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?  

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Prioress’ Prologue and Tale

Okay, I really couldn’t let this pass; if you look closely at the picture of the Prioress below, doesn’t it appear that she has a beard?  Odd.
We begin with the Words of the Host to the Shipman and the Prioress, who makes a Latin blunder and then, referring to the last tale, warns the company to be wary of monks.  Turning to the Prioress, he bids her tell a tale, and she appears happy to comply.
She bases her first words on the 8th Psalm, and invokes Mary as her muse, lauding her purity, virtues and magnificence.  The Prioress is only a weak vessel but with Mary’s grace, she will tell her story.

The Prioress’s Tale

In a Christian town in Asia, there was a Jewish ghetto supported by the Crown. The Prioress categorizes the Jews as foul userers and has nothing good to say about them.  Near the ghetto, was situated a little school of Christian children, of whom one, a widow’s son of seven years old, was diligent in his prayers and reverence for all that was holy.  He sang all day praising Christ’s mother, Mary:

“He sang it with a childlike clarity
And boldly, word by word and note by note;
And twice a day it filled his little throat,
Going to school and coming back again,
Praising Christ’s mother with all this might and main.”

Middle English:

And thanne he song it wel and boldely
Fro word to word, acordynge with the note
Twies a day it passed thurgh his throte
To scoleward and homward whan he wente
On Cristes mooder set was his entente

Yet as he sang these praises going down the ghetto street, the Jews plotted his demise and ended up murdering the innocent child.  They dumped him in a sewage drain, but “murder will out” and the child’s voice continued its song. His mother went in search of him and though the Jews would not let her find her son, Jesus led her to him.  As they retrieved the child’s body, still his singing continued.  The provost condemned the guilty Jews to death by drawing them apart by horses and then hanging them from a cart.  The holy abbot, who conducted the boy’s funeral, asked him who permitted his song, whereupon he answered:

“‘Though to the bone my neck is cut, I know,’
Answered the child; ‘and had I been confined
By natural law I should, and long ago,
Have died.  But Christ, whose glory you may find
In books, wills it be also kept in mind.
So far the honour of his mother dear
I still may sing O Alma loud and clear.'”

Middle English:

“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.

Mary, mother of Christ, bade him sing the anthem until his burying, and so at his burying, the singing stopped.  The convent began to weep at his holiness and reverence.  The story ends by mentioning Hugh of Lincoln, who was also murdered by Jews, and by a benediction for God’s mercy.

The Prioress’s Tale
Edward Coley Burne-Jones
source Wikipedia

This tale mirrors other tales in Medieval Christendom, particularly the story of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, where Jews are portrayed as greedy, power-seeking and enemies of the true faith.  The Prioress makes sure to demonize the Jews, yet shows the Christian element as little, innocent and helpless. However even with the tyranny of the Jews, Mary is able to set things aright with the miracle of the boy’s perpetual singing and the indication of his possible sainthood.

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Shipman’s Tale

The Shipman’s Tale

A merchant of St. Denys in northern France, lives with his wife in comparative luxury.  Sir John, a young monk with a pleasing face, often visits the couple, and he is as close as a brother, since he and the merchant grew up in the same village.  One day, on a visit, the merchant’s wife confesses to the monk that her sex-life with her husband is non-existant, her marriage is unhappy and her husband is miserly.  She is in need of 100 francs, on loan, to buy herself the pretty things which her husband denies her.  Sir John confesses his love for her and agrees to the loan, for which she pays him by sleeping with him after her husband leaves on a business trip.  The merchant’s trip is successful, yet he must borrow money to replenish his stores.  He goes to Paris for the loan and while there, visits Sir John who had borrowed money from him prior to his trip, but the monk claims that he repaid the loan to the merchant’s wife. Annoyed, the merchant confronts her when he arrives home.  Cursing Sir John, she claims that she thought the money was for her and had spent it on clothing.  She offers to repay him with sexual favours.  The merchant, deciding it is fruitless to deride her, forgives her.

