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Canterbury Tales Study Guide

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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer



Geoffrey Chaucer Biography.............................................................................................................................8


Summary and Analysis.....................................................................................................................................15

1: General Prologue Summary and Analysis.........................................................................................15

2: The Knight's Tale Summary and Analysis........................................................................................20

3: The Miller's Tale Summary and Analysis.........................................................................................23

4: The Reeve's Tale Summary and Analysis.........................................................................................26

5: The Cook's Tale Summary and Analysis...........................................................................................28

6: The Man of Law's Tale Summary and Analysis................................................................................29

7: The Shipman's Tale Summary and Analysis.....................................................................................33

8: The Prioress's Tale Summary and Analysis.......................................................................................35

9: The Tale of Sir Thopas Summary and Analysis................................................................................36

10: The Monk's Tale Summary and Analysis........................................................................................37

11: The Nun's Priest's Tale Summary and Analysis..............................................................................39

12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary and Analysis.............................................................................40

13: The Friar's Tale Summary and Analysis..........................................................................................44

14: The Summoner's Tale Summary and Analysis................................................................................46

15: The Cleric's Tale Summary and Analysis........................................................................................48

16: The Merchant's Tale Summary and Analysis..................................................................................51

17: The Squire's Tale Summary and Analysis.......................................................................................53

18: The Franklin's Tale Summary and Analysis....................................................................................56

19: The Physician's Tale Summary and Analysis..................................................................................59

20: The Pardoner's Tale Summary and Analysis...................................................................................61

21: The Second Nun's Tale Summary and Analysis..............................................................................63

22: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale Summary and Analysis......................................................................64

23: The Manciple's Tale Summary and Analysis..................................................................................66

24: The Parson's Tale Summary and Analysis.......................................................................................68

25: Chaucer's Retraction Summary and Analysis..................................................................................69


1: General Prologue Questions and Answers.........................................................................................70

2: The Knight's Tale Questions and Answers........................................................................................71

3: The Miller's Tale Questions and Answers.........................................................................................72

4: The Reeve's Tale Questions and Answers.........................................................................................73

6: The Man of Law's Tale Questions and Answers...............................................................................74

7: The Shipman's Tale Questions and Answers.....................................................................................75

8: The Prioress's Tale Questions and Answers......................................................................................76

9: The Tale of Sir Thopas Questions and Answers................................................................................76

10: The Monk's Tale Questions and Answers.......................................................................................77

11: The Nun's Priest's Tale Questions and Answers..............................................................................78

12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Questions and Answers............................................................................79

13: The Friar's Tale Questions and Answers.........................................................................................80

iTable of Contents


14: The Summoner's Tale Questions and Answers...............................................................................81

15: The Cleric's Tale Questions and Answers.......................................................................................82

16: The Merchant's Tale Questions and Answers..................................................................................83

17: The Squire's Tale Questions and Answers.......................................................................................84

18: The Franklin's Tale Questions and Answers...................................................................................85

19: The Physician's Tale Questions and Answers.................................................................................86

20: The Pardoner's Tale Questions and Answers...................................................................................87

21: The Second Nun's Tale Questions and Answers.............................................................................88

22: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale Questions and Answers......................................................................89

23: The Manciple's Tale Questions and Answers..................................................................................90

24: The Parson's Tale Questions and Answers......................................................................................91



Historical Context.............................................................................................................................................95

Critical Overview..............................................................................................................................................97

Essays and Criticism.........................................................................................................................................98

The Canterbury Tales: A Critical Analysis............................................................................................98

Comedic Inventiveness in The Canterbury Tales................................................................................100

Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism......................102

Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale”......................................................................................109

Language Redeemed: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”...............................................................................116

Perception and Reality in the “Miller's Tale”......................................................................................120

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale”.......................................................................126

Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale”....................................................................................137

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s


The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence...................................................................................155

Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature.......................................................................163

The Play of the “Miller's Tale”: A Game within a Game....................................................................170

Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale”...............................................................172

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy..............................................................177

Chaucer as Satirist in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales..................................................188

Commentary: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale................................................................................................192

The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales..........................................................................................194

Suggested Essay Topics..................................................................................................................................200

Quotes and Passages.......................................................................................................................................203

Sample Essay Outlines....................................................................................................................................207

iiTable of Contents

Compare and Contrast...................................................................................................................................210

Topics for Further Study................................................................................................................................211

Media Adaptations..........................................................................................................................................212

What Do I Read Next?....................................................................................................................................213

Bibliography and Further Reading...............................................................................................................214


Geoffrey Chaucer began writing The Canterbury Tales sometime around 1387 A.D.; the uncompleted

manuscript was published in 1400, the year he died. Having recently passed the six hundredth anniversary of

its publication, the book is still of interest to modern students for several reasons. For one thing, The

Canterbury Tales is recognized as the first book of poetry written in the English language. Before Chaucer’s

time, even poets who lived in England wrote in Italian or Latin, which meant that poetry was only

understandable to people of the wealthy, educated class. English was considered low class and vulgar. To a

great degree, The Canterbury Tales helped make it a legitimate language to work in. Because of this work, all

of the great writers who followed, from Shakespeare to Dryden to Keats to Eliot, owe him a debt of gratitude.

It is because Chaucer wrote in English that there is a written record of the roots from which the modern

language grew. Contemporary readers might find his words nearly as difficult to follow as a foreign language,

but scholars are thankful for the chance to compare Middle English to the language as it is spoken now, to

examine its growth.

In the same way that The Canterbury Tales gives modern readers a sense of the language at the time, the book

also gives a rich, intricate tapestry of medieval social life, combining elements of all classes, from nobles to

workers, from priests and nuns to drunkards and thieves. The General Prologue alone provides a panoramic

view of society that is not like any found elsewhere in all of literature. Students who are not particularly

interested in medieval England can appreciate the author’s technique in capturing the variations of human

temperament and behavior. Collections of stories were common in Chaucer’s time, and some still exist today,

but the genius of The Canterbury Tales is that the individual stories are presented in a continuing narrative,

showing how all of the various pieces of life connect to one another. Copyright eNotes. This entry does not

cover all the tales, only some of the most studied.

Introduction 1Overview


The Canterbury Tales is set in fourteenth-century London, one of the medieval period's great centers of

commerce and culture. In England at this time, society was still very strictly ordered, with the King and

nobles having all power in things political and the Catholic Church having all authority in spiritual matters.

However, trade and commerce with other nations had expanded dramatically in this century, giving rise to a

new and highly vocal middle class comprised of merchants, traders, shopkeepers, and skilled craftsmen. Their

newly acquired wealth, their concentration in centers of commerce, and their organization into guilds gave

this newly emerging class increasing power and influence.

However, the population of England remained for the most part agrarian, poor peasants working hard for a

meager living farming on rented land, completely at the mercy of the landowner, mired in ignorance and

superstition, and generally devoid of any opportunity to change their lot in life. These peasant people looked

to the Church for consolation and defense. Sometimes they found nurture there, though, just as often, they

confronted corruption and further victimization. As the clergy became landowners, they victimized the

peasants as blatantly as did the nobility. The hierarchical organization of the Church and its dominance of

education also gave rise to widespread shocking abuse and corruption.

In the latter fourteenth century, there was a new and considerable resistance to the inflexible dominance of

society by the nobility and the clergy. The Plague had struck three times in the century, killing one-third of the

population of England. The resultant labor shortage at last gave the peasants the courage to insist on higher

wages. They even staged what is known as "The Peasants' Rebellion" in 1381 in reaction to their enforced

poverty, but their group was quickly subdued by the nobility.

Geoffrey Chaucer witnessed this rebellion firsthand. He was the Controller of the Custom in London and

resided rent-free in a house built onto the wall around London. His house was located just over the gate where

the furious peasants descended on the city. One can only imagine his horror as he watched the rebels burn the

elaborate castle of his patron, John of Gaunt.

Chaucer's ability to give the reader his view of life in the city of London is but one of the sterling elements of

The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer knew these angry peasants and successful and outspoken merchants and

tradesmen because he lived among them and dealt with them constantly in his work. His service to the

nobility and his diplomatic duties gave him wide acquaintance among the clergy and the ruling class. All of

these types of people are recreated in The Canterbury Tales, giving the reader an almost perfect picture of life

in medieval England.

Aside from the living people of England, the other major influences on The Canterbury Tales were the vast

and widely varied works of literature with which Chaucer was unusually well-acquainted. Since he alludes so

often to his sources in The Canterbury Tales, it is certain that Chaucer was familiar with all the classical

writers, such as Ovid and Virgil and with the Christian apologists like Augustine and Boethius. He knew and

corresponded with the French poet Descartes, and had studied French literature extensively. Unlike most of

his English contemporaries, Chaucer was a devotee of the Italian poets Dante and Petrarch. He seems to have

been greatly influenced by the Italian poet Boccaccio, as well; The Canterbury Tales has many elements in

common with Boccaccio's Decameron.

That Chaucer used many well-known models and sources for his tales, Chaucer himself admits. However,

with The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer departed from the prevailing literary norm which held that all worthy

writing was modelled on a work already in existence. While all of his tales contain elements borrowed from

classical models, Chaucer's stories are all dramatically altered in some way so that they become something

Overview 2new, rather than a repetition of an old pattern. Few of his pilgrims are copies; they are essentially English; and

the framing of the tales with a trip to Canterbury is a Chaucerian innovation which sets him apart totally from

his predecessors.

One of the things that makes The Canterbury Tales unique is the frame just mentioned. As the title implies,

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of all sorts of stories, but they are ingeniously united by being framed by

a journey and told by the travellers on the journey. A frame of sorts existed in Boccaccio's Decameron, but

Chaucer's use of this device is original in its completeness, polish, and brilliance.

The work is also remarkable because it is written in English. In Chaucer's day, it was a foregone conclusion

that all serious writing had to be done in Latin or French. Chaucer himself was fluent in both these languages,

as well as in Italian. Yet his long experimentation with poetry written in these languages convinced him that it

was not only possible, but desirable, to make poetic music in the vernacular, which, for him, was Middle


This work was well-received. This is known because enough handwritten copies of it were in circulation for

the famous printer William Caxton to make The Canterbury Tales one of the first works he printed when he

imported his first printing press in 1478. Enough demand for the book existed for him to print a second

edition in 1483; it must have been extremely popular, for both printing and purchasing books were very

expensive at that time. Only a widely read and widely accepted book would have been given a second

printing. The Canterbury Tales has never been out of print since that time.

List of Characters

The Narrator—Geoffrey Chaucer, the author, although he is never named

The Knight—father of the Squire; lord of the Yeoman (minor nobility)

The Squire—young man of 20, son of the Knight (minor nobility)

The Yeoman—a forester; servant of the Knight (peasant class)

The Prioress—superior of a monastery of nuns; attended by the Nun, the Monk, the Friar, and the Priest


The Monk—manages the estates of the Prioress and the monastery (clergy)

The Friar—a religious who has taken a vow of poverty and is licensed to beg (clergy)

The Nun—chaplain to the Prioress (clergy)

The Priest—with the Prioress; not described (clergy)

The Merchant—wealthy and pompous (middle class)

The Cleric—a religious who is a scholar at Oxford (clergy)

The Man of Law—a lawyer, shrewd and wealthy (middle class)

The Franklin—landowner; wealthy (middle class; possibly minor nobility)

The Haberdasher—hat and clothing maker; guildsman (middle class)

Overview 3The Carpenter—guildsman (middle class)

The Weaver—makes fabric; guildsman (middle class)

The Dyer—dyes fabric and leather; guildsman (middle class)

The Tapestry—Maker-makes large, intricate woven pictures which are decorative and expensive; guildsman

(middle class)

The Cook—works for the five guildsmen (peasant class)

The Shipman—a sailor, commander of a merchant ship (middle class)

The Physician—well-educated; a lover of gold (middle class)

The Wife of Bath—has survived five husbands; prosperous, gregarious, experienced (middle class)

The Parson—poor because he is good; a true pastor (clergy)

The Plowman—brother of the Parish Priest; an honest, decent farmer (peasant)

The Miller—owns a mill; grinds grain into meal and flour (middle class)

The Manciple—a buyer for 30 lawyers who are administrators of London courts (middle class)

The Reeve—manager of a nobleman's estate; prosperous (middle class)

The Summoner—an agent of the Church courts who summons sinners to answer charges before the court


The Pardoner—traded on the gullibility of the populace; sold relics and indulgences (which are pardons from

the punishment due to sin) (clergy)

The Host—owner of the Tabard Inn where all the pilgrims meet; self-appointed leader; tour guide for the

pilgrims (middle class)

*The Canon—a clergyman, generally in charge of a cathedral (clergy)

*The Canon's Yeoman—servant to the Canon (peasant)

*The last two characters join the group when the journey is almost over.

Summary of the Poem

In the beauty of April, the Narrator and 29 oddly assorted travelers happen to meet at the Tabard Inn in

Southwark, London. This becomes the launching point for their 60-mile, four-day religious journey to the

shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at the Cathedral in Canterbury. Great blessing and forgiveness were to be

heaped upon those who made the pilgrimage; relics of the saint were enshrined there, and miracles had been

reported by those who prayed before the shrine. Chaucer's pilgrims, however, are not all traveling for religious

reasons. Many of them simply enjoy social contact or the adventure of travel.

Overview 4As the travelers are becoming acquainted, their Host, the innkeeper Harry Bailley, decides to join them. He

suggests that they pass the time along the way by telling stories. Each pilgrim is to tell four stories—two on the

way to Canterbury, and two on the return trip—a total of 120 stories. He will furnish dinner at the end of the

trip to the one who tells the best tale. The framework is thus laid out for the organization of The Canterbury


Chaucer, the Narrator, observes all of the characters as they are arriving and getting acquainted. He describes

in detail most of the travelers which represent a cross-section of fourteenth-century English society. All levels

are represented, beginning with the Knight who is the highest ranking character socially. Several levels of

holiness and authority in the clergy are among the pilgrims while the majority of the characters are drawn

from the middle class. A small number of the peasent class are also making the journey, most of them as

servants to other pilgrims.

As the travelers begin their journey the next morning, they draw straws to see who will tell the first tale. The

Knight draws the shortest straw. He begins the storytelling with a long romantic epic about two brave young

knights who both fall in love with the same woman and who spend years attempting to win her love.

Everyone enjoys the tale and they agree that the trip is off to an excellent start. When the Host invites the

Monk to tell a story to match the Knight's, the Miller, who is drunk, becomes so rude and insistent that he be

allowed to go next that the Host allows it. The Miller's tale is indeed very funny, involving several tricks and a

very dirty prank as a young wife conspires with her lover to make love to him right under her husband's nose.

The Miller's fabliau upsets the Reeve because it involves an aging carpenter being cuckolded by his young

wife, and the Reeve himself is aging and was formerly a carpenter. Insulted by the Miller, the Reeve retaliates

with a tale about a miller who is made a fool of in very much the same manner as the carpenter in the

preceding rendition.

After the Reeve, the Cook speaks up and begins to tell another humorous adventure about a thieving,

womanizing young apprentice. Chaucer did not finish writing this story; it stops almost at the beginning.

When the dialogue among the travelers resumes, the morning is half gone and the Host, Harry Bailley, urges

the Man of Law to begin his entry quickly. Being a lawyer, the Man of Law is very long-winded and relates a

very long story about the life of a noblewoman named Constance who suffers patiently and virtuouly through

a great many terrible trials. In the end she is rewarded for her perseverence.

The Man of Law's recital, though lengthy, has pleased the other pilgrims very much. Harry Bailley then calls

upon the Parson to tell a similar tale of goodness; but the Shipman, who wants to hear no more sermonizing,

says he will take his turn next and will tell a merry story without a hint of preaching. Indeed, his story

involves a lovely wife who cuckolds her husband to get money for a new dress and gets away with the whole


Evidently looking for contrast in subject matter, the Host next invites the Prioress to give them a story.

Graciously, she relates a short legend about a little schoolboy who is martyred and through whose death a

miracle takes place.

After hearing this miraculous narrative, all of the travelers become very subdued, so the Host calls upon the

Narrator (Chaucer) to liven things up. Slyly making fun of the Host's literary pretensions, Chaucer recites a

brilliant parody on knighthood composed in low rhyme. Harry hates Chaucer's poem and interrupts to

complain; again in jest, Chaucer tells a long, boring version of an ancient myth. However, the Host is very

impressed by the serious moral tone of this inferior tale and is hightly complimentary.

Overview 5Since the myth just told involved a wise and patient wife, Harry Bailley takes this opportunity to criticize his

own shrewish wife. He then digresses further with a brief commentary on monks which leads him to call upon

the pilgrim Monk for his contribution to the entertainment.

The Monk belies his fun-loving appearance by giving a disappointing recital about famous figures who are

brought low by fate. The Monk's subject is so dreary that the Knight stops him, and the Host berates him for

lowering the morale of the party. When the Monk refuses to change his tone, the Nun's Priest accepts the

Host's request for a happier tale. The Priest renders the wonderful fable of Chanticleer, a proud rooster taken

in by the flattery of a clever fox.

Harry Bailley is wildly enthusiastic about the Priest's tale, turning very bawdy in his praise. The earthy Wife

of Bath is chosen as the next participant, probably because the Host suspects that she will continue in the same

bawdy vein. However, the Wife turns out to be quite a philosopher, prefacing her tale with a long discourse on

marriage. When she does tell her tale, it is about the marriage of a young and virile knight to an ancient hag.

When the Wife has concluded, the Friar announces that he will tell a worthy tale about a summoner. He adds

that everyone knows there is nothing good to say about summoners and tells a story which proves his point.

Infuriated by the Friar's insulting tale, the Summoner first tells a terrible joke about friars and then a story

which condemns them, too. His rendering is quite coarse and dirty.

Hoping for something more uplifting next, the Host gives the Cleric his chance, reminding the young scholar

not to be too scholarly and to put in some adventure. Obligingly, the Cleric entertains with his tale of the cruel

Walter of Saluzzo who tested his poor wife unmercifully.

The Cleric's tale reminds the Merchant of his own unhappy marriage and his story reflects his state. It is yet

another tale of a bold, unfaithful wife in a marriage with a much older man.

When the Merchant has finished, Harry Bailley again interjects complaints about his own domineering wife,

but then requests a love story of the Squire. The young man begins an exotic tale that promises to be a fine

romance, but Chaucer did not complete this story, so it is left unfinished.

The dialogue resumes with the Franklin complimenting the Squire and trying to imitate his eloquence with an

ancient lyric of romance.

There is no conversation among the pilgrims before the Physician's tale. His story is set in ancient Rome and

concerns a young virgin who prefers death to dishonor.

The Host has really taken the Physician's sad story to heart and begs the Pardoner to lift his spirits with a

happier tale. However, the other pilgrims want something more instructive, so the Pardoner obliges. After

revealing himself to be a very wicked man, the Pardoner instructs the company with an allegory about vice

leading three young men to their deaths. When he is finished, the Pardoner tries to sell his fake relics to his

fellow travellers, but the Host prevents him, insulting and angering him in the process. The Knight has to

intervene to restore peace.

The Second Nun then tells the moral and inspiring life of St. Cecelia. About five miles later, a Canon and his

Yeoman join the party, having ridden madly to catch up. Converstion reveals these men to be outlaws of sorts,

but they are made welcome and invited to participate in the storytelling all the same.

When the Canon's Yeoman reveals their underhanded business, the Canon rides off in a fit of anger, and the

Canon's Yeoman relates a tale about a cheating alchemist, really a disclosure about the Canon.

Overview 6It is late afternoon by the time the Yeoman finishes and the Cook has become so drunk that he falls off his

horse. There is an angry interchange between the Cook and the Manciple, and the Cook has to be placated

with more wine. The Manciple then tells his story, which is based on an ancient myth and explains why the

crow is black.

At sundown the Manciple ends his story. The Host suggests that the Parson conclude the day of tale-telling

with a fable. However, the Parson preaches a two-hour sermon on penitence instead. The Canterbury Tales

end here.

Although Chaucer actually completed only about one-fifth of the proposed 120 tales before his death, The

Canterbury Tales reflects all the major types of medieval literature. They are defined for the reader as follows:

Romance: a narrative in metrical verse; tales of love, adventure, knightly combat, and ceremony.

Fabliau: stories based on trickery and deception; often involves adultery

Myth: a story originating in classical literature

Breton Lais: a type of fairy tale; set in the Brittany province of France; contains fairies, elves, folk wisdom,

and folktales

Beast Fable: animals personify human qualities and act out human situations; usually teaches a lesson

Sermon: a Christian lesson

Exemplum: a story which teaches a well-known lesson

Saint's Legend: inspiring story of the life and death of a saint

Miracle Story: one in which a saint or the Virgin Mary intervenes with a miracle in response to the

faithfulness of a follower

Allegory: a tale in which persons represent abstract qualities; i.e., Death, Virtue, Love

Mock Romance: parodies, or makes fun of, the usual subjects of a romance

These genres are further explained in the analyses of individual tales.

Estimated Reading Time

The length of time necessary to read the entire work will depend on whether it is being read in Modern or

Middle English. The reading in Modern English will go much faster; probably an hour for the prologue and an

hour for The Knight's Tale, with the remainder of the tales requiring 30 to 45 minutes each.

If the student is required to read the work in Middle English, with all the footnotes for interpretation, each part

named above will take about twice as long. The reader can estimate a total of 14 hours for the Modern English

version, or 28 hours for the Middle English.

It is strongly suggested that the book be divided by the reader into manageable units for sittings of no more

than two hours.

Overview 7Geoffrey Chaucer Biography

Geoffrey Chaucer came from a financially secure family that owned ample wine vineyards but held no title,

and so from birth he was limited in his capacity for social growth. His date of birth is uncertain but is assumed

to be around 1340–1345. While he was still a child in London, it became clear that Chaucer was a brilliant

scholar, and he was sent to the prestigious St. Paul’s Almonry for his education. In 1357, he rose in society

by taking a position in the royal court of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. His duties as a squire in court would

have included those that are usually associated with domestic help: making beds, carrying candles, helping the

gentleman of the house dress. Chaucer was given an education in his association with the household, and he

met some of England’s exalted royalty.

Geoffrey Chaucer

He left in 1359 to join the army to fight the French in the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). Captured near

Rheims, he was ransomed the following year and returned to being a squire. Being intelligent and witty, he

became increasingly valuable at court for the entertainment of his poetry. By 1367, he was the valet for the

King himself, and that same year, he married a woman whose rank added to his social standing: Philippa de

Roet, the sister to Catherine of Swynford, the third wife of John of Gaunt. John of Gaunt, the Duke of

Lancaster, was later to take over the responsibility for ruling England when his father, Edward III, became too

senile to rule before a successor was crowned.

As a valued and trusted member of the court, Chaucer was sent on several diplomatic missions, giving him a

rare opportunity to see Italy and France. The influences of these languages can be traced in his poetry, and the

worldliness of travel affected his storytelling ability. His political influence grew with a series of

appointments: to Comptroller of taxes on wools, skins, and hides at the Port of London in 1374; Comptroller

of petty customs in 1382; Justice of the Peace for the County of Kent in 1385; and Knight of the Shire in


In December of 1386, he was deprived of all of this political influence when his patron, John of Gaunt, left the

country on a military expedition for Spain and the Duke of Gloucester replaced him. It is assumed that it was

during this period of unemployment that Chaucer planned out and started writing The Canterbury Tales.

When John of Gaunt returned to England in 1389, he was given a new government post, and Chaucer lived a

prosperous life from then on.

Geoffrey Chaucer Biography 8There is no record of his progress on The Canterbury Tales. The plan that he laid out in the Prologue was left

unfinished when he died on October 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey and was the first of the

writers to be entombed there in the area known as the Poets’ Corner.

Geoffrey Chaucer Biography 9Summary

The Prologue

In the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer introduces the speaker of the poem as a man

named Chaucer, who is traveling from London with a group of strangers to visit Canterbury, a borough to the

southeast of London. This group of people is thrown together when they travel together on a trip to the shrine

of Saint Thomas à Becket, who was murdered in Canterbury in 1170. The Prologue gives a brief description

of the setting as they assemble at the Tibard Inn in Southwark to prepare for their trip. It describes each of the

pilgrims, including ones who were meant to be discussed in sections of the book that were never written

before Chaucer died. After the introductions, the Host, who owns the inn that they gather at and who is

leading the group, suggests that they should each tell two stories while walking, one on the way to Canterbury

and one on the way back, to pass the time more quickly. He offers the person telling the best story a free

supper at the tavern when they return.

The Knight’s Tale

The first pilgrim to talk, the Knight, tells a long, involved tale of love from ancient Greece about two knights,

Arcite and Palamon. They were captured in a war between Thebes and Athens and thrown into an Athenian

prison to spend the rest of their lives there. From the tower they were locked in, they could see a fair maiden,

Emily, in the window of her chamber every morning, and they each fell in love with her. An old friend of

Arcite arranged for his release, and the ruler of Athens, Duke Theseus, agreed with just one condition: that

Arcite had to leave Athens forever or be killed if he ever returned. In exile, all he could do was think about

Emily, while Palamon, who was in prison, could at least look at her every day.

For two years Arcite wandered, suffering so much from lovesickness that he became worn and pale. When the

god Mercury came and told him to return to Athens, he realized that he did not even look like the man he had

once been. Upon returning, he secured a job in Emily’s court and became one of her servants. Meanwhile,

Palamon, after seven years in prison, escaped. The two former companions soon ran into each other in the

forest and fought. While they were fighting, Theseus stumbled upon them and, finding out who they were,

was ready to have them both killed. His wife, however, was moved by their love for Emily and convinced

them to settle their argument by leading the best soldiers in the land against each other, with the winner

marrying Emily.

The Knight’s Tale goes on for hundreds of lines detailing the historic noble personages who participated in

the battle and the preparations they made, including sacrifices to gods. In the battle, Palamon was injured, but

no sooner was Arcite declared the winner than his horse reared up and dropped him on his head. He died that

night and was given a hero’s funeral, and Palamon married Emily. They lived happily ever after: “Thus

endeth Palamon and Emelye,” the Knight’s Tale ends, “And God save al this faire companye! Amen.”

The Miller’s Tale

The Miller is the next speaker; he is drunk and picks an argument with the Reeve before beginning a story

about a carpenter at Oxford, who was rich and miserly. To make extra money, the carpenter rented a room to a

poor student, Nicholas, who lived with the carpenter and his young, beautiful wife. Eventually, Nicholas and

the young wife, Alison, started scheming about how they could have an affair without the carpenter finding

out. They made use of the fact that the parish clerk, Absalon, had a crush on the wife, and would sing songs

outside of her window at night. Once, Nicholas stayed up in his room, and didn’t come down for days, having

prepared by hoarding enough food for a long period. When the carpenter sent a servant to get him, he found

Nicholas lying as if he had suffered a seizure. The fit was caused, Nicholas explained, by a startling discovery

he had made while studying astrology: that a terrible flood was coming. He convinced the carpenter to hang

three tubs from the roof, so that both men and Alison would be safe from the rising waters. On the appointed

day, they climbed into their separate tubs, but once the carpenter was asleep Alison and Nicholas sneaked

Summary 10down to the bedroom together. While they were in bed, Absalon came to the window, and, thinking Alison

was alone, demanded a kiss; she put her naked backside out the window, and he kissed it in the dark. When he

climbed the ladder again to object, Nicholas put his own behind out and passed gas in Absalon’s face. When

John, the carpenter, came out of his basket, the young lovers told everyone in town that he was insane and had

made up the crazy story about the flood, ruining his reputation forever.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale

The Wife of Bath’s tale starts with a long Prologue, much longer than the tale she eventually tells, in which

she describes to her fellow pilgrims the history of her five previous marriages and her views about relations

between men and women. She defends at length the moral righteousness of people who marry often, as long

as their spouses are dead, quoting the Bible as only stating that sexual abstinence is preferred but not required.

In fact, she explains, the sexual organs are made to be used for sex and supports this claim with a quote from

the Book of Proverbs, “Man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette” (“Man shall yield to his wife her debt”).

After the Pardoner interrupts to say that he has been thinking of being married soon, the Wife of Bath

describes marriage to him, using her own marriages as examples. The first three, she says, were to old men

who were hardly able to have sex with her. She flattered these men by pretending to be jealous of them, using

the excuse of keeping an eye on them as an explanation for why she was always out at night. She also argued

with them constantly, bringing up every stereotype about women they had ever uttered and every suspicion

that they’d had about her in particular so that she could argue from a defensive position. By arguing, she was

able to make them appreciate her more when she did decide to be nice to them. Her fourth husband was

younger, but he made her jealous by having a mistress so she made him miserable by making him jealous too:

not, as she points out, by having a sexual affair, but simply by having a good time. Her fifth and last husband,

Jankin, was physically abusive, but she loved him best nonetheless because he was a good lover. She met him

while still married to her fourth husband when he was living next door to her godmother. When her fourth

husband died, she married Jankin and signed over to him all that she had inherited from her four previous

husbands. She continued her active social life, and her sarcastic talk. One night, as Jankin was reading aloud

from a scholarly work about the evils of women, she became exasperated and, reaching over, tore a page out

of the book. He hit her, which permanently made her deaf, but when he realized what he had done he

apologized, and after that, she explains, they have been happy together.

There is a brief interval, during which angry words are exchanged between the Friar, who mocks the Wife of

Bath for her long preface, and the Summoner, who tells him to leave her alone. The wife then begins her tale,

which takes place during the time of King Arthur, which was ancient legend even in Chaucer’s time. In the

tale, a knight came upon a maiden walking beside the river one afternoon and raped her, for which he was

condemned to death. The queen interceded, asking the king to spare the knight. When he could not answer her

question about what women really desire most, the knight was sent off for a year to try to find the answer. The

Wife of Bath relates several of the answers he received, including the one she favors, which is that women

want to be flattered. On the day he was to return from his quest, the knight came across several dozen women

in the forest, but when he approached them they disappeared, leaving an old lady in their place. She told him

that the answer was that women wanted equality, which is what he told the queen, sparing his life. For giving

him the right answer, the knight was obliged to marry the old woman.

On their wedding night, when he would not take her to bed, she talked to him about the difference between

being born noble and being truly noble. Gentleness is a virtue, she told him, as are poverty and age. She then

gave him a choice: he could have her old and ugly and faithfully devoted, or young and pretty and courted by

other men. He left the choice to her, proving her equality with him, and for that she kissed him and turned into

a young maiden, faithful to him forever after.

The Franklin’s Tale

A Franklin was a person who held property but no title of nobility. In the Prologue to his tale, the Franklin

Summary 11explains that he is going to tell a story that has been passed down in English from troubadours, who traveled

from town to town, singing the story with musical accompaniment. He apologizes for lacking the verbal skill

to color in the details of the story as clearly as a skilled speaker might be able to do.

His tale takes place in Brittany, a region of France that was settled by English emigrants around the year 500

A.D. A knight loved a beautiful lady named Dorigene, and when she finally consented to marry him, he

promised to never do anything that would embarrass her and treat her as a respected equal. When the knight,

Arveragus, was called upon to fight in England, Dorigene was left home alone. Friends took her out for walks

along the ocean, but all she noticed was the dangerous rocks along the shore that Arveragus’ ship might crash

onto when he returned.

Her friends took her to a dance on the sixth of May, and there Dorigene was approached by a handsome

young squire, Aurelius, who declared his love for her. Aurelius had all masculine attributes possible: he was

“Yong, strong, right vertuous, and riche and wys, and wel biloved, and holden in great prys.” Dorigene was

too in love with her husband to care about Aurelius. To discourage him, she told him that he could have her if

he could clear all of the rocks off the shoreline within two years. Aurelius set about to pray to various gods for

help, asking them to raise the ocean. Meanwhile, Arveragus came home and was reunited with his wife.

Aurelius’ brother, a scholar, took him to the place where he had studied, and there they consulted with a man

who had studied magic. This magician made them hallucinate so that they saw various scenes, including deer

in a forest, knights battling, and Dorigene dancing. For a thousand pounds in gold, he agreed to make

Dorigene think the rocks had sunk into the ocean.

Aurelius went to Dorigene after the spell was cast on her and reminded her that she had agreed to go to bed

with him. Distressed about the prospect of losing her honor by either breaking her word or being unfaithful to

her husband, she considered killing herself. Arveragus noticed how upset she was, and she explained the

situation. He told her that she would have to sleep with Aurelius rather than break her word.

When she went to offer herself to Aurelius, he asked why she had changed her mind, and she explained that

she was there because her husband had Dorigene should stay honest that he freed her from her promise

without touching her. Then he realized that he was financially ruined by the thousand gold pieces he had

promised to pay the magician.

When he went to ask the magician to work out payment terms, Aurelius ended up telling him the whole story

about letting Dorigene out of her promise. The magician was so impressed by his nobility, that he let Aurelius

out of his own promise, and let him go without paying.

The Pardoner’s Tale

Before telling his tale, the Pardoner expresses his need for a drink; this raises the fear in the other pilgrims that

he will tell a crude or dirty joke, but he promises not to. The Prologue to “The Pardoner’s Tale” is about his

life, detailing how he makes his living by going from town to town with phony relics and documents allegedly

signed by the pope and curing such ailments as snake bites and jealousy. He announces his ability to charm

simple people with a well-told story, noting that they love stories that they can remember and retell: “lewd

(unlearned) peple loven tales of olde; / Swich thinges can they wel reporte and holde.” When he has had

enough to drink the Pardoner starts telling a tale that he often tells, promising that it will be moral and not


He starts his tale by mentioning a gang of tough youths in Flanders but soon digresses from them for a

detailed discussion of sin, not only the specific sins committed by the rough characters in his story but sin in

general. The irony of his lecture is that these are sins, like gambling and drinking and swearing, that the

Pardoner himself is guilty of. The tale itself is about three men who were drinking in a tavern one morning

Summary 12when they heard the funeral of an old friend going by. Their friend died that morning, a tavern employee

explained, killed by the plague, his life ended by the thief called “Death.” They set off to find Death and

came across an old man who complained that, as old as he was, he could not die, but he was able to direct

them to a park where he had seen Death lingering. Instead of Death, they found a pile of gold coins. One of

the three was sent off to get tools to carry the gold with, and while he was gone, the other two plotted to

murder him and divide his share of the gold. He had the same basic idea, however, and returned with poisoned

drinks for them. They fatally stabbed him, then drank the drinks, which in turn killed them.

When he is done, the Pardoner tries to sell the other pilgrims pardons for their sins, taking advantage of their

attention and their feelings of piety after hearing about such wicked men. The Host, annoyed, threatens to cut

off his testicles and make relics of them, which makes the Pardoner turn quiet, seething, until the Knight

intercedes and has the two men make up.

The Prioress’s Tale

A Prioress is the head nun at an abbey, or convent, and is therefore a very religious person. The irony of the

tale that this Prioress tells is that she piously invokes the name of the Virgin Mary and then goes on to tell one

of the most violent, bloody tales in the whole collection. The Prioress starts her short piece with an

introductory poem, praising God for His goodness and praising Mary for Her great humility. From the

introduction, readers are led to expect the Prioress to be a meek person who tells a simple, gentle story.

Instead, she talks about an unnamed Christian town in Asia that had a Jewish ghetto. The inhabitants of the

ghetto, the Prioress explains, were full of hate and anger toward the Christians, but the country’s ruler kept

the Jews around for their value in money-lending, or usury. As she puts it, they were “sustained by a lord of

that contree / For foule usure and lucre of vileynye, / Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye.” A

seven-year-old boy, the son of a widow, lived in that town. One day, when the boy heard the other children

singing the Latin hymn O Alma Redemptoris, he was immediately smitten with the beauty of the song, so he

set about to learn it, even though he didn’t understand the words. One day, he walked through the Jewish

ghetto singing the hymn, and the Jews, offended, hired a murderer to kill the boy. He was chased down an

alley and had his throat slit and his body thrown into a drainage ditch that collected bodily waste.

The boy’s mother went searching for him when he did not come home. She found no sign of him until,

passing by the drain, she heard him singing O Alma Redemptoris. A lawman was summoned, and he passed a

harsh sentence against the Jews, commanding that their bodies be drawn apart by horses and then hung on

spikes from a wagon. Then an abbot came and asked the boy how he was still able to sing when his throat

seemed to be cut. The boy explained that his throat was indeed cut, to the bone, but that Mary came down to

him and commanded that he keep singing. She placed a piece of grain on his tongue, he explains, and told him

that he would only stop singing when the grain was removed. The abbot removed the grain, the singing

stopped, and the boy was buried. The tale ends with the Prioress calling for guidance for Hugh of Lincoln, a

martyr who was also murdered as a child.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

When the Knight declares the story that they have just heard to be too depressing, the Host asks the priest who

is travelling with the nun to tell them a story that is more uplifting. His story concerns a widow who, he says,

lived long ago on a farm. The widow’s two daughters, three pigs, three cows, and a sheep also lived on the

farm. A rooster named Chaunticleer and seven hens, who were his wives, lived in the yard. One morning,

Chaunticleer told the prettiest of his wives, Pertelote, that he had dreamt about being attacked by a hound-like

creature. She responded by calling him a coward for being afraid of a dream, explaining that dreams were a

sign of an unsettled digestive system. She offered to make him a laxative that would empty his system out. In

response, he cited numerous examples from the Bible and from ancient mythology that illustrated how dreams

accurately predicted the future. Having said this, he let the matter drop, and it was forgotten for a little over a


Summary 13On the third of May, a fox sneaked into the farm yard, waiting patiently until Chaunticleer came down out of

the barn rafters and onto the ground. Chaunticleer was alarmed, and ready to fly away, until the fox flattered

him, telling him that he had a beautiful singing voice, as did his mother and father. At the fox’s request,

Chaunticleer threw back his shoulder, ready to sing out a song, when the fox reached over and grabbed him by

the neck.

When all of the hens he was married to screamed an alarm, the fox tried to escape with the rooster in his

mouth, but the widow and her daughters, hearing the alarm, ran out of the house and joined the other barnyard

animals in chasing the fox. Coming to his senses, Chaunticleer suggested to the fox that he should taunt the

people chasing him, telling them that they could never catch him; when the fox opened his mouth to do this,

Chaunticleer flew free. The fox tried once more to convince the rooster that it was all a misunderstanding, that

he actually had a secret reason for carrying him away in his mouth, but Chaunticleer, having learned his

lesson, refused to go near him. The Nun’s Priest ends this tale by reminding his listeners about the dangers of

falling for flattery. In the epilogue to this story, the Host expresses his delight with the story that they have

just heard, and he congratulates the Priest for being such a strong, brawny man, which is not what one expects

from someone in his profession.

Summary 14Summary and Analysis

1: General Prologue Summary and Analysis

New Characters

The Narrator: Geoffrey Chaucer the author, although he is never named

The Knight: father of the Squire; lord of the Yeoman

The Squire: young man of 20, son of the Knight

The Yeoman: a forester; servant of the Knight

The Prioress: superior of a monastery of nuns; attended by the Nun, the Monk, the Friar, and the Priest

The Monk: manages the estates of the Prioress and the monastery

The Friar: a religious who has taken a vow of poverty and is licensed to beg

The Nun: chaplain to the Prioress

The Priest: with the Prioress; not described

The Merchant: wealthy and pompous

The Cleric: a religious who is a scholar at Oxford

The Man of Law: shrewd and wealthy

The Franklin: landowner; wealthy

The Haberdasher: hat and clothing maker; guildsman

The Carpenter: guildsman

The Weaver: makes fabric; guildsman

The Dyer: dyes fabric and leather; guildsman

The Tapestry-Maker: makes large, intricate woven pictures which are decorative and expensive; guildsman

The Cook: works for the five guildsmen

The Shipman: commander of a merchant ship

The Physician: well-educated; a lover of gold

The Wife of Bath: has survived five husbands; prosperous,

gregarious, experienced

Summary and Analysis 15The Parson: poor because he is good; a true pastor

The Plowman: brother of the Parish Priest; an honest, decent farmer

The Miller: owns a mill; grinds grain into meal and flour

The Manciple: a buyer for 30 lawyers who are administrators of

London courts

The Reeve: manager of a nobleman's estate; prosperous

The Summoner: an agent of the Church courts who summons

sinners to answer charges before the court

The Pardoner: traded on the gullibility of the populace; sold relics and indulgences (which are pardons from

the punishment due to sin)

The Host: owner of the Tabard Inn where all the pilgrims meet;

self-appointed leader; tour guide for the pilgrims


Chaucer begins the Prologue with a beautiful announcement of spring. This introduction is the voice of the

Poet, polished, elegant, and finished. He tells us that just as Nature has a predictable course through the

seasons, so does human nature follow a seasonal pattern which causes people to want to break out of winter's

confinement and go traveling in the spring.

Thus the stage is set for Chaucer, who is the Narrator of this poem. Twenty-nine travelers meet at the Tabard

Inn in London before undertaking a journey to the Shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. The group is

assembling as Chaucer arrives and, as he observes the group and interacts with some of them, he decides that

he will join their party. From his vantage point as anonymous Narrator, Chaucer describes the scene and the

pilgrims as they arrive.

The Knight is introduced first, which is appropriate as he is the highest ranking character socially. This old

soldier has spent a lifetime fighting battles for Christianity all over the world and has consistently

distinguished himself. He is dedicated to the knightly ideal of chivalry, courtesy, truth, honor, and generosity.

1: General Prologue Summary and Analysis 16The Priest

Accompanying the Knight is his 20-year-old son, the Squire, who is very much in contrast to his father. While

he has been in a few skirmishes, "to impress his lady," the Squire is obviously still young and inexperienced.

He is dressed in the height of fashion with carefully arranged curls. Devoted to the rituals of courting, the

Squire appears to be in love with love.

The Yeoman is a servant to the Knight. He is a forester, in charge of the Knight's woodlands and appears to be

the ideal simple, loyal peasant; yet he is so well-equipped with elaborate weapons and perfect arrows that his

simplicity is suspect. When the Narrator adds that the forester understood all the tricks of woodcraft, he seems

to be suggesting that the Yeoman is profiting in some way as he manages forests which are not his.

The next group of pilgrims arrives with the Prioress, Madame Eglantine. While obviously intelligent and able,

the Prioress is described as being very concerned that others view her as ladylike and refined. She is

apparently tenderhearted to the point of sentimentality.

The Prioress is accompanied by the Nun, who is her chaplain. The reader is told nothing about the Nun or

about the Priest who is also with the Prioress. Her estate manager, the Monk, however, is vividly described.

1: General Prologue Summary and Analysis 17He is very careless of his religious vows, devoting all of his time and energy to the management of the

Prioress's estates. He manages them to prosper, though, so that he himself may be denied none of the

pleasures and luxuries of the hunt.

The third priest in company with the Prioress is the Friar, wanton, merry, and quite irreligious. Supposedly

sworn to helping the poor, Hubert grants absolution to anyone who gives him money, much of which he

pockets rather than distributing it to the poor.

Socially, the middle class ranked third behind the nobility and the clergy; thus, the third type of character

Chaucer presents is a successful and very busy Merchant who is representative of the rather recent prosperity

and importance of his class. The Merchant talks of nothing but business and thinks himself an expert on all

matters related to trade.

Following the Merchant, the Cleric arrives. He is very, very poorly dressed and mounted in stark contrast to

other members of the clergy previously introduced. Unlike them, he is completely devoted to scholarship and

oblivious to material wealth. He speaks primarily on moral themes.

The Man of Law is another sterling representative of the middle class who comes next under the Narrator's

scrutiny. All of the Man of Law's great skill in legal matters is detailed; his wealth is reported; yet the Narrator

confides that although the man brags constantly about how busy he is with his cases, his "busy-ness" may be

more imagined than real.

With the Man of Law is the Franklin, who is a wealthy landowner who lives for his own sensual pleasure. The

delights of the table obsess this gentleman. As an aside, the reader is told that he has served as a justice of the

peace and a member of Parliament, but these are only incidental as far as he is concerned.

Grouped together next are five wealthy and important craftsmen, all officials in their guilds. These include the

Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, and the Taperstry-Maker. It is implied that all of these men

curry favor with their wives who would have been highly unpleasant had not their husbands prospered.

The guildsmen have brought their own Cook. Apparently, he is quite able and experienced, but repugnant to

the Narrator because he has a large sore on his leg. To medieval observers such an affliction rendered a person

unclean and to be avoided.

The Sailor, or Shipman, is described next. He rides his horse so poorly that it is obvious the man is much

more comfortable on the sea than on the land. On board ship, however, the Shipman is expert, knowledgeable,

and successful. He has surmounted many storms on the sea, but at the same time he has taken advantage of the

merchants who use his vessel to ship their goods. In fact, he is reported to have no scruples at all.

There is a Physician among the pilgrims. Chaucer tells the reader of his great learning, yet holds him in

contempt because this doctor loves gold so much and overcharges his patients for remedies that do them no

good. For all his great learning, this Physician has not studied the Bible, the implication being that he lacks

the concern and mercy of the true healer.

The Wife of Bath, the third of the female pilgrims, is introduced next. She is quite outrageous and is one of

the most famous characters in all of literature. Slightly deaf and with gaps between her teeth, the Wife wears

an incredible and ostentatious outfit. The Wife is skilled at weaving and is extremely prosperous. She has

survived five husbands and is said to have great knowledge about love. Reportedly good-humored and full of

life, the Wife of Bath is going to Canterbury to find her sixth husband.

1: General Prologue Summary and Analysis 18Behind the raucous Wife of Bath comes the Parson, a poor and humble priest who is devoted to his

parishoners and serves them faithfully and well. He teaches the Gospel by his example and is never severe

with sinners. With the Parson is his brother, the Plowman, a decent and hardworking peasant, similar in nature

and goodness to the Parson.

The burly, red-haired Miller is juxtaposed beside the two preceding, mild-mannered travelers. He is large and

exceptionally strong with a bulbous nose and a generally ugly appearance. His manners and conversation are

as coarse as his appearance; in addition, the Miller is none too honest with his customers.

The Manciple (Maunciple) is a friendly fellow whose job it is to do the purchasing and keep the accounts for a

group of 30 lawyers. This friendly fellow has tricked his employers by embezzling profits in his shady deals

for them, leaving them to live frugally as he spends the money he stole from them.

Next comes the Reeve, a comical-looking man who is very skinny with legs like long sticks. Like the

Manciple, the Reeve manages the affairs of another man, a wealthy landowner in this case. The Reeve has

grown so rich in this post that the owner of the estate has to come to his employee to borrow money.

The Summoner is another corrupt member of the clergy who is presented after the Reeve. He is an official of

the Church courts who calls sinners to answer charges before it. For enough money, he will see that sins are

not reported. The Summoner has an ugly, pimply face and is a drunk and a lecher.

The Pardoner is as unscrupulous as the Summoner. He is fresh from Rome with a bagful of indulgences

(which are pardons from the punishment due to sin) which he will sell rather than grant to those who have

done penance. He also has many outrageous fake relics which he will gladly sell. The Pardoner even sings

loudly and well in church to get people to put more money in the offering, most of which he will retain.

After all these travelers have been described, the Narrator apologizes if any of his descriptions are so crude

that they offend the reader, but excuses himself by commenting that Christ Himself was very plainspoken.

Although the Narrator has joined the group, he tells us nothing of himself.

The final description in the Prologue is of Harry Bailley, the Host (innkeeper) who is very genial and sociable,

fond of telling jokes. In the course of describing Bailley, the Narrator reports that the Host has offered to

come along to Canterbury and to act as guide and leader of the party if they will all agree to be bound by his

decisions. The pilgrims all agree, and further assent to his idea that each of them tell four stories along the

way, two on the road to Canterbury and two on the return trip. Thus organized, the group retires for the night.

Discussion and Analysis

The pilgrims assembling for Canterbury may be seen as a cross-section of medieval society, with all its

richness and variety. Every strata of society is represented. The Knight and his son are members of the

nobility while the Plowman and the Yeoman are drawn from the peasant class. The majority of the travelers,

however, represent the vigorous new middle class of England. Such characters as the Man of Law, the

Merchant, the Wife of Bath, and the Shipman personify this group: energetic and prosperous, materialistic,

and somewhat self-conscious as they display the trappings of their newly acquired wealth and status.

The clergy is also very much in evidence with the enormous wealth and power of the Catholic Church

reflected in their holdings and their extensive authority. The Prioress, for example, is mistress of so large and

rich an estate that she is able to travel with four retainers. The Pardoner and the Summoner have the authority

to forgive sin and remit punishment, but at the same time, as they sell what they are supposed to give, both of

these clergymen symbolize the widespread corruption rampant in the medieval Church.

1: General Prologue Summary and Analysis 19The characters are far more than mere representative types, however. Chaucer describes each of them so

graphically that each traveler becomes not only a stereotype, but also an individual. The Merchant, for

example, has acquired wealth and prestige and pride typical of the successful middle class businessman, but

he is also described as a risk-taker. He plays the market, so to speak; and he never talks about his financial

affairs. This small bit of extra information—the telling comment—supplied by Chaucer for nearly every

character—adds the extra dimension to the character which individualizes him/her.

With the Cleric, is is the knowledge that "gladly would he learn and gladly teach"; with the Wife of Bath it is

the information that she is gap-toothed and that she will allow no other woman to go ahead of her at the

offeratory which is most revealing. Setting each character apart in this manner is universally considered one

of the most brilliant of Chaucer's devices.

Later, the reader will observe that Chaucer amplifies each character further through the story that the character

tells. The overly sensitive Prioress, for instance, will tell a highly sentimental miracle story while the crude,

dishonest Miller will tell a dirty tale involving trickery. In other words, Chaucer uses the story the character

selects as a further means of describing and individualizing each pilgrim. The reader should be alert to this

device as it is one of The Canterbury Tales most outstanding features.

In addressing characterization, it should further be noted that Chaucer creates no character who is either

totally good or completely evil. While good or evil may dominate, each pilgrim is also given some redeeming

qualities. This duplicity certainly parallels real-life people and accounts to a large degree for the continued

popularity of the work.

Chaucer, in the person of the Narrator, appears to want to assume an almost journalistic stance, merely

reporting what he observes and seeming to refrain from judgment, leaving that function to the reader. While

he appears unable to keep from poking fun at his characters, he also refrains from meanness and bitterness in

describing them. The overall effect of this deliberate detachment creates the jolly, playful mood appropriate as

a group of Canterbury pilgrims sets off on their adventure.

2: The Knight's Tale Summary and Analysis


The travelers have drawn straws to see who will tell the first tale. The Knight draws the shortest straw and

graciously launches the entertainment with his tale.

Part One: In ancient times there was a famous conquering duke named Theseus who was lord of Athens. As

the story opens, Theseus has just conquered the Amazons and married their queen, Hipppolyta. Returning

victorious to Athens, the Duke is accosted by a group of grieving widows begging for his help. These

noblewomen are all former residents of Thebes; their husbands have been killed in battle with the victorious

King Creon who has forbidden the women to bury their dead and who has piled the bodies of their husbands

in a heap for the dogs to devour. Theseus is touched by their plea for help and filled with hatred for Creon.

Theseus immediately abandons the victory parade and takes his army to Thebes to destroy the wicked Creon.

He sends Hippolyta and her beautiful sister, Emily, back to Athens.

Theseus encounters Creon, kills him in knightly fashion, destroys the city of Thebes, and restores the bodies

of their slain husbands to the widows. When his troops begin to pillage the bodies of the slain enemy, they

find among the dead two badly wounded young knights, Arcite and Palamon. They are known to be of the

royal house of Thebes and are taken to Theseus for judgment. Theseus sends the two youths to Athens to be

imprisoned there for the rest of their lives with no possibility of ransom or release.

2: The Knight's Tale Summary and Analysis 20Some years pass with the two imprisoned in anguish and woe. Then one spring morning Palamon rises early

and spies the gorgeous sister of Queen Hippolyta walking in the garden below. He falls instantly in love. As

Palamon moans with passion, his cousin Arcite awakens and also glimpses Lady Emily walking in the garden.

Arcite, too, is instantly smitten.

The two young men quarrel, Palamon claiming to have the greater right to love Emily since he saw her first;

and Arcite countering with the ancient argument that his right was as great as Palamon's since all is fair in

love and war. However, the argument stalemates when the two realize that their imprisonment prevents either

of them from acting on their lust. When Perotheus, a friend of Theseus', comes to visit, he persuades Theseus

to release Arcite from prison. The only condition of Arcite's freedom is that he must never return to any land

ruled by Duke Theseus on pain of instant death. To this condition Arcite assents.

The Knight's Tale

Part Two: Arcite travels back to Thebes, but he never knows a moment's peace. His intense love for Emily

torments him. He neither eats nor sleeps for two years, and becomes thin and pale and weak-almost

unrecognizable as he pines for his love.

2: The Knight's Tale Summary and Analysis 21One night Arcite dreams that Mercury, winged god, is with him, commanding him to be happy. Mercury tells

Arcite to go to Athens where his grief will end. Arcite determines to do exactly as he has been ordered in the

dream. Glancing into a mirror, he notes for the first time the enormous change in his appearance. It occurs to

him that no one in Athens will recognize him now, he is so changed.

As Arcite expects, he is not recognized in Athens and is immediately able to obtain a minor position in

Emily's household where he can see her every day. Here, he is known as Philostrate and becomes well-known

for his hard work and courtesy. In fact, Philostrate (Arcite) becomes so beloved that Theseus promotes him to

become a squire in the Duke's own chamber. Arcite spends four or five years in this manner.

During the seven years since Arcite's release, Palamon has suffered his love alone in prison. In May of the

seventh year, Palamon, with the help of a friend, drugs a guard and breaks out of prison. Palamon plans to

hide all day in a grove of trees and start for Thebes at nightfall. In Thebes, he hopes to raise an army to make

war against Theseus. In this way, he would either win Emily's hand or be killed in the attempt.

By chance, Arcite rises early that same day and wanders into the same grove where Palamon is hiding. As

Arcite sings and laments aloud for love of Emily, Palamon overhears him and reveals himself to Arcite. The

two renew their feud. Arcite, the honorable knight, agrees to supply battle equipment for both of them. They

will fight to the death the next day, resolving forever which of them will claim the beautiful Emily.

The next morning, both fully armed, Palamon and Arcite begin to fight madly. However, Destiny intervenes,

sending Theseus, Emily, and Hippolyta to hunt the stag in the same grove where the rival lovers fight. When

Theseus discovers the identities of the two warriors, he swears to execute them both.

However, Hippolyta is so touched by the enormous love the young men bear her sister that she prevails upon

Theseus to soften his heart and understand the power of their love. Theseus relents and agrees to allow both

men to be free for one year. During that time he will prepare an arena and arrange for a knightly tournament.

Palamon and Arcite are to spend the intervening year recruiting 100 knights each to face each other in the

tournament, the outcome of which will decide which man wins Emily's hand in marriage.

Part Three: Theseus builds a fabulous theater, a mile in circumference, for the tournament. He erects three

temples on the grounds: one to Venus, the goddess of love; one to Mars, the god of war; and a third to Diana,

goddess of the hunt and of maidens.

At the end of the year, both Arcite and Palamon return to Athens, each with 100 distinguished knights. Just

before the battle, Arcite, Palamon, and Emily each worship at the shrine of his particular patron. Palamon

prays at the temple of Venus and receives a sign that his wish will be granted. Before the shrine of Diana,

Emily prays that she may be allowed to remain a virgin, but Diana appears and tells Emily that all the gods

have decided that she must marry one of the lovelorn young men. Arcite worships at the shrine to Mars who

gives him a sign that he will be victorious.

Inevitably, war breaks out among the gods once these conflicting promises are given. Jupiter intervenes and

Saturn promises Venus that Palamon shall win Emily's hand.

Part Four: Before the tournament begins, Theseus decrees that no deadly weapon may be used in the

tournament. The contest must be decided by force alone, for he will permit no deaths among so noble a

company. Furthermore, if one leader is captured by the opposing force, the rival will immediately be declared

the victor.

Toward sundown, Palamon is wounded and captured. Arcite is declared the winner. Venus is infuriated by

this victory of Mars, so Pluto makes the earth erupt where Arcite sits in victory. Arcite is thrown from his

2: The Knight's Tale Summary and Analysis 22horse and grievously injured. Within a few days, Arcite dies of his wounds, on his deathbed making peace

with his cousin Palamon. A fabulous funeral is held to honor the slain lover; an extended period of mourning


When the period of mourning was concluded, Theseus sends for Palamon and Emily. After a discourse in

which he explains that the noble death of Arcite fulfilled the will of the great god Jupiter, Theseus prevails

upon Emily to look with favor upon Palamon's years of devotion. The two are finally married and live in love

and harmony all the rest of their days.

Discussion and Analysis

In keeping with medieval custom, it is fitting that the Knight should tell the first tale as he is the highest

ranking member of the company socially. He graciously accepts the shortest straw with chivalrous courtesy.

The Knight's Tale is an almost perfect example of a romance, containing nearly all the features characteristic

of this form of narrative. First, the theme of the tale intertwines ideal love with chivalrous conduct. Both

young men fall passionately in love with Emily, but their love is inspired by her perfect beauty and later by

her virtue; their love has no hint of sensuality. Furthermore, all of the characters deal with one another in a

manner completely chivalrous and honorable. The conflict between Arcite and Palamon arises only when

Arcite betrays an oath to Palamon, continuing to declare his love for the same woman to whom Palamon has

pledged eternal love. This choice was disloyal in a knight's code of conduct, but it is the only time any of the

characters depart from the courtly ideal.

Secondly, the story is set in the romantic long ago, another characteristic of the romance. Although it is an

obvious anachronism, these medieval knights act out their drama in ancient Greece where the mythic, pagan

element enters the tale and takes control of the outcome. Venus, Mars, and Diana war with one another so that

the characters become their pawns in a struggle among the gods. Destiny also plays an enormous part in this

pagan setting. It is only by chance, or destiny, that the young cousins are found alive on the battlefield; it is by

chance that they both glimpse Emily and fall in love with her at almost the same moment. Arcite and Palamon

also meet in the grove of trees by chance. Destiny decrees that Theseus ride into that exact spot and prevent

the two from murdering each other.

Finally, the wisdom and justice of the authority figure, Theseus; the long and dramatic struggle to win the

hand of the beloved; and the settling of the quarrel through a test of combat are further features which

distinguish The Knight's Tale as a romance.

Chaucer's enormous acquaintance with all of medieval literature is particularly evident in The Knight's Tale. It

is based on Boccaccio's Teseide, however, Chaucer cut a great deal of the story and adapted its character to

suit medieval times. At many points in the story, particularly in places where the characters speculate on

questions relating to the nature of good and evil, the author has inserted speeches from Boethius' The

Consolations of Philosophy. The use of Greek mythology has already been noted. These examples are good

evidence of Geoffrey Chaucer's particular brilliance-his ability to meld disparate elements into stories with a

quality of newness and uniqueness.

3: The Miller's Tale Summary and Analysis


The pilgrims congratulate the Knight on a wonderful story. The Host invites the Monk to tell another uplifting

story, but the drunken Miller interrupts, insisting that he can match the Knight. The Host tries to stop the

Miller, but the Miller will not be stopped. When he says he will tell a tale about a carpenter, the Reeve loudly

objects; but it is to no avail. Chaucer warns the reader that the story may be coarse, but if the reader finds it

3: The Miller's Tale Summary and Analysis 23offensive, he may choose another tale.

The Miller tells the story of a wealthy carpenter named John who has a very young and beautiful wife named

Alison. Nicholas, a poor scholar of astrology, boards with John and Alison. Nicholas is young and lusty and

covets the lovely Alison.

One day when John is away, Nicholas makes advances to Alison. She at first resists; however, Nicholas is

persistent and Alison soon succumbs to his charms. She worries that her husband will kill her if he finds out,

but Nicholas assures her that he will plan their time to make love so that the carpenter will never guess.

In the meantime, a lively parish clerk named Absalom also falls in love with Alison. Having an affair with her

becomes his obsession and he makes a complete fool of himself in wooing her. Alison rebuffs him

continually, but Absalom persists in his vain efforts to win her love.

The Miller

Shortly after Alison and Nicholas fall in love, the carpenter goes away for the day again. The young lovers

plan a way to complete their tryst. When John returns, Nicholas pretends to fall into an extended trance. When

3: The Miller's Tale Summary and Analysis 24John finally succeeds in awakening him, Nicholas reveals that the stars and God have made known to him that

within hours the world will again be destroyed by a great flood. Nicholas tells the carpenter that he, Alison,

and Nicholas are to be saved if John will follow Nicholas' instructions.

John, who is incredibly gullible and desperate to save Alison, complies. As instructed, he suspends three large

tubs from the beams in the ceiling and loads them with food and water. He puts in an axe to free the tubs when

the water reaches ceiling level and chops an opening in the wall for the tubs to float through when the house

fills up with water.

That night, Alison, John, and Nicholas climb into the tubs to sleep. Completely exhausted by his preparations,

John falls into a dead sleep. The young lovers get out of the tubs and spend the night making love in the

carpenter's bed.

That same night, Absalom determines to get Alison to at least kiss him. He stays awake all night and goes to

her window when it is pitch-dark, just before dawn. Absalom begs Alison for a kiss and she finally agrees.

However, instead of leaning her head out the window, Alison hangs her bare backside out, unbeknownst to

Absalom. Absalom enthusiastically kisses her rear end. He is horrifed and infuriated when he realizes he has

been duped.

Determined to take revenge, Absalom rushes to the blacksmith's and borrows a hot poker. He runs back to the

window and begs Alison for another kiss. This time, to further humiliate Absalom, Nicholas hangs his bare

behind out the window, loudly breaking wind to complete the insult. Absalom applies the hot poker, nearly

killing Nicholas with pain.

Nicholas begins to scream for water. His shouts waken John. Hearing only the word "water!" John assumes

the flood has begun and chops the cords attaching the tubs to the ceiling. Everything crashes to the ground

below and John is knocked unconscious in the fall.

Of course, all the neighbors are alerted by the racket and the chaos. They are hugely amused by the whole

situation, and John is made a laughingstock in the community for the rest of his days. Both Nicholas and

Absalom are humiliated, and the Miller concludes his tale, making the point that the gorgeous young Alison

has made fools of them all.

Discussion and Analysis

The Miller is coarse and common; the reader is warned that his tale will reflect his personality. The Miller and

Reeve are rivals, possibly even acquainted on a personal basis. This tale is obviously written to contrast

dramatically with the elevated tone of The Knight's Tale. The Miller's Tale is an example of the fabliau: set in

contemporary times; peopled with everyday characters; dealing with one of Man's most basic functions,

sexual appetite; concerned with cunning and folly; and meant to be funny.

These features contrast sharply with The Knight's Tale, which was a romance featuring a setting in the distant

past "aristocratic characters," concern with ideals and idealized love, a focus on the naure of good and evil,

and which was meant to extol virtue.

The Miller's Tale is based on the traditional plot of a lovers' triangle, common in the French models with

which Chaucer was familiar. It is also loaded with details which relate the tale to the medieval town of

Oxford. For instance, Nicholas is the typical poor scholar who needs lodging; and John is the successful

carpenter who has grown wealthy working on the cathedral being constructed nearby at Oseney. John's wealth

enables him to have a house large enough to accommodate a boarder and to get a much younger woman to

marry him. These factual details help make believable what is actually a fantastic story.

3: The Miller's Tale Summary and Analysis 25If this tale can be said to have a theme, it is probably the admonition at the beginning of the story: "men

should marry women of their own age, for youth and age are often at odds." John has married the young

Alison mainly as an object; she is young, beautiful, and seductive—which makes him look good. He has

acquired her to show her off, as a trophy of sorts. These are the wrong reasons for a man to marry, Chaucer

seems to be saying; and John should have known better.

4: The Reeve's Tale Summary and Analysis


All the pilgrims have laughed and enjoyed The Miller's Tale, but the favorable reception has angered the

Reeve, who is himself an aging carpenter. He says that he, like all old men, is motivated by boasting, anger,

lying, and covetousness. When the Host tells him to quit philosophizing and get on with his story, the Reeve

promises to get even with the Miller.

Scornful Simkin is a wealthy miller who is armed to the teeth at all times and is very dishonest in his business

dealings. No one dares accuse him, however, since he will immediately attack with one of the four weapons

always on his person. Simkin has a wife with relatives among the nobility and a beautiful and desirable young

daughter of marriageable age. They also have an infant still in the cradle.

One of the miller's most lucrative accounts is with the manager of the estates belonging to the college at

Cambridge. One day, when he goes to collect the wheat and malt to be ground for the college, Simkin finds

the steward terribly ill. He is delighted because it means he can cheat the college even more than usual.

4: The Reeve's Tale Summary and Analysis 26The Reeve's Tale

The sick steward persuades two poor students to deliver the grain and to watch the miller to prevent his usual

cheating. John and Allan, young and high-spirited, agree eagerly. They pretend interest in the milling process

and position themselves to watch the miller's every move. Simkin, however, turns their horse loose and the

young men must run away and try to capture their mount. The miller is then able to cheat unobserved.

When the young men return it is so late that they must spend the night. They offer to pay for a meal and a

night's lodging. The miller goes to great lengths to fulfill his duties as a host. After eating a fine meal and

getting drunk on ale, all of the characters retire to sleep in the same room. The miller and his wife are in their

bed with the infant's cradle at the foot; the daughter is in her own bed; and John and Allan rest on an

improvised cot.

Soon every member of the miller's family is loudly snoring and passing gas in their sleep. The young visitors

realize they will not be getting a wink of sleep. Furthermore, they know the miller stole some of the grain in

their absence. Allan decides he will sleep with the maiden daughter as compensation for his loss and


4: The Reeve's Tale Summary and Analysis 27As Allan is loudly making love to the girl, who is soon very cooperative, John determines that he, too, will

retaliate. By the time the miller's wife gets up to relieve herself, John has moved the baby's cradle to the foot

of his own bed. Missing the cradle at the foot of the marriage bed, the wife gropes in the dark until she locates

the cradle. Satisfied, she climbs into bed with John. It is dark, so she eagerly responds to John's lovemaking

thinking him her husband and delighted with his newfound energy.

At about dawn, Allan leaves the daughter's bed to return to his own. He avoids the bed with the cradle and

climbs into bed with the miller whom he mistakes for his friend, John. Allan brags of his sexual conquest to

the miller who immediately attacks him. Wrestling in the dark, the two fall on the miller's wife who thinks she

is being attacked. She finds a stick and wacks her husband on the head, mistaking him for one of the students.

Seeing the miller stunned and hurt, the students grab the advantage and beat him unconscious. They then

escape back to Cambridge having made a complete fool of the deceitful miller.

Discussion and Analysis

The rivalry and dislike between the Miller and the Reeve is again obvious. The Reeve's tale promises to be an

excercise in one-up-manship that will outdo the Miller's tale.

Like the tale preceding, The Reeve's Tale is a fabliau, centering on sex and trickery and practical jokes.

However, true to the character of the teller, this story is all about revenge. Chaucer used both French and

Italian models for this parody; the plot would have been familiar to readers of his day.

What is most notable about this tale is the way it is used by the Reeve on the pilgrimage to get back at the

Miller. First of all, the central character in the story is a dangerous and dishonest miller, presented in the most

unflattering light possible. Secondly, this time it is the miller who is cuckolded and who suffers the further

indignity of having his virgin daughter deflowered. In The Miller's Tale, the carpenter, John, is cuckolded; in

The Reeve's Tale, it is the student, John, who cuckolds the miller. Even the physical description of the miller

in the story matches the appearance and the character of the Miller on the pilgrimage. It becomes obvious that

the hatred between the two men is more than just an occupational rivalry.

5: The Cook's Tale Summary and Analysis


The cook is mightily entertained by the story the Reeve told and wants to tell a funny story of his own.

However, the Host reminds the Cook, who is named Hodge of Ware, that he owes the company a good tale

since food he prepares so often makes travelers ill. Good-naturedly, the Cook begins his story.

5: The Cook's Tale Summary and Analysis 28The Cook

Perkin the Reveler is apprenticed to a guild of food merchants. He is a wild and fun-loving youth, particularly

fond of gambling and womanizing. Both vices require money which he lifts from his master's safe. One day,

fed up, the master fires Perkin the Reveler. Perkin sends his personal belongings to the home of an equally

devious friend . . . (Fragment concludes.)

Discussion and Analysis

The Cook's Tale was probably intended to be another fabliau (see Genre definitions), but its unfinished state

precludes analysis. It is interesting to note that another rivalry, this time between the Cook and the Host,

seems to be surfacing.

6: The Man of Law's Tale Summary and Analysis


The Host reminds the company that the day is nearly one quarter over and they must hurry on with the telling

of tales. He calls on the Man of Law to begin his story quickly. The worthy gentleman consents. He rambles

along for a while, commenting that he cannot hope to imitate the well-known poet Chaucer in the quality of

6: The Man of Law's Tale Summary and Analysis 29his speech, yet he will tell one in prose even though he be plainspoken. The teller then rambles on some more

in an apparent sermon against poverty. It seems that his tale will somehow deal with this subject, but it

certainly does not.

Part One: The Christian Emperor of Rome has a beautiful and extremely virtuous daughter named Constance

whose reputation comes to the attention of the Sultan of Syria. Without even laying eyes on the lady, the

Sultan falls madly in love with her and determines she must be his bride. He begins to negotiate for her hand,

even promising to become Christian. The arrangements are finally concluded and Constance and the Sultan

are married. In the meantime, the mother of the Sultan, horrified that her son is so willing to renounce his

Muslim faith, has plotted against the alliance.

