The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1400)

In a second hand shop in Shrewsbury I picked up David Wright’s 1985 verse translation of the Canterbury Tales, published by Oxford University Press (1985 neatly being some 500 years after the first manuscripts of the tales began circulating). With a short introduction and hardly any notes, it is an edition intended to be read and enjoyed and I found it very readable and very enjoyable.

One April Geoffrey is staying at the Tabard pub in Southwark (presumably on or near the current Borough High Street) when a miscellaneous party of pilgrims arrives, 29 in all. They have arranged for the host of the Tabard, Harry Bailly, to accompany them to Canterbury. By the end of the evening Geoffrey is firm friends with the party and, the next morning, they invite him to accompany them. The Host proposes to while away the time of the journey with a competition – they’ll each tell two tales on the way there, two on the way back, and the winner gets a dinner paid for be everyone else!

‘Whoever best acquits himself, and tells
The most amusing and instructive tale,
Shall have a dinner, paid for by us all…’

29 + Geoffrey = 30 x 4 = this plan, if carried out would have resulted in 120 tales. In the event Geoffrey got nowhere near this goal; we have only 21 tales scattered into half a dozen different ‘groups’ or fragments of manuscript,  several incomplete, several quite clearly allocated to the wrong teller – in other words the Tales are radically unfinished. But we can still enjoy the 20 we have and, as it is, these twenty plus the connecting passages or ‘introductions’ to each speaker, easily fill a 400-page paperback.

The prologue to the Canterbury Tales lists the pilgrims with a brief description of each:

  1. the Knight
  2. his son, the Squire
  3. his servant, the Yeoman, dressed like a forester
  4. a Prioress, Madame Eglantine
  5. the nun’s priest
  6. the nun’s second priest
  7. the nun’s third priest
  8. another nun
  9. a merry, worldly Monk
  10. Hubert, the worldly Friar
  11. a Merchant
  12. a poor Oxford Scholar
  13. a knowledgeable Sergeant-at-Law, or Man of Law
  14. a Franklin ie a country gentleman
  15. a Haberdasher
  16. a Weaver
  17. a Carpenter
  18. a Dyer
  19. a Tapestry-Maker
  20. their Cook, Roger Hodge of Ware
  21. a Sea Captain
  22. a Doctor/Physician, greedy for gold
  23. the Wife of Bath, a businesswoman in cloth, fat, five times married
  24. a good honest poor village Priest
  25. the priest’s brother, an honest Ploughman
  26. Oswald the Reeve, an estate manager, skinny and mean, from Norfolk
  27. Robyn the Miller, massive and strong, a wrestler and loudmouth who plays the bagpipes
  28. a Pardoner from Charing Cross who sells indulgences
  29. a Summoner who enforces religious law eg on adultery and fornication, and is randy, greedy and corrupt
  30. a Manciple, like a bursar, who buys supplies for colleges
  31. the Narrator, Geoffrey
  32. our Host, Harry Bailly

There are 83 manuscripts of the tales, none complete, all varying, from variant details like individual words, to large variations such as the order of the stories appear in. This Wikipedia article explains the numbering of the fragments. It will be observed that David Wright’s order is not the classical one: he goes Fragments I, II, VII, III, IV, V, VI, VIII, IX, X.

1. The Knight’s Tale – very long, 2,250 lines: in ancient Greece cousins Palamon and Arcite barely survive Duke Theseus of Athens’ devastation of Thebes (prompted because weeping widows complained their husbands haven’t been buried by beastly Creon), are imprisoned and from their prison window both see and are smitten in love with Theseus’ sister, the beautiful Emily. There follow sundry adventures ie Arcite is released from prison but returns to serve Emily’s household in disguise; Palamon is finally released through intervention of a friend of Theseus’s but overhears Arcite singing Emily’s praises in the woods and attacks him Duke Theseus and his entourage just happen to arrive at that moment, part the fighting cousins and tells them to gather 100 men each for a mighty tournament, and builds a vast arena. In the lovely structured way of medieval literature they each pray to their intercessor: Palamon to Venus for her love, Emily to Diana to stay chaste, Arcite to Mars for victory. Palamon and Arcite fight valiantly until Palamon is wounded by one of Arcite’s men and dragged form the arena. As Arcite rides towards the dais to claim his bride a fiend out of hell erupts from the earth, frightens his horse and unseats him; crushed, mortally injured, he tells Emily to marry Palamon as he genuinely loves her.