Illustration from a 1792 edition

This tale, set in France, apparently has many French phrases in it, adding a touch of local colour and prompting scholars to speculate whether the tale was an early Chaucer and closer to the French fabliaux stories of the time.

There is definitely a parallel between money and sex in this tale.  Without access to money, the wife uses sexual favours as payment, but interestingly, she also uses sex to placate her husband, which makes it appear that sex is certainly the more flexible of the two forms of payment.  And just as the husband takes advantage of his business transactions, so does his wife take advantage of the situation to serve her purposes.  So then the question is, who has the most power in the tale ….. does the wife have all the power and the rich merchant only all the appearance of it?

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

The Pardoner begins by explaining his profession, using a rather conceited tone as he exults over all the people he’s managed to deceive into purchasing his pardons for their sins.  His theme is “Radix malorum est cupidas”, which means “Greed is the root of all evils” from 1 Timothy 6:10, yet he only applies this adage if it is to his own monetary gain.  He is willing to steal from a poor woman’s children and have them starve, yet he claims that, in spite of his monstrous character, he is able to tell a moral tale.  Given that his life is constructed from an abundance of lies, one would tend not to believe him.

The Pardoner’s Tale

In Flanders, lived three young men who were fond of carousing, drinking and gambling.  Discovering that their friend and thousands of others have been killed by a foul fiend known as “Death,” they set out bent on revenge.  An old man who had asked Death to take him, but with no luck, says that they can find him at the base of an old oak tree, but the only thing that they discover there is a pile of gold florins.  Immediately forgetting their quest, they draw straws to see who will fetch food and drink, as they plan to wait by the tree until night so they can carry the treasure away in secrecy.  The youngest of the three is chosen to go into town and while he is away, the others plot his murder, planning to stab him with their daggers upon his return.  The youngest, on his way to town, is thinking of how to dispose of his comrades, and places poison in two of the three bottles with which he returns.  The two slay the young man and then sit down to drink their fare.  Death takes them in terrible suffering and everyone receives his due.

The Pardoner attempts to sell his relics to the Host who reacts by venting his spleen upon the Pardoner.

“I wish I had your ballocks in my hand
Instead of relics in a reliquarium;
Have them cut off and I will help to carry ’em.
We’ll have them shrined for you in a hog’s turd.”

Middle English:

I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond
In stide of relikes or of seintuarie.
Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie;
They shul be shryned in an hogges toord!

The Pardoner is incensed and the Knight attempts to mediate between them before they all continue on their way.

Warwick Gobbel

In the tale, the men practice self-deception, neither suspecting the others, and the Pardoner himself practices a sort of self-deception, in that he confesses his sins without expectation of any consequences resulting from them.  The tale and prologue meld very well together in that we learn that such unconscionable evil is blind to the consequence of its actions and that it can occur both in the dregs of society and even a holy man of God.

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Physician’s Tale

The Physician’s Tale

An illustrious and affluent knight, Virginius, had a daughter named Virginia who was very dear to his heart.  Thus follows a very long narrative on her chastity and how young women should be raised.

One day, while walking through the street, a judge named Appius, spies her and is lustfully determined to possess her.  He enlists the assistance of Claudius, a notable miscreant, to carry out his plan of seizing the maiden. Claudius falsely accuses Virginius of theft, in fact, theft of his own daughter, claiming that she was a servant who was taken from him.  Appius quickly rules in Claudius’ favour, decreeing that the girl must be returned to him.  Distraught, her father informs her of the circumstances and states that she must either face death or dishonour.  Virginia chooses her fate:

“And thus addressed her father, unafraid,
‘Blessed be God that I shall die a maid!
I take my death rather than take my shame, 
So do your will upon me in God’s name!'”

