The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

“Whan that April with his shoures soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;….”

Twenty-nine pilgrims and the narrator meet in Southwark, in Harry Bailey’s Tabard Inn, before setting off on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, where they will behold Thomas Becket’s shrine.  On the journey each pilgrim will tell four tales, two on the way there and two on the way back.  A free dinner will be awarded to the one with the best story.  And so begins Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous poem, a medley of lively stories that gives the reader a captivating window into 14th century England.

Gateway at Canterbury
The Gateway at Canterbury (1889)
Childe Hassam
source Wikiart


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The Canterbury Tales ~ Chaucer’s Retraction

Chaucer concludes his tales by stating that if this sermon has pleased anyone, it is because of Christ, but if it has displeased them, he takes all the blame. He prays for forgiveness for his translation of a number of well-known books, including “tales of Canterbury”, although only the tales that tend towards sin. He then bookends more spiritual books in his closing comments, perhaps hoping those more edifying books will wipe out any sins for his translation of any immoral ones.

There is speculation as to whether this Retraction was a death-bed retraction, a confession, written by someone else, a continuation of The Parson’s Tale, or simply a method employed to ensure his safety from the church for these sometimes bawdy tales.  While it’s entirely possible that Chaucer regretted writing such morally bankrupt stories, I think it more likely that Chaucer was simply giving himself an out.  Like Thomas More who is perhaps deliberately unclear with his intentions in Utopia to protect himself from the state, Chaucer gives himself an excuse for the church: yes, I did it but I’m very sorry and I’ll spend the rest of my life repenting.  How can one argue with that?

Chaucer as a pilgrim from
the Ellesmere manuscript
source Wikipedia

And here finishes my first, but not my last read, of The Canterbury Tales. They honestly exceeded all of my expectations.  Chaucer is not only a master of poetry, he is a master of human nature and a master of the reader.  One of my favourite reads of 2015!


The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Parson’s Prologue and Tale

When The Manciple’s Tale ends, the party is approaching the edge of a village. The Host declares that they have almost heard a tale from each “social class,” pegs the Parson as someone long-winded and begs a tale of fiction, but the Parson refuses.  To tell fiction, one must abandon truth.  He will tell a tale based on morality and virtue but, because he’s a Southern man, he does not have the ability to speak in verse, so prose it must be.  They all agree to his terms, thinking that a virtuous tale would be a good ending, but the Host begs him to hurry, as the sun is soon to set.

The Triumph of Virtue over Vice (1556)
Paolo Veronese
source Wikiart

The Parson’s Tale

Part I

The Parson declares that although there are many ways to lead people to Christ, one most noble way is Penitence, and knowing everything about Penitence will do a man good.  Penitence is “the lamentation of man who sorrows for his sin and punishes himself because he has done wrong”; yet this penitence must be sincere.  His sermon continues, covering the effects and species of Penitence, and what constitutes true Penitence.

With regard to Contrition, there are six causes that move a man to it:

  • a man must remember his sins with shame
  • sin puts man in greater slavery
  • a dread of the “day of doom”
  • remembrance of the good that man has failed to do on earth, and the good works that he has lost
  • a remembrance of the depth of Christ’s suffering for our sins
  • the hope of 1) forgiveness of sin; 2) the gift of grace, and 3) the glory of heaven

    Contrition needs the stalwart purpose of confession to destroy the hold of the devil and restore the gifts of the spirit.  Sin severs us from communion but confession restores broken bonds.

    The Parson’s Tale (1913)
    W. Russell Flint

    Part II

    Excess (1896)
    Albert Anker
    source Wikimedia Commons

    Confession is the second part of Penitence, which includes a true revealing of sins to the priest.  If a man opens himself to covetousness (concupiscence), he is open to sin.  There is either venial sin, in which man loves Christ not as much as he ought, or deadly sin in which man loves something more than Christ.  The more a man “burdens his soul with venial sins”, the more likely he is to fall into deadly sin.  There are also venial sins which are not so obvious, and the Parson lists those things, such as eating more than is necessary for sustenance, not caring for the sick or the poor, speaking idle words of villainy or folly,  slandering your neighbour, etc., etc.  No man can avoid venial sins but all men can restrain themselves, or be restored by prayers, confession, good works, and other church traditions.

    The Seven Deadly Sins
    Pieter Bruegel the Elder
    source Wikimedia Commons

    The Seven Deadly Sins

    Pride:  Pride is the chief deadly sin, and from it spring all other sins.  The Parson lists a number of prideful behaviours, but then introduces another form of pride, a type of self-righteous holiness.