The man of law's tale

Part Two: Shortly after the marriage, the Sultan's mother gives a banquet to honor the newlyweds. Once all

the guests are seated, her henchmen assassinate all who assisted in the marriage and embraced the Christain

faith, including her own son, the Sultan.

6: The Man of Law's Tale Summary and Analysis 30Only Constance is spared, but is placed on a rudderless ship to float aimlessly over all the seas until she

eventually suffers some terrible death. The Mother of Christ intervenes in behalf of Constance and spares her

life. The ship lands in Britain.

Constance is befriended by the King's warden and his wife. Both come to love her virtuous and sweet nature.

Hermengild, the warden's wife, is so impressed by Constance's piety that she becomes a secret Christian.

A young knight in the area falls in love with Constance. When his efforts to seduce her fail, he seeks revenge

by framing Constance for the murder of Hermingild which he has actually committed. While the warden was

away, Hermengild and Constance slept in the same bed. The wicked young knight sneaked into the

bedchamber, slit Hermengild's throat, covered Constance with the blood, and placed the bloody weapon in

Constance's hand.

When the warden returns and comes upon the scene, he can only conclude that Constance is the murderer.

However, the cruelty of the act is so out of character for Constance the warden takes her to King Aella to be

judged. All those who testify speak of her virtue and hold her to be incapable of the crime, except for the

knight, who finally swears on the Bible that Constance is guilty. The Lord knocks him down as he gives this

false witness and the voice of God is heard declaring Constance innocent. This miracle brings about the

conversion of all present. King Aella has the evil knight executed and Constance is pardoned.

Naturally, Aella also soon falls in love with Constance and marries her. She becomes pregnant, but just as she

is about to deliver, Aella is called away to fight the Scots. Constance is safely delivered of a beautiful boy and

immediately sends a messenger to King Aella with the good news.

Unfortunately, the messenger stops first at the palace of the king's mother who hates Constance. She gets the

messenger drunk and substitutes a false letter that says Constance has given birth to a monster and accuses

Constance of being a witch. When Aella receives this letter he is terribly sad, but sends a reply stating that he

accepts the will of God and hopes for a more normal child the next time.

On the return trip, the messenger stops again at the palace of the king's mother. Again he falls into a drunken

slumber, and again, the wicked mother-in-law substitutes a false letter for the real one. The counterfeit letter

orders the warden to put Constance and the baby in the same ship in which Constance had arrived and to put

that ship again out to sea.

When the letter arrives, the brokenhearted warden has no choice but to obey his king. Amid great and terrible

sorrow, Constance and the baby leave Britain on the rudderless ship.

Part Three: When King Aella returns home, he is dumbfounded at the state of affairs he finds. Under torture,

the messenger reveals the plot. Both he and the king's mother are executed, but the king mourns perpetually

for his lost wife and child.

After five years and one false landing, Constance is intercepted by a Roman senator who, coincidentally, is

just returning to Rome after punishing the Syrians for their treachery to her. Constance remains anonymous,

but does take up lodging with the senator and his wife. Like nearly everyone else who has known her, this

couple, their household, and their friends come to love the wonderful guest and to admire her greatly.

In the meantime, King Aella feels compelled to go to Rome to repent for killing his mother. While in Rome,

he becomes acquainted with the Senator. The senator is invited to a banquet given by King Aella and takes

Contance's son, Maurice, with him. When Aella perceives the resemblance of Maurice to Constance and hears

the story of the boy's mother, he begins to wonder if he has found his lost wife and child.

6: The Man of Law's Tale Summary and Analysis 31Within a few days, Aella goes to the senator's home where he and Constance are finally reunited. When all is

finally understood, they embrace madly and kiss hundreds of times.

Aella then invites Constance's father, who is also ignorant of her identity, to dine with them. The Emperor, her

father, is overjoyed to see Constance again. He is also pleased to meet her husband and son. After this

episode, Aella, Constance, and Maurice return to England to a happy, peaceful life, but after a year, Aella

dies. Constance and Maurice return to Rome. When the Emperor dies, Maurice is named Emperor of Rome,

and Constance continues in virtue and piety all the rest of her days.

Discussion and Analysis

In the prologue to this tale, there is a reference to stories Chaucer has already published in The Legend of

Good Women. This leads to commentary about the nature of a story as something told rather than as

something that happened. It also presents the medieval notion that stories are something like a commodity

which can be used up. In other words, there is a limited number of plots and most of the good stories have

already been told. Actually, Chaucer will contradict this notion in The Canterbury Tales by rearranging

incidents and characters to create vigorously new stories.

Because several elements of this prologue do not seem to fit what follows, many critics believe that the Man

of Law was originally intended to be the first of the travellers to tell his story. This would account for the very

literary nature of the prologue. That Chaucer changed his mind sometime after writing the prologue accounts

for the incongruity between the introduction and the story that follows.

The extreme wordiness and the rambling nature of the Man of Law's introduction certainly do fit the character

who is described in the General Prologue as a very pompous and successful lawyer. It would be natural for

such a man to use elaborate language and to talk in circles.

By this time, the reader has noticed that many of The Canterbury Tales relate to themes examining the nature

of love and the nature of marriage. This story of Constance continues in that vein, extolling the virtues of the

good wife through extreme tribulation. Unlike the women in the fabliau tales, all of whom are sexually "easy,"

Constance is chaste and pure. The men who try to steal her virtue are all killed.

The religious overtones with the direct intervention of the Virgin Mary and of God Himself in Constance's

behalf give the story elements of the popular saints' lives widely told in Chaucer's day. The tale also has

features of romance, folktale, and tragedy. Like many Greek myths, The Man of Law's Tale uses the motifs of

sea travel, loss, and recognition scenes. There are also numerous Latin references drawn from the Bible and

other classical sources. That all of these elements are united successfully to produce an excellent story is

evidence both of Chaucer's enormous personal scholarship and of his skill as a storyteller.

The structure of The Man of Law's Tale is worth noting. First, the author employs a good deal of repetition:

voyages, treachery, evil mothers-in-law, banquets, and supernatural interventions are all repeated in

Constance's life story. Secondly, the constant divine interest in the character and the frequency of His

intervention exploit the theological notion that persistence in faith is ultimately rewarded with joy. This same

theme is actually an underlying structure of the tale. Constance moves several times through unbearable

suffering to peace and joy. Yet each time she arrives at a state of happiness, that state is quickly destroyed by

evil until the very end when Constance is reunited with her father, a parallel to the reunion of Man with God

at the end of life. The strong theological theme is characteristic of the time when narratives were often used to

drive home a moral lesson.

6: The Man of Law's Tale Summary and Analysis 327: The Shipman's Tale Summary and Analysis


The Host invites the Parson to tell his story next. When the Parson admonishes the Host for his drunkenness,

the Host jokingly accuses the Parson of being a prude, and maybe even a heretic. Their interchange is rudely

interrupted by the Shipman who says he will tell a jolly tale with no hint of preaching in it.

His tale begins with a very successful merchant who lived at St. Denis with his very beautiful wife, a woman

excessively fond of entertaining and dressing herself to be admired. To accommodate her, the merchant kept a

very fine house which was always filled with visitors. Frequently among them was a monk called Don John, a

handsome man of 30. He and the merchant had become such close friends that they referred to themselves as


On the occasion being described, the monk comes to visit just as the merchant is preparing to leave on a

buying trip. The merchant takes an inventory of his assets while the monk recites his prayer walking in the

garden. The beautiful wife approaches the monk and unburdens herself of all her marital troubles. She claims

that her husband is miserly and that she needs 100 pounds to purchase a new dress. Don John agrees to lend

her the money. He kisses and caresses her. It is understood that repayment will be made in sexual favors.

7: The Shipman's Tale Summary and Analysis 33The Shipman

When the merchant emerges from his counting house, Don John borrows from him the 100 pounds, gladly

loaned him by his "cousin." The monk promises to repay quickly and admonishes the merchant to behave

sensibly while away.

The following Sunday, with the merchant safely out of town, the monk gives the money to the wife. They

agree that a night in bed together will be ample repayment of the loan and make merry all that night in the

absence of the husband.

When the merchant returns, his wife joyfully welcomes him home. However, the merchant has to leave for

Paris right away as he has acquired some debt making his purchases and needs to borrow some money.

In Paris, the merchant calls on Don John for the sake of their friendship. The monk gives a banquet in his

honor and inquires about the business trip. The merchant admits his debt and Don John remarks that he is glad

to have already repaid the loan. He claims to have left the 100 pounds on a bench with the merchant's wife,

who had given him a verbal receipt for the gold.

7: The Shipman's Tale Summary and Analysis 34Once the merchant borrows all he needs, he returns home in high good humor. He and his wife delightedly

make love all night. However, on the morning, the merchant asks her about the gold left by the monk.

Thinking quickly, the wife says she has spent the money on clothes and that her husband must be content with

her repaying him day by day as people admire her beauty. That admiration will do him credit which will

constitute repayment. She further assures him that her continued enthusiasm for their lovemaking will

recompense him for the gold.

The merchant sees immediately that he is beaten. Ruefully, he tells his adorable wife not to be so careless with

his money in the future. There the story ends.

Discussion and Analysis

The Shipman is clearly bored with morality. He wants nothing of a sermonizing nature in his tale; its only

purpose is to entertain. His tale is another example of fabliau, with its emphasis on trickery and sex. Like

many of the other tales, this one centers on a theme of marriage. The beautiful wife in this story manages both

her husband and Don John by bestowing her sexual favors with enthusiasm to achieve her own ends.

Because so much of this story is presented from a female perspective, and because the Wife of Bath was said

to be so skilled in all the arts of love, many critics believe that Chaucer originally intended for this tale to be

told by the earthy Wife of Bath. However, The Shipman is a very worldly and a very nonreligious man, thus

having him tell the story is not out of keeping with his character as it is described in the General Prologue.

8: The Prioress's Tale Summary and Analysis.


After jesting rather coarsely about the monk in the Shipman's Tale—and monks in general—the Host switches

to a tone of exaggerated politeness in inviting the Prioress to tell her tale.

A very young schoolboy learns a difficult Latin hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary because of his deep

devotion to her. Every day, on the way to school and on the way home, he passes through the Jewish ghetto of

the town singing the hymn.

Taking his singing as a direct insult, a group of wicked Jews has an assassin slit the boy's throat. The child's

widowed mother searches for him everywhere. She finally discovers his poor little body on a dung heap.

Miraculously, the child is still singing his hymn.

The Christians of the town bear his body to the monastery for burial, awed by the miracle of the child's

continued singing. The boy, still able to speak, reveals to the abbot that the Virgin Mary has placed a

miraculous kernel on his tongue which enables him to hold to life and continue his song. Profoundly affected,

the Abbott removes the kernel and the child's pure spirit ascends to heaven. All the Christians are confirmed

in their faith and the wicked Jews are tortured and killed.

Discussion and Analysis

True to her perfectionist, sentimental nature, the Prioress begins with a long apologetic prayer to the Virgin

Mary. Her story of the martyred child resembles popular saints' stories of the day. It has a very preachy and

morbid tone.

Though they appear to the modern reader as very negative aspects of this story, her reverence for chastity and

her harsh judgment of the Jews are both reflections of common medieval Catholic beliefs. The violent nature

of the events in the story seem to be in contradiction to a personality as sensitive as the Prioress's is supposed

8: The Prioress's Tale Summary and Analysis. 35to be, suggesting that she may be much tougher than she wishes to reveal. She is, after all, in a position of

great authority over others.

9: The Tale of Sir Thopas Summary and Analysis


After the sobering miracle story, the Host calls on the Narrator to give a lively, amusing story. (The Host

fancies himself something of a literary critic; apparently, the pilgrim Narrator's genial nature has led Harry

Bailley to believe that the Narrator will know some excellent tales.) Apologetically, with tongue in cheek, the

Narrator says he knows only one old story in rhyme-doggerel. (Rhyme-doggerel was a sing-song form of

poetry associated with low-class humor.)

The First Fit: Sir Thopas, in all his youthful perfection andvanity, is closely described. One day, Sir Thopas

rides out to hunt and falls into a fit of "love-longing." He finds no woman worthy to be the object of his love.

Feeling it to be the obvious decision, Sir Thopas decides to seek an elf queen to love.

9: The Tale of Sir Thopas Summary and Analysis 36The Tale of Sir Thopas

Sir Thopas rides hard in his search and ends up in the kingdom of the Queen of Fairies. He is arrested by an

enormous giant who tells Sir Thopas to leave immediately or he will kill Sir Thopas' horse. Sir Thopas makes

an appointment with the giant for 9:00 the next morning at which time he intends to fight and slay the giant.

The giant begins to pelt Sir Thopas with stones from his enormous sling-shot, but the young knight, of course,

manages to escape. He orders his servants to prepare a feast and entertainment for him to strengthen him this

night before his battle. He tells them that he must fight a giant with three heads for the love of someone whom

he has never seen. The next morning, Sir Thopas dons enough armor to weight a man into the ground and

rides off to slay the giant.

The Second Fit: As the Narrator begins reciting the second part of his story, the Host interrupts, proclaiming

the tale very base, common and unamusing, and a waste of time. Chaucer defends himself, saying that

although his version of the story may not be to the Host's liking, it is still a good story. The Host insists that he

leave off the terrible rhyme. The Narrator says he will do so and will tell a moral tale in prose. He tells the

Host not to interrupt him again.

The Narrator now tells a long, long tale about Melibeus, a nobleman who wants to take revenge against

enemies who have hurt his wife and daughter. His wife, Prudence, however, persuades Melibeus to consult his

friends before exacting revenge. However, the friends give conflicting advice and Melibeus remains

determined to go to war.

Prudence then persuades Melibeus to allow her to meet in secret conference with his enemies. These men are

convinced by Prudence to admit their wrong and to submit to judgment by her relatives. The relatives rule for

peace. Melibeus decides to accept their verdict and forgive his enemies.

Discussion and Analysis

Chaucer's two stories are actually a joke on the Host with his impossible pretentions to being a literary critic.

The Tale of Sir Thopas, which Harry Bailley totally rejects, is actually a brilliant parody of the popular courtly

romances. Sir Thopas, vain and empty-headed, is going off to slay a dragon in response to his lovelonging and

not in defense of any ladylove. He is behaving in exaggerated knightly fashion, but the absence of any ideals

makes him completely ludicrous.

The literal-minded Host cannot see this; he is merely disgusted by the use of such a low form of versification

for what is supposed to be a courtly story. Harry is not disappointed, however, by the narrator's long,

ponderous telling of a rather boring and highly moralistic story. Harry fully approves when the Narrator

deliberately loads the narrative with proverbs, maxims, clich‚s, and literary allusions, tripling its length in the

process. To the Host, this makes the story of Melibeus properly serious. The Narrator's joke escapes him


10: The Monk's Tale Summary and Analysis


The Host comments that he wishes his own wife were as patient as Prudence in the Tale of Melibeus. He

describes Goodlief, his wife, as ill-tempered in the extreme and big and brawny into the bargain. In short,

Harry reveals that he is henpecked.

The Host then turns the company's attention to the Monk, whom he abuses at length, supposedly in jest. Harry

comments on the Monk's well-fed and sturdy appearance, remarks that he would make a fine breeder, and

adds that if the Host had his way, all the monks and priests would have wives and beget fine children. Harry

10: The Monk's Tale Summary and Analysis 37feels that the Church is taking all the best men and leaving only weaklings among the laity who are fathering

inferior offspring.

The Monk

The Monk bears all this taunting and disrespect patiently. As if to defend the seriousness of his commitment

to the religious life, he vows to tell some tragedies which he defines as stories relating to persons of high

station and prosperity who fall from power into misery and poverty.

The Monk's Tale turns out to be a lengthy list of noble historical, biblical, and mythological characters who

suffered misfortune. Each recitation is very short and is intended to be a warning against trusting in the

permanence of luck or prosperity. The characters the Monk deals with are: Lucifer, Adam, Samson Hercules

Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Zenobia, King Pedro of Spain, King Peter of Cyprus, Barnabo of Lombardy,

Count Ugolino of Pisa, Nero, Holofernes, Antiochus, Alexander Julius Caesar and Croesus.

Discussion and Analysis

The Host's scorn for the clergy is evident in this prologue. He is not really eager to increase the population by

having the clergy marry; he is rather implying that all monks are lecherous scoundrels.

10: The Monk's Tale Summary and Analysis 38The Monk's Tale (actually 17 short recitations) contradicts the Host's lewd jests. It is very serious and

sorrowful and gives a typical clerical admonition that Man must not trust fame and fortune, for they are

fleeting and temporal.

11: The Nun's Priest's Tale Summary and Analysis


The Knight interrupts the listing of tragedies by the Monk, saying that such grim recitals are making everyone

sad. The Host immediately agrees, commenting that the long narration has almost put everyone to sleep. He

begs the Monk to tell them something different. When the Monk declines, Harry calls upon the Nun's Priest to

tell a happy story. The Priest laughingly agrees, seeing that the clever Monk has revenged himself on Harry

Bailley by nearly boring him to death.

He begins his tale about a poor old widow who owns a remarkable rooster named Chanticleer. For crowing

exactly on time he has no equal, and the splendor of his colored feathers and his coral comb is amazing.

Chanticleer has seven hens, all of whom are his wives and sisters, but the one he loves the most is called

Demoiselle Partlet.

One day at dawn, Partlet hears Chanticleer moaning strangely. When she inquires in alarm about this clamor,

Chanticleer reveals that he has had a strange and terrifying dream. In the dream, a yellow-red beast with

black-tipped ears and tail grabbed him and intended to kill him. Partlet scorns Chanticleer, saying it is only a

dream and he is truly a coward to be frightened by it. She recommends he find herbs to purge his system; she

is convinced nightmares are no more than a symptom of indigestion.

Chanticleer then defends his fear by recounting several stories in which very important and learned men were

warned of impending disaster in their dreams. Those who heeded the warnings, taking the dreams seriously,

were saved; but those who ignored the warning perished. Therefore, he concludes, he has every right to take

the dream seriously. Furthermore, he tells Partlet that he puts no stock in laxatives. Then Chanticleer resorts to

his usual cheerfulness and amorousness with his beloved. He appears to forget all about the dream.

Unknown to the family of fowls, that same night when Chanticleer was having his horrible nightmare, a sly

yellow-red fox with black-tipped ears and tail had crept into the yard and is lying low among the herbs,

waiting for his chance to attack Chanticleer. As the rooster is walking in the yard, he spies the fox and almost

has a fit he is so frightened.

The fox tells Chanticleer not to be afraid, for he has come to listen to Chanticleer sing his remarkable songs.

He flatters Chanticleer so lavishly that the vain fellow is completely disarmed and begins to crow. While the

rooster is thus distracted, Sir Russell, the fox, snatches the bird in his mouth and begins to run, intending to

kill and eat Chanticleer.

Partlet and the other hens begin to shriek madly, raising such a din that the widow, her children, the dogs, and

then the entire neighborhood begin to chase the fox. All the barnyard animals run around, scream, and add to

the chaos.

When Sir Russell reaches the edge of the forest, he stops a moment to rest. At this point, the clever

Chanticleer says that the fox should just tell the pursuing crowd to give up since the marvelous fox is so much

faster at running than they are. It is obvious Sir Russell cannot be overtaken. The proud fox opens his mouth

to utter the boast suggested by the rooster, and Chanticleer flies out of his mouth up into a tree beyond the

fox's reach.

11: The Nun's Priest's Tale Summary and Analysis 39The fox again tries to trick Chanticleer by flattery, but the rooster has learned his lesson. He refuses to

succumb again to the fox's flattery and deception. Sir Russell skulks away and Chanticleer is saved.

The Host enthusiastically congratulates the priest on an excellent tale, adding comments about the priest's

surprising vigor and manliness to the commentary.

Discussion and Analysis

The Host is greatly relieved when the Monk is prevented by the Knight from recounting any more of his

ponderous recital. When the Priest agrees to tell a merry tale, the entire company is delighted.

The Nun's Priest's Tale of Chanticleer is one of the finest beast fables in the English language. In this format,

beasts personify humans and exaggerate Man's characteristics, usually for the purpose of teaching a lesson.

The characters, as in this case with Chanticleer, often make use of classical learning to solidify their moral


Chaucer probably based this story on the French Roman de Renart and the German Reinhart Fuchs; but, as

was his custom, the author of The Canterbury Tales dramatically altered the plots. In the European models,

the rooster is a self-centered idiot who repeatedly refused to listen to warnings. As the reader has observed,

Chaucer's Chanticleer, although somewhat vain, is a victim of love. He overrides his own better judgment and

goes into the yard to please Partlet whom he loves very dearly. It is, therefore, for love of Partlet that

Chanticleer becomes the fox's victim.

The obvious moral lesson of the foolishness of succumbing to empty flattery diverts attention from a more

subtle warning to beware the advice of women. This was a popular medieval theme. Woman, the original

seductress, was the source of much of Man's sinfulness. As the weaker and less intellectually endowed of the

two sexes, Woman was not a reliable counselor. This theme is in deliberate stark contrast to the Tale of

Melibeus, whose central figure, Prudence the wise wife, counsels patience and prevents a war.

The tale is suitable to the teller when one considers the position of the Nun's Priest. He is the servant of the

Prioress who appears to be silly and sentimental. His work forces him to live in a community of women

drawn by her to the convent; it is likely that they are as silly as their mistress, in which case, the Priest would

naturally have a somewhat low opinion of women.

In the Epilogue to the tale, the Host is once again in high good humor and full of bawdy teasing for the Priest.

He next invites the Wife of Bath to tell her story.

12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary and Analysis


The Wife of Bath tells the travelers that she has buried five husbands and has lived in the married state since

she was 12 years old. Furthermore, she is now looking for her sixth husband. For these reasons, she considers

herself an expert on the subject of matrimony.

Before telling her story, the Wife feels compelled to defend her numerous marriages. In a lengthy monologue,

she counters the religious arguments against multiple marriages. For instance, she says, although God and St.

Paul recommend chastity as a perfect state, neither of them expressly forbid marriage. Since she is not perfect

and has no desire to be, she personally prefers being married as she has an enormous appetite for sexual

activity. In any case, she says, God calls people to Him in many ways: He calls her to marriage.

12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary and Analysis 40The Wife of Bath

Continuing the argument, the Wife adds that God would not have given men and women sexual organs if He

did not intend for them to be used. The good Wife has learned to use her sexual organs to their best advantage,

which is, in her opinion, as instruments with which to control her husbands.

The Pardoner interrupts to say that he was about to marry, but now that he has listened to the Wife of Bath, he

is not so sure he wants to volunteer to be controlled in the way she is describing. The Wife tells him to keep


Next, this lively narrator launches into her personal philosophy of marriage. It is, in a nutshell, that the wife

must control the husband if the marriage is to succeed. She details how the woman acquires and keeps control.

The Wife knows this because three of her husbands were rich, old, and easy to control, which constitute the

perfect characteristics for husbands in her opinion. She is sure her management of them made all of these men


Specifically, she tells the travelers, she always made it a practice to accuse the men constantly of infidelity,

deception, and criticism. The husbands, therefore, were continually occupied defending themselves and

proving the Wife mistaken by giving her their attention, their devotion, and many, many gifts. Their fortunes

12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary and Analysis 41she had wisely secured before even marrying them.

While the men she married were thus absorbed in proving their devotion, the Wife of Bath could, and did,

dally with whomever she pleased. If the Wife's gadding about at night and keeping company with a handsome

young attendant became a subject for comment by the husband, she would merely turn the tables on him. She

would declare that spying on the husband as he went "wenching" at night necessitated her absences and her


The merry Wife admits that she has grown fond of drinking as she has aged, finding it a stimulus to her sexual

nature and making her less able to resist the advances of men. She mourns the loss of her youth but is still

determined to be happy.

Next in this extremely long prologue, she tells about her fourth husband who was a reveller and had a

mistress, which made her very jealous. She repaid him by making him aware of how attractive she was to

other men. This, in turn, made him constantly jealous of her. Yet, the Wife also confides that all the while she

was married to the fourth husband, she was flirting with Jenkin, a young former cleric who had been a scholar

at Oxford. According to the Wife, she convinced Jenkin that he had enchanted her and that if she were free,

she would marry him.

Jenkin evidently believed the lady, for when they buried the fourth husband, he walked behind the bier and

made eyes at the Wife. The good widow did not weep too much realizing that she had already cemented her

fifth marriage. This though Jenkin was 20 and she was 40.

In the fifth marriage, however, the Wife admits she made the terrible mistake of giving Jenkin control,

including all the lands and properties she had inherited from the previous husbands. As a consequence, Jenkin

would not do anything she wanted. Furthermore, and what was worse, Jenkin actually tried to control her. He

forbade her to go visiting and preached at her constantly, quoting from segments about bad wives from

learned books.

Finally, one night when he was reading to her about the troubles famous men had had with their wives, the

Wife of Bath grew so exasperated with Jenkin that she tore three pages from the book and punched him in the

cheek. He retaliated by hitting her so hard that she fell back, apparently unconscious. Terrified that he had

killed her, and overwhelmed with relief when her mock unconsciousness disappeared, Jenkin gave the Wife

back control of their marriage and they lived happily until he died.

The Friar is greatly amused by this narration, but he comments that it was certainly a very long introduction to

her story. Jumping to the Wife's defense, the Summoner insults the Friar, the Friar retaliates. The Host quiets

the feuding clergymen and the Wife of Bath finally tells her story.

In the days of King Arthur, a young knight rides out from the court one day, and when he spies a beautiful and

solitary maiden, he ravishes her. The girl's outraged family appeals to Arthur for justice, and Arthur condemns

the youth to death.

However, the Queen and her ladies take pity on the tragic young knight and persuade Arthur to leave the

youth to their judgment. The Queen commands the youth to spend a year traveling all across the country

interviewing women. At the end of the year, he is to return to court and be able to tell the Queen what it is that

women most desire. If he cannot provide the correct response, he will forfeit his life.

After a year of searching for this knowledge, the young knight has received so many different answers that he

despairs of surviving his trial. As he sadly and reluctantly begins his journey back to the court, he happens

upon an exceedingly ugly old woman. When he tells her of his sad state, the old woman promises to give him

12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary and Analysis 42the answer he is seeking if he will swear to grant her anything she wishes. The young knight eagerly gives his

word in exchange for which the hag confides to him the proper answer to the question proposed by the Queen.

The old woman accompanies the youth back to the court. When they are ushered into the presence of the

Queen, she asks if he has learned what it is that women most desire. He gives her the answer supplied by the

ancient woman; that women wish to have complete control of their husbands, their love affairs, and to be the

master of their men.

When this turns out to be the correct response, the old hag claims her wish. She wants the handsome young

knight to marry her. Horrified, he begs her to change her mind, but she refuses.

Sad and appalled at what he is doing, the young man marries the old woman; but when he lies with her on the

wedding night, he can feel no passion. When she asks him why he is such a reluctant lover, he tells her it is

because she is so poor, old, and ugly.

Getting his attention immediately, the old hag says she can change her form in three days time. However, she

lectures eloquently about the mistakenness of judging people by their appearance. She tells him to decide,

after reflecting on the wisdom of all she has said, whether he wants her to remain ugly and old, yet a humble

and faithful wife; or whether he would have her become young and lovely, but probably an unreliable and

troublesome wife.

The young husband ruefully chooses to have the old woman remain as she is, whereupon she rewards him by

remaining humble and faithful, at the same time becoming young and beautiful. Thus, the knight's good

judgment is rewarded and the two then live happily together from that moment on.

Interjecting herself again, the Wife of Bath closes her tale with a prayer that Jesus send women handsome and

virile husbands together with the strength to outlive them. She curses men who will not be ruled by their

wives and says Amen.

Discussion and Analysis

In her lengthy introduction, the Wife of Bath reveals a great deal about herself. She is unquestionably a

feminist: mercenary, amorous, and aggressive in the bargain. Chaucer has made her intelligent as well, quite

adept at argumentation.

The Wife's policy in marriage is to completely rule her husbands by exhausting them sexually. Prior to the

weddings with old men, she has already secured control of the joint property, so once she rules the bed, all

mastery is hers. Any woe is then the husband's while she remains free to do as she pleases, even if what she

pleases involves infidelity.

In her arguments in favor of matrimony as opposed to celibacy, the Wife of Bath is particularly virulent in her

opposition to the anti-feminism she seems to have frequently encountered with the medieval clergy. If she is

to be believed, her fifth husband was a former cleric who read aloud to her from anti-feminist books written

by what she feels were impotent old priests who knew nothing of life or of women. She finds their attitudes


Ironically, this strong character does not see that she is exactly the type of woman the clerics preached against.

Furthermore, she seems oblivious to the way matters have changed in her own marriages as she has grown

older. Because she is now less attractive and less energetic, now an older woman, her younger husbands

placed her in the position her first husbands were with her. The fourth husband and Jenkin start marriage in

the ascendency; however, the formidable Wife of Bath ultimately gains the upper hand in these relationships

as well.

12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary and Analysis 43The story told by the Wife is somewhere between a folktale and a romance. The fairies, elves, and the old hag

with magic power characterize folktales, while the Arthurian court, the noble central characters, and the old

woman's sermon on the true nature of gentility are characteristic of the romance. Chaucer's sources appear, in

this instance, to have been solely English, derived from old tales of Sir Gawaine and from Gower's tale of

Florent. Again, though, Chaucer's particular genius is evident in the combining and altering of elements from

all three sources to make a tale entirely new.

Because the story is about an old woman who desires a younger man and ultimately proves wise enough to

win his love and sexual attentions, it is entirely fitting that the Wife of Bath should be the narrator. The theme

is obvious: the man must give the woman the upper hand in marriage if he wishes to be happy.

13: The Friar's Tale Summary and Analysis


The Friar says it is time to speak of "gayer things" and volunteers to tell a tale he knows about a summoner.

He adds that everyone knows how hated summoners are. The Host is afraid the Friar will upset the pilgrim

Summoner, but the pilgrim Summoner says that he will shortly pay the Friar back. The Friar begins.

An archdeacon kept in his employ a summoner who had no rival for finding sinners. The man kept a network

of spies to help him discover wrongdoers. He often pretended that he had charges against an individual, but if

that person would compensate him, the charges would be "dismissed." By extorting money in this manner, the

summoner grew rich; he shared only a little of what he collected with the archdeacon.

One day, as the rogue was on his way to charge an old widow, he meets a vigorous yeoman on the road to

whom he takes an instant liking. This yeoman is a bailiff, the summoner's civil counterpart. When their

conversation reveals their mutual dishonesty, lack of conscience, and love of gold, the summoner and the

bailiff pledge eternal brotherhood.

13: The Friar's Tale Summary and Analysis 44The Friar

Later in the trip, the summoner asks the bailiff's name and learns that he is a fiend, a devil who can alter his

shape at will. He explains that he sometimes does the devil's work and sometimes inflicts God's punishments.

The yeoman/demon gives the summoner a chance to forsake him, but the summoner renews his oath to be a

faithful brother.

The two hear a carter stuck in the mud curse his animals to hell. The summoner wonders why the fiend does

not immediately take the man up on his curse, but he soon learns that not all prayers to the devil are sincere.

When the two approach the old widow and the summoner attempts to extort money from her, she curses him

sincerely. The fiend immediately grabs the summoner and takes him to hell. The Friar ends his tale promising

a similar fate to all summoners.

Discussion and Analysis

The Friar insults the Summoner, continuing the feud the two began earlier. He then uses his tale to intensify

the insult. In his tale are all the elements of the fabliau: the plot unfolds scene by scene; it turns on trickery;

and the ease with which a stupid man is outsmarted. The Friar's Tale also has elements of the exemplum, a

13: The Friar's Tale Summary and Analysis 45perfect story of terrible behavior with a moral ending.

This story of the summoner meeting the devil is found in earlier Latin and German versions and had also been

told in English. This problem with an exploitive clergy was an ancient one, and it is somewhat ironic that

while the story is intended to condemn the Summoner, it actually condemns all extortioners, many of whom

were friars. Nevertheless, the theme is unmistakable: the relationship between avarice and the devil is

extremely close and will land its practitioners in hell very quickly.

14: The Summoner's Tale Summary and Analysis


The pilgrim Summoner is so enraged at the condemnation of the Friar that he immediately tells an evil little

joke about an angel touring a friar around hell. When the visiting friar comments that he sees no friars in hell,

the angel takes him directly to Satan who reveals 20,000 friars hiding in his ass, the idea being that Satan and

friars are extremely close. He then tells his tale.

There was once a very greedy friar who was licensed to beg and preach in a particular district. He would

pretend to have his scribe record all the names of those who donated so that his monastery could pray for

them, but the names were erased as soon as he was out of sight.

14: The Summoner's Tale Summary and Analysis 46The Summoner's Tale

On the day this story takes place, the friar calls on one of his most generous benefactors whom he finds full of

anger and very ill. The friar pretends concern and swears that he and all his brother friars have been praying

for Thomas to recover. He delivers a hypocritical sermon on the great virtue in fasting, interpreting the

scriptures to suit his purposes, in order to persuade Thomas to make another large donation.

The furious Thomas remarks that he cannot understand why his health has not improved with all the money he

has donated for prayers (which he seems to suspect have never been offered). In reply, the friar delivers a

second sermon on the terrible fate which befell famous kings who were wrathful and angry. The friar

concludes by urging Thomas to give generously to the dear, poor monks who have prayed for him.

Thomas appears to agree. He says he will give the monastery something very special which he has hidden in

his rectum. He instructs the friar to reach under his buttocks to retrieve the treasure. When the greedy,

avaricious friar complies, Thomas expels gas loudly into the friar's hand and tells him to take that benefice

and divide it with his fellow monks.

14: The Summoner's Tale Summary and Analysis 47The infuriated Friar John rushes to the lord of the village for retribution. But the nobleman is so fascinated

with the problem of how the fart could possibly be divided into even parts that he totally ignores the problem

of retribution.

The tale is concluded with the squire's serving boy offering a solution to the division problem for the price of

a new suit. The insult is never addressed, Thomas goes unpunished, and the pageboy gets a new suit.

Discussion and Analysis

In his prologue, the Summoner comments immediately on the close relationship betweeen avarice and the

devil by telling a wicked joke. His tale, which follows, continues the insult in the form of a fabliau. It turns on

trickery, deception, and the ease with which the evil man, in this case the friar of the story, is outwitted.

Unlike the other fabliaux in the Tales, however, The Summoner's Tale is truly base and obscene, revealing

him to be of a purient nature.

There appear to be no models for this story; it is presented rather as a parody of sincere religious stories which

preachers used in those days to teach their listeners moral lessons. By the end of this particular story, friendly

professional rivalry between the Summoner and the Friar has degenerated into open quarrelling through

stories in which each man has damned his opponent to hell.

15: The Cleric's Tale Summary and Analysis


The jovial Host teases the young Cleric for his quiet, demure behavior, but begs him to tell them a gay story

with no preaching and no rhetoric. This gentler clergyman, in contrast with the two who preceded him, mildly

agrees to relate a tale first written by Francis Petrarch, an Italian poet whom the Cleric revered.

The First Part: The Marquis of Saluzzo was a handsome and admired young squire who was also a bachelor.

His people persuaded him that it was time to marry and even offered to pick his bride for him. He declined the

offer, preferring to select his own wife, but did set a date for the wedding and commanded that all

preparations be made.

15: The Cleric's Tale Summary and Analysis 48The Cleric

The Second Part: Walter of Saluzzo surprised everyone by choosing a peasant girl for his bride. She was

beautiful and virtuous. Walter had noticed her many times as he rode through his domain. The maiden was

named Griselda. She was the daughter of Janicula, the poorest of all the Marquis' farmers.

With utmost courtesy, Walter asks Janicula for the hand of his daughter in marriage. Janicula, totally

awestruck, assents. The Marquis then speaks to Griselda herself, conditioning their union on her agreement to

obey him implicitly and never to grumble about his decisions. The virtuous Griselda agrees to obey Walter in

all things and the two are wed.

The couple appears to be very happy together despite the difference in their stations in life. Griselda soon

bears a lovely baby daughter.

The Third Part: Although Griselda has been unfailingly dutiful and loving, the Marquis decides that he must

test her loyalty. He secretly arranges for his gruff sergeant to take the little baby girl from Griselda, telling the

mother that the Marquis commanded him and behaving as if he intends to kill the child. The sergeant is then

to transport the child to the sister of the Marquis in another kingdom where the infant will be lovingly reared.

15: The Cleric's Tale Summary and Analysis 49Led to believe that only in this way can her husband retain the loyalty of his people, Griselda makes no protest

as her child is removed. Although her heart is broken, Griselda reveals her pain in no way. True to her

agreement, she completely complies with her husband's decision and he is greatly pleased.

The Fourth Part: Seven years after the birth of their daughter, the couple has a baby boy. Again, the Marquis

begins to wonder about the loyalty of his wife. He tests her again in the same manner, requiring her to give up

this second child. Again, Griselda is perfectly obedient and does not betray her grief in the slightest way.

The people begin to speak ill of Walter in earnest, but he persists in doubting his wife. When their daughter is

12, Walter persuades the Pope at Rome to issue a false bull (an edict from the Pope) permitting Walter to put

Griselda aside and take a wife more pleasing to his subjects.

The Marquis then secretly orders his brother-in-law to return the children to Saluzzo, revealing their parentage

to no one. People were to be told that the young daughter was going to be married to the Marquis of Saluzzo.

The Fifth Part: The cruel Marquis then puts Griselda to her next test. He casts her off, back to her

impoverished father, wearing nothing but her shift. Without a word of protest, Griselda goes, again not

revealing her terrible pain.

The Sixth Part: As the false bridal procession approaches Saluzzo, Walter applies the final test. He sends for

Greselda and orders her to prepare the sleeping rooms for his new bride and her escort. This Griselda does

quietly, working harder than anyone else.

When the beautiful 12-year-old girl and her entourage arrive, all the people of Saluzzo are dazzled. They

begin to change their attitude and to appove the Marquis' decision to remarry. Their fickleness in contrast to

Griselda's faithfulness disgusts Walter and he determines to praise Griselda at long last.

Meanwhile, Griselda helps the wedding party to be comfortable in her former home. When the Marquis asks

her about her opinion of his new bride, Griselda compliments her generously. At this, the Marquis takes

Griselda in his arms and kisses her, commending her greatly for her faithfulness to him and swearing his own

undying love for her. He presents their children to Griselda who swoons with joy and amazement. The story

ends happily with the reunited family living in harmony and love all the rest of their days.

The Cleric concludes by assuring the company that he certainly does not encourage this extreme testing of

wives by their husbands. He does intend, however, that all people behave as well as Griselda did when God

tests their faith with adversity.

Chaucer's Envoy: This unidentified speaker hastens to encourage women to speak up; never to allow

themselves to be mistreated as Griselda was. He strongly encourages women to be men's equals and to insist

on being treated well.

The Host says that he wishes his own bullying wife could have heard this story. He adds that he knows that

his wife will never be meek and gentle.

Discussion and Analysis

As might be expected of a scholar, the Cleric uses his prologue to express his devotion to Petrarch, most

famous of the medieval Italian poets and one with whom Chaucer was very familiar. The Cleric is speaking

for Chaucer in his enthusiastic admiration. Many elements of the story of Griselda come from Petrach and

much of it is modelled from a tale in Boccaccio's Decameron.

15: The Cleric's Tale Summary and Analysis 50Chaucer's version of this Italian story, however, combines elements of the romance (joyful ending, noble

characters) with the promise, the magic, and the testing which characterize a folktale. However, the tale is

probably intended to be considered an exemplum with its strong moral lesson and its perfect character,

Griselda. The hearer is to marvel at Griselda's faithfulness but is never expected to imitate it; rather, he is at

all costs to avoid behaving as Walter did in applying cruel and irrational tests to the loyalty of those he loves.

16: The Merchant's Tale Summary and Analysis


Commenting that his wife is absolutely nothing like Griselda, the Merchant reveals that he is very unhappily

married. The Host, who can sympathize, begs the Merchant to tell more. Saying he would prefer not to go on

about his own troubles, the Merchant begins his story.

January is an Italian knight who has remained a bachelor for 60 years. However, he has recently become

convinced that the married state is the happiest and has, therefore, decided that he will take a wife.

January calls in all of his friends and brothers and lectures them all on the bliss of the wedded state. He then

begs them to help him find a young wife because he wants to marry right away. Some advise him against

haste and others against marrying a young woman, but January's mind is made up on both scores.

16: The Merchant's Tale Summary and Analysis 51The Merchant

Over the next several days, January imagines all the town's eligible women and considers their virtues and

attractiveness. His choice finally rests on May, a girl of 20 who is poor, but very beautiful. He is overjoyed

with his decision, but troubled because he has heard that man may be allowed true bliss only once. January is

afraid that the joy he anticipates in marriage will prevent his enjoying eternal bliss in heaven.

The eager bridegroom's brother reminds him of the commentary of the Wife of Bath (it is unknown how she

came to be in this story) and assures him that it is unlikely that he has anything about which to be concerned.

January soon marries May and commences his life of marital bliss. However, all is not well because, the

Merchant tells us, January's handsome young squire, Damian, is so in love with May that he is nearly

overcome with passion. He writes a love poem to the bride, puts it in a silken purse, and wears it next to his

heart until the opportunity presents itself to give it to May.

Within a few days of the wedding, Damian takes to his bed. When May and her ladies visit him, Damian slips

the love letter to May who hides it on her person. After reading and destroying the poem, May decides that

she is in love with the handsome Damian. She declares her fondness and willingness in a secret letter which

16: The Merchant's Tale Summary and Analysis 52she gives him a few days later.

Meanwhile, January is foolishly happy. He has a secret garden to which only he has the key. There he and

May frolic and frequently make love. One day, however, January is suddenly struck blind. From that point on,

he becomes so fearful of losing May that he insists she remain close enough for him to touch at all times.

After a short period of adjustment, January and May resume their lovemaking in the garden.

During the early days of her husband's blindness, May has secretly had a copy of the only garden key made

and has given it to Damian. One day, Damian enters the secret garden before May and January arrive. When

the couple enters the garden, May pretends to want a pear. Assuming them to be totally alone in the garden,

January permits his wife to climb the tree to pick some fruit. Damian is already in the tree so he and May

immediately begin frantic lovemaking there.

At that same moment, the King and Queen of Fairyland are debating about the situation going on under

January's nose. The King resolves to restore January's sight so that he may witness and avenge the adultery.

His Queen, however, assures him that she will give May the words to totally exonerate herself and dupe

January even further.

Instantly, January's sight is restored. He looks up to find Damian and May madly making love in the tree.

Enraged, he screams that he has been betrayed. May glibly tells him that the only way for his sight to be

restored was for her to struggle with a man in a tree. When January says he knows what he saw, and what he

saw was not a struggle but a passionate sexual joining, May contradicts him. She convinces January, who

wants to believe her, that his state of blindness had made his newly restored vision a little out of focus at first.

May climbs down from the tree. January leads her back to the palace where they live happily ever after. What

happens to Damian is not confided. The tale ends.

The Host comments that women are naturally deceptive. He adds that although his wife is faithful, she has

many, many other faults which he will not list because someone in the group would be sure to tell his wife.

That is how women are, the Host confides; they stick together.

Discussion and Analysis

This tale is another example of fabliau with its deceiving, tricking, and making a fool of a foolish man. The

elements of the romance (i.e., the knight, the rituals, the gardens, the palace) are inserted to add humor and

contrast to the tale of an earthy young woman who determines to enjoy her young lover and gets away with it.

As with many of the tales, the material for this story is drawn from many sources: Italian, German, and French

literature, as well as English oral tradition.

The theme of blindness dominates this tale. January is too blind to see his foolishness in marrying such a

young woman. After the marriage, his love and his desire to be happy blind him to May's infidelity. His

physical blindness reinforces the theme.

The Merchant's Tale is also about marriage. It reiterates the message in earlier tales: men are always taken in

and manipulated by their wives, suffering greatly in the process. Not only is this true for January, but for the

Merchant and the Host as well.

17: The Squire's Tale Summary and Analysis

17: The Squire's Tale Summary and Analysis 53Summary

The Host invites the Squire to tell a love story, assuming the youth to be knowledgeable in such matters. The

Squire says he really does not know that much, but he agrees to tell a story.

The First Part: In the land of the Tatars there lived a noble and famous king, called Cambiuskan, who

possessed every conceivable virtue and knightly trait. Cambiuskan and his queen had two sons and a gorgeous

young daughter, Canace.

The story begins in the twentieth year of Cambiuskan's reign. In the early spring, he announces his birthday

feast, as was his custom. As the glorious feast begins, the guests are suddenly amazed to see a knight on a

brass horse, wearing a bare sword, ride into the hall. On his thumb is a marvelous gold ring, and he is holding

a large glass mirror in his hand.

The Squire's Tale

Eloquently, the mysterious knight addresses Cambiuskan, saying that he brings the gifts on behalf of his leige

lord, the King of Arabia and India. He then explains the marvelous gifts. The wonderous horse will ride or

even fly the king anywhere he wants to go. It can even make itself invisible. The sword will cut through

17: The Squire's Tale Summary and Analysis 54armor; no man it wounds will ever be healed unless the king lays the flat of the magical sword upon the

wound he has inflicted.

The ring is for Canace. It will enable her to understand the language of birds and to decipher the uses of all

healing herbs. She will have these powers whenever she wears the ring on her person. The mirror will allow

her to see clearly any treachery in the heart of a man who courts her.

The Second Part: Everyone at the feast marvels at the gifts except Canace, who retires early. Next morning

she rises at dawn and dresses to walk in the lovely spring morning. Wearing the magical ring, she could

understand the songs of the birds.

As Canace strolls along, she hears the pitiful wailing of a female falcon who is bleeding from her self-inflicted

wounds. The tender-hearted Canace understands that the bird is suffering terribly and has the bird tell her


It turns out that the lovely lady falcon has fallen in love with a noble male who has falsely pledged his

undying love for her. They lived together joyfully for a time, but now her mate has deserted her and has fallen

madly in love with a kite. The kite has held the male falcon's love, and the female is absolutely desolate

without him. Grief and anger at her plight have caused her to tear her own flesh.

Canace takes the falcon to her quarters, bandages her wounds, and builds her a lovely cage which she keeps

above the head of her bed. The female falcon begins to heal, but she continues her grieving.

The Squire here leaves Canace and promises to tell about Cambiuskan with his magic horse and enchanted


The Third Part: One sentence fragment . . . and the Squire's story stops. Chaucer never completed it.

The Franklin greatly admires the Squire's obvious education and his eloquence in storytelling. He says he

wishes that he could persuade his own son to take his education more seriously and leave off gambling. He

also wishes the boy were as courteous as the young squire. The Host intrudes to demand that the Franklin tell

his tale.

Discussion and Analysis

The prologue to the tale refers back to the deceitful nature of women and looks ahead to a tale of pure and

ideal love.

Though it is incomplete, The Squire's Tale is obviously going to be a romance. All indications are that it

would have been an intricate one with several plot threads and several important characters.

The interesting device of setting a story within a story is used with the falcon's tale of an unfaithful lover. This

insertion is probably meant either to foreshadow or to contrast with the love story planned for Canace.

Like others of the tales Chaucer invented, this one has roots in both French and English literature, but unlike

any other of Chaucer's stories, The Squire's Tale reveals considerable Oriental influence. This adds an exotic

quality absent in the other tales.

There is little mystery, however, as regards the theme of this narration. It strongly promises to deal with

wonders, constancy in love, and virtuous character. Ideal love will no doubt triumph in the end.

17: The Squire's Tale Summary and Analysis 5518: The Franklin's Tale Summary and Analysis


The Franklin tells the company that the ancient Bretons made up rhymed stories which they set to music. He

says he is uneducated but can tell one of the traditional Breton tales.

In Brittany, a noble knight falls in love with an honorable lady. When she learns of his love, the lady agrees to

take the knight as her husband. The knight is overjoyed. In his enthusiasm, he volunteers never to be jealous

or to try to rule her. His wife need only let it appear as though he is the master in the marriage.

Arveragus and Dorigen marry; but after about a year, Arveragus announces that he must go to London for a

year or two in order to win knightly honor and glory in arms. As soon as her husband leaves, Dorigen

becomes ill with longing for Arveragus. She weeps both night and day and refuses all comfort.

Finally, her friends persuade her that her mood can be improved by walking along the seashore near her

palace. On her walks, Dorigen would sometimes rest on a cliff above the shore and look down at the huge,

horrible black rocks below. At these moments of solitude, she is filled with an irrational fear. She hates the

rocks and sees no reason for their ever having been created.

18: The Franklin's Tale Summary and Analysis 56The Franklin

One day, while enjoying a spring festival, Dorigen encounters Aurelius, a handsome, lust squire who has

loved her secretly for a long time. Because he is her neighbor and a respectable man, Dorigen engages

Aurelius in conversation. Encouraged by her interest in him, the squire grows bold and declares his love for

Dorigen, which he knows to be in vain.

Dorigen responds to his declaration of love by saying that she can never be an unfaithful wife. Then, jokingly,

she adds that she will become his love on the day when he removes all the terrible black rocks from the coast

of Britanny.

Aurelius goes home and begins to plead with the gods for a miracle which will remove all the rocks. Aurelius

then falls unconscious, having become ill from his unrequited love. His brother carries him to bed.

After the two years have passed, Arveragus comes home. He and Dorigen resume their marital happiness.

For the two years following his encounter with Dorigen, Aurelius has lain in a terrible sickness, nursed by his

faithful brother who is filled with concern. When Aurelius regains enough strength to move about, the cleric

18: The Franklin's Tale Summary and Analysis 57brother sees that Aurelius is still vulnerable as the lovesickness is still in his heart.

The brother remembers a book of magic that he had heard of when he was at university. He resolves to find a

colleague from Orleans familiar with the magic so that his brother can be cured.

Aurelius and his brother go off to Orleans where the first person they meet is a young cleric who is also a

magician. They go home with him to a place where there is unbelievable abundance spread before them. The

mysterious cleric shows them marvelous visions, including one in which Aurelius is dancing with Dorigen.

The brothers understand that they are in the presence of a powerful magician.

Aurelius and his brother haggle with the magician over his fee for removing the rocks from Britanny's coast.

After they agree upon a great price, Aurelius's heart is at last calm.

The next day the magician returns with the brothers to their home and begins to work immediately to create

his illusion. After six months of computing and figuring, in the month of December, the magician is able to

make the rocks seem to disappear.

Aurelius rushes to the temple of Venus where he finds Dorigen and tells her of this miracle. He implores her

to keep her word and love him best or he will die. Terribly upset, Dorigen goes home full of sorrow feeling

that she must now choose between death and dishonor. To her, death is preferable. She contemplates suicide.

A few days later, Arveragus returns from a short trip and finds his wife in terrible sadness. When she confides

to him the problem he says, in his great generousity to her and to Aurelius, that she must keep her promise.

As Dorigen is on her way to a garden to keep her promise to Aurelius, she encounters the young knight in the

busiest part of the town. She reveals her destination and tells Aurelius that Arveragus has ordered her to keep

her promise. Amazed at the husband's generousity and deeply compassionate at Dorigen's obvious reluctance,

Aurelius decides he would rather have his passion remain unsatisfied than have Dorigen suffer from his

insistence. He releases her from her promise, citing Arveragus for his unbelievable generosity.

Aurelius returns to his home where he tells the magician that he can only pay him half of the gold that he had

pledged now, but that he will pay the other half no matter if he has to sell everything he has to do so. When

the magician inquires as to the outcome of the affair with Dorigen, Aurelius tells him everything. The

magician responds that he can do no less than Arveragus and Aurelius have done. He forgives Aurelius all of

the debt and rides away.

The Franklin ends his story by asking the listeners to judge which of the three men was the most generous.

Discussion and Analysis

At the end of The Squire's Tale, the Franklin effusively praises the Squire's scholarship and affected language.

He is revealed to be an imitator of the nobility so it is no wonder that he introduces his tale by apologizing for

not having had the education of a noble. His lack of training requires him to speak in plain language. Actually,

the Franklin displays extensive learning in this introduction, citing numerous classical references and

attempting a clumbsy rhetorical pun.

The Franklin tells a tale which he hopes might have been told by a noble, as romances were supposed to be

confined in circulation to the nobility. His romance centers on ideal love, the virtuous woman, and the

capacity of Man to be supremely generous and to behave according to the knightly ideal. Further confirming

his tale as a romance, the Franklin includes noble characters, a classical setting, and elements of magic which

give a hint of the mysterious and otherworldly. The rash promise made without reflection and possibly,

without intent to fulfill, are further features of the romance.

18: The Franklin's Tale Summary and Analysis 58Just as the Franklin relates, one of Chaucer's sources for this story is the Breton lais. He has also borrowed

from the writings of St. Jerome; from Boccaccio's Decameron; and from the French Le Roman de la Rose.

Like most of the tales, The Franklin's Tale concentrates on the relationship between husbands, wives, and

lovers, exposing the vices and virtues of men and women. All of the characters in this particular story are

virtuous, unlike those presented in the fabliaux. There is nothing crass about Aurelius and Dorigen, for

although both of them err, all are shown in the end to be capable of great honor, loyalty, and generousity. The

sanctity of marriage is upheld and respected in The Franklin's Tale.

19: The Physician's Tale Summary and Analysis


This is the only story which is not linked to the others by dialogue among the pilgrims.

Virginius, a noble knight of Old Rome, had the loveliest daughter anyone could imagine. She was Nature's

perfect work; and Virginia's virtue was a thousand times greater than her beauty. She was particularly prudent

with regard to preserving her chastity. To protect her purity, Virginia often pretended to be ill so that she

wouldn't be vulnerable to the wantonness prevelant at dances, feasts, and revels.

One day, when Virginia goes to pray at the temple, a very famous judge called Appius observes the maiden

and immediately determines to ravish her. Conspiring with a fellow called Claudius, Appius persuades the

man to testify falsely that Virginia is really a slave girl, born into Claudius' house and stolen from him in the

night when she was very young. Virginius is summoned to the court to hear the charges but is given no chance

to testify or to call witnesses. The lascivious Appius rules that Virginia is to be immediately returned to

Claudius, her rightful owner.

19: The Physician's Tale Summary and Analysis 59The Physician

The heartbroken Virginius goes to his home immediately and lays the situation before his beloved daughter.

Both are aware of Appius' evil intentions and Virginius tells his daughter that he must kill her rather than

allow her to be dishonored in this way. She asks if there is any other way to save her. Her father replies in the


Requesting a little time to grieve, Virginia faints with shock and sorrow. When she recovers, Virginia declares

her thanks to God that she is permitted to die a virgin. Begging her father to sever her head gently, Virginia

again falls into a swoon. Virginius cuts off the head of his unconscious child and bears it to the judge.

The furious Appius commands that Virginius be hanged, but at that exact moment, 1,000 citizens burst into

the court to save the valiant knight. Appius is then thrown into prison where he commits suicide; Claudius is

exiled; and all the others involved in the conspiracy are hanged.

The Physician concludes by admonishing his listeners that their sins, no matter how jealously guarded, are

known to God; and that God will punish wickedness in every man without regard to rank.

19: The Physician's Tale Summary and Analysis 60Discussion and Analysis

This legend of a girl saved from dishonor when her father kills her is an echo of the preceding tale told by the

Franklin. Although Dorigen was a married woman, she mentions stories like the Physician's, and she herself

contemplates suicide rather than succumb to sexual dishonor. The characters in both these stories are pagans.

The similarities between the two stories is deliberate on Chaucer's part; it is one of the devices he uses to

unify the whole of The Canterbury Tales.

While this story of the pitiable Virginia is intended as an exemplum containing as it does a model of virtue for

the listener to imitate, Virginia's chastity does not benefit her. She dies because of it and no eternal reward is

mentioned. In the story that precedes this one, however, Dorigen's virtue is rewarded with release from her

odious promise. St. Cecelia, in the tale which follows, dies a virgin also, but her reward is eternal life.

Chaucer took the story of Virginius and his daughter from Le Roman de la Rose, making a noticeable change

only in the killing of Virginia. In the original, Virginius beheads the maiden in public, while Chaucer makes

the killing a private matter.

That virtuous women prefer death to sexual dishonor is the obvious theme of this tale. It may also be observed

that the horrible outcome points to the horror which results when justice is corrupted. Virginius represents true

justice while Appius personifies justice corrupted.

20: The Pardoner's Tale Summary and Analysis


The Host finds the Physician's story terribly touching. Teasing the Physician, he begs the Pardoner to cure the

pain caused by the Physician's narrative by telling a gay story immediately. The Pardoner, denied a drink

before launching his tale, punishes the company by making them wait while he thinks of a suitably moral


That greed is the root of all evil, the Pardoner tells the travelers, is always his theme when he preaches. He

boasts openly of his corrupt practices and manipulative methods of getting money out of the gullible. He

brags boldly of how little he cares for humanity. He also states that he enjoys the creature comforts humanity's

guilt and stupidity afford him. The terrible man is also aware that he preaches against what he himself

practices. He launches his story by remarking that his wickedness does not prevent him from telling a moral


Early one day, three very debauched and evil companions are drinking together in a tavern. These young men

have been totally ruined by the sins of gluttony, avarice, and sloth, against which sins the narrator interjects a

short sermon.

20: The Pardoner's Tale Summary and Analysis 61The Pardoner's Tale

The three hear a bell tolling a funeral and a boy tells them that a friend of theirs, killed by a thief called Death,

is about to be buried. The tavern keeper says this fellow, Death, has slain a whole village about a mile from


The three drunks swear an oath to find Death and slay him before nightfall. They head out for the town the

tavern keeper mentioned. Shortly, they meet a very old man who points them to an oak tree where he says

they will meet Death.

Off rushes the besotted trio, but when they reach the oak tree, it is bushels of gold they find there. All thoughts

of Death leave them as they plot to get the money back to their own village. The young men draw straws to

see which of them will go back to the town for food and drink to sustain them during the day while they guard

their treasure.

The youngest of the three draws the short straw; he sets out for the town at once. As soon as he is gone, the

other two conspire to murder him when he returns so that they can keep the wealth all for themselves.

20: The Pardoner's Tale Summary and Analysis 62In the meantime, the youngest one has determined to kill the other two. He buys strong poison in the town and

adds it to the wine he buys for his companions. However, as soon as the youngest gets back with the supplies,

the two companions pounce on him and murder him. They then sit down to drink and make merry, but die

immediately when they drink the poisoned wine.

This story is followed by another sermon against avarice and the beginning of a sales pitch for the relics the

Pardoner carries, but here the Host interrupts. He refuses to go along with any more of what he perceives as

the Pardoner's duplicity and sacrilege and says so very coarsely. The Pardoner becomes infuriated at the

Host's insults and the Knight has to intervene. He insists that the two kiss and make up, which they do.

Discussion and Analysis

The wicked practices of the Pardoner were, unfortunately, widespread in the medieval Catholic Church.

However, the Pardoner is so openly and gleefully and unashamedly wicked that he himself serves a sermon

against these practices. His tale is totally in keeping with his character.

The form of The Pardoner's Tale, an allegory, is one with which medieval audiences would have been

completely familiar. In an allegory, the characters personify abstract qualities; the plot is meant to teach a

moral lesson. In this case, Avarice, Gluttony, and Sloth meet Death at their own hands; in other words, these

vices lead invariably to spiritual death.

This particular allegory had many versions in Eastern and in Western literature and was frequently enacted as

a morality play. Therefore, it is not attributed to any single source. Chaucer's version is the one that has

survived. It has become one of the most widely read and best loved of The Canterbury Tales.

21: The Second Nun's Tale Summary and Analysis


The Nun tells the company that idleness leads to sinfulness while lawful industry is an aid to the avoidance of

sin. The sister then tells the company that she will tell the life of St. Cecelia to give them an example of a

good woman. She says she will tell them the version she has translated from The Legend of Good Women.

The tale is preceded by an Invocation to Mary in which the nun prays to be inspired to tell the story to the

profit of her listeners. The Invocation is followed by a lengthy explanation of the name "Cecelia," which may

be translated "lily of heaven," "the way for the blind," or "lack of blindness." If one stretches a point, it may

be read "way for the people," the point being that St. Cecelia's name implies all for which she is revered.

Cecelia belonged to a noble Roman family who were Christians at a time when the Christian faith was

forbidden. Nevertheless, the devout girl had promised to remain a virgin in observance of her faith. Her

holiness was so sincere that an angel guarded her chastity.

On their wedding night, Cecelia persuaded her husband, Valerian, that he could see her angel if he, too, would

agree to remain chaste. When Valerian agreed, Cecelia sent him to the outlawed Pope Urban who thanked

God for Valerian's newfound faith. The angel of God then appeared and Valerian was instantly converted.

When Valerian returned home he found Cecelia awaiting him with the angel. The angel held crowns of lilies

and roses. Giving them to the young couple, the angel promised that the crowns would never wither as long as

the two remained chaste. He further assured them that the fragrant crowns would be seen only by the good and

pure. As a reward for his faithfulness, Valerian was permitted one wish by the angel. Valerian requests that

his brother, Tiburtius, might be converted.

21: The Second Nun's Tale Summary and Analysis 63When Valerian invited Tiburtius to embrace the true faith and showed him the crowns, Tiburtius, too, wanted

to become a Christian. Cecelia explained to him about the mysteries of the faith and sent Tiburtius to Pope

Urban to be baptized. After baptism, Tiburtius was filled with holiness and joined Cecelia and Valerian in a

holy life.

The three made many converts and performed many miracles. This brought them to the attention of the

Prefect who had them brought before him for interrogation. When they testified to their faith, the Prefect

commanded them to make sacrifice to Jupiter on pain of death, but the Christian young people refused.

Maximus, the guard who had taken them into custody, found the young people's witness so convincing that he

and his household also became Christians that same day. On the morrow, Valerian and Tiburtius were

executed. When Maximus proclaimed that he could see their souls being borne to heaven by bright, shining

angels, the infuriated Prefect whipped him so severely that Maximus, too, died.

Cecelia was next led to make sacrifice to Jupiter; but she, too, refused. All those around her were converted by

her shining holiness. The Prefect then had Cecelia brought into his presence. Infuriated that his power and the

fear of death did not intimidate the girl, the Prefect ordered a terrible death for the maiden.

Guards took her to her own home and locked her in the bath and set a roaring fire so that she would be killed

by the heat. Yet after three days, Cecelia was still alive and unharmed. The Prefect then had a soldier smote

her three times on the neck which left the maiden only half dead. Attended by loving Christian friends,

Cecelia suffered for three more days and then died.

Upon her death, Pope Urban secretly buried Cecelia amongst other Christian martyrs. He consecrated her

house the Church of Saint Cecelia, knowing her already to be in Paradise and beloved of Christ.

Discussion and Analysis

There are no conversational links either before or after The Second Nun's Tale, a possible indication that this

narrative is intended to be taken with complete seriousness. The tale itself is exactly what it appears to be, the

life of a saint. It is taken directly from a former work by Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women. The listeners

are getting the straight "facts" as they are related by an anonymous sister whose reverence for St. Cecelia is

completely appropriate to one of her station.

In this life of St. Cecelia, Chaucer presents the contemporary Christian ideal of womanhood. Chaste, devout,

strong, and intellectual, St. Cecelia is completely indomitable. Through her influence, many are converted and

even more come to Christ through her death. She is womanly but not weak; indeed, she has none of the

shortcomings of any of the other women characters in the tales. There is no question that she is presented to

be imitated.

22: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale Summary and Analysis

New Characters

The Canon: clergyman, generally in charge of a cathedral

The Canon's Yeoman: servant to the Canon


Shortly after the tale of St. Cecelia is finished, two riders, one of whom is dressed like a canon, approach the

party. They have observed the jolly group and have ridden very hard to catch up and join the party. The Host

bids them welcome if the Canon is able to tell a merry tale or two. The Canon's Yeoman replies that the

22: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale Summary and Analysis 64Canon is a very important person and certainly able to contribute to the entertainment. In fact, it is hinted that

he somehow knows a very great deal about a great many things. The Host is impatient with the Yeoman's

mysterious and roundabout way of speaking and tells him to come right out and say whether the man he

serves is indeed a cleric. The Yeoman responds that his master is much greater than any cleric for he can turn

silver into gold.

Harry Bailley does not believe the Yeoman because the two are dressed so shabbily. This comment leads the

Yeoman to air his complaints against his master, the Canon, and to reveal that the man is really an alchemist.

His master tries to shut him up, but the Yeoman will not stop talking. The furious Canon rides off in a huff.

Then the Yeoman promises to tell all, at the same time lamenting his own involvement in this business of

changing base metal into gold and bemoaning his inability to extricate himself from the business.

The Canon's Yeoman's Tale

There once was an alchemist disguised as a canon who was terribly evil. He supported his attempts to change

base metals into gold by duping innocent people out of their money.

On the occasion of this story, the alchemist talks an old and gullible priest into buying copper and quicksilver

22: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale Summary and Analysis 65(mercury) for him and then pretends to turn them into a sheet of sterling silver. The so-called canon pretends

to allow the priest to talk him into selling his magic formula for 40 pounds. The wicked alchemist then takes

off with the money.

Of course, the priest has been tricked. Two times in the fake chemical processes, the quicksilver evaporated

unbeknownst to the priest and the canon replaced it with liquid silver. One time, the trickster goes through the

motions of turning a copper ingot (bar of metal) into silver. He actually has a silver ingot up his sleeve which

he substitutes for the copper when the priest is not looking. In this way, the old clergyman, ignorant of

chemistry, is convinced that the alchemist actually can turn silver into gold and is eager to buy the secret


Finally, the Yeoman explains all the false efforts of his Canon and confides that they are always unsuccessful

in their attempts. The only definite thing they have accomplished is the ruin of the Yeoman's complexion

because his job is always to blow on the fire to make it grow hotter and hotter. The heat and noxious vapors

have ruined his skin. In his heart of hearts, the Yeoman realizes that he and his master can never turn base

metal to gold, yet he and his master both persist in the attempt.

Discussion and Analysis

In this prologue, for the first time in the links between the tales, something besides conversation actually

transpires. New characters come riding in; one stays; the other leaves. The Canon's Yeoman, who remains,

reveals himself and his master to be outlaws of sorts, as well as complete shams. Yet, he is congenial and

anxious to participate in the fun. He tells a biographical tale which appears to be about the Canon.

The Canon's Yeoman's Tale is not a typical medieval story. It seems to be a combination of the learning of the

day about alchemy, preaching against alchemy, and biography/autobiography about the teller and his master.

It is certain that alchemy was widely practiced in England at the time of The Canterbury Tales and that the

church was strongly opposed to this pseudo-science. Ironically, alchemy was practiced almost exclusively by

monks, the only ones with an adequate education in Latin to decipher the ancient texts on the subject.

It should also be noted that the narrator reveals his own complicity in the forbidden practice at the same time

that he condemns it. He is a man torn. This Yeoman is so deeply involved and fascinated by alchemy that he

cannot extricate himself from this secret sin. At the same time, he realizes that alchemy is probably a false and

futile effort and despises himself for his persistent slavery to the slender hope that it might prove real.

23: The Manciple's Tale Summary and Analysis


The Cook had so much to drink that he has fallen asleep in the saddle. The Manciple derides and insults him

for this, whereupon the Cook's drunken agitation causes him to fall off his horse. The Manciple doubles his

insults. He then reconsiders his position, since he and the Cook are apparently professionally associated and

the Cook could retaliate by revealing things the Manciple does not want known. He therefore suggests that

they placate the Cook with more wine. This tactic works, and the Manciple then tells his tale.

When the ancient Phoebus lived on the earth, he was a wonderous man, greatly to be admired. He kept a pet

crow which he taught to speak. This crow was snow white and sang beautifully.

23: The Manciple's Tale Summary and Analysis 66The Manciple's Tale

Phoebus also had a gorgeous wife whom he loved and tried to please, but he did not trust her. There was

something in her personality which warned the young god that his wife might prove unfaithful.

(After giving this background information, the Manciple digresses to remind the listeners that anyone who is

naturally evil, licentious, or untrustworthy will behave that way no matter what is done for him. He tries to

prove with classical examples that a person's nature cannot be changed.)

The wife of Phoebus did have an unfaithful nature; she had a lover whom she entertained frequently. One day

she took the man into her marriage bed while Phoebus was away. However, the white crow saw everything.

When Phoebus returned the crow revealed the entire sordid episode. In his rage, Phoebus murdered his wife.

Phoebus at once regretted his rash action. In his grief, he turned on the crow, cursing him. Phoebus plucked

out all the white feathers and condemned him to be black; he took away the bird's lovely song and his ability

to speak and threw him to the devil. Ever since then, all crows have been black and can utter only a single

ugly sound.

23: The Manciple's Tale Summary and Analysis 67As a conclusion, the Manciple warns the company to keep silence; never to tell all they know lest it come

back to ruin them. No man, he says, has ever been hurt by saying too little, but many have been ruined by

talking too much.

Discussion and Analysis

Unlike the Miller and the Reeve, or the Friar and the Summoner, the Manciple and the Cook do not take their

feud beyond the prologue itself. This segment functions merely as an amusing interlude.

The story of Phoebus, his unfaithful wife, and the transformation of the crow comes from an ancient origin

myth Chaucer must have encountered in the writings of Ovid. As in most myths, the central character is

divine. The origin of the modern crow is explained by the god's actions upon the crow of the myth, changing

him from white to black.