Middle English:

She riseth up, and to hir fader sayde,
“Blissed be God that I shal dye a mayde!
Yif me my deeth, er that I have a shame;
Dooth with youre child youre wyl, a Goddes name!”

Her father smites off her head and returns it to Appius, at which point the judge orders Virginius’ arrest.  Suddenly a thousand men of the town, learning of the treachery committed, seize Appius and murder him and would have done the same to Claudius if Virginius had not pleaded for his exile.

“Here one can see how sin is paid its wages;
Beware, for no one knows how God engages
Or when to smite the sinner, or how the rom
Of conscience will bring terror to the firm
In wickedness, however secretly,
Though none should know of it but God and he.
Be he illiterate or a man of learning,
How soon the blow will fall there’s no discerning.
I offer you this counsel; let it make you
Forsake your sins before your sins forsake you.”

Middle English:

Heere may men seen how synne hath his merite.
Beth war, for no man woot whom God wol smyte
In no degree, ne in which manere wyse;
The worm of conscience may agryse
Of wikked lyf, though it so pryvee be
That no man woot therof but God and he.
For be he lewed man, or ellis lered,
He noot how soone that he shal been afered.
Therfore I rede yow this conseil take:
Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake.

In the Words of the Host to the Physician and to the Pardoner, the Host vehemently berates all unscrupulous lawyers, and states that gifts that seem to us of great worth can also bring harm, depending on the circumstances.  In fact, the Physician’s tale has upset him so that he pleads for a cheerful tale from the Pardoner, whereupon the people request a tale of moral goodness and worth.

The Legend of Virginia
source Wikimedia

This tale is based on a tale from Livy’s Histories and is also retold in The Romance of the Rose.  While scholars consider it one of Chaucer’s weaker tales in structure, the drama certainly carries the reader along.  It reminded me a little of King Lear, in that the evil characters get their just deserts but the innocent partake of their destruction as well, which adds a definite poignancy to the story.

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

Before we get to the prologue of this tale, there are Words of the Franklin to the Squire and of the Host to the Franklin, where the Franklin commends the Squire for the spirit in which he told his tale, and that his eloquence is surprising considering his youth.  He deprecates his own son until the Host interrupts to urge him to tell his tale.

The Franklin begs pardon for his lack of education and he, therefore, cannot adorn his words with the “colours of rhetoric”, but still he will do his best with his story.

The Franklin’s Tale

In Brittany, or in, at that time, Armorica, there lived a knight, Arvéragus, who held a deep abidding love for a lovely, high-born lady, Dorigen.  Alas, he neared despair of his love being returned due to her high status in society, but she saw the honourable worth of Arvéragus, and the two were joined in marriage.  He gave his promise that he would never show jealousy nor impose his will upon her, and, in turn, she pledged humbleness and faithfulness to her husband.  The Franklin next gives a quite wonderful description of love, and how to temper it for a successful relationship:

“Lovers must each be ready to obey
The other, if they would long keep company.
Love will not be constrained by mastery;
When mastery comes the god of love anon
Stretches his wings and farewell! he is gone.
Love is a thing as any spirit free;
Women by nature long for liberty
And not to be constrained or made a thrall,
And so do men, if I may speak for all.
  Whoever’s the most patient under love
Has the advantages and will rise above
The other; patiences is a conquering virtue,
The learned say that, if it not desert you,
It vanquishes what force can never reach;
Why answer back at every angry speech?
No, learn forbearance or, I’ll tell you what,
You will be taught it, whether you will or not.
No one alive — it needs no arguing —
But sometimes says or does a wrongful thing;
Rage, sickness, influence of some malign
Star-constellation, temper, woe or wine
Spur us to wrongful words or make us trip.
One should not seek revenge for every slip.
And temperance from the times must take her schooling
In those that are to learn the art of ruling.”