    The Seven Deadly Sins & the Four Last Things
    Pride {Superbia} (1485)
    Hieronymus Bosch
    source Wikimedia Commons

    Two manners of Pride exist, one within the heart of man and one without. Pride of outside appearance in clothing is frowned upon, and the Parson appears particularly scandalized at the display of the male member and buttocks in fashion.  As for women, one can read their character in their appearance, despite how they may behave.  It is not that he eschews decent clothes, only attire that displays the sin of Pride.

    Pride can spring from blessings of body or soul, knowledge, good memory, riches, etc., etc.  We can hold these things to our detriment or to our profit, depending on how we use them.  He also emphasized grace in power, in that a lord should treat his servants well, and warns that he could have fortune one day and captivity the next.

    Humility and meekness are remedies against Pride, yet there are three types of humility: humility of heart, humility of mouth, and humility of deeds.

    The Seven Deadly Sins & The Four Last Things
    Invidia {Envy} (1485)
    Hieronymus Bosch
    Source Wikimedia Commons

    Envy:  A sin of sorrow for others’ wellbeing and a delight in their struggles.  Envy springs from malice but there are two kinds of malice: 1) hardness of heart in evil, and; 2) the blindness of man. Envy is loathsome because it is against all virtues and not just one.  There are many manners of envy with many sub-categories and the Parson covers every one.

    Remedies against envy: 1) love God & your neighbour as yourself and; 2) love your enemy.

    The Seven Deadly Sins & the Four Last Things
    Anger {Ira} (1485)
    Hieronymus Bosch
    source Wikimedia Commons

    Anger:  Anger arises from Envy which issues from Pride. Augustine describes Anger as a wish to be avenged by word or deed, but the Parson claims that there is a good anger and a bad anger.  The good anger is the anger against wickedness, not angry with the man but against the misdeed of the man. Bad anger can be either a sudden anger, or a planned anger, the first a venial sin, the second a deadly sin.  Anger destroys spiritual things.

    Treating people unfairly, such as charging excess rents or taxes, or withholding care from the poor is, interestingly, called homicide, for “unless thou feedest him, thou slayest him.”  Do not swear, or lie, or flatter, or reproach, or sow discord, etc.  There are copious examples and sub-examples of anger, which go on for a looooong time.

    The remedy for anger is humility, or meekness, and patience, or suffering.

    The Seven Deady Sins & The Four Last Things
    Sloth {Accidia} (1485)
    Hieronymus Bosch
    source Wikimedia Commons

    Sloth:  This sin makes a man “heavy, thoughtful and fretful,” and prevents him from doing good works.  Sloth is soooo delicate and careless that he cannot tolerate any firmness or punishment, so therefore everything one does comes to naught.  “Wanhope” is a type of sloth that comes from despair in the goodness of Christ, thinking that one is too sinful for his forgiveness, culminating in defeat.  Next is idleness, which opens the door to other sins such as evil thoughts, gossip, etc. Tardiness follows, where a man thinks that he has all the time in the world to return to God, and lastly, laziness.  A lazy man will do a poor job and stint on his work, if he comes upon difficulty or becomes frustrated.

    The remedy for sloth is building up a fortitude to abhor destructive behaviours and things.  The species of fortitude are: 1) magnaminity, or great valor; 2) faith and hope in God and his saints; 3) security and self-confidence; 4) magnificence, and; 5) constancy.

    The Seven Deadly Sins & The Four Last Things
    Avarice {Avaricia} (1485)
    Hieronymus Bosch
    source Wikimedia Commons

    Avarice: Avarice is the root of all evil because it seeks wordly things instead of heavenly things. Greed is not only an inordinate desire for material goods, but for knowledge, fame, etc.  It is coveting things you do not have, but also keeping things that you do not truly need. The greedy man has more hope in his possessions than in Christ, and his desires put him in bondage.  Thus follows extreme detail on bondage.

    Mercy and pity, relieve the sin of avarice.  Reasonable generosity is also a remedy.

    The Seven Deadly Sins and The Four Last Things
    Gluttony {Gula} (1485)
    Hieronymus Bosch
    source Wikimedia Commons

    Gluttony:  The overindulgence in food or drink, where a man makes his belly, his god. Drunkenness begets loss of reason.  Otherwise all his descriptions of gluttony sound startlingly like the manner in which we eat nowadays.

    • Eating before it is time to eat
    • Eating too delicate food and drink
    • Eating more food than is necessary
    • Elaborate adornment and preparation of food
    • Eating too greedily

    The remedy of gluttony is abstinence, along with its fellow-remedies of temperance, shame, satisfaction, moderation, soberness, and frugality.