The theme of the story as it originated dealt with the terrible consequences of marital infidelity; but as in so

many of the tales, Chaucer makes a profound change here. As the Manciple concludes, the theme of the tale

becomes the foolishness to revealing all and the wisdom of keeping silent. It is appropriate to convey this

theme from the mouth of the Manciple when one remembers that the Manciple stopped taunting the Cook for

fear of what the Cook could reveal about him.

24: The Parson's Tale Summary and Analysis


The journey of the pilgrims is almost over as this interlude begins. The Parson wants to remind the travelers

that life itself is a spiritual journey, but the Parson says that he declines to bury his message in a fable. He will

speak out exactly what he means. Promising to be brief, the Parson begins his tale.

The Parson openly preaches a sermon on the nature of penitence. First of all he discusses the concept of

contrition. He describes the requirements for confession and details how satisfaction for sin is to be made.

This incredibly long discourse becomes a sort of handbook for the sinner who wishes to obtain God's

forgiveness according to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Discussion and Analysis

The Parson refuses to sink to the level of an entertainer as the Host seems to be demanding in the prologue.

Remaining true to his devout and serious nature, the Parson takes a religious stance, yet promises to tell a

merry story.

Not only does the Parson not tell a story, he preaches a two-hour sermon. The material in The Parson's Tale is

very difficult for the modern reader to relate to; the pilgrims must have had an even more difficult time

understanding. Yet the long sermon is in keeping with the character of the teller whose primary motivation,

we are told, is the salvation of souls.

In constructing this treatise on penitence, Chaucer used the theological writings of prominent and revered

theologians, heavily peppering their ideas with scriptural quotations. This source material sprang up after

1215 AD when confession became a requirement for forgiveness in the Catholic Church. The writings

Chaucer used originated during this period so that the clergy would be thoroughly instructed and could

educate the laity in this important area of practice.

24: The Parson's Tale Summary and Analysis 6825: Chaucer's Retraction Summary and Analysis


Chaucer tells the reader that The Canterbury Tales are meant to give an overview of human nature; to be an

encyclopedia of human behavior. The author does not want to be seen as a judge of his fellow man, but

merely as a recorder of what he has heard and observed. He hopes that even the bawdy tales may be a means

of improving his readers' souls.

Chaucer adds his thanks to God, to the Virgin Mary, and to the saints for their inspiration in the writing of his

more spiritual works. He begs for the grace of true penitence and the blessing of a happy death.

Discussion and Analysis

The nature of the retraction—a sincere statement to the reader—precludes analysis.

25: Chaucer's Retraction Summary and Analysis 69Quizzes

1: General Prologue Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. How many pilgrims are making the journey to Canterbury?

2. Why are all these people going to Canterbury?

3. List the members of the middle class in the group.

4. List the members of the clergy.

5. Which members of the clergy appear to be corrupt or sinful?

6. What plan for the group does the Host propose?

7. How does Chaucer himself fit into the group?

8. By what devices does Chaucer reveal his characters?

9. How many of the tales did Chaucer actually complete?

10. What weaknesses within the Church do the pilgrim clergy represent?


1. There are 30 characters including Chaucer and the Host.

2. They are going to the Shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. They hope to receive special blessings.

3. The middle class group consists of the following: the Merchant; the Man of Law; the Franklin; the

Haberdasher; the Carpenter; the Weaver; the Dyer; the Tapestry-Maker; the Shipman; the Physician; the Wife

of Bath; the Miller; the Manciple; the Reeve; and the Host.

4. The clergy members are as follow: the Prioress; the Monk; the Friar; the Nun; the Priest; the Cleric; the

Parson; the Summoner; and the Pardoner.

5. The Monk; the Pardoner; the Friar; and the Summoner appear corrupt.

6. Each traveler will tell four stories: two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return trip.

7. Chaucer is the anonymous Narrator. He is also one of the pilgrims.

8. Chaucer reveals his characters by direct description, the telling comment, and the tale each traveler tells.

9. There are twenty-three tales, two of which are fragments.

10. The clergy represent corruption, greed, and abuse of power in the Church.

Quizzes 702: The Knight's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. Why is it appropriate that the Knight should tell the first story?

2. Which features of the romance are evident in this tale?

3. How do Arcite and Palamon come to be imprisoned?

4. How is each man released from prison?

5. Why is Arcrite not recognized when he is employed in Emily's household?

6. How is it decided who will marry Emily?

7. What happens to prevent the man who won Emily's hand from marrying her?

8. What characteristics of chivalry are evident in the story?

9. What is the theme of The Knight's Tale?

10. From what sources did Chaucer borrow material for this tale?


1. He is the highest ranking member of the group.

2. The romantic features of this tale are: noble characters;

ideal love; romantic past as setting; and trial by combat.

3. They are discovered, half-dead, on the battlefield at Thebes.

4. Arcite is freed by the intercession of a powerful friend. Palamon drugs the guard and escapes.

5. He has grown so thin and pale that he no longer looks like his former self.

6. The decision is made based on which knight's team wins the tournament staged by Theseus.

7. Arcite is thrown from his horse and mortally injured. He dies soon after.

8. The characteristics of chivalry in this tale include great

attention to honorable behavior and trial by combat.

9. The theme of this tale is ideal love and chivalrous conduct.

10. Chaucer borrowed from: Boccaccio's Teseide, Boethius' The Consolations of Philosophy, and ancient


2: The Knight's Tale Questions and Answers 713: The Miller's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. What are the main sources of humor in this story?

2. What does Chaucer seem to be saying about marriage?

3. What details make the tale seem realistic?

4. What basic human need motivates each of the characters?

5. Why is it appropriate for the Miller to tell this particular story?

6. Describe how The Miller's Tale qualifies as a fabliau.

7. What is the theme of the story?

8. What rivalry is set up before this tale is told?

9. How is the medieval fascination with astrology introduced into the story?

10. What traditional plot is present in The Miller's Tale?


1. The main sources of humor in this story consists of: tricking the carpenter into believing that the flood is

coming; his elaborate preparations; the business with the bare bottoms; and the trickery turned upon Nicholas.

2. Older men should know better than to marry young girls.

3. Some details that make the tale seem realistic are: setting in Oxford and Oseney; business success of the

carpenter; and the poor scholar.

4. Sexual appetite is the motivational human need in this tale.

5. The story is raucous and bawdy and coarse, like the Miller himself.

6. It is funny; it relies on trickery and deception; it deals with the basic sexual appetite; and its characters are

everyday people.

7. The theme may be "youth and age are often at odds."

8. The rivalry between the Miller and the Reeve is set up

before this tale is told.

9. Nicholas is a student of astrology and he uses the carpenter's belief in astrology as part of the hoax to get

the carpenter to prepare for the flood.

10. The lovers' triangle, in this case two men desiring one woman, is the traditional plot line.

3: The Miller's Tale Questions and Answers 724: The Reeve's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. How does the miller, Simkin, parallel the Miller on the pilgrimage?

2. How is Simkin paid back by the clerics for his cheating?

3. What features of human nature are exaggerated in this tale?

4. What elements of the fabliau are present in The Reeve's Tale?

5. How does the Reeve pay the Miller back with this story?

6. What was the reaction of the other pilgrims to the tale told by the Miller?

7. Why was The Miller's Tale so offensive to the Reeve?

8. What qualities does the Reeve say characterize old men?

9. How does the infant in the cradle function in this story?

10. What "advantages" does Simkin's daughter have that make her a desirable bride?


1. The pilgrim Miller is loud and boastful; he is also dishonest. Simkin has the same characteristics.

2. One of them has sex with his wife while the other sleeps with his virgin daughter.

3. Sexual appetite, greed, and cunning are exaggerated in this tale.

4. The fabliau is represented by the following elements: sexual scenario; trickery; common people; and


5. He makes the miller in the story out to be a fool who is completely tricked by two young men.

6. They all find it very funny.

7. The main character in the Miller's story was an aging carpenter who is made out to be a fool. The Reeve

himself is aging and was formerly a carpenter. He takes the story as a personal insult, which is exactly how it

was intended.

8. The Reeve says old men are characterized by boasting, anger, lying, and covetousness.

9. The infant in the cradle is used to confuse Simkin's wife and ultimately confuses one of the young men, as


10. The mother of the girl has a little bit of family background; the girl has a tiny bit of education; the father

of the girl is wealthy; and she is a virgin.

4: The Reeve's Tale Questions and Answers 736: The Man of Law's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

l. What concession does the Sultan of Syria make in order

to obtain the hand of Constance in marriage?

2. How does Constance end up a widow landing on the coast of Britain?

3. How does Constance come to wed King Aella?

4. What type of wife is Constance intended to represent?

5. How does this contrast with the wives in the preceding stories?

6. List the types of narratives that Chaucer drew on to create this tale.

7. What device is employed extensively in the structure of the tale?

8. Describe the underlying theological theme of The Man of Law's Tale.

9. Describe the events that lead Constance from joy to despair to joy and so on.

10. State the moral of this tale.


1. He agrees to become a Christian.

2. The Sultan is murdered by his mother who also casts Constance off in a rudderless ship.

3. She is introduced to him when she is accused of a murder. The witnesses in her favor and divine

intervention convince King Aella of her innocence and virtue. He soon comes to love her and they are wed.

4. The virtuous wife who endures all tribulations and trials.

5. Those women were sexually very lax while Constance is chaste and virtuous.

6. Saints' lives; folktale; romance; myth; tragedy; and biblical text are the types of narratives Chaucer drew on

for this tale.

7. Repetition is employed extensively.

8. Persistence in faith is ultimately rewarded with joy.

9. Constance's life was at first a joy with her parents. She found despair when the Sultan was murdered and

she was set out to sea. She again found joy when she married King Aella and they had a son. She thought that

Aella had rejected her and their son because of the mother-in-law's intervention. She was then set out to sea

once again causing her distress. She was then rescued and reunited with her father and, later, Aella. However,

Aella died a mere year later. She found peace again at the end when she was reunited with her father and her

son Maurice inherited the throne.

6: The Man of Law's Tale Questions and Answers 7410. Virtue is always rewarded or faith will ultimately triumph.

7: The Shipman's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. How does the wife in the story obtain the money she needs for her new dress?

2. How is Don John's loan actually repaid and by whom?

3. Does the merchant learn of the arrangement between his wife and Don John?

4. What elements of the fabliau are obvious in this tale?

5. What does the author seem to be saying about marriage?

6. What rationale does the wife use to convince the husband that she really must be well-dressed?

7. Does the husband, who is a merchant, appear to be miserly or just careful?

8. What makes the monk Don John unattractive as a person?

9. How does the merchant in this story seem to parallel the pilgrim Merchant?

10. Why is this tale suited to the Shipman? (refer to General Prologue)


1. She borrows it from the monk, Don John.

2. The wife spends the night making love to Don John. That is the repayment.

3. The merchant never learns nor suspects the arrangement.

4. Infidelity; the trickery of the husband; and the sexual nature of the tale are the obvious fabliau elements


5. Wives cannot be trusted where other men and finery are involved.

6. She tells him that her attractiveness reflects well on him.

7. He is careful.

8. He is a very conniving and disloyal friend to the merchant. He also betrays his vows as a monk.

9. The Merchant on the pilgrimage is said to be a gambler and risk-taker. The merchant in the tale has risked

all by purchasing more merchandise than he can pay for on the speculation that it will sell well and earn him a


10. The Shipman has travelled all over and is familiar with many foreign ports, such as St. Denis where this

story is set. He is unscrupulous just like the monk who cuckolds the merchant. He wants no moralizing or

preaching so his characters seem to have no consciences.

7: The Shipman's Tale Questions and Answers 758: The Prioress's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. Who is the central character in the story?

2. What is his special mark of devotion to the Virgin Mary?

3. Why do the Jews in the story hate the boy so much?

4. Describe the grim nature of the boy's murder.

5. What miraculous circumstance attends the finding of the murdered boy?

6. How is the abbot able to release the boy's soul?

7. How do the Catholics interpret the child's amazing singing?

8. How does the modern reader account for the treatment of the Jews in this tale?

9. Why is it appropriate that this tale should be told by the Prioress?

10. What happens to the Jews in the tale?


1. The protagonist is a very young schoolboy.

2. He sings a hymn to the Blessed Virgin.

3. He sings his song each day passing through the Jewish ghetto of the town. They are insulted by the nature

of his song.

4. His throat is slit and his body is thrown on a dung heap.

5. When his body is found, the boy is still singing and able to communicate.

6. The Virgin Mary has placed a kernel on the boy's tongue. When

the abbot removes it, the boy's soul is released.

7. The singing represents a miracle.

8. Medieval Catholics despised and mistreated Jews.

9. The Prioress is of an overly sensitive and sentimental nature; the story is very sentimental.

10. The Jews are tortured and killed.

9: The Tale of Sir Thopas Questions and Answers

Study Questions

l. What elements of the romance are found in the story of Sir Thopas?

8: The Prioress's Tale Questions and Answers 762. What leads the reader to understand that the story is a parody?

3. On what ancient form of literature is the Tale of Melibeus based?

4. What causes Harry Bailley to disapprove of The Tale of Sir Thopas?

5. Why does he approve of the Tale of Melibeus?

6. What kind of a wife is Prudence in the story of Melibeus?

7. Explain how The Tale of Sir Thopas is a joke on the Host.

8. In what way does the story of Melibeus complete the joke?

9. What does the Narrator call the divisions in The Tale of Sir Thopas?

10. What is rhyme-doggerel?


l. Romance is represented in this tale by a gallant knight off on a quest and combat for love.

2. Everything is exaggerated, such as the knightly qualities of Sir Thopas. Also, the story is divided into "fits"

instead of sections or parts. The encounter with the giant is ridiculous.

3. The Tale of Melibeus is based upon ancient Greek and

Roman myths.

4. It is in rhyme-doggerel, the base jargon of the streets, and low verse. This is not suited for a courtly tale, in

the Host's opinion.

5. It is sober, serious, and long.

6. Prudence is wise and patient.

7. The main character, the situation and the form are ridiculous and wonderful, but the Host cannot see this.

He is far too literal-minded.

8. It is of terrible quality; long, boring, and trite, but the Host does not see this, either. He judges it excellent.

9. He calls them "fits."

10. A low, base form of poetry with forced rhyme.

10: The Monk's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. What kind of a wife does the Host have?

2. How does the description of Harry Bailley's married state fit in with the theme of many of the tales?

9: The Tale of Sir Thopas Questions and Answers 773. What is the Host's opinion of the clergy?

4. How does the Monk respond to the teasing of the Host?

5. What is the theme of The Monk's Tale?

6. From what sources are the examples drawn?

7. The Monk's Tale is not actually a story. What is it?

8. List three of the 17 notable figures described in this section.

9. Against what is the Monk warning the listeners?

10. Why must the listeners not trust in these things?


1. She is ill-tempered; she is big and strong.

2. Harry's wife is in control; he is very anxious to please her. This situation is repeated often in the tales,

particularly in The Wife of Bath's Tale.

3. The Host sees them as lecherous and dishonest. He also feels that many of the best potential fathers are

joining the Church.

4. The Monk responds patiently; he does not seem upset.

5. The theme of the tale centers on tragedies that have befallen great figures.

6. The Monk uses sources from history, the Bible, and myths as the basis for what he says.

7. It is a long recitation giving examples of the tragedies mentioned.

8. All 17 notable figures are noted in the summary on the previous page.

9. He warns against trusting in fame and fortune.

10. They are fleeting; they will last only a short time.

11: The Nun's Priest's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. In what genre is The Nun's Priest's Tale written?

2. How do the rooster and the hens and the fox reflect the typical format of this genre?

3. How has Chaucer altered the traditional plot of this old tale?

4. What is the obvious moral theme?

10: The Monk's Tale Questions and Answers 785. What is the more subtle theme of the story?

6. What is Chanticleer's great fault?

7. What is the redeeming quality that prevents his destruction?

8. What commentary about the nature of women is inserted in this tale?

9. What brings an end to the long list of tragedies the Monk was recounting?

10. How has the Monk revenged himself on Harry Bailley?


1. It is written as a beast fable.

2. They are animals who have been given human characteristics, situations, and problems.

3. In the models, Chanticleer is totally vain and without wisdom; in Chaucer's version, the rooster is a victim

of love and learns from his mistake.

4. Do not listen to or act upon flattery.

5. Beware the advice of women.

6. He is vain.

7. He learns from his mistake and is not victimized a second time.

8. Women are the source of sin and are not to be trusted as


9. The Knight interrupts and says the audience has had enough and is growing depressed.

10. He has nearly bored the Host to death.

12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. At what age was the Wife of Bath first married?

2. Name two arguments that the Wife uses in her defense of the married state.

3. What is the Wife's "philosophy" of marriage?

4. How has the Wife changed as she has aged?

5. In what way were her fourth and fifth husbands different from the first three?

6. What ongoing argument begins in this prologue?

11: The Nun's Priest's Tale Questions and Answers 797. What type of tale does the Wife tell?

8. For what crime is the young knight being punished?

9. Why is it fitting that this tale should be told by the Wife of Bath?

10. How does the ending of the story reconcile with the Wife's philosophy?


1. The Wife of Bath was 12 when she first married.

2. Her arguments for marriage include: God would not have given humans sexual organs if He did not intend

for them to be used, and many people have too much sexual energy for the celibate state.

3. The wife must control the marriage in all areas.

4. She is less attractive and less energetic.

5. The first three were old and easy to control; the last two were young and tried to control her.

6. The feud between the Friar and the Summoner.

7. A cross between a folktale and a romance.

8. He has ravished (raped) a young maiden.

9. It concerns a young man marrying an old woman.

10. In the end, the young man gives in entirely to his wife and realizes the advantages of marrying an older


13: The Friar's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. What insulting remark about summoners is made by the Friar in his prologue?

2. How does the pilgrim Summoner respond to the insult?

3. In what way might a sinner in the tale have the charges of the summoner dismissed?

4. Who does the stranger he meets say he is?

5. What causes the summoner in the tale to declare eternal brotherhood for the stranger?

6. What is the real identity of the stranger?

7. Why don't the farmer's curses send his animal to hell?

8. Why do the curses of the old woman have the result of sending the summoner to hell?

12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Questions and Answers 809. What is the theme of this story?

10. What genres are combined in the tale?


1. He says everyone knows that no good can be said of any summoner.

2. He says he will pay the Friar back when he tells his own tale.

3. He could give the summoner money.

4. He says he is a bailiff.

5. The similarities in their work and philosophies cause the summoner and the bailiff to declare eternal

brotherhood: they are both greedy and victimize anyone with even the smallest amount of money.

6. He is a demon from hell.

7. The farmer's curses are not sincere; they just reflect his

momentary anger.

8. The old woman's curses are totally sincere.

9. The relationship between avarice and its disciples is very close; it will land the avaricious man in hell very


10. It has qualities of the fabliau and of the exemplum.

14: The Summoner's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. What is the reaction of the Summoner to The Friar's Tale?

2. What happens in the Summoner's joke about the friars?

3. What happened to the prayers that were supposed to be

offered for all who donated to the friars?

4. Why is Thomas so angry with the friar?

5. How does the friar try to calm his benefactor's anger?

6. What new donation does Thomas make by way of response to the friar's sermon?

7. To whom does the friar take his case against Thomas?

8. What distracts the lord of the shire from dealing with the


9. Who finally solves the problem of dividing the "gift"?

13: The Friar's Tale Questions and Answers 8110. What does the lord's failure to punish such an insult against the clergy say about his own attitude toward



1. He is infuriated.

2. A friar visiting hell finds thousands of his fellow monks tucked in the devil's rectum, as close as they can

possibly get to him.

3. All the names of those who donate are erased so the prayers never get offered.

4. Thomas doesn't understand why he has not gotten well with all the prayers he has purchased.

5. The friar preaches a sermon about what happened to men who became angry and vindictive.

6. He gives the friar a fart.

7. The friar goes to the overlord of the district.

8. He becomes distracted by the problem of dividing the fart into equal parts.

9. The young squire of the lord concocts an outlandish


10. Apparently, the lord finds the monks as dishonest as

Thomas did.

15: The Cleric's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. What promise does Griselda make to Walter before accepting his offer of marriage?

2. Name each of the tests Walter applies to test Griselda's loyalty.

3. Does Walter ever relent in his testing of his wife?

4. On which two Italian classics is The Cleric's Tale based?

5. Which two genres are represented in this story?

6. Why does Walter not allow the people to select his wife for him?

7. How does Walter use public opinion to persuade the Pope to grant nullification of his marriage?

8. When she comes to her father's house, who do the people think Walter's daughter is?

9. How is the hearer intended to respond to this tale?

10. What does "Chaucer's Envoy" add?

14: The Summoner's Tale Questions and Answers 82Answers

1. She will be an absolutely obedient wife and never question his decisions or complain about them.

2. First, he takes away their firstborn daughter. Then, he takes away their son. Finally, he casts her off as his

wife, forcing her to prepare the house for his new bride.

3. At the end of the story, when he has taken everything from her, he relents and they live happily after.

4. This tale is based on the writings of Petrarch, and Boccaccio's Decameron.

5. It combines the elements of the romance and the exemplum.

6. He thinks his peasants are not wise enough to choose his bride.

7. He persuades the Pope that his people are turning against Griselda since she is lowborn.

8. They have heard that she is to be his new wife.

9. The hearer is intended to avoid behaving as Walter did while still admiring Griselda.

10. The "Envoy" advises women never to take such abuse from their husbands, but to speak up when they are

treated unfairly.

16: The Merchant's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. Describe the trickery and deception used to dupe January.

2. What is the literary genre of The Merchant's Tale?

3. What elements of the romance are incorporated?

4. What is the theme of this tale?

5. What is this story saying about marriage?

6. What does the Merchant reveal about his own marriage in his prologue?

7. Who sympathizes with him?

8. What is the significance of the names of the husband and wife in this tale?

9. What is the function of the advisors to the old knight?

10. Why is it appropriate that this tale be told by the Merchant?


1. Instances of trickery include Damian and May secretly passing notes; May making a key to the secret

garden; May claiming she is following the orders of the gods; and May convincing January that he did not

really see what he thought he saw when she and her lover are caught.

15: The Cleric's Tale Questions and Answers 832. It is a fabliau.

3. The knight, the rituals, the gardens, and the palace are all elements of the romance.

4. Men are easily manipulated and made fools of by their wives.

5. Old men should not marry extremely young women.

6. He is very unhappily married.

7. The Host sympathizes with him.

8. January represents winter, the last of the cycles of life while May symbolizes spring when everything is

new and lovely. These names refer to the ages of the characters.

9. They serve to demonstrate that January will not listen to any advice in this matter but is determined to do

things his own way.

10. The Merchant is older and has possibly been the victim of a younger, unfaithful wife.

17: The Squire's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. What element is inserted in The Squire's Tale that is not present in any of the others?

2. What is the probable theme of this tale?

3. What elements of the romance are present in this fragment?

4. What type of tale is the falcon's story intended to imitate?

5. What gifts does the mysterious knight bring Cambiuskan?

6. Describe the magical properties of each of the gifts.

7. Who has sent the strange knight?

8. What event is being celebrated when the bearer of gifts enters?

9. Why does the Host invite the Squire to tell a love story?

10. What is the Franklin's opinion of the Squire?


1. This tale has Oriental or exotic qualities.

2. Ideal love prevails.

3. Noble characters, ideal womanhood, and elements of magic and the supernatural are romantic elements of

this fragment.

16: The Merchant's Tale Questions and Answers 844. The falcon's story imitates a beast fable.

5. The mysterious knight brings Cambiuskan a brass horse,

a sword, a ring, and a mirror.

6. The horse can take the King anywhere and it can fly. The ring enables its wearer to understand the language

of birds. The sword can cut through armor and wounds inflicted with this sword can be healed only with the

touch of this sword. The mirror enables Canace to know the heart of any man who courts her.

7. The King of Arabia and India has sent the knight.

8. Cambiuskan's birthday is the celebrated event.

9. In the General Prologue, the Squire is described as a young lover. As such, he should be able to tell an apt

love story.

10. The Franklin admires the Squire's learning and language greatly.

18: The Franklin's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. What quality of the nobility does the Franklin admire most and try to imitate in his tale?

2. What is the rash promise made by Dorigen which is the source of all the trouble in The Franklin's Tale?

3. In what literary genre is this story written?

4. What is the theme of this tale?

5. From what sources did Chaucer borrow in creating The Franklin's Tale?

6. What is the effect on Aurelius when Dorigen rebuffs him?

7. Who stands by Aurelius during all of his trials?

8. How is the impossible feat of removing the rocks finally accomplished?

9. When he cannot pay his debt, what does Aurelius promise to do?

10. What does the magician do in response?


1. Education is what the Franklin admires and imitates.

2. She promises to love Aurelius if he can remove the frightening stones.

3. Romance is this tale's genre.

4. The nature of marriage and the faithfulness of the good wife are two of its themes.

17: The Squire's Tale Questions and Answers 855. The story is based on a Breton lais; but Chaucer has also borrowed from the writings of St. Jerome;

Boccaccio's Decameron; and Le Roman de la Rose.

6. He falls desperately ill for two years.

7. His brother takes care of Aurelius.

8. The brothers hire a magician who performs the illusion.

9. He says he will pay the balance even if he has to sell everything he owns.

10. He cancels Aurelius' debt.

19: The Physician's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

l. What characteristic of an exemplum is found in The Physician's Tale?

2. How are The Franklin's Tale, The Physician's Tale, and The Second Nun's Tale alike?

3. In what way are they different?

4. What is the theme of The Physician's Tale?

5. In what way does Virginius represent true justice and how does Appius represent justice corrupted?

6. How does Virginia, though pagan, fit into the medieval

Christian concept of virtuous womanhood?

7. How did Chaucer change his tale from the original?

8. On what source is The Physician's Tale based?

9. What trumped up charges put Virginia under the control

of the evil judge?

10. How is Virginius saved from Appius' outrage when Virginius defies the wicked order to turn his daughter

over to the court?


1. It contains a model of virtue in Virginia; she is perfectly pure and perfectly obedient.

2. All of them contain examples of virtuous women.

3. Virginia receives no reward for her purity; Dorigen receives an earthly reward; and St. Cecelia is granted an


reward for her chastity.

4. A virtuous woman will prefer death to dishonor.

18: The Franklin's Tale Questions and Answers 865. Virginius has motives which are completely pure and honorable, while Appius is motivated by his lustful


6. She accepts death rather than sexual soiling.

7. In the original tale, Virginius kills his daughter in public.

In Chaucer's tale, it is a private act.

8. It is based on the French work Le Roman de la Rose.

9. She is accused of being a runaway slave girl belonging to the judge's co-conspirator.

10. A large group of citizens rushes into the court to save Virginius and punish Appius.

20: The Pardoner's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. What is an allegory?

2. What abstract qualities are portrayed by the evil young men in the story?

3. What is the theme of this tale?

4. What is the moral lesson of this tale?

5. What characteristics does the Pardoner reveal in his prologue?

6. How does this story fit the character of the Pardoner?

7. Why would medieval audiences have been familiar with The Pardoner's Tale?

8. How does the youngest reveler plan to kill the other two?

9. Does he kill them?

10. How does the youngest die?


1. An allegory is a tale in which the characters personify abstract qualities, usually to teach a moral lesson.

2. They represent Avarice, Gluttony, and Sloth.

3. The theme of the tale is the inevitable outcome of wickedness.

4. The moral lesson is that avarice, gluttony, and sloth lead to spiritual death.

5. He himself is totally motivated by greed and seems to have no virtue at all.

6. The young men represent all the Pardoner's own faults.

19: The Physician's Tale Questions and Answers 877. It was famous in both Eastern and Western literature and was often acted out as a morality play.

8. He poisons the wine that he buys for them to drink.

9. Yes; they drink the wine and die.

10. The other two young men kill the youngest as soon as he returns from town.

21: The Second Nun's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. The Second Nun's Story is the only example of what type

of story?

2. How does Cecelia maintain her virginity in marriage?

3. Why is it appropriate that this story be told by the Nun?

4. Where did the Nun learn the story of St. Cecelia?

5. Why is this slightly ironic?

6. When do angels appear in this story?

7. What may account for the absence of conversational links before and after The Second Nun's Tale?

8. For what specific refusal is Cecelia condemned to death?

9. Why doesn't the raging fire burn the young wife?

10. From what cause does St. Cecelia finally die?


1. It is an example of a saint's legend.

2. She converts her husband and obtains his promise that they will both remain virgins and never consummate

the marriage.

3. She is a woman who has taken a vow of perpetual virginity; it is

suitable that she should honor St. Cecelia.

4. The Legend of Good Women (by Geoffrey Chaucer) is her source.

5. It is ironic because Chaucer, unknown to anyone, is among the pilgrims.

6. Angels appear in this tale after Valerian has converted (angels present crowns of flowers to him and to

Cecelia) and when the souls of Valerian and Tiburtius are being borne to heaven after they are martyred.

7. This story is sincerely religious and is to be taken with complete seriousness; therefore, Chaucer omitted

the humorous links.

20: The Pardoner's Tale Questions and Answers 888. She will not sacrifice to Jupiter.

9. Cecelia was protected by either divine intervention or a miracle.

10. A soldier sent by Maximus smites her three times with a sword; she dies three days later from her wounds.

22: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. In what way is the prologue to this tale different from others in The Canterbury Tales?

2. What is alchemy?

3. By whom was alchemy practiced and why was its practice confined to this group?

4. Why is The Canon's Yeoman's Tale different from the other tales?

5. About what does the Canon's Yeoman seem to be in conflict?

6. What angers the pilgrim Canon? What does he do because of his anger?

7. Describe the two tricks the alchemist employs to dupe the priest in the tale.

8. What is always the outcome of alchemy?

9. According to the Canon's Yeoman, what keeps people

involved in the practice of alchemy?

10. What physical disfigurement have the experiments caused the Canon's Yeoman?


1. It contains action; the Canon and his Yeoman ride up to join the travelers.

2. The attempt to transmute (transform) base metals into gold.

3. Usually by the clergy; they were the only ones educated, thus the only ones who could read the ancient

writings on the subject.

4. It has no known literary genre; it seems to be autobiographical/biographical.

5. He is fascinated by alchemy at the same time he recognizes its probable futility.

6. When his Yeoman begins to divulge the secret nature of their business, the Canon becomes furious and

rides away.

7. One time he substitutes a gold ingot he had hidden in his sleeve for the silver; the other trick involves

replacing evaporated quicksilver with liquid silver.

8. Alchemy always fails.

21: The Second Nun's Tale Questions and Answers 899. They keep hoping that the next time they will be successful.

10. His face is scarred and is a terrible color from having to blow on the fire constantly.

23: The Manciple's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. Another rivalry among the characters is revealed in the prologue to The Manciple's Tale. Between whom is

this new rivalry and what is its basis?

2. Into what genre does The Manciple's Tale fall?

3. What is the theme of this tale?

4. Why is it appropriate for the Manciple to tell this particular tale?

5. How is the Cook calmed and persuaded not to argue further with the Manciple?

6. What did Phoebus' crow look like before he was cursed?

7. How was his appearance changed after he was cursed?

8. What specifically did the bird do which so angered Phoebus?

9. How does the behavior of Phoebus' wife relate her to other women in the Tales?

10. What is the Manciple's private commentary about human nature midway through the tale?


1. The newly introduced rivalry is between the Cook and the Manciple.

2. It is based in myth.

3. The foolishness of revealing all and the wisdom of keeping silent.

4. The Manciple's own wife has made him very unhappy.

5. He is given more wine.

6. He was a beautiful white bird who could talk and sing.

7. He is black. He can no longer talk or sing; he can only "caw."

8. He told Phoebus of the affair Phoebus' wife was having

with another man.

9. There are several unfaithful wives in the various tales.

10. He says that it is nearly impossible to change human nature.

22: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale Questions and Answers 9024: The Parson's Tale Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. How is the long sermon of the Parson appropriate to his character?

2. What is the theme of The Parson's Tale?

3. What are the sources Chaucer used in constructing this tale?

4. What kind of story were the Host and the pilgrims expecting from the Parson?

5. What comparison does the Parson make in his prologue?

6. Why does the Parson refuse to tell a fable?

7. In what genre is this tale written?

8. What requirement necessitated the clergy to instruct the laity about penitence?

9. What kind of handbook might The Parson's Tale comprise?

10. At what stage of the journey is The Parson's Tale presented?


1. He is a very sincere man who cares only about saving souls.

2. The nature of penitence is the theme of this tale.

3. Chaucer used clerical writings on this subject and scriptural quotations as sources.

4. They were expecting a merry tale.

5. Life is like a journey (or, in this case, a pilgrimage).

6. He says he will not hide his message in a lowly fable.

7. It is a sermon.

8. The Church began to require confession, the oral telling of sins to a priest.

9. A handbook for the sinner who wishes to obtain forgiveness.

10. They have almost completed the journey.

24: The Parson's Tale Questions and Answers 91Themes


When The Canterbury Tales were written Christianity was the dominant social force throughout western

Europe, including England. Its influence stretched across the social spectrum from nobles to poor beggars. In

1388, while Chaucer was working on the tales, a change occurred in the way that Christianity was perceived

and practiced when John Wycliffe, an English reformer, released a version of the Bible translated into

English. For the first time, people from the lower classes, who had not been educated in Latin, could read the

Bible themselves instead of having its word interpreted to them by members of the clergy.

The influence of Christianity can be seen in The Canterbury Tales by the variety of social types presented.

Fourteenth century Christian society had room for different ways of incorporating faith into lifestyle. The

Knight, for instance, espouses romantic love and brotherliness, and the Franklin tells a tale that ends with

mercy and forgiveness for all. The Prioress, on the other hand, tells a story that propagates hatred toward

non-Christians, making them out to be evil and relishing their punishment. The Wife of Bath proves to be

very familiar with Biblical Scripture, finding her own sexuality to be acceptable, if not ideal, by Biblical

standards. The Pardoner is the most cynical Christian, condemning the very behaviors that he indulges in and

trying to sell salvation by way of the counterfeit icons and the signed certificates from the pope he carries with

him. It was in fact the sort of fraud perpetuated by people like the Pardoner, as well as actions by angry

reformers like Wycliffe to make religion accessible to the common people, that eventually led to the

Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that weakened the Catholic Church’s powerful hold over

Western thought.


Many of the stories in this book deal with deception—the potential to mislead people with words and the

consequences that result. In some cases, decent people are compelled to employ deception, such as when

Arcite from “The Knight’s Tale” disguises himself to enter the court of Emily, whom he loves, or when

Aurelius from “The Franklin’s Tale” is driven by love to trick Dorigene so that she will leave her husband

for him. Other characters are deceptive for purely greedy reasons, such as the fox who charms Chaunticleer

twice (once successfully, once not) in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” and the three thieves who plot to kill each

other to increase their share of the found gold in “The Pardoner’s Tale.” Still, other characters in the tales

deceive people for the noble cause of teaching them a lesson about how to behave. For instance, the “old

woman” in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” only pretends to be old and ugly until the knight in that story proves

that he has thought about how women should be treated and that he has learned to respect more than

superficial beauty.


There is excitement in the air as this band of pilgrims travels toward the religious shrine at Canterbury, where

they all hope to gain God’s grace. Their trip begins in April, and the very first lines of the book emphasize

the significance of that time of year: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote / The droghte of Marche hath

perced to the rote.” In other words, the poem begins by evoking the process of rainwater reaching dormant

roots, revitalizing them. It is the period of revitalization that happens over and over in the earth’s cycle each

spring. It is a time of renewal, of life, of the glories of nature shaking off the mundane. It is a time of

beginnings and a time of hope.

In addition to this beginning of the General Prologue, there are several additional places where the time of

year is mentioned, referring back to springtime in several of the tales. In “The Franklin’s Tale,” the young

wife who misses her husband while he is away is approached by a handsome, muscular, wealthy stranger

while she is at a dance on the sixth of May, adding even more temptation to that presented by his charms.

Spring is the time of fertility for plants, which has evolved over time to it being associated with romantic love.

Themes 92The text is also very specific in stating that it was the third of May when Chaunticleer forgot his foreboding

dream and allowed himself to be tricked by the fox who asked him to sing. The implication is that the beauty

of the season may have pushed the premonition of death from Chaunticleer’s mind, driving his concentration

toward more uplifting things (such as the sound of his own singing) and away from life’s more frightening



The characters in the tales told by the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury show more concern about their

social reputations than the pilgrims themselves show. In part, this is due to the instructive nature of tales in

general: many of these tales are told to teach a “moral” to their listeners, and so they often include advice

about personal behavior, with an emphasis on observable behaviors. The most obvious example of one of

these pilgrims preaching the need for a good reputation is the Pardoner, who claims that he cannot start his

story until he has taken a drink and then immediately starts by warning his listeners against drinking with

several stories from the Bible to illustrate his point that “The Holy Writ take I to my witness / That luxurie

(lechery) is in wyn and drunkenness.” The Knight, on the other hand, seems to live by the same code of

nobility that the knights in his story live by, while the Nun’s Priest, a meek man who almost escapes notice,

tells the story of the danger that pride and bragging bring to the rooster Chaunticleer. Perhaps the most

powerful story about keeping a good reputation is the Franklin’s. In it, Dorigene is so torn by the prospect of

having to cheat on her husband to stay true to her promise that she considers suicide as a way of avoiding

either prospect, while her husband, who is just as concerned about her reputation, would rather have her sleep

with another man than break her word. The story rewards them both by having Aurelius forgive the wife her

promise because he is so moved by the honor they both show, and it rewards Aurelius by having the magician

forgive his huge debt because he has shown himself noble enough to recognize the nobility of the couple.

Themes 93Style

Heroic Couplets

The poetic meter, or rhythm, used throughout The Canterbury Tales is iambic pentameter. This means that

each line is based on pairs of syllables, proceeding from one that would be unstressed in normal speech to one

that is stressed. This pattern is called the iamb, and a poetic structure based on it is called iambic. When the

English language is spoken, this pattern occurs naturally, so the rhythm of an iambic poem is hardly

noticeable when read aloud. Because the lines generally have five iambs each, for a total of ten syllables per

line, the rhythm is described as iambic pentameter—“penta” is the Greek word for “five.”

Throughout The Canterbury Tales, lines are paired off into rhyming couplets, which means that each pair of

lines has similar-sounding words that rhyme at the end. A poem that is written in iambic pentameter and has

rhyming couplets is said to be written using heroic couplets. This structure drives the poem along, page after

page, giving it a sense of order that it would lack if it were written without any structure but using a natural

rhythm that readers do not have to focus on. Because the language of Chaucer’s time is not familiar to

modern ears, students, stopping frequently to look up pronunciations and spellings, often have trouble

recognizing the ease of the rhythm unless the poem is read aloud by a reader experienced with Middle



One of Chaucer’s greatest achievements with this poem is his ability to alter his style for the different

speakers. The meter (rhythmic scheme) stays consistent throughout, but he is able to give distinctive

personalities to each of the speaking characters by giving them different vocabularies and having them

express themselves with different images. “The Knight’s Tale,” for example, is told with a more gentle and

mannerly voice than, say, the Wife of Bath’s or the Pardoner’s. This can be seen when the Knight notices he

has strayed from an important subject, at the start of the third section of his tale, and he chastises himself,

saying, with formal diction, “I trowe men wolde deme it neglicence / If I foryete to tellen the dispence / Of

Theseus.” The Wife of Bath, by contrast, is so self-centered that she becomes caught up in talking about

herself and nearly forgets to tell a tale. Her lack of refinement can be seen in her language, from the use of

shorter words to the fact that she tells her tale in the present tense. A common example of her language comes

from line 1022 of her tale: “When they be comen to court, this knight / seyde he had holde his day, as he

hadde hight, / And redy was his answere, as he sayde.” Each character speaks in a distinctive style that is

appropriate to his or her social situation and, more importantly, to his or her specific personality.

Style 94Historical Context

The Black Plague

During Chaucer’s lifetime, the Black Plague swept across Europe, causing hundreds of thousands of people

to die in a gruesome way and changing the way that common citizens looked at mortality. The plague

originated in the north of India during the 1330s and spread quickly, affecting much of Asia by the mid-1340s.

Its spread to Europe was no accident. Mongol-Tartar armies, in an attempt to discourage Italian trade caravans

from crossing their territory on their way to and from China catapulted bodies of infected victims over the

walls of their fortresses at the Italians, who subsequently brought the disease back to their country. While

carrying on their trade, they infected other travelers, who carried the disease to the most crowded cities on the

continent. The plague struck Spain and France in 1348 and reached England the following year. By the time

that The Canterbury Tales was published in 1400, a third of the people of Europe had died of the Black

Plague. During the last half of the fourteenth century, though, scientific inquiry about the plague led to the

discovery that it was spread by fleas that had picked up the virus from rats. Chaucer’s pilgrims may seem lax

in their hygienic practices: for instance, the specific point of the Nun being noteworthy for not getting grease

into the wine cup when she drank from it and passed it on, or the characters who share beds with strangers.

Still, their practices reflect a heightened sense of the ways in which lethal diseases can spread, and their

physical interactions with each other are more cautious than they would have been a generation earlier. The

characters in The Canterbury Tales, such as the Pardoner, who mentions a death by plague in his poem, reflect

an enlightened and cautious generation that is familiar with sudden illness and death and that hopes for a

better life.

The Hundred Years’ War

When Chaucer wrote this work, and throughout his entire lifetime, England was at war with France. The two

countries had suffered strained relations for a long time before 1328, when war broke out between them

following the death of France’s king, Charles IV. Charles’s daughter was rejected as a ruler, and so Edward

II, the king of England, thought that he should be named king of France as well, for Edward’s mother was

Isabella, the sister of Charles IV. The French people did not want their country subservient to England in any

way, and so they chose Philip Valois to rule as Philip VI. Edward, feeling that his claim on the French throne

was stronger, led an invasion with 30,000 men. He was spectacularly successful, but the French had strong

defenses around and within their major cities, and they were dug in to defend themselves in a series of battles

fought during the ensuing century.

Of Edward’s sons, one, also named Edward but called the Black Prince, led the British forces to victory in

several battles, taking most of the south of France for the throne of England. The Black Prince died in 1376,

after turning over his French holdings to John of Gaunt, another of Edward’s sons. Geoffrey Chaucer was a

squire in the household of John of Gaunt and was married to the sister of his wife. He served with John on

several campaigns during the Hundred Years’ War. In Edward III’s last years, when he was too ill to oversee

his government, John ruled England; he gave up his power when Richard II was named as successor in 1377.

After that, John worked to bring peace between the English and the French, with Chaucer as a trusted aid.

Despite the military superiority of the English, the French resisted, fighting until 1453 and eventually taking

back almost all of their land. The result of the war was to clarify France’s identity as a separate social and

political entity (one of the heroes of the Hundred Years’ War was Joan of Arc who remains today an

important symbol of the French spirit) and to establish international relations between the countries of Europe.

The Renaissance

The word renaissance comes from the Old French word for rebirth and is commonly used to refer to the

period of time, starting in 1350 and lasting into the seventeenth century, when a sudden, powerful thirst for

knowledge swept through the western world’s cultural institutions, signifying the start of modern thought.

Historical Context 95Renaissance art was derived from the art and ideas of ancient Greece and Rome, which had been ignored

since the fall of Rome after the overthrow of Romulus Augustulus in 476 A.D. From 476 to 1350, generally

identified as the Middle Ages there was little scientific inquiry and development of the arts. Renaissance

thinkers considered this middle period to be the Dark Ages, during which all prior discoveries had been lost,

and they set the enormous task of reinventing human knowledge.

Several cultural elements came together in the fourteenth century to bring about the Renaissance. For several

hundred years, Christians from Europe had invaded the Middle East in an attempt to chase the Muslims out of

the Holy Land. One result of these Crusades was that much of the presumably lost knowledge of the Roman

Empire was found to survive in Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. With a renewed sense

of history, scholars and artists basked in relative financial security, with wealthy nobles giving them financial

support while they worked on intellectual pursuits. Such relationships worked to mutual advantage, as the

patrons were often glorified in art, architecture, and music. Starting in Northern Italy, concentrated efforts

were made to assemble the scattered records of past civilizations, piecing together knowledge and artistic

theory from fragments of old Roman and Latin texts found in private libraries and abbeys. Because of this

interest in knowledge for its own sake, the Renaissance figure came to be a person who was skilled in many

different subjects. Leonardo da Vinci for example, is known equally for his paintings of the Last Supper and

Mona Lisa as for designing flying machines four hundred years before the Wright Brothers. Michelangelo’s

fame would have survived for his skilled architecture alone, even if he had not also painted the Sistine Chapel

or carved his statue of David. Chaucer was a Renaissance Man of this sense, proficient in court politics as

well as in writing.

Historical Context 96Critical Overview

In an age when authors announce with pride when their book has continuously been in print for twenty years,

there cannot be enough said about the significance of The Canterbury Tales, which has been with us for six

centuries. It is the first poem written in the English language and is therefore given much credit for actually

inventing modern English, recording words and phrases that were commonly spoken but had never been put

on paper before. As the first English poet, Chaucer is considered the model and inspiration for the grand

history of English poetry that followed him. Because it uses the overall narrative structure of the pilgrimage to

hold all of the individual tales together, The Canterbury Tales is also considered to be the first English novel,

with sharply defined characters that remain consistent throughout.

Over time, thousands of essays have been written about Chaucer, but, as Thomas C. Stillinger points out in his

introduction to a recent collection of Critical Essays on Geoffrey Chaucer most recent criticism can be broken

down into two categories: “he is an ancient writer, his texts silent monuments of a lost world; and, at the same

time, he is a living poetic voice.” One of the principle reasons that Chaucer is still studied so actively today is

that critics can find such a wide range of things to say about him. Lee Patterson, in a brief review of the

criticism written in the twentieth century about The Canterbury Tales, cited a 1906 essay by Robert Root as

saying that “we turn to [Chaucer] . . . for refreshment, that our eyes and ears may be opened anew to the

varied interest and beauty of the world around us.” Patterson also includes the thoughts of other important


some fifty years after Root’s book, one of the greatest of the next generation of Chaucerians,

E. Talbot Donaldson, described Chaucer as possessed of “a mind almost godlike in the

breadth and humanity of its ironic vision.”

Patterson also shares Derek Pearsall’s introduction to his excellent Chaucer study by insisting that “The

Canterbury Tales neither press for [n]or permit a systematic kind of ideological interpretation.” In short,

critics continue to find issues of both human behavior and historical significance in this complex work.

In some cases, such universal approval can dull critics’ understanding of an author, as the British novelist and

essayist G. K. Chesterton pointed out in his 1932 essay “The Greatness of Chaucer.” Chesterton felt that

critics tended not to take Chaucer seriously:

there has been a perceptible, in greater or less degree, an indescribable disposition to

patronize Chaucer. Sometimes he is patted on the head like a child because all our other poets

are his children. Sometimes he is treated as the Oldest Inhabitant, partially demented and

practically dead, because he was alive before anybody else in Europe to certain revolutions of

the European mind. Sometimes, he is treated as entirely dead; a bag of dry bones to be

dissected by antiquarians, interested only in matters of detail.

Chesterton’s observation about the danger of patronizing critics is even more relevant today, in a world that is

moving forward so quickly that there is hardly time to give the past its due consideration; still, The

Canterbury Tales, which was there at the beginning of the English language, is likely to be there until the end.

Critical Overview 97Essays and Criticism

The Canterbury Tales: A Critical Analysis

In the following essay, Roger Moore discusses the extraordinary diversity of The Canterbury Tales, arguing

that although many critics think the text should be approached as a collection of distinct pieces, there are

certain unifying components.

Comprised of two dozen stories along with various prologues and epilogues, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

displays extraordinary diversity in genre, source materials, and themes. Although some critics have argued

that the resultant text should be approached as a collection of distinct pieces, most would agree that there are

unifying components and that these include certain thematic strands. At the very least, the specific tales told

by the pilgrims as they wend their way to Canterbury generally reflect their respective positions within

medieval society as well as their personal characteristics. The Knight's Tale, for example, is a high-toned

chivalric romance appropriate to his station as a member of the nobility and to his character as a man of "troth

and honor, freedom and courtesy" (I, A, l.46). As or more important, Chaucer employs the device of a

narrative framework, the story of twenty-nine individuals committed to both a religious pilgrimage and to

participation in a story-telling contest. Reinforced by exchanges between the contestants, shared motifs appear

in their respective narrations. Of these running themes, relations between men and women (and, more

specifically, the topic of marriage) is the most prominent topic, but additional motifs, such as financial

duplicity, unite groups of characters and run through several of their tales.

In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, the poet establishes a shared motivation for the pilgrims as

a natural urge for spiritual renewal. He remarks that in England (as in all of European Christendom), when the

"sweet showers of April fall . . . people long to go on pilgrimmages" (I, A, ll.1,12). Ostensibly, Chaucer's

pilgrims are united by a religious objective, to visit and worship at the shrine of the saint Thomas Beckett in

Canterbury. Yet at the same time, the interaction among the pilgrims is animated by the far less serious

impulse of playful social intercourse. At the suggestion of the innkeeper Harry Bailey, a story-telling contest

is organized among the convivial assembly of wayfarers who stop at his tavern. The essential spirit behind

The Canterbury Tales is social and playful. The pilgrims generally interact with each other in a light-hearted

way as befits a group of people on a holiday or vacation excursion. Drawn from diverse vocations, each

pilgrim has the opportunity to rub shoulders with those who are normally outside their particular sphere and

rank. Under these circumstances, they are encouraged to talk freely about their own experiences and they

assume considerable license in their choice of stories and the manner in which they are told. Parody

flourishes, and Chaucer even introduces an element of self-parody by including a character named "Geffrey"

("Geoffrey the Pilgrim"). He turns out to be both a weak storyteller and an extremely poor judge of character,

referring to the Shipman (who is basically a pirate) as "a good fellow" (I, A, l.395).

By contemporaneous standards, the group that gathers at Tabbard's Inn is a motley crew, a full cross-section

of the fourteenth-century English middle-class, ranging in rank from the Knight to the Plowman while

excluding members of the higher nobility and the lower rungs of the peasantry. People in Chaucer's England

were keenly aware of vocation and rank, and viewed them as necessary to social order. They divided their

fellows into three broad groups—those who fight, those who pray and those who labor—each of which is

represented in Chaucer's cast. Among and within each group, moreover, vertical hierarchies discriminated

between those of high and low estate. Individuals were expected to adhere to established roles and standards

as expressed in both external behavior and their attitudes and values.

It is in this context that the outward attire of the characters as depicted in the General Prologue takes on

significance as an emblematic theme. The clothes that each character wears are indicative of his conformity

Essays and Criticism 98(or non-conformity) to the late medieval code that each person should dress according to his or her particular

station in life. The Knight in his well-worn male, the Clerk of Oxford in his threadbare scholars robes, and the

Parson in his simple vestments all display an adherence to regnant social mores. On the other hand, the

Prioress and the Monk, who would be expected to wear the plain, conservative garb of their clerical

professions adorn themselves with attractive cloaks and fur-trimmed robes, suggesting a certain

non-conformity to official standards. Moreover, one of the most prominent figures among the pilgrims, Wife

of Bath, has donned a bright, gaudy costume including red stockings that is clearly inappropriate to her

aggrieved status as a recent widow. The attitudes and the stories that these non-conformists exhibit

characteristically disclose departures from prevailing social/moral codes.

After the General Prologue, by lot (and, incidentally by rank) the Knight becomes the first pilgrim to tell a

story, and his tale is entirely in keeping with his station in society. The Knight's Tale is a chivalric romance

set in ancient Thebes, a story of rivalry in courtly love in which the courageous youth Arcite wins the right to

love the fair and chaste Emelye only to find that he is doomed to the grave. The story is replete with chance

happenings determined by the will of the goddess Fortuna, or Fate. The Knight acknowledges the

improbabilities that propel his tale's plot, citing "Destiny, minister-general / That executes all over the world /

the foreknowledge that God has seen before" (A, I, ll.1663-1665). As it turns out, Fortune or Fate has a hand

in several of the Canterbury pilgrims' tales.

Although the sequence in which the individual pilgrims are to present their tales has been determined in

advance, once the Knight has concluded his offering, the coarse, drunken Miller insists upon being next

speaker. He responds with a broad parody of the Knight's high-minded story, a fable in which an earthly

young woman named Alisoun marries the elderly carpenter, John. Not only is The Miller's Tale, ribald and

vulgar, its mechanics are not contingent upon Fortune but are virtual inevitabilities, for the carpenter's wife

"was wild and young, and he was old/And deemed himself likely to become a cuckold" (I, A, ll.3225-3226).

John does, indeed, become a cuckold through the spirits of a lusty young tenant, the Miller indicating his

approval of adultery in this case as a "natural" outcome of an old man having taken a young bride. But after

the Miller has completed his ribald piece, the Reeve, whose duties include carpentry, interprets it as a personal

insult and gives an ever more "churlish" account of a miller whose wife and daughter are seduced by two

college students. At several junctures in The Canterbury Tales, characters respond explicitly to the stories of

their fellow pilgrims. Thus, when the Friar includes the damnation of a summoner in his story, the Summoner

fires back with a tale in which a group of friars demand payment from a sinner and receive a fart in return.

The marriage group, a set of eight stories on this theme, stands at the core of The Canterbury Tales, and

includes both The Merchant's Tale (which bears some resemblance to the Miller's story) and The Franklin's

Tale (a more realistic entry that argues for mutual restraint). But among the pilgrims, it is, Alice, the oft-wed

Wife of Bath, who has had the most extensive experience with marriage and she views this as grounds for an

authority to criticize the subordination of wives to husbands in medieval society. In the Prologue to the Wife

of Bath's Tale, she speaks frankly of her five husbands (including three rich old men), and portrays marriage

as a perpetual battle for household dominance. The Wife of Bath remains committed to this stance,

proclaiming to her companions that "I will have a husband—I will not cease— / Who shall be both my debtor

and my slave" (III, D, ll.155-156). She details how she gained the upper hand with her most recent conjugal

partner, Johnny, who surrendered to her "the governance of house and land" (III, D, l.814). Once Johnny

submitted his will to the Wife, however, she voluntarily acted toward him in a sweet and generous manner.

The Wife of Bath's Tale arrives at a congruent view of marriage. Set in King Arthur's court, it concerns a lusty

Knight who commits the crime of rape and is initially sentenced by the Queen's ladies to find out what it is

that women want most in marriage. The answer is that women desire to be treated with the same deference in

marriage as they received during courtship. The Knight is then compelled to marry a poor, old, and ugly

member of the Queen's court, who speaks to him of the advantages of having an unattractive wife. She then

offers him the choice of having her as she is or (magically) transformed into a comely young woman.

Consistent with the Wife of Bath's values, the Knight leaves the choice to his own wife, who then assumes a

The Canterbury Tales: A Critical Analysis 99lovely form. The two are happy thereafter because the Knight deferred to his wife's wishes and this act of

deference allowed her to grant his desires.

Money plays a key role in several of these stories, and the theme of avarice surfaces repeatedly in The

Canterbury Tales. The Shipman's Tale, for example, concerns a merchant who is more interested in his

accounts than in his wife who must eventually pay for her services while she carries on an affair with a monk.

Both the Manciple (a purchaser of supplies for a university) and the Reeve (a farm manager) have grown rich

by skimming profits from the budgets of their employers. It is the clergy, however, who are most prone to

abuses of their duties for financial gain. In The General Prologue we are told of the Friar that: "He was an

easy man to give penance/Wherever he hoped to get a good pittance" (I, A, ll.223-224). In like manner, the

Pardoner sells bogus religious relics, while the Summoner (and ecclesiastical court official) can be induced to

turn a blind eye to sin for a quart of wine.

Among the pilgrim's with a religious vocation, the parish Parson, who is poor in money but "rich in holy

thought and work" (I, A, l.479), is distinguished through behaviors that are wholly consistent with his pious

vocation. In the concluding "Part 10" of The Canterbury Tales, he rejects storytelling altogether in favor of

delivering a "truthful" sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins. The Parson reminds the rest of the company that

their ultimate purpose in going to Canterbury is not the light-hearted amusement of storytelling but "the

endless bliss of Heaven" (X, 1, l.1076). But The Parson's Sermon also suggests that the pilgrimage in which

Chaucer's characters are engaged is a communal enterprise and that the social exchanges that the storytelling

contest has evoked are, in this sense, supportive of the company's higher objectives. Indeed, if there is an

over-arching theme in The Canterbury Tales it is that individuals have the capacity to make moral choices and

that these choices will have real consequences for them in heaven and on earth. For all of its subversive

features, Chaucer's work also has a conservative dimension, a re-affirmation of a moral order in the world

from which individuals routinely depart to a lesser or greater degree.

Comedic Inventiveness in The Canterbury Tales

In the following essay, David Kelly compares Chaucer’s constant inventiveness to techniques used

throughout the centuries by jesters and stand-up comics to hold their audiences’ attention.

One of the first things that students learn when they begin to study The Canterbury Tales is that Geoffrey

Chaucer its author, is frequently called “the father of English poetry.” He was the first significant poet to

write in the English language, as opposed to Italian, Latin, or French, which were the languages favored by

educated people of his time, the late fourteenth century. The entire tradition of English literature, therefore,

points back to Chaucer. He deserves respect, but, unfortunately, respect too often makes readers feel that they

have to be reverential and solemn when considering The Canterbury Tales.

Over the centuries, Chaucer scholars have attempted to show that the book is not just a dry textbook and is

actually quite a lot of fun, but their attempts consistently fall on deaf ears. English teachers see episodes like

the flatulence scene in the “The Miller’s Tale” as the same gross-out comedy that Jim Carrey or Tom Green

would use for laughs today. Students today are more inclined to view Chaucer’s low-brow moments as a

senior family member struggling to be hip, like a grandfather wearing a shockingly loud tie to show that he

still remembers fun. It is hard to think of the father of English poetry as working for attention because he had


But The Canterbury Tales is all about the struggle to keep audiences entertained. The central conceit is that a

group of pilgrims enter into a storytelling competition to take their minds off the labor and monotony of their

journey. They are not competing to see who will tell the most uplifting story or the most intellectually

enriching; they are each trying to be the most entertaining (although some do abuse their forum and sneak in

Comedic Inventiveness in The Canterbury Tales 100moral tales about spiritual correctness). Designed around performers who are fighting for attention, the book

has more in common with a court jester doing handsprings and backflips for the king’s pleasure than it does

with the sort of staid literature that it is often shelved with. Chaucer was a raconteur, a teller of amusing

stories, and he did whatever he had to do to keep audiences interested.

Like a jester, Chaucer’s audience was the royal court. He was an attendant to royalty throughout his adult

years, starting in the house of Elizabeth of Ulster and rising to be the valet to the King himself. In later years,

he left domestic service and was given political responsibilities that were better suited for his intelligence. By

all accounts, and as evinced by his poetry, Chaucer was a man of incredible intellect. His intellect alone could

have accounted for his fortune in government matters, but there are and always have been bland functionaries

who understood issues but cannot draw enough attention to let their knowledge be known. Chaucer was lucky

enough to be a true Renaissance man, talented in several fields, with each feeding the other. The stories and

poems that he wrote and recited assured that the rulers of England knew who Geoffrey Chaucer was.

The court that he served in expanded during Chaucer’s stay there. Historically, the English government had

been mobile, not only to deal with matters of law in different parts of the kingdom at a time when there was

no reliable system of communications, but for the very practical reason that there were few places that could

provide for all of the government functionaries for any length of time. In his book Chaucer in His Time,

Derek Brewer explains that “such large gatherings were difficult to feed at a time when communications were

slow and almost every household had to be self-sufficient. The court had to move about the country so as to

spread the burden of its maintenance.” This practice changed in 1382, when King Richard II married Anne of

Bohemia and established a permanent court patterned on the French court in Paris and the Papal court at

Avignon. Settled, the ranks of the court grew, with dozens of royals and the hundreds of attendants that each

required. In such a crowded environment, it helped Chaucer to be known as a wit and as one whose reputation

as a poet had spread to France and Italy. A wit becomes tiresome when he runs out of things to say, but

Chaucer was clever enough to never run out of new items or new methods.

We think of jesters as being self-deprecating fools, willing to humiliate themselves if that is what is required

to keep the royal family amused. Modern performers are given more respect if they are considered artists, but

those who are thought of as mere entertainers are still considered somewhat embarrassing. What they both

have in common with Chaucer’s “performance” in The Canterbury Tales is that they all are continuously in

motion, struggling for innovation, line after line, sentence after sentence, valuing attention before respect.

It may be difficult for some contemporary readers to accept that the primary purpose of the tales is to

entertain, even when the Host focuses on that as the purpose of each narration. Some of the tales seem just too

complex, too tied up in learning to fit in with modern standards, which separate learning from entertainment

and see them as being mutually exclusive. Still, if the purpose of entertainment is to keep one interested, then

some education is bound to become part of the process. And if the main lever of humor is, as many have

claimed, the element of surprise, then the most amusing tales are the ones that establish a sense of familiarity

that they can eventually disturb.

The tale that uses the broadest humor is, of course, the Miller’s tale, which has no reason for existing other

than to see an unpleasant man, a “riche gnof,” gotten the best of. It is a pretty straightforward joke, about a

man thinking that he is going to survive a flood while his fellow citizens drown, unaware of the fact that his

wife and lodger are sleeping together in his own bed. The most noteworthy thing about this tale is that it is so

silly as to include the nonsense, already mentioned, about a man breaking wind in another man’s face. There

really is no place for the flatulence episode in the story that the Miller tells, but its complete inappropriateness

is what makes it funny: readers expect the drunken Miller to be tasteless, and he is warned by the Host to

watch his manners. That concern is forgotten as the story turns out to be a mild tale of adultery, until a

superfluous character appears out of nowhere. Readers are prepared for this level of vulgarity, but are then

surprised by it all the same.

Comedic Inventiveness in The Canterbury Tales 101“The Pardoner’s Tale” works on a similar comic device, of bad people unwittingly participating in their own

downfall. The story itself has a surprise, ironic ending, as the man who prepared poisonous drinks is stabbed

and the men who did the stabbing unknowingly drink poison. There is a richer layer here, though: while the

Miller came across with exactly the sort of crude story that was expected of him, the Pardoner preaches a tale

about conventional morality but turns out to be a con man looking to sell religious icons. Chaucer does not

make much of this contradiction, but it is clear, and it makes the story more engaging and interesting. A

similar level of irony invigorates “The Prioress’ Tale”: the introduction prepares readers for a shy, gentle

soul, but the tale she tells reveals the imagination of a bloodthirsty anti-Semite with true hatred in her heart. In

both cases, Chaucer gives a text—the tale—and a context—the personality of the teller—that contrast with one

another. Modern comedy might achieve the same results by having an unscrupulous, oily character pose as

priest or politician, or by having a meek nervous character suddenly fill up with angry ferocity.

The tales that are hardest to recognize as entertainment are those that do not find humor at the expense of

some braggart, poseur, or deluded fool. There are tales, like the Knight’s and the Franklin’s, that celebrate

noble behavior and mourn the tragedy of the death of a good person. Though not funny, these tales fit loosely

into the definition of humor as surprise. Not all surprises are humorous, but the basic element of a sort of

gallows humor is at least nearby, even in the most serious turns of events presented in these tales. It would not

take much to see Arcite’s fall from his horse as a deadpan punchline that is meant to contrast the huge

buildup preceding it in “The Knight’s Tale,’’ with pages and pages of battle preparation and combat

mocked by stupid, ignoble fate. Similarly, it would not take much to make a comic buffoon out of Arveragus,

who is so committed to the abstract concept of keeping one’s vow that he is willing to give up his beloved

wife. In each case, readers’ expectations are set up and then demolished with such an ease of presentation that

the readers do not even notice Chaucer’s presence, looking instead to the characters who tell the stories.

The main thing that makes contemporary stand-up comedy an appropriate analogy for The Canterbury Tales

is the desperation required by each. Comedy often dismissed as mere entertainment, is able to make its

audience think, but only when it has their attention. Some comedians are all about drawing attention to

themselves, but once they have that attention, they have nothing to say; others have serious points to make,

but they forget to entertain. The best will be able to make audiences think, but they also know that on some

level they are the heirs of the court jester who would jump, shout, and ring bells just to keep his audience from

looking anywhere but at him. This is the tradition of the entertainer that is too often overlooked by people

who read Chaucer as if he were some sort of icon. His tales can turn vulgar or sentimental, didactic or

warmhearted, but he was not afraid to use any trick at his disposal—and he had quite a few—to make sure that

they stayed interesting.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Canterbury Tales, in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at Oakton Community College in Illinois.

Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of

Medieval Anti-Semitism

In the following essay, Philip S. Alexander examines the treatment of Jews and anti-Semitism in the

“Prioress’s Tale.”

The history of the criticism of Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” affords proof, if proof be needed, that the

attitudes and events of their own days affect how critics read literature, even literature of the distant past. As

Florence Ridley notes, the question of anti-semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale” has in recent years become an

important critical issue, to the extent that most contemporary readings of the text seem to involve, explicitly or

implicitly, a response to this problem. The explanation is not far to seek. Critics cannot view the “Tale” after

the holocaust in quite the same way as they viewed it before. Since the holocaust anti-semitism has become

Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism 102academically discredited: it is now one of the few generally acknowledged intellectual heresies. So for a critic

today to expound the “Tale” and to ignore the question of anti-semitism would strike most educated people

as displaying a detachment from life bordering on the irresponsible, if not on the perverse.

Most who have written on the problem of the anti-semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale” have been literary critics

by calling. Few historians of Judaism or of anti-semitism, seem to have addressed the question. As a result

some of the analysis, though painstaking and well intentioned, has been historically and philosophically

confused. The sort of confusion that can arise is illustrated by John Archer’s article, “The structure of

anti-semitism in the ‘Prioress’s Tale’.” Archer, unlike some, perceives the importance of defining

anti-semitism. His stated aim is ‘to examine the operation of the imagery in the “Prioress’s Tale” against the

background of the traditon, and in the process to extrapolate three or four categories of imagery that might be

used to analyze anti-semitism in so far as it functions in other literary works.’ He stresses the transformation

of society that takes place within the “Tale.” The opening lines depict the secular authorities as being

subservient to the Old Law: they sustain the Jews in their usurious practices, which are ‘hateful to Crist.’ At

the end of the “Tale,” however, in the person of the Provost, they break with the Jews and with the old

dispensation, and embrace the New Law of Christ. The decisive change is wrought by the clergeon’s death,

which is ‘a sacrifice as well as a murder because it has loosened the hold of the Old Law over the secular

positive law’. The clergeon is a Christ-figure and his death recapitulates Christ’s death, which by redeeming

man from the curse and bondage of the Old Law transformed society. All this is moderately persuasive till we

recall that the purpose of Archer’s article is to lay bare the structure of anti-semitism in the “Prioress’s

Tale.” Anti-semitism turns out for Archer to be identical with the central tenets of the Christian faith! Archer

shows not a flicker of awareness of the radical implications of this analysis, which at a theological level risks

delegitimizing Christianity and at a literary level, if extrapolated, appears to brand much of European

literature as anti-semitic.

Clearly we need a more historically-informed view of the nature of anti-semitism if we are to deal responsibly

with the question of anti-semitism in a given piece of literature. Anti-semitism is not a charge to be lightly

bandied about: it is more than ‘queasy, resentful feelings about Jews.’ The definition of the phenomenon is

not self-evident. The term ‘anti-semitism’ itself did not emerge till the late nineteenth century, when it was

used by the proponents of a world-view (widely deemed then as acceptable), which embraced three main

tenets: first, Jewish culture is inferior to Germanic culture; second, the Jews are plotting to undermine

Germanic culture and to foist their own cultural values on society; and, third, in the interests of progress and

civilization society has a duty to defend itself against Jewish domination and to purge itself of decadent

Jewish culture. Nineteenth-century antisemitism was often racist in that it espoused the belief that culture and

race were interconnected, and so the inferior Jewish culture was seen as the product of inferior Jewish genes.

However, racism, in this precise technical sense, was not fundamental to the anti-semitic point of view.

Nineteenth-century anti-semitism presented itself, often aggressively, in secular and scientific terms, and

some of its proponents fastidiously distanced themselves from the crude ‘Jew bashing’ of earlier centuries. It

has, consequently, been argued that modern secular anti-semitism should not be confused with the religious

anti-Judaism of the middle ages. If this view is correct, then the problem of anti-semitism in the “Prioress’s

Tale” is solved at a stroke. What we have in Chaucer may be anti-Judaism (and deplorable), but not

anti-semitism in any exact sense. The dissimilarities can, however, be overplayed. The fact is that mediaeval

christendom espoused a set of beliefs which are strikingly congruent in content and structure with the

nineteenth-century anti-semitic creed: Judaism is inferior to Christianity; the Jews, motivated by malevolence,

and in alliance with the powers of darkness, are seeking to overthrow Christian society; the Church, in the

interests of humanity, has a sacred duty to protect society from the baleful influence of the Jews and Judaism.

Nineteenth-century anti-semitism was not a bolt from the blue. Rather it represented the modernization of the

antisemitism of the middle ages. At a time when religious language and religious categories were losing their

power, nineteenth-century anti-semites found a modern, intellectually more acceptable way of restating the

mediaeval position. In much the same way nineteenth century Christian theologians, in the face of the

Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism 103onslaught of Darwinism, found more modern and acceptable ways of restating the biblical doctrine of

creation. There is, then, a deep, underlying continuity between the modern and the mediaeval phenomena, and

in virtue of this continuity the term anti-semitism can be applied properly to both.