The Knight’s Tale inaugurates the central theme of LOVE in the Tales. Also a number of moral dilemmas – the cousins fighting, who has precedence, should one submit, who should Emily choose – etc, which indicate that these fictions were meant to prompt discussion and debate in the audience who heard them.

2. The Miller’s Tale – the Host wants the Monk to speak next but the amiable anarchy of the Tales is established when Robyn the Miller, completely plastered, interrupts and insists on telling his tale: Fly Nicholas the lodger devises a scheme to fornicate with beautiful Alison, wife of John the old carpenter: he tells the carpenter the Flood is coming so he hangs three baths from the ceiling packed with provisions ready to float away. That night they get in their baths and when John falls asleep Nicholas and Alison climb down and go to bed. However Alison has another admirer, the dapper parish clerk Absalon. He picks that very night to climb a ladder to the little privy window of her bedroom and beg a kiss: she sticks her bottom out and Absalon kisses her arse; as he descends wondering why she has a beard she hears Alison and Nicholas giggling and, flying into a fury, goes gets a red hot poker for the early rising blacksmith: He whispers to Alison but this time it is Nicholas who sticks his bottom out the window and is rewarded by having the poker rammed between his buttocks; he screams, John wakes up and cuts the ropes crashing his bath to the ground, inciting the neighbours to come crowding in where Nicholas suavely tells everyone the carpenter has gone raving mad.

The Miller’s tale is an ironic and vulgar response to the knight’s courtly love; it uses tropes common in continental literature such as deep learning misdirected to scandalous ends and the ‘misdirected kiss’, and is obviously a variatoin on the central theme of Love, Married Love.

3. The Reeve’s Tale – the skinny, dry, abstemious reeve or estate manager: as a carpenter he is offended by the miller’s tale about a carpenter who is cuckolded so he promptly tells a story about a miller, nicknamed Show-off Simkin, in the village of Trumpington outside Cambridge who takes a noble wife and is very jealous of her and of his beautiful 18 year olf daughter. Two students, John and Alan, visit him with corn to see if he’ll swindle them but the wife frees their horse who rampages off across fields and by the time they’ve captured him it’s late and they stay the night. Through various farcical contrivances the students manage to sleep with the daughter and the wife before giving the game away and, in the uproar, also stealing the pie the miller had made with the corn he stole for them. Comprehensive humiliation.

Chaucer’s texts are stuffed to the gunwales with proverbs, saws, apothegms, texts and sayings. It is as if the stories, as if the medieval mind, is strung from them, is made up of them – rather as our minds are saturated with truisms about the Information Age, the Environment, Welfare Spongers, Immigrants, the Recession etc etc etc most of which will turn out to be equally untrue.

4. The Cooks’ Tale starts to be about a gadabout London apprentice who is eventually kicked out by his master and goes live with a fellow young man and wide boy when it abruptly ends after only 58 lines.

5. The Man of Law’s prologue goes on at surprising length about Chaucer and his works, praising his Legend of Good Women, before commencing the Man of Law’s Tale – the long trial of Constance, daughter of the Christian Roman Emperor who is sent to marry the Sultan of Syria but he is murdered along with all her entourage by the wicked mother-in-law and Constance is set adrift in a boat which floats for years right out of the Mediterranean and to the coast of Northumbria where she is rescued by the pagan governor and converts first his wife, Hermengyld and then him before a randy knight tries to seduce her: she refuses: he murders Hermengyld and frames her with the bloody knife; however God strikes down the guilty knight as a result of which king Alla marries Constance and converts  but goes off to fight the Scots; in his absence Alla’s wicked mother forges letters telling the governor to set her adrift in a boat again and she (and her son) drift right back to Italy where they are rescued by a senator and brought to court where the Emperor realises she is his daughter and where Alla happens to be on pilgrimage and recognises his wife and daughter. All good.