    The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
    Lechery {Luxuria} (1485)
    Hieronymus Bosch
    source Wikipedia Commons

    Lechery:  A cousin to gluttony is the sin of lechery, or lust. Adultery is a “stinking sin”, where not only the deed is forbidden, but the desire also. By this sin, the devil wins most of the world.  Do not:

    • Look, for “the desire of the eyes, follow the desire of the heart.”
    • Touch
    • Use foul words
    • Kiss
    • Act lecherously

      A precise description of all levels of lechery follows.  

      To remedy this sin, one must employ chastity and continence (self-control). True marriage makes two hearts united, as well as bodies.  A man should be patient with his wife and revere her.  Woman is subject to man, but a man should love his wife so much that he would die for her.  Other remedies are (get ready!) the withdrawal of ease, withdrawal of eating and drinking, sleeping long and in great quiet, and shunning that by which he/she is tempted.

      The Confession (1838)
      Guiseppe Molteni
      source Wikimedia Commons

      The Parson declares that it is good to understand the circumstances which provoke sin, and gives us, again, numerous examples.  The more one sins, the easier it is to sin, and the more adverse one is to confessing them.

      For a man to make a sincere confession, it must be with: 1) a sense of shame; 2) a humility in confession; 3) a presence of tears, if not in the eyes, then in the heart; 4) no hesitation for feeling shame, and; 5) an obedience to accept the penance dealt out.  A confession also must be hastily sought, of free will, lawful, free of lies, and have no hypocrisy.

      Communion should be taken at least once per year, because everything renews itself annually.

      St. Jerome in Penitence (c. 1525)
      Bernardino Luini
      source Wikimedia Commons

      Part III

      The third part of Penitence is Satisfaction, which involves alms and bodily pain.

      Of alms, there are three types: 1) contrition of the heart; 2) pity on the sins of his neighbours, and; 3) giving to those in need, such things as counsel, comfort, food and drink, clothing, lodging, etc.

      Concerning bodily pain, it consists of prayers, fasting, keeping vigil and the teaching of orisons.  One may not think these things very painful, but the Parson seems to be referring to the pain of discipline and self-control …… doing things we perhaps do not wish to do for the good of ourselves or others. He mentions having discipline in the case of being whipped, in tribulations, sickness, in the loss of a wife or child, or worldly possessions.

      He covers the consequences of not making a sincere confession, and other things that impede confession.

      The fruit of penance is the bliss of heaven.

      The Parson’s Tale (1913)
      W. Russell Flint

      I must say that in simply reading this sermon, I clearly understood penance and bodily pain.  Could this have been the Parson’s purpose?  This tale was sooooooo long, so detailed, and it read like a legal brief, without say, any dry Ciceronian wit.  I actually quite loved it for the first half, but soon it was just too much, and I admit that I was glad when it ended.  Yet for all that, it had some very good points.

      I must say I quite liked how some of the church Fathers explained hell:

      “To wretched caitiffs shall be death without death, and end without end, and lack without end.  For their death shall always live, and their end shall evermore begin, and their lack shall not cease.”  Saint Gregory

      “They shall follow death, and they shall not find him; and they shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.”  John the Evangelist

      I was surprised at the emphasis placed on the order of things   Reason is also highlighted.  Each sin is explained in copious detail, yet the Parson shows expert insight into human nature, and his words are often convicting.  His advocation includes compassion, grace, lords to treat their servants well, as well as admonishing “unworthy priests and ignorant curates,” so much of his talk was edifying.  However, looking at this tale from a non-Catholic viewpoint, the heavy emphasis on penance and sin became startling, not necessarily for the content, but for the length.  Jesus came to take men’s sin on himself, and we are saved by grace, yet I think the Parson loses much of that in his worldview.  Certainly we should be aware of everything that he touched on, and confession and repentance are necessary, but the fear and the shame that comes with it are out of my scope of understanding.

      The Parson’s Tale is the last of the tales before the final Chaucer’s Retraction, and is perhaps very fitting in its placement.  The characters are going on a pilgrimage, each probably ruminating on their lives and the different paths they have taken or would like to take.  The Parson gives them a nudge, with his sermon, on the path of salvation.  He also, with great acumen, touches on a number of sins that plague his fellow travellers, giving them a way to escape them if they so choose.


      The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Manciple’s Prologue and Tale

      Is it my imagination or, as we are nearly at the end of these tales, are the pictures of the pilgrims improving?  Or perhaps they are only better preserved. A Manciple, for those who don’t know (me!), is a purchasing agent for a college, monastery or other institution.

      The Host wishes the Cook to tell the next tale but, sadly, the Cook is dead drunk, and the Manciple offers to take his place, merrily deriding the Cook for his condition.  Enraged, the Cook attempts to strike the Manciple but ends up falling from his horse.  The pilgrims manage to remount him on his hack and the Manciple is scolded for chiding the Cook, and, to make up, the Manciple offers the Cook a drink.  He then begins his tale.