There is a consensus among critics that the “Prioress’s Tale” has been carefully constructed not simply in

terms of a limited, local incident, but in terms of timeless absolutes. It is intended to represent the conflict

between truth and error, between good and evil. The clergeon died as a martyr, because he testified to his

faith, not because he disturbed the peace and quiet of the neighbourhood. It was the content of his song that

raised the Jews’ ire. The Jews as a whole are blackened, and it is this which makes the story anti-semitic.

They conspire as a group to kill the boy (even though only one of them actually slits his throat), and this is

recognized by the Provost who holds them all guilty and has them all killed. The confrontation between the

seeking mother and the Jews is handled in a masterly way, so as to put the Jews as a whole in the worst

possible light. Unmoved by the mother’s pitiful distress, each and every Jew denies that he has seen the boy:

‘they seyde “nay.”’ Not a flicker of conscience, no attempt to soften the answer, or even to be economical

with the truth, only barefaced villany! There are racist undertones here. It is often said that mediaeval

Christian anti-semitism was not, unlike much modern anti-semitism, racist, in that it always left open a way of

escape for the Jew through conversion. This is broadly true, but it should also be borne in mind that there were

some Christian authorities in the middle ages who found it very hard to accept the sincerity of any Jewish

conversion. Hence the whole tragic problem of the Conversos in Spain. Conversion did not always save the

Jew from harrassment or even death. It is chilling so early in the Tale to find the line: ‘Children an heep,

ycomen of Cristen blood.’ Why ‘blood’? Was Chaucer strapped for a rhyme for ‘stood’, or is there a more

sinister note here? Is Christian blood any different from Jewish blood?

Running like a refrain through the “Tale” is the description of the Jews as ‘cursed.’ ‘Cursed Jews’ is not a

generalized term of abuse like ‘damned Frenchies’. It means very literally that Jews are under a divine curse,

a curse which they called down upon their own heads when they goaded Pilate into crucifying Jesus: ‘When

Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his

hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered

all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children’ (Matthew 27:24f). Jews were Christ-killers,

and they killed Christ with their eyes open, thus taking upon themselves and their descendants the

consequences of that dreadful deed. This charge was used throughout the middle ages to deny Jews the due

process of law, and to justify lynchings and pogroms. Note in this context line 578: ‘The blood out crieth on

youre cursed dede’. There is a clear echo here of the story of Cain and Abel. God says to Cain: ‘What hast

thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now thou art cursed from

the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand . . . a fugitive and a

vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

Behold thou has driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall

be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that everyone that findeth me shall slay

me’ (Genesis 4:10–14). In Christian exegesis Cain is often seen as typifying the Jew (the wanderer rejected

by both God and man); Abel is taken as a type of the just man, or of the Christian, or (most significantly) of

Christ, on whom the Jew tries to vent his spite.

The Prioress invites us in all kinds of subtle but not unmistakable ways to see the death of Mary’s little

devotee as being parallel to the death of Mary’s son. To this extent Archer’s analysis of the “Tale” is sound.

In murdering the clergeon the Jews are giving rein to the same evil nature which led them to kill Christ. The

parallelism is very explicit in some forms of the tradition on which Chaucer has drawn: the boy is ritually

murdered, crucified in repetition and mockery of the death of Christ. There is no hint of ritual murder in

Chaucer. Nevertheless the parallelism between Jesus and the clergeon is clearly implied. It comes out, for

example, at 574f: ‘O cursed folk of Herodes all newe, / What may youre yvel entente yow availle?’ Just as

the Jew Herod had tried to kill the infant Christ, but killed the holy innocents instead, so had the Jews killed

the innocent clergeon. The reference to the slaughter of the innocents, which picks up allusions to the liturgy

Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism 104for Childermas in the Prioress’s Prologue is further strengthened by 625ff: ‘His mooder swownynge by his

beere lay; / Unnethe myghte the peple that was theere / This newe Rachel brynge fro his beere’. This echoes

the application in Matthew 2:18 of Jeremiah 40:1 to the slaughter of the innocents: ‘In Rama was there a

voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not

be comforted, because they were not’. Implicit parallelism between Christ and the clergeon may also lie

behind 628–34: ‘With torment and with shameful deeth echon, / This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterve /

That of this mordre wiste, and that anon. / He nolde no swich cursednesse observe. / “Yvele shal have that

yvele wol deserve”; / Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe, / And after that he heng them by the

lawe’. Though the Provost may have been acting within his legal powers (a point carefully stressed in ‘by

the lawe’), the execution is, in effect, summary. Why the haste? Because the Provost was unwilling to abide

such ‘cursednesse’. The murder of the clergeon was a curse-bringing act, like the murder of Jesus. By taking

prompt and decisive action the Provost ensured that the divine curse would fall on the Jews and not on the

community at large.

At 558ff the Prioress gives expression to one of the standard charges of mediaeval anti-semitism, namely, that

the Jews are in league with the devil: ‘Oure first foo, the serpent Sathanas, / That hath in Jues herte his

waspes nest, / Up swal, and seide, “O Hebrayk peple, allas! / Is this to yow a thyng that is honest, / That

swich a boy shal walken as hym lest / In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence, / Which is agayn youre

lawes reverence?”’ As early as the New Testament a special relationship is alleged to exist between the Jews

and the devil. John 8:44 is the locus classicus: ‘Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye

will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.’

The Book of Revelation twice savagely refers to ‘the synagogue of Satan.’ Such language may have begun

as straightforward abuse, but later it took on more sinister, theological connotations: the Jews were sorcerers

able to do evil by the power of the devil. Some even regarded them as devils incarnate. The pact between the

devil and the Jews is a common theme of the mystery plays. Lines 558ff of the “Prioress’s Tale” are strongly

reminiscent of the scenes in the mystery plays in which devils are shown inciting the Jews to demand the

crucifixion of Jesus.

At the very outset of the “Tale” the Jews are put in a bad light by linking them with usury—the activity which

more than any other distorted their relationships with their non-Jewish neighbours and brought down

opprobrium on their heads: ‘Ther was in Asye, in a great citee, / Among Cristene folk a Jewerye, / Sustened

by a lord of that contree / For foul usure and lucre of vileynye, / Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye’. The

Prioress could have found no surer way to dispose her audience against the Jews than by raising the charge of

usury. The charge is incidental to the main thrust of the story and plays no direct part in the development of

the plot, but it is more than local colour. Dramatically it helps to justify the gory punishment meted out to the

Jews at the end.

There are, in fact, as Yunck has pointed out, technically two distinct charges here: usury was the lending of

money on interest; ‘lucre of vileynye’ was profiteering. Both were condemned in canon law, and in using

such precise legal terms the Prioress is showing herself a well-informed daughter of the Church. Her

knowledge also comes out in her claim that usury and profiteering are ‘hateful to Crist and to his

compaignye’. At first sight this is odd since one would assume that at least the prohibition of usury was based

on the Old Testament, and not on the New. However, canon lawyers often appealed to Luke 6:35 (Vulgate:

mutum date, nihil inde sperantes), a fact which the Prioress is presumably supposed to know. A New

Testament text certainly lies behind ‘lucre of vileynye’. As the gloss turpe lucrum in the Ellesmere and

Hengwrt manuscripts indicates, it is 1 Timothy 3:8: ‘Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued,

not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre’ (Vulgate: diaconos similiter pudicos, non bilingues, non

multo vino deditos, non turpe lucrum sectantes).

The charge of usury was well founded: Jews were heavily involved in moneylending in the middle ages.

There were a number of reasons for this. Other professions and means of livelihood were not readily open to

Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism 105them. Since the various trades and crafts were dominated by guilds which were often anti-Jewish, it was

difficult for a Jew to become, for example, a carpenter or a stone-mason. It was also difficult for them to break

into the feudal system of land tenure. In fact it was not advisable for them to hold much land, for if they tied

up their wealth in real estate they ran the risk of losing everything when, as so often happened, they were

forced to flee. The only means of livelihood readily open to them were trading and moneylending, in which

they put to some use the surplus of money they acquired through trading.

The civil authorities actively encouraged Jewish moneylending. They used the Jews as a caste of untouchables

to do a necessary but ‘dirty’ job. The financial systems of the mediaeval world were primitive in the

extreme. There was only a rudimentary bureaucracy to collect taxes, and few sources of cash existed from

which one could get a loan to finance a project or to tide one over a financial crisis. The chronic shortage of

money and credit particularly affected kings and princes, who, though potentially rich, were often short of

hard cash if the need to wage war or to build a castle made sudden demands on the exchequer. Jews were

encouraged to perform the function both of substitute tax-collectors and bankers. Through various privileges

the state promoted their wealth, and then creamed off a proportion of that wealth into the state coffers. As

Lilian Winstanley succinctly puts it: ‘The Jews were permitted to fleece thoroughly the people of the realm

on condition that the king fleeced them’. This placed the Jews in an invidious position socially and

exacerbated their already fraught relations with the Christian population.

The social basis of Jewish moneylending is not entirely lost on the Prioress: the ghetto is sustained by ‘a lord

of that contree’. Once again the Prioress reveals that she is au fait with Church teaching and politics. The

Church often had occasion to rebuke Christian princes for allowing and for benefiting from Jewish usury. The

Church had only limited powers of physical coercion. To compel compliance with its wishes it had to rely on

the secular authorities, whom it had to persuade to do its will. The negative picture of civil authority at the

beginning of the “Tale” is offset, as Archer rightly notes, by the picture of the Provost at the end. Here was a

secular authority who, acting in concert with the Church, knew how to defend good Christians against the

blaspheming Jews. Article LXVII (‘On Jewish Usury’) of the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215

provides an illuminating commentary on the opening lines of the “Tale:”

The more the Christian religion refrains from exacting interest [usura], the more does the

perfidy of the Jews in this practice increase, so that, in a short time, they exhaust the wealth of

Christians. Desiring, therefore, to protect the Christians in this matter from being

immoderately burdened by the Jews, we ordain by synodal decree that if, on any pretext, Jews

extort heavy and excessive interest from Christians, all relationships with Christians shall be

withdrawn from them, until they make adequate restitution for their exorbitant exactions. The

Christians also shall be compelled, if need be, by ecclesiastical punishment against which no

appeal will be heard, to abstain from business dealings with the Jews.

Moreover, we enjoin princes not to be hostile to the Christians on this account, but rather to

endeavour to restrain the Jews from so great an oppression.

And under threat of the same penalty we decree that the Jews shall be compelled to make

good the tithes and offerings owed to the Churches, which the Churches were accustomed to

receive from the houses and other possessions of the Christians, before these came, by

whatever entitlement, into the hands of the Jews, in order that the Churches may be preserved

against loss.

Though the Prioress is Chaucer’s creature, her voice cannot automatically be identified with his. An author,

holding up a mirror to life, may express through his characters ideas which he himself would repudiate.

However, the author may find himself on morally dubious ground if he insists on being an out-and-out realist,

a recorder but not a commentator. He is responsible for his creatures, and he cannot be allowed carte blanche

Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism 106to publicize any point of view purely and simply on the grounds that there are people who say such things.

Inevitably he has his own perspective and where this clashes with the perspective of his characters he can

reasonably be expected to find ways of distancing himself from them. The more momentous the issues and the

deeper the clash, the more imperative does such distancing become. If the author is totally self-effacing he can

hardly complain if the reader assumes that his voice and the voice of his character are one and the same. Is it

possible to distance Chaucer from the Prioress? An influential body of criticism claims that it is. Two main

lines of argument have been followed.

The first involves playing off the General Prologue against the Tale. An ironic, satirical tone pervades

Chaucer’s treatment of the Prioress in the General Prologue. Her nice manners (139–40: ‘And peyned hire to

counterfete cheere / Of court’) and fashionable dress (151: ‘Ful semyly hir wympul pynched was’) sit

uneasily with her spiritual calling. She is lax in the observance of monastic rules: she eats roast meat, keeps

lap-dogs and wears a brooch with the ambiguous inscription Amor vincit omnia. The description of her

physical charms in terms of the conventions of courtly love poetry, ending with the understatement, ‘For,

hardily, she was not undergrowe’, is comical. Even her linguistic accomplishments (and her finishing school)

are made the butt of barbed comment: ‘And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, / After the scole of

Stratford atte Bowe, / For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.’ She weeps easily—at the suffering of small

animals: ‘She was so charitable and so pitous / She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous / Kaught in a

trappe, if it were deed or bledde.’ The bathetic ‘mous’ is surely mocking. A picture emerges of a rather

large, sentimental, vain woman. But against all this must be set the verve and passion of the Prioress’s actual

words. The brilliance of her narrative, its burning sincerity and its persuasiveness show that Chaucer was

prepared to give her a fair hearing, without a shadow of satire or mockery to cloud her actual speech. Critics

have rightly remarked in particular on the power of the Prologue to the “Tale.” Here is a liturgical

composition of the very highest order. Whether or not we feel a tension between the Tale and the “General

Prologue,” and how we interpret that tension, once felt, will depend in the final analysis on our own innate

moral sense. We may see the Prioress’s concern for the suffering of small animals, in contrast to her relish at

the hanging and drawing of the Jews, as evidence of her stunted moral development. But we may equally

choose to see her love of small animals (so modern in its concern for animal welfare!) as all of a piece with

her horror at the fate of the little clergeon. Chaucer keps his own counsel, and offers no clear guidance. He has

simply given us a slice of life—a well-observed, fullblooded portrait of a certain human type. If he meant to

distance himself from the Prioress’s views then the means by which he has chosen to do so are inadequate.

A second line of argument used to exculpate Chaucer is to urge that he is simply drawing on traditional

material: he is repeating what was in his sources, not inventing anything significantly new. In fact, the

“Prioress’s Tale” can be seen as representing one of the more moderate forms of the tradition; it could have

been worse, a lot more lurid and virulently anti-semitic. At least in Chaucer, as we noted earlier, the clergeon

is not crucified, as he is in some other versions; the murder is not a ritual murder, nor is the blood used for

nefarious purposes. Moreover, it is urged, since Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, the Jews of the

“Prioress’s Tale” are not drawn from life, but from literature and folklore. They are not perceived as real

people, but almost as mythical beings, like hobgoblins. These arguments, however, can easily be stood on

their head. It is the very fact that Chaucer is writing within a well established tradition that demonstrates

beyond all doubt the antisemitic character of the “Tale.” The tradition was so well known that the audience

would have confidently classified and interpreted it in a certain way. Elements not explicitly mentioned could

still have been read in by them. And although the Prioress may not have been to ‘Parys’, Chaucer himself

had travelled widely on the continent. In fact a realistic topographical detail at lines 493–4 suggests that he

was directly acquainted with Jewish ghettoes. The implication that because the Jews of the “Tale” may not be

perceived as real people, Chaucer or the Prioress are in some sense exonerated, shows insensitivity to the

history of antisemitism. It was precisely such mythologization (a process of dehumanization unchecked, as

history shows, by face-to-face contact with Jews in the flesh) which hardened people to committing appalling

atrocities against them.

Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism 107“The Prioress’s Tale” belongs to the large and varied mediaeval genre of Miracles of the Virgin. More

precisely it can be assigned to a sub-group of that genre consisting of tales which link the Virgin’s miracle to

the blood-libel. The first recorded mediaeval case of the blood-libel was at Norwich in 1144: the story was

written up with considerable flair by Thomas of Monmouth. The veneration of the Blessed William of

Norwich provided a useful source of income for centuries for Norwich cathedral, and to this day on rood

screens in churches around Norwich representations of the foul murder of William can be found. Within a

short time of the Norwich incident blood-libel accusations were springing up all over Europe. Between 1144

and the 1390s, when Chaucer composed the bulk of the Canterbury Tales, at least twenty-three instances in

England France Germany, Spain and Czechoslovakia are documented. Another famous English example was

the case of Hugh of Lincoln, supposedly done to death by the Jews in 1255. Hugh, like the Blessed William of

Norwich, was venerated in the local cathedral. Hugh’s story is recounted in the Annals of Waverley and by

Matthew Paris. Significantly, it is the subject of a ninety-two stanza Anglo-Norman ballad dating probably

from the late thirteenth century—a hint, perhaps, of how these stories were spread. Hugh’s case is particularly

relevant because it is mentioned at the end of the Prioress’s Tale: ‘O yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also /

With cursed Jewes, as it is notable, / For it is but a litel while ago, / Preye eek for us, we synful folk unstable, /

That of his mercy God so merciable / On us his grete mercy multiplie, / For reverence of his mooder Marie.

Amen.’ Chaucer had close connections with Lincoln cathedral. He clearly knew Hugh’s story. Indeed, it is

puzzling that he did not simply tell Hugh’s story, which is in all essentials parallel to the clergeon’s. Why

does he go back in time, to a nameless Christian youth in a distant land when he knows a recent case so close

to home? Have we here, perhaps, a later edition to the “Tale?” This, then, is the tradition within which

Chaucer was working. He knew what he was doing, and his readers knew what he was doing. He set out to

create a version of a well-known type of anti-semitic tale, and he succeeded wonderfully well.

Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” may fairly be described as an anti-semitic tract. Most anti-semitic writing has

been poor and shabby, but here is a piece which displays fine intellect and consummate artistry. Artistically it

may be the best anti-semitic tract ever written. Chaucer was a child of his time— no better, no worse in his

attitudes towards the Jews than many of his contemporaries. But that is hardly a defence. The verdict that he

was anti-semitic is not entirely based on hindsight or on the morality of a later age. There were wiser heads

throughout the middle ages ready to defend the Jews, at least against grosser charges such as the blood libel.

There were even some who argued, on good theological grounds, that the Gospel demanded that the Jews be

treated with compassion and respect.

This sorry conclusion leaves us with a reflection and a problem. The reflection is on the amorality of art. Art,

being largely a matter of form and proportion, can, it seems, be used to articulate morally bad ideas as well as

morally good. One may acknowledge the aesthetic power of a piece of writing without endorsing its


The problem is what to do with the “Prioress’s Tale” today, now that it has entered the canon of English

literature. Lumiansky’s exclusion of it from his 1948 prose version of the Canterbury Tales does more credit

to his heart than his head. Such censorship is dangerous and futile. We should also resist the temptation of

apologetically re-reading the text in such a way that it is made to say the opposite of what it appears to say,

and to express politically correct opinions. That sort of hermeneutic has been widely used within religions to

make classic religious texts acceptable to later ages. It is hardly proper in the academic study of Chaucer.

Chaucer, though a classic, does not have the status of Scripture. Applied to Chaucer such an approach is

fundamentally dishonest, and the dishonesty will be rapidly perceived. The only course of action left open is

to ensure that when the “Prioress’s Tale” is expounded, the basic facts of anti-semitism are expounded as

well. Some critics may be irked when asked to play the historian or the moral ‘nanny’, but in this case there

is no honourable alternative. Art may be neutral on morality; the criticism and appreciation of art cannot.

Source: Philip S. Alexander, “Madame Eglentyne Geoffrey Chaucer and the Problem of Medieval

Anti-Semitism,” in Bulletin of John Rylands Library of Manchester, Vol. 74, No. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 109–20.

Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism 108Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale”

In the following essay excerpt, David Williams explores how the Pardoner poses a threat to the other authors

and to Chaucer himself in Canterbury Tales.

There are several similarities between the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, not the least of which is the intimate

relation between the prologue and tale of each author. If it can be said that the basis of this relation between

prologue and tale in the Wife’s case is that she denies and destroys reality to make her fictional life valid,

perhaps it may then be said that the Pardoner in turn destroys fiction in order to complete the process of

rendering everything subjective and meaningless. In this sense they are in league with each other, and we see

this in several ways. Whereas the Wife may be seen as a figure who distorts reality through a carnal

willfulness and weakness of which she is only partially aware, the Pardoner emerges as a highly astute figure

who has developed his depravity into a powerful intellectual theory, which in his prologue and tale he

attempts to impose on the pilgrimage in order to destroy it. Unlike other flawed characters in the company

who, despite themselves, reveal the intellectual or moral basis of their corruption (which, in many cases, they

do not fully understand), the Pardoner intentionally exposes his vice in the prologue in order to raise evil to a

theoretical level on which he can confront good. For if, in fact, the various authors of the pilgrimage have

shown themselves as imperfect, each would seem to have also shown the origin of this imperfection to be

misunderstanding or moral weakness. The great challenge to a figure like the Pardoner is to provide a

theoretical basis for his fellow authors’ misconstructions and for the audience’s misinterpretations, and so

trap them intellectually, as well as morally, in error. The Pardoner is, then, a formidable challenge not only to

the authors of the Canterbury pilgrimage but also to the author of the Canterbury Tales, and to its audiences.

The nature of that challenge is a form of radical nominalism that calls into question the function of language

in revealing truth, our ability to know truth, and consequently (in this kind of reductive logic), the objective

existence of truth.

On the surface, nominalism would seem to favor the fictive use of language, since its basic claim is that

universals and abstract concepts are merely names, or words, which do not correspond to or represent any

objective reality. In the medieval context, however, this did not lead to a greater prestige of the imaginative

use of language, but rather, just the opposite; under nominalism, the interest in language became increasingly

speculative and severely logical, and literary analysis of texts lost importance. The force of imaginative

creation, in the medieval view, existed precisely in the correspondences that could be perceived to what lay

outside the text, and part of the delight of the beautiful was generated through the multiple analogies that

could be perceived between the fiction of the created artifact and the realities beyond it. Naturally, when

beyond the text there is nothing other than more words, these analogies are not possible, or, at least, not

delightful. In other words, the basis of fiction is reality, and when that is removed all communication becomes

expository. Harry Bailly realizes this keenly, although not at a theoretical level, and continually tries to keep

the “fun” in fiction; his good instinct for literature, limited though it may be, is what accounts for his eventual

rage against the Pardoner.

The Pardoner is an enemy not only of orthodox medieval philosophy, but of poetry as well. His challenge to a

certain theory of universals and of language is felt directly as a threat to the activity of the Canterbury authors

and to the act of pilgrimage itself. By constructing the figure of the Pardoner in this way, Chaucer succeeds

both in raising the theory of poetry to the level of the theme of his work, and in forcing the audience to reflect

on the process of understanding and interpretation in which they are engaged.

The Pardoner’s attack on the audience is launched at the outset of his introduction. The Host instructs the

Pardoner to “Telle us som myrthe or japes”, but having perhaps perceived by his appearance and earlier

behavior the Pardoner’s inclination to depravity, some of the other pilgrims countermand the Host: “Nay, lat

Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale” 109hym telle us of no ribaudye [ribaldry]!” The Pardoner realizes that the pilgrims would be safer with a ribald

tale than that which he has in store for them, and his ironic use of the contraries of honesty and drunkenness in

agreeing to their demand expresses the disdain with which he regards their self-righteousness: “‘I graunte,

ywis,’ quod he, ‘but I moot thynke / Upon som honest thyng while that I drynke.’”

He begins by telling the audience how he uses rhetoric and for what purpose, revealing that in his tale-telling

his theme is always the same: “Radix malorum est Cupiditas [Cupidity is the root of all evil].” The irony that

he intends is in the double sense that he preaches against the sin of cupidity while having cupidity itself as his

personal motive for such preaching. For the several members of his audience who are slow in catching irony,

he spells it out. With papal documents, the seals of church powers, and his own ecclesiastical title, he

establishes his authority and attempts to win the respect and confidence of his audience. He then reveals his

glass boxes full of old rags and bones, which the audience believes, based on the authority of the speaker, are

relics. And their belief, the Pardoner tells us, is all that matters: “Relikes [relics] been they, as wenen

[imagine, suppose] they echoon [each one of them].” This is an important statement, for it reveals the basis of

the epistemology of the Pardoner as author, and, of course, it foreshadows his final proposition to his fellow

pilgrim-authors at the end of his tale.

It is unlikely that this revelation is merely more of the Pardoner’s considerable cynicism toward his audience

and his fellow man. Rather, it is a statement of principle. For the Pardoner, all signs are systems of discourse,

language and relics alike, and what is significant in them is their manner of communication, not the validity of

what they communicate. The Pardoner himself is an expert in the analysis of communications, as he amply

demonstrates, and this expertise is built on the idea that no objective truth can be communicated by any

system because there is none to communicate. Therefore, whatever the audience believes, or can be made to

believe, through a particular discourse is, indeed, correct. That is to say, since words and other signs do not

correspond to any reality other than their own process of signifying, whatever meaning they are understood to

have is as good as any other; therefore, what the audience is led to believe is the best understanding that can

occur. These are the pragmatics born of extreme nominalism, which make of the lie, misrepresentation, and

propaganda intellectual virtues, and identify nominalism as a descendant of sophistry.

The self-revelations of his prologue present us with the paradox of the dishonest man being honest about his

dishonesty. That is not to say that the Pardoner is above seduction; for, indeed, he seems to gear his words

initially to the individual pilgrims seemingly most vulnerable to his rhetoric. His sheep’s shoulder bone, he

says, cures not only animal illnesses, but, he adds with an eye to the Wife of Bath no doubt, it cures the

jealousy of husbands, even those who are quite correct in their suspicions multiplies the grain it handles. The

Miller is likely to have an interest in it. But his ultimate ploy is one that few in his audience are likely to be

strong enough to refuse. “Anyone,” he seems to say, “who is guilty of truly horrible sin, particularly women

who have committed adultery, must not come forward to venerate my relics.” With this trick, as he boldly

tells the pilgrims, he makes a very good living.

The Pardoner is not now playing his tricks, but describing them. Since he is a pardoner, he is more than

personally concerned with sin, for penance and contrition are his professions, and he soon reveals his theory

on this subject, as well. The rest of his prologue is devoted largely to the broad topic of intention and effect:

Thus kan I preche [preach] agayn [against] that same vice

Which that I use, and that is avarice.

But though myself be gilty in that synne,

Yet kan I maken oother folk to twynne [separate from],

From avarice, and soore to repente.

But that is nat my principal entente [intention].

Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale” 110The Pardoner here engages a topical subject of the Middle Ages—whether an evil man can know, and thus

teach, the truth. On the one hand was the position generally associated with Augustine and the Neoplatonists

that true knowledge presupposed a union between knower and known, which knowledge was love. Therefore,

he who did not love the truth could not be described as having real knowledge of it. On the other hand was the

equally orthodox position of the Scholastics that knowledge was a function of intellect and love a function of

the will. Theoretically, these faculties were separate although related, and the possibility of the coexistence of

a correct intellect and a corrupt will existed. Therefore, a thoroughly evil man might know and accurately

express the truth.

The Pardoner obviously allies himself with the Scholastic position, for he sees the many advantages to himself

that lie therein. The fully articulated theory is sufficiently complex for there to be plenty of room for

distortion. By extension, it also applies to tale-telling and thus becomes a pertinent consideration for poetry.

Must a poet be a good man in order to practice his art? Or, to restate it, what is the relationship of the practice

of fiction and the moral probity of the practitioner? What, in addition, is the role of authorial intention in the

construction of meaning in a tale? The Pardoner provides implicit answers to these questions in his prologue

and tale, and Chaucer suggests alternative responses within the larger structure of the Canterbury Tales.

The Pardoner ends his introductory words with a statement of principle concerning virtue, knowledge, and

truth, and from this theory flows his tale. A vicious (in the original sense: full of vice) man can tell a virtuous

tale, he claims, and it is clear that this implies the ability of the vicious man to know that the content of the

tale is, indeed, virtuous. This is possible on the basis of the theory mentioned above that intellect and will can

function independently. Thus a separation of the two faculties is introduced. This disjunction, in the

Pardoner’s presentation, reminds us of the Wife of Bath, who separates and divides, but never unifies, and

like her, he is engaged in his storytelling in a plan to separate word from meaning, language from reality, in

such a way that signs will mean anything he wants them to.

That a vicious man can tell a moral tale indicates that there really exists a moral truth that can be known. But

the separation between universals and particulars is posited on the idea that if there is universal truth, it cannot

be known because only particulars can be known. The further separation between signs (words, things, and

concepts) and what they signify (represent, symbolize, make known) makes impossible both real knowledge

of the truth and accurate expression of it. Thus, analogies between these separations can be, and in the case of

the Pardoner certainly are, misleading. In Scholastic theory the truth spoken by a vicious man remains the

truth, totally independent of his love or knowledge of it. Indeed, it is precisely because of its independent

existence that the truth can be attained by the correct intellect despite the subject’s moral condition. In

nominalist theory, on the other hand, the intellect, regardless of its condition, cannot know anything beyond

what the particulars of experience yield. The Pardoner, whose intellect is governed by the principle that truth

cannot be known because reality is essentially a linguistic construct, can only preach the most relative kind of

morality and will only create fiction of the most self-referential kind.

The Pardoner, then, because he believes that truth can never be known, lies through mental reservation in his

claim about the easy accommodation of immoral author with moral fiction, just as he lies in his claim

concerning the efficacy of false relics for the repenting of sin. Whereas a genuine desire to turn away from

error remains genuine regardless of the authenticity of any sign which may have inspired it, the Pardoner is

saying, as if in response to the Wife’s earlier lament about sin and love, that “there is no sin.” In this view,

the repentance related to sin is illusory, and the words, objects, and ideas employed to produce this illusion are

of little consequence, as long as they are believed. Reality has become an enormous pile of old rags and


As with other figures of the pilgrimage, Chaucer (as author) establishes the significance of the Pardoner by his

appearance and by the authoritative texts he gives him to cite. In the “General Prologue,” several details of

the Pardoner’s description suggest effeminacy and even eunuchry. The Narrator clearly sees and states the

Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale” 111physical dimension of the Pardoner’s condition through equine analogies: “I trowe [believe] he were a

geldyng or a mare.” His sexual orientation is alluded to in the description of his relationship with the

apparently leprous Summoner: “Ful loude he soong [sang] ‘Com hider, love, to me!’.” The Summoner, it is

said, bore him a “stif” accompaniment. The Pardoner’s lack of virility, his sexual impotency and sexual

orientation, are not the result of genetic chance, a dominant mother, or the unfortunate consequence of

disease, as our modern sciences might try to explain such characteristics. Instead, according to the medieval

science of physiognomy, the Pardoner’s physical endowments and health are direct reflections of his

intellectual and moral condition, and the same holds true for all the pilgrims. Just as his intellect is divorced

from reality, selfreferential, and incapable of fruitful relation with the world, so his sexuality is narcissistic,

divorced from nature, sterile, and nonlife-giving. In this way Chaucer incarnates in the very physical condition

of the Pardoner the philosophy and morality that the pilgrim will attempt to promote.

The Pardoner’s perverse use of Scripture also harmonizes with his other characteristics. Like the Wife, the

Pardoner refers only to that part of the text that serves his immediate purpose, usually distorting it, and

Chaucer relies on the audience’s familiarity with the true sense of the text to introduce a meaning ironically

contrary to that which the Pardoner intends. Such is the case with the Pardoner’s motto, “Radix malorum est

Cupiditas,” which he takes from Saint Paul’s letter to Timothy (one of Paul’s most prominent disciples), in

which Paul gives instructions on the creation and maintenance of the Christian community. Much of the letter

is concerned with false teaching and empty speech, and these are connected with cupidity by Paul: “Now the

end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned:

From which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling.” Chaucer encourages and expects his

audience to go beyond the lines of the text quoted by his pilgrim and to consider it in its wider context, which

ironically reflects on the storytelling author-pilgrim.

There is much in the Pauline text from which the Pardoner extracts his dictum that reflects directly on the

Pardoner himself, but perhaps nothing quite so pertinent as the following: “He is proud, knowing nothing, but

doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, Perverse

disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness.” The irony of

the Pardoner’s citing of Saint Paul is not only that the Pauline text exposes the vice of the very one who cites

it, but also that it provides an alternative position on the function of language to that held by the Pardoner.

Paul’s view, stated here and elsewhere, is that true language and true doctrine come directly from God so that

man may know the truth, which is divine in origin and eternal: “Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an

apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity.” Thus, before the

pilgrim- author has succeeded in establishing his intended meaning, the text is invested by a higher authorship

with an alternative meaning capable of changing the nature of the whole text. The audience need only be

capable of finding it.

Apparently originating in the East in Buddhist literature, versions of the “Pardoner’s Tale” are found

throughout the world in all times up to our own (John Huston’s film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is such

a version). Its timeless appeal certainly has something to do with its enigmatic quality and the multiple layers

of meaning and of irony it contains. Chaucer’s original contribution is in the development of the figure of the

old man who points the way to the final denouement. Chaucer’s rendering of the tale, however, is one that

maintains the commentary of the Pilgrim-Author throughout in the form of the sermon, which also

characterized his prologue. Having established the three protagonists of the tale as figures of capital sins,

many of which he has accused himself of earlier, the author interrupts the narrative of the tale to comment on

its moral significance.

Gluttony, avarice, and idolatry are the chief sins of the Pardoner’s characters, and as he enumerates and

describes them he also shows them to be related to each other. Appealing to a series of ancient sources,

including both wise pagans and Scripture, the Pardoner creates a powerful condemnation of these sins:

Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale” 112Allas! a foul thyng is it, by my feith,

To seye this word, and fouler is the dede,

Whan man so drynketh of the white and rede

That of his throte he maketh his pryvee [privy / toilet],

Thurgh thilke cursed superfluitee.

In this formulation, the Pardoner alludes to the relationship between the word and that which it signifies,

declaring the reality (gluttony or fornication) the signifier, to be more than the “word”, or signifier, but, also,

the word to be appropriate to what it expresses; both are “foul.” However, were the author sincere in this

belief, he would personally repudiate the thing he so describes. Rather, in the case of the Pardoner, who has

openly established himself as the personification of these vices, we are treated to a display of rhetorical skill,

for he is engaged in creating a fiction about three characters guilty of these vices. By interspersing the

fictional narrative with a discourse on the nature of those sins, he deliberately blurs the boundaries between

the fictional universe of the tale and the real world to which it should correspond. In other words, by

reweaving into the fiction the lesson, or meaning, that may be derived from it, the Pardoner attempts to

neutralize that meaning by making it fictive.

Like the Pardoner himself, the three rioters of his tale take signs of all kinds for reality. Hearing that Death has

slain one of their companions, they set out to find and to slay Death, swearing by “God’s bones” to

accomplish the deed before nightfall. This additional reference to bones recalls the author’s earlier

description of his false relics, and associates the rioters’ quest to control the reality of death with the

Pardoner’s theory of reality as illusion. This brotherhood, whose members have sworn to live and die for

each other, encounter in their quest an old man whose quest is not to slay Death but to join it, to remedy a life

overextended and empty of vigor. His instructions to the youths are correct:

To fynde Deeth, turne up this croked wey,

For in that grove I lafte hym, by my fey,

Under a tree, and there he wole abyde;

Noght for youre boost he wole him no thyng hyde.

Se ye that ook? Right there ye shal hym fynde.

The old man not only pursues Death, but knows where, for all but himself, it is to be found, as his advice to

the youths demonstrates. Yet he, himself, is unable to possess Death, condemned, as he tells us, forever to

wander in search of what he knows but cannot become one with. Like the Pardoner, according to his own

boast, the old man can lead others to what they seek, but is forever separate from it. The three rioters conceive

of reality in a material and literalist way, thinking that death is a tangible, and thus controllable, phenomenon.

Their dedication to food and drink is another dimension of their materialism, and so for them, signs, words,

and concepts, such as the death bell they hear, the oaths they swear, and Death whom they pursue, contain no

greater reality than their experiential existence. The old man, on the other hand, has lost this naive enthusiasm

for the world of particulars, having long lived the bitter experience of a radically nominalist world

disconnected from the real. He has become the empty sign: “Lo how I vanysshe, flessh, and blood, and skyn!

/ Allas! whan shul my bones been at reste?” Still another reference to bones! He is the very sign of Death by

his appearance and words, but he cannot connect with the reality that he signifies and remains a particular in

search of a universal. He is the living death, the oxymoron, the contradiction that so permeates the Pardoner’s

prologue and tale.

All the characters of the tale, then, constitute the pilgrim-author and reveal him. The Pardoner’s gluttony and

swearing is echoed in the rioters who further establish his materialist-relativist philosophy in the narrative,

while his eunuchry and spiritual oldness are reflected in the old man’s physical lifelessness; that figure

further establishes his author’s nominalist philosophy in the tale through his isolation from what he knows.

The tale is brought to a wonderfully ironic end through the Pardoner’s brilliant use of a Eucharistic metaphor

Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale” 113when, having found gold instead of Death under the tree, one of the trio is sent for bread and wine to celebrate

their fortune. After murdering their brother, who has brought back the food, so as to divide the gold between

them, the two survivors drink the wine, which the younger victim has poisoned in the hope of having the

treasure all for himself. For the first and only time in the tale, the sign (gold: cupidity) and what it signifies

(death) are brought together to the confounding of character and author alike.

At various levels of the tale, the Pardoner’s authorial intentions are fulfilled. As a moral sermon the tale

conditions the audience to repent of the various sins that they have seen so dramatically depicted and

punished, and as an intellectual proposition it sufficiently confuses the nature and efficacy of signs so as to

gain possible acceptance for his nominalist literary theory. But most important, from the author’s point of

view, the tale has set the stage for his ultimate extension of both theory and practice, the use of morality to

destroy morality and the use of literature to destroy literature. The Pardoner hurries at the end of his tale

toward that goal, immediately offering to his audience his false relics as means of redemption.

The Pardoner has good reason to hurry, realizing, perhaps, that within his tale, for all his careful rhetoric,

lurks another possible significance antithetical to the meaning and application he intends. The longer the

audience explores the text’s allegorical relations to the world and to other texts, the more this meaning

emerges from it. The bread and wine that bring death expand in significance as they are inevitably associated

with the bread and wine that truly slay death; the oak under which the rioters find gold and death similarly

unfolds into symbol when associated with the tree of life and the text “the wages of sin is death”; the

numerous partial citations from Scripture and other authoritative texts reach out to their full contexts to create

a larger and inevitably contradictory meaning to that intended by the author. But nothing so menaces the

Pardoner’s success as the figure of the old man who, as the personification of the author, reveals the

Pardoner’s way as living death. With the memory of the skeletal old man who points the way to death so

fresh in their minds, how terrifying to the pilgrims must seem the old bones which the Pardoner now offers to

them as relics.

In order to ensure the self-referentiality of the tale (so important to the success of his enterprise), the Pardoner

attempts to extend its terms into the world of the Canterbury pilgrimage itself by urging his fellow travelers to

accept his false relics and thereby give assent to the ideology of empty signs, meaningless experience, and

positivist art:

But, sires, o [one] word forgat I in my tale:

I have relikes and pardoun in my male [pouch],

As faire as any man in Engelond,

Whiche were me yeven [given] by the popes hond.

If any of yow wole, of devocion,

Offren, and han myn absolucion,

Com forth anon, and kneleth heere adoun,

And mekely receyveth my pardoun.

While we cannot know which, if any, of the pilgrims reached for coins in order to buy into the Pardoner’s

proposition, we see the destruction of his scheme when he appropriately singles out Harry Bailly as his main

target. As Harry has, in fact, invented the idea of a tale-telling pilgrimage and acts as the official literary critic,

his assent to the Pardoner’s theory is most crucial. For, just as the pilgrimage itself is a physical journey

toward an objective reality in time and space, that is, the shrine of Canterbury and its relics, which is a sign of

a spiritual journey toward salvation, so too the tales told during the pilgrimage are an intellectual use of sign

implying such a spiritual reality and the purposeful mental journey toward it. Harry’s assent to the

Pardoner’s epistemological principles would have destroyed the meaning of both the physical and mental

journeys and would have provided the Pardoner with the vengeance and the leadership he seems to desire.

Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale” 114The Host’s ferocious rejection of the Pardoner’s philosophy arises out of both his abilities and his

limitations. Although he has shown himself throughout to be unable to interpret the tales beyond their level of

entertainment, he nevertheless has a strong and correct instinct for what makes fiction work: Harry knows

what constitutes tedium and what constitutes delight, and as far as his judgments go, they are correct. This

common man’s intuition about art’s need for reality, for mimesis, coupled with his natural, virile heartiness,

define Bailly as the Pardoner’s contrary and his natural antagonist. When these opposites clash, the violence

is considerable:

“Nay, nay!” quod he, “thanne have I Cristes curs [curse]!

Lat be,” quod he, “it shal nat be, so theech [as I hope to prosper]!

Thou woldest make me kisse thyne olde breech [breeches],

And swere it were a relyk of a seint,

Though it were with thy fundement depeint [stained by your buttocks]!

But, by the croys [cross] which that Seint Eleyne fond,

I woulde I hadde thy coillons [testicles] in myn hond

In stide of relikes or of seintuarie [holy objects].

Lat kutte [cut] hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie;

They shul be shryned [enshrined] in an hogges toord [turd]!”

This very personal attack on the Pardoner addresses his intellectual position as well as his corporeal condition

and is both appropriate and extremely telling, rendering the Pardoner speechless in defeat. The Host has at

once cruelly unmasked his adversary’s physical deficiency and the sterility of his philosophy. “Your relics

and your theories,” Harry storms, “are as worthless as your testicles,” thus knitting up and exposing all the

elements of this author’s motives and methods.

That the Pardoner’s downfall comes through his misuse of relics is significant. By his forceful rhetoric he has

succeeded in purging verbal signs of their significance, but his war on meaning is total. Like words, relics

were also conceived of assigns, but as signs with a simpler and more direct relationship to what they signified.

As the etymology of the word suggests, a relic was considered the “remains” of a person or object especially

sanctified. Often they were parts of a saint’s body or something that had touched the body and had thus taken

into themselves a degree of the power of the sacred object. Like icons, relics do much more than represent

what they signify; they cause the reality to be present: “The icon is not consubstantial with its prototype and

yet, while employing symbolism, is not itself a symbol. It causes to emerge, not without a certain artistic

rigidity, a personal presence; and it is symbolism which reveals this presence, as well as the entire cosmic

context that surrounds it.”

Differing from the usual function of words, relics incarnate what they stand for and are a conduit for a power

no longer present. Their authenticity, then, is more obviously crucial to their function, although, like the false

words of the Pardoner, a false relic may inspire real faith and devotion. Relics and icons are, therefore, more

powerful than words and yet far less supple. Language, even false language, does, in fact, participate in the

making of meaning, whereas a false relic, like an impotent man, can engender nothing, as Harry Bailly so

bluntly puts it. According to medieval theory, a false relic will under no circumstances have the effect it is

supposed to have, although the subjective belief that it inspires may have merit as piety. The relic, then,

depends completely for its power on the objective, independent existence of that of which it is the remains and

the sign.

The Canterbury pilgrimage is one directed toward a relic, the remains of Saint Thomas à Becket. The

Pardoner realizes that it is not only the stories told on the journey that must be the object of his attack, but also

the goal of the journey itself, if he is to impose his view of reality upon the pilgrims. But at the same time that

he voids words of their signifying power and relics of their incarnating power, he also assults a third category

of sign, one preeminent and unique in medieval Christian thought, the Eucharist. The Pardoner’s central

Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale” 115allusion to this “sign of signs” comes in his insincere denunciation of gluttony: “Thise cookes, how they

stampe, and streyne, and grynde, / And turnen substaunce into accident.”

The theory of the Eucharist is that through the repetition of Christ’s words at the Last Supper, bread and wine

become the Body and Blood of Christ while retaining their natural form and appearance. Through this

transubstantiation the accidents, or visible and tangible aspects of the bread and wine, remain while the

substance, or essence, is changed to that of the Divinity. Just as the Pardoner uses the image of bread and

wine at the end of the tale to denote death, so here he uses the theory of transubstantiation to describe gluttony

and luxury, and for good reason. For in the Eucharist is discovered the highest order of the real, in that it is

both sign and signified simultaneously. For it is not a true sign of something else, nor only a representation,

nor even an icon that calls forth the divine presence in the Eucharist, but it is a complete union of symbol and

reality, which, as it is eaten by the faithful, denotes the complete union of knower and known, creator and

created, universal and particular.

For the radical nominalist, the possibility that every day, in every church, the particulars of bread and wine not

only communicated a universal, but became the universal of universals (Plato’s nous, Christianity’s

superessential Being), posed a serious problem, and in Chaucer’s time more than in any other the question of

transubstantiation was hotly argued. Robert E. Nichols, Jr., in his study of the Eucharistic symbolism in the

“Pardoner’s Tale,” describes one side of the controversy: “Wyclif, who declared that hypocritical clergy by

their actions ‘ben made wafreris,’ protested the fiction that any priest can ‘make’ the body of Christ daily

by saying mass, arguing that he simply ‘makes’ in the host a sign of the Lord.”

We see how far-reaching is the Pardoner’s attack on cognition when we realize that the three cornerstones of

knowledge—language, icon, and Eucharist—which he attempts to undermine, constitute the epistemological

structure of the Middle Ages. Just as he empties signs of their signification through his manipulation of

language, and just as he demotes the function of the relic to that of the empty sign, so, too, he attempts to

devalue the mystery of the Eucharist to the status of a human sign. Attempting to project his own spiritual

decay onto the world through the use of fiction in his tale, this author threatens the basis of fiction itself. But

in Chaucerian poetics there is within language, and thus within fiction, the power to reassert the essential

connection with reality, as is revealed in this case through the unlikely agency of the Host, “moost envoluped

in synne.”

Source: David Williams, “Language Redeemed: ‘The Pardoner’s Tale,’” in “The Canterbury Tales”: A

Literary Pilgrimage, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 53–100.

Language Redeemed: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”

In the following essay excerpt, David Williams examines how the Wife of Bath wields her own version of

experience and authority in telling her tale.

Whatever may be the interpretation she places on the “Miller’s Tale,” the Wife of Bath must have enjoyed it

thoroughly. Her own prologue and tale are similar exercises in turning everything upside down, but with the

Wife of Bath, Chaucer seems to be exploring similar questions under a different theme, a theme that the Wife

herself identifies as experience and authority as alternative means of understanding the truth. In his important

study Chaucerian Fiction, Robert Burlin has shown the central importance of this theme in all of Chaucer’s

work, but nowhere is it as explicitly addressed as in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale”: “She was preserved illiterate,

allowed only the puny weapon of her own ‘experience’ to contend with an armory of masculine

‘auctoritee’. No wonder, then, that the Wife uses any strategy that comes to hand to establish and defend her

identity. No wonder, either, that she finds herself uncomfortably contrary, consistently obliged to assume the

very position she is opposing.” Philosophically she is off to a bad start, however, since in the Middle Ages

Language Redeemed: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” 116this somewhat complicated concept of authority and experience as the basis of human cognition normally

regarded both elements as necessary for correct understanding. But the Wife is a dualist in all she undertakes;

she divides, differentiates, and emphasizes conflict wherever possible.

Ideally, human knowledge of truth is achieved through both experience and authority, although each, and the

sources of each, are different. In this tradition, all texts represent authority; all interpretation is experience.

The ultimate textual authority is Scripture, of course, because God is its Author. The ideal of experience, it

follows, is to be found in the life of Christ, who is seen as the definitive interpreter of Scripture, the

paradigmatic exegete. It is here in the authoritative Word of God as revealed in Scripture and in the historical

life of Christ, the Verbum Dei, that the junction of experience and authority is to be found. Beyond these

models lie numerous other examples of authority and experience: truth is authority, language is experience;

meaning is authority, signification is experience; the knowable is authority, reason is experience; universals

are authority, particulars are experience. Usually authority is superior to experience, but this is not always the

case. Particularly when the authority is human—for instance, a man-made text—the right use of reason, which

is experience, may be the better guide. In any case, both ideally coincide in the Augustinian “good man

skilled in teaching [vir bonus discendi paritus]” whose experience guided by authority leads to correct

perception and communication of the knowable.

The “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” begins for the Canterbury Tales a debate on the question of marriage in

which several other pilgrims participate. It is the woe in marriage that the Wife announces as her theme, while

declaring that were there no authority on which to base her understanding of the subject, her own experience

would be sufficient. On at least one level this is quite true, since she herself is the “author” of that woe

experienced by her five husbands. Immediately, then, we see that the terms and concepts of authority and

experience are to be used in several ways typical of Chaucerian irony. It is clear, for instance, that the Wife’s

use of “experience” has little to do with Thomas Aquinas’s experimentum, the intellectual ordering and

unifying of present perceptions with previous remembered perceptions.

While the Wife’s entire prologue consists of memories of her past, neither her reasoning in the present about

them nor her interpretation of other tales that she hears in the present pilgrimage bring order, or

understanding, or meaning to her life. To cite Burlin’s convenient summary of the medieval sense of

experience: “This, then, is the ‘experience’ that underlies the Middle English definitions. It is more than the

apprehension of the senses, or a collection of remembered objects; it is a unifying activity linking actual

perception to what has been apprehended in the past.” The Wife’s sense of experience is hardly a unifying

activity, but rather one that separates her from everything she seeks. As opposed to integrating present with

past, it leads only to a melancholy desire for what was. As the champion of experience over authority, she

fails dismally, since the one thing that eludes her is real experience in the meaningful sense. To the Wife of

Bath, experience is understood only in its most literal and banal senses: it means sex and power. Significantly,

in her prologue, experience is something that exists only in the past and in the future, and, as the Wife makes

clear, she looks forward hopefully to more sex and power as soon as possible. Experience for the Wife has

become memory and anticipation without reality in the present.

Ironically, it is to authority that the Wife appeals in her assertion of the superiority of experience, and we are

treated to a sustained demonstration of reason applied to text. She begins with scriptural stories of the

wedding at Cana and the oft-married Samaritan encountered by Jesus at the well. Her exegesis of these

passages is forthright: she has no idea, she declares, what they could possibly mean! She is much more

comfortable with the Old Testament, particularly the commandment of Genesis, “Go, wax and multiply!”

Wax she will, but she prefers division and subtraction to multiplying and goes on to cite the command that

husbands must leave fathers and mothers, dividing it from the commandment to wives about their obligations.

Several scriptural figures are used to characterize the Wife. We recall her introduction in the “General

Prologue”: “A good Wif was ther Of biside BATHE, / But she was somdel deef [somewhat deaf], and that

Language Redeemed: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” 117was scathe [a pity]”. Her own reference to the Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets by a well identifies her, a

woman from near Bath, with that other, five-time-wedded figure. But the Samaritan understands the words of

Christ (“I perceive that thou art a prophet”, whereas the Wife is “somdel deef.” She prefers to be the vessel

of wood or earth (dishonor) rather than one of gold or silver (honor) and is content to be humble barley bread

as long as she does not have to be refined white bread, especially when she recalls that it was with

“barly-breed [bread]” that “Oure Lord Jhesu refresshed many a man.” She is associated with multiplicity and

the “old,” both physically and spiritually, as she complains of advancing years and as she adopts the literalist,

“old-law” interpretation of life.

The Wife’s prologue is the longest by far of all the pilgrims’, and in its biographical character seems to grow

into a tale in its own right, one that is intimately related to the story of the rapist knight she tells later on. The

Wife’s life, then, becomes her text and sole authority. Since we find no indication that the account she gives

is not accurate, the fictitiousness of that text arises, rather, from the basic fiction of its model: that is, her life

is shown to be a lie, a flawed text giving no authoritative knowledge of the real.

The Wife has a strong effect on her audience as we see when the Pardoner interrupts her during her prologue

to compliment her for being a “noble prechour [preacher]” on the subject of marriage. She has just finished

misinterpreting Saint Paul: “The wife hath not power of her body, but the husband: and likewise also the

husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.” As she disjoins the unity of authority and experience,

so too, here, as in all other authorities she cites, the Wife fragments the text and cites only the part that

advances her interpretation: “I have the power durynge al my lyf / Upon his propre body, and noght he.” The

Pardoner, like the Wife, approves the text he hears for his own reasons, and will adopt her method of

interpreting texts when his turn comes. He was about to marry, he says, but has learned the disadvantages of

such a course from the Wife’s description of wedded life. Throughout the Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner is a

figure anxious to conceal and to rationalize his lack of virility; his “celibacy” is thus given a rational basis in

the Wife’s text. But this author encourages her audience to believe that there is more complicated matter in

her tale to come and by careful attention the listener, in this case the Pardoner, may better judge the proper

application of the fiction they are about to hear to the reality they live.

“Telle forth youre tale . . . / And teche us yonge men of your praktike [practice]” urges the Pardoner, and the

Wife goes on to conclude this contract with the audience in the now-familiar formula: “For myn entente is nat

but for to pleye.” The Pardoner has good reason to welcome the Wife’s fiction, for as a perceptive interpreter

of tales, he has already gleaned this author’s poetics as one grounded in the pleasant relativist theory that

isolates fiction from reality in order to assert the one for the other.

Although still only at the beginning of her prologue, the Wife proclaims, “Now, sire, now wol I telle forth my

tale,” and proceeds with an account of her married life with five spouses. In a way, this point in her prologue

really is the beginning of her tale, for as we shall see, her tale proper becomes a metaphoric representation of

the life she describes in the prologue, while the meaning she ascribes to her autobiography is firmly grounded

in fantasy.

Alisoun boasts of her triumph over her husbands and describes the techniques by which she mastered them.

The husbands fall into two categories: three were rich and old but inadequate to her erotic demands; the last

two were sexually vigorous but more difficult to control. In the one kind of relationship the Wife achieves half

of what she desires—power; in the other, she achieves the rest—sex; but at the end of her prologue we see that

she has failed to attain the unity of the two, which she desires. Like her method of reasoning, her experience is

fragmented and divided, ever at war with itself, and as she attains satisfaction in one way, she loses it in

another. Her situation is not without pathos, for as a sensualist and materialist, she is doomed to a life of

fleeting experiences, which never quite attain the real and which are, thus, interpretable only within the

limitations of the flux of time and matter. It is this materialism that gives such prominence to memory and

anticipation in her moving lament:

Language Redeemed: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” 118But, Lord Crist! whan that it remembreth me

Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,

It tikleth me aboute myn herte roote.

Unto this day it dooth myn herte boote [good]

That I have had my world as in my tyme.

But age, allas! that al wole envenyme [poison],

Hath me biraft [robbed] my beautee and my pith [vigor].

Lat go, farewel! the devel go therwith!

The flour is goon, ther is namoore to telle;

The bren [bran], as best I kan, now moste I selle;

But yet to be right myrie wol I fonde [invent].

With her last husband, Jankyn, the clerk, the Wife is seen anew in the role of audience, for her learned spouse

has taken to educating her through readings from several authoritative texts, which include those of

Theophrastus, Tertullian, and Saint Jerome. She is a most unwilling audience, and in her fury against these

antifeminist readings she demonstrates something of the powerful relation of literature to life. The tales that

Jankyn reads are of evil women throughout history and legend, and they largely preach chastity and marital

affection, virtues not likely to excite the Wife’s sympathies. She is particularly enraged when her husband

continues to read these texts instead of coming to bed, so much so that she finally tears pages from the book,

strikes him, and knocks him into the fireplace. In the ensuing battle, the Wife’s persistence is sufficient to

overcome Jankyn’s scholarship; the book is burned, and according to one party, at least, they live for a while

in a harmony based upon her mastery and his capitulation, described in terms that echo those of the ending of

the tale the Wife is about to tell.

The irony of the Wife’s feminism as seen in her literary creation—her tale—is that the tale not only subscribes

to the antifeminist cliché that all women, in their heart of hearts, desire to be raped, but it reinforces it. We see

this first at the very outset, in her lament for the disappearance of incubi and spirits, who, according to the

Wife, were capable in former ages of relieving women of reticence in sexual affairs, and perhaps teaching

them a thing or two. In her day, alas, there were only inept (or, perhaps, incapable) begging friars lurking

behind every bush. We see the pro-rape theme next in the construction of the tale, in which female authority

forgives rape, and we see it finally, when the denouement of the tale becomes an occasion for the

universalized mutual rape of mind as well as body. As a tale to illustrate her theme, in which female authority

deposes male authority, it serves particularly poorly, just as her apologia in her prologue turns her argument

upside down. For in the Wife’s “faerie-lond” there are no men or women, just morally androgynous

personifications of herself, and the dialectic that she attempts to set up between the male and the female shows

itself false. The only authentic figures of womanhood and manhood are the aggrieved maiden seeking justice

and the abdicating King Arthur possessing just authority, and these two characters are quickly disposed of by

the carnal author to make room for the personifications of herself in the queen, the hag, and the knight.

The queen’s usurpation of authority and the transformation of justice into a game prefigure the hag’s

preempting of the knight’s will at the end of the tale, turning moral choice into an illusion of shape-shifting

and fantasy. But this inversion has already been established for the tale in the knight’s aggression against the

maid, in which he has allowed the hag of lust to usurp the moral choice of his victim, imposing his will on

hers. Thus the fantasy of the Wife’s world is that of the shell game, and the con man, where despite the

physical shape-shifting of the tale and the conceptual shape-shifting of her interpretation, nothing changes

because nothing has any substance to change. Feminism is another form of antifeminism, love another form of

lust, and the possibility of rational understanding, a fantasy.

In the conclusion to the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” we see the triumph of her theme—tyranny. The author herself

is the rapist knight. In her relationship with her five husbands, she has imposed her will and her desires; in her

exegesis of Scripture and authoritative texts, she has imposed her interpretation. She abuses both. Authority,

Language Redeemed: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” 119represented by the king, would have inflicted the appropriate punishment on the violent knight, but the Wife

in her role as fairy queen commutes his sentence in order to rape him back in a kind of eye-for-an-eye

(“gattooth- for-gat-tooth”) justice. The knight will be raped morally when he relinquishes his integrity to the

hag and gives up the power of choice in order to live happily ever after in the world of rape, which the Wife as

author promotes. But, as we have seen, he has already accomplished this, without any help from the hag, in

his encounter with the maiden, by abdicating to carnal impulse. He has, as it were, raped himself, just as the

tale’s author, the Wife of Bath, who has created him and the theme of rape, is a perpetual self-rapist.

The Wife’s tale is set in the past, for which she expresses a nostalgic preference. It is a past so remote as to

constitute for Chaucer’s time an epoch of myth and fantasy, and it is this fantastic dimension that makes

“th’olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour” so much more attractive than the present to the aging Wife. As in her

personal past history there were youth, vigor, and unlimited sensuality (or so she now believes), so she posits

in the days of Camelot a world of magic and lawlessness. Nowadays, she laments, a woman may go where she

pleases with no fear of rape, for all the fantastic elements have been chased from the world by religion and

law. In the world that the Wife constructs for her tale, all desires, no matter how contradictory, no matter how

base, come true. The author’s prologue has revealed an experience of life in opposition to reality and the

sorrow it entails: “Allas! allas! that evere love was synne!” In her tale the opposition is resolved by doing

away with reality altogether. It is only in unified reality, a reality that the Wife’s dualistic experience has

concealed from her, that love is never sin. She therefore seeks this unification in fiction, both in the

necessarily incomplete fiction of her life and in the more complete fiction of her tale.

What law is found in fairyland is soon overturned when Arthur, like the Wife’s husbands, capitulates to the

queen and her ladies. Feminine justice seems more merciful, since unlike established law, which prescribed

death for rape, the queen merely assigns a riddle: “What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren”; only in

failing to obtain the right answer will the knight die. The false solutions to the riddle offered to him by those

he questions constitute a justification of the author’s theoretical position, for they are, by and large, the same

as the accusations against women that her last husband asserted: desire for wealth, flattery, lust, and license.

The true answer comes by magic when in the place where he has been watching a fairy dance, he discovers a

“wyf”—old and foul—who teaches the young knight, just as the Pardoner had urged the author to do, the right

response. The knight thus wins his life and the old hag a young husband by the formula that what women

most want is power over men. But the knight finds that he is immediately faced with still another riddle,

which, like the first, is deeply rooted in dualism: how can a woman be both beautiful and faithful?

Through the fiction of her tale the author has fulfilled her desires and resolved the oppositions they

engendered in life. In the allegory of her tale, the narrative relates only to the biography of her own desired

future life, not to a higher level of meaning in reality external to the text. Merging with her characters, she is

the raped maiden, but delighting in the lawless and violent sexuality she complains has disappeared from the

contemporary world; she is the queen wresting from her husband the administration of the law; and she is, of

course, the hag, suffering the rejection of the youthful knight because of her age. But in fairyland and in

fiction this, too, is easily overcome: the author and the knight merge into one, in a dialogue between young

husband and old wife that constitutes a monologue in which the author communicates only with herself.

Source: David Williams, “Language Redeemed: ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale,’” in "The Canterbury Tales": A

Literary Pilgrimage, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 53–100.

Perception and Reality in the “Miller's Tale”

In the following essay, Patrick J. Gallacher applies Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on perception to “the

much-discussed portrait of Alison and to the perceptual responses of John, Absolon, and Nicholas” in “The

Miller’s Tale.”

Perception and Reality in the “Miller's Tale” 120The “Miller’s Tale,” if not the fabliau as a genre, presents us with a pattern of mistakes in perception, a

sharp, dramatic contrast between the real and the imaginary, which confirms basic assumptions about our

world at the same time that it raises important questions. Although our sense of the real begins with what is

both actual and possible in perception, it is easy to confuse the two, or to underestimate one or the other. The

relevant truism, of course, is that we usually think we know what’s there, but we often don’t. In fact, the

main comic incidents in the “Miller’s Tale”—kiss, laying on of hot ploughshare, falling off the roof—belong

to that type of slapstick comedy based on such confusion. Our response to the confusion derives from

assumptions concerning perception, or, according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from the fact that the perceived

world is an ensemble of routes taken by the body. The characters portrayed by the brilliant practitioners of this

kind of comedy—Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, or Jacques Tati—cannot discover these routes. Given a

metaphysical ungainliness in such clowns, the ordinary routes of the body are like mysterious passages sought

by legendary navigators. Inspector Clouzot cannot walk into a room without being ambushed by lamps and

chairs, or becoming locked in mortal combat with a telephone.

In what follows, I shall give a much abbreviated summary of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on perception, the most

important of which are immanence and transcendence, or presence and absence, which, in turn, are basically

different aspects of the more inclusive antithesis of the actual and the possible. I shall then apply these ideas to

the much-discussed portrait of Alison and to the perceptual responses of John, Absolon, and Nicholas.

Merleau-Ponty attempts to explain the sense of the real that begins in perception through a program of

perceptual calisthenics that both trims our assumptions and tones up our expectations. Perception, he points

out, is always both more and less than we think, potential and actual in surprising ways, both unlimited and

limited, transcendent and immanent. We always see, hear, and touch from the point of view of a limited

perspective; but within that limited point of view there are clues, reflections, implied textures of “an immense

latent content of the past, the future, and the elsewhere.” We are always confronted by the unchallengeable

presence and the perpetual absence of things, and nothing reveals itself without thereby hiding most of itself.

Perception then is paradoxically both immanent and transcendent: immanent because I cannot conceive a

perceptible place in which I myself am not present. Even if I try to imagine some place in the world which has

never been seen, the very fact that I imagine it makes me present at that place. By transcendence in perception

is meant that the things which I see are things for me only under the condition that they always recede beyond

their immediately given aspects. I never see a house in its entirety, or the house as seen from everywhere. The

house is given as an infinite sum of perspectives, a series of partial views in each of which it is given, but in

none of which is it given exhaustively. An observation of Paul Claudel’s brilliantly dramatizes the paradox:

“a certain blue of the sea is so blue that only blood would be more red.” Itself paradoxical, this poetically

schematic insight captures that sense of expansiveness and singularity which describes perception, the

synecdoche or metonymy within the basic act itself.

In general, then, our perceptual existence is fully accounted for by what we actually and potentially see, hear,

smell, touch, and taste. This actuality and possibility are inextricably bound together in the same act of

perception, with an emphasis, however, on what can be, on the fact that a thing continues to be defined by that

which is beyond our immediate sense experience. The contrast between the real and the imaginary, an

essential feature of the climactic incidents in the “Miller’s Tale,” invokes a special manifestation of this

transcendence. When an illusion dissipates, when an appearance suddenly breaks up, it is always for the profit

of a new appearance which takes up again for its own account the ontological function of the first. The

disillusion is the loss of one evidence only because it is the acquisition of another evidence. A convincing

substitution of the real for the imaginary reveals the “prepossession of a totality which is there before one

knows how or why, whose realizations are never what we would have imagined them to be, and which

nonetheless fulfills a secret expectation within us, since we believe in it tirelessly.” The least particle of the

perceived incorporates it from the first into this paradoxical totality and the most credible phantasm glances

off at the surface of the world, because the whole world is present in one reflection and is irremediably absent

in the richest and most systematic deliriums. The act of judgment, by distinguishing the real from the

Perception and Reality in the “Miller's Tale” 121imaginary, by saying that one thing is not and that something else is, invokes the mysterious totality of what

is, of being, which is all there is, because outside of this, there is nothing.

The portrait of Alison provides not only an emblem of totality by the encyclopedic variety of its imagery, but

introduces us also to the insistent presence and absence in perception itself. Images of things that are early,

young, new, or fresh give us a sense of unchallengeable presence akin to seeing something for the first time.

She is more joyous to look at than the “newe pere-jonette tree.” Other images, such as the primrose, cuckoo

flower, and the latten pearls on her leather purse, suggest a filling out of vegetative and mineral categories;

and, indeed, the effictio as a device is intended to give satisfaction precisely by its completeness. Again, it is

the actuality of presence and immanence that we primarily experience in Alison’s resemblance to young

animals in her sudden, playful bursts of vitality; and yet the skittish, elusive quality of these images suggests

the unforeseen, the unpredictable—Alison’s enticing possibilities, which in turn reflect a seductiveness in

reality itself. With this elusiveness, a kind of absence comes into her portrait that has further sensuous

developments: “Hir mouth was sweete as bragot or the meeth, / Or hoord of apples leyd in hey or heeth.” The

apple simile, with its circular rhythms, directs perception sensuously to Alison, who, though not seen in her

entirety, is nevertheless amply comprehended. The rotund depth of the store of apples intimates the unseen,

unfelt, secret life of what is perceived. What is inviting to taste and sight here is potential, not actually tactile

or visible and hence part of the perceptually transcendent. The most compelling union of presence and

absence, however, of the actual and the possible, is the image of the doll—popelote, which, by evoking the

urge to grasp and fondle, elicits such a lively possibility that its realization seems already present. The

response intended by the portrait is perhaps summed up in Absolon’s reaction: “if she hadde been a mous, /

And he a cat, he wolde hire hente anon.” In a word, there is a pounceability about Alison that sets in motion

the exploration of physical and moral space. Just as the courtly heroine often has a philosophical dimension,

Alison, her rural counterpart, brings us uniquely into contact with what is real. In reacting to Alison, her two

suitors and husband display ludicrous, but unmistakable metaphysical gestures. Nicholas is precipitous in

seizing upon the newly perceived and manifests a raunchy grabbiness. Absolon courts the real by dandyism.

The apprehensive husband, John, only wants to imprison the real, which is unpredictable in its hiddenness,

and to keep Alison “narwe in cage.”

John’s view of the world rejects what is transcendent in the real, a rejection that begins in his habits of

perception and becomes especially clear in his boastfully ignorant attitude towards “Goddes pryvetee.” Two

uses of this phrase, which richly suggests the mysterious totality of the real, occur in a sequence that begins

when Nicholas sequesters himself in his room: for John, this hiddenness refers to things that men should not

know; for Nicholas, it is an effectively persuasive reason for not informing Robin and Gill of the flood. At

John’s anxious insistence, his “knave” goes up to the room “ful sturdily,” in that manner of confidently and

precisely taking hold of things that characterizes the tricksters in the story, recalling the directness of

Nicholas’s first approach to Alison. Receiving no response to his knock, he opens another route to his

perception. His gaze enters through a hole in the door and encounters a gaze of Nicholas in the act of seeming

to pry open the universe:

An hole he foond, ful lowe upon a bord,

Ther as the cat was wont in for to crepe,

And at that hole he looked in ful depe,

And at the laste he hadde of hym a sight.

This Nicholas sat evere capyng upright,

As he had kiked on the newe moone.

The manner in which the “knave” looks in has those aspects of limited perspective—its immanent

particularity—that foreshadow much of the action. In contrast, the bodily posture of Nicholas reveals someone

exhausted by looking, someone who has tried to see things as they are in themselves, that is, from all

perspectives. Nicholas’s pretended overgaping at the stars shows a perceptual hubris, a cocky omniscience

Perception and Reality in the “Miller's Tale” 122that will be chastened by the hot coulter, whereas Robin’s peeping through the hole is a more accurate

example of limited, serial human perception. John’s first reaction to his servant’s report—“Men sholde nat

knowe of Goddes pryvetee”—anticipates his credulity and determines his subsequent remarks about

perception. With an uneasy mixture of fear and scorn, he focuses warily on transcendence, on what can

happen—“ A man woot litel what hym shal bityde”—on the planes and routes within our perception that

escape us:

So ferde another clerk with astromye;

He walked in the feeldes, for to prye

Upon the sterres, what ther sholde bifalle,

Til he was in a marle-pit yfalle;

He saugh nat that.

For John, to employ anachronism, clerks belong with men in top hats and monocles who slip on bananna

peels, who forget the routes taken by the body. The anecdote typifies the comic confusion of immanence and

transcendence in perception, of thinking we know what’s there. John prides himself on his grasp of the

obvious, but nothing, of course, can be so elusive. He is betrayed by the transcendence of what is in front of

him. Having boasted of pious ignorance, he will be reproved for his superstition. His manner of entering

Nicholas’s room—prying under the door with a staff while Robin knocks it off its hasp—shows his artless,

downright style of being; and his exhortation to Nicholas reveals attitudes towards the transcendent that undo


Awak, and thenk on Cristes passioun!