Middle English:

For o thyng, sires, saufly dar I seye,
That freendes everych oother moot obeye,
If they wol longe holden compaignye.
Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye.
Whan maistrie comth, the God of Love anon
Beteth his wynges, and farewel, he is gon!
Love is a thyng as any spirit free.
Wommen, of kynde, desiren libertee,
And nat to been constreyned as a thral;
And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal.
Looke who that is moost pacient in love,
He is at his avantage al above.
Pacience is an heigh vertu, certeyn,
For it venquysseth, as thise clerkes seyn,
Thynges that rigour sholde nevere atteyne.
For every word men may nat chide or pleyne.
Lerneth to suffre, or elles, so moot I goon,
Ye shul it lerne, wher so ye wole or noon;
For in this world, certein, ther no wight is
That he ne dooth or seith somtyme amys.
Ire, siknesse, or constellacioun,
Wyn, wo, or chaungynge of complexioun
Causeth ful ofte to doon amys or speken.
On every wrong a man may nat be wreken.
After the tyme moste be temperaunce
To every wight that kan on governaunce.

Arvéragus and Dorigen lived in wedded bliss until one day Arvéragus decided to leave to win renown and honour in Britain. Two years he will be gone, and Dorigen wept and bemoaned the loss of her husband every single day.  Unbeknownst to Dorigen, a handsome and lively squire, Aurelius, was sick with love for her, and finally confessed his suppressed passion. While Dorigen repeated her vow to be a faithful wife, in a moment of thoughtless gaiety, she promised her love if he was able to remove all the rocks from the coast of Brittany, an impossible task.  Yet she did not reckon on Aurelius’ determination and after praying to the gods and two years of bemoaning his hopeless assignment, he found a conjuror who completed the task.  When he informed Dorigen of his success, she was brokenhearted, for she had thoughtlessly broken the promise to her beloved husband.  She decided that she must die rather than defile her love, and sited various instances from ancient accounts of women who took this recourse.  However, when Arvéragus returned home, she confessed her transgression to him, whereupon he stated that she must keep her promise, no matter what pain it would bring them.  Yet when Aurelius saw her woe and learned of the noble deed of Arvéragus, he released the lady from her promise, even though he was left with an enormous debt payable to the conjuror.  Yet fate was kind, in this case, and the conjuror immediately forgave the debt, saying that he had been paid with Aurelius’ moving story.

This tale is possibly based on a similar one in Boccaccio’s The Decameron (Tenth Day, Fifth Tale), but the removal, or apparent removal of the rocks echo Merlin’s magical moving of the rocks accounted in The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey Monmouth.

This tale was particularly moving because of the themes of loyalty, patience and keeping one’s promise.  My favourite tale so far (do I keep saying that?)

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

The Host encourages the Squire to step up and tell his tale, and the Squire, although employing a hesitant and self-conscious manner, agrees.

The Squire’s Tale

Part I
In the land of Tartary, there lived a noble king named Cambuskan (which is perhaps Genghis Khan, although the account of him is more memorable of his grandson, Kublai Khan).  He had two sons and a daughter, whose name was Canace.  Upon the king’s twentieth year of reign, he hosts a large celebration but a surprise is in store for him as an unknown knight arrives bearing gifts for the sovereign.  He gives the king a brass steed that can transport him to wherever he wishes, a mirror which can reveal true friends or enemies, a sword that has a deadly power but can heal its wounds as well, and a magical ring which will allow the wearer to comprehend the language of the birds.  
Part II
The last gift is given to Canace, whereupon the next morning on her walk, she comes upon a distraught falcon who confesses that she has been courted and then later abandoned by a handsome tercelet.  In her distress, she faints and Canace cares for her, building her a mew hung with the finest shade of velvet blue for faithfulness, and green for duplicity.  The Squire promises to tell how the falcon won back her repentant love, but first he wishes to relate Cambuskan’s conquests and to tell of Cambalo who won Canace for his wife.
Part III
“Apollo whirled his chariot on high
Up through the house of Mercury, the sly —“
Here the story breaks off and Chaucer leaves it unfinished.  The developing of the story in the initial 708 lines indicates that this tale, if completed, would have been one of the longest tales of the collection.  John Milton was convinced that a conclusion was necessary, writing in his Il Penseroso:
Or call him up who left half told