      The Manciple’s Tale

      Phoebus and Boreas (1879)
      Gustave Moreau
      source Wikiart

      Phoebus, renown for his nobility and skill with bow and arrows, had his dwelling on earth.  An artful singer in his own right, the handsome Phoebus had a crow which he kept in a cage.  Now this crow had snowy white feathers, a song that would rival the Sirens, and could mimic any sound that it heard.

      Phoebus also had a lovely wife, who he loved more than he loved his own life.  Jealous for his spouse’s love, he ensured that he acted toward her with kindness and manly conduct, confident that she would not stray from his affections.  But a caged bird, wishes for its freedom no matter what its treatment and:

      “(A good wife) Should not be checked and spied on, that is plain,
      And truly it is labour all in vain
      To check a wicked wife; it can’t be done.
      It’s imbecility, say I for one,
      For men to waste their labour checking wives,
      And so the ancients say who wrote their lives.”

      Middle English:

      Sholde nat been kept in noon awayt, certayn;
      And trewely the labour is in vayn
      To kepe a shrewe, for it wol nat bee.
      This holde I for a verray nycetee,
      To spille labour for to kepe wyves:
      Thus writen olde clerkes in hir lyves.

      One day, when Phoebus was away, his wife sent for her “bully”, and proceeded to deceive her husband, as the crow in its cage looked on.  When Phoebus returned, the crow trilled out the words, “Cuckoo!  Cuckoo!” and then informed Phoebus of his wife’s indiscretion.  In a towering rage, Phoebus slew his wife, yet immediately remorse came upon him for his deed.

      “O fainting trust, O prompting to suspect,
      Where was your thought and wisdom to direct?
      O every man, beware how you are moved,
      Never believe but what is strongly proved!
      Strike not too soon, ere you can reason why,
      Be soberly advised before you try
      To execute your justice and assuage
      Suspicion by the acting of your rage.
      Alas, a thousand in their hasty ire
      Have been undone and brought into the mire.”

      Middle English:

      O wantrust, ful of fals suspecion,
      Where was thy wit and thy discrecion?
      O every man, be war of rakelnesse!
      Ne trowe no thyng withouten strong witnesse.
      Smyt nat to soone, er that ye witen why,
      And beeth avysed wel and sobrely
      Er ye doon any execucion
      Upon youre ire for suspecion.
      Allas, a thousand folk hath rakel ire
      Fully fordoon, and broght hem in the mire.

      He verbally flayed the crow for its thoughtless revelation and placed on it a curse, that it would forever wear feathers of black, its powers of speech would be taken, and its lovely voice would be transformed to a croak.

      The Manciple conveys the moral of the story, instructing “his son” to hold his tongue, do not use words idly, refrain from superfluous thoughtless speech, guard his tongue, and not be a chatterbox.

      “Wherever you may be, with high or low,
      Refrain your tongue and think upon the crow.”

      Middle English:

      Whereso thou come, amonges hye or lowe,
      Kepe wel thy tonge and thenk upon the crowe.

      The Manciple’s Tale (1913)
      W. Russell Flint

      This tale was perhaps the most confusing of all of the tales.  Of course, Phoebus’ wife didn’t deserve death for her infidelity, but why was it so terrible for Phoebus to be advised of what she had done?  The crow only told the truth.  Was it the manner in which he told the truth?  Instead of having concern for the feelings of Phoebus and telling him privately, he blurted out the truth like a scandalmonger, with a sort of glee?  I’m really puzzled.  In any case, it is obvious from the start that the Manciple is a merry soul, who likes to tease and twist situations.  Can we even take him seriously?

      This story was taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which I hope to read next year, so I will be able to do a comparison.

      The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue & Tale

      I just bought an Oxford’s World’s Classics The Canterbury Tales and I must say that I’m not very pleased with it.  It’s easily understood but they have completely jettisoned the rhyming pattern, which is imperative for truly enjoying these tales.

      So, moving on …….. The pilgrims see a dapple-grey horse and a rider in black, both sweating as if they had ridden from afar.  From a detailed observation of the new visitor, it appears as if he’s a canon of the church.

      An Alchemist (1661)
      Adriaen van Ostade
      source Wikiart

      The canon’s yeoman confesses that he saw the pilgrims leave the inn at the beginning of the day and suggested to his master, the canon, that they join up with the party.  The Host appears to enjoy the the well-mannered yeoman and gives them a hearty welcome, inquiring if the canon has a tale to tell.  The Yeoman breaks in, divulging that his master is a great joker, but he is more than a cleric; he is a man who has powers that can turn their road to Canterbury into silver and gold.  In fact, he is an alchemist.