I crouche thee from elves and fro wightes.

Therwith the nyght-spel seyde he anon-rightes

On foure halves of the hous aboute,

And on the thesshfold of the dore withoute:

“Jhesu Crist and seinte Benedight,

Blesse this hous from every wikked wight,

For nyghtes verye, the white pater-noster!

Where wentestow, seinte Petres soster?”

Superstition characterizes John’s sense of the unseen. He cannot grasp the fact that mystery begins in

perception itself: that “Goddes pryvetee” is the theological resolution of a more prosaic transcendence that

begins in the senses. For him, elves and “creatures” people horizons that he fears to acknowledge. He has

changed the reflections and clues of an elsewhere into beings that can threaten the security of his immediate

perception. Closing off his thresholds, he uses religion to avoid risks and construct defenses against reality.

His secret preparations for the flood, designed to escape the notice of Robin, Gill, and others, remove him

from that social contact that adds to our own perspectives and ironically distances him from the open totality

suggested by the phrase, “Goddes pryvetee.” A ludicrous obsession with the wrong perceptual clues,

especially a “listening in depth,” chronicles his final experience of gravity and solidity. Appropriately

situating himself in darkness, which is the absence of figure and ground, he gives himself to prayer, and

“stille he sit, / Awaitynge on the reyn, if he it heere.” Sleeping soundly through the romp below him, he is

awakened by Nicholas’s loud, wild pleas for water, and once more gives into fantasy, thinking:

“Allas, now comth Nowelis flood!”

He sit hym up withouten wordes mo,

And with his ax he smoot the corde atwo,

And doun gooth al; he foond neither to selle,

Ne breed ne ale, til he cam to the celle

Upon the floor, and ther aswowne he lay.

Perception and Reality in the “Miller's Tale” 123Having desired to keep Alison “narwe in cage,” praying to be secure from the elves and wights of feared

perceptual horizons, he plunges with due justice into what is not actually perceived, the perceptually

transcendent, the real possibilities of “Goddes pryvetee.” That a real perception dissipates an illusion could

not be more emphatically dramatized; and with authentic perception comes the presence of the whole world, a

definitive experience of the real, whose accomplishment, however, is still deferred. For the sobering future

that awaits John begins with the neighbors who run to “gauren on this man”; his broken arm; oaths

proclaiming his madness; the failure of his own explanation; and the general laughter. Although the victim of

yet another fiction, he, of course, is not deceived; and, although isolated once again, he is situated within a

more reliable and enlarged perceptual field, whose pungent reality is incontestable, for “stonde he moste unto

his owene harm. . . .”

The prelude to Absolon’s perceptual experience is the immanent, self-regarding way in which he defines the

space of his world, an attitude manifested especially in two passages. First, the virtuosity of his dancing is

presented as an unsituated physical dexterity. Exceeding the properly gratuitous movements of dance,

Absolon seems to indulge a kind of unattached flurry that anticipates his failures to locate himself in real

perceptual fields:

In twenty manere koude he trippe and daunce

After the scole of Oxenforde tho,

And with his legges casten to and fro; . . .

This prodigality of movement affects mastery of the body’s routes belied by later developments. The second

characterizing passage occurs when, taking his gitern to the carpenter’s house and dextrously poising himself

by the shuttered window, he makes musical advances to a wife actually in bed with her husband. The

insouciance of the exchange between John and Alison reverses Absolon’s own opinion of his adroitness and


This carpenter awook, and herde him synge,

And spak unto his wyf, and seyde anon,

“What! Alison! herestow nat Absolon,

That chaunteth thus under oure boures wal?”

And she answerde hir housbonde therwithal,

“Yis, God woot, John, I heere it every deel.”

Attaching so little importance to the husband’s presence shows a carelessness of figure and ground in

perception that makes him especially vulnerable to the punitive effects of an unwary imagination. When,

therefore, John ceases to be in evidence because of his hidden preparations for the flood, such total perceptual

absence guarantees misadventure.

Immediately for Absolon, as previously for John, fantasy begins to outrun perception, the imaginary to usurp

the real, which will, however, soon return with an earthy tenacity. His sense of taste becomes the focus of the

tension between perceptual immanence and transcendence: “My mouth hath icched al this longe day; / That is

a signe of kissyng atte leeste” (3682–83). The initial clue of a future elsewhere—an itching mouth—builds

lavishly to the dream of a feast, and, as he rises and prepares himself to visit Alison, becomes a sensual

concern with oral messages:

But first he cheweth greyn and lycorys,

To smellen sweete, er he hadde kembd his heer.

Under his tonge a trewe-love he beer,

For therby wende he to ben gracious.

Perception and Reality in the “Miller's Tale” 124There may be something even in his manner of walking—“He rometh to the carpenteres hous” (my

italics)—that suggests inattention to the body’s proper routes. Worsted in his first exchange with Alison, he is

promised a kiss. Most deliciously, a false transcendent anticipation bids him open his taste buds to the fullest.

His imagination is already actually enjoying the kiss before the message of the real perception enters his


This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie.

Derk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole,

And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole,

And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,

But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers

Ful savourly, er he were war of this.

Having wiped his mouth with expectant certainty, he prolongs this assurance into the manner of the act

itself—“Ful savourly”—a phrase which itself suggests lingering exploration. The reversal of this virtually

absolute assumption that we know what’s there becomes only slowly instructive for Absolon. His answer to

the real sense experience is once more fantasy, this time, to the delight of Nicholas, a beard, “a thyng al rough

and long yherd.” Biting his heretofore pampered lip, Absolon contemplates revenge, while taking temporary

comfort in the different textures of sand, straw, cloth and chips, which parody the opulent, sensual

transcendence that he sought in the kiss. The chaste plainness of these purifying textures—granular, fibrous,

smooth, incisive—corrects his wayward labial expectations and recommends a more plausible world.

Narcissism has humiliatingly distorted his capacity for accurate perceptual transcendence. Therefore, just as

John, pushed across the threshold guarded by the elves and wights of his superstition, will fall into the real

world, so with Absolon. Unsentimental, functional anatomy presses through his fantasies to reach his actual

senses. An unforeseen possible has become actual. Having selectively defined the world by dandyism, he has

been exquisitely apprised of a more inclusive view.

Finally, the nemesis of the arrogantly successful lover provides for the tale’s perceptual experiences a

generalization that is spatial and concrete, but philosophical as well. Nicholas, having successfully

manipulated John by the phrase, “Goddes pryvetee,” believes himself to be in control of the actual and

possible structure of space, but fails, like John and Absolon, to realize the range of perceptual transcendence.

Laying the plot for John and watching Alison entice Absolon to the disillusioning kiss, he has contained their

perspectives and situated their worlds within his own. In seeking to amend the jape, Nicholas wants to ascend

to a new level of trickery, a parody of further transcendence. The motif of secrecy is cumulatively present, as

Nicholas once more attempts to manipulate the hiddenness of things: “up the wyndowe dide he hastily, / And

out his ers he putteth pryvely. . . . ” (my italics). This final repetition of a secrecy word invokes the whole

pattern—the Miller’s jibe about not being inquisitive, Nicholas’s plot, John’s anti-intellectualism, the

clandestine preparation of the tubs—but especially the ontological ground of the action, that totality on whose

threshold their perceptions take place—“Goddes pryvetee.” Furthermore, “pryvely” may suggest that

Nicholas’s attempt at a new level of trickery parodies Theseus’s ascent to a new understanding of mystery in

the “Knight’s Tale.” A startlingly different possibility, however, is actualized. When Absolon requests the

object of his vengeance to speak, because he doesn’t know where she is, we are reminded, for the last time, of

the night’s darkness which creates a space of almost pure possibility and transcendence, without figure and

ground. Mortifyingly situated by the fart that gives a final response to his own squeamishness, Absolon “was

redy with his iren hoot, / And Nicholas amydde the ers he smoot.” Having fouled the air, burned in his tout,

Nicholas cries out for water; John awakens to his fantasy of a flood and falls to the ground. A parodic

succession of the elements that bind Theseus’s fair chain of love—air, fire, water, earth—attends upon this

nearly apocalyptic triumph of the real over the imaginary, and alludes to the principles of material totality in

the medieval world. Nicholas, who had pretended to view things from a kind of ubiquity, is reintroduced to

the situated world of comic limitation. Having presumptuously exploited the mysterious for the purpose of

sexual gratification, he is surprised by that literal, immediate world which he has considered his domain. His

Perception and Reality in the “Miller's Tale” 125mad plea for water testifies to the fecundity of those astonishing possiblities that he has considered so


Each of Alison’s three suitors, on one dramatic occasion, fails to gear himself successfully onto the real

world. John and Absolon most obviously and habitually have situated themselves in relation to static worlds,

one defined by narcissism, the other defined by anti-intellectual credulity; whereas Nicholas has situated

himself beyond these structures. Because of the inflexible nature of these other worlds, Nicholas, as trickster,

has been able to exploit the possibilities of real space. His own world, though combining the actual with the

possible, is, in turn, limited by the trickster’s own narrowly focused conception of this scheme. All these

worlds lack a due regard for perceptual transcendence. The fact that Absolon’s revenge, which initiates the

tale’s climax, takes the specific form of the trickster tricked makes a final essential point. If the trickster can

be tricked, he can also further trick those who are trying to trick him, a complication which in fact develops in

the “Reeve’s Tale.” This unlimited vulnerability suggests a definition of human experience, at least in the

fabliau, as an open process of interactions between actual and possible, a process which points to what in the

Middle Ages was the true field of fields. The ubiquity that Nicholas has assumed does not pertain to the real

nature of human space, which is, instead, a pact between the virtual body and the actual body, a physical

experience of potency and act, terms which for the Middle Ages encompass what is real, or being itself. This

pact is a function of the immanence and transcendence of perception, and emphasizes what can happen, that

range of very concrete possibilities that is partly the subject matter of human choice, divinely foreknown but

no obstacle to human freedom, in a phrase, “Goddes pryvetee.” The structure of perception, as described by

Maurice Merleau-Ponty and dramatized, as I hope to have shown, in the “Miller’s Tale,” provides for this

metaphysical principle a concrete manifestation. It is, I believe, partly for this reason that in the “Miller’s

Tale,” as Charles Muscatine observed, the “genre is virtually make philosophical” and so completely fulfills

its “fabliau entelechy.”

Source: Patrick J. Gallacher, “Perception and Reality in the ‘Miller’s Tale,’” in Chaucer Review, Vol. 18,

No. 1, 1983, pp. 38-48.

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale”

In the following essay, Jill Mann explains how understanding “The Franklin’s Tale” and its theme of

patience can lead to a greater understanding of the Canterbury Tales as a whole.

The “Franklin’s Tale” is not only one of the most popular of Chaucer’s tales, it is also one whose emotional

and moral concerns lie at the centre of Chaucer’s thinking and imaginative activity. It is usually thought of as

a tale about ‘trouthe’— or perhaps about ‘gentillesse’—but it is equally concerned with the ideal of patience

and the problems of time and change, which are subjects of fundamental importance not in this tale alone but

in the Canterbury Tales as a whole. What follows is intended to be not only a close discussion of the

“Franklin’s Tale,” but also an attempt to indicate how a proper reading of it can help with a proper reading

of the rest of the Tales—and indeed, of Chaucer’s work in general.

The “Franklin’s Tale” begins by introducing a knight who has, in best storybook fashion, proved his

excellence through ‘many a labour, many a greet emprise’ and thus finally won his lady who, likewise in

best storybook fashion, is ‘oon the faireste under sonne’. ‘And they lived happily ever after’ is what we

might expect to follow. And so far from trying to dispel the reader’s sense of the familiar in this situation,

Chaucer takes pains to increase it. He refers to the actors only in general terms (‘a knyght’, ‘a lady’), and

attributes to them the qualities and experiences normally associated with tales of romantic courtship (beauty,

noble family, ‘worthynesse’, ‘his wo, his peyne and his distresse’). Only after eighty lines are the knight

and the lady given the names of Arveragus and Dorigen. This generality cannot be accidental, for Chaucer’s

apparently casual comments are designed precisely to emphasize that this individual situation takes its place

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 126in a plural context:

But atte laste she, for his worthynesse,

And namely for his meke obeisaunce,

Hath such a pitee caught of his penaunce

That prively she fil of his acord

To take him for hir husband and hir lorde,

Of swich lordshipe as men han over hir wives.

What is more, they stress this plural context even in describing the feature of the situation which seems to

make it an unusual one: the knight’s promise to his lady that he:

Ne sholde upon him take no maistrye

Again hir wil, ne kithe hire jalousye,

But hire obeye, and folwe hir wil in al,

As any lovere to his lady shal.

And after the lady’s delighted promise of her own faithfulness and humility, we have a warm outburst of

praise which again consistently sets this mutual understanding in the context of a whole multiplicity of such


For o thing, sires, saufly dar I seye,

That freendes everich oother moot obeye,

If they wol longe holden compaignye.

Love wol nat been constreined by maistrye.

Whan maistrye comth, the God of Love anon

Beteth his winges, and farewel, he is gon!

Love is a thing as any spirit free.

Wommen, of kinde, desiren libertee,

And nat to been constreined as a thral;

And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal.

‘Love . . . maistrye . . . freendes . . . wommen . . . men’—the terms are abstract, plural, general. They relate

general human experience to this situation, and this situation to general human experience, with no sense of

conflict or discontinuity between the two.

I stress the importance of the general here for two reasons. The first is that this interest in the common features

of human experience is characteristic of Chaucer. The parenthetical comments which transform the singular of

the story into the plural of everyday experience are not confined to this passage or this tale alone; on the

contrary, they are so ubiquitous in Chaucer that we may take them for granted and fail to question their

significance. The second reason is that the unusualness of the relationship between Arveragus and Dorigen

has often been taken as a sign that it is aberrant—that it represents an attempt to break away from the normal

pattern of marital relationships which inevitably invites problems to follow. Against this view we should note

that however unusual the degree of generosity and humility in this relationship, Chaucer very firmly roots it in

the normal desires and instincts of men and women.

Nor is there any reason given for supposing that these desires and instincts are merely human weaknesses.

Chaucer’s own comments, some of which have been quoted, constitute an unhesitating endorsement of the

wisdom of this situation and of the participants in it. The relationship between the knight and his lady is called

‘an humble wys accord’, and the knight himself ‘this wise, worthy knight’. It would not affect this point

were anyone to argue that the comments are the Franklin’s, not Chaucer’s. For in either case any reader who

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 127wishes to dissociate him- or herself from the warm approval in these lines will face the same difficulty— and

that is the difficulty of finding a location in the tale for true wisdom and worthiness, if both characters and

narrator offer only false images of these qualities. The only way out of this difficulty would be to claim that

the reader already knows what true wisdom and worthiness are, and brings this knowledge to bear on the tale,

in criticism of its values. But this idea assumes that it is possible for his or her knowledge to remain detached

from the tale in a way that the passage we are considering simply refuses to allow. For if the reader is a

woman, to refuse to acknowledge the truth of what is said about her sex is, ipso facto, to accept the legitimacy

of her own ‘thraldom’:

Wommen, of kinde, desiren libertee,

And nat to been constreined as a thral.

If, on the other hand, the reader is a man, and feels inclined to respond to these lines with a knowing smile at

the ungovernable nature of women, then the following line—

And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal

—immediately challenges him in turn to measure the reasonableness of the female desire for liberty by

matching it against his own. The result is that both men and women readers are made aware of the need for

the liberty of the opposite sex through the recognition that it is a need of their own. The use of the plural, the

appeal to the general, is indeed an invitation to readers to bring their own experience and feelings to bear, but

it invites them to an identification with the narrative, not to a critical dissociation from it.

Chaucer’s use of the plural is thus intimately connected with his use of the second person, an equally

pervasive and significant feature of his style. His appeals to the reader as judge have often been

discussed—‘Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamon?’ (“Knight’s Tale”); ‘Which was the moost fre, as

thinketh yow?’ (“Franklin’s Tale”). But to emphasize these formal appeals alone is to imply, again, that the

reader, in the role of judge, remains detached from and superior to the narrative. If, on the other hand, we look

at the whole series of addresses to the audience in Chaucer, we shall see that the situation is more

complicated. Certainly it is true that the narrative is subordinate to the reader, in the sense that it

acknowledges that it relies on a particular experience of the reader for its life and depth; the appeal for

judgement on the situations of Arcite and Palamon, for example, is specifically addressed to ‘Yow loveres’.

The opening of Troilus and Criseyde similarly invites ‘ye loveres’ to read the narrative in the light of their

own experience. This call for ‘supplementation’ of the narrative from one’s own experience is often

implicitly, as well as explicitly, made. Such an appeal can, for example, be felt in the rhetorical question that

concludes the praise of the marriage in the “Franklin’s Tale”:

Who koude telle, but he had wedded be,

The joye, the ese, and the prosperitee

That is betwixe an housbonde and his wif?

The rhetorical question here makes a space for the reader’s own experience to give full meaning to the

description, just as it makes space for a very different kind of experience to give a very different kind of

meaning to the apparently similar question in the “Merchant’s Tale.” But if the story needs the reader, it can

also make claims on the reader. Precisely because the narrative is based on ‘common knowledge’, on

experiences and feelings shared by the narrator, the readers, and the characters in the story, it is possible for its

third-person generalizations to issue into second-person imperatives. Thus, when Troilus falls in love, the

generalizations about Love’s all-conquering power (‘This was, and is, and yet men shal it see’) issue

naturally into a command:

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 128Refuseth nat to Love for to ben bonde,

Syn, as himselven list, he may yow binde.

We can thus see that in the narrator’s comments on the marriage of Arveragus and Dorigen, the apparently

casual insertion of ‘sires’ in the first line is a deliberate preparation for the intensification of the narrative’s

claims on the reader—claims which make themselves known not only as commands but also as threats.

Looke who that is moost pacient in love,

He is at his avantage al above.

Pacience is an heigh vertu, certeyn,

For it venquisseth, as thise clerkes seyn,

Thinges that rigour sholde never atteyne.

For every word men may nat chide or pleyne.

Lerneth to suffre, or elles, so moot I goon,

Ye shul it lerne, wherso ye wole or noon;

For in this world, certein, ther no wight is

That he ne dooth or seith somtime amis.

The command ‘Lerneth to suffre’ does not stand alone; if we disobey it, we face a threat, an ‘or elles’. If we

search for the authority on which we can be thus threatened, we find it, I think, in the appeal to common

human experience that I have been describing, in the generalizations from which the imperative issues and

into which it returns. And because the experience is common, the speaker himself is not exempt from it; it is

perhaps possible to detect in the parenthetical ‘so moot I goon’ a rueful admission that he has learned the

truth of his statement the hard way. At any rate, the phrase stands as an indication that the speaker offers his

own individual experience as a guarantee of the truth of the generalizations.

It is because Chaucer wishes to appeal to the general that he so often uses proverbs as the crystallizations of

episodes or whole narratives. The proverb which underlies the description of the marriage in the “Franklin’s

Tale” is perhaps the most important one of all to him; the attempt to understand the paradoxical truth

‘Patience conquers’ is at the heart of the Canterbury Tales and much of Chaucer’s other work besides. It

animates the stories of Constance and Griselda; it is celebrated in Chaucer’s own tale of Melibee. It

undergoes, as we shall see, a comic—realistic metamorphosis in the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” and it also

stimulates Chaucer’s exploration of the qualities that represent a rejection of patience—‘ire’, ‘grucching’,

‘wilfulnesse’. It is tinged with a melancholy irony in Troilus and Criseyde, where Criseyde quotes another

version of the proverb—‘the suffrant overcomith’— in the course of persuading Troilus of the wisdom of

letting her go to the Greeks. This latter instance shows us that an understanding of the truth to be found in

such proverbs does not give us clues to the instrumental manipulation of life—quite the reverse, in fact. The

parallel truism that Criseyde also quotes—‘Whoso wol han lief, he lief moot lete’—does not become the less

true because in this case Troilus fails to keep possession of his happiness even though he follows her advice. It

is precisely the knowledge that proverbs carry with them the memory of human miseries as well as human

triumphs and joys that gives depth and emotional power to the apparently worn phrases.

But of course it is also the story, the new setting which will give fresh meaning, that gives new depth and

emotional power to the old words, and we should therefore look to the rest of the “Franklin’s Tale” to see

how much it can help us to understand the nature of patience and ‘suffrance’. The first thing that the story

shows us is the link between patience and change. In the first place, it is because human beings are inevitably

and constantly subject to change, not just from day to day but from moment to moment, that the quality of

patience is needed. In his list of the influences that disturb human stability, Chaucer makes clear that they

come both from within and from without the person.

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 129Ire, siknesse, or constellacioun,

Win, wo, or chaunginge of complexioun

Causeth ful oft to doon amis or speken.

On every wrong a man may nat be wreken.

After the time moste be temperaunce

To every wight that kan on governaunce.

All these things disturb the stability of a relationship by altering the mood or feelings or behaviour of an

individual. Thus, the only way that the stability and harmony of a relationship can be preserved is through

constant adaptation, a responsiveness by one partner to changes in the other. The natural consequence of this

is that patience is not merely a response to change; it embodies change in itself. And this is at first rather

surprising to us, since we tend to think of patience as an essentially static quality, a matter of gritting one’s

teeth and holding on, a matter of eliminating responses rather than cultivating them. But it is the responsive

changeability of patience which is emphasized in Chaucer’s final lines of praise for the marriage of

Arveragus and Dorigen.

Heere may men seen a humble, wys accord:

Thus hath she take hire servant and hir lord—

Servant in love, and lord in mariage.

Thanne was he bothe in lordshipe and servage.

Servage? nay, but in lordshipe above,

Sith he hath bothe his lady and his love;

His lady, certes, and his wif also,

The which that lawe of love acordeth to.

It is often said that this passage illustrates Chaucer’s belief in an ideal of equality in marriage. But the

patterning of the language does not give us a picture of equality; it gives us a picture of alternation. The

constant shifts in the vocabulary suggest constant shifts in the role played by each partner: ‘servant . . . lord . .

. servant . . . lord . . . lordshipe . . . servage . . . servage . . . lordshipe . . . lady . . . love . . . lady . . . wif’. The

marriage is not founded on equality, but on alternation in the exercise of power and the surrender of power.

The image it suggests is not that of a couple standing immutably on the same level and side-by-side, or

marching in step, but rather of something like the man and woman in a weather-house, one going in as the

other comes out. Except of course that this image gives a falsely mechanical idea of what is, as Chaucer

describes it, a matter of a living organic responsiveness, and that it is also incapable of expressing an

important aspect of the relationship— that the ceaseless workings of change lead to an unchanging harmony,

and to the creation of a larger situation in which each partner simultaneously enjoys ‘lordshipe’ and

‘servage’, as the passage itself stresses. The result of these constant shifts could be called equality (though I

should prefer to call it harmony), but the term equality is too suggestive of stasis to be an accurate description

of the workings of the ideal involved here. The ideal of patience better befits the way human beings are,

because the simplest and most fundamental truth about people, for Chaucer, is that they change.

‘Newefangelnesse’, the love of novelty, is part of their very nature (‘propre kinde’; “Squire’s Tale”).

Human beings are not only subject to change in themselves; they also live in a changing world. The opening

of the “Franklin’s Tale” might seem at first to belie this, since it reads more like an ending than a beginning,

so that the story seems, with the long pause for the eulogy of the marriage, to have reached a full stop before it

has begun. What prevents a sense of total stagnation is that the unusualness of the situation—of Arveragus’

surrender of absolute control—creates a powerful expectation that something is going to happen. This is not

just a stratagem for holding our interest; on the contrary, Chaucer uses narrative expectation as a way of

indicating the persistence of change even when events have apparently reached a standstill, of making us feel

the potentiality for change within the most apparently calm and closed of situations. Thus, as Chaucer allows

himself his leisured commentary on the ‘humble, wys accord’, we find ourselves asking not ‘Is this a good

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 130thing?’, but ‘How will this turn out?’ We await the completion which the development of events will bring

to our understanding and evaluation, and we are thus taught to expect development, the breaking of stasis, as


The stasis is first broken in a very simple way: Arveragus departs for England, and Dorigen’s contentment

changes into a passionate grief. This grief is described in a long passage which takes us from her first agonies,

through her friends’ attempts at comfort, to her final subsidence into a kind of resignation which creates a

new, if provisional, stasis. Two features of this passage are important: the first is that Dorigen’s experience is,

once again, placed in a general context.

For his absence wepeth she and siketh

As doon thise noble wives whan hem liketh.

Secondly, her experience is not only generalized, it is also abbreviated:

She moorneth, waketh, waileth, fasteth, pleyneth.

Dorigen experiences her grief intensely and at length, but it is described summarily and—ipso facto—with a

sort of detachment. This does not mean, however, that we need to qualify what was said earlier about the

identification established between character, writer and reader; the detachment here is not due to lack of

sympathy or to criticism, but to a difference of position in time. Dorigen moves slowly through a ‘process’

which is for her personally felt and unique; the image of the slow process of engraving on a stone emphasizes

its gradualness, its almost imperceptible development. The teller of the story (and the reader of it), on the

other hand, can from the outset see Dorigen’s experience in a general context of human suffering, and from a

knowledge of the general human experience which is embodied in the formulae of traditional wisdom—‘Time

heals’, ‘It will pass’—can appreciate not only what is pitiable about Dorigen’s misery but also the

inevitability of its alleviation, and thus, what is slightly comic about it. The amusement denotes no lack of

sympathy, no sense that Dorigen’s grief is melodramatic or insincere; it is the kind of amusement which

might well be felt by Dorigen herself, looking back on her former agonies six months after her husband’s safe

return. As time goes on, and Dorigen succumbs to the natural ‘proces’ of adjustment, she herself comes

nearer to this view, so that the passage ends with a rapprochement between her position and that of the

storyteller and the reader, and the calmer wisdom of ‘wel she saugh that it was for the beste’ is shared by all


The celebrated Chaucerian ‘ambiguity of tone’, of which this passage might well be taken as an example, is

often regarded as an equivocation between praise and blame, a confusion in our impulse to approve or

disapprove. Complex the tone may be, but it does not lead to confusion if we read it aright. The complexity is

often due, as it is in this case, to Chaucer’s habit of fusing with the narrative account of an event or situation

the differing emotional responses it would provoke—and with complete propriety—at different points in time.

Different contexts of place and time allow and even demand quite different emotional and intellectual

responses. In common experience we take this for granted; we find it entirely proper and natural that a widow

should be consumed with grief at her husband’s death and equally proper and natural that several years later

she should have found equanimity. Time thus affects not only decorum, but also morality; were the widow to

show at the time of her husband’s death the reactions of a widow several years later, we should find her

behaviour unfeeling and wrong. Chaucer’s complexity arises from the fact that he encourages us to bring to

bear our knowledge of both points in the process at the same time. He is helped in this by the fact that a story

always abbreviates experience; the protracted time-scale of experience is condensed in the time-scale of the

narrative, so that we can more easily and more swiftly achieve those shifts of perspective which are in life so

laboriously accomplished. This is, of course, even more true in short narrative, because in such a narrative the

disparity between the time-span of the occurrences and the time-span of the relation of them is most striking.

Chaucer’s interest in short narrative, the beginnings of which can be seen in the Legend of Good Women, and

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 131which finally achieved success in the Canterbury Tales, seems to me, therefore, to be a natural consequence

of what he sees as interesting in human experience. The short narrative is a powerful way of provoking

reflection on the process of change and of vitalizing our sense of the moral and emotional complications

created by change, by our existence in the ‘proces’ of time. And a multiplicity of short narratives can suggest

the multiple individual forms in which a common experience manifests itself, and the constitution of common

experience out of a multiplicity of variant instances.

The processes of time and change are not all, however, a matter of the development of inner feeling; change,

as we have already observed, can equally originate in the outer world—in its most dramatic form, in the kind

of sudden chance or accident for which Chaucer uses the Middle English word ‘aventure’. This is a word

that can be used with deceptive casualness to refer to the most mundane and minimal sort of occurrence, but

also, more emphatically, to refer to the strange and marvellous. The other words which Chaucer uses to mark

the operations of chance are ‘hap’, ‘cas’ and ‘grace’, the last of these being usually reserved for good luck

unless accompanied by an adjective like ‘evil’ or ‘sory’. Chaucer’s concern with the problems of chance,

with human helplessness before it, and with the difficulties it opposes to any belief in the workings of a

co-ordinating providence, is something that can be observed throughout his literary work. The operations of

‘aventure’ are often examined, (as they are in the “Franklin’s Tale”) in the sphere of love, and for good

reason. The disruptive, involuntary, unforeseeable and unavoidable force of love is perhaps the most powerful

reminder of the power of chance over human lives. What is more, it increases human vulnerability to other

chances, as Dorigen, in her persistent fears for her husband’s possible shipwreck on the ‘grisly rokkes

blakke’, is only too well aware. What she at first fails to perceive is her possible vulnerability to an

‘aventure’ which is closer at hand: the ‘aventure’ of Aurelius’ love for her.

This lusty squier, servant to Venus,

Which that ycleped was Aurelius,

Hadde loved hire best of any creature

Two yeer and moore, as was his aventure.

Chaucer’s description of the wearing away of Dorigen’s grief means that we can dimly see several possible

patterns into which the coalescence of inner ‘proces’ and outer ‘aventure’ might fall. Were Arveragus’ ship

in fact, to be wrecked, we could visualize not only Dorigen’s passionate grief but also its susceptibility to

slow assuagement, so that when healing processes of time have done their work, Aurelius might hope at last to

win his lady (as Palamon does). Or Arveragus might simply be forced to stay away so long that by the same

process of imperceptible adaptation, Dorigen finds Aurelius a more vivid and powerful presence to her

thoughts and feelings than her husband, and changes her initial rejection into acceptance— in which case the

story would come closer to the pattern of Troilus and Criseyde. The openness of Chaucer’s stories to other

possible developments makes us aware that they are not fixed into inevitable patterns; like life itself, they are

full of unrealized possibilities. In this case, the menace symbolized in the black rocks is not realized, and the

other possibilities thus evaporate. ‘Aventure’ does not take the form of shipwreck and Arveragus returns.

But that there is no other kind of disaster is due also to the power of patience, of the ability to ‘suffer’ the

shocks of ‘aventure’.

In order to understand this conception of ‘suffering’ more fully, I should like to make some comparisons

with another example of the genre to which the “Franklin’s Tale” belongs, the Breton lay, a comparison

which will have the incidental advantage of suggesting why Chaucer assigns the tale to this genre, even

though his source was probably a tale of Boccaccio. The “Franklin’s Prologue” suggests that the Breton lays

are centrally concerned with ‘aventures’:

Thise olde gentil Britouns in hir dayes

Of diverse aventures maden layes, . . .

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 132The notion that this is the proper subject of the lays can be traced back to one of their earliest composers, the

late twelfth-century writer Marie de France who says that each lay was written to commemorate some

‘aventure’. There is no direct evidence that Chaucer knew Marie’s work, but a brief comparison with some

aspects of the lay of Guigemar will help to illustrate the literary tradition which lies behind Chaucer’s

thinking on ‘aventure’, and also to understand the imaginative core of the “Franklin’s Tale,” the underlying

pattern of experience which it shares with a lay like Guigemar. Like the “Franklin’s Tale,” Guigemar deals

with ‘aventure’ in relation to love; it is interested both in the way that love is challenged by ‘aventure’, by

the shocks of chance, and equally in the way that love itself is an ‘aventure’, a force which is sudden and

overwhelming in its demands, and to which the only fitting response is surrender or commitment of the self.

What we also find in Marie’s lays is the idea that such a surrender acts as a release of power. It is this

pattern—surrender to ‘aventure’ followed by release of power—which can be linked with the ‘Patience

conquers’ of the “Franklin’s Tale.”

The hero of the lay, Guigemar, is a young man endowed with every good quality, but strangely resistant to

love. One day while out hunting he shoots a white deer; the arrow rebounds and wounds him in the thigh, and

the dying deer speaks to him, telling him that he will only be cured of this wound by a woman who will suffer

for love of him greater pain and grief than any woman ever suffered, and that he will suffer equally for love of

her. Guigemar’s actions indicate an immediate and unquestioning acceptance of the doom laid on him by the

deer. He invents an excuse for dismissing his squire, and rides off alone through the wood, not following any

predetermined direction, but led by the path. That is, he follows not the dictates of his own wishes, but the

dictates of chance. Eventually he comes to the sea, and finds a very rich and beautiful ship, entirely empty of

people. Having boarded the ship, Guigemar finds in the middle of it a bed, sumptuously and luxuriously

arrayed. The bed is an emblem of an invitation to rest, to relax, to surrender control—or rather to surrender it

still further, since he in fact lost control at the moment when he shot the white deer. He climbs into the bed

and falls asleep; the boat moves off of its own accord, taking him to the lady who is to be his love, and who is

kept imprisoned by her jealous husband in a castle surrounded by a high walled garden, open only to the sea.

The castle and the sea, and their relation to each other, are images that the tale endows with symbolic

meaning. The sea (as often in medieval literature) is an image of flux or chance, of something vast and

unpredictable which can carry one with the force of a tide or a current to strange harbours. The image of the

imprisoning castle which is nonetheless open to the sea suggests the openness of even the most restrictive

marriage relationship to the threat of ‘aventure’. The jealous husband cannot shut out the power of chance;

his marriage—and equally the generous marriage of the “Franklin’s Tale”—must remain vulnerable to the

assaults of chance.

Guigemar, in contrast, surrenders to the dictates of chance. When he wakes from his sleep on the boat, he

finds himself in mid-ocean. Marie’s comment on this situation brings a new extension to our notion of

‘suffering’; she says

Suffrir li estut l’aventure.

Both the infinitive ‘suffrir’ and the noun ‘aventure’ seem to call for a double translation here. ‘Aventure’

simply means, in the first place, ‘What was happening’; but the word also emphasizes the strangeness and

arbitrariness of the event, its lack of background in a chain of causes. ‘Suffrir’ seems to ask to be translated

not only as ‘suffer, endure’, but also as ‘allow’, a usage now familiar to us only in archaic biblical

quotations such as ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’. So that the line cannot be confined to a single

interpretation: ‘He had to endure / allow / what was happening / chance’. Guigemar prays to God for

protection, and goes back to sleep, another acknowledgement that control is not in his hands. So it is in the

surrender or abandon of sleep that he arrives at the lady’s castle, is found by her, and becomes the object of

her love.

Guigemar’s ‘suffering’ can help with the understanding of the ‘suffering’ urged in the “Franklin’s Tale:”

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 133Lerneth to suffre, or elles, so moot I goon,

Ye shul it lerne, wherso ye wole or noon

This sort of ‘suffering’ is not simply a matter of enduring pain or vexation; it is a matter of ‘allowing’, of

standing back to make room for, the operations of ‘aventure’, and thus of contributing to the creation of

something new by allowing the natural process of change to work. It is the generous in spirit who do this, in

both Marie’s work and Chaucer’s, and it is the mean-spirited, such as the lady’s jealous husband, who

vainly try to close off possibilities for change, to wall up what they have and to preserve it in a state of fixity.

It is a later moment in the lay, however, that provides the most powerful image of a surrender of the self

which miraculously releases power. After Guigemar and the lady have enjoyed each other’s love for some

time, his presence is discovered by the lady’s husband, and he is put back on to the magic ship (which has

miraculously reappeared) and sent back to his own country. After his departure, the lady suffers intensely, and

finally she cries out with passion that if only she can get out of the tower in which she is imprisoned, she will

drown herself at the spot where Guigemar was put out to sea. As if in a trance, she rises, and goes to the door,

where, amazingly, she finds neither key nor bolt, so that she can exit freely. The phrase that Marie uses is

another that seems to call for a double translation:

Fors s’en eissi par aventure.

‘Par aventure’ is a casual, everyday phrase, meaning simply ‘by chance, as it happened’; thus on one level,

all this line means is ‘By chance she got out’. But the miraculous nature of the event, and the way that the

phrase recalls the other miraculous ‘aventure’ of the ship, suggest something like ‘By the power of

“aventure”, she got out’. The intensity of the lady’s surrender to her grief, which is imaged in her wish to

drown herself, to ‘immerse’ herself in her love and sorrow, magically transforms external reality.

‘Aventure’, which had earlier been a force that impinged on people and acted on them, here becomes

something which is itself acted on by emotion, which miraculously responds to its pressure. When the lady

goes down to the harbour she finds that the magic ship is once again there, so that instead of drowning herself,

she boards it, and is carried away to an eventual reunion with Guigemar. Her readiness to ‘suffer’, the depth

of her surrender, magically transforms her external situation and releases the power for a new departure. A

surrender paradoxically creates power.

The surrender that leads to the release of power is also at the heart of the narrative in the “Franklin’s Tale.”

It can be seen, first of all, in Arveragus’ surrender of ‘maistrye’, which wins in return Dorigen’s promise of

truth and humility. Neither of them knows what their promises are committing them to, and it is precisely

such ignorance that makes the commitments generous ones. But the underlying principle can operate in far

less noble and generous situations, as Chaucer shows us by repeating such a pattern of reciprocal surrender in

varying forms, through the rest of the Canterbury Tales. The most comic and ‘realistic’ version is to be

found at the end of the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” in the quarrel provoked by the Wife’s fifth husband, who

insists on reading to her his ‘book of wikked wives’. The Wife, in fury, tears three leaves from his book, and

he knocks her down. With instinctive shrewdness, the Wife exploits the moral advantage that this gives her,

and adopts a tone of suffering meekness.

‘O! hastow slain me, false theef?’ I seyde,

‘And for my land thus hastow mordred me?

Er I be deed, yet wol I kisse thee’.

Such a display of submissiveness elicits a matching submissiveness from the aghast Jankin, and he asks for

forgiveness. The quarrel ends with the establishment of a relationship that follows, in its own more robust

way, the pattern of that between Arveragus and Dorigen: the husband’s surrender of ‘governance’ is met by

unfailing truth and kindness on the part of his wife. The description of this reconciliation stays within the

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 134sphere of comic realism, however, not least because every gesture of surrender carries with it an

accompanying gesture—albeit softened and muted—of selfassertiveness: the ‘false theef’ of the Wife’s first

speech; Jankin’s excusing of himself for striking the blow by insisting that she provoked him; the Wife’s

final tap on his cheek to settle the score and make their kind of equality. The generosity here is a matter of

letting these last little pieces of selfassertiveness pass, of ‘allowing’ them to be submerged in the larger

movements of self-abasement which are being enacted. Such a comic-realistic version of the notion that

surrendering power gives one back power enables us to see that although its operations may be ‘magical’ in

the sense that they are not easy to rationalize, the roots of this principle lie in the everyday world of instinctive

interaction between human beings. The fairyland world where wishes come true is not an alternative to this

everyday experience, but a powerful image of its more mysterious aspects.

Such an image is offered us, of course, by the end of the Wife’s tale, in the account of the working out of the

relationship between the knight and the ugly old lady he has been forced to marry. After lecturing the knight

on the value of age, ugliness and poverty, the old lady offers him a surprising choice: whether he will have her

‘foul and old’, but a ‘trewe, humble wif’, or whether he will have her ‘yong and fair’, and take the chance

(‘take the aventure’) that others will compete to win her favours away from him. The knight’s response is to

make the choice over to her, to put himself in her ‘wise governaunce’, and the miraculous result of this is

that the ugly old lady is transformed into a beautiful young one, who promises to be faithful in addition. As in

the lay of Guigemar, a mental surrender has magical effects on physical reality. But the magical

transformation in physical reality is the manifestation of an equally magical inward transformation which

accompanies and causes it: the knight who began the tale with a particularly brutal assertion of masculine

‘maistrye’, the rape of a young girl, is transformed into a husband who humbly relinquishes control to his

wife. What is more, he must accept that possession can never be complete in the sphere of human relations; to

accept happiness is to accept the possibility of its loss, and to take a beautiful wife is to incur the risk of

unhappiness at losing her (‘Whoso wol han lief, he lief moot lete’, as Criseyde puts it).

In the “Franklin’s Tale,” the magic has rather a different role to play. The magic does not bring about the

dénouement of the tale: on the contrary, it creates the problem. The clerk from Orléans uses it to remove all

the rocks from the coast of Brittany so that Aurelius may fulfil the apparently impossible condition for

winning Dorigen’s love. As Dorigen herself says of their removal: ‘It is agains the proces of nature’. The

magic is used to create an ‘aventure’—a sudden, disruptive happening that interrupts the gradual rhythms of

natural change. It is as an ‘aventure’ that the situation created by the removal of the rocks presents itself to

Arveragus; he says to Dorigen, ‘To no wight telle thou of this aventure.’ But he has also told her, ‘It may be

wel, paraventure, yet today.’ There is the same kind of ‘hidden pun’ in the qualifying ‘paraventure’ here as

there is in Marie de France’s use of the phrase. On the face of it, it simply means ‘perhaps’. But it also

suggests a deeper appeal to the power of chance—the power of ‘aventure’ which has created the problem and

which has, therefore, also the power to resolve it if it is allowed to operate. Arveragus allows it; he stands

back, as it were, to make room for it, subduing his own claims and wishes. The test of his relinquishment of

‘maistrye’ is that he must submit himself to his wife’s independentlymade promise so far that he is forced to

order her to keep it; the test of Dorigen’s promise to be a ‘humble trewe wyf’ is that she must obey her

husband’s command that she fulfil her independent promise to be unfaithful. The structure of their

relationship at this point, therefore, is a poignant illustration of the simultaneity of ‘lordshipe’ and ‘servage’

which had earlier been described; each of the marriage-partners is following the will of the other and yet also

acting out an assertion of self. And just as this moment in the tale provides an illustration of the fusion of

‘lordshipe’ and ‘servage’, so it provides an illustration of what is meant by the command ‘Lerneth to

suffre’. Arveragus ‘suffers’ in the double sense of enduring pain and ‘allowing’; in bidding his wife to

keep her promise, he provides a compelling example of patience in Chaucer’s sense of the word, of

adaptation to ‘aventure’, of allowing events to take their course. And he shows us very clearly that such an

adaptation is not, as we might idly suppose, a matter of lethargy or inertia, of simply letting things drift. The

easy course here would be to forbid Dorigen to go; Chaucer makes clear the agonizing effort that is required

to achieve this adaptation.

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 135‘Trouthe is the hyeste thing that man may kepe.’

But with that word he brast anon to wepe.

In this tale, as in Guigemar, a surrender to ‘aventure’ is met by a response of ‘aventure’. In this case, it

takes the form of the meeting between Dorigen and Aurelius, as she sets out to keep her promise. Chaucer

emphasizes the chance nature of this meeting: Aurelius ‘Of aventure happed hire to meete’, he says, and a

few lines later, ‘thus they mette, of aventure or grace’. Yet nothing is more natural, since we are told that

Aurelius was watching and waiting for Dorigen’s departure. These comments point, therefore, not so much to

the fact that this meeting is an amazing coincidence, as to the operation of ‘aventure’ within it. The intensity

of Dorigen’s surrender to the situation in which she has been trapped, perceptible in her anguished cry ‘half

as she were mad’,

‘Unto the gardin, as min housbonde bad,

My trouthe for to holde, allas! allas!’

has a dramatic effect on Aurelius; it mediates to him Arveragus’s surrender to ‘aventure’ and stimulates him

to match that surrender with his own. He releases Dorigen from her promise and sends her back to her

husband. He accepts the chance by which he has come too late, by which his love for Dorigen post-dates her

marriage—one of the arbitrary cruelties of time—and having perceived the inner reality of the marriage, the

firmness with which each is linked in obedience to the other in the very act of consenting to Dorigen’s

‘infidelity’, Aurelius ‘allows’ that relationship its own being, undisturbed; he too exercises patience and

‘suffers’ it.

But what if he had not? What if he had insisted on the fulfilment of the promise? For if Chaucer is pointing to

the power of chance in human lives, he is bound to acknowledge that chance might well have had it so. One

critic who correctly observes the perilous ease with which either development could realize itself at this point

has written a conclusion to the episode in which Aurelius does just that. The freedom and openness of events

in the Chaucerian world means that romance is always open to turn into fabliau—or into tragedy. But I think

that in this tale the nature of such a tragedy would be qualified by our sense that Aurelius would have

‘enjoyed’ Dorigen in only a very limited sense; his possession of her would have been as much a matter of

‘illusion’ and ‘apparence’ as the removal of the rocks that made it possible. The magic, in this tale, suggests

the illusory, forced quality of Aurelius’s power over Dorigen (in contrast to the natural power won by

Arveragus, spontaneously springing into life at the end of the long process of his courtship). That is why the

magic removal of the rocks is presented as a laborious, technologically complex operation, rather than the

wave of a sorcerer’s wand. The real magic in this tale is Aurelius’s change of heart, which is as miraculous

as that of the knight in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale.” The magic removal of the rocks is merely a means by

which we can measure the immensity of this ‘human magic’; we can gauge as it were, the size of the

problem it is able to solve. And this ‘human magic’ is nothing other than the human power to change. What

the development of the tale brings to our notion of the human tendency to change is that it is not just an

everyday, humdrum matter of our moods fluctuating with the passage of time, but that it is a source of power;

its role can be creative.

As I have already suggested, Chaucer is well aware of the tragic aspects of the human propensity to change, as

his constant preoccupation with the theme of betrayal shows. He is also aware of the saving power of human

resilience, a sort of comic version of patience, which can nullify the tragic aspects of ‘aventure’; thus beside

the serious transformation of the rapist knight in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” we can set the figure of Pluto in

the “Merchant’s Tale,” the ravisher who has clearly been worn down by feminine rhetoric so that he presents

the ludicrous picture of a henpecked rapist. Romances such as the tales of the Knight and Franklin, however,

offer us a serious celebration of patience, of the creative power of change. ‘Pitee’ may be the quality that

leads Criseyde’s emotions away from Troilus to Diomede, or it may be ironically appealed to as the cause of

May’s amazing readiness to respond to Damian’s advances (“Merchant’s Tale”), but it is also the quality

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale” 136that enables Theseus to adapt himself to each new claim that chance events impose on him (“Knight’s

Tale”), or that leads Dorigen to accept Arveragus’ suit, and it is ‘routhe’ (another word for pity) that leads

Aurelius to release Dorigen. Moreover, as the passage on patience makes clear, the responsiveness implied in

the ideals of patience and ‘pitee’ must be exercised continually; the balance and poise achieved at the end of

the “Franklin’s Tale” is reached by a ‘proces’, a chain of ceaseless adjustment in which the magicianclerk,

as well as the other three figures, must play his part. Ceaseless adjustment is, as we saw, something that

characterizes the marriage, with its endless alternation of ‘lordshipe’ and ‘servage’, and it is for that reason

that it can survive ‘aventure’; it is founded on it. Only through ceaseless change can there be stability. Only

through a perpetual readiness to adapt, to change, in each of the actors in the tale, can the status quo be

preserved. Or, in Chaucerian language, ‘trouthe’ is the product of patience.

Chaucer’s strength is that he gives us a creative sense of order; he makes us aware that static formulae, of

whatever nature—the husband’s sovereignty, equality in marriage—are inappropriate to human beings, since

they are subject to change from within and chance from without. What is needed instead is an ideal such as

the ideal of patience, which is founded on change, on the perpetual readiness to meet, to accept and to

transform the endless and fluctuating succession of ‘aventures’ that life offers.

Source: Jill Mann, “Chaucerian Themes and Style in the ‘Franklin’s Tale,’” in Medieval Literature:

Chaucer and the Alliterative Tradition, edited by Boris Ford, Penguin Books, 1982, pp. 133-53.

Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale”

In the following essay, Carolyn P. Collette contends that the Prioress exhibits a “sensibility that dwells on the

small, the particular . . . as a means of arousing deep emotional response.”

Chaucer’s Prioress has been the subject of lively literary debate for the better part of the twentieth century.

Not content to let her go, in the words of Cummings’s poem, “into the now of forever,” modern critics have

insisted that Madame Eglentyne face the now of the twentieth century and answer for her faults. Critics have

reproved her vanity, chastized her worldliness, shaken their heads over her exaggerated sensibility, and even

explored the hidden anal-sadistic focus of her tale. Where, we might ask, in all of this is Chaucer’s Prioress?

The answer may lie in the fact that Chaucer’s fashionable Prioress and her litel tale were more fashionable

than most modern critics realize. Her concern with emotion, tenderness, and the diminutive are part of the late

fourteenth-century shift in sensibility, which, following the so-called triumph of nominalism, produced the

flowering of English mysticism, a highly particularized, emotional style in the arts, and the ascendancy of the

heart over the reason in religious matters. In both her portrait and her tale the Prioress reflects these

developments as she focuses on the physical, tangible, often diminutive—mice, dogs, and little children—as

objects of her “tendre herte” and symbols of her understanding of Christian doctrine; the same attitudes and

assumptions about the centrality of the heart and of the emotions dominate her use of the rhyme royal stanza

in one of the most sensitively orchestrated narrations of the tales, wedding form and content absolutely.

Because the Prioress’s sensibility is the product of Chaucer’s craft and of late medieval attitudes about

religion, God, and man’s relationship to God, it might be useful to review what is already common

knowledge about late medieval culture before looking closely at her tale.

In literary criticism, art history, or historical analysis of the mid-to late-fourteenth century one hears sounded

again and again the note of ritual and the ascendancy of the emotional over the rational. Obviously a

simplification of a complex process not restricted to that century, this shift in emphasis produces the

impression that the late Middle Ages valued emotion—intense, devout, almost sensual, religious emotion—as

man’s surest path to the knowledge of God. The reasons for such a stress remain obscure, too complicated to

explore in a paper devoted to a reading of a single tale. Suffice it to repeat what is already well known, that

the “triumph of nominalism,” as David Knowles calls the Ockhamite revolution in medieval thought, denied

Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale” 137the possibility of rational demonstrations of the truths of natural religion, while at the same time it declared

God’s revelations to be arbitrary, to be accepted without comment or explanation: “Nominalism under the

guise of a devout humility, left the door open for agnosticism or incredulity as well as for a fideistic

acceptance of religious teaching.” Charles Muscatine characterizes the thought of the age in a similar fashion:

“The cleavage between reason and faith, characteristic of post-Ockhamite thought, not only generated an

unsettling scepticism, but also drove faith itself further and further into the realm of the irrational.”

One senses such a reaction in the mystics’ intense concentration on Christ’s passion and the love it

manifests. Richard Rolle, writing in the earlier part of the century, stresses the power of love in his poem

“Love is Life,” communicating the mystery of divine love through a rhetoric of emotion and human love:

“Luf rauysches Cryst intyl owr hert . . . ”; “Lere to luf, if þou wyl lyfe when þou sall hethen fare”; “Luf es

Goddes derlyng; luf byndes blode and bane.” Julian of Norwich, writing in the last third of the century,

sounds the same theme in her Revelations of Divine Love, as she uses the now famous image of the hazelnut

to symbolize the tender, all-encompassing nature of God’s love which marks even the smallest and humblest

of creation as miraculous. “What is this?” she asks, answering, “It is all that is made. . . . In short, everything

owes its existence to the love of God.” She underscores the universal significance of the hazelnut, perceiving

and wishing us to perceive the miracle of God’s universe, the miracle of the macrocosm, in that small,

particular form. She writes, “In this ‘little thing’ I saw three truths. The first is that God made it; the second

is that God loves it; the third is that God sustains it.”

One finds a similar emphasis on the apprehension of divine mysteries through concentration on the small,

particular elements of our world, and through the power of love, in countless late fourteenth- century lyrics. In

hymns to the Virgin and songs of the Virgin, the physical element manifests itself in increased tenderness and

in the depiction of Mary’s relation to Christ in the intensely human terms of a mother’s love for an infant

child. A song of the Virgin in Harley MS. 7322 typifies the late fourteenth-century conception of the physical

bases of the relationship. The Virgin addresses her infant son not as the savior of the world, the Godhead

incarnate, but as a child, vulnerable to earthly suffering:

Iesu, swete, beo noth wroþ,

þou ich nabbe clout ne cloþ

þe on for to folde,

þe on to folde ne to wrappe . . .

The poem ends with an image both surprising and effective, for it drives home the physical basis of their

relationship while it stresses human love and vulnerability over omnipotence and divinity: “Bote ley þou þi

fet to my pappe, / And wite þe from þe colde.”

We see equivalent processes in art of the period. Ockham’s Via Moderna emphasized that all men could

know surely was the experiential, the particular, that which one could comprehend through the senses. Emile

Mâle traces the development of stylistic tendencies in art at the end of the Middle Ages, tying these new styles

to this change in sensibility and outlook which social historians of the period regard as one of its hallmarks:

From the end of the thirteenth century on, the artists seem no longer able to grasp the great

conceptions of earlier times. Before, the Virgin enthroned held her Son with the sacerdotal

gravity of the priest holding the chalice. She was the seat of the All-Powerful, ‘the throne of

Solomon,’ in the language of the doctors. She seemed neither woman nor mother, because

she was exalted above the sufferings and joys of life. She was the one whom God had chosen

at the beginning of time to clothe His word with flesh. She was the pure thought of God. As

for the Child, grave, majestic, hand raised, He was already the Master Who commands and

Who teaches.

Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale” 138This conception, however, disappears. What replaces it is intense human tenderness captured in gestures

between the Virgin and Christ. The forms no longer symbolize intellectual conceptions but exist in and for

themselves. In contemplating the tenderness between the Virgin and Child we comprehend the nature of love.

The art is no longer metaphor, or vehicle, but the image, the focus; it no longer symbolizes, it is.

Fourteenth-century art, more particularized, often more highly detailed than twelfth- and thirteenth-century

art, focuses on scenes, on moments that speak to the heart.

In both the form and content of her narrative the Prioress, by concentrating on the diminutive, on the detail,

not so much for its symbolic significance, but for its emotional value, gives literary expression to the attitudes

and assumptions we have traced in religion and art. Her portrait has been treated too often and too thoroughly

to be reviewed here, except to note that its major elements—her concern with manners and outward form, the

court cheer she “peyned her” to copy, her tender conscience, and the rosary beads with the dependent motto,

Amor vincit omnia—are all typical of and consonant with the patterns we have been tracing. In her concern

with the small, with the particular, with the emotional, the Prioress is unquestionably a woman of “fashion.”

It is often said that the “General Prologue” tells us very little of the Prioress’s inner spiritual state, very little

of her comprehension of the mysteries involved in her sacred vocation. We wonder about a woman whose

conscience and charity work through a concern for mice and dogs, and whose apparent interest in sacred

liturgy is the song, not the substance. The sensible world, and an immediate response to it, rather than any

abstract philosophy, seems to form the basis of her faith. Apparently for the Prioress the wide, deep spirit of

forgiveness of the Gospels and the charity implicit in the doxology become real in the physical expression of

love and conscience between herself and the small creatures that surround her. Mâle speaks of the influence of

St. Francis on religious thought in the later Middle Ages; the Prioress’s “conscience and tendre herte” follow

in that tradition.

In any case, in all that she appears to be and does as a nun, the outward, physical sign is foremost, the

substance of her religion either misunderstood or, more likely, reduced in scale and dimension to the humanly

comprehensible, the emotionally appealing. Her tale reflects the same tendency. As a result, in both the

“Prologue” and the “Tale” itself the mysteries of Christianity appear to us refracted through a lens of

motherhood. Mary the mother of Christ is the subject of the “Prologue.” The Prioress, who seems to worship

a God who is to be identified above all as the Son of Mary, refers to herself as like “a child of twelf month

oold, or lesse, / That kan unnethes any word expresse.” The “Tale,” set against a chronological background

of the three seasons of the Christian year devoted to the nativity—Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany—turns on

the learning of an anthem to the Virgin, an anthem especially appropriate to these seasons, an anthem devoted

to the mother of the Redeemer. The Prioress refers repeatedly to the martyr as the “litel child” and to the

Virgin as “Christes mooder,” in effect recalling our attention to the Nativity, to the humanity of Christ as the

means of approaching the greater mysteries of the incarnation and salvation. Mary in her motherhood helps

man to understand the love of the Father and of the Son. She is the bridge. At the end of the tale her

experience of earthly, maternal love is reflected in the words she speaks to the child, words generations of

mothers have spoken: “Be nat agast, I wol thee nat forsake.” In these words we can hear Christ’s own

promise, “Lo, I am with you always.”

Set in the proverbial long ago and far away of “a greet citee” in Asia, the tale is introduced almost as a fable,

a romance. There is no effort to create a realistic setting, no attention to the possibilities and inevitabilities of

life in such a place. The Jews in the Jewry are shadowy, not real. With the myopia characteristic of her

approach to life and religion, the Prioress focuses on the center of the tale, that which for her does have

reality, the “wydwes sone” who will be the martyred child-hero and in so dying will become an example for

us of true love and devotion. We are told that this child is a student in a school as vaguely presented as the

Jewry and the city, indeed as vague as the whole continent of Asia is for the Prioress; what is accomplished in

the school we do not know, what is learned we are not told, except that the scholars:

Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale” 139. . . lerned in that scole yeer by yere

Swich manere doctrine as men used there,

This is to seyn, to syngen and to rede,

As smale children doon in hire childhede.

Even the widowed mother is in the background at this point. What we remember of this child, this “litel

clergeon,” is his smallness; he is young, sely. His youth is emphasized by the repeated stress on the word

child: “As smale children doon in hire childhede.” There is an active, particular imagination here that

responds to and can visualize the minute.

The child’s youthful curiosity and his natural reverence for the Virgin, a reverence fostered by his own

devoted mother, lead him to inquire about a song he hears his elder classmate sing, Alma Redemptoris Mater.

In that exquisitely pictured and phrased stanza where the Prioress describes the child listening to the song we

see a visual, metaphorical representation of the approach to God typical of the late fourteenth century—the

heart is touched while the reason is bypassed; the soul seeks that which nourishes it:

And as he dorste, he drough hym ner and ner,

And herkned ay the wordes and the noote,

Til he the firste vers koude al by rote.

Time here is virtually suspended as we see him, childlike, creeping closer and closer to that which for him has

a magnetic attraction, the song in praise of the Virgin. For the Prioress what is real here is the child and his

natural affinity for religious beauty; she responds to and asks us to respond to the same elements. When the

little child asks about the meaning of the song, his felawe tells him it is of the Virgin, but that he cannot say

more of its significance: “I lerne song, I kan but smal grammeere.” That line and the child’s determination to

learn the song, come what may, by rote, are the heart of the tale and the key to both it and the Prioress. One

cannot escape the fundamental parallel between her religious practices and the children’s attitude toward the

song. To lerne the song, the outward, by rote, not to gain a full understanding, but in order to manifest praise

and love, is for her, if not for us, an emblem of true, innocent faith. She seems to take literally Christ’s words,

“Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

The child, in his innocence, which is stressed throughout, sings the song on his way home through the Jewry,

where Satan inspires certain Jews to plot to destroy him. It is in these stanzas, through the contrast they

present between what precedes and what follows them, that we see how effectively the Prioress manipulates

the stanzaic form of her tale to stress emotion. Up to this point, each stanza has been a separate unit devoted to

presenting and exploring an idea. For example, the stanza about the child’s creeping closer to hear the song

achieves its effect largely because its periodicity encloses a discursive, detailed account of a simple action:

This litel child, his litel book lernynge,

As he sat in the scole at his prymer,

He Alma redemptoris herde synge,

As children lerned hire antiphoner;

And as he dorste, he drough hym ner and ner,

And herkned ay the wordes and the noote,

Til he the firste vers koude al by rote.

The stanza images for us the sweet faith of the child, opening our hearts to his youth and his innocent


Those stanzas devoted to the Jews’ motivation, action, and punishment are handled differently; each line is a

unit, each line a new thought. In effect each stanza contains seven times as much “action” as the stanzas

Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale” 140devoted to the child:

Fro thennes forth the Jues han conspired

This innocent out of this world to chace.

An homycide therto han they hyred,

That in an aleye hadde a privee place;

And as the child gan forby for to pace,

This cursed Jew hym hente, and heeld hym faste,

And kitte his throte, and in a pit hym caste.

I seye that in a wardrobe they hym threwe

Where as thise Jewes purgen hire entraille.

O cursed folk of Herodes al newe,

What may youre yvel entente yow availle?

Mordre wol out, certeyn, it wol nat faille,

And namely ther th’onour of God shal sprede;

The blood out crieth on youre cursed dede.

The Prioress’s narrative technique dwells on devices directed at our emotions. In the next stanza the focus

shifts to the child-martyr. Sonorous “o’s” slow the movement, calling our attention to the mystery of his


O martir, sowded to virginitee,

Now maystow syngen, folwynge evere in oon

The white Lamb celestial—quod she—

Of which the grete evaungelist, Seint John,

In Pathmos wroot, which seith that they that goon

Biforn this Lamb, and synge a song al newe,

That nevere, flesshly, wommen they ne knewe.

The next truly visual part of the tale, the next scene to bear the stamp of the Prioress’s true interest, is the

exquisite passage devoted to the mother’s search for her son. Obviously the motherchild relationship parallels

the Virgin-Christ relationship. It calls to mind the most human aspect of the most ineffable, mystical relation

the world has known, the love of a virgin-mother for a God-child. No hint of that mystery appears here; what

does appear is the closest human equivalent—deep emotion. In a tale so short, apparently so formal, the

Prioress leads herself and her audience to a double pitch of emotion, both at the end of the tale, as we should

expect, and also just beyond mid point:

This poure wydwe awaiteth al that nyght

After hir litel child, but he cam noght;

For which, as soone as it was dayes lyght,

With face pale of drede and bisy thoght,

She hath at scole and elleswhere hym soght,

Til finally she gan so fer espie

That he last seyn was in the Juerie.

With moodres pitee in hir brest enclosed,

She gooth, as she were half out of hir mynde,

To every place where she hath supposed

By liklihede hir litel child to fynde;

And evere on Cristes mooder meeke and kynde

Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale” 141She cride, and atte laste thus she wroghte:

Among the cursed Jues she hym soghte.

It is as if she meant us to experience the religious significance of her tale through the same intense, emotional

reaction she obviously has to the action of her own story. In this effect the rhyme royal stanza, intensely

expressive in its inherent periodicity, works as part of the story, not just as form, but as form become content.

The sound echoes the sense as emotion builds through each line of the stanza. In the beginning the two

adjectives, poure and litel, used to describe the widow and her son, catch our attention. Our sympathies are

aroused as they would be if we, too, saw the defenseless and helpless suffering. The Prioress’s narrative style

plays on these sympathies—through the grammatical structure which saves till the end of the first clause the

fact “but he cam noght,” and hurries in the third line, in a verbal foreshadowing of the distress and anxiety

tearing at the mother’s heart. Finally, near desperation, she discovers that he was last seen in the Jewry. She

does not act on that knowledge, though. It is as if she wanted to ignore the dreadful news and its implicit

horror. Psychologically valid, the continuing search also allows the Prioress simultaneously to develop our

emotional response and to direct it toward a religious subject. The second stanza begins by focusing our

attention on what is central, the emotional state of the mother; she becomes through the first line an emblem

of all suffering mothers, of Rachel crying after her lost children, but especially of the Virgin mourning her

crucified son. While the scene culminates both with the end of the search and the cry of help to the Virgin,

meek and kynde, it seems clear that the Prioress sees the Virgin here less as queenly intercessor than as a

mother; that, for this moment at least, Mary comes to mind because she, too, suffered the pain of losing a

child. In short, the Prioress’s primary focus here is on emotion, only secondarily on Christian doctrine.

The miracle, much like the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, occurs in the Jewry. The Prioress’s account

instructs us both about the God who creates the miracle and about her conception of that God:

O grete God, that parfournest thy laude

By mouth of innocentz, lo, heere thy myght!

This gemme of chastite, this emeraude,

And eek of martirdom the ruby bright,

Ther he with throte ykorven lay upright;

He Alma Redemptoris gan to synge

So loude that al the place gan to rynge.

The God of Abraham and Joseph, the God of mercy and justice, becomes the God of innocents who reveals

his might through the lowly. One might well infer here the lesson that Christianity teaches, that this God,

being all-powerful, is so loving that He humbles himself. One might well infer, as critics have done, that the

Prioress’s humility stems from this divine example. Yet, typically, the focus of this miracle is not on God’s

divine power or His infinite humility. The focus is on the little boy himself. The child is imaged in those

brilliant hues one so often associates with manuscript illumination; the gems here signify the refraction of the

pure white light of God. In the midst of the miracle what emerges as central is not God but the child’s perfect,

albeit uncomprehending, faith. The grandeur of this miracle lies not in God’s awful power but in the little

boy’s touching song. The effect, not the cause, is central; our attention is once more directed to the physical,

the emotional, rather than to the grand conception behind the action of the tale.

By the same token the treatment of the Jews in the tale is also subordinated to the central point, the child. The

Prioress, whose vision focuses always on the small, the physical, whose heart is touched by the tenderness of

the story of the childmartyr, whose idea of God, Christ, and the Virgin is shaded in terms of sentiment and

pity, simply does not regard the Jews in any thinking fashion. The Jews are not real in any living sense,

certainly not as the child and his mother are real, invested with emotions and personalities. The Jews are part

of the plot, the necessary background of her story; they are but pale shadows beside the overwhelming reality

of the little child. Like the setting in Asia they are a convenient backdrop, a catalyst necessary for the central

Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale” 142action, the child’s demonstration of innocent faith and the Virgin’s maternal devotion to those who turn to

her. Compare the treatment of the child with the treatment of the Jews:

This child with pitous lamentacioun

Up taken was, syngynge his song alway,

And with honour of greet processioun

They carien hym unto the nexte abbay.

His mooder swownynge by the beere lay;

Unnethe myghte the peple that was theere

This newe Rachel brynge fro his beere.

The descriptive, metaphorical quality here stands in sharp contrast to the almost aphoristic, matter-of-fact tone

used to describe the fate of the Jews:

With torment and with shameful deeth echon

This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterve

That of this mordre wiste, and that anon.

He nolde no swich cursednesse observe.

“Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve”;

Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,

And after that he heng hem by the lawe.

The natural periodicity of the stanza form here builds not to a climax but falls flat. The description of the

Jews’ punishment creates the impression of reason, deliberateness, and inevitability. “He nolde,” “therfore,”

“and after that” are the three phrases which encapsulate the sequential nature of the summary justice they

receive. Of course the Prioress may mean deliberately to denigrate the Jews by using such a flat style to

describe their ends, but Chaucer, behind both tale and teller, may mean to tell us something about the speaker.

Indeed the simplicity of the Prioress’s world view, implicit in her apparently unthinking adoption of the

motto Amor vincit omnia, surfaces here in her phraseology. The provost “with torment and with shameful

deeth” put the Jews who knew of the murder to death. Love may conquer all, but it is love of a particular sort,

not the light of charity, but a narrow beam directed at the child. The rest of the world may suffer as it must.

In the bier scene the Prioress reveals the effect of the child’s holiness. When the Abbot asks him how he can

continue to sing, “Sith that thy throte is kut to my semynge”, the emphasis both in his question and in our

understanding of the story is on the physical phenomenon. The little martyr responds with an explanation that,

in its dwelling on detail, echoes the question, calling our attention to the sad end of his physical body:

“My throte is kut unto my nekke boon,”

Seyde this child, “and, as by wey of kynde,

I sholde have dyed, ye, longe tyme agon.

But Jesu Crist, as ye in bookes fynde,

Wil that his glorie laste and be in mynde,

And for the worship of his Mooder deere

Yet may I synge O Alma loude and cleere.”

The child’s martyrdom and explanation are emblems of the sort of faith the Prioress espouses— ritualistic,

rooted in phenomena perceptible in this world, intensely emotional. The child’s suffering, martyrdom, and

death, as well as the faith which originally prompted him to learn the song by rote, lead our souls to God. He

is the channel both for us and for the Prioress, whose religion is one of approaching God through the sensible

manifestations of His love. Like fourteenth-century statues and illuminations, the child’s martyrdom is not a

static, intellectual ikon, a symbol to be understood, but a moving, temporal image which we contemplate with

Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale” 143emotion and through which we come to understand in our hearts if not our heads the message of Christianity.

As the Abbot removes the grain from the child’s tongue, the little boy’s soul ascends and the Abbot’s tears

fall. The child’s innocent faith overcomes and instructs even the convent. In two lines which seem almost to

relish the prostration of the monk, the Prioress says, “And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde, / And stille he

lay as he had ben ybounde.” Before the example of the boy’s faith holy men fall down, and, like the convent,

weep. The point of the story, then, is the power of emotion, of touching, overwhelming emotion exemplified

by the child’s faith and by the martyrdom of his “litel body sweete.” The Prioress seems almost overcome by

her own tale as she concludes “Ther he is now, God leve us for to meete!”, yet hurries on to appeal to the

auctoritee of Hugh of Lincoln as well as to pray for his intercession, finally concluding with the hope that

Christ will grant us His mercy for his mother’s sake. In her final appeal to Hugh of Lincoln she tries to

ground the tale in fact, to remove it from the realm of the emotional, from the distant world where it takes

place. It is as if the Prioress were saying, “And this is all true, as you know, because you all know about Hugh

of Lincoln.” Try as she might to fix the tale in physical, historical reality by such allusions, the story she tells

is still a miracle story, preeminently suited to her own outlook and to the religious fashion of the time. Of all

the sorts of religious tales the Prioress could tell, surely the miracle story is the one least rational, most suited

to the assumptions and attitudes of late fourteenth-century religion in its revelation of a God so arbitrary, so

powerful, that He can and does suspend the operation of His own natural laws. What is left to the Prioress and

to us is to worship Him as best we can. For the Prioress such worship involves two touchstones—emotion and

the Virgin Mary, the hand-maiden of the Trinity.