The story of Cambuscanbold

Of Camball, and of Algarsife ,

And who had Canace to wife,

That owns the vertuous Ring and Glass,

And of the wondrous Hors of Brass,

On which the Tartar King did ride;

And if ought els, great Bardsbeside,

In sage and solemn tunes have sung,

Of Turneys and of Trophies hung;

Of Forests, and inchantments drear,

Where more is meant than meets the ear.

Edmund Spenser did attempt to finish the tale in his books III and IV of The Faerie Queene, but apparently his verse bears little resemblance to Chaucer.

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

Oh, the poor Merchant.  Married only two months and he swears that there is no one in existence as miserable as he.  His wife’s cruelty is unsurpassed, and he urges all men to avoid the matrimonial state if at all possible.

“Never again, never again the snare!
We married men, our life is grief and care.
Try it who will, and he will find, I promise
That I have spoken truly, by St. Thomas,
For most of us — I do not say for all,
And God forbid that such a thing befall”

Middle English:

“I wolde nevere eft comen in the snare.
We wedded men lyven in sorwe and care.
Assaye whoso wole, and he shal fynde
That I seye sooth, by Seint Thomas of Ynde,
As for the moore part — I sey nat alle.
God shilde that it sholde so bifalle!”

The Host wittily reparts that since the Merchant is a marriage expert, he must certainly tell his tale.  The Merchant agrees but cautions that he has said all he will of a personal nature.

The Merchant
source Wikimedia Commons

The Merchant’s Tale

Battle of Pavia (after 1525)
Unknown Flemish Artist
source Wikimedia Commons

In Lombardy, in the town of Pavia, lived a well-respected knight named January.  He had remained a bachelor for sixty winters, but in his old age decided that he would like nothing better than to marry. He highly praised the married state in spite of Theofrastus’ injunctions and warnings against it.

This opinion, and a hundred things worse,
Writes this man, may God his bones curse!

But take no heed of all such foolishness;

Defy Theofrastus, and listen to me.”

Middle English:

This sentence, and an hundred thynges worse
Writeth this man, ther God his bones corse!
But take no kep of al swich vanytee;
Deffie Theofraste, and herke me.
January & May
©Trustees of the British Museum

He goes on to list the value a wife brings to a home, and councils men to always obey their wives in everything.  However, he has a number of requirements for his wife, in that she must be young, so he will not be driven to adultery, and not a widow, so she does not resort to trickery.  He pleads with his friends to help him in his quest, yet stife is stirred up between his two friends, Placebo (meaning “I shall please”), and Justinus (meaning, “the just one”). Placebo defers to January’s opinion on the matter, since he is his lord, yet Justinus cautions to choose a wife wisely, taking time and care, otherwise a man may regret his choice as he so rightly knows, as he is married and is subject only to a life of cares and duties.

January prefers Placebo’s advice, which echoes his own and, thoroughly obsessed with his goal, begins his search for a wife.

“Exaggerated imagination and constant thought
From day to day became fixed in the soul
Of January concerning his marriage.”

Middle English:

Heigh fantasye and curious bisynesse
Fro day to day gan in the soule impresse
Of Januarie aboute his mariage.

January helping May into the tree
Warwick Goble

He finds the perfect wife in May, a poor yet fair girl, but January is tormented by another thought.  It is said men cannot experience bliss twice and he is concerned that all the happiness he is sure to find with his wife, will then be denied to him in Heaven.  Justinus assures him that will not be the case, and, in fact, he can take comfort in the fact that his marriage will probably be a purgatory.