      Impressed with the yeoman’s description of his master, the Host nevertheless inquires why he is dressed in such a raggedy, slovenly manner.  The Yeoman claims his master is clever, but he uses his brains foolishly.  At the Host’s prompting, he reveals that they live in slums and holes and alleys, but during their discussion the canon sidles up and, disturbed by the bent of the conversation, attempts to silence his yeoman, concerned that all his secrets will be revealed.  The Host supports the yeoman, and when the canon sees his reprimands will be to no avail, he flees and the yeoman is free to reveal all.

      The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale

      Part 1

      The Philosopher’s Stone (1940)
      Victor Brauner
      source Wikiart
      The yeoman declares that he has been ruined by the science of alchemy, and has borrowed more than he can ever repay.  He then launches into a tirade, listing every substance used and some of the processes used to discover The Philosopher’s Stone, which, he states, has not yet been discovered.  Apparently if the alchemist could cause a “citrination,” or have the substance turn into a yellow colour, it was on the verge of forming into The Philosopher’s Stone, which could then be turned into gold.  However, this myopic search for wealth, severs the alchemist from all that is valuable in life.  He travels around in a threadbare cloak because he is worried that if he is known for his vocation, people will kill him to learn his secrets. His self-importance knows no end, and his wisdom is one of blind self-deception.  Even though his experiments are perpetual failures, he tends to blame others, yet he is still entrenched in his delusions.
      “However, all that glitters is not gold,
      And that’s the truth as we’re so often told.
      It isn’t every apple on the spray
      Is good to eat, lament it how you may.”

      Middle English:

      But al thyng which that shineth as the gold
      Nis nat gold, as that I have herd told;
      Ne every appul that is fair at eye
      Ne is nat good, what so men clappe or crye.

      Part II

      The Yeoman tells of a canon who is so evil, that he could infect an area three or four times the size of Nineveh, Rome and Troy.  Yet he does not mean to insult the church itself by telling this tale, for:
      “……… God knows, there is some sneaking
      Rascal in every house and God forbid
      That all were judged by what one madman did.
      Slandering you’s no part of my intention,
      But to set to right the evils that I mention.”

      Middle English:

      “Of every ordre som shrewe is, pardee,
      And God forbede that al a compaignye
      Sholde rewe o singuleer mannes folye.
      To sclaundre yow is no thyng myn entente,
      But to correcten that is mys I mente.”

      The Alchemists
      Pietro Longhi
      source Wikiart
      In any case, a very honest, yet gullible chantry priest was asked by this canon to lend him money, which the canon repaid within the agreed upon time.  He then asked the priest if he would like to see a miracle, brought about by alchemy. The priest was delighted, and once the ingredients were prepared, the canon threw a crucible into the powder.  With the fire going, the canon made the priest take over.  Yet unbeknownst to him, the canon had a piece of beechwood charred to look like coal, inside which he had placed some silver filings, blocking the hole with some wax.  He soon professed that the priest was doing it wrong, took over the preparations and covertly put his beechwood into the fire, just above the crucible.  The canon performed two more deceitful tricks with the silver, having the priest discover it.  Overjoyed, the priest buys the powder from the canon, but, of course, all his experiments come to naught.
      “Gentlemen, think, there has been strife of old
      In every class waged between men and gold,
      So fierce there’s hardly any to be had.
      Alchemy has made many people mad
      And on my word I think it may well be
      The greatest reason for its scarcity ……
      So I conclude; since God will not allow
      Philosophers to tell their pupils how
      To find this stone, no doubt it’s better so,
      And my advice would be to let it go.
      Make God your adversary for a whim
      And work at what is contrary to Him
      And to His will, and you will never thrive
      Though you transmute as long as you’re alive.
      Aye, there’s the point for which my tale began,
      And may God prosper every honest man!
      Middle English:

      “Considereth, sires, how that, in ech estaat,
      Bitwixe men and gold ther is debaat
      So ferforth that unnethes is ther noon.
      This multiplying blent so many oon
      That in good feith I trowe that it bee
      The cause grettest of swich scarsetee ……..

      Thanne conclude I thus, sith that God of hevene
      Ne wil nat that the philosophres nevene
      How that a man shal come unto this stoon,
      I rede, as for the beste, lete it goon.
      For whoso maketh God his adversarie,
      As for to werken any thyng in contrarie
      Of his wil, certes, never shal he thryve,
      Thogh that he multiplie terme of his lyve.
      And there a poynt, for ended is my tale.
      God sende every trewe man boote of his bale!”