In retrospect one remembers the Prioress best for her motto, Amor vincit omnia. The words seem especially

fitted to be her creed once we consider the dynamics of her tale and its relation to the spirit of art and religion

we may suppose she came in contact with. What Chaucer meant to suggest in the person of the Prioress we

cannot know for sure. To discover that this woman, so careful to do the “right” thing, had also developed a

“fashionable” sensibility leaves unanswered the larger question of Chaucer’s attitude toward that sensibility.

What we can say is that her tale in both its theme and structure reflects late fourteenth-century ideas, that the

Prioress’s stress on love, emotion, and pity are all consonant with what we might call a fashion in religious

taste. If we accept her on these terms, we find that, odd and inconsistent as the tale seems in its excessive pity

for the child and its disregard for the Jews, there is yet a consistent sensibility behind it, a sensibility that

dwells on the small, the particular, not as a symbol or even as a type but as a means of arousing deep

emotional response; this sensibility also seeks wherever possible to understand the divine through the human;

moreover, this sensibility is myopic in its tendency to select and focus on only that narrow range of

experience which satisfies it. In all these ways, then, the sense of the “Prioress’s Tale” lies in the Prioress’s


Source: Carolyn P. Collette, “Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale,’” in Chaucer Review, Vol. 15,

No. 2, Fall 1981, pp. 138–50.

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The

Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale

In the following essay, Robert W. Hanning compares “The Knight’s Tale” with epics by Boccaccio and

Statius to gain a greater understanding of the themes of nobility and order in the poem.

There is perhaps no better illustration of the processes of continuity and change in medieval literature than the

relationship between Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” (1386?), first of the Canterbury Tales, and its

literary antecedents, both proximate—Giovanni Boccaccio’s Teseida delle nozze d’Emilia (ca. 1340)—and

remote—the Thebaid of Statius (ca. 92 AD). Moreover, a comparison of Chaucer’s poem with Statius’s epic

and Boccaccio’s epic romance offers important clues to the meaning of one of the most problematic tales in

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale144the Canterbury collection.

To Boccaccio and Chaucer, and to medieval authors generally, Statius was the authority on the fall of Thebes,

one of the most traumatic events of classical legend. Charles Muscatine, in the most influential, and perhaps

the finest recent assessment of the “Knight’s Tale,” states, “the history of Thebes had perpetual interest for

Chaucer as an example of the struggle between noble designs and chaos,” a struggle which Muscatine finds at

the heart of the tale. According to Muscatine, “the noble life . . . is itself the subject of the poem and the

object of its philosophic questions”, and the manifestations of that life, “its dignity and richness, its regard for

law and decorum, are all bulwarks against the ever-threatening forces of chaos, and in constant collision with

them.” In this reading, the significance of the “Knight’s Tale” lies in Theseus’ “perception of the order

beyond chaos,” revealed in his final speech urging a distraught Palamon and Emelye to marry, despite their

grief at the death of Arcite, and thus to conform to the scheme of the universe’s “Firste Moevere.” As

Muscatine puts it, “when the earthly designs suddenly crumble, true nobility is faith in the ultimate order of

all things.”

The present essay responds to Muscatine’s analysis of the “Knight’s Tale” in two ways. First, it examines

two main sources of Chaucer’s attitude toward Thebes, in order to confirm the contention that the English

poet found in Boccaccio and Statius models for “the struggle between noble designs and chaos”—found, that

is, a tradition of concern with the tense relationship between the human capacity to control and order life and

the forces, internal and external, that resist or negate order. But if Chaucer is profoundly traditional in

composing the “Knight’s Tale,” he is also profoundly original in telling it not in propria voce, but as the

utterance of “a worthy man” and “a verray par-fit gentil knyght”—an exponent of the “noble life” of

chivalry as Chaucer and his age knew it. By putting the Knight between us and the world of Theseus,

Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye, Chaucer invites us to see the conflict of order and disorder as a reflection of the

Knight’s particular perspective on life. The “Knight’s Tale” thus becomes simultaneously a comment on the

possibilities for order in human life and a comment on the tensions Chaucer perceived within the system of

late medieval chivalry. Further, since the Knight makes us painfully aware of his difficulties as an amateur

story-teller, Chaucer innovates again in inviting us to equate Theseus’ problems in seeking to control the

realm of experience with his pilgrim-creator’s trials in seeking to control the realm of art. The coincidence of

problems faced by Duke, gentil knight, and poet makes the “Knight’s Tale” an even more complex and

original poem than its most perceptive critics have noticed. Accordingly, an assessment of the tension

between the Tale’s levels of meaning will constitute my second, more revisionist response to Muscatine’s



The Thebaid recounts the fratricidal war between Oedipus’s sons, Polynices and Eteocles, for the throne of

Thebes. Its twelfth and last book contains the germ of Boccaccio’s Teseida, and thus of the “Knight’s Tale.”

In the twelfth book, after the brothers have destroyed each other in a final, emblematic single combat, Creon,

their uncle and now ruler of Thebes, forbids burial rites for Polynices and the Greek warriors who beseiged

the city with him. The grief-stricken widows of the unburied, outraged at the sacrilegious edict but powerless

to contest it, are advised by a Theban soldier to turn to Theseus, ruler of Athens, for succor. The greater part

of Book Twelve comprises a double action attendant upon Creon’s prohibition and the widows’ response.

Spurred on by desperation, Argia, the Greek widow of Polynices, and Antigone, Polynices’ sister, attempt to

perform funeral rites for the slain prince, defying the edict. They find the body and put it on a pyre with

another, half-consumed corpse who turns out to be none other than Eteocles. Implacable foes in death as in

life, the brothers resist the joint immolation; the fire divides into warring tongues of flame while the women

watch in helpless terror. The posthumous struggle shakes the pyre, and the noise arouses Creon’s guards, who

apprehend Argia and Antigone and bring them before Creon to be executed—victims, it would seem, of yet

another grotesque manifestation of the curse on the house of Cadmus. Meanwhile, the rest of the widows

journey to Athens, where, under Juno’s tutelage, they win the sympathy of the Athenians and encounter

Theseus as he returns in triumph from Scythia, victor over the Amazons and lord of Hippolyta. He learns the

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale145cause of the widows’ sorrow and, his army swollen by recruits enraged at Creon’s behavior, sets out for

Thebes. Creon learns of Theseus’ arrival as he prepares to punish Argia and Antigone; despite his speech of

defiance, his troops are no match for Theseus, who seeks out and dispatches the Theban tyrant. The epic ends

on a muted note of grief and resignation as the widows perform the obsequies for their men.

The Thebaid offers a dark view of life, shaped as it is by a legend that stresses the inescapable destiny which

destroys a family and leads to fratricidal wrath between its protagonists. Yet the last act of the epic

incorporates a movement back from the abyss of rage and destruction, and toward a reestablishment of

civilized control over the darker impulses that have reigned throughout. Theseus, whose intervention saves

Argia and Antigone and allows the fallen warriors to have the funeral rites owed them by heroic society,

represents the belated, partial, but real triumph of civilization over passion, both at Thebes and in Scythia. The

image of Hippolyta, brought back to Athens in triumph by Theseus, sums up his achievement and his function

in the epic’s economy: “Hippolyta too drew all toward her, friendly now in look and patient of the

marriage-bond. With hushed whispers and sidelong gaze the Attic dames marvel that she has broken her

country’s austere laws, that her locks are trim, and all her bosom hidden beneath her robe, that though a

barbarian she mingles with mighty Athens, and comes to bear offspring to her foemanlord.” Every detail of

this striking portrait testifies to the subduing of wildness by its opposite. The Amazon queen, sworn to enmity

toward men, accustomed to flaunting her freedom from male (and social) restraint by her flowing hair, her

dress with its one exposed breast (an affront to canons of feminine modesty), and her fierce demeanor, has

become a neat, proper, smiling wife and mother-to-be. And as Theseus has tamed the savage Amazon, so will

he tame the sacrilegious Creon, rescue Argia and Antigone from being punished for wishing to perform the

rituals by which civilization imposes order even on death, and permit the comfort of those rituals to all the


Of course, Theseus paradoxically quells rage and violence by unleashing his own, righteous wrath. In his

speech to his soldiers as they set out for Thebes, he declares that they fight in a just cause, and against the

Furies, emblems of primal chaos; then he hurls his spear and dashes forth on the road to the rage-torn city.

This is no statesmanship of sweetness and light, but the sanctioned unleashing of irresistible energy to assure

the triumph of “terrarum leges et mundi foedera”—the laws of nations and the covenants of the world. A

similar ambivalence hovers over Theseus’ shield, on which is portrayed the hero binding the Minotaur on

Crete, yet another emblem of terrifying force subjugated by a greater and more licit violence. All of these

deeds of conquest take place away from home—in Scythia, at Thebes, on Crete; Athens, like the Rome of

Virgil and Statius, remains the peaceful center of civilization, where mourning women are instructed by Juno

in the proper decorum of grief, and where there is a temple dedicated to Clementia, the spirit of mildness and


Despite Theseus’ authority and easy victory over Creon, there is still no erasing the terrible memory of the

death and destruction which fate and the gods have rained down on Thebes throughout the epic, nor can any

image of rage subdued by civilization—not even the domesticated Hippolyta—match for sheer evocative power

the horror of that moment when the charred remains of Polynices and Eteocles continue in death the fratricidal

fury that ruined their lives. Statius’s vision of the noble life offers as its highest realization the

double-tongued flame and trembling pyre, and the hysterical pleas of Argia and Antigone that the rage cease

before it compels them to leap into the flames to separate the brothers. It was to such a pessimistic vision that

Boccaccio, and later Chaucer, responded in taking up the poetic challenge of the Thebaid.


Writing over twelve hundred years after Statius, Giovanni Boccaccio undertook in the Teseida to compose the

first martial epic in Italian. He placed epic formulae of invocation at the beginning of the poem, and equally

conventional addresses to his book and to the Muses at its conclusion; he imitated epic structure (the Teseida,

like the Aeneid and the Thebaid, has twelve books) and diction, reinforcing the latter by some nearly verbatim

translations from Statius. But if, in all these ways, Boccaccio self-consciously donned the epic mantle, he also

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale146brought to his encounter with Statius literary sensibilities formed by medieval courtly romance and lyric, and

thereby created in the Teseida a new, hybrid version of the noble life. Boccaccio’s eclecticism declares itself

at the poem’s beginning; he will tell of “the deeds of Arcita and of Palemone the good, born of royal blood,

as it seems, and both Thebans; and although kinsmen, they came into conflict by their excessive love for

Emilia, the beautiful Amazon. . . .” The fate of a love affair, not a city, provides a suitably elevated subject.

(Even the full title of the work is eclectic: The Thesiad [epic] of Emily’s Nuptials [romance].)

The first book of the Teseida cleverly splices Boccaccio’s story into Statius’s epic world by recounting

Teseo’s war against the Amazons (mentioned but not described by the Roman poet) and his marriage to

Ipolita. Early in the second book, Boccaccio links up with the Thebaid’s account of the last stages of the

Theban war, and moves quickly to Teseo’s encounter with the Greek widows at his triumphant homecoming

from Scythia. The bulk of Book Two recounts Teseo’s triumph over Creon (whom he kills, as in Statius) and

the funeral observances for the Greek warriors. Neither Argia, Antigone, nor the pyre with the twintongued

flame appear; Teseo is at stage center throughout. Then, as a coda to the action at Thebes, the Greeks who are

searching the battlefield for their dead and wounded find two young men, badly wounded and calling for

death, whose demeanor and dress proclaim them to be of royal blood. The princes are taken to Teseo, who

treats them with respect and holds them in comfortable detention in Athens as Book Two ends. Thenceforth

Palemone and Arcita, the young Thebans, usurp the plot from Teseo, thanks to their love for Emilia, Ipolita’s

sister (and a character unknown to Statius), which transforms their friendship into a near-mortal rivalry.

The first two books of the Teseida abound with self-conscious references to Boccaccio’s appropriation of the

epic heritage for his own uses. The most obvious emblem of poetic metamorphosis is the discovery and

“resurrection” of the half-dead Palemone and Arcita from the field of corpses that constitutes the end of the

Theban war and the end of Statius’ epic about it. In The Thebaid, Polynices and Eteocles “overcome” death

by the sheer force of their mutual hatred, becoming, through the image of the warring flames, a symbol of

destructive destiny’s extension beyond the limits of any single life. Boccaccio replaces the pyre scene by the

discovery scene, substituting a new beginning for epic closure, and his own heroes for Statius’. Moreover,

Teseo responds to the new protagonists in a courteous, refined manner that distinguishes him from the spirit

of the epic universe. When Palemone and Arcita are brought before him, he hears the sdegno real (royal

disdain) in their voices, but doesn’t respond to such ira as it deserves. Instead he is pio (compassionate),

heals them, and, despite their danger to his rule, refuses to kill them, as that would be a great sin; as Book

Two ends, he installs them in his palace, to be served “at their pleasure.”

One more emblem of the transformation the Italian poet has wrought on his Roman master’s view of the

noble life deserves special mention. After Teseo defeats Ipolita in battle, he falls in love with her, and his

sudden subjection to Cupid is accompanied by an equally unexpected collective metamorphosis of all

Ipolita’s Amazon followers: as soon as they put down their arms, they revert to being paragons of beauty and

grace; their stern battle cries become pleasant jests and sweet songs, and even their steps, which were great

strides when they fought, are dainty once again. Boccaccio was inspired to this felicitous passage by Statius’

image of the domesticated Hippolyta, arriving in Athens as Theseus’ captive and wife. But here a whole

society of wild Scythian women spontaneously suffers a sea-change of beautifying refinement, manisfesting

precisely the transformation that courtoisie as a behavioral ideal imposed on the ruder manners of European

feudal society in the centuries just prior to Boccaccio’s own, and that the courtly romance and lyric imposed

on the martial style of the classical and feudal epic.

In deflecting the Thebaid from epic into a new, mixed genre, the Teseida comes to grips with the epic theme

of order versus chaos in new ways, such as the emphasis on control and refinement implicit in Teseo’s

courteous treatment of Palemone and Arcita when they are first brought to him as captives, and in the

metamorphosis of Ipolita’s warriors after their defeat. Control also manifests itself in other elements of the

poem. Boccaccio’s mastery of epic conventions—those already mentioned, plus personified prayers flying to

heaven, catalogues of heroes arriving for battle, descriptions of funeral obsequies and games—is a

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale147self-conscious exercise of poetic control, and the summit of literary self-consciousness is the temple Palemone

builds to honor Arcita’s memory: it is decorated with pictures that recapitulate the entire story of the Teseida

(except Arcita’s mortal fall from his horse!), and the narrator characterizes it as “a perfect work by one who

knew how to execute it superbly”—that is, by Boccaccio himself. The fact, however, that the “perfect work”

omits the one detail of its protagonist’s story—his death—that has called the temple and its pictures into being

suggests that perfect control in art (and life?) is an illusion, created by overlooking those situations in which

chaos erupts.

A similar cynicism about control underlies the manipulative gamesmanship used from time to time by

Boccaccio’s characters in dealing with persons and events. Emilia, having realized that Palemone and Arcita

are watching her from their prison when she plays in her garden, encourages their ardor by flirtatious

behavior—but out of vanity, not love. Arcita, having been released from prison by Peritoo’s intercession with

Teseo, speaks ambiguously to his benefactors, and lies outright to his kinsman Palemone, the better to hide his

passion and his plans to assuage it. Nor is desire the only nurse of deceit; in Book Nine, after Palemone and

Arcita, with one hundred followers each, have fought a tournament with Emilia as the prize, Teseo consoles

those on the losing side with diplomatic words, blaming the defeat on the will of Providence, and

complimenting them as the best warriors he has ever seen. The beneficiaries of Teseo’s game of diplomacy

are pleased, even though they don’t believe all they have heard!

The Teseida’s ironic view of strategies for controlling life and art ripens at times into open recognition of

how attempts to defeat chaos falter when faced by its irresistible forces. When Arcita, having encountered

Palemone in the woods outside Athens, attempts to dissuade him from a fight to the finish over Emilia, he

recalls the wrath of the gods against the Theban lineage to which they both belong; he points out that they are

victims of Fortune, and says that in any case the winner of such a battle still will not have Emilia—and then,

having marshalled all these sound arguments against strife, ends with the thumping non-sequitur that since

Palemone wishes the battle, he shall indeed have it. Dominated by love’s passion, Arcita can see (and speak)

the truth, but cannot act on it. Later, at the climax of the story, the gods whose wrath Arcita has invoked as a

reason for not fighting, intervene decisively (but not on epic grounds) when the young kinsmen commit

themselves to battle for Emilia under Teseo’s aegis. Arcita, who has prayed to Mars for victory, wins the

tournament, only to be thrown from his horse and fatally wounded as he rides about the arena in triumph;

Venus sends a Fury to startle the horse, so that she can award Emilia to Palemone, her votary. Emilia, denied

her desire to remain chaste and marry neither Theban, can only blame Love for her sorry state.

To the extent that the poem’s characters can control their fates by manipulation, their strategies of control and

deceit make them figures of irony. But when they become prisoners of larger forces, they (and the poem’s

rhetoric about them) become pathetic and sentimentalized. This polarity of responses between ironic comedy,

when characters act artfully, and pathetic melodrama, when they suffer victimization, differs markedly from

our responses to the struggle between order and chaos in Book Twelve of the Thebaid. There Theseus’

championship of civilized values is intended to provoke admiration, not cynical amusement, and the furious

excesses of Polynices, Eteocles, and Creon horrified repugnance, not sentimental involvement. Sometimes, in

the Teseida, sentiment and irony seem to pervade a scene simultaneously, especially a scene conceived in

terms of the literary conventions of courtly love. The hot sighs of Palemone and Arcita in prison, as they

debate whether Emilia is a goddess or a woman, and then languish and grow pale with love-sickness, conform

so completely to those conventions as to invite us to smile at the predictability of it all, even as we sympathize

with the helplessness of the imprisoned lovers. Elsewhere, our compassionate response to the affection the

young men frequently express for each other must battle with our sense of the absurdity implicit in the

repeated spectacle of the two dear friends trying to beat each other’s brains out to win Emilia.

Much more than the Thebaid, then, the Teseida moves toward an interpretive impasse, resulting from the

tense equilibrium between activity and passivity, irony and pathos, in its portrayal of the issues at stake in the

noble life. Only Teseo’s commanding presence seems to offer a way out of this labyrinth. Except for the brief

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale148period in Book One where he suffers from lovesickness for the vanquished Ipolita, Teseo is the active

principle throughout the poem. He lacks the symbolic integrity of Statius’ Theseus, the agent of civilization

in a world driven mad with rage; rather, he functions as an emblem of controlled variousness in a world where

variety of response and perception continually leads to situations of collision between and within selves. For

example, when Teseo addresses the Greek widows who have sought his aid against Creon, he moves within a

single stanza from being “wounded in his heart by profound pity” to speaking “in a loud voice kindled by

rage.” Unlike Palemone or Arcita, Teseo is not hindered by such extremes. He acts with complete martial

authority, killing Creon and capturing Thebes, then responds to the wrath of the distraught, newly captured

Theban princes when they are brought before him by a show of magnanimity beyond their deserts; or, finding

them later fighting in the woods, he not only grants them the amnesty they request for having broken his laws,

but rewards them richly. He presides gravely over Arcita’s obsequies and then, in a triumphant show of

authority, convinces Palemone and Emilia to marry, despite their deeply felt unwillingness so to sully the

memory of the departed prince.

Teseo, in short, makes everything look easy, and in so doing, he seems less to reflect a large view of the noble

life as the triumph of order over chaos than to represent within the poem the virtuosity of its creator in

assimilating and combining epic and courtly romance conventions, and thus the triumph of ingenuity over

disparateness. The Teseida’s major concerns are finally aesthetic rather than moral or philosophical; its

ultimate referent is literature, not experience.


When Geoffrey Chaucer undertook to adapt the Teseida for his “Knight’s Tale,” he performed an impressive

feat of truncation, shortening Boccaccio’s nearly 10,000 lines to 2250 and compressing twelve books into

four. Chaucer’s omissions, and the way he has the Knight call attention to them, affect the meaning as well as

the length of his revision of the Teseida. The change most immediately noticeable to a reader of both texts is

Chaucer’s wholesale jettisoning of Boccaccio’s self-consciously literary epic trappings—invocations, glosses,

catalogues of warriors—so that the story, as told by the Knight, sounds much less like a virtuoso performance,

much more like the effort of an amateur—a soldier, not a poet—who, far from taking pride like Boccaccio in his

poetic achievement, wishes primarily to finish his task as quickly as possible. (The one exception to the

Knight’s attitude of self-abnegation, his description of the tournament lists constructed by Theseus, will be

discussed shortly.) The Knight shares his creator’s desire to abridge his “auctor,” although, unlike other,

more learned or artistic Chaucerian narrators, he never alludes to his source either by real name (as in the

reference to “Petrark” in the “Clerk’s Tale”) or pseudonymously (the “Lollius,” alias Boccaccio, of Troilus

and Criseyde). The rhetorical device by which the Knight (and behind him, Chaucer) calls attention to the

process of abridgment is occupatio, the deliberate refusal to amplify (or describe completely) some aspect of

the narrative. The Knight’s first use of occupatio comes only fifteen lines into his tale:

And certes, if it nere to long to heere,

I wolde have toold yow fully the manere

How wonnen was the regne of Femenye

By Theseus and by his chivalrye;

And of the grete bataile for the nones

Bitwixen Atthenes and Amazones;

And how asseged was Ypolita,

The faire, hardy queene of Scithia;

And of the feste that was at hir weddynge,

And of the tempest at hir hoom-comynge;

But al that thyng I moot as now forbere.

Chaucer here digests the first book and beginning of the second of the Teseida by having the Knight, in effect,

tell us what he won’t tell us. Chaucer included these details of his omission, not because the story as he tells

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale149it needs them, but in order to dramatize the fact that story-telling requires the constant exercise of control in

selecting material from a potentially much greater reservoir—ultimately, in fact, from all experience and all

antecedent literature. Occupatio is an emblem of the hard choices and discipline of art: what do I leave out?

And the Knight, as an amateur, is particularly troubled by this aspect of his task, given the scope of his chosen

story and his lack of skill. As he puts it:

I have, God, woot, a large feeld to ere,

And wayke been the oxen in my plough.

The remenant of the tale is long enough.

Although the Knight’s reference to his limited powers is a traditional captatio benevolentiae, it strikes a very

different note from Boccaccio’s selfconfident epic invocations. The image of the oxen and plough is homely

and unpretentious, and the idea it conjures up of the rest of the tale stretching before its teller like a great,

untilled field conveys some of the nervous discomfort felt by the amateur who sets out to tell a story without

fully controlling it, knowing that in any case his best hope is to shorten it where he can.

The Knight’s difficulties in discharging his unaccustomed artistic responsibilities surface most spectacularly

in his description of Arcite’s funeral rites. He recounts in some detail the procession of mourners from

Athens to the place of immolation (the same grove where Palamon and Arcite first fought for Emelye), and

then launches into an occupatio forty-seven lines long, in which he describes the rest of the obsequies

(including funeral games) while protesting that he will not do so! The distension of a curtailing device to a

size that completely defeats its rhetorical intent is a masterful comic stroke on Chaucer’s part, but also a

strategy designed to drive home the impression of the amateur poet unable to control his material.

Precariousness of control in fact constitutes a main theme of the “Knight’s Tale,” linking the Knight’s ad

hoc artistic activities with the political, and finally philosophical, program of Theseus by which the Athenian

duke attempts to solve the potentially disruptive problem of Palamon and Arcite. And behind Theseus lies yet

a deeper level of unresolved tension: the ambivalence of the Knight about life’s meaning, as revealed in his

treatment of his characters. At this last, most profound level, Chaucer confronts the paradoxes inherent in

chivalry, and thereby transforms Boccaccio’s literary tour de force into a troubling anatomy of an archaic but,

in his day, still influential ideal of the noble life.

The theme of precarious control finds emblematic embodiment in a detail included by the Knight in his

description (absent in Boccaccio) of the preparations for the tournament battle between Palamon and Arcite.

Amidst the bustle of knights, squires, blacksmiths, musicians, and expert spectators sizing up the combatants,

he directs our attention to “the fomy stedes on the golden brydel / Gnawynge”—a superb image of animal

passion at its most elemental, restrained by the civilizing force of the (symbolic, we feel) golden bridle, but

clearly anxious to throw off restraint and liberate energy.

The golden bridle is a microcosm of the entire artifice of civilization—the officially sanctioned tournament and

the lists in which it is held—with which Theseus seeks to enclose and control the love-inspired martial energy

of Palamon and Arcite. The lists deserve attention as a focal point of the “Knight’s Tale” that illustrates with

special clarity Chaucer’s intent in transforming the Teseida. Chaucer has Theseus build them especially for

this battle (in Boccaccio the teatro where the tournament is held pre-exists the rivalry of Palemone and

Arcita); they are thus an emblem of his authority and wisdom in dealing with the young Thebans who threaten

him politically and who wish to marry his ward. Furthermore, the description of the lists constitutes the sole

instance when the Knight, abandoning occupatio, waxes eloquent and self-confidently poetic. The lists,

therefore, fuse the high point of the Knight’s art of language and Theseus’s art of government.

Theseus orders the lists to be built after he interrupts Palamon and Arcite fighting viciously, up to their ankles

in blood, in the woods outside Athens to decide who will have Emelye. The tournament which the lists will

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale150house, and of which Theseus will be the “evene juge . . . and trewe”, represents a revision of his first

intention, which was to kill the young combatants when he accidentally comes upon them—one a fugitive from

his prison, the other under sentence of perpetual exile from Athens—fighting on his territory without his

permission: “Ye shal be deed, by myghty Mars the rede!” This second, less furious response of Theseus to

the love-inspired violence of his former prisoners is also a second, more legal chance for Palamon and Arcite

to fight over Emelye. Theseus controls himself, and thus controls the lovers’ behavior. And since the lists are

built on the very spot where Theseus found Palamon and Arcite in battle, the imposition of the constructed

edifice on the hitherto wild grove provides yet another image of civilized control, this time over nature.

The significance of the lists grows as we learn that Theseus calls together all the master craftsmen and artists

of his realm to perform the work of construction; indeed, in the light of these facts, and of the extended

description of the finished product, we are justified in hearing echoes of Genesis (echoes that emphasize

Theseus’ powers of control) in the Knight’s comment ending his account: “Theseus, / That at his grete cost

arraryed thus / The temples and the theatre every deel / Whan it was doon, hym lyked wonder weel.” But if

Theseus is the deity behind this work of art and government, he must share the honors of godhead with the

Knight, who not only uses the same verb, “devyse,” to denominate the activities of those who made the lists

and his own activity in describing it, but also (with artistic ineptitude but, for Chaucer, thematic significance)

destroys the distance between his reality and that of his tale by describing, as if he had seen them, the insides

of the temples built at three compass points atop the round enclosure of the lists (“Ther saugh I . . .”).

Although the Knight clearly admires Theseus more than any other character throughout his tale, nowhere does

he identify himself so directly with his surrogate as here, where both are constructing a universal image of

their willed authority over their respective poetic and political worlds.

In the Teseida, we hear of the “teatro eminente,” where the tournament will be held, at the beginning of Book

Seven, but no details of its construction are given until stanzas 108–110, and then a mere twenty-four lines

suffice (as opposed to Chaucer’s two hundred). In between, various activities and speeches reduce the teatro

to the periphery of our attention. Chaucer, instead, moves directly from Theseus’ decision to build the lists to

the elaborate description of them. He also includes in the description (and the structure) the temples to Mars,

Venus, and Diana, which in the Teseida are not earthly but celestial edifices to which the prayers of

Palemone, Arcita, and Emilia ascend. The cumulative effect of Chaucer’s compression and redistribution of

Boccaccian detail is to make of the lists the poem’s dominant image, and a true theatrum mundi: an image of

the universe, with men below and gods above (the temples are located above the gates or in a turret), and

Theseus in the middle, imposing order and public legitimacy on the private passions of Palamon and Arcite.

Seen in this light, the lists are also a concrete, palpable version and foreshadowing of the cosmic order, held

together by Jupiter’s “cheyne of love”, which Theseus invokes in his last act of control, his proposal and

arrangement of a marriage between Palamon and Emelye some years after Arcite’s death. And, because of

the selfconsciousness of the Knight about his artistry, the lists also claim a place in the cosmic order for

poetry—not Boccaccio’s epic-revival art, with its purely literary and aesthetic triumphalism, but a socially

useful poetry that reflects and promotes cosmic order in a manner analogous to the deeds of a good governor.

The close relationship between the enterprises of Theseus and the Knight is suggested by the direct

juxtaposition of the passage expressing the Duke’s godlike satisfaction in his creation and this other judgment

on the quality of the painting (i.e., of the poetic description) in the temples: “Wel koude he peynten lifly that

it wroghte; / With many a floryn he the hewes boghte.”

The mention of the costs attendant upon the artist’s triumph provides a transition to the larger costs of the

ordering activities undertaken by Theseus. First of all, the gods Mars, Venus, and Diana are presented by

Chaucer as much more threatening to human happiness than their Boccaccian equivalents, thanks to the later

poet’s insertion into the temple ecphrases of an accumulation of details illustrating catastrophic divine

intervention in human life. More crucially, Chaucer invents the figure of Saturn, grandfather of Venus and

Mars and presiding deity over the greatest human disasters, who undertakes to solve the problem created by

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale151his grandchildren’s respective partisanship for Palamon and Arcite: Venus has promised to answer

Palamon’s prayer for Emelye, Mars Arcite’s for victory. Theseus, acting as patron of the Theban princes,

calls the lists into being, but the last word belongs to Saturn, who undertakes to use Theseus’ creation to

assert his own patronage over the celestial counterparts of Palamon and Arcite. Hence the question arises: has

Theseus’s activity, culminating in the building of the lists, really imposed order on potentially disruptive

passions of love and prowess, or has it merely provided a compact and intensified “inner circle” within which

the passions— and the uncontrollable divine destiny that sponsors them—can operate to intensify human


This is a sobering question, and not, I believe, one that can easily be answered positively or negatively from

the data given us by the “Knight’s Tale,” albeit many critics have tried, over the years, to argue for

Chaucer’s philosophical optimism (or more rarely, pessimism) on the basis of the “Tale.” It seems to me

more useful to search out the source of this deep ambivalence about human happiness—about whether the

golden bridle and the lists control human violence or merely license and intensify it—and thereby to

understand more clearly the poet’s intent in creating the “Knight’s Tale.” And here, in my view, is where

the fact that the Tale is told by a professional warrior becomes extremely important.

Chaucer establishes the Knight’s professional perspective on the tale he tells—and on life itself—in several

passages, too frequently ignored by critics, describing events and feelings directly related to the career of a

practitioner of martial chivalry. One such passage I have already mentioned: the powerfully mimetic

description of the preparations for the tournament, rich with the closely observed sights and sounds of the

stable, the grounds, and even the palace, where would-be experts, like bettors at a race track, choose their

favorites in the coming contest:

Somme helden with hym with the blake berd,

Somme with the balled, some with the thikke herd;

Somme seyde, he looked grymme, and he wolde fighte, etc.

In another passage, the Knight describes the various choices of weaponry made by the participants, and ends

his catalogue with the purely professional, almost bored comment: “Ther is no newe gyse [of weapon] that it

nas old.”

The Knight’s treatment of the aftermath of the tournament is as professional (almost disturbingly so) in its

tone as it is amateurish in its distortion of the narrative line of his tale. When Arcite is thrown from his horse

while parading around the lists in apparent triumph, the Knight immediately declares (as Boccaccio’s narrator

does not) that this is a critical wound; Arcite is borne to bed, “alwey criynge after Emelye.” The picture is

infinitely pathetic: the tournament’s victor pleads, as if to the heavens, for the prize he should now be

enjoying, were it not for their intervention to deny it to him just when it seemed in his grasp. At this point, the

Knight abruptly forsakes his wounded protagonist (and the story line) to describe in detail how Theseus

entertained the rest of the tournament contestants, minimizing Arcite’s injury—“he nolde noght disconforten

hem alle”—and assuring them that there have been no real losers on this occasion: after all, “fallyng [as Arcite

did] nys nat but an aventure,” and to be captured (as Palamon was) by twenty men cannot be accounted

cowardice or “vileynye.” Theseus seeks to head off “alle rancour and envye” that might lead to

post-tournament disruptions of the peace, of a kind that Knight would have seen often enough at tournaments

in his day: the Duke calms the feelings of the warriors and holds a feast for them, then leads them out of town.

The Knight reports Theseus’ diplomacy here with the quiet approval of one who has himself been so

entertained after numerous melees, and therefore recognizes how the Duke has effectively defused a

potentially dangerous situation—yet another instance of his ability to control life. (By contrast, the purely

rhetorical performance of Teseo at the analogous point in the Teseida is, as we have seen, greeted with some

skepticism by its recipients; moreover, Boccaccio’s version entirely lacks the verisimilar, “locker room”

details of the combatants treating their wounds and talking about the fight after it is over—details that

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale152underscore the Knight’s familiarity with the scene he is describing.)

The Knight’s professional perspective also endows the tournament fighting with a dimension of mimetic

power foreign to Boccaccio. The alliterative vigor with which the combat unfolds and the brilliant description

of Palamon’s capture, despite the fury of his resistance, owing to sheer force of numbers, convince us that a

soldier is letting us see the martial life through his eyes, not (as in the Teseida) through the eyes of a poet

steeped in epic conventions. But our deepest penetration into the Knight’s vocational psyche comes, not in

the lists, but when Palamon and Arcite are preparing to fight in the woods for the right to woo Emelye. Arcite,

who has gone to Athens for two suits of armor, returns:

And on his horse, allone as he was born,

He carieth all the harneys him biforn.

And in the grove, at tyme and place yset,

This Arcite and this Palamon ben met.

Tho chaungen gan the colour in hir face,

Right as the hunters in the regne of Trace,

That stondeth at the gappe with a spere,

Whan hunted is the leon or the bere,

And hereth hym come russhyng in the greves,

And breketh both the bowes and the leves,

And thynketh, ‘Heere cometh my mortal enemy!

Withoute faille, he moot be deed, or I;

For outher I moot sleen hym at the gappe,

Or he moot sleen me, if that me myshappe’;

So ferden they in chaunging of hir hewe. . .

The Knight evokes a Hemingwayesque moment of truth to describe what it feels like to be about to undertake

a “mortal bataille”—an experience the “General Prologue” of the Canterbury Tales tells us he has had fifteen

times. The loneliness of the moment of truth is stressed at the beginning of this passage, and the role of

Fortune (“myshappe”) at its conclusion. The chilling insight and particular details of this passage are entirely

the Knight’s (and Chaucer’s), yet it has a Boccaccian point of departure, comparison with which makes

Chaucer’s skill and his interests even more obvious. In Teseida vii, when Palemone and Arcita arrive at the

teatro on the day of the tournament, each with his hundred followers, Boccaccio sums up the feelings on

hearing each other’s party and the roar of the crowd by using the simile of the hunter waiting for the lion. But

the effect is deflating, not exalting: the hunter is so afraid, he wishes he had not spread his snares; as he waits,

he wavers between being more and less terrified. So the young princes, facing their moment of truth, think

better of their daring: “within their hearts they suddenly felt their desire become less heated.” From this

cynical, comic moment, Chaucer fabricates a perception of the teeth-gritting readiness for death that the

professional warrior must take with him into battle.

With this moment, we plumb the absolute depths of the Knight’s vision of life as a deadly, and arbitrary,

business. This sense underlies another wonderfully apt remark he makes just before the escaped Palamon

discovers the disguised Arcite in the grove outside Athens:

No thyng ne knew he that it was Arcite;

God woot he wolde have trowed it ful lite.

But sooth is seyd, go sithen many yeres,

That ‘feeld hath eyen and the wode hath eres.’

It is ful fair a man to bere hym evene,

For al day meeteth men at unset stevene.

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale153Fortune, that is, will bring together men without an appointment, and the result may well be, as it is this time,

that a fight will result. The warrior must live with one hand on the hilt of his sword; he cannot expect ample

warning about when to use it.

This fatalistic sense of life, quite amoral in its recognition of the uncontrollable element in human affairs,

seems to me to lead the Knight toward two contrary sets of conclusions, reflected in his tale’s ambivalence

about the possibility of order in the world. First, by stressing the arbitrariness of events, he succeeds in

reducing all of his protagonists except Theseus to the level of playthings of large forces they cannot control.

Palamon and Arcite are found by pilours, pillagers, in a heap of dead bodies on the field outside Thebes. “Out

of the taas the pilours han hem torn,” and this wrenching, almost Caesarean “birth” of the young heroes into

the story, so different in tone from the courteous rescue afforded them by Teseo’s men at this point in the

Teseida, gives way inside three lines of verse to Theseus’ decision to send them “to Atthenes, to dwellen in

prisoun, / Perpetuelly” in a tower. The import of this brusque movement from taas to tour, with all

Boccaccio’s intervening civilities ruthlessly extirpated, is inescapable: life is a prison into which we are born

as Fortune’s minions. From this point of view, the rest of Palamon’s and Arcite’s life is a passage in and out

of prison, with the differences between captivity and liberation so blurred that at one point Arcite can call his

release from the tower through the intervention of Perotheus a sentence “to dwelle / Noght in purgatorie, but

in helle”, while prison, instead, is “paradys.” Furthermore, the subsequent enclosures prepared for them by

Theseus seem as imprisoning as the tower; even the lists, in this reading, render the young princes helpless

before Saturn’s whim, which is as arbitrary as Theseus’ initial decision to imprison them, but more deadly.

When Arcite is thrown from his horse, he is “korven out of his harneys” and carried off to die—a grim act of

release that recalls his being torn out of the taas, and supports a dark view of life as a succession of equally

brutal operations of imprisonment and release performed upon humanity by an indifferent or hostile universe.

The Knight, when he espouses this dark view, becomes practically as heedless of the feelings of his characters

as is Saturn. He makes fun of the young lovers, and turns their heartfelt, Boethian complaints about the

meaning of this cruel life into a dubbio, or love-problem game, at the end of Part One. He leers at Emelye as

she performs her rites of purification before praying to Diana to remain a virgin (a prayer doomed to

rejection), and, as we have seen, he leaves the wounded Arcite crying for Emelye while he recapitulates

Theseus’s diplomatic treatment of the rest of the tournament combatants. We are surely intended by Chaucer

to blanch in horror at the grim levity with which the Knight ends his expert description of Arcite’s mortal


Nature hath now no dominacioun,

And certeinly, ther Nature wol not wirche,

Fare wel physik! go ber the man to chirche!

It is against this strand of professionally inspired pessimism and stoicism that the image of Theseus the

bringer of order must be placed—as the mouthpiece of a philosophical optimism that expresses the Knight’s

pulling back from the edge of the abyss to which his sense of death and fortune leads him. Like Statius so

many centuries before him, the Knight needs Theseus, and at the ending of his tale allows Theseus’ last

diplomatic initiative complete success. Invoking the order of the universe to explain to the still grief-stricken

Palamon and Emelye why they should no longer mourn for Arcite, Theseus counsels them “to maken vertu of

necessitee,” and “make of sorwes two / O parfit joye, lastynge everemo” by marrying. The rhetoric here is at

least in part Boethian—with, as critics have noted, some odd turns—but the strategy behind it is wholly

political. Theseus has been led to propose the marriage by his desire “to have with certeyn countrees

alliaunce, / And have fully of Thebans obeisaunce.” For him, this is a dynastic alliance, and thus another

imposition of political order on human passions (here, grief). Because the Knight has given vent to his darker

perceptions elsewhere in his Tale, however, we are allowed, nay, intended to take some of Theseus’

philosophic justifications for his political initiative cum grano salis. We know by now how precarious and

potentially ironic the Duke’s structures of control can be, even if the Knight wishes to forget this. Indeed,

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale154even here, the phrases from Theseus’ speech about virtue and necessity, sorrow and joy, encourage us to

detect someone’s desperation—whether Theseus’ or the Knight’s is not clear—to find an alternative to the

dark despair that flooded the poem with Arcite’s death. The lingering influence of that despair inheres in

Theseus’ reference to “this foule prisoun of this lyf”, a phrase ironically recalling the tower to which he

condemned Palamon and Arcite early in the story, thus literally making their life a prison.

The secret of Chaucer’s re-creation of the Teseida as the “Knight’s Tale” lies, then, in his vivid and

profound comprehension of the tensions that might well exist within the Weltanschauung of a late medieval

mercenary warrior. Or perhaps he simply appreciated the contradictions in his society’s concept of chivalry.

The knight of Chaucer’s day carried with him a very mixed baggage of Christian idealism, archaic and

escapist codes of conduct, aesthetically attractive routines of pageantry, and a special function as the

repository of skills and graces appropriate to the training of young aristocrats. In his famous “General

Prologue” portrait, Chaucer’s own knight possesses a high moral character of an archaic (if not totally

imaginary) kind: “fro the time that he first began / To riden out, he loved chivalrie, / Trouthe and honour,

fredom and curteisie”. He combines this idealism of outlook and behavior (“he nevere yet no vileynie ne

sayde / In al his lyf unto no maner wight”) with a thoroughly professional mercenary career that has taken

him to most of the places where the noble warrior’s virtues and skills could be practiced during Chaucer’s

day. This synthetic phenomenon, the idealistic killer (he had “foughten for oure feith at Tramyssene / In

lystes thries, and ay slayn his foo”), embodies in his person some but not all of the main strands of chivalry.

His son, the Squire who accompanies him on the pilgrimage, supplements these by personifying the virtuosic

and aesthetic side of late medieval chivalry: he sings, dances, loves hotly, and fights very little. Chaucer’s

splitting of the chivalric complex into two generationally distinct segments allowed him to isolate what

seemed to him the real paradox of chivalry—its imposition of moral idealism on a deadly, and therefore

potentially nihilistic, profession—for treatment in the “Knight’s Tale,” leaving its decorative aspects to be

teased in the harmlessly inept story told (but not completed) by the Squire, himself an unfinished creature,

when his turn comes on the road to Canterbury.

The “Knight’s Tale,” reflecting as it does the problematic view of life implicit in a code that seeks to

moralize and dignify aggression, looks back across the centuries to enter into dialogue with the last book of

Statius’ Thebaid, as well as with Boccaccio’s Teseida, on the question of what Charles Muscatine calls “the

struggle between noble designs and chaos.” Reading Chaucer’s chivalric tale with its ancestry in mind

heightens our appreciation of both the uniqueness of his art and the continuities of its tradition.

Source: Robert W. Hanning, “‘The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos’: The Literary Tradition of

Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale,’” in Literary Review, Vol. 23, No. 4, Summer 1980, pp. 519–41.

The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence

In the following essay, Britton J. Harwood defends his assertion that “Chaucer was creating a human being”

when constructing the character of the Wife of Bath.

The sad note some hear in the voice of the Wife of Bath can be interpreted as “die letzte Süsse in den

schweren Wein,” a hint of sourness showing that, with age, her deep enjoyments have begun to turn. From the

viewpoint of those who understand the Wife as a stock character, this sad note, if not attributed to critical

ingenuity, is assimilated to the Wife’s type as a picturesque, individuating detail or as the bitter recognition,

coming amidst our common celebration of the created world, that time holds us “green and dying.” Her

“allas!,” then, would be “the song of the indestructibility of the people,” “of the finite with the vulgar

interstices and smells, which lies below all categories.”

The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence 155However, to maintain that the “absurdity” of such characters as the Wife “inveigles us into . . . conspiring

with them to make them real and lifelike,” that she becomes lifelike by representing a class, and that Chaucer

manipulates her “with an entire disregard for . . . psychological probability” seems to me to leave many parts

of her performance in only the slightest connection with other parts. Assuming for the moment that the sad

note is as close to her center as her willful gaiety and her insistence on fleshly enjoyment, I wish to throw in

with those who believe that, in writing lines for the Wife, Chaucer was conceiving a human being.

A denial that the Wife’s “make-up . . . is subtle or complex” seems to me to encounter difficulty with the

third line she speaks:

Experience, though noon auctoritee

Were in this world, is right ynogh for me

To speke of wo that is in mariage.

This unhappiness in marriage is generally equated, tout court, with the defeats borne by her subjugated

husbands. She does not need secondhand knowledge of this grief, she is taken to mean, because she knows it

at first hand, having caused it. “These opening lines of the Wife’s Prologue are actually an introduction not

to the ‘sermon,’” R. A. Pratt has maintained, “but to the account of woe in marriage,” not, that is, to lines

9–162, based upon Jerome’s Epistola adversus Jovinianum, but to the parts of her Prologue which follow the

Pardoner’s interruption and draw on Deschamps, Theophrastus, and Walter Map as well as Jerome.

In the first place, however, as her first line anticipates, she does in fact proceed to dispute

authority—principally the apostle Paul—although not about the misfortunes of milquetoasts. Secondly, it is not

true that “the account of woe in marriage” begins only after the Pardoner intrudes. If “wo” and “tribulacion”

mean the same thing, the mention of it seems to cause the Pardoner’s interruption:

An housbonde I wol have, I wol nat lette,

Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral,

And have his tribulacion withal

Upon his flessh, whil that I am his wyf.

No more than previously does she dispute Paul in these lines by misunderstanding the plain meaning of his

words. With “wo” or “tribulacion” of the “flessh,” she echoes 1 Corinthians 7:28 (“Si autem acceperis

uxorem, non peccasti, et si nupserit virgo, non peccavit; tribulationem tamen carnis habebunt hujusmodi”),

and she means, as Paul did, the painful test posed in marriage by the temptation to lubricity. As Augustine

explains, “the Apostle . . . was unwilling to conceal the tribulation of the flesh springing from carnal

emotions, from which the marriage of those who lack self-control can never be free. . . .” In his comment on

the same verse, Rabanus Maurus, having asked why tribulations of the flesh were greater for wedded folk than

virgins, responds that these trials arise from the body itself, since these troubles were the satisfaction of the

desires of the body. While the Parson will allow “that for thre thynges a man and his wyf flesshly mowen

assemble,” he knows that “scarsly may ther any of thise be withoute venial synne, for the corrupcion and for

the delit.” The tribulations, then, are the travail of continence, the efforts with which one controls the

emotions that are “rebel to resoun and the body also”; further, they are the temporal punishment for the

venial sin of incontinence in marriage. But they are also the appetite and its satisfaction; and by a familiar

trick of religious language, the Wife like the Apostle is using “wo” to mean sexual pleasure.

The context in which the Wife mentions the “tribulacion” of the flesh is her defense of sexuality in marriage:

because man and wife maintain the other’s honor by relinquishing power over the body to the other, the Wife

will have a husband who will “be bothe my dettour and my thral.” The context, then, has nothing to do with

“tegumenta, . . . uxoris necessitas, mariti dominatio”—“tribulacion” belonging to “another tonne.” Similarly

with “dette.” Before the Pardoner interrupts, the Wife’s husbands pay their “dette” by collaborating with her

The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence 156in sexual satisfaction. The sexual organs must have been created “for ese / Of engendrure,” she argues: “Why

sholde men elles in hir bookes sette / That man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette?” If she were describing

herself here as a “whippe,” her husband could not possibly love her “weel,” as she approvingly quotes Paul

as telling him to do. When the husband takes the initiative and wishes to “paye his dette,” the Wife says she

will use her “instrument . . . frely.” Again, the Wife disagrees with Paul about the dangers of carnal pleasure;

but she understands “dette” as he did: the spouse’s usual obligation, spiritual cost notwithstanding, to give

sexual relief and solace. Where she had promised “experience,” the Wife’s Prologue to this point is highly

theoretical—that is, hypothetical. And there is simply no way to predict that “tribulacion” will mean

quarreling, and debt and thralldom the plight of the man whose wife will not suffer his advances until he

promises to buy her a present.

Before the Pardoner interrupts, then, we have three points which are evidently inconsistent: (1) “wo . . . in

mariage” the Wife surely knows to be unpleasant for someone; (2) she insists she may lawfully marry for

sexual fruition; and (3) “tribulacion,” debt, and thralldom are sexual and participate in that fruition.

This apparent inconsistency is removed if all of the Wife’s Prologue up to the Pardoner’s intrusion is, as I

think, an enormous red herring. This is something quite apart from the invalidity of her arguments, however

telling that might be. She no sooner mentions her five marriages to verify her knowledge of married “wo”

than she uses the plurality of her marriages as a pivot on which to turn to a diversive defense, first of bigamy

and then of carnal pleasure between husband and wife. The very argument for the lawfulness of this pleasure

is irrelevant to the Wife, because nearly all of it, she goes on to recall, has been found outside her marriages.

Even with Jankyn, fun in bed is explicitly part of that first phase of their marriage when he is “daungerous”

to her; for after the night they “fille acorded,” they “hadden never debaat.” On their sexual relationship

afterwards, she is significantly silent. There is no question of sexual pleasure with the first three mates. As

opposed to the (carnal) love for a woman which the married state pardons and the Wife misleadingly defends,

the “love” won by the Wife from her three husbands takes the form of “lond and . . . tresoor”; on the

attempts at love-making she derisively exacts from them (“love” in the sense parallel to “tribulacion” in 1

Cor. 7:28), she places no value. In fact, as we shall observe, she may not ultimately use sex for pleasure at all.

She holds marriage to be good as a natural context for propagation and pleasure. Yet she herself has had no

“delit” in “bacon” and is evidently childless. She insists that she will devote the best of herself to “fruyt of

mariage,” yet there has been no fruit either in the sense of children or, in her first four marriages at least,

sexual fruitio. To protest that she is innocent, she exonerates marriage, while the “wo” actually arises with

the uses to which she has put marriage.

The Wife’s discourse, taking off from the experience of woe into an argumentative evasion full of theological

categories and putative pleasure, includes the Pauline (that is, the metaphoric) use of “tribulacion” and

“dette.” The redundancy of “bothe my dettour and my thral” may be suspiciously vehement, however; and

confronted by this aggressive and sturdy matron, the delicately constituted Pardoner penetrates far into her

history by archly misinterpreting “tribulacion” in a reductive and literal way: “What sholde I bye it on my

flessh so deere?” Since “tribulacion” as the Wife had used it means the temptation to sinful coitus, the

Pardoner’s question changes the sense of “tribulacion” to agree with his obvious inability to exchange sexual

(or at least heterosexual) pleasure. His incapacity may even remind the Wife of her first three husbands’. To

this changed sense of “tribulacion,” then, she responds with a vengeance, accommodating her own meaning

to the Pardoner’s: of this “tribulacion in mariage,” she says, “myself have been the whippe.” And she turns

to the notable abuse actually visited upon her mates. The change in meaning is equally clear in her treatment

of the marriage “dette”: before the Pardoner interrupts, she says that she uses her “instrument . . . frely”

whenever her hypothetical husband likes to “paye his dette.” After the interruption, she records that,

whenever one of her first three husbands was similarly inclined, he found that nothing was free; the “dette”

has become quite literal and pecuniary.

The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence 157The authorities assert that guilt—the arduous resistance to it, the consequences of it—is the “wo” in marriage.

While the Wife contends otherwise, her own “experience” is conclusive. Anyone listening for the

dominant’s persistence in her narrative of married life will soon hear the language of the broker. The

Pardoner sets the motif by speaking of buying marriage with his flesh, and the Pauline metaphors of “debt”

and “payment” thereafter broaden into a whole vocabulary of commerce. The Wife will trouble to be

agreeable only if it is profitable: “What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese, / But it were for my profit and

myn ese?” On the other hand, her ability to carp and nag is also lucrative; for to buy relief from it, her

husbands hasten to bring her “gaye thynges fro the fayre.” Since a husband is a practical necessity, she is

careful to buy one against her future needs: she is “purveyed of a make.” There is a quid pro quo even in

harsh words: she never took criticism without paying her spouse back for it. Because her fourth husband has

been particularly difficult, she holds back on the money for his tomb. She and her first three live by the

“cheste,” and she disposes of the fourth by cheaply burying him in his.

The commerce extends beyond this, for in marriage she approximates the condition of a prostitute. She

imputes to the first three mates a statement that may apply to herself: an ugly woman, she makes them say,

will covet:

every man that she may se,

For as a spaynel she wol on hym lepe,

Tyl that she fynde som man hire to chepe

Alice is quite clear that she sells her favors: if one of her old husbands ever stinted on the fee, then at night,

when she felt his arm come over her side, she would leave the bed “Til he had maad his raunson unto me.”

Her body is her equity and no husband will expropriate it: “Thou shalt nat bothe, thogh that thou were wood, /

Be maister of my body and of my good.” He can deal or not, as he likes, but one of them he must “forgo.”

Although the husband is a rapacious beast, she must trade with him for her profit:

With empty hand men may none haukes lure.

For wynnyng wolde I al his lust endure,

And make me a feyned appetit.

At forty-plus, this Mother Courage has to work harder at her business. One argument for marriage offered

sardonically by Jerome is that it is preferable to be a prostitute for one man than for many. While the Wife

overlooks it (pointedly, I am tempted to say), some allusion to her being literally a whore is inevitable: you’re

a lucky man that I’m faithful to you, she tells one or more of her old husbands, “For if I wolde selle my bele

chose, / I koude walke as fressh as is a rose.” She keeps a green memory of her youth, but here is the fruit of

her age: “Wynne whoso may, for al is for to selle.”

The “sovereignty” and “mastery” that the Wife exercises over her fifth husband (and that the Loathly Lady

reveals to be what women most desire) are commonly understood as the Wife’s power to obtain such things

as fine clothes, her husbands’ flattery, and freedom to roam—all the things, in short, we have just heard her

buying with her sexual acquiescence. If sovereignty be the sum of these wifely prerogatives, it is curious that

they appear in the Tale only to be discarded as wrong answers and that the Loathly Lady takes pains to

dissociate herself from them. Before encountering the hag, the rapist knight polls the ladies:

Somme seyde wommen loven best richesse,

Somme seyde honour, somme seyde jolynesse,

Somme riche array, somme seyden lust abedde.

These and others (flattery, gallivanting, and so on) are precisely the profits won by the Wife with her hard

bargains. They are also short of the mark, for they are not sovereignty, unless that is only the power to obtain

The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence 158all of them—and this would seem a barren quibble. What appears most striking is that the Loathly Lady, who

will enjoy “maistrie” over her own knight even as the Wife has “maistrie . . . [and] soveraynetee” over

Jankyn, repudiates exactly the commerce already surveyed in some detail. The knight tries to get her secret

with a bribe: “Koude ye me wisse, I wolde wel quite youre hire,” he says; but she will have no part of it.

Constrained to marry her, the knight echoes exactly the commercial alternatives offered by the Wife: “Taak al

my good, and lat my body go.” But the Lady refuses to negotiate:

“Nay, thanne,” quod she, “I shrewe us bothe two!

For thogh that I be foul, and oold, and poore,

I nolde for al the metal, ne for oore,

That under erthe is grave, or lith above,

But if thy wyf I were, and eek thy love.”

Nor does the hag forgo wealth for sex, as the Wife tries to do with Jankyn. Neither before nor after her

transformation does she exhibit a marked sexual interest in the knight; on the contrary, she knows what he

likes and troubles to satisfy all his “worldly appetit.”

For the moment I wish to put aside the question of the meaning of “sovereignty” in order to consider some of

the effects of the Wife’s having made her way by trading upon her youth and beauty. The basic consequence,

of course, is guilt. “I koude pleyne,” says the Wife, “and yit was in the gilt,” and later: “be we never so

vicious withinne, / We wol been holden wise and clene of synne.” Hence her hatred of Jankyn’s

uncomplaisant book. Because “love” to her, when it is not income, is sexual fruition, it is found outside those

marriages in which she must feign an interest in the “bacon.” Love is “evere . . . synne” because for her it is

either prostitution or adultery. Moreover, she seems to understand that sin, being unlovely, makes her

unlovely, and that so far as she is not loved she is perceived as guilty. (In the Tale, conversely, the Loathly

Lady takes the position that, if she is innocent, she is therefore lovable.) The revels of her fourth husband

assume and reflect the very absence of virtue in her that she herself had to assume, from the age of twelve, in

negotiating the price of her innocence. The “greet despit” in “herte” which he makes her feel is perhaps not

merely sexual jealousy, but rather the suffering—an unredemptive “croce”—that comes from being perceived

as unlovely; and the Wife brings death with her even from Jerusalem. Her own guiltiness being a kind of hell

(women’s love is “helle,” she says at one point), and the fourth husband having shown it to her, he is made

to share it: “in erthe I was his purgatorie.”

Because the husbands of her youth are old and thick with lust, the Wife overpowers and outwits them easily in

driving her bargains. There are no sales, however, without buyers. And having conspired in the commerce,

they share her guilt and take their punishment:

As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke

How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke!

And, by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor.

I sette hem so a-werke, by my fey,

That many a nyght they songen “weilawey!”

After dishing out such a drubbing, she might say:

Goode lief, taak keep

How mekely looketh Wilkyn, oure sheep!

Com neer, my spouse, lat me ba thy cheke!

Ye sholde been al pacient and meke, . . .

Suffreth alwey, syn ye so wel kan preche;

The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence 159And but ye do, certein we shal yow teche

That it is fair to have a wyf in pees. . . .

What eyleth yow to grucche thus and grone?

Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone?

Wy, taak it al! lo, have it every deel!

Peter! I shrewe yow, but ye love it weel; . . .

But I wol kepe it for youre owene tooth.

Ye be to blame, by God! I sey yow sooth.

Despite a possible nuance of tormented motherhood (she offers the “queynte” as she might have offered the

teat), the pervasive tone is fiercely and sardonically patronizing. She knows that she is “in the gilt” and yet

knows also, I think, that in a sense he is “to blame.” The Wife invents a dream about her bed’s being full of

blood—blood that actually symbolizes gold, she says. In the Tale, the knight rapes the maiden and tries to

bribe the lady; in the Prologue the twelve-year-old girl is raped by being bribed. The “haukes” lured to her

hand leave the bed bloody with nobles and shillings. That Alice shares the guilt does not lessen the dishonor.

As the wife of Midas had to reveal her husband’s “vice,” Alice admits that she could not keep it a secret if

her husbands ever pissed upon a wall, or did anything like that. They do, and she can’t.

For the sexual appetite to be imaged as fire is usual enough: the Wife’s “queynte” is a kind of lantern, and a

little later she describes “wommenes love” as “wilde fyr; / The moore it brenneth, the moore it hath desir /

To consume every thyng that brent wole be.” More remarkable is the thirst that goes with it for the water that

might quench the flame. Women’s love is a waterless land. Midas’s wife, “hir herte . . . a-fyre,” rushes to

the marsh and lays her mouth against the water. With her “likerous mouth” and “tayl,” Alice thirsts,

paradoxically, for the same sexual experience with which she burns. She wishes she might be “refresshed”

just half so often as Solomon. Christ may be the “welle” of perfection, but like this woman from “biside

Bathe,” the Samaritan with her five husbands is linked with another “welle”—the image of the unsatisfied


At bottom, the Wife thirsts for innocence, relief from the fact of guilt. Thanks to her nativity, she says,

I koude noght withdrawe

My chambre of Venus from a good felawe. . . .

For God so wys be my savacioun,

I ne loved nevere by no discrecioun,

But evere folwede myn appetit,

Al were he short, or long, or blak, or whit;

I took no kep, so that he liked me,

How poore he was, ne eek of what degree.

“Just as long as he liked me.” Here is every nymphomaniac, whispering in the dark, “Love me a little.” In

the first phase of their marriage, Jankyn is such a “good felawe,” periodically interrupting his clerical

castigation of her to “glose” her into producing her “bele chose.” Leading through infinite adultery, thus

exacerbating the guilt (“Allas! allas! that evere love was synne!”), and revealing itself as basic to the Wife’s

sense of “wo” in marriage, this thirst is self-defeating: the more it burns, “the moore it hath desir / To

consume every thyng that brent wole be.” She attempts to quench it with the “queynte,” which is fire itself.

Not only the Pardoner has a deadly barrel thrust to his lips.

This “coltes tooth”—not merely undiminished sexual vigor, but, motivating it, a longing that the buried and

dishonored child has never ceased to feel—leads on to her bad bargain with Jankyn of the well-turned legs. He

entertains her with his pleasant anthology of authors who take her categorical imperatives of instability,

violence, and lechery and give them the maddening amplitude and inevitability of history. What maddens her

The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence 160most may be its incompleteness. She has not, after all, done this to herself all by herself:

By God! if wommen hadde writen stories,

As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,

They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse

Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.

Holding the trump of sexual uninterest, Jankyn evens an old score by reciting at his leisure the same charges

the Wife had imputed to her earlier husbands: the uxorious spouses doubtless knew that the charges were true,

and yet knew as well that they had not made them. Therefore, obliged to confirm and deny at the same time,

they were too weakened by desire and too confused to do either, and the Wife had swept the field. But Jankyn

reads on implacably, overpowering her first in one way, then in another:

And whan I saugh he wolde nevere fyne

To reden on this cursed book al nyght,

Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyght

Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke

I with my fest so took hym on the cheke

That in oure fyr he fil bakward adoun.

And he up stirte as dooth a wood leoun,

And with his fest he smoot me on the heed,

That in the floor I lay as I were deed.

And whan he saugh how stille that I lay,

He was agast, and wolde han fled his way,

Til atte laste out of my swogh I breyde.

Leaving the Wife for a moment at the point of this utter and ludicrous defeat, we may revert briefly to the

matter of sovereignty. In the Middle Ages marriage was sometimes considered the iurata fornicatio, in which

sexual pleasure was not something freely given, but encumbered and obligated. The thirsty Wife would

invoke the iurata fornicatio (the “statut”) with her Pauline “dettours.” Each mate constrains the other, the

only question being who gets to the mill first. The Wife believes that each old husband would lock her in his

chest if he could or employ Argus as a “wardecors.” Nevertheless, because “love”—that is, wealth—has been

exacted from them, even a superfluity of it is valueless for her: “They loved me so wel, by God above, / That

I ne tolde no deyntee of hir love!” In the Tale, the knight is “constreyned” to marry the Loathly Lady. The

ability to constrain is power. In bartering with her first three husbands, the Wife pits one kind of power

against another. The coolness of Jankyn and the blow which, permanently deafening the Wife, leaves her

prostrate and stunned epitomize the Wife’s married life to that point.

In reaction to the iurata fornicatio, there seems to have arisen, at least in twelfth-century France an ethic of

love beginning with generosity. In her beautiful softness, the woman is perceived to be the source of

goodness, bestowing her gifts or not according to what she judges to be worthy. Outside the iurata fornicatio,

power can do nothing but put itself at the service of goodness, and the woman remains free to be good. This

giving without constraint is what the Loathly Lady means by “gentillesse.” Henri Dupin distinguishes ten

qualities signified by “gentillesse” or “courtoisie” as these synonymous terms occur in French poetry,

“contes et . . . romans,” and moral works of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and elsewhere in Chaucer

they have much of this complexity. The Loathly Lady’s meaning, if vague, seems nevertheless reasonably

simple: “gentil dedes” depend upon grace. This means, unless she is a heretic, that these must be deeds of

charity, “heigh bountee.” She distinguishes the uncanny and spontaneous nature of “gentillesse” from the

natural functioning of fire: one can set a fire in an isolated house, vacate the house, and still the fire will do its

“office natureel . . . til that it dye.” It cannot stop burning of its own accord, and yet folk can cease to be

generous. Here the grace to do a generous deed is exactly opposed to that fire which the poem identifies with

The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence 161the unquenchable “queynte.”

Because the sense of “sovereignty” which comes all too readily to mind with the Wife fits the circumstances

a little uneasily, we might consider the alternative. The name given by the man to the lady whom he serves

because she is good is domina. Aurelius, for example, uses the convention when he tells Dorigen, “Nat that I

chalange any thyng of right / Of yow, my sovereyn lady, but youre grace.” A woman may well “desiren to

have sovereynetee / As wel over hir housbond as hir love,” because it is the hegemony of gracious liberality

over legalized violence.

As the Wife bestirs herself from her swoon, she says,

O! hastow slayn me, false theef? . . .

And for my land thus hastow mordred me?

Er I be deed, yet wol I kisse thee.

Jankyn kneels down beside her and vows never to hit her again. He puts the bridle in her hand, as she says,

and burns his book. Why does Jankyn cease to preach? To answer that the Wife has mastered him would be

simply tautologous. It is equally futile to believe, as many readers do, that she tricks Jankyn into coming

within range and overwhelms him with a dying slap. For this fails to explain not only why he puts a

permanent end to his hitherto successful strategy but also why she then goes on to be kind to him where she

had abused the others. If this is only a matter of his so satisfying her sexually that she never had cause to

chide, it is odd we do not hear of her reveling in “a bath of blisse”; indeed, she recalled that he was “in oure

bed . . . so fressh and gay” at the same point she was remembering him as “the mooste shrewe.” By contrast,

after she has got “the soveraynetee,” she describes their emotional relationship as simply “kynde” and


Jankyn burns the book because it no longer mirrors the Wife. Have you murdered me for my money? she

asks. “Er I be deed, yet wol I kisse thee.” The slap she actually gives him does not disconcert him and seems

little more than the vestige of a habit dying hard—of always having “the bettre in ech degree” turned now

from “substaunce into accident.” She depicts it as a gallant effort and her surrender, therefore (“Now wol I

dye, I may no lenger speke”), as pathetic. Nevertheless, rather than by a trick, she “masters” Jankyn by

appearing in a new way. “Truth comes in blows.” At the moment of ridiculous defeat, grace irrupts into her

experience. With the offer of one kiss, for the first time in 800 lines she proffers something for nothing. In

place of a kiss he gets the nominal slap. But kisses are cheap, the pay-off to a “good felawe,” as no one

knows better than she. Instead, where she had vowed she would “noght forbere hym in no cas,” she does

exactly that. By being good—having honor to keep—she is sovereign: Jankyn defers to her because of the way

he perceives her. She has described forbearance in a kiss, and he forbears; then she forbears in substance. In

recalling the episode, she uses her habitual words, “maistrie” and “soveraynetee,” although their meaning

has changed. After the arid restlessness of a youth in which everything was up for sale, she becomes another

woman with this “gentil dede.” And where, in her guilt, she had heaped excruciating abuse upon those who

had conspired with her to suborn herself, she pours kindness and fidelity upon Jankyn while he lives and

blessings upon him after he dies.

It will be enough simply to record the parallel with the Loathly Lady and the knight. Where the Wife had the

grace to do a “gentil dede,” the Loathly Lady knows not only gentillesse but what women desire and what

men ought to desire. The knight’s marriage to her can be constrained, but his love must be given. After her

bolster sermon, in the dark, the only universe of which he is conscious is her voice, and the unmoved mover

of that world is her vision of the good. He at last vents many sighs, but they perhaps arise from the kind of

turmoil that might precede an act of faith; for it is to her knowledge of goodness that he finally defers:

“Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance, / And moost honour to yow and me also.” He amends the

dishonor to the maiden by submitting to the honor of the Lady.

The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence 162Jankyn comes late in a life saturated with the experience of “wo . . . in mariage,” and the Wife may well be

less than fully conscious of why she blesses him. Except for the gracious interlude with Jankyn, her Prologue

establishes the facts of guilt, of a nostalgia for a lost goodness, of factitious gaiety, and of perseverance, not

toward a hint of light, but in the gathering darkness. The diminished categories of her realized thought are

fairly indicated by the closing lines of her whole performance, in which she wishes for young husbands who

are “fressh abedde” and scorns “olde and angry nygardes of dispence.” Where the transformed Lady

“obeyed” her husband “in every thyng,” five lines later the Wife prays for “grace t’overbyde hem that we

wedde.” With a more conscious and far more sardonic example of the same kind of selfpunishing meiosis, the

Pardoner, another guilty soul, will make his obscene pitch to Harry Bailley. This notwithstanding, the Wife

has made up a tale in which, without being altogether aware of doing so, perhaps, she submerges the fact of

guilt within a dream of innocence. And we may conclude by having another look at the Tale.

In the Tale, the rapacity which the Wife imputes to friars with her triumphant joke anticipates the dishonor

done a solitary girl, presumably of the lower class, by one of Arthur’s knights: “By verray force, he rafte hire

maydenhed.” This rape appears in none of the analogues. As we have already noticed, the knight is doomed

to rehabilitation: where force had destroyed the cleanness of virginity, it ends by putting itself at the service of

virtue. We have not yet noticed, however, the simple and significant structure of the Tale.

Having been dishonored, the maiden becomes a hag. When honor is vested in her once more, she becomes a

maiden again. Logic identifies the post hoc fallacy; poetry thrives on it. In the plot, the rape of the maiden is

the way to the Loathly Lady; therefore, the rape of the maiden causes the Loathly Lady. Chaucer has not only

added the rape to his sources; he has left out the motive for the Lady’s ugliness found in the principal

analogues. At bottom, the rapist is not simply—or perhaps not at all—a cut of red meat calculated to excite the

Wife. His “verray force” reintroduces all the violence done to her own innocence when she dangled it to lure

the hawks. The passing years, the Wife declares in her Prologue, poison everything. But the years of the hag

are the instant tetter of a poison which frustrates all refreshment, the guilt of married prostitution and the thirst

for infinite adultery. Age and poverty, however wisely she will analyze them, are also a metaphor for her lost

innocence; and thus the “leeve mooder” reintroduces to all appearances the salacious experience of Alice’s

own “dame.” She is foul with all the jolly sins that buried the child.

