer, 2002.

Davies, Sioned, trans. The Mabinogion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Pitcher, John A. “The Rhetoric of Desire in The Franklin’s Tale.” Chaucer’s Feminine Subjects: Figures of Desire in the Canterbury Tales, edited by John A. Pitcher, Palgrave Macmillan US, 2012, pp. 59–80. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137089724_3.

Rosenberg, Bruce A. “The Bari Widow and the ‘Franklin’s Tale.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 14, no. 4, 1980, pp. 344–52.

Sir Orfeo | Robbins Library Digital Projects. https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/laskaya-and-salisbury-middle-english-breton-lays-sir-orfeo. Accessed 3 Apr. 2022.


[Featured Image & Fig. 1] https://electronicgallery.tumblr.com/post/190062640515/illustrations-for-sir-orfeo-by-errol-le-cain