The long-suffering woman true to her Christian faith despite all trials is a commonplace of the time: apparently there is a ‘Constance Cycle’ of interlinked stories about the same figure. Looked at structurally you begin to realise the women are fixed structural points, like hinges, around which various men carry out their various plans (whether ‘noble’ like the feuding cousins or ‘low’ like Fly Nicholas and the Cambridge students); and yet in this tale Constance is undoubtedly the heroine and the main instigators of action are the two wicked mothers-in-law.

6. The Sea Captain’s Tale, like the miller’s and reeve’s is about adultery. A merchant of St Denis has a pretty wife and an old friend a monk. He loans the monk 100 francs; the monk pays it to the wife to have sex with her while the merchant is away; when he goes to reclaim the loan the monk tells her he’s  repaid the wife; the merchant is a bit cross with the wife for not telling him of the repayment but she has sex with him and makes him happy. It is a satire on the circulation of money and sex.

7. The Host thanks the Captain and invites the Prioress to tell a tale. The Prioress’s Tale is a horrifying example of raw medieval anti-semitism. In Asia in a city with a Jewish quarter a little boy goes about singing the praises of the Virgin Mary. Satan incites the Jews to kill him and they hire an assassin who slits the boy’s throat and throws him in the cesspit. However he keeps on singing and attracts rescuers to him. They arrest, torture and execute the Jews responsible. Then the abbot removes the pearl under the boy’s tongue and he ceases singing and dies and is laid in a holy sepulchre.

The blood libel of the Jews was widespread in the Middle Ages. It starts in the new testament written by Greeks threatened by and antagonistic to Jews and we all know where it led. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 (not to be readmitted until Oliver Cromwell in 1656) and so their remoteness made them even easier to vilify. The tale also uses the very widespread theme of a miracle of the Virgin Mary but it is hard to register the fact – the anti-semitism associates the Virgin Mary with the most evil wickedness in European history.

8. Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Topaz – Chaucer presents himself as a plump bumbler and his tale of Sir Thopas is told in a series of verses with an elaborate rhyme-scheme which he never uses anywhere else. The high flown language describes the birth and breeding of Sir Topaz and how he dreams of the elf-queen and sets off to find her in Fairy Land but is immediately waylaid by the giant Sir Olifaunt (‘Elephant’). Topaz returns to town to put on his armour, the description of which is long and boring, and at t his point the Host interrupts to say he can’t bear such awful stuff. Give us another thing. At which Chaucer commences a long work in prose.

9. Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Melibee – Melibee who is away one day when three enemies break into his house, beat his wife Dame Prudence, and attack his daughter, leaving her for dead. The tale becomes a long debate between Melibee and his wife on what actions to take and how to seek redress from his enemies. His wife, as her name suggests, counsels prudence and chides him for his rash opinions. The discussion uses many proverbs and quotes from learned authorities and the Bible as each make their points.

a) Dame Prudence is a woman discussing the role of the wife within marriage in a similar way to the Wife of Bath and the wife in The Shipman’s Tale. b) It is really very long and, for many critics, some kind of joke and a revenge on the Host for stopping him in the middle of Sir Topaz: then again, the Host claims to have enjoyed it, and wanted something with doctrine in it.

The Host says he wishes his wife were as wise and restrained as Melibee’s Prudence. He turns to the Monk and says he’s a fine figure of a man who could please many women by copulating with them; let’s have his tale. The Monk takes this in good part then explains to everyone what a tragedy and that his ‘tale’ will be a series of short verse descriptions of men brought low by Destiny. 

10. The Monk’s Tale – the fates of 17 worthies from antiquity are described in an elaborate verse form (an eight-line stanza rhyming ababbcbc) – eg Satan, Adam, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar – for 775 lines until the Knight interrupts him, saying it’s boring.