In this dream, age and ugliness will drop away like rags, the child will stand revealed, because the knight will

restore her honor by perceiving it; you are good, he will say, you decide. But since the Loathly Lady has

minted a fortune in the nasty sty, it is she who in the same bed must cause the man to make the perception—to

have him say, without the sexual inducement, that he liked her. The Wife dreams a second chance for her, in

which she can ask, “What is my gilt?,” and wait for an answer; for there in the dark she can talk as if her

chastity were still to be kept and there were yet “gentil dedes” to be done.

Tell me, says the Wife to the pilgrims. . . . Tell me, says the hag to the knight, as she recites in the dark her

implacable, inviolable praise of impossible virtue. . . . Tell me I was a good girl once.

And there in the dark, he does.

Source: Britton J. Harwood, “The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence,” in Modern Language

Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 3, September 1972, pp. 257–73.

Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature

In the following essay, R. T. Lenaghan examines the “General Prologue” as a historical document, asserting

that it offers “a richer sense of a civil servant’s values than the usual documents afford.”

Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature 163The “General Prologue” is often called a picture of its age and, frequently in the next breath, a satire. In

English Lit. this usually draws a stern lecture about confusing the distinction between literature and history,

but in this essay, unobserved by my sophomores, I propose to talk about the “General Prologue” as a picture

of its age and then, tentatively, about some uses such history might be put to by historians and literary


The “General Prologue” has an obvious historical interest as a series of discrete bits of information about

dress, customs, etc.; but if it is to be considered as a more general historical formulation, there is a question of

coherence. Is Chaucer’s fictional society sufficiently coherent to warrant taking it seriously as

fourteenth-century sociology? The best reason for an affirmative answer is rather vague. It is simply the

strong sense most readers have that Chaucer is sampling, that his pilgrims are representatives. There are

certainly omissions from his roll, but he does give good coverage to the middle segment of society. The nature

he is imitating is social in a sense that is worthy of a sociologist’s regard. To put it rather grandly, Chaucer’s

imitation has the same general ontological status as the sociologist’s model; both are representative fictions.

This analogy serves my purpose by temporarily converting the literary fiction into a series of hypothetical

propositions which may be examined and defined before they are verified. What are the hypothetical patterns

of social organization? Then, were they truly descriptive?

The “General Prologue” suggests at least three different ways of pinning down my general sense of

coherence to a more specific pattern of social organization. One would be to invoke the widely familiar theory

of the three estates. Chaucer’s Knight, Parson, and Plowman do seem to exist as governing ideals, but the

effort to classify the pilgrims in one or another of the estates makes it clear that this pattern has the same

trouble with the world of the “General Prologue” as it has with the real one. It doesn’t account for the

complexities of commerce. The second way would be to follow up Chaucer’s expressed intention to discuss

each pilgrim’s degree, but once again Chaucer’s society is too complex for clear hierarchical classifications,

as he himself suggests. The third, and I think the best, way of establishing a pattern of organization is to infer

it from Chaucer’s practice and say the obvious: he presents his pilgrims by occupational labels, he is

concerned with what men do. In the “General Prologue,” as elsewhere, what men do falls largely into the

category of economics. There is certainly a generous provision of economic information in the description of

the pilgrims, and although there is a good deal of other information as well, the economic information is

sufficiently cohesive to justify taking it as the basic matter of my argument. This focus certainly places the

discussion within the historian’s purview, but it may seem rather less useful for literary study. However, the

study of history can illuminate the norms that govern the irony of the “General Prologue,” and defining that

irony is very much a literary question.

Taking the economic information as basic, then, I shall consider the sources of livelihood for the pilgrims and

ask how they lived, according to the information Chaucer gives. These sources fall into three large classes:

land, the Church, and trade (understood to include everything not in the other two, manufacture, commerce,

and services). My intention is not to treat the pilgrims as representatives of classified occupations but rather to

regard them collectively and to infer patterns of life from their descriptions. I am not concerned to place the

Miller either in land or in trade or to justify placing the Physician with the others in trade. I want to infer from

the various descriptions information about the kind of life provided by land, the Church, and trade. For

example, the Man of Law lives by his professional services and so I would classify him in trade, but I am

mainly interested in some information his description gives about life based on land.

The descriptions of the Plowman, the Reeve, and the Franklin should provide detailed information about the

economics of land, but except for the description of the Reeve the yield is slight. There is much detail about

the Franklin but it has very little to do with economics. It shows more about spending than getting, a

difference I shall come back to. The Reeve’s description, however, tells a good deal more. The first point is

obvious enough, his expertise is managerial. It is founded on practical agricultural knowledge in that he can

calculate exactly the effect of the weather on yield, and it is founded on a practical knowledge of human

Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature 164nature in that he knows the tricks of all the bailiffs and herdsmen. The two kinds of practical knowledge add

up to efficient operation of his lord’s establishment, but not necessarily to his lord’s profit. The tight control

he maintains over his operations stops with him; no one above him checks up on him as he checks up on those

below him. As a result, “ful riche was he astored prively.” This leads to a second and less obvious point, a

role change. He uses his personal gains as a landholder’s agent to establish himself as a landholder in his own

right. That, I take it, is the meaning context indicates for the word purchase: “His wonyng was ful faire upon

an heeth; / With grene trees yshadwed was his place. / He koude bettre than his lord purchase.” What is

interesting about this role change is the change in the Reeve’s activities that it brings about. From hard-nosed

managing, which causes him to be feared, he switches to giving and lending, which his lord mistakenly, or at

least uncomprehendingly, regards as generous. From sharp practice to the image of generosity, the calculating

agent has become a comfortably situated landholder.

This division of activities is significant in the world of the “General Prologue.” It shows the social

implication of the economic pattern for prosperity: the profits from efficient operation go into the purchase of

land, that is, into capital expansion; profits are earned by “operators,” the landholder is economically passive.

This division of activity also brings into focus some pilgrims like the Franklin who are associated with land

by their occupational designations but whose descriptions contain very little practical economic information.

Pilgrims deriving their livelihood from land fall into two Chaucerian sub-classes: agents, who see to the

operation and expansion of agricultural enterprises; and principals, the landholders. The agents are described

by the work they do, the principals by less clearly economic or non-economic activities, by their social

activities, their life style.

In addition to the Reeve’s work there is another level of agency and another kind of agent’s work. This is the

legal work of control and capital expansion. In the Manciple’s temple there are a dozen lawyers so expert that

they are “Worthy to be stywardes of rente and lond. / Of any lord that is in Engelond.” The agent’s expertise

is still managerial but now the basic knowledge is legal. Even on the Reeve’s level the emphasis can be

shifted from words like bynne, yeldynge, and dayerye, to words like covenant, rekenynge, and arrerage in

order to show the lawyer’s concern in stewardship of rent. Legal draughtsmanship is the crucial skill here.

The Man of Law “koude endite, and make a thyng, / Ther koude no wight pynche at his writyng.” The Man

of Law was also expert in the second category of stewardship, land: “So greet a purchasour was nowher noon

/ Al was fee symple to hym in effect; / His purchasyng myghte nat been infect.” Because of the contextual

emphasis on legal skill I read purchasour as implying agency; the lawyer buys land for his client by removing

the legal restrictions to make it as available as if it had been held in fee simple. Chaucer has given more

information about farm management than about dirt farming, and as a consequence his agriculture seems

rather bureaucratic. Different kinds of agents work at different levels of removal from the land, but socially

the important point is that they all work.

The other class of pilgrims deriving their livelihood from land do not work, at least not directly for their own

monetary gain. The Franklin’s description dwells on the quantity and quality of his table with mention of its

sources of supply in his pond and mew. Less noticed, because Chaucer emphasizes them less, are his public

offices, which indicate significant service and a somewhat higher social station than he is often credited with.

We have a landholder, then, who is defined not by the operation of his holdings but by his hospitality and

public offices. The Knight and the Squire divide these tendencies, the Knight being defined by his service and

the Squire by his style. The Monk, though not indicated as a landholder, enjoys the position of one. Hunting is

expensive sport and he is a great hunter, presumably because he can command some of his monastery’s

wealth. The Prioress is a ladylike equivalent.

In the “General Prologue” landed wealth supports a variety of social activities. There are sports and

entertainment, like the Monk’s hunting and the Franklin’s table. There are the Franklin’s political service

and the Knight’s military service against the heathen. Somewhere between sport and service come the

Squire’s activities, ostensibly directed to entertainment but carrying enough suggestion of probationary

Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature 165regimen to indicate a gentil imperative. These activities, taken all together, do much to define the life style of

gentlemen and ladies. The supporting wealth comes obviously from agricultural operations and less obviously

from capital expansion, and it is earned by the agents who work for the landholders. The two groups are

defined by different activities; the agents get and the principals spend, the agents work and the principals

amuse themselves and render public service. This is the central pattern of Chaucer’s social structure.

This distinction between principals and agents disappears in the loosely assembled activities of commerce,

manufacturing, and service that I have grouped together in trade. There, despite the wide social range from the

Cook to the Merchant, each of these pilgrims shares a common necessity to face the rigors of economic

competition on his own. The Merchant buys and sells and dabbles in currency exchange. The Wife of Bath is

a cloth maker. The Cook puts his culinary skill to hire. Yet somewhat surprisingly the yield of economic

particulars is not great. Although we are not definitely told what the commerce of the merchant is, we are

given an informal audit of his position, something none of his fellows could get. In other words, the thing that

interests the narrator about the Merchant is his balance sheet. It is not perfectly clear whether or not the

“dette” is ordinary commercial credit, “chevyssaunce.” It is clear, however, that the Merchant thinks his

interest requires secrecy, implying an apprehension of vulnerability, insecurity. On a lower level, the

Shipman’s pilferage, the Miller’s gold thumb and the Manciple’s percentage show more directly predatory

activities and indicate the rule of precarious individual interest. A more indirect suggestion of such a pattern

of life occurs in the description of the guildsmen where the narrator’s emphasis falls on their appearance,

which is consonant with ceremonial dignity. Each of them was “a fair burgeys / To sitten in a yeldehall on a

deys.” That status is a reward is not especially illuminating, but the intensity of the competition for it does

suggest sharp need and insecurity.

Everich, for the wisdom that he kan,

Was shaply for to been an alderman.

For catel hadde they ynogh and rente,

And eek hir wyves wolde it wel assente;

And elles certeyn were they to blame.

It is ful fair to been ycleped “madame,”

And goon to vigilies al bifore,

And have a mantel roialliche ybore.

Likewise the Wife of Bath:

In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon

That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;

And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she,

That she was out of alle charitee.

In various ways, then, the descriptions of the pilgrims in trade betray an apprehensiveness. Their positions

may deteriorate, and even those of high degree seem vulnerable to a greater extent than more or less

equivalently placed pilgrims in the other categories.

Granting the fact of predatory competition and the implicit insecurity, one might still pause before

characterizing Dame Alice as a neurotic status seeker. She may be sensitive about the due formalities of the

offertory, but it is also true that “In felaweshipe wel koude she laugh and carpe.” Her Rome and Jerusalem

probably had quite a bit of Miami about them. Since the Miller is a “jangler and a goliardeys,” the social life

of at least some of the pilgrims in trade seems vigorous and uninhibited. The best sense of this tavern

gemütlichkeit is conveyed by the narrator’s description of the Friar’s social style.

Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature 166His typet was ay farsed ful of knyves

And pynnes, for to yeven faire wyves.

And certeinly he hadde a murye note;

Wel koude he synge and pleyen on a rote;

Of yeddynges he baar outrely the pris.

His nekke whit was as the flour-de-lys;

Therto he strong was as a champioun.

He knew the tavernes wel in every toun

And everich hostiler and tappestere

Bet than a lazar or a beggestere;

The Host’s primary qualification is that he is “myrie.” The Merchant, the guildsmen, the Man of Law, and

the Physician may be too far up the social ladder for this kind of fun; at any rate they are more sedate. Among

the pilgrims who make their living in trade, at least for those on the lower social levels, the reward of their

struggle is a free, sometimes boisterous conviviality.

Such blatantly materialistic self-interest would ideally set the churchmen on the pilgrimage apart from the

rest, but it is perfectly clear from their descriptions that they are more of the world than they ought to be. The

Parson, of course, is an ideal, and though he does move in the world, his sanctity sets him apart. However,

even in the Parson’s description two of the negative particulars indicate something of the practical economic

operations of less saintly parsons who readily cursed for their tithes and would leave their parishes with

curates to become chantry-priests or chaplains in London. There are churchmen who want to make money. In

the descriptions of the Friar, the Summoner, and the Pardoner this materialistic drive is given sharp focus

because, with allowance for institutional differences, they are all selling a service—the remission of sins. The

Pardoner also sells fake relics as a sideline. The Friar had to pay for his begging territory, which, presumably,

would also have been his confessional territory. The Summoner is an agent, working for the archdeacon’s

court. As a practical matter he took bribes, and so his remission of sins was simply escape from the

archdeacon’s jurisdiction. The Pardoner sold papal pardons, a practical short circuit of the sacrament of

penance. Such churchmen seem to live lives like those of the Shipman, the Miller, and the Manciple. That is

to say, they live by their wits under economic pressure, and furthermore the descriptions of the Friar and the

Summoner indicate that the tavern is the scene of their social pleasures.

The Monk and the Prioress are hardly in this class but neither are they as saintly as the Parson. We learn a

great deal about the style of their lives but nothing of the economic bases for such lives. The Monk is a great

hunter and the Prioress is a refined and delicate lady, so their style is unmistakably gentil. Though the narrator

says nothing of their economic arrangements, both are associated with landed establishments and presumably

base their style of life on that kind of wealth. The social pattern discernible among the pilgrims with a

livelihood from land seems applicable among the churchmen also. Landed wealth exempts the beneficiaries

from the economic struggle that governs the lives of the others, lesser, churchmen. The churchmen divide

socially into those who live on the income from a landed establishment and those who earn their living

directly. Of the latter group, the obvious generalization is that the remission of sins has become a commercial

transaction. A less obvious but more interesting one follows: this commerce was highly competitive, the

competitors representing different ecclesiastical institutions. It seems that Chaucer does not separate his

churchmen into a special category. In other words, except for the saintly, ideal Parson, clerical occupations are

social and economic indicators in the same way as lay occupations.

The basic fact of life in the society of the “General Prologue” is economic struggle. The pilgrims’

occupational labels are obvious keys to their individual struggles or exemption from struggle and thus to their

social position. But there is little value in learning that the Knight does not have to struggle like the Cook and

that his degree is higher. The pilgrims’ descriptions, however, do more; they imply a sharper general pattern

for life in the world of the “General Prologue.” This pattern is clearest among the pilgrims whose living

Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature 167comes from land. There the distinction between principals and agents marks a man as above the economic

struggle or in the middle of it and consequently sets a gentil style of life apart from the others. Among the

pilgrims making a living in trade the distinction does not appear because each one must struggle in his own

interest. These pilgrims seem less secure and there is no gentilesse. Since the churchmen are not landholders,

their case would seem to be similar; yet there is gentilesse among their number. The social implications of the

distinction between principals and agents reappears, and once again access to landed wealth is determinative.

Pilgrims are what they do, and what most of them do primarily is work. They work competitively within the

rules like the Man of Law or outside them like the Pardoner. This stress on hustle and competition creates a

society quite different from that implicit in the pattern of the three estates with its stress on complementary

self-subordination in a system of cooperation. To be sure, some of the pilgrims do transcend the common

struggle. The exemplars of the three estates, the Knight, the Parson, and the Plowman, do so by a moral force

unique to them; the Monk, the Prioress, and the Franklin do so because of economic advantage; their wealth is

secure. If one can judge by the Merchant’s position on Chaucer’s roster of pilgrims, his degree is fairly high,

but he does not transcend the struggle, perhaps because in the world of the “General Prologue” his wealth is

not secure. At any rate his style of life is different from those who are above competition because he has to

compete, as do most of his fellow pilgrims. This difference between landed wealth and other wealth can be

clarified by another comparison. The Reeve’s peculation links him with the Manciple and the Friar, and so

my threefold division does not seem helpful here. If we move upward within the several groups, however,

things look different in that the Merchant’s description sets his position apart from that of the Knight or the

Monk, who both have the use of landed wealth. The Reeve’s switch in economic role and social style would

seem to be possible only in land, because when the Reeve becomes a landholder in his own right he is more

secure than the Merchant. Chaucer seems to hold with Fitzgerald against Hemingway; the rich, at least the

landed rich, are different from the rest.

Just how different they are can be seen in what we learn of their sexual habits. They transcend sexual as well

as economic competition. Though there is much less about sex than money in the “General Prologue,” there

is a pattern to the relatively little we are told. We know nothing about the sex lives of the Knight and the

Franklin, and we have only the slightest and most ambiguous hints about the Monk and the Prioress. In

contrast, we do know something of the sexual activities and outlook of the Wife of Bath, the Friar and the

Summoner. The Squire is the crucial case; he is a lover and he draws his living from the land. But his love

seems more a matter of regimen than of sex. There is only one reference to a girl, and the focus is much more

on his chivalry than on any practical consequences of his lady’s favor. In the “General Prologue,” sex, like

money, seems to be lower class.

So far I have been talking about fiction and hypotheses, Chaucer’s imitation or model. There are still

questions of fact. Historian’s questions deserve historian’s answers, which I shall not try seriously to

provide. But one does not have to be a serious historian to question the general proposition that the landed

classes were economically and sexually inactive, that there was a categorical distinction between most men

who struggled to live and a smaller group of landholders who were above the struggle. Division of society

into hustlers and gentlemen sounds questionable, and the Paston letters, to cite the most convenient text,

clearly indicate that gentlemen were often effective hustlers. In short, historians are more likely to hold with

Hemingway on the subject of difference from the rich. Granting that the most general rule for life in the world

of the “General Prologue” does not hold true outside it, and deferring the question of how a shrewd observer

like Chaucer went wrong, the historian might still be interested in some of the less general rules for life. For

example, was “agency” an avenue of social mobility? If it was, was it equally accessible at all points? Could

the Reeve make the change from agent to landholder that he did? Could he move upward as easily at his level

as the Man of Law at his? Could either one of them move upward as easily as the Pastons, smaller landholders

serving as the agents of larger landholders? Another focus of interest might be the status distinctions in

“public service.” Military and political offices went more or less naturally to the landed families, and in the

cities a more limited range of offices also went naturally to the chief citizens, presumably because they

Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature 168represented important and separately identifiable interests. What were the status implications of public office?

What were the status relations between men in public office because of an independent social and economic

identification and those men who worked as career officials, the civil servants? Professor Thrupp has shown

that at least some career civil servants were gentlemen ex officio. It does seem clear that the civil service was

an avenue of social mobility and that it provided a range of acquaintance, but acquaintanceship with landed

families might simply underscore differences in social and economic security and in the practical possibility

of providing for the future of a family. These questions should give some idea of the historical uses of the

“General Prologue.” It is a credible fourteenth-century model of the middle range of English society; it sets

questions for historical verification.

The major literary use of this model is to fill out or elaborate a connection between Chaucer the man and

Chaucer the pilgrim-narrator. The poetic manifestation of a writer’s values is certainly an important literary

question. Chaucer has been well served by Professor Donaldson, who has nicely described the narrative

sympathies and ironies of the “General Prologue” in such a way as to clarify the fine combination of

amiability and criticism that emanates from the narrator. The structure and descriptions of the “General

Prologue” define the narrator’s position; he is diffident but central. They also define his values. His

representatives of the three estates are moral and social exemplars; the Knight, the Parson, and the Plowman

all strive but they do it selflessly rather than competitively. Less clearly, the two probationers, the Squire and

the Clerk, are also selfless. The Monk, the Prioress, and the Franklin are hardly selfless but neither are they

vigorously assertive of an economic or sexual interest. Although they fall short of true gentilesse, their

manners and their life style are gentil in a lesser but still valuable sense because they show none of the

antagonism inherent in competition. This pattern of approbation implies precepts of orthodox charity and

social conservatism. But there is nothing rigid or insensitive about this espousal of establishment values

because it is winningly mollified by the suffused amiability of the narration. The pilgrim’s tone is eminently

charitable. No matter how antiseptic our critical practice is about separating narrator and author, the art work

and life, we do look to an ultimate point of contact. Though Shakespeare’s sonnets do not tell us anything

conclusive about his sex life, the proliferation of their metaphors does tell us about his mental and emotional

life. The practical charity, orthodoxy, and social conservatism evident in Chaucer’s poetic narrative can

likewise be referred to the poet.

The narrator-pilgrim’s amiability and clarity of criticism are the poet’s, but this connection is more

interestingly elaborated by working in the opposite direction, from writer to narrator, to supply a deficiency in

the scheme of the “General Prologue.” Chaucer the pilgrim failed to provide for himself what he gave for all

the other pilgrims—an occupational designation. If we give the poet’s to the pilgrim and call him a civil

servant, we have a supplementary and external definition of the narrator’s position.

This embellishment is attractive because it sets the values of the “General Prologue” in precise historical

relief. It refers them to a historically identifiable perspective. I deferred the puzzling question of how a shrewd

observer like Chaucer could have been so wrong about his basic distinction between landholders and the rest

of society. Landholders were economically and, presumably, sexually competitive, as anyone with a career

like Chaucer’s must have known. But to a civil servant their social position may well have looked far more

secure than his own and their style far more negligent of practical economics than the evidence indicates. The

civil servant’s perspective would certainly be affected by the mobility aspirations associated with that social

role and by the limits on the possibilities for fulfillment of those aspirations. In short, both the distortion and

the accuracy of Chaucer’s social description are plausible for a civil servant.

The details of Chaucer’s observation vivify his use of the commonplace scheme of the three estates by giving

the charity of its exemplars a fuller and more realistic setting. In other words, he has asserted orthodox values,

spliced them with mobility aspirations, and adjusted them to reality. The same social perspective can be fixed

in the literary work and in the real world of the fourteenth century. Chaucer the pilgrim talks like a civil

servant and Chaucer the poet is a civil servant. The historian gains a richer sense of a civil servant’s values

Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature 169than the usual documents afford, and the literary student gains a fuller sense of the social grounding of the

norms that govern the irony of the “General Prologue.”

Source: R. T. Lenaghan, “Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue’ as History and Literature,” in Comparative Studies

in Society and History, Vol. 12, No. 1, January 1970, pp. 73–82.

The Play of the “Miller's Tale”: A Game within a Game

In the following essay, Beryl B. Rowland explores connections to the Mystery plays in “The Miller’s Tale.”

The last line of the Miller’s “Prologue” has been variously interpreted as indicative of Chaucer’s aesthetic

intentions both in the tale itself and in his works as a whole. In it, the narrator, after warning his readers of the

kind of tale to follow and disclaiming responsibility should any of them subsequently “chese amys,” adds a

final rider: “and eek men shal nat maken ernest of game.” The phrase itself is sufficiently commonplace to be

classified as proverbial, and variations of it occur four times elsewhere in the Tales: January finally settles on

one delectable young girl as his bride “bitwixe ernest and game”; Griselda, bereft of her daughter, never

mentions her name either “in ernest nor in game,” and Walter, despite the murmurs of his subjects, continues

to try his wife “for ernest ne for game”; the Host is relieved that wine can resolve the differences between the

Cook and the Manciple and “turnen ernest into game.” But in these instances the implied polarities are

unequivocal. Only in the Miller’s “Prologue” does the phrase seem to contain tantalizing ambiguities and to

mean more than a prefunctory tag. Some critics differ on whether the narrator is advising the more squeamish

of his readers to skip the tale for the immorality of its action, the vulgarity of its speech, or for both reasons.

Others, inasmuch as they consider that Chaucer’s “game” always has serious intent, appear to regard the

statement as ironic.

The assumption in every case is that “game” has the meaning of gaiety or mirth for which numerous

instances are cited in the Middle English Dictionary. The possibility arises, however, that Chaucer, in

adumbrating a particular kind of tale to warn off those of his audience who preferred “storial thyng that

toucheth gentilesse, / And eek moralitee and hoolynesse”, was using “game” in a specific sense directly

pertinent to the action which follows.

For game in this sense, the Middle English Dictionary cites only two examples, and the New English

Dictionary alludes only to games in antiquity. Nevertheless “game” was a common term for the Mystery

Drama and appears in the Promptorium Parvulorum as the equivalent of “play” (ludus) as well as iocus. The

matter has been well documented since Rossell Hope Robbins contended that “game” was an equivalent for

dramatic performance to support his claim that a proclamation admonishing an audience to keep quiet and not

interrupt the “game” was a fragment of a Mystery Play. As evidence, he cited references to “oure game” and

“oure play” contained in another fragment, clearly an epilogue to a Mystery Play, and to the proclamation in

the Ludus Coventriae—“Of holy wrytte þis game xal bene.” He also showed similar usage in the earliest

extant morality play, The Pride of Life, and in a sermon quoted by Owst. Its use in the two fragments, one

ascribed to the thirteenth and the other to the sixteenth century, suggests currency over a long period, and

apart from various town records concerning “game gear,” “game-book,” “game pleyers gownes and coats,”

the “Lopham game,” the “Garblesham game,” and the “Kenningale game,” further evidence has accrued to

show conclusively that “game” and “play” were used interchangeably.

If “game” has this specialized meaning in the Miller’s “Prologue,” “ernest” has a particular relevance. In

its general combination with “game” or “play,” “ernest” was simply an antonym meaning serious; used with

reference to drama, it was reality in contrast to counterfeit. This distinction was made by the Wycliffite

preacher to support the argument that the play marked an abstention from the true concerns of life. The

meaning was even more strongly defined by Skelton, who took the view that the polarities were reconcilable

The Play of the “Miller's Tale”: A Game within a Game 170and that truth could be presented under the guise of play:

Take hede of this caytyfe that lyeth here on grounde;

Beholde, howe Fortune of hym hath frounde!

For though we shewe you this in game and play,

Yet it proueth eyrnest, ye may se, euery day.

This kind of usage suggests that Chaucer, in juxtaposing “ernest” and “game,” may have been making an

antithesis meaningful within the terms of the contemporary Mystery play.

That the “Miller’s Tale” contains a number of allusions to the Mystery plays has often been noted, and

Harder suggested that the tale might be a parody of a particular cycle. Certain references enable us to be more

specific and to find in the tale one of the principal themes of the Mystery plays. The carpenter about whom the

Miller promises a “legende and a lyf” directly points to St. Joseph of the Holy Family. Probably because of

the late development in the West of his cult as a saint, he was one of the most extensively and independently

treated characters in medieval drama, often in a comic mode. Like “selig” John, he too was aged, married to a

young wife, and fearful of being cuckolded. The momentous event with which he is associated becomes the

pivot of the burlesque.

To confirm the various elements of the “game” Chaucer uses the structural pattern found in the Mystery

plays themselves. The creators of these dramas passed over many Biblical stories which seem equal or even

superior to those dramatized. The reason was that the form of the pageants was determined by traditional

exegesis. The writers sought to impose order and meaning upon their material by stressing correspondences

and prefigurings cited in the Biblical text and further developed by hermeneutical writers from Tertullian

onwards. As Kolve has observed:

The dramatist simply took over certain significant patterns that had been long observed and

studied in Biblical narrative, and by simplifying, abridging or neglecting entirely the mass of

incident and detail that surrounds them, they produced a cycle sequence charged with

theological meaning—strong, simple, and formally coherent.

Hence they included the story of Cain and Abel because it prefigured the death of Christ, and the play of Noah

and the Flood because it prefigured Baptism, the Crucifixion and the end of the world. Similarly the story of

Abraham and Isaac was important because it prefigured God’s sacrifice of his own Son.

It is this kind of prefiguring, fundamental to the shaping and the interpretation of the Mystery Drama, that

Chaucer observes in comic fashion. With audacious artistry he points up a comparable series of

correspondences which are inherent in the central action. The initial event in his tale is a young man’s

salutation of a young woman. In appearance Nicholas resembles the somewhat effeminate-looking angel of

the Annunciation—“lyk a mayden meke for to see”; he also has the attribute for which Gabriel was especially

renowned in the Mystery plays: he sings divinely—“ ful often blessed was his myrie throte.” But his role is

confirmed by what he sings: Angelus ad virginem, the hymn of the Annunciation, and the Kynges Noote,

whereby he reveals God’s purpose. The young woman, likened to the weasel, an animal traditionally

compared to the Virgin because of the unnatural method of its conception, appears to play the complementary

role. The travesty was probably not new to Chaucer’s audience. Mary was supposed to have been abashed at

the Annunciation because a young man had “made hym lyk an angyll” with the Devil’s help and seduced

maidens on pretext of a similar errand, and Boccaccio, in the second story of the fourth day, tells of a clerk

who pretended to be Gabriel in order to seduce a young married woman. Here, the logos which is whispered

in Alison’s ear is an immediate reminder of the contrasting prefiguration to which exegetists of the

Annunciation almost invariably referred. Instantly superimposed on the scene of the Annunciation is that of

the first Temptation. Eve replaces Ave, and the “sleigh and ful privee” young man is the Serpent himself.

The Play of the “Miller's Tale”: A Game within a Game 171The role of the rival lover, Absolon, is also clearly defined in the “game.” Although his namesake never

appears to have been included in the cycles, the parish priest is too important to the tale not to be drawn into

the sphere of the Mystery play, albeit obliquely. Prefiguring his own climactic attempt at cauterization or

curettage, he is assigned the part of the bombastic villain whose most spectacular appearance concerned the

Slaughter of the Innocents. Like Herod, “wel koude he laten blood and clippe and shave,” and there is little

difference in their instruments: Herod is usually depicted with his curved falchion; Absolon has his coulter.

Both of them finally betake themselves to Satan. In displaying his “maistrye,” Absolon is, one suspects,

showing not only his skill but his profession, his “mystery,” which is to be responsible for the dénouement.

As the plot develops, more correspondences become apparent. Essential to the central action is the story of

Noah and the Flood, which dramatists treated as one of the most important prefigurations in the cycle. The

aged Noah, a carpenter, singled out by God to be His servant and fulfill His purpose for humanity, was

considered to prefigure Christ. But he was also the type of Joseph, similarily a carpenter, and chosen as the

divine instrument. John who, Nicholas implies, is also chosen by God, becomes the appropriate third

correspondence. He, too, is an aged carpenter, mal marié if self-deceived, and like Noah he is subsequently to

be mocked by his companions. Nicholas plays a similarly appropriate role: in some versions of the tale, God

sends Gabriel or another angel to reveal His purpose to Noah. Moreover, inasmuch as the Flood was

traditionally held to prefigure salvation through baptism, it is particularly apposite that Nicholas should regard

the event as effecting his Salvation. Of even greater importance, however, is the role of the uxor in the

episode. A popular development of the Noah episode in the Mystery cycles was the comic quarrel between

Noah and his shrewish wife, which turned upon her reluctance to cooperate with him and enter the ark. Such

domestic discord prefigures that of Joseph, often depicted in the plays as another aged mal marié. Nicholas is

forced to draw John’s attention to “the sorwe of Noe with his felaweshipe, / Ere that he myghte gete his wyf

to shipe” in order to provide a reason for the separate tubs. But the reference sets off yet another

correspondence. In the widely diffused folktale, Noah’s wife succumbed to the blandishments of the Devil,

and in the Newcastle-on-Tyne “Noah’s Ark,” the Wife’s recalcitrance is due to her collusion with the Evil

One. In the “Miller’s Tale,” Alison behaves towards John as the meek wife of the Noah plays in the Ludus

Coventriae and the French mystère, the wife who was said to prefigure the Virgin, but her involvement again

looks back to that of the First Temptation which traditionally prefigured this episode.

The reception of the tale by the pilgrims shows that many interpretations are possible: “Diverse folk diversely

they seyde, But for the moore part they loughe and pleyde.” This interpretation emphasizes one strand of the

humor: the comic travesty of the St. Joseph legend, with Nicholas as the Evil One and Alison as Eve. The

ambiguities inherent in the narrator’s warning remain unresolved but among the various components of this

complex tale, this aspect of “game” appears to be undeniably present. It is clearly revealed in the typology of

the protagonists, and, as in the Mystery plays, the link between one Fall and another is neatly and palpably


Source: Beryl B. Rowland, “The Play of the ‘Miller’s Tale’: A Game within a Game,” in Chaucer Review,

Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall 1970, pp. 140–46.

Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale”

In the following essay, Alfred David examines various interpretations of the old man in “The Pardoner’s


Probably the main trend in contemporary Chaucer criticism is to look for a symbolic level of meaning in a

poet whom most of us were taught to regard as a supremely realistic recorder of medieval life. Of course,

realism and symbolism are not necessarily antithetical modes of expression, and a lot of misunderstanding

will be avoided if we recognize that the choice is not one of either-or, a realistic Chaucer or an allegorical one.

Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” 172It is rather that we are beginning to see another dimension in Chaucer, something that should not surprise us

in a great poet. It goes without saying that symbolic interpretation is subject to abuse by the ingenious critic

who can persuade himself and others to see the Emperor’s clothes. Nevertheless, it can hardly be denied that

we are in the midst of a reappraisal of Chaucer as an artist that is certain to influence the way in which he will

be presented in the classroom.

Instead of talking generally about the reasons for such a new appraisal and its theoretical justification, I would

prefer to discuss a particular instance that may illustrate this trend—a case history in practical criticism—the

interpretation of a passage that everyone who has ever taught Chaucer has almost certainly dealt with at one

time or another. One may then draw one’s own conclusions about the uses and abuses of modern critical

theory in the teaching of Chaucer.

One of the great moments in Chaucer comes in the “Pardoner’s Tale” when the three young rioters, seeking

Death, are greeted by a povertystricken old man, muffled so that only his face is visible. One of the three

rudely asks him why he has lived so long and receives this strange and moving reply:

“For I ne kan nat fynde

A man, though that I walked into Ynde,

Neither in citee ne in no village,

That wolde chaunge his youthe for myn age;

And therefore moot I han myn age stille,

As longe tyme as it is Goddes wille.

Ne Deeth, allas! ne wol nat han my lyf.

Thus walke I, lyk a resteless kaityf,

And on the ground, which is my moodres gate,

I knokke with my staf, bothe early and late,

And seye ‘Leeve mooder, leet me in!’”

It is, of course, a passage that seems to demand a symbolic interpretation. One feels that there is a mystery

about this old man, that something is being left unsaid. As I hope to make clear, however, our understanding

of the symbol and how it works has changed over the years. Who is the old man? Professor Kittredge gave the

answer that is probably the most familiar. “The aged wayfarer,” Kittredge declared flatly, “is undoubtedly

Death in person.”

But why should Death be personified as an old man who himself wishes to die? Other scholars tried to

uncover the old man’s identity by seeking his antecedents in medieval literary history. According to one

theory, Chaucer got his idea for the old man from the legend of the Wandering Jew, which first took shape in

the thirteenth century. According to another theory, the old man is a personification of old age as one of the

three messengers of death, a popular theme in late medieval poetry and sermons.

This is not the place to argue the individual merits of these theories, and scholarly speculations of this sort

certainly have no place in the classroom. They are relevant for our purposes, however, because they suggest

that the question of the old man’s identity does not admit a simple, unambiguous, and definitive answer such

as Death or Death’s Messenger. In fact, it is doubtful whether Chaucer himself, if he were available to answer

questions, could provide us with a ready answer. He has sketched the old man in a few strokes that, like

shadows, suggest rather than define. We are given a muffled figure, a withered face, an impression of poverty

and meekness, and the staff with which he taps the earth. Where does he come from and where is he going?

Where is the chamber with the chest of possessions that he says he would exchange for a hair cloth? These are

questions that it would be futile to try to answer. The power of the old man is the power of the symbol to

suggest a range of meanings.

Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” 173To say that the old man in many details resembles the Wandering Jew is, of course, not to say that he is the

Wandering Jew. The legend of the Jew who struck Jesus (or, according to another version, drove him from his

door) and who is condemned to roam the earth until the Second Coming contains one variant of the archetypal

figure of the man cursed to wander forever without being able to die. This eternal traveler is the type we may

also recognize in Chaucer’s old man as well as in the Ancient Mariner and in the Flying Dutchman. These

figures are not identical—each is a development of a general type, but assumes a particular meaning in the

context of the work in which he appears.

Perhaps the mistaken notion that we are obliged to choose only one of several symbolic interpretations, none

of them entirely satisfactory, led one critic to assert that “the old man is merely an old man” and that “The

Pardoner’s Tale” is thoroughly realistic. This interpretation implies that allegory and realism are alien and

mutually exclusive forms—that the one contains personifications and the other actual people. On this

assumption, we would have to insist that Kafka, Melville, and Dante are realists, as indeed in one sense they

are. Certainly the old man in the “Pardoner’s Tale” is first of all an old man, and the story contains elements

of blood-curdling realism. We may read it at that level, but that does not preclude the possibility of other

kinds of reading. If modern critical theories have one thing to teach us, it is that we need not read or teach

literature in accordance with one narrow critical theory, including a narrow theory of realism.

Let me turn now to a more recent interpretation of the old man that illustrates the modern trend most clearly

and that may be said to result from a new critical approach, imaginatively applied. According to this theory,

most medieval literature, including Chaucer, is allegorical. A medieval tale is conceived of as a shell or a rind

that contains a kernel of meaning, generally a Christian meaning. One way to get at this meaning is to look in

the story for allusions to Scripture and to trace these allusions back to their source in the Bible and to

explication of these Biblical passages by the Church fathers and medieval commentators. Thus traditional

interpretation of Scripture provides us with clues to the interpretation of literary texts. An excellent example

of this approach is Robert P. Miller’s interpretation of the old man in his article “Chaucer’s Pardoner and the

Scriptural Eunuch.” Mr. Miller’s case is carefully reasoned and depends on a great deal of evidence that it

will be impossible to summarize here. In essence, however, it links together the Pardoner’s portrait, his

prologue, and his tale into a unified whole that expresses a traditional Christian meaning through symbolic

description and narrative.

The old man, according to Mr. Miller, corresponds to the old man St. Paul speaks of several times as a symbol

of the flesh or that part of human nature that must die before the spirit may be reborn through the agency of

the new man (or the young man) who is Christ. For example, in Fourth Ephesians Paul tells us “to put off . . .

the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts. . . .” and “to put on the new man, which after

God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” The old man, or the old Adam, to give him his popular

name, points the way to death, not just to physical death but to the death of the soul, and this is exactly what

the old man in the “Pardoner’s Tale” does when he directs the three rioters up the “crooked way.” The old

man is ancient—he is born with sin and death—and he will roam the fallen world until the end of time.

It is difficult to do justice to such an interpretation in outline. Even so, it should be apparent that it does not

cancel out other interpretations but instead synthesizes them within a broader context. As soon as we begin

thinking about the “Pardoner’s Tale” as a story not only about physical life and death but about spiritual life

and death, many details, both about the tale and its teller, become meaningful. The difference between a

symbolic interpretation such as this and one like Kittredge’s is that the former depends on our understanding

not of an isolated symbol, used for the immediate occasion, but on an understanding of the Pardoner’s

portrait and prologue and, indeed, of the Canterbury Tales as a whole; for the most interesting ramification of

Mr. Miller’s interpretation is that it involves the Pardoner himself, an impotent man who sells sterile pardons

and who interacts with the other pilgrims on a journey that is not only realistic but symbolic. There is an

implied analogy between the old man and the Pardoner. “He is,” Mr. Miller argues, “that Old Man as he lives

and exerts his influence in the great pilgrimage of life.” Like the old man the Pardoner wanders ceaselessly

Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” 174through city and village, sending men up the “croked wey.”

Mr. Miller’s method could be viewed as a new and fascinating kind of source study, but the real support for

his interpretation does not come from the Epistles and obscure medieval commentaries upon them. Like all

source studies, his must stand or fall by the text, and he has given us a new key, not merely to one passage,

but to the entire sequence formed by the Pardoner’s portrait, prologue, and tale. A meaningful pattern that

was only dimly felt before begins to emerge.

Suggestive as such an interpretation is, however, I think it would be going too far to maintain that St. Paul’s

old man contains the only key to the passage; one might even wonder whether Chaucer had this image in

mind when he was composing the “Pardoner’s Tale.” However, the Scriptural metaphor remains relevant

because Paul himself, in coining it, was following a natural symbolism that is as old as literature. Something

that should be kept in mind whenever one tries to interpret a Scriptural image or allusion in a medieval literary

text is the fact that the Bible itself contains literature and that Scriptural exegesis may involve some literary

criticism. The fact that such exegesis may help us to understand a work of the imagination does not

necessarily mean that the author consciously drew his meaning from Scriptural commentary alone.

Moreover, if we are to see a connection between the Pardoner and the Old Man in the tale, Mr. Miller’s

interpretation does not account for significant differences between them. He implies that both the Pardoner

and his counterpart, the old man, are inveterately evil, and he concludes: “the Old Man still goes wandering

through the world, glaring with sterile lust out of his hare-like eyes.” But the old man of the tale speaks

meekly to the rioters and prays that God may save them. He sounds in every way like a humble pious old man

and not a bit like the Pardoner—except for one brief but memorable passage at the end of his tale where the

Pardoner addresses the pilgrims:

And lo, sires, thus I preche.

And Jhesu Crist, that is oure soules leche,

So graunte yow his pardoun to receyve,

For that is best; I wol yow nat deceyve.

This is the moment that Kittredge called “a paroxysm of agonized sincerity,” and it echoes the old man’s

words to the three ruffians:

God save yow, that boghte agayn mankynde,

And yow amende!

Both instances are prayers of grace for others, and both, I feel, are sincere.

What I am suggesting is that the old man does indeed tell us something about the Pardoner but something

more profound than the redundancy that the Pardoner is an evil man. The old man tells us something about the

frustration, the suffering, and the self-destructiveness of evil. For evil may be both like a young man who

defies death and like an old man whose only wish is to die.

We might say that the Pardoner has something in common with both the old and the young men in his tale,

and we have been prepared for this by his portrait and prologue. One of Mr. Miller’s most perceptive insights

is the ironic fact that the Pardoner, who corresponds to the old man, affects an appearance of youth. He

dresses somewhat flashily “al of the newe jet,” rides bare-headed exposing his stringy yellow locks that hang

down over his shoulders, proclaims his desire for wine and wenches, and impudently asks the Wife of Bath, in

his interruption of her prologue, to “teche us yonge men of youre praktike.” Although we are given no

indication that he is an old man, he is certainly past his prime. A guess might make him out to be about the

same age as the Wife of Bath herself.

Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” 175It requires only observation, not scholarship, to see what lies behind the pose of an ageing man who dresses

like a young man and who affects an air of gay abandon, especially when we are told that he must have been

“a geldying or a mare.” The truth about the Pardoner is already hinted at very broadly in the description of

his duet with “his freend and his compeer,” the Summoner:

Ful loude he soong “Com hider, love, to me!”

This Somonour bar to hym a stif burdoun.

Two recent notes on this passage provide convincing evidence that the word “burdoun,” which may mean

both a musical bass and a pilgrim’s staff, would have been recognized in the fourteenth century as an obscene

pun that clearly implies that the friendship between the Pardoner and the Summoner is homosexual.

For Chaucer, however, the Pardoner’s physical perversion is not the key to his character as it might be for a

novelist today. The Pardoner’s isolation from natural human love is rather the outward sign of a deeper

alienation from divine love. It is a fact that has symbolic as well as realistic value. His disguises as a young

man and as a Pardoner (for his role as Pardoner, too, is a kind of disguise) conceal a fascination with death

that is projected powerfully into the macabre tale. The old man’s death wish and the deaths of the three young

men at each other’s hands reveal the Pardoner’s own preoccupation with death and violence.

The three villains are among the “yonge folk” who haunt the tavern. Their vices—drunkenness, blasphemy,

and avarice—are those that the Pardoner boastfully claims as his own. Their quest to slay Death has an ironic

resemblance to the mission the Pardoner abuses, that is to absolve men from the seven deadly sins. Their

camaraderie suggests the sort of companionship that we have seen between the Pardoner and the Summoner.

A sadistic element dominates the association of these three blood brothers and culminates when one of them is

stabbed as he wrestles “in game” with one of the other two. There is a perverse gratification in the violence

and the violent deaths of the young men.

But the Pardoner, much as he would like to conceal it by his dress and his forced jollity, is not one of the

“yonge folk,” nor is the pleasure he professes to find in vice a genuine pleasure. If we listen carefully to his

Prologue, I think we may detect the false note of bravado and the sense of strain:

I wol nat do no labour with myne handes,

Ne make baskettes, and lyve therby,

By cause I wol nat beggen ydelly.

I wol noon of the apostles countrefete;

I wol have moneie, wolle, chese, and whete,

Al were it yeven of the povereste page,

Or of the povereste wydwe in a village,

Al sholde hir children sterve for famyne.

There is something almost hysterical about the reiteration of “I wol” and “I wol not,” like an angry child

defying its parents. The Pardoner is, in short, a young-old man, and the confrontation between the three rioters

and the old man in the tale brings to the surface a moral and psychological conflict that has been latent all


The old man’s longing for death, his inability to find anyone who will exchange youth for his age—this

expresses the other side of the Pardoner’s nature. Perhaps St. Paul conceived of the old man not as Mr. Miller

might have it, “glaring with sterile lust,” but as weary unto death of his burden and seeking only to lay it

down. The compulsive wish for the tavern life sought by the three young men is complemented by the old

man’s death wish. Through the old man Chaucer reveals the Pardoner’s real secret, the joylessness of the life

he professes to relish so much. And the old man enables us, in this most pitiless of the Canterbury Tales, to

Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” 176feel compassion not only for him but, by association, for the Pardoner, a compassion that is denied to none of

the pilgrims.

As a final comment on the symbolism inherent in the old man and the Pardoner—for however one conceives of

their relationship I feel they are inseparable—let me draw an analogy to a modern symbolic tale about death.

Aboard the steamer carrying Gustave von Aschenbach to Venice, he is observing a boisterous group of young

clerks on a holiday excursion:

One of the party, in a dandified buff suit, a rakish panama with a coloured scarf, and a red

cravat, was loudest of the loud: he outcrowed all the rest. Aschenbach’s eye dwelt on him,

and he was shocked to see that the apparent youth was no youth at all. He was an old man,

beyond a doubt, with wrinkles and crow’s-feet round eyes and mouth; the dull carmine of the

cheeks was rouge, the brown hair a wig. . . . Aschenbach was moved to shudder as he

watched the creature and his association with the rest of the group. Could they not see he was

old, that he had no right to wear the clothes they wore or pretend to be one of them? But they

were used to him, it seemed; they suffered him among them, they paid back his jokes in kind

and the playful pokes in the ribs he gave them.

This grotesque figure, as we come to realize, is the first apparition of Death in Venice, a moral death as well

as a physical one that will swallow up Aschenbach and transform him at the end into the very image of the

young-old man. In this story, too, a plague motivates the action and provides a unifying symbol of corruption.

I do not want to force an analogy between works as different as Death in Venice and the “Pardoner’s Tale,”

yet I believe that the resemblance between them is not entirely fortuitous because the characters in both stories

arise independently out of a basic, archetypal symbolism that is always available. It is a symbolism that is

elusive and cannot be reduced to any single or simple meaning.

The “Pardoner’s Tale” is a story that can lend itself to a Freudian as well as to a Christian interpretation,

neither of which would be exclusively right or totally wrong.

If a practical conclusion may be drawn from such a case history in criticism, perhaps it is that, as teachers, we

should resist the natural tendency of critics and students to oversimplify symbols, to impose on them some

definite meaning that will provide the stuff for an essay in a journal or in a bluebook. The different critical

opinions I have cited all have something to contribute and do not cancel each other out. Kittredge was

probably right after all—the old man is Death—but as I hope this analysis has shown, Death may assume many

different guises and meanings.

Source: Alfred David, “Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale,’” in College English,

Vol. 27, No. 1, November 1965, pp. 39–44.

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy

In the following essay, Richard Neuse explores the characters of the Knight and Theseus, and calls the

“Knight’s Tale” a “testimony to the insufficiency of human wisdom at the same time that it transcends it.”

In recent years there seems to have been general agreement that the “Knight’s Tale” is a “philosophical

romance” which raises the problem of an apparently unjust and disorderly universe. By this reading the

“Tale” emerges as a philosophic theodicy culminating in Theseus’ speech on cosmic order. The latter

implicitly denies the final reality or rule of an arbitrary Fortune, but at the same time stoically accepts the

inscrutable workings “in this wrecched world adoun” of an eternal cause. The “Tale” is thus seen as the

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 177Knight’s—and Theseus’—somewhat wistful “consolation of philosophy,” the affirmation of an ultimate order

that actual experience seems, often sadly, to deny.

Quite recently a study has suggested that the “Tale” “depicts its human world in a more critical light” than

has hitherto been acknowledged. The author challenges the view that Theseus is the spokesman for the

poem’s concept of order by pointing to the problematic nature of Theseus’ actions and to the inadequacies of

his philosophic outlook. Nonetheless he continues to regard the “Tale’s” central theme as the assertion of a

divine order; but instead of finding this theme directly figured forth by Theseus, he sees it embodied in the

symmetrical structure of the “Tale” itself. The poetic form is thought to be the vehicle for a philosophic idea.

At first glance, it seems surprising that either the Knight or Theseus, both successful men of action, should

feel in need of philosophic consolation. Indeed, the “Tale” could be considered as Theseus’ success story: it

begins with his triumphant campaign and ends with his plan to have Palamon marry Emily brought to a

successful conclusion. It may be objected that Theseus is not the real focus of attention, and that the problem

arises from the unequal fates of Palamon and Arcite. Again, however, the story begins with the rescue of these

two from almost certain death—a stroke of singularly good fortune—and both get precisely what they asked for.

Arcite has his victory and “finest hour”; Palamon and Emily live happily ever after.

What is left of the dark fatality that has been found lurking in the “Tale?” And what of the philosophical

problem? With respect to Palamon and Arcite, it is contended, character-differentiation has been deliberately

underplayed so that the question of justice in the world must be confronted: when two equally deserving men

strive for the same goal, why should one succeed while the other is killed?

“What is this world? What asketh men to have?” the dying Arcite is led to ask, and his question is indeed

tragic in suggesting a fatal gap between human expectation and the apparently arbitrary ways of the world.

Theseus’ final oration only underscores this gap in terms of a theoretical reason and a practical unreason. As

it images a world order governed by the Prime Mover, it holds out to man no more than the certainty of death.

The human spirit has no discernible place in this cosmos, and yet it is subjected to the corruption of matter. If

man is no longer the fool of fortune, he is the victim of necessity.

But Theseus here not only “fails to see the crux of the human situation” philosophically; he also appears as

the spokesman and representative of a world-view which the entire narrative places in an ambiguous light. To

show how this is so, I shall propose a different view of the “Knight’s Tale,” with respect to the kind of poem

it is, and its place in the scheme of the Canterbury Tales, both as the beginning of its human comedy and as

the imaginative act of the Knight-narrator.

Like many of the other tales, the “Knight’s Tale” reveals a teller self-consciously engaged in reshaping (and

adapting) an “olde storie” for the audience and the occasion. This much is clear. But it does not seem to have

been argued hitherto that the Knight’s approach is basically comic and ironic. We see him in an unbuttoned,

holiday mood. Repeatedly, he places his narrative and his audience in a comic light: interrupting his tale in the

manner of the demande d’amour:

Yow loveres axe I now this questioun,

Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamoun?

delivering a witty comment on the situation in the grove when Palamon overhears Arcite, or on the behaviour

of lovers:

Into a studie he [Arcite] fil sodeynly,

As doon thise loveres in hir queynte geres,

Now in the crope, now doun in the breres,

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 178Now up, now doun, as boket in a welle. . . .

At first glance, indeed, there seems to be an inconsistency between this playful narrator and the imposing

figure of the “General Prologue” who is yet “as meeke as is a mayde.” But we must not be misled by the

method of the “General Prologue”: there it is mainly external “identity” that counts. The pilgrims appear as

self-sufficient “concrete universals” while their potentialities—the incompleteness of their natures—remain

largely hidden until they enter upon the stage of action.

Accordingly, the “Prologue” gives us not so much an abstract chivalric ideal as clues for understanding a

character conceived in its human complexity. “He loved chivalrie,” we are told about the Knight; and this

chivalry is intimately linked with the Christian faith, for all the Knight’s campaigns involved the cause of

religion. It has been plausibly suggested that “in his lordes werre” refers to his warfare in the service of God.

If it is scarcely surprising that the “Knight’s Tale” deals with chivalry, it does seem significant that it deals

with a chivalry lacking a Christian basis. Indeed, it is here that the “Tale’s” central irony develops: a

chivalric romance is placed within the framework of the classical epic. The characters act by the conventions

of courtly love and mediaeval chivalry, but over all preside the antique gods.

From the fusion of these two motifs, classical and mediaeval, there results the “Tale’s” double view of pagan

epic sans legendary heroes (if we discount “duc” Theseus) and mythic exploits; and of the chivalric romance

shorn of its metaphysically inspired idealism. What the consequences of this central irony are, the following

discussion hopes to make clear. At this point we may state by way of anticipation some of the Knight’s

concerns as they emerge from the “Tale.” What, first, becomes of chivalry (and chivalric action) without its

religious rationale? What of courtly love without the same transcendental dimension? What are these codes of

conduct in themselves? Finally, what are the implications—humanly, socially, politically—of a whole-hearted

commitment to this world, to things as they are?

It is the specifically pagan elements that become the source of much of the poem’s comedy. The Knight has

his fun imagining Emily’s rites in the temple of Diana, a matter he won’t go into, “And yet it were a game to

heeren al.” There is the burlesque scene in which the wood-nymphs and other forest deities are unhoused and

sent scurrying about when the trees of the grove are cut down for Arcite’s pyre. And a kind of Homeric

comedy plays around the epic machinery of the gods, whose role at times borders on farce.

As in the classical epic there is in the “Knight’s Tale” a consistent counter-pointing of human and divine,

earthly and celestial action. Human agents do and suffer in the consciousness or name of cosmic forces that

further or thwart their desires, and the conflict of human passions finds its counterpart in the conflicting wills

of the gods. Specifically, there are three deities that mirror the “Tale’s” lovetriangle and, beyond that, figure

forth its fictive macrocosm. These two functions can be seen fully conjoined in the central symbolic locus of

the poem, the building of the lists and temples for the great tournament. The stadium is the artistic microcosm

within which is to be performed the central ritual of chivalry, the tournament “for love and for increes of

chivalrye.” Surrounding the lists and defining in a precise way the limits of this little world are the temples of

the gods.

The two-hundred-odd lines that describe the temples (and constitute a kind of epic catalogue) serve to extend

the audience’s awareness of the gods’ significance in the poem. Encyclopaedic and monumental both in a

rhetorical and substantive sense, this passage recreates the world as its inhabitants experience it. The baleful

influence of the gods is much in evidence, confirming the pessimism voiced by most of the characters at some

point in the story. The temple of Venus contains a good gloss on the love action. There “maystow se”

Wroght on the wal, ful pitous to biholde,

The broken slepes, and the sikes colde, . . .

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 179The firy strokes of the desirynge

That loves servantz in this lyf enduren; . . .

Despense, Bisynesse, and Jalousye, . . .

But the goddess’s temple presents a mixture of love’s pleasures and woes; thus it is not as bleak as that of

Mars, which portrays every form of violence and brutality:

The crueel Ire, reed as any gleede, . . .

The smylere with the knyf under the cloke,

The shepne brennyng with the blake smoke . . .

At the same time, the gruesomeness is relieved by considerable comedy, as in the juxtaposition of epic

catastrophes and trivial accidents; and in the deliberate anachronisms:

Depeynted was the slaughtre of Julius,

Of grete Nero, and of Antonius;

Al be that thilke tyme they were unborn,

Yet was hir deth depeynted ther-biforn.

In the temple of Diana there is a similarly jocular tone—as when the Knight carefully spells out the difference

between Da(ph)ne and Diana— though here again the disastrous and painful aspects of the goddess’s domain

are stressed.

In the first place, therefore, the gods stand for things as they are, moira. The artists who have adorned the

temple walls see no chasm between earthly reality and the divinities that rule over it. Second, the divine

presences sum up certain ways of life to which men dedicate themselves. In another sense, they have a

psychological function: the god a person serves is his ruling passion. The gods are men’s wills or appetites

writ large.

It is the narrator himself who suggests this identification. “For certeinly,” he says,

oure appetites heer,

Be it of werre, or pees, or hate, or love,

Al is this reuled by the sighte above.

And he goes on to speak of Theseus, who

in his huntyng hath . . . swich delit

That it is al his joye and appetit

To been hymself the grete hertes bane,

For after Mars he serveth now Dyane.

Theseus successfully combines the service of Venus, Mars, and Diana, whereas Palamon, Arcite, and Emily

are committed exclusively to one deity embodying their appetite and destiny. “I kepe noght of armes for to

yelpe,” says Palamon to Venus before the tournament, “Ne I ne axe nat tomorwe to have victorie,”

But I wolde have fully possessioun

Of Emelye, and dye in thy servyse.

Arcite, convinced that Emily is indifferent and must be conquered anyway, asks Mars for victory and

promises to “ben thy trewe servant whil Ilyve.” Emily prays in vain. She is a pawn in the chivalric game of

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 180love, just as Diana must submit to the wills of her fellow deities.

Between the latter a “theomachia” breaks out, for in granting their votaries’ prayers Venus and Mars have

created a celestial impossibility. Jupiter, father of the gods, is helpless to settle their strife until grandfather

Saturn intervenes, who, because of his age and experience, we are told, is well qualified to solve such

conflicts of interest. “As sooth is seyd,” the Knight observes with sublime irony,

elde hath greet avantage;

In elde is bothe wisdom and usage;

Men may the olde atrenne, and noght atrede.

For to make peace—“Al be it that it is agayn his kynde”—Saturn delivers an idiotic speech to Venus that

catalogues his “olde experience,” a series of natural and historic disasters caused by his malign planetary

influence. He concludes by reassuring her: “I am thyn aiel, redy at thy wille; / Weep now namoore, I wol thy

lust fulfille.”

The tournament on earth over, the celestial comedy resumes. Venus is disconsolate and weeps “for wantynge

of hir wille, / Til that hir teeres in the lystes fille.” Again Saturn consoles her:

Doghter, hoold thy pees!

Mars hath his wille, his knyght hath al his boone,

And, by myn heed, thow shalt been esed soone.

And his “solution” has the lack of subtlety we have come to expect from the “aiel” of the gods.

The divine-human parallelism in the poem may be represented schematically:

Saturn Egeus

Jupiter Theseus

Mars—Venus—Diana Arcite—Palamon—Emily

It underscores the “Tale’s” comic structure, which doubles the absurdity of the earthly action with that of the

celestial. For the conduct of the two young knights is at bottom as laughable as that of their divine

counter-parts. Similarly, Egeus’ platitudinous garrulity follows in Saturn’s rhetorical footsteps. His age and

experience are also stressed, and they have led to no more than the Saturnian wisdom:

“Right as ther dyed nevere man,” quod he,

“That he ne lyvede in erthe in some degree,

Right so ther lyvede never man,” he seyde,

“In al this world, that som tyme he ne deyde. . . .”

And over al this yet seyde he muchel moore

To this effect, . . .

Like Jupiter, Theseus is momentarily helpless after Arcite’s death, until Egeus’ “consolation” brings him

relief. After a gesture of mourning, Theseus becomes again the human figure in the Tale that most clearly

resembles the Jupiter of his own speech, a mover of the destiny of men and nations. He proceeds to order a

burial for Arcite as sumptuous as had been the tournament. Finally, after the Greeks have stopped mourning,

he convenes his parliament at Athens, on which occasion are discussed certain matters of Athenian foreign

policy: “To have with certein contrees alliaunce / And have fully of Thebans obeisaunce.” Theseus knows

exactly how to accomplish this submission for the sake of international “order”:

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 181For which this noble Theseus anon

Leet senden after gentil Palamon,

Unwist of hym what was the cause and why;

But in his blake clothes sorwefully

He cam at his commandement in hye.

Tho sente Theseus for Emelye.

With his hands firmly on the ropes, he goes on to employ his best oratorical skill:

Whan they were set, and hust was al the place,

And Theseus abiden had a space

Er any word cam fram his wise brest,

His eyen sette he ther as was his lest.

And with a sad visage he siked stille,

And after that right thus he seyde his wille.

Given this setting, should we still expect a statement of deeply considered conclusions? Mr. Underwood has

noted that the human level is absent from Theseus’ speech, without, however, drawing any conclusions from

this for the rest of the speech. What, for instance, becomes of the “cheyne of love”? Divorced from its

relevance to human beings, it assumes the scientific neutrality of gravitational force (note the wording). Even

the rhetorical question,

What maketh this but Jupiter, the kyng,

That is prince and cause of alle thyng,

Convertynge al unto his propre welle

From which it is dirryved, sooth to telle?

views the first cause purely sub specie naturae. It does not lead to a spiritual vision but merely to the tyrant’s

plea, “To maken vertue of necessitee.”

The fact is that Theseus does not need to relate the principle of a First Cause to the human realm simply

because in this realm he is the “prime mover” responsible for almost all its weal and woe. For the successful

prince, problems of responsibility, free will, or Fortune’s cruelty never really arise. And his watchword is:

politics as usual. Hence his philosophical reflections are enlisted rhetorically in the service of his marriage

plans for Palamon and Emily. And he has his will with such promptness that the bereaved Palamon does not

even have time to change his suit of mourning! Thus, far from being an account of Theseus’ attempts to

preserve or impose order in the face of Fortune’s chaos, the poem shows us a brilliant political opportunist

who at the outset mounts to the pinnacle of success—in love and war—by one clean stroke. “He conquered al

the regne of Femenye” literally and metaphorically: right after the conquest there ensues his marriage to


There is an element of “wit” in such skill, and this is characteristic of the poem. Throughout, there are no

half-measures, everything—events, situations, actions—being doubled or even tripled. And this massive

coincidence (in every sense) is counterbalanced by rhetorical amplification and reduplication. A sense of

friction between economy of action and verbal exuberance heightens the impression of a wilful incongruity

between literary “form” and “content.” The geometric design of the “Knight’s Tale” functions more as a

comic “mechanism” than as a means for expressing a concept of order.

At the same time the character of Theseus is consistently made to appear in a very ambiguous light. For

example, when he discovers Palamon and Arcite duelling in the grove, his first reaction is to have them

killed—until the ladies of the court intercede. But it is clear that his pity is no instinctive matter of the gentle

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 182heart. He enjoys feminine supplications; and he must reason his pity (in a kind of interior monologue):

. . . although that his ire hir gilt accused,

Yet in his resoun he hem bothe excused,

As thus: he thoghte wel that every man

Wol helpe hymself in love, if that he kan,

And eek delivere hymself out of prisoun.

And eek his herte hadde compassioun

Of wommen, for they wepen evere in oon;

And in his gentil herte he thoughte anon,

And softe unto hymself he seyde, “Fy

Upon a lord that wol have no mercy,

But been a leon, bothe in word and dede,

As wel as to a proud despitous man

That wol mayntene that he first bigan.

That lord hath litel of discrecioun,

That in swich cas kan no divisioun,

But weyeth pride and humblesse after oon. (my italics)

The irony here as elsewhere derives from the judicious blend of motives reconciled on the ground of

reason—which is as much raison d’état (the lord’s discretion) as a rather comical understanding of women’s

and love’s irrational ways.

Theseus proceeds to settle the lovers’ destiny (in effect) by commanding a tournament for Emily’s hand. His

later decision to make it a bloodless tournament proves a move well calculated to gain the increased

enthusiasm of the populace which has been pushing to see him “at a wyndow set, / Arrayed right as he were a

god in throne.” And so, throughout the poem, Theseus fairly dazzles the beholder with his skill. Yet as we

move back and forth from inner to outer man, the ironic disparity between the two ever obtrudes itself. In his

world Theseus is a Jovian prime mover, with many of the characteristics of the Renaissance machiavel, as

H.J. Webb’s indictment of his conduct in the poem strongly suggests. If it is possible to sum up the

mainspring of his actions, I would call it the will to power, the determination to “have his world as in his


Outwardly, indeed, it seems as though agents and events in the “Knight’s Tale” are under the governance of

supra-human forces. It has often been noted that the gods double as planets whose conjunctions form a web of

astrological fate controlling the events of the “Tale.” But despite appearances, it may be argued that the real

causality of events lies in the human will or appetite. As we have seen, the gods ultimately function as

metaphors of man’s will, which (we conclude), instead of being powerless over against Fate, is his fate.

Hence derives a major irony of the poem, an irony at once tragic and comic, namely that everyone gets

precisely what he desires.

Confirmation of this point comes from the Miller, who tells his tale to “quite the Knyghtes tale,” as he

drunkenly proclaims. In the triangle of Nicholas, Absolon, and Alisoun, each likewise gets what he desires:

Absolon his kiss, Nicholas the enjoyment of Alisoun, and John the carpenter gets at the least the cuckolding

he expected. But in the “Miller’s Tale” the conventions of courtly love that play such an important role in

the “Knight’s Tale” burst like a bubble as love is reduced to its most basic terms. Rhetoric, for Nicholas,

comes after the act, instead of being a prologue or a substitute for it. And physical nearness is all, whereas in

the “Knight’s Tale” it counts for nothing. Hence “Absolon may blowe the bukkes horn” while Nicholas has

his way.

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 183Of course, Nicholas himself constructs a gigantic trick to achieve his desire. But here again the joke is on the

“Knight’s Tale” with its apparent suggestion that the planet-gods shape the outcome of events. Nicholas, we

are told, is an expert in astrology, and he will use astrology to bring about the desired end. The carpenter, with

the practical man’s sense of superiority to “clerks,” ridicules “astromye” but becomes himself the

simple-witted dupe of Nicholas’ fantastic astrological joke. He falls—in every sense—because of his belief in

the stars, but by their means hende Nicholas achieves his will.

In this sense, the “Miller’s Tale” is certainly a parody of the Knight’s. It bluntly manifests desire or will as

the source of action, which in the other tale seems to be concealed under the drift of events or happenstance.

Just as the lovers of the “Knight’s Tale” “suffer” their love, so they seem to be the passive agents of a

superior destiny. Actually, however, the Tale constantly reveals that the Knight, though no reductionist like

the Miller, has a perspective very similar to the Miller’s.

The terminology of will and appetite in the “Knight’s Tale” supports this idea. In Palamon’s lament to the

gods the will is linked with animal impulse in a way that foreshadows the Miller’s use of animal imagery:

What is mankynde moore unto you holde

Than is the sheep that rouketh in the folde?

For slayn is man right as another beest,

And dwelleth eek in prison and arreest, . . .

What governance is in this prescience,

That giltelees tormenteth innocence?

And yet encresseth this al my penaunce,

That man is bounden to his observaunce,

For Goddes sake, to letten of his wille,

Ther as a beest may al his lust fulfille.

The tragic element here is reduced by the terms of the lament and by the divorce between will and reason that

it implies. Life, seen as a process of restless and blind willing, is felt to be dominated by an irrational fate. The

pathos as well as the absurdity of Palamon and Arcite lies in their acceptance of the view that man is ruled by

his animal will but at the same time bound to act by certain conventions.

Even love in the Tale is a blind appetite, though its formal expression is in the style of courtly love. The result

is an essentially loveless lovestory. In the name of that love, the sworn blood-brotherhood of Palamon and

Arcite is soon destroyed, and the theme of broken friendship and a disruptive Cupid runs through the poem.

Shortly after the quarrel between the former friends, the audience is reminded of another kind of friendship

more ideal and durable, the love between Theseus and Perotheus:

So wel they lovede, as olde bookes sayn,

That whan that oon was deed, soothly to telle,

His felawe wente and soughte hym doun in helle,—

But of that storie list me nat to write.

This love is also a direct commentary on the following action. While Palamon remains in the hell of his prison

tower, Arcite wanders about preoccupied with his own lot. In a later scene Palamon accuses Arcite of

treachery for loving his lady, bejaping Theseus, and changing his name! He declares his mortal enmity, and,

despite the violence of feeling, they arrange a duel for the next day. At the agreed time they fight like wild

beasts, though they are careful to do it according to the book (of chivalry): “Everich of hem heelp for to

armen oother / As freendly as he were his owene brother.” When Theseus arrives on the scene, Palamon

(again) makes an immediate confession and asks for death. Moreover, he does not hesitate to reveal Arcite’s

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 184identity and goes on to request that Arcite be executed first. There is a certain grim comedy in Palamon’s

wavering as to who should be killed first.

As has often been asserted, the reader’s sympathies remain, at length, evenly divided between the two men.

Both are seen to behave equally absurdly, badly, and nobly. The truth is that we are not permitted to care

greatly about either, and this allows us to appreciate the comic element in the poetic justice meted out to

Arcite. For even the “accident” that leads to his death was no divine or demonic “miracle,” but rather his

own fault. He wasn’t looking where he was going:

This fiers Arcite hath of his helm ydon,

And on a courser, for to shewe his face,

He priketh endelong the large place

Lokynge upward upon this Emelye;

And she agayn hym caste a freendlich ye

(For wommen, as to speken in comune,

Thei folwen alle the favour of Fortune)

And was al his chiere, as in his herte.