And so “tender youth has wedded stooping age” and all around them is mirth ….. and, of course, Chaucer’s playful spirit.  The wedding is described in detail, but January wishes it to end so he can slake his amorous desires on his new wife. Chaucer ensures that the descriptions of January are unflattering and lecherous, to place the reader into May’s viewpoint, and as January spends hours satisfying his passion with her and assuring her that he can do no wrong in the eyes of the law, she finally takes to her room and locks herself in for four days.

Yet there is a serpent in Eden and his name is Damian, the knight’s squire who is so enamoured of May “that for the very pain he was nearly crazy.”  January, believing that Damian is truly sick, visits him with May, whereupon Damian secretly give her a letter and she learns of his passion for her.

Meanwhile January decides to build a walled garden and he is the only one to possess the key.  But soon after January loses his eyesight, and one day he suggests that he walk with his wife in this garden.  Unbeknownst to him, May allows Damian to slip inside the garden, too.  He climbs up into a pear tree to await their assignation.  Meanwhile, the god Pluto and his queen Proserpine wander by and get into an argument, each giving examples of the treachery, deceit and sin of the opposite sex while supporting their own, thereby showing that the only true, good and perfect being is God.

Back to January and May, the latter who convinces her husband to let her climb on his back to get some pears in the pear tree.  While up there, Damian has sex with her, but lo, Pluto returns January’s sight and what meets his eyes causes him to explode in rage. Gentle May must reassure her husband that she is the cause of his regained sight and that since he has been blind for so long, what he sees at first is likely to be not at all accurate.  She is able to restore January’s faith and the story ends.  I cannot but think that the two of them deserve each other.

What a fabulous tale and one that could be studied in great depth.  Each line could be chewed over, and the allusions are numerous: from Esther to Solomon and from The Romance of the Rose to Venus, there are so many wonderful trails of stories from here that one could be kept busy for ages. January’s physical blindness certainly echoes his intellectual blindness towards the matrimonial state.  We may feel sympathy for January that he is unable to see his wife’s plotting and tryst, yet even Chaucer mentions that Argus who had one hundred eyes was deceived, again implying that January’s blindness is not merely a physical condition, but a condition of the heart.  He willfully chooses blindness and the outcome would not have been different even if he had the use of his eyes.  It reminded me of the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, another case of physical blindness paralleling a spiritual blindness.  Bravo, Chaucer!  This is my favourite tale so far!

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

The Host prods the Clerk on to his tale, but gives a list of cautionary advice for his telling of it: cheer up, don’t be boring, be entertaining, but for heaven’s sake don’t be too clever rhetorically.  It’s interesting that the Clerk receives instructions which no one else has needed.

The Clerk of Oxford mollifies the Host, and then announces that his tale will come from a Paduan, in fact Francis Petrarca (Petrarch), who related it to him personally.  This tale is also included in Boccaccio’s The Decameron on the tenth day.

The Clerk of Oxenford (Oxford)
source Wikimedia Commons

The Clerk’s Tale

Part I

On the western shores of Italy lived a marquis who ruled his vassals with fair hand and therefore was loved by all.  Handsome and strong, he took delight in pleasure and shunned serious cares.  Yet the lack of his inclination to marry, worried his subjects and they appealed to him wed to secure his line and therefore, safety for his kingdom.  The marquis agreed on the condition that he was allowed to choose his future bride.  His subjects, a little worried about this demand and thinking that he would delay, requested that he name a date for his wedding.  He agreed and they were placated.

The Proposal (The Marquis & Griselda) (1850)
Frederic George Stephens

Part II

Adding to the people’s consternation, the marquis, Walter, chose a poor girl to be his bride, gaining a promise from her to obey him with joy in all things.  Her name was Griselda and she was steeped in virtue, benevolence, and forbearance.  All admired her, and in her manner, so carefully crafted, she had the bearings of royalty.  The Marquis was admired for his ability to see virtue within her, despite her trappings of poverty, and by her virtuous character, she was beloved of all the people.  She was eventually delivered of a girl and, although a boy would have been preferred, the kingdom rejoiced.