11. So the Host asks for the Nun’s Priest tale: it is a comic fabliau or animal story, of Chanticleer the cockerel and his favourite hen, Pertelote. Chanticleer dreams he is being attacked by a red dog; he tells his wife Pertelote and this leads to a comically learned debate between the two about the validity of dreams, mentioning various high authorities including Boethius, Cato, Cicero, Macrobius and the stories of Daniel and Joseph from the Bible. The comedy is in two talking animals debating with such learning. Chanticleer says dreams are meaningless and ignores it but a month later the fox Reynard sidles out of the bushes and asks Chanticleer to close his eyes and crow for him; the moment he does he grabs him in his mouth and runs off, followed by all the farmyard in a hullabaloo; but Chanticleer has the last laugh, he asks the fox a question and when the fox replies ie opens  his mouth, flies free and up into a tree where he refuses all the fox’s kind invitations to come down again.

Chaucer satirises animals having learned discussions; but he doesn’t satirise learning as such. We now know almost everything considered knowledge in the Middle Ages was wrong.

12. The Wife of Bath has the longest prologue in the book in which she recalls her five husbands and the tactics she used to keep them under control ie falsely accusing them of accusing her of all kinds of crimes, getting them to apologise, and then owning them. The Wife of Bath’s tale is about a knight from the time of King Arthur who rapes a maiden and is about to be executed when Queen Guinevere intervenes and says he can live if, within a year and a day, he can answer the question: What does a woman want? He travels all over the country and gets hundreds of contradictory answers: only an ugly old crone tells him the correct answer, Women want mastery over their men. The knight saves  his life but is forced to marry the crone, named Alison. When she asks whether he’d prefer her old and faithful or young & beautiful but flighty, he knight gives in and says, Do what you think is best ie resigns his mastery to her: whereupon she transforms into a beautiful young woman.

At the conclusion of her tale the Friar and the Summoner bicker, vowing to get revenge by telling critical stories about each other’s professions.

13. The Friar’s Tale – the friar depicts a greedy unscrupulous summoner riding to blackmail a poor widow, when he falls in with a pleasant yeoman and they become fast friends. When the yeoman reveals he is a fiend from hell the summoner is unconcerned. When they come across a carter damning his horses to hellfire when they can’t get out of the mud, the summoner asks why the fiend doesn’t take them; because he doesn’t mean it, is the reply. When the summoner threatens the widow she damns him to hell unless he repents his bullying; he doesn’t; the widow meant it; and so with no ceremony the fiend takes the summoner off to hell.

The summoner is livid. He retells the friar who has a vision of hell and can’t see any friars there until Satan lifts up his tale to reveal 20,000 friars living up his arse.

14. The Summoner’s Tale – laugh out loud funny, this is the tale of a corrupt and unscrupulous friar who picks on a poor widower and his daughter, trying to bully him into coughing up cash: driven to paroxysms of anger the old man makes the friar promise to distribute his gift equally between all 12 friars in his college; then gets the friar to put his hand down between his buttocks; and does a big fart. Not only is the friar outraged but goes to the lord of the manor to complain and finds his insult turned into a learned debate as the lord, his wife and various servants debate just how to divide a fart equally. Eventually Jankyn the servant comes up with a solution.

Group E (Fragment IV)

15. The Oxford Scholar’s Tale aka the Clerk’s Tale – the long story, divided into six parts and, Chaucer admits, copied from Petrarch, of the constancy and devotion to her husband of the peasant girl Griselda who is plucked from cowherd obscurity to marry the marquis, Walter, who is driven by perverse determination to test her by taking away her two beautiful children and then publicly rejecting her for a younger model. Throughout Griselda remains patient and dutiful and Walter relents, takes her back as wife, reunites her with her children.

A picture of Chaucer as a pilgrim from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. In the middle of the page are the words: "Heere Bigynneth Chaucers Tale of Melibee"

A picture of Chaucer as a pilgrim from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. In the middle of the page are the words: “Heere Bigynneth Chaucers Tale of Melibee”

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