      Alchemist Sendivogius (1867)
      Jan Matejko
      source Wikiart

      The two characters in this tale. the Canon and his Yeoman, are not part of the original group of pilgrims.  Chaucer appears to have inserted them to address the crime of alchemy and its exploitation and debasements.  Curiously, references to dishonest alchemists were rare during Chaucer’s time, as alchemy only began in the 14th & 15th centuries and did not become truly popular until the Renaissance.  Even so, Chaucer’s knowledge of alchemy appears to be detailed and accurate as was supported by a 17th century examination of this tale.

      The Canturbury Tales ~~ The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale

      This Second Nun jumps right into her tale, cautioning her listeners to beware of Idleness.  Reason teaches us to shun this pastime, as it makes us numb to the world and causes ruin.

      Next, she gives the Invocacio ad Mariam, in which she invokes Mary as her Muse, praising her attributes and asking for her assistance.  Faith without works is dead, and Mary must help her to tell her tale.

      An Interpretatio Nominis Ceciliae follows, where the origin and meaning of Cecilia’s name is described in detail.  In effect, it means “Lily of Heaven,” the white signifying her virginity and pureness.

      Saint Cecilia (1605)
      source Wikipedia

      The Second Nun’s Tale

      Cecilia with an Angel (1618-1621)
      source Wikipedia

      Cecilia was a Roman noblewoman, who prayed to God without ceasing.  In spite of her desire to remain a virgin, she is married to Valerian. Concerning their physical relationship to come, she continues to pray for purity for her body and soul.  To Valerian she relates that she has a guardian angel who will strike him dead if he touches her with love or lust, but, if he loves her “cleanly,” the angel will show him glory. He asks for visual proof of this angel, and Cecilia professes that he must believe and be baptized and then follow the Appian Way until he comes to a village.  There he will meet Pope Urban, and if he confesses, he will see the angel.  All happens as his wife says it will, and when he returns home, he finds Cecilia with the angel who announces that he will grant him one request. Valerian wants his brother, Tiburce, to be baptized as well.  His wish is granted.

      Yet the two brothers are brought before the Roman authorities.  If they refuse to sacrifice to Jupiter, their heads will be struck from their bodies. Seized by a clerk, Maximus, Valerian and Tiburce manage to garner the sympathy of the clerk and the executioners, and lead them to a faith in God.  Nevertheless the Roman prefect, Almachius, knows of their refusal and beheads them and Maximus, claiming that he saw their souls soar to Heaven.  The poor clerk is beaten to death with ropes of lead.  Cecilia buries the three of them together.

      Cecilia’s Trial (1611)
      source Wikipedia

      Almachius, hearing of Cecilia’s deeds, has her brought to him, whereupon she denounces him and his stone gods in words most unflattering, stoking Almachius’ ire.  He orders her to be boiled in a flaming bath, but Cecilia manages to sit in it for a night and a day without it doing any damage to her whatsoever.  Determined to bring about her death, Almachius sends an executioner to chop off her head. One, two, three blows are delivered by the executioner but he is unable to separate her head from her body and she lives three more days with a partially severed head, tormented but preaching and converting people.  She finds Saint Urban, bestows upon him her goods, and instructs that her house be used as a church, before she is born away to heaven, and Urban buries her body.

      Saint Cecilia (1895)
      John William Waterhouse
      “In a clear walled city on the sea. Near gilded organ pipes — slept St. Cecily”
      source Wikipedia

      These tales of virgin saints must have been reasonably familiar during Chaucer’s times, yet I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of a married virgin saint. This tale perhaps fits with The Wife of Bath, in that in the Wife’s tale, she controls her husband with sex, power and deceit, whereas in this tale Cecilia influences her husband spiritually, with her goodness and grace.  Of course, perhaps I’m the only one who has conceived of such an interesting parallel …… I’m not sure.

      Ooo, I’m getting near the end of this project.  I’m a little behind, and O, my reading partner, has already finished and compiled a fabulous final post.  But I’ll just plug away until I reach the finish line.  I already feel that I’m going to miss all these vibrant and engaging characters!

      The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Nun’s Priest’s Tale & Epilogue

      (Note:  The Word of the Knight to the Host at the end of The Monk’s Tale in my edition [the Penguin Classics edition] in other editions is counted as the Prologue to this tale, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.)