With the co-operation of Emily and the jubilant applause of an equally fickle plebs ringing in his ears,

Arcite’s excitement sets the scene for a mishap that scarcely needs the diabolus ex machina of “a furie

infernal.” Despite the undeniable pathos of Arcite’s death-bed lament, the Knight, who dislikes tragedy,

consistently presents his story in such a way as to make genuine tragedy impossible.

Similarly, Emily’s character is hardly the kind to inspire a noble passion. She is lovely, no doubt, but not

much more than that. This is not altogether her fault, since she is after all merely the prize for which men

fight. But, as the tournament scene shows, she plays the part expected of her, and her passivity fits well with

the passive role that the society assigns her.

Love in the “Tale” is an essentially amoral and self-regarding passion. Theseus views it chiefly as folly,

though with a tolerant irony:

The god of love, a, benedicite!

How myghty and how greet a lord is he!

Ayens his myght ther gayneth none obstacles.

He may be cleped a god for his miracles;

For he kan maken, at his owene gyse,

Of everich herte as that hym list divyse.

He admires Cupid as an image of his own ideal of (complete) lordship. At the same time, Cupid’s power

illustrates for him the folly of letting passion triumph over reason. How could “love, maugree hir eyen two”

lead Palamon and Arcite to risk death and fight over one totally ignorant of their existence?

After the latter have decided to duel to the death, the Knight is similarly prompted to exclaim:

O Cupide, out of alle charitee!

O regne, that wolt no felawe have with thee!

Ful sooth is seyd that love ne lordshipe

Wol noght, his thankes, have no felaweshipe.

But the difference in outlook here between the Knight and Theseus defines the distance between the teller and

his tale. By paralleling love and lordship in this fashion, the Knight hints at the major themes of his unfolding

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 185Tale. This love is the disrupter of “felaweshipe” and also the will to sexual “lordshipe” analogous to the will

to power or political lordship.

Finally, there is a punning comment on this kind of love in the Knight’s exclamation. “Out of alle charitee”

is first of all a colloquial tag; as such it is applied to the Wife of Bath in the “General Prologue”, also in a

mildly punning form. In addition, “charitee” denotes the religious caritas that in the Prologue is explicitly

exemplified by the Plowman, and in a general way forms the backdrop (so to speak) against which are played

the endless metamorphoses of human love that we find in the Canterbury pilgrims.

In the “General Prologue,” that is, each pilgrim is ruled by a specific eros that defines the centre of his being.

These loves vary from the most intense self-love to the most ideal and selfless, but they all (it seems to be

suggested) participate, however obscurely, in the transcendent-immanent love of the Creator for his creation.

At the least, each love is capable of conversion towards that which is at once the motive power and goal of the

human pilgrimage. Hence the latter is not to eradicate the “love of the creature,” but to purify it by showing

its dependence upon the divine.

Put in another way, the comedy of the Canterbury Tales sees no real discontinuity between matter and spirit.

The wind that “inspires” the “yonge croppes” also inspires folk to make their pilgrimages. It stirs to life the

hidden seeds of perfection everywhere, so that the human desire for regeneration is an extension, as it were, of

the miracle of spring, ascending by imperceptible degrees from vegetable to rational nature, from matter to

spirit. By a happy etymological providence, “spirit” proceeds from “breath.”

Man, though he has the freedom to pervert the natural intention (Boethius) of creation, still finds himself

caught in its élan vital. Hence we discover in the pilgrims a group representative of the spectrum of human

nature; saint-like and depraved, they combine to form a society moving towards a goal which, whether they

are aware of it or not, represents the ultimate fulfilment of their earthly destiny. This movement towards

transcendence is not always apparent in the poem. Certain pilgrims with their full-blown individuality

practically burst the bounds of their fictive-symbolic framework. Nor is it difficult to see in the “General

Prologue” lineaments of a larger social order in crisis (as evidenced, for instance, by a thoroughly corrupt

clergy), indices of that waning of the middle ages historians have taught us to look for.

Over against the symptoms of disorder, however, there emerges from the Canterbury Tales the idea of what I

would call a “comic society,” whose order is not so much conceptual as it is pragmatic, being rooted (as it

were) in the nature of things. In such a society the control or order arises from below, we might say, because

nature is a function of (the comic) spirit. Men have the freedom to follow their natural inclinations, because by

doing so they imitate the inner drive in all things towards their full being or perfection. But in so far as they

deviate drastically from the norms of a publicly defined good, they are exposed to the censorship of laughter.

The society that meets at the inn in Southwark is not so much a perfect counterpart as a prototype of the larger

society from which it derives. The pilgrims re-enact the fundamental rite on which all community life is

based: the being together of people in “sociability.” The perfect setting for such sociability is the tavern,

which, with the fellowship engendered there by drinking together (symposion), has sometimes been thought to

be the true place of origin of human society. Sociability, moreover, manifests itself in the sense of freedom

and play which is so prominent in the Canterbury Tales that we might almost speak of the poem as viewing

not only society but the world itself sub specie ludi (to adopt a phrase of Huizinga’s).

The world of the Canterbury Tales, then, is in a constant process of becoming. The portrait “stills” of the

“General Prologue” are a momentary illusion: their subjects are poised to leap out of their frames into a fuller

existence, and the road to Canterbury is the stage on which the dramatis personae act out their natures. The

tales themselves are part of the progressive unfolding of the pilgrims’ selves, and thus a way to new insights

and a means of communication strengthening the bonds of community implicit in the pilgrimage. Finally, the

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 186selfknowledge gained is a stage in the journey of self-transcendence, a step towards the perfection of the


It is part of Chaucer’s brilliant subtlety that the reader remains legitimately in doubt as to the Knight’s full

understanding of this basic motion toward a higher fulfilment. But it appears that as narrator the Knight

becomes increasingly aware of the kind of world his story presents, so that the ambiguity of “Cupid, out of

alle charitee!” serves as a reminder or invitation to judge this world by a standard that lies outside it and

within the world of the pilgrims at whose head the Knight appears.

In a variety of ways, the Knight is able to suggest an alternative manner of looking at man and society, not

least by the comedy of his “Tale.” It is he rather than Theseus who resolves the problem of a seemingly

unjust world by reminding his audience that Fortuna with her outrageous coincidences is both comic and

subject to:

The destinee, ministre general,

That executeth in the world over al

The purveiaunce that God hath seyn biforn,

So strong it is that, though the world had sworn

The contrarie of a thyng by ye or nay,

Yet somtyme it shal fallen on a day

That falleth nat eft withinne a thousand year.

For certeinly, oure appetites heer, . . .

Al is this reuled by the sighte above.

This conception differs crucially from Theseus’ First Mover, who:

Hath stablissed in this wrecched world adoun

Certeyne dayes and duracioun

To al that is engendred in this place,

Over the whiche day they may nat pace,

Al mowe they yet tho dayes wel abregge.

And significantly, the Knight ends, not here, but with the wedding of Emily and Palamon, as well as a final

ambiguity: “And God, that al this wyde world hath wroght, / Send hym his love that hath it deere aboght.”

Palamon and Emily live happily ever after, and as the Knight steps out of their world into his wider world his

optimism asserts itself triumphantly to encompass “al this faire compaignye.” But it does so only after he has,

through his “Tale,” confronted some of life’s baffling complexities. For the price of this comic outlook is a

steady vigilance; in short, it requires the qualities that the Prologue tells us the Knight possesses: “And though

that he were worthy, he was wys.”

This wisdom involves a prudent circumspectness, keeping one’s eyes open and being prepared for

eventualities. For life always has more in store for man than he bargained for, so that it is likely to make him

look foolish if not worse. And from this point of view the “heathens” and their gods in the “Tale” are after

all metaphors for the human condition at large, in so far as we all share in that more than partial blindness of a

Palamon and Arcite, and hence in their possibilities for appearing tragic, absurd, wicked, and innocent. That,

it would seem, is one crux of the human situation.

The other crux is perhaps that of action and commitment, in short, of being “worthy” as well as “wys.” And

here the missing transcendental link of the “Knight’s Tale” is of crucial importance. This link is man himself

in the cosmic “cheyne of love.” For it is only by placing his actions and aspirations within that context, that

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy 187man raises them above the level of mere Will and Self.

Is there an element of paideia in all this? We have noted that the “Tale” presents an image of different

generations, and we can now add to our earlier scheme:

Saturn Egeus

Knight Jupiter Theseus

Squire Mars, etc. Arcite, etc.

Included in the Knight’s audience is his son, the very type of a courtly lover. In the “General Prologue,”

moreover, their portraits suggest two stages of the chivalric life, the father furnishing the model for the

“bachelour” who “carf biforn his fader at the table.”

The “Tale,” then, deals precisely with those themes that most nearly concern the Knight. Yet it appears that

the latter casts an ironic eye at the relationship between the generations. Man in the “Tale” does not learn

much by age and experience. What wisdom can the older transmit to the younger generation? The “Knight’s

Tale” is a testimony to the insufficiency of human wisdom at the same time that it transcends it.

Source: Richard Neuse, “The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy,” in University of

Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3, April 1962, pp. 299–315.

Chaucer as Satirist in the General Prologue to the

Canterbury Tales

In the following essay, Rosemary Woolf comments on Chaucer’s satire in the “General Prologue.”

Many people nowadays acquire an early and excessive familiarity with the “General Prologue” to the

Canterbury Tales, which later blunts their sharpness of perception. Since the “Prologue” is read at school,

necessarily out of its literary historical context, its methods of satire seem to have an inevitability and

rightness which preclude either surprise or analysis. This natural tendency to remain uncritically appreciative

of the “Prologue” has been partly confirmed by various works of criticism, which, though admirable in many

ways, effusively reiterate that “here is God’s plenty”: they thus awaken an enthusiastic response to the

vitality and variety of the characterisation in the “Prologue,” at the cost of making the exact manner and tone

of Chaucer’s satire quite indistinct. Despite the bulk of Chaucerian criticism, there is still need for a detailed

and disciplined examination of Chaucer’s style and methods of satire, which would include a careful

consideration of Chaucer’s work against the background of classical and Medieval satire. Such a study would

be of considerable scholarship and length: it is the purpose of this short article only to make a few general

points about Chaucer’s methods of satire.

It is sometimes taken for granted that the satirist speaks in his own voice, and that any reference to his

opinions and feelings are a literal record of his experience. This assumption perhaps requires testing and

reconsideration with reference to any satirist, but it is never more dangerous than when it is accepted without

limitation about Chaucer. Chaucer was writing at a time when there was no tradition of personal poetry in a

later Romantic sense: a poet never made his individual emotions the subject-matter of his poetry. Though the

personal pronoun “I” is used frequently in Medieval narrative and lyric poetry, it is usually a dramatic “I,”

that is the “I” is a character in the poem, bearing no different relation to the poet from that of the other

characters, or it expresses moral judgments or proper emotions which belong, or should belong, to everybody.

Chaucer’s use of an “I” character in his early poems belongs to the tradition of such characters in dream

visions, but, with an ingenious variation that the character appears naive, well-meaning, and obtuse, and the

joke thus depends on the discrepancy between this figure in the poetry and the poet of wit and intelligence

Chaucer as Satirist in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales 188who wrote the whole. Thus this treatment of the “I” character is new in that it pre-supposes the poet in a way

that the other characters do not.

It is well-known that this character re-appears strikingly in the links of the Canterbury Tales, when he is

rebuked for telling a dull story, but his presence in the “Prologue” has not been particularly stressed, yet it is

through this character that both the apparently vivid individuality of the pilgrims and the satiric aim are

achieved. Though there are various departures from consistency (to be noticed later), it is through the eyes of

Chaucer the pilgrim, not Chaucer the poet, that the characters in the “Prologue” are chiefly presented.

Obviously the choice of detail shows the sharp selectiveness of the satirist, but the friendly enthusiastic,

unsophisticated, unjudging tone is that of Chaucer the pilgrim.

From this invention there result two important advantages. Firstly by his fiction of having been a close

companion of his characters, Chaucer suggests their reality and individuality, an individuality which is largely

an illusion brought about by poetic skill. Chaucer makes us feel that we know them as individuals, though

often, apart from physical description, they are simply representative portraits of various groups in

society—friars, monks, summoners, nuns, etc. The same details of their tastes and behaviour can be found in

any Medieval moral denunciation of these people. Secondly, in his satiric character-sketches, Chaucer

achieves a two-fold irony. He implies that most of the information which he gives us derives, not from a

narrative-writer’s omniscience, but from the characters’ own conversation. In other words Chaucer

unobtrusively uses a pointed satirical method, by which the characters are shown to have erred so far from the

true moral order, that they are not ashamed to talk naturally and with self-satisfaction about their own

inversion of a just and religiouslyordered way of life. At the same time Chaucer makes his response to this

that of a man who accepts and repeats with enthusiasm, and without criticism, whatever he is told. It has been

observed before how often Chaucer implies or states explicitly that each of his characters is an outstanding

person (although a distinction should be made here between the statement when made of a virtuous character,

such as the parson, when it comes as the climax of a well-ordered enumeration of his virtues, and when it

appears as a random remark in the sketches of the satirised characters). This has been explained as part of

Chaucer’s genial enthusiastic appreciation of all kinds of people or, in a manner less wildly wrong, as part of

a literary convention of magnifying each character. But it is surely Chaucer the easily-impressed pilgrim who

so indiscriminately praises the characters, sharing with them through an obtuse innocence the immoral

premises from which they speak.

Chaucer the poet, for instance, must have shared the common knowledge and opinion in the late 14th century,

that the friars, instead of serving all classes of men indifferently, though with a special tenderness for the poor

who reflected the poverty of Christ, instead chiefly sought out the rich and those from whom they could make

profit, and took the opportunity given by the privacy of the personal interview and confession for exploitation

and unchastity. All this Chaucer could not have failed to have known to be an abuse, evil and widespread, of

what had originally been a holy and noble conception. But Chaucer the character relates these details of his

fellow pilgrims as though they were both inoffensive and idiosyncratic, and in this way both the satiric point

and the illusion of individuality are achieved. Similarly it was a common accusation that daughters of

aristocratic households, who entered a convent, often did not discard their former manners and affectations.

Genteel table-manners, careful attention to dress, and a narrowly sentimental affection for pet-animals, might

possibly in a noble household appear signs of a refined sensibility, but in a convent their worldliness would be

plain. But of the distinction between the lady of the house and a nun Chaucer the pilgrim is ignorant, so he

records all the details sweetly, as though there were no matter here for blame.

The clearest example, however, of this method is the account of the monk. Just as in the description of the

friar Chaucer shows clearly by a sudden change to colloquial rhythms that he is ostensibly repeating the

friar’s own arguments for not caring for the poor, “It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce . . . ,” so in the

account of the monk Chaucer repeats the monk’s arguments, and then even adds a reply, “And I seyde his

opinion was good,” supporting this by two foolish rhetorical questions and a blustering retort “Lat Austyn

Chaucer as Satirist in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales 189have his swynk to hym reserved.” That Chaucer the poet would reject the authority of St Augustine is as

manifestly untrue as that he had not the skill to tell an entertaining story. His protested sympathy with the

monk is of the same kind as Juvenal’s stated agreement (“you have just cause for bitterness”) with the utterly

debased and contemptible Naevolus in the ninth satire. To suppose that Chaucer’s attitude here is ambivalent

is to be deceived by the sweet blandness of Chaucer’s mask, just as to search for historical prototypes of the

characters is to be deceived by the brilliant accuracy of Chaucer’s sleight of hand, whereby he suggests an

individuality which is not there.

Amongst many other examples of the simplicity of Chaucer the pilgrim may be noticed the frequent device of

giving a false explanation of a statement—the physician loved gold because it was of use in medicine—and the

making of absurd judgments: the remark that the wives of the guildsmen would be to blame if they did not

support and approve their husbands in their smug prosperity, or the query of whether it was not “by a full fair

grace” that the maunciple was able to cheat and outwit his learned employers. It is in passages such as the

latter that the ironic tone of Chaucer the satirist can be most clearly heard behind the blank wall of obtuseness

of Chaucer the pilgrim. Illustrations of the naivete of Chaucer the character could be multiplied to the point of

tediousness, and so too there could be laboured at length the demonstration that the substance of the

description of each character consists solely of common Medieval observation about the group to which he

belongs. It should be added, however, that the appearance of individuality is not achieved by the intimate tone

of Chaucer the character alone: at least equally important is the style. The neat grace of Chaucer’s lines often

deceptively suggests that he has made a sharp and lucid observation, when in fact it is but a commonplace,

and the precision lies, not in its thought, but in the style. Thus his method of pretending that the generalisation

about a group is the idiosyncracy of an individual is given persuasive force by his exact use of words and the

shapeliness of his couplets. There is an interesting contrast to this in the undisguisedly generalised attack of

Langland, the generality of which is driven home by his swift but sometimes indiscriminate use of forceful

words, and his form of the alliterative metre, which has within the line a great strength and impressive rhythm,

but no larger pattern, so that there seems to be no metrical reason why one line should not succeed another

without end.

The question to what extent we are aware of Chaucer the poet in the “Prologue” is not easy to determine.

Sometimes an example of obtrusive poetic skill draws attention to him: it is Chaucer the pilgrim who observes

mildly of the unhealthy sore on the cook’s leg that it was a pity, but the placing of this one line in the middle

of the account of the fine dishes made by the cook exceeds the licence of poetic cleverness which may by

convention be allowed to a dull character in poetry. Similarly the image which implies censure or ridicule is

selfevidently the satirist’s: the monk’s bridle jingling like a chapel bell, the squire’s coat so embroidered

with flowers that it was like a meadow, the snowstorm of food and drink in the franklin’s house, the fiery-red

cherubym’s face of the summoner, all undisguidedly spring from the imagination of a satiric poet.

Occasionally Chaucer even speaks outright in his own voice, making a pointed exposure of affection or

self-deception, which is in a quite different style of satire, and provides an exception to the general truth that

the characters are not the result of actual observation. A well-known example is the comment about the


Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,

And yet he semed bisier than he was.

This kind of remark shows the same mocking penetration into the ridiculous complexities of human feeling

and behaviour, as Chaucer had already displayed in Troilus and Creseide, from which one striking example

may be quoted: it was a commonplace in Medieval descriptions of a lover that by pining he grew pale and

thin; but in Chaucer’s more subtle description, Troilus in the humourless self-absorption of his love imagines

that he has grown so pale and thin that everybody notices and comments upon it. At first sight Chaucer seems

to be an exception to the general rule of the classical period and 18th century that the satirist is to be feared.

His disguise of Chaucer the pilgrim and elsewhere a sustained friendliness and moderation of tone imply that

Chaucer as Satirist in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales 190no man could be less alarming to those who knew him. But, whilst undoubtedly he was the less to be feared in

that he did not make individual contemporaries the objects of his satire, as a century later Skelton was to do,

yet only people free from all excesses of emotion and affectation could be sure that they would not be the

source of some detail shrewdly observed in Chaucer’s work.

Chaucer also speaks in his own voice in his occasional denunciation of evil in the descriptions of the Miller

and the Pardoner, and, most effectively in his descriptions of the virtuous characters, one drawn from each

order of society with the addition of the Clerk. In these Chaucer establishes the true moral standard by which

the topsy-turvyness of the rest may be measured. It was a tradition of satire to provide an ideal standard: some

earlier Medieval Latin satirists made use of the classical fable of the Golden Age, identifying it uneasily with

the Garden of Eden: an example is the famous de Contemptu Mundi of Bernard of Cluny; Langland in a more

complex and magnificent scheme makes his standard the pure charity of the Redemption of man by Christ.

But Chaucer, lacking Langland’s sublimity of imagination, but with a shrewd, clear thoughtfulness, gives a

positive analysis of representative types of a well-ordered society, religious and secular. The detailed justice

of these descriptions prevents the actual satire from seeming too mild or perhaps too pessimistic. Without

them Chaucer’s satire might seem to have too much detachment, too much ironic acquiescence. In

Langland’s angry denunciatory satire there is by implication a hope of reform; but in Chaucer’s one feels the

tone of a man, who, aware of the incongruity between the gravity of the abuse and his own inability to help, is

moved to an ironic and superficially good-humoured laughter. The virtuous characters, however, by their very

presence imply a censure of the rest, which dispels any impression of over-sophisticated aloofness. The idea

that Chaucer loved his satirised characters despite or including their faults is of course false, and springs from

an imprecise consideration of Chaucer’s methods of satire.

To what extent Chaucer was influenced by classical and Medieval traditions of satire remains the final

difficult but fascinating question. There is no incontrovertible evidence about his knowledge of classical

satirists: Juvenal he quotes from and mentions by name, but the quotations he could very easily have gained at

second hand; Horace he does not mention at all, but since, as other critics have pointed out, he does not

mention Boccaccio either, this negative evidence is worthless. Juvenal had attacked with moral horror the

widespread vices of his own time under the satiric disguise of describing historical personages of a previous

age. This device was not imitated by the Fathers or the Medieval satirists who were influenced by him, and

the writers of the Middle Ages with their preoccupation with what was common to all men rather than with

what makes one man different from another, were not concerned to give any appearance of particularity to

their satire. The result was either the blackened generalised picture of all men as totally corrupt, found in the

de Contemptu Mundi, or the combination of allegory with satire, ingeniously used, though not invented, by

Langland. But though the aim of Chaucer’s satire is, like Langland’s, the distinctive vices of people in

various orders and occupations throughout society, he does not generalise but, like Juvenal, reduces the

generalisation to a description of particular characters. This, however, seems to be Chaucer’s only

resemblance to Juvenal, since self-evidently there could not be a greater difference of tone than there is

between Juvenal’s savage vehemence and Chaucer’s specious mildness.

The resemblances between Chaucer and Horace are more subtle and more specific. The object of Horace’s

satire had been different from Juvenal’s, in that Horace was chiefly concerned with those who disrupted the

social harmony of life, the fool, the bore, the miser, and these he portrayed with a minute and particular

observation of habit and conversation, which gives the impression that his description is of an individual,

though by definition not unique, personality. His account, for instance, of the host who makes dinner

intolerable for his guests by a tedious analysis of the sources and method of cooking of each dish, suggests a

recognisable personality, not a moral generalisation about excessive eating and drinking. The tone of

Horace’s satire is not designed to arouse horror or anger, but amused contempt for something worthless. It is

obvious that this satiric manner required a sophistication not usually possessed in the Middle Ages, and a

point of view less easily identifiable with the Christian than that of Juvenal. For, though evil was seen as a fit

object for laughter in the Middle Ages, it was a strong laughter at the ugly and grotesque—the devils in the

Chaucer as Satirist in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales 191mystery plays, for example—rather than the slight ironic smile of the civilised man at those who deviate from

reason and intelligence.

Chaucer shares some characteristics with Horace, though there is no certainty whether by influence, or by

coincidence and some affinity of temper. He has in common with Horace the easy tone of a man talking to

friends who share his assumptions and sympathies, though usually with a deceptive twist: for when Horace

meets the characters in his satires, he expects his audience to sympathise with his misery, whereas Chaucer, as

we have already seen, pretends that the situation was delightful and the characters to be admired. He shares

with Horace too some other characteristics already noticed, such as the use of comic images, and, above all,

the quick observation of human affectation, and the suggestion of a recognisable personality as in the lines

quoted about the lawyer. Chaucer, however, extends Horatian ridicule to the kind of objects satirised in the

Juvenalian tradition, and modifies it by the tone of pretended naivete, not found in Horace’s style, but almost

certainly learnt, at least in part, from Ovid whose works Chaucer had undoubtedly read and who might indeed

be called Chaucer’s master.

The fact that it is relevant to ask the question, was Chaucer influenced by classical satirists, is in itself

interesting, and throws light on Chaucer’s distinctiveness. Though it cannot be answered definitely, his

indebtedness to classical writers in general is indisputable, and is most interestingly noticeable in the fact that

he thought of himself as a poet in a way that earlier Medieval writers seem not to have done. He is the first

English medieval poet explicitly to accept the permanent value of his work, and hence to care about the

unsettled state of the language and its dialectal variety, the first to see himself as of the same kind as the

classical poets. The writers of medieval lyrics, romances, plays, etc., almost certainly had a workaday

conception of themselves, and did not think of a poet as a man of particular perception and judgment, but as a

man who wrote verse in a craftsmanlike way for specific use. But Chaucer sees himself as a poet in the

classical tradition, and it is for this reason that, despite the fact that the substance of his satiric portraits are

medieval commonplaces, and despite his usual disguise of Chaucer the pilgrim, behind this disguise, and

sometimes heard openly, is the truly personal tone of the satirist, which is quite unmedieval.

Source: Rosemary Woolf, “Chaucer as Satirist in the ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales,” in

Critical Quarterly, Vol. 1, 1959, pp. 150–57.

Commentary: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

In the following essay excerpt, E. Talbot Donaldson examines the role of rhetoric in “The Nun’s Priest’s


It is the nature of the beast fable, of which the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is an example, to make fun of human

attitudes by assigning them to the lower animals. Perhaps no other form of satire has proved so charming

throughout literary history. From Aesop’s fables through the medieval French mock-epic Reynard the Fox

(upon a version of which the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” relies for its slight plot), down to La Fontaine and Br’er

Rabbit, the beast who acts like a man has enjoyed general popularity. In the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” one of the

most charming of poets has given the genre a superbly comic expression. Yet much of the tale’s humor lies

neither in its plot nor in the equivalence of man and beast, but in the extraordinary dilation of the telling. For

while Chaucer was endowing his feathered hero and heroine with many of the qualities of a courtly lover and

his lady, he was also embellishing his tale with an ample selection of the rhetorical commonplaces of Western

civilization. To analyze the effect these have on the story it is necessary to investigate briefly what rhetoric is.

The art of expressive speech and writing or, more narrowly, of persuasive speech is a fair enough definition of

rhetoric. But considered as a set of formulas for expressing a recurrent idea or situation, rhetoric may amount

to little more than cliché. It is also possible to think of rhetoric, as one frequently does today, as a kind of

Commentary: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale 192cosmetic art—that of adorning bare facts. Yet something is lacking here. The rhetorical mode of expression

may be said to consist in using language in such a way as to bring about certain preferred interpretations.

Compare, for example, an apparently bare statement, “The sun sets,” with the rhetorical statement, “The Sun

drove his chariot beyond the waters of the western seas.” To the ancient mind the last statement would

suggest a particular kind of order and meaning in the universe—in other words, a cosmos. This piece of

rhetoric was the ancient man’s way of reassuring himself that chaos would not come again with the setting of

the sun. Today we probably prefer the simplicity of the first statement. Yet “The sun sets” has its residue of

rhetoric: we know that the sun does not set but only seems to. We accept this inaccurate and quite rhetorical

statement because we are reluctant, even when we know better, to displace ourselves from our inherited

position at the center of creation. Rhetoric still stands between us and the fear of something which, even if it is

not chaos, is disconcerting.

It follows that rhetoric in this sense is something more than language of adornment. It is, in fact, a powerful

weapon of survival in a vast and alien universe. In our own time, as in the Middle Ages and in the Age of

Homer rhetoric has served to satisfy man’s need for security and to provide a sense of the importance of his

own existence and of the whole human enterprise. It is true that rhetoric, as it operates for persuasion and

selfpersuasion, may become merely an instrument of deception, a matter of clichés and of superficial and

contradictory thinking. One finds examples in advertising and political slogans and in the mutually

inconsistent wisdom of proverbs. The excesses of rhetoric invite satire; regarded satirically, rhetoric may be

taken as a kind of inadequate defense that man erects against an inscrutable reality. It is in this way that

Chaucer is viewing it in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Most noticeably, of course, he employs the standard

rhetoric of heroic poetry in order to give the utmost mock-significance to each of Chantecleer’s actions. Even

the best of epic heroes suffers from the handicap of being only one of an untold number of people who have

lived on earth, and the fact that Achilles and Hector still have significance (if a fading one) is due to the

gigantic rhetorical effort of Homer, who persuades his reader that these were the very best in their kind who

ever lived. By a similar technique Chantecleer is made the best rooster that ever lived, so that his death amid

the teeth of Dan Russel—if it had occurred—could have provided a tragic episode every bit as significant to

mankind as the death of Hector. Or so the Nun’s Priest would have us believe, what with his epic manner and

his full-dress similes, his references to the fall of Troy, the burning of Rome, the destruction of Carthage, to

Sinon, Ganelon, and Judas Iscariot, to the awful problems of free will and foreordination. And, if this were not

sufficient to persuade us of the importance of Chantecleer to the scheme of things, the divine powers take the

trouble to send the rooster a monitory dream concerning his impending fate. The logic of the comedy is

unexceptionable: these are the devices that made Hector and Achilles, and hence all men in their persons,

significant; will not the devices do the same for Chantecleer?

While he deals largely in the rhetorical commonplaces appropriate to epic heroes, the Nun’s Priest does not

ignore commonplaces less exalted. The discussion of the significance of dreams reflects one of man’s most

enduring attempts to enhance his importance, and the basic disagreement between the cock and the hen

regarding dreams is an embarrassing instance of the rhetorical tradition’s having produced two entirely

antipathetic answers to the same problem: Similarly, the age-old question of woman is answered—in one

breath, as it were—by two equally valid if mutually exclusive commonplaces: woman is man’s ruination and

woman is all man’s bliss. Especially prominent is the rhetoric of “authority,” by which poets assure

themselves that what they are doing is unexceptionable: when the rooster’s singing is compared with the

singing of mermaids, the expert on mermaids’ singing is named—Physiologus, whose authority presumably

makes the simile respectable. It is inevitable that the Friday on which Chantecleer’s near-tragedy occurs

should be castigated in the terms set by that most formidable and dullest of medieval rhetoricians, Geoffrey of

Vinsauf, who carried almost to its ultimate point formalization of expression and stultification of thought.

The “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is full of what seem to be backward references to the preceding tales, so that it is

sometimes taken as a parody-summary of all that has gone before. The reason for this is probably less that

Chaucer had the other tales in mind as he wrote (indeed, he could have written the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale”

Commentary: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale 193without having any thought of the others) than that in it he employs comically all the rhetorical devices that

were a part of his own poetical inheritance. But with the “Monk’s Tale,” which immediately precedes, the

Nun’s Priest’s does seem to have a more organic connection. The Monk had pitilessly labored the

emasculated notion of tragedy current in the Middle Ages, with all its emphasis on the dominance of Fortune,

viewed apart from human responsibility. In taking by turns the attitude toward Chantecleer of the Monk (“Oh

destiny that mayst not be eschewed”) and the more ethical attitude that the cock was fondly overcome by

female charm (he “took his counsel of his wife, with sorrow”), Chaucer is comically exploiting a paradox the

two ends of which are played against the poor narrator, caught in the middle and not knowing whether to

blame fate or rooster and compromising by doing both by turns. Yet this elusive interaction between man’s

nature and his destiny is one of the concomitants of a far more profound kind of tragedy than anything the

Monk’s definition could produce: Macbeth also had his fatal influences and his deliberate wrongdoings. As a

work of the intellect, even though it is wholly comic, the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is far more serious and

mature than the Monk’s. Its author might well have produced a Shakespearean tragedy—provided he could

have stopped laughing.

The man who is able to maintain a satiric view toward rhetoric—the sum of the ideas by which people are

helped to preserve their self-respect—is not apt to be popular with his victims. Inevitably, they will search him

out to discover the pretensions under which he subsists. Aware that in the personality of the satirist will

always exist grounds for rebutting the satire, Chaucer carefully gives us nothing to work on in the character of

the Nun’s Priest: there is no portrait of him in the “General Prologue,” and the introduction to his tale reveals

only the most inoffensive of men. But in one important respect he is very like his creator: he can survey the

world as if he were no part of it, as if he were situated comfortably on the moon looking at a human race

whom he knew and loved wholeheartedly but whose ills he was immune from. This is the same godlike

detachment that characterizes the incident of the telling of Sir Thopas and also, in another way, Troilus. It is

almost as if the Creator were watching with loving sympathy and humorous appreciation the solemn

endeavors of His creatures to understand the situation in which He has placed them.

Source: E. Talbot Donaldson, “Commentary: The ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale,’” in Chaucer Poetry, selected and

edited by Talbot Donaldson, Ronald Press Company, 1958, pp. 1104–08.

The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales

In the following essay, R. M. Lumiansky contends that “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” reveals the Nun’s Priest

to be “frail, timid, and humble.”

Among the best liked and most widely known sections of The Canterbury Tales is the Nun’s Priest’s story of

the regal Chanticleer and the lovely Dame Pertelote. For a long time critics have realized that this tale

skilfully reflects facets of its teller’s character, but only recently have detailed attempts been made to suggest

just what sort of person Chaucer intended his audience to visualize as the Nun’s Priest. Since Chaucer did not

include in the “General Prologue” a portrait of this Pilgrim, whatever view one takes of the Nun’s Priest

must be based on the comments to and about him by the Host, on his own short comment to the Host, on the

Narrator’s brief remark about him, and on the superb tale which he relates to the company. This is to say that

any acceptable portrait of Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest must of necessity derive primarily from the personal

interplay during the Canterbury pilgrimage.

Recent criticism has presented the Nun’s Priest to us as a brawny and vigorous man with stature and muscles

which justify his serving for the duration of the pilgrimage as one of three bodyguards for the Prioress and the

Second Nun. This view is based, first, on an acceptance as direct description of the Host’s extreme comments

in the Nun’s Priest’s Epilogue concerning the physical prowess of the priest; and, second, on the existence of

documents which show that contemporary travel was particularly dangerous for women, even nuns—the

The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales 194assumption being that the Prioress and the Second Nun would therefore need husky bodyguards for

protection. While the documents concerned are of great interest to anyone working with The Canterbury

Tales, it is true of course that Chaucer was not always controlled in his writing by a desire for historical

accuracy. Accordingly, even the presence of more numerous and apt documents of this nature than are

available could not dictate a brawny physique for the Nun’s Priest. And whatever the extent to which

Chaucer may have had in mind the perils of the road when (and if) he wrote “preestes thre,” he was

sufficiently unmindful of those perils when he wrote the “Nun’s Priest’s Prologue” to reduce the Prioress

and the Second Nun to one male attendant “the Nonnes Preest.”

Where but one brief explicit statement is available—and that one to the effect that this Pilgrim is “swete” and

“goodly”—considerable difference of opinion concerning the Nun’s Priest is at least permissible, if it can be

supported. Thus, the purpose of this paper will be to maintain through a reexamination of the pertinent

passages that the Nun’s Priest is most convincingly visualized as an individual who is scrawny, humble, and

timid, while at the same time highly intelligent, well educated, shrewd and witty. As an important part of this

portrait, the Host’s remarks in the “Nun’s Priest’s Epilogue” will be considered as broadly ironic, and

Harry Bailly will assume a larger role in the dramatic interplay surrounding the Nun’s Priest’s performance

than he has hitherto been granted by the commentators. Numerous suggestions made by other critics

concerning this dramatic interplay—most notably those by William W. Lawrence—will be used here. However,

no one, so far as I can find, has previously called attention to the important and easily acceptable function of

the “Nun’s Priest’s Epilogue” when it is read as broad irony on the part of Harry Bailly. Such an

interpretation of that Endlink serves as foundation for the argument presented here; and, as will appear at

length below, it furnishes a reasonable explanation for the unanswerable question which arises if the “Nun’s

Priest’s Epilogue” is taken as straightforward description: namely, why would the Host, who has prudently

retreated before the Miller’s impressive strength and the Shipman’s evident hardihood, feel free to speak

rudely and contemptuously to a large and muscular Nun’s Priest? The supposition of a patronizing attitude on

the part of the henpecked Host towards a man who is under the supervision of a woman, the Prioress, is

simply not adequate explanation for the extreme rudeness and contempt of Harry’s remarks to the Nun’s

Priest, if the latter is conceived of as possessing strength sufficient to make Harry fearful of physical violence.

The order to be used here for the fragments of The Canterbury Tales is that set forth recently and

convincingly by R. A. Pratt, whereby Fragment VII comes immediately before Fragment III and after

Fragment II. The Nun’s Priest occupies the final position in Fragment VII, in many ways as carefully

prepared a fragment of the Canterbury collection as is the first. The Host, up until the time that he calls upon

the Nun’s Priest for a story, has fared rather badly on the pilgrimage. After his success in the “General

Prologue” and his pleasure arising from the “Knight’s Tale,” he was successfully challenged by the Miller,

somewhat annoyed by the Reeve’s “sermonyng,” and shortly thereafter threatened by the Cook. Then his

satisfaction with the Man of Law’s performance was quickly dampened by the Shipman’s revolt against his

authority. Though the latter’s tale concerning the merchant of Saint Denis restored the Host’s good spirits, he

seemed not too pleased with the sobriety resulting from the miracle related by the Prioress. Next, his patience

was strained beyond its limits by the Pilgrim Chaucer’s “Sir Thopas,” and he was moved to a lengthy

recollection of his domestic woes by the “Melibeus.” In the succeeding instance, he was offered no relief by

the Monk, whose tragedies he found exceedingly boring. Finally, when the Monk haughtily refused to relate

gayer material, Harry impolitely turned upon the Nun’s Priest with a demand that this cleric “Telle us swich

thyng as may oure hertes glade.”

Looked at in this fashion, the sequence and the nature of the performances in Fragments I, II, and VII seem to

have been considerably influenced by Chaucer’s desire to represent a regular rise and fall in the Host’s

spirits, with the humorous deflating of the Host as a steady theme running through the three successive

fragments. Though this surmise may be open to debate, the fact should be noted that in the course of the first

three fragments, Harry plays an important role in connection with every Pilgrim’s recital. The point is that

through these three successive fragments the Host’s reactions are a vital part of the drama surrounding the

The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales 195various Pilgrims’ performances. We therefore may not be far wide of the mark if, in trying to derive an

acceptable portrait of the Nun’s Priest, we examine that Pilgrim and his tale as they reflect against and fit

with the Host’s recent behavior; and we should bear steadily in mind that in this section of The Canterbury

Tales the continuity of very probably nine and certainly four of the preceding recitals is beyond dispute.

Particularly important here are the Host’s behavior before and reaction after the immediately preceding

performance, that of the Monk.

From this line of reasoning—based upon consideration of relationships which Chaucer certainly must have

been aware of as he wrote—the following view is deduced as a defensible statement concerning the character

of the Nun’s Priest and the function of his tale in their dramatic context. The Host is the central figure in the

personal interchanges surrounding the Monk’s and the Nun’s Priest’s performances. He addresses the

physically impressive Monk with a lengthy sexual joke; the Monk, by means of his dull tragedies, then rebuffs

the Host for the latter’s disrespectful and vulgar jocularity towards him. The Host therefore gladly seconds

the Knight’s interruption of the Monk’s series of tragedies, but is again left with injured feelings when the

Monk refuses to comply with his demand for a merry tale about hunting. As a consequence, the Host quickly

turns upon the feeble and timid Nun’s Priest as a cleric upon whom he can safely vent the displeasure which

the Monk has caused him. The Nun’s Priest meekly accepts the Host’s brusque orders for a merry tale, and

then brilliantly carries them out. In the tale he even subtly challenges two of the Host’s attackers: he offers

direct rebuttal for the theme of the prose narrative told by the Pilgrim Chaucer, and he satirizes both the

manner and the matter of the Monk’s recital. Though the Host may not realize that he has thus acquired a

defender brilliant though physically weak, the gaiety of this tale dissipates most of Harry’s displeasure, which

arose most recently from his treatment by the Monk. Then, in the “Epilogue” which follows the Nun’s

Priest’s Tale, the Host completely regains his good spirits, for there he is able to use successfully, in a

broadly ironic manner, something of the same sexual joke to which the Monk earlier took exception. The high

comedy for the reader and for Chaucer the poet lies, of course, in the Host’s missing the subtler points of the

tale and holding up to ridicule the meek little priest who has superbly defended him.

The analysis to support the statement in the preceding paragraph should begin with the performance by the

Pilgrim Chaucer. To dispel the sobriety that has fallen upon the company as a result of the Prioress’ story, the

Host begins to jest; then he calls upon Chaucer for a merry tale, after having poked fun at him for his large

waistline and his quiet manner. Chaucer proceeds by means of the burlesque “Sir Thopas” and the moralistic

“Melibeus” to repay the Host in two complementary ways for his mockery. First, the Host’s disgust with the

entertaining and skilful “Sir Thopas” and his hearty approval of the interminable “Melibeus” make

humorously apparent Harry’s sad lack of the literary critical ability upon which he prides himself. Second,

Harry’s approving the “Melibeus,” which has as its theme female “maistrye,” and his consequent lengthy

account of the difficulties he suffers at home under his wife Goodelief’s “maistrye,” make him a

laughing-stock, for he lacks the critical insight to note the very point of that story which his own marital

experience puts him in a position to refute.

Following his revelations of the bitter life Goodelief leads him, the Host turns to the Monk: “My lord, the

Monk . . . be myrie of cheere, / For ye shul telle a tale trewely.” As has not, I think, been noted elsewhere,

from the first of these lines one should perhaps understand that the Monk’s facial expression and manner

indicate considerable displeasure, for my lord the Monk certainly has no reason to be pleased with the

treatment he has received on this pilgrimage. When, after the “Knight’s Tale,” the Host with due regard for

“degre” called upon the Monk for a story, the drunken Miller rudely took over the Note the repetition here of

the emphatic affirmative “yis” in place of the usual “yes.” Also, though it is true that for the Host to request

a merry tale, or for another Pilgrim to promise one, is a frequent occurrence in The Canterbury Tales, a

noteworthy part of the unction here may rest in the Nun’s Priest’s echoing the Host’s earlier unsuccessful

command to the Monk to be merry. The Nun’s Priest thus may be saying, in effect, “Even though the Monk

would not do as you told him, I will.” If such a reading is defensible, then already we can see that the lowly

Nun’s Priest is unsympathetic towards his high-ranking fellow churchman. As will appear shortly, there is

The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales 196considerable evidence in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” of his lack of sympathy for the Monk. In any event, in

his answer here, the Nun’s Priest is running no risk of incurring the Host’s wrath; and the Narrator’s calling

him “swete” and “goodly” serves to emphasize the accommodating haste with which he has just accepted

Harry’s orders.

But, though the Nun’s Priest may be weak in body and fawning in manner, there is nothing wrong with his

intellect and education. In complying with the Host’s request, he relates what is in many ways the

outstanding story in the whole collection. And in so doing he manages to include two clear implications which

reveal his own point of view and which can also be taken as defenses of the Host. In the first place, the story

presents a husband who is right and a wife who is wrong in the interpretation of Chanticleer’s dream. Further,

though the ostensible moral of the story is that one should not be so careless as to trust in flattery, the Nun’s

Priest slyly places greater emphasis upon another point:

Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde;

Wommannes conseil broghte us first to wo,

And made Adam fro Paradys to go,

Ther as he was ful myrie and wel at ese.

But for I noot to whom it myght displese,

If I conseil of wommen wolde blame,

Passe over, for I seyde it in my game.

Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere,

And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere.

Thise been the cokkes wordes, and nat myne;

I kan noon harm of no womman divyne.

These antifeminist aspects of the tale represent the Nun’s Priest’s ways of hinting his dissatisfaction at being

under the “petticoat rule” of the Prioress. But they also serve another important function: they are the Nun’s

Priest’s efforts to comfort the Host, who at home must cope with the dictatorial Goodelief. Further, they

furnish a direct answer to the theme of the prose tale told earlier by the Pilgrim Chaucer, wherein Melibeus

was greatly aided by his wife’s counsel. Though Harry Bailly—favorably impressed by the fact that Prudence

advised Melibeus to avoid strife, while his own wife urges him to do violence upon both his serving boys and

his neighbors—may have failed to notice any incongruity between his praise on the one hand of a story which

preaches that a husband should accept his wife’s advice, and on the other his unpleasant situation at home,

the Nun’s Priest quickly saw the point. Therefore, by means of his story, the brilliant gaiety of which

contrasts sharply and perhaps purposefully with the lengthy and dull “Melibeus,” he makes clear that a

husband is not always wise in following his wife’s counsel. As J. B. Severs has shown, Chaucer’s originality

in the tale consists largely in his changes to emphasize just this point. Also, we should note that in the last

lines of the passage quoted above, the Nun’s Priest does not really withdraw his derogatory comments about

women’s counsel; rather, he furnishes authority for such views, for in suggesting that his listeners read the

authors who treat such matters, he has in mind the same antifeminist writings from which Jankyn read to the

Wife of Bath, writings which most certainly do not present a sympathetic view of women’s counsel.

The second implication present in the tale is directed against the Monk, who, as we saw, completely

discomfitted the Host. The Monk’s confidence and general affluence are in as striking contrast with the

Nun’s Priest’s timidity and poverty as is his fine palfrey with the latter’s lean and foul nag; thus, it is not

unnatural for the Nun’s Priest to feel certain twinges of antagonistic jealousy toward his wealthy fellow

churchman, and in his tale to hold up the Monk to subtle ridicule. The story of Croesus was one of the dull

tragedies related by the Monk, and when Chanticleer refers to this story we are tempted to see a parallel

between the strutting manner of both the outrider and the cock. Later, the Nun’s Priest says:

The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales 197For evere the latter ende of joye is wo.

God woot that worldly joye is soone ago;

And if a rethor koude faire endite,

He in a cronycle saufly myghte it write

As for a sovereyn notabilitee.

In connection with this passage we observe that this same commonplace idea of mutability was the central

theme of the Monk’s performance; and the Nun’s Priest’s calling such a routine concept a “sovereyn

notabilitee” is almost certainly a thrust at the Monk’s sententiousness and pomposity. One other passage by

the Nun’s Priest seems to apply unfavorably to the Monk. In his account of Samson, the Monk said:

Beth war by this ensample oold and playn

That no men telle hir conseil til hir wyves

Of swich thyng as they wolde han secree fayn,

If that it touche hir lymes or hir lyves.

Here, of course, is a typical antifeminist statement which a careful listener might well recall upon hearing the

Nun’s Priest’s mock apology, quoted above, for speaking ill of “wommennes conseils.” And the Nun’s

Priest seems eager to help his audience arrive at this connection when he shifts in his remarks from “reading”

to “hearing” authors who have treated the woman question: “Read authors who treat such material, and you

may hear what they say about women.” Also, the Nun’s Priest attributes the low opinion of women’s

counsel to Chanticleer, and thus once again equates the Monk with the cock, who, according to the Monk’s

words, should not have told Pertelote about his dream.

It seems clear, then, that in carrying out the Host’s orders the Nun’s Priest by the wonderful gaiety and

charm of his story avoids any possible blame for not being merry, and that by the two implications present in

his tale he goes further in his efforts to please, defend, and comfort the Host. Whether or not Harry understood

these implications is not clear, but certainly he seems considerably mollified when he addresses the Nun’s

Priest in the “Epilogue” to the latter’s tale.

Before we examine that Endlink, however, what of the claim by various editors of The Canterbury Tales that

Chaucer meant to cancel it? This claim has been supported by three factors: first, the Endlink does not appear

in most of the manuscripts; second, certain lines in the Endlink repeat matters present in the Host’s remarks

to the Monk in the “Prologue” to the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale;” and, third, as Manly and Rickert felt,

cancellation seems “to be supported by the fact that the Host’s words to the Priest after the tale suggest a

different type of person from that suggested by his words [before the tale]. . . .” But, as Tatlock argued, the

manuscript situation may well result from patchwork by the scribes, and for Chaucer repetition of an idea is

not infrequent, especially when as here actual verbal repetition is extremely limited. Further, the seeming

conflict in the Host’s comments as to the type of person addressed is present only if the Endlink is taken as

straightforward description. Consequently, the claim for cancellation is not convincing, and, as we shall see,

to throw away this “Epilogue” would be to lose its possibly ironic function and thus to rule out what may be

one of Chaucer’s carefully developed high points in the dramatic interplay among the Pilgrims. The Endlink

in question may be quoted in full:

“Sire Nonnes Preest,” oure Hooste seide anoon,

“I blessed be thy breche, and every stoon!

This was a murie tale of Chauntecleer.

But by my trouthe, if thou were seculer,

Thou woldest ben a trede-foul aright.

For if thou have corage as thou hast myght,

Thee were nede of hennes, as I wene,

The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales 198Ya, moo than seven tymes seventene.

See, whiche braunes hath this gentil preest,

So gret a nekke, and swich a large breest!

He loketh as a sperhauk with his yen;

Him nedeth nat his coulour for to dyen

With brasile, ne with greyn of Portyngale.

Now, sire, faire falle you for your tale!”

And after that he, with ful merie chere,

Seide unto another, as ye shuln heere.

We see here that as a result of the gaiety of the Nun’s Priest’s “murie tale of Chauntecleer,” the Host has

lost much of the pique which he earlier felt because of the Monk’s outdoing him. He therefore compliments

the Nun’s Priest for his narrative ability. But Harry still has not forgotten the rebuff dealt him by the Monk.

To wipe away the memory of this loss of dignity, and to reestablish himself in the eyes of the company, he

now directs at the Nun’s Priest something of the same sexual jest at which the Monk earlier took offense. In

so doing, Harry continues to use the second person singular familiar pronouns, a device he would surely not

have employed if his intent here were solely to praise the Nun’s Priest. It seems much more likely that this

time his jest is ironically employed, in that the frail and timid Nun’s Priest, of whom the Host feels not the

least fear, lacks completely the appearance of vigorous manliness which Harry attributes to him in this

“Epilogue.” Thus the Host evens his score with the Monk, to his own satisfaction at least, at the expense of

another churchman, and then condescends in the last line of his speech to address the Nun’s Priest with a

respectful “yow.” Consequently, he is ready to call upon the next storyteller with his usual “ful merie chere.”

My main contention, then, is that the dramatic interplay surrounding the Nun’s Priest’s performance depends

upon a conception of this Pilgrim as frail, timid, and humble. Further, the Host plays a vital and consistent

role in the interchanges which accompany the narratives presented in Fragment VII. A Nun’s Priest fit to

serve as a muscular bodyguard for the Prioress and the Second Nun would hardly have meekly suffered

Harry’s contemptuous attitude in calling upon him, or the Host’s leering insinuations in commenting upon

his story. Nor, in view of that attitude and those insinuations, is it likely that the physically impressive Nun’s

Priest who emerges if the “Nun’s Priest’s Epilogue” is taken as actual description would have been

sufficiently eager to please the Host as to furnish him with a gay tale including implications which almost

certainly represent retorts to Harry’s most recent attackers—the Pilgrim Chaucer and the Monk—and which

offer Harry some comfort for the female “maistrye” that he experiences at home. Finally, the interpretation

set forth in this paper presents an explanation which in no way conflicts with Chaucer’s usual method in

handling his Pilgrims, and which accounts satisfactorily for the general similarity of the Host’s remarks in the

“Nun’s Priest’s Epilogue” and in his earlier address to the Monk.

Source: R. M. Lumiansky, “The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales,” in P.M.L.A., Vol. 68, No. 4,

September 1953, pp. 896–906.

The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales 199Suggested Essay Topics

General Prologue

1. Using Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, describe the rising middle class of fourteenth-century

England. In the essay, include the variety of occupations, the degree of wealth, the level of education, and the

beginnings of political power represented among the pilgrims.

2. Contrast a corrupt clergyman from the Prologue with the Parson.

3. Select three characters from the Prologue whom Chaucer seems to be satirizing (i.e., the Wife of Bath, the

Summoner, the Prioress). Using some direct quotations, explain the satire.

The Knight's Tale

1. Explain the features of this tale which characterize it as a romance.

2. An "anachronism" is a literary "slip" in which the author inserts something into a work which could not

have happened or which could not have existed at the time the work is set. Explain the anachronism in The

Knight's Tale.

The Miller's Tale

1. Contrast The Knight's Tale with The Miller's Tale.

2. Fully describe the character Absalom.

The Reeve's Tale

1. Explain how The Miller's Tale and The Reeve's Tale might be said to reveal a situation that medieval men

really deplored and dreaded.

2. What might surprise the modern reader about the language surrounding sexual activity in The Miller's and

The Reeve's Tales?

The Man of Law's Tale

1. Describe what commentary about marriage seems to be made through this tale.

2. Name one element of the story that is drawn from each of the narrative types that Chaucer utilized for this


The Shipman's Tale

1. Of the six tales told thus far, including the Cook's fragment, four have been fabliaux. What is the

significance of the large number of fabliaux?

2. Discuss the two contrasting views of women that are represented in the tales so far.

The Prioress's Tale

1. Explain aspects of the story which may be offensive to modern readers.

2. What aspects of the story may reveal a hidden quality in the Prioress?

The Tale of Sir Thopas

1. Describe the Host as he has revealed himself so far in the dialogues.

Suggested Essay Topics 2002. Explain the humor, point by point, in the Tale of Sir Thopas.

The Monk's Tale

1. What does the Monk's decision to give a long moral recitation rather than tell a tale reveal about his

character—especially in view of his outwardly patient response to the Host?

2. Taking one of the historical figures the Monk mentions in his recitation, discuss how that person

specifically ties in to the Monk's theme (you cannot trust fame and fortune).

The Nun's Priest's Tale

1. By relating the theme of women to the Nun's Priest, explain why it is appropriate that he tell this tale.

2. Explain how The Nun's Priest's Tale fits the requirements for a beast fable.

The Wife of Bath's Tale

1. What clerical attitudes about women are attacked by the Wife of Bath?

2. What is ironic about her anger against these attitudes?

The Friar's Tale

1. In what ways can this tale be considered an example of a fabliau? What feature of the exemplum does it


2. Why is it ironic that the Friar accuse the Summoner of avarice?

The Summoner's Tale

1. Explain which genre this tale fits and why.

2. What has happened to the friendly feud between the Summoner and the Friar?

The Cleric's Tale

1. Although she is exaggerated, Griselda is a model of the medieval clerical idea of woman. Based on the

character, explain the clergy's ideal of the model wife.

2. Contrast Griselda with the Wife of Bath.

The Merchant's Tale

1. How does The Merchant's Tale resemble the fabliaux that preceed it?

2. Why would the Wife of Bath approve May's behavior?

The Squire's Tale (Fragment)

1. In what ways does Canace meet the standards for ideal womanhood?

2. Explain the exotic qualities of this story.

The Franklin's Tale

1. How does Dorigen fit into the medieval concept of womanhood?

2. Why would the Franklin, a member of the middle class, tell this story of the nobility?

Suggested Essay Topics 201The Physician's Tale

1. In what ways do Virginius and Virginia fulfill the romantic ideal?

2. What elements of the Republic of Rome are present in this tale?

The Pardoner's Tale

1. Explain in detail the moral lesson conveyed in The Pardoner's Tale.

2. Give a full character description of the pilgrim Pardoner.

The Second Nun's Tale

1. Compare and contrast St. Cecelia with Virginia and Dorigen.

2. Explain how Cecelia fulfills the medieval ideal of womanhood.

The Canon's Yeoman's Tale

1. Why would the medieval church forbid the practice of alchemy?

2. Discuss the kinds of dishonesty alchemy seems to require using both the Yeoman's confessions and the tale

as sources.

The Manciple's Tale

1. What further commentary about marriage do the Manciple's private remarks and this tale give?

2. Explain the elements of myth in this tale.

The Parson's Tale

1. Explain how the Parson might justify telling a sermon when he had promised a merry tale.

2. Discuss in detail the way The Parson's Tale fits the description of him in the General Prologue.

Suggested Essay Topics 202Quotes and Passages


Whanne that April with his shoures sote

The droughte of March hath perced to the rote.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 1.


And smale foules maken melodie,

That slepen alle night with open eye,

So priketh hem nature in hir corages;

Than longen folk to gon on pilgrimages.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 9.


And of his port as meke as is a mayde.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 69.


He was a veray parfit gentil knight.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 72.


He coude songes make, and wel endite.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 95.


Ful wel she sange the service devine,

Entuned in hire nose ful swetely;

And Frenche she spake ful fayre and fetisly,

After the scole of Stratford atte bowe,

For Frenche of Paris was to hire unknowe.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 122.


A Clerk ther was of Oxenforde also.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 287.


For him was lever han at his beddes hed

A twenty bokes, clothed in black or red,

Of Aristotle and his philosophie,

Than robes riche, or fidel, or sautrie.

But all be that he was a philosophre,

Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 295.


And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 310.

Quotes and Passages 20310

Nowher so besy a man as he ther n’ as,

And yet he semed besier than he was.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 323.


His studie was but litel on the Bible.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 440.


For gold in phisike is a cordial;

Therefore he loved gold in special.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 445.


Wide was his parish, and houses fer asonder.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 493.


This noble ensample to his shepe he yaf,—

That first he wrought, and afterwards he taught.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 498.


But Cristes lore, and his apostles twelve,

He taught; but first he folwed it himselve.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 529.


And yet he had a thomb of gold parde. 1

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 565.


Who so shall telle a tale after a man,

He moste reherse, as neighe as ever he can,

Everich word, if it be in his charge,

All speke he never so rudely and so large;

Or elles he moste tellen his tale untrewe,

Or feinen thinges, or finden wordes newe.

Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 733.


For May wol have no slogardie a-night.

The seson priketh every gentil herte,

And maketh him out of his slepe to sterte.

Canterbury Tales. The Knightes Tale. Line 1044.


That field hath eyen, and the wood hath ears. 2

Canterbury Tales. The Knightes Tale. Line 1524.

Quotes and Passages 20420

Up rose the sonne, and up rose Emelie.

Canterbury Tales. The Knightes Tale. Line 2275.


Min be the travaille, and thin be the glorie.

Canterbury Tales. The Knightes Tale. Line 2408.


To maken vertue of necessite. 3

Canterbury Tales. The Knightes Tale. Line 3044.


And brought of mighty ale a large quart.

Canterbury Tales. The Milleres Tale. Line 3497.


Ther n’ is no werkman whatever he be,

That may both werken wel and hastily. 4

This wol be done at leisure parfitly. 5

Canterbury Tales. The Marchantes Tale. Line 585.


Yet in our ashen cold is fire yreken. 6

Canterbury Tales. The Reves Prologue. Line 3880.


The gretest clerkes ben not the wisest men.

Canterbury Tales. The Reves Tale. Line 4051.


So was hire joly whistle wel ywette.

Canterbury Tales. The Reves Tale. Line 4153.


In his owen grese I made him frie. 7

Canterbury Tales. The Reves Tale. Line 6069.


And for to see, and eek for to be seie. 8

Canterbury Tales. The Wif of Bathes Prologue. Line 6134.


I hold a mouses wit not worth a leke,

That hath but on hole for to sterten to. 9

Canterbury Tales. The Wif of Bathes Prologue. Line 6154.


Loke who that is most vertuous alway,

Prive and apert, and most entendeth ay

To do the gentil dedes that he can,

And take him for the gretest gentilman.

Quotes and Passages 205Canterbury Tales. The Wif of Bathes Tale. Line 6695.


That he is gentil that doth gentil dedis. 10

Line 6752.


This flour of wifly patience.

Canterbury Tales. The Clerkes Tale. Part v. Line 8797.


They demen gladly to the badder end.

Canterbury Tales. The Squieres Tale. Line 10538.


Therefore behoveth him a ful long spone,

That shall eat with a fend. 11

Line 10916.


Fie on possession,

But if a man be vertuous withal.

Canterbury Tales. The Frankeleines Prologue. Line 10998.


Truth is the highest thing that man may keep.

Canterbury Tales. The Frankeleines Tale. Line 11789.


Full wise is he that can himselven knowe. 12

Canterbury Tales. The Monkes Tale. Line 1449.


Mordre wol out, that see we day by day. 13

Canterbury Tales. The Nonnes Preestes Tale. Line 15058.


But all thing which that shineth as the gold

Ne is no gold, as I have herd it told. 14

Canterbury Tales. The Chanones Yemannes Tale. Line 16430.


The firste vertue, sone, if thou wilt lere,

Is to restreine and kepen wel thy tonge.

Canterbury Tales. The Manciples Tale. Line 17281.


The proverbe saith that many a smale maketh a grate. 15

Canterbury Tales. Persones Tale.

Quotes and Passages 206Sample Essay Outlines

The following paper topics are designed to test your understanding of the work as a whole and to analyze

important themes and literary devices. Following each question is a sample outline to help you get started.

Topic #1

One of Chaucer's persistent themes throughout The Canterbury Tales is the relationships of husbands

and wives. In a well-developed paper, present the different views of this relationship as they are

reflected in the Tales.


I. Thesis Statement: One fine example of the diversity of The Canterbury Tales is its presentation of

different views on the relationships of husbands and wives—both the traditional medieval (in which

the woman is considered to be subject to her husband) and nontraditional (in which the wife controls

her husband by any means possible).

II. The Traditional View

A. The Cleric's Tale

B. The Franklin's Tale

C. The Merchant's Tale

III. The Nontraditional View

A. The Wife of Bath's Tale

B. The Shipman's Tale

IV. The Problem of Unfaithful Wives

A. The Miller's Tale

B. The Merchant's Tale

V. Commentary on marriage in the dialogue between the tales

Topic #2

As the pilgrimage progresses, animosities develop between several pairs of characters. Discuss the

feuds between the Miller and the Reeve; the Friar and the Summoner; and the Cook and the Host. In

each explanation, include the origin of the rivalry or disagreement; the way tales are used as weapons

in the dispute; what is added in the links of dialogue; and any hints from the General Prologue.


I. Thesis Statement: During the course of the pilgrimage, animosities develop between several pairs of

characters. Of paticular note are the Miller and the Reeve; the Friar and the Summoner; and the Cook

and the Host. These characters often use their tales as a "weapon" to express their feelings about each

other and their dispute.

II. The Miller and the Reeve

A. Origin of the dispute

B. Disputing through the dialogues

C. Using the tales as weapons

Sample Essay Outlines 207III. The Friar and the Summoner

A. Origin of the dispute

B. Disputing through the dialogues

C. Using the tales as weapons

IV. The Host and the Cook

A. Origin of the dispute

B. Disputing through the dialogues

C. Using the tales as weapons

Topic #3

Describe three of the literary genres represented in The Canterbury Tales. For each genre, select and

describe an example from the Tales, showing how the particular tale displays the characteristics of

that genre.


I. Thesis Statement: The romance, the fabliau, and the beast fable are just three of the literary genres

employed by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. By examining one tale in each of these genres, the

reader can gain an understanding of the characterstics of the three genres.

II. The Romance, Represented by The Knight's Tale

A. Noble characters

B. Courtly language

C. Pageantry

D. Trial by combat

III. The Fabliau, Represented by The Miller's Tale

A. Common people

B. Infidelity

C. Tricks and deception

IV. The Beast Fable, Represented by The Nun's Priest's Tale

A. Animals personifying humans

B. Moral lesson taught

Topic #4

The Canterbury Tales is thought to give an accurate view of the way women were regarded in

medieval England. Using the General Prologue, the tales themselves, and the dialogue among the

pilgrims, explain the various attitudes towards women in Chaucer's day.


I. Thesis Statement: The Canterbury Tales is thought to provide an accurate representation of the

various attitudes toward women in medieval women. The tales about women and love may be

grouped in a way that several generalized views of women in Chaucer's day become clear.

II. The Virtuous Woman

A. General description

B. Constance

C. Griselda

Sample Essay Outlines 208D. The Prioress

III. The Inherent Sinfulness of Woman

A. The Miller's Tale

B. The Merchant's Tale

C. The Shipman's Tale

IV. The Domineering Woman

A. The Wife of Bath (her prologue and tale)

B. The Host's Wife

V. Chaucer's Commentary following The Cleric's Tale

Sample Essay Outlines 209Compare and Contrast

Fourteenth Century: The Bible is published in English for the first time in 1382 by John Wycliffe,

in a protest against the power of the Catholic Church.

Today: English is the language recognized in most countries and is the unofficial language of

international trade.

Fourteenth-Century: The world's most powerful nations are ruled by monarchs who inherit their

political power as part of their birthright. The king of France takes the throne in 1388, at age nineteen,

while the King of England is twenty-two when he takes the throne in 1389.

Today: Many countries have democratically elected governments. The most populous country in the

world China is a socialist dictatorship.

Fourteenth Century: London, England's largest city, has a population of 50,000. No other city in

England has even half that many citizens.

Today: London is still England's largest city, with a population of nearly seven million.

Fourteenth Century: The revolution in art and science known as the Renaissance is just beginning.

New theories develop about the nature of humanity and artistic means to represrnt humanity in

painting, sculpture, music, and literature.

Today: Some consider humanity to be at the beginning of a new age, spurred by the fact that the

personal computer has given ordinary individuals access to millions of pieces of information and the

means to create complex artistic works.

Fourteenth Century: The Roman Catholic Church, though corrupted by a series of popes who rose

to power using financial means, is a powerful influence on all of western society.

Today: Christianity which split during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, still has

the most members worldwide, but the West is becoming increasingly aware of religions like

Hinduism and Islam which have hundreds of millions of adherents around the world.

Compare and Contrast 210Topics for Further Study

Have your own storytelling contest. Make sure that each participant tells two stories, since Chaucer

originally intended each traveler to tell one story on the way to Canterbury and one on the way back


Assign people from your class to play the parts of storytellers from The Canterbury Tales and have

them describe to one another an experience they have had in the twenty-first century. Vote on the

stories that were the best and talk about why.

Find out what kind of food these pilgrims would have eaten when they stopped at inns on their trip,

and try making some of it.

Using words found throughout the text of The Canterbury Tales, try to translate a favorite song into

Middle English.

Write an essay explaining how these tales are or are not like the urban folk legends that are constantly

circulated on the Internet.

Topics for Further Study 211Media Adaptations

The 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger and Mark Addy, is only loosely based on the

Knight in The Canterbury Tales: it concerns a young squire who meets Chaucer and enlists his help in

becoming a full-fledged knight. It was written and directed by Brian Helgeland and is distributed by

Columbia Tristar.

A compact disc of Trevor Eaton reading selections from The Canterbury Tales was released in 2000,

marking the six hundredth anniversary of Chaucer’s death. It is available from Pearl, of Sussex,


The Penguin Library edition of the Canterbury Tales, translated into modern English by Nevill

Coghill, is available on six audiocassettes from Penguin. It was released in 1995 and again in 1999.

The Canterbury Tales were adapted to an opera, sung in English, available on two compact discs from

Chandos Records of Colchester, England. The performers, recorded in 1996, include Yvonne Kenny,

Robert Tear, Stephen Roberts, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

A 1995 audiocassette of The Canterbury Tales is available from Durkin Hayes of Niagara Falls, New

York, with Fenella Fielding and Martin Starkie reading.

Recorded Books has a thirteen-hour recording on nine audiocassettes, edited and hosted by Michael

Murphy of Brooklyn College.

A compact disc of songs that Chaucer mentioned or that were popular in his day was released in 2000.

Recorded by Carol Wood, its title is The Chaucer Songbook: Celtic Music and Early Music for Harp

and Voice.

Several of the Canterbury Tales can be found on a 1961 recording available from Caedmon on a 1988

audiocassette release. Dame Peggy Ashcroft reads “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and Stanley Holloway

and Michael MacLiommoir read “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale.”

A feature film of The Canterbury Tales was made in Italy in 1971, starring Hugh Griffith, Franco

Citti and Tom Baker, and it is available dubbed into English on both videodisc and videocassette from

Image Entertainment of Chatsworth, CA.

A 1991 videocassette of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is available from Educational Video

Network of Huntsville, Texas.

A 1944 feature movie, entitled A Canterbury Tale, retells the story in an updated version, setting it in

the same location during World War II. It stars John Sweet and Eric Portman, and it is available on

videocassette from Public Media Incorporated.

Media Adaptations 212What Do I Read Next?

One of the most famous writers living during Chaucer’s lifetime was Giovanni Boccaccio.

Boccaccio’s most famous work, The Decameron (1350), was a collection of one hundred short tales

that may have influenced the structure that Chaucer used. In addition, some of the stories Chaucer

used in his work were taken from The Decameron.

The “Chaucer Metapage” is a project initiated in 1998 by the Thirty Third International Congress of

Medieval Studies, aimed at coordinating all Chaucer sources on the internet. It can be located at (August 6, 2001).

The Canterbury Tales has been translated into Modern English by Nevill Coghill, whose translation

was, in turn, adapted to a Broadway musical in 1968. This translation, from Penguin Classics, is

considered to be the best of modern translations. Penguin USA published a recent edition in 2000.

Nevill Coghill also translated Troilus and Criseyde (1483), Chaucer’s other famous work. It is also

available from Penguin Classics.

Some of Chaucer’s minor works have been compiled in a book from Penguin Classics called Love

Visions. Included in the book are “The Book of the Duchess,” “The House of Fame,” “The

Parliament of Birds,” and “The Legend of Good Women.” It was translated by Brian Stone and

published by Viking Press in 1985.

Sir Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queen was published two centuries after Chaucer in

1590, but it was an historic piece, looking back at a time of knights and medieval folklore, which is

why it is often linked with The Canterbury Tales. Spenser’s poem is available as a Penguin Classic

from Viking Press, and a reissued edition was published in 1988.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of chivalry that goes back before Chaucer’s time, to the

thirteenth century. It is available in a modern translation from 1925 by J. R. R. Tolkien author of The

Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It was reissued by Ballantine Books in 1988.

One of the most influential poetic works ever written, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri,

concerns the author’s journey through hell and purgatory and finally to heaven. It was published in

1321, and Chaucer would certainly have read it, as have millions of poetry lovers in the centuries

since then.

What Do I Read Next? 213Bibliography and Further Reading


Bloom Harold, ed. Geoffrey Chaucer, Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.

Cite This Document

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