Part III

Obsessed by his wife, the Marquis decided to test her constancy and, in an act of extreme cruelty (yes, I’m inserting my opinion here, which I normally don’t like to do, but I was quite appalled by this story), had the dear child ripped from his wife’s arms, making her believe that the girl was being taken to be killed because the people disliked the thought of the child’s heritage of poverty. Griselda, as she had promised submission to her husband, showed no emotion, only asking that the child be buried where wild animals were unable to tear it asunder.  The Marquis clandestinely had the child taken to his sister’s house in Bologna, and then watched for any enmity or disquiet from his wife, yet still she treated him with kindness and reverence.

A Parental Kidnapping – Griselda
source Wikimedia Commons

Part IV

Another four years passed and Griselda gave birth to a boy.  Walter, once again, decided to test his wife, performing the same actions as with his infant daughter.  Is this shocking?  Wait!  There’s more.  In addition to his sadistic actions, he fraudulently produced a Papal Bull of annulment, which allowed him to divorce Griselda and marry another.  He announced the arrival of his new wife-to-be, but in fact, secretly called for his two children’s return from Bologna.  His new bride would, in fact, be his twelve-year-old daughter. Murmurs begin among the people, however, that Walter was the true murderer of his children.

Part V

Again, Griselda supported her husband’s choices since he believed that they would bring him happiness, and returned to her father’s house dressed in only a simple smock.

Part VI  

Walter enlisted Griselda to prepare his new bride-to-be for marriage and she complied.  Once the people viewed his new bride-to-be, they quickly changed their allegiance and supported the marquis’ choice, whereupon the Clerk expresses outrage against these fickle people.  However, Walter was now unable to bear his own inhumane actions towards his wife any longer; he confessed all, Griselda was reunited with her children and all lived in harmony hereafter.  
Episode of the Story of Griselda (1445-1450)
Francesco di Stefano Pesellino
source Wikimedia Commons

Chaucer’s Envoy to the Clerk’s Tale

In an astonishing reversal, the Clerk took another tact for the envoy.  Claiming that both Griselda and patience are now dead, he ironically entreated wives not to behave like Griselda, nor husbands to behave like Walter.  In fact, he seemed to encourage rather undesirable female stereotypes: wives who berate or have little respect for their husbands.

The Clerk
source Wikipedia

In the fourteenth century, a French soldier and author, Phillipe de Mézières, translated Petrarch’s tale into French, adding a prologue that represents Griselda’s story as an allegory for the soul’s love for Christ, echoing many Biblical scriptures, such as:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.  James 1:12
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  1 Thess. 5:16-18
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matt 5:10-12

The Story of Patient Griselda
source Wikipedia

I haven’t read Petrarch’s original tale, but Mézières’ supposition encounters some difficulties when applied to The Clerk’s Tale.  In Scripture, the sufferings are a result of a fallen world and it is God’s love and grace that sustains his people. Conversely, in The Clerk’s Tale, it’s the Marquis who is testing his wife due to obsessive insecurities.  I don’t see a parallel between them.

So what is Chaucer doing with this tale? He likens Griselda’s story to Job so it appears as though he’s advocating for strength and perseverance in adversity. While Griselda’s mild responses to her husband’s torture are rather appalling, what would have happened if she had given a different response and stood up to his tyrannical machinations?  At the least, her husband most likely would have disposed of her and at the worst, perhaps her children, as well.  By her measured responses, but most of all, by keeping her initial promise to him, she eventually receives a life of happiness and contentment and love.

Also, the contradictions between the tale and envoy suggest a playfulness that is customary in Chaucer’s tales.  Perhaps he wants us to get tied up in conjectures, exhausted by ambiguity, teased by the tales’ quick turns and bawdy wit, and finally lost in