      The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

      An old widowed woman lived very meagerly with her three daughters, three sows, three cows, a sheep called Molly and a very fancy, and elegant rooster, Chanticleer.  This burnished cock lived with his lady, Lady Pertelote, and their song was a delight to the ear.  Yet one dawn, Chanticleer had an horrific nightmare, a prophecy of sorts, in that a red beast was hunting him, intending his death.  Upon hearing about the dream, Pertelote disparaged Chanticleer, calling into question his roosterly-fortitude.  How could she love such a lily-livered scaredy-cat?  Everyone knew that dreams were not to be depended on, including the wise Cato.  The nightmare must have come from vapours and her husband need only take a laxative to purge himself of them. Chanticleer countermanded her argument by providing several examples of dreams which came to fruition.

      Rooster (1900)
      Ivan Bilibin
      source Wikiart

      Then one May day, Chanticleer with his seven wives, was busy praising the sun, but Fate had a surprise in store for him.  A wily fox had managed to find his way into the barnyard.  Upon spotting the sly predator, the rooster felt as if he should flee, but the fox worked his wiles, praising the majestic voice of Chanticleer with honeyed words of deceit.  His ego inflated past sense, Chanticleer did not notice the fox move, and he was soon in his jaws as the fox leapt away with him.  Alerted by the noise, the whole household saw the fox with his prey and engaged in pursuit, but all looked bleak for our rooster until a clever thought came into his head.  He convinced the fox to yell insults at his pursuers and gloat upon his victory, whereupon when the fox opened his mouth to do so, Chanticleer escaped his clutches by flying up to the tree-tops.  The fox tried to convince him to come down again and they jeered at each other, but Chanticleer wisely stayed put.

      “St. Paul himself, a saint of great discerning
      Says that all things are written for our learning;
      So take the grain and let the chaff be still.
      And, gracious Father, if it be thy will
      As saith my Saviour, make us all good men,
      and brings us to his heavenly bliss.

      Middle English:

      For Seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
      To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
      Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille.
      Now, goode God, if that it be thy wille,
      As seith my lord, so make us alle goode men,
      And brynge us to his heighe blisse! Amen.

      A mid-19th century Victorian stained glass window
      source Wikipedia

      The Host commends the Priest for his merry tale and likens him to a grand cock with many pretty hens if only he’d been secular, pointing out his many manly features.  He then turns to the next pilgrim, although we are not told who it is.

      Scholars are not quite certain whether to interpret this tale as a parody or an allegory, once again highlighting Chaucer’s merry aptitude for confusion.  Is it supposed to be funny or serious or both, and why can no one tell which?  It’s also the only one of the tales to allude to a 14th century event, the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381, when it refers to Jack Straw, it’s notorious leader.



      The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Monk’s Tale

      In the Words of the Host to the Monk,  the Host laments that his wife is not nearly as patient as Dame Prudence in The Tale of Melibee, preferring to take the guise of a nagging fishwife who likes to challenge him, rather than a tolerant spouse.  But enough of that, the Host encourages the Monk to begin his tale, but then proceeds to characterize him as a pale, but well-cared for monk who is discreet yet wily.  He thnks the Monk’s profession is misplaced as he would be better off helping to populate the world.  Without taking offence at the Host’s unwanted comments, the Monk chooses the genre of tragedy and begs pardon if he gets any of the events chronologically mixed up.

      Continue reading

      The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Tale of Melibee

      The Tale of Melibee

      A young man named Melibeus had a wife named Prudence and a daughter, Sophie.  One day while he is away from home, three of his enemies enter the house and beat his wife and daughter, giving his daughter five mortal wounds.  Melibeus upon returning, is inconsolable but his wife cautions him to moderate his weeping, using various examples from antiquity.  She counsels him to call all his friends and family, who are wise, and to take their advice, even though Melibeus is ready to go to war with his enemies.
      The surgeons claim that their profession commands them to do no harm, and that they cannot support war, but they are willing to help his daughter.  His enviour neighbours and false friends flatter him and counsel war.  The lawyer advises him to guard his person and house, but he will need time to decide whether it is meet to go to war.   The young men cry for vengeance, but an old wise man chastens them for calling for war without truly understanding the consequences of it.   He is shouted down and we are told that Melibeus also has secret advisors that give him guidance out of the hearing of the others.
      Prudence sees that her husband is preparing for war and tries to urge caution, but Melibeus shrugs off her opinion, saying that firstly, he is deciding based on the advice of wise men, and secondly, all women are wicked.  She counters his arguments with examples from the Bible and Seneca, saying if he will only listen to her, she will deliver their daughter whole.  Swayed by her long and compelling argument, he consents to be ruled by her advice. 

      Prudence seeking to comfort
      Melibeus (1884)
      E.M. Scannell

      Prudence instructs him that he must be governed by God and to dispel three things in his heart that impede good advice and they are: anger, greed, and haste.  Next, he must not show whether he prefers peace or war, cloaking his intent.  He must determine his true friends from false flatterers and then discover if they are discrete and wise and old enough to have gained valuable learning.  After, she gives him examples of people whose advice he must shun if his decision is to be correct. 

      Since his wife has described to him the people whose advice he should be accepting and those he should be rejecting, she will now teach him how to examine this advice, according to the precepts of Cicero.  One needs to look at the outcome of the advice taken in order to make the best choice:  what is the root of the advice and what is the fruit.  If you are not certain about advice, don’t act on it.  She continues to tell when and under what circumstances a plan may be revised.
      Melibeus claims that he is gratified by her instruction, but if she would please examine the particulars of the case and tell him what should be chosen in the present circumstance.  Instead, though, she asks his patience and then proceeds to list his errors of judgment to the present time.  He agrees to alter his counsellors, and his wife says that they must determine who is most reasonable and has offered the most helpful advice.

      From here on Dame Prudence continues to deliver invective against Melibeus’ weaknesses and moral instruction for his benefit.  She says that he has allowed the world to rule over his soul and has forgotten his Creator.  With regard to money, she instructs him on how to handle riches and how to dispense forgiveness.  Melibeus finally sees beyond the current issue to the future ills that vengeance might breed, and agrees to forgive those who have done wrong to him and his family.  


      The Tale of Melibee (1913)
      W. Russell Flint 

      With this tale, I received the impression of a trial.  The wife, in ruling her husband, is, in effect, producing witnesses to support her views.  These witnesses are respected men of ancient times, and, given their status and renown, are almost impossible to contradict.

      While this tale has often been characterized as a debate, to me it seemed more like a lecture or discourse on the issues of life, with Prudence instructing and Melibeus being cultivated by her wisdom.  Initially, Melibeus is concerned with practicalities, or reality if you will, but Prudence takes those practicalities and turns them into matters of character and the right way of conduct, which does not only cover the present situation they must deal with, but gives guidance in the way one must conduct oneself in life.  She sways him not by womanly emotion but by clear logic and reason, an unusual but powerful technique.

      Some scholars think that The Tale of Melibee was originally meant to be a stand-alone tale, yet was later added to The Cantebury Tales.  Given that it is a translation of an original French tale, Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence by Renaud Louen, which is also a translation of an earlier tale, Consolationis et Consilii by Albertanus of Brescia, that makes sense.  Its fit into The Canterbury Tales is tenuous at best.  Taken as a tale, it is long-winded and boring, but standing alone and viewed along the lines of a Ciceronian defence, it holds interesting components.  I actually quite enjoyed this tale and, judging from the commentary on it, probably got more out of it than previous readers.

      The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Tale of Sir Thopas

      The Host spies Chaucer and commands him to tell a tale of mirth, while describing some of his manner and looks.  Chaucer claims to know no other tale except for a rhyming romance that he learned, and so he begins.

      The Tale of Sir Thopas

      Sir Thopas was born at Popering in Flanders, and was a lord known for his fair and gentle manners.  A description of his pleasing person follows, along with praises of his sporting aptitude and his ability to capture female hearts.  But no, Sir Thopas is chaste, and out he goes into the forest where he is overcome by love and dreams of an Elf-queen as his sweetheart. (Heavens, this is starting to remind me of an Arthurian story!)  He rode long enough to find the country of Fairy.  Intercepted by a giant named Olifaunt, who threatens him, they have an altercation and Thopas escapes, but not before promising to deal with him at a later date.

      He gathers his men to fight the giant, our slender and gay Sir Thopas, and here follows long descriptions of his food, and his battle clothing and array, until the Host can stand it no more and begs Chaucer to cease his tale, labelling it as doggerel verse which is used to produce a comic effect. Chaucer protests at this treatment, but the Host claims his rhyme is “crappy” and a waste of time.  He will only be permitted to proceed if he tells something in alliterative verse or prose, so Chacuer agrees to prose but warns his story may have echoes of other stories already told.  He proceeds with The Tale of Melibee.

      Warwick Goble
      Thopas seems to abandon the realities of life and prefers to search out fantastical experiences with such fanciful characters as Elf-queens and giants. It was also laughable to see the Host chastize Chaucer, not for telling a boring story, but for telling one that was simply too atrociously inept to be listened to.

      How very amusing to see Chaucer poke some fun at himself!  I rather wondered though, if there were not some deeper meanings that I was missing, that would have made the tale so enjoyable for the listeners of the time, such as style and rhyme and syntax and word-choice.  There are subtleties that were common for that era that aren’t so obvious now, and I lack the appreciation I could have garnered with that antiquated knowledge.  In any case, I’m now curious as to what Chaucer will do with Melibee.  Will it be a serious story, or more tongue-in-cheek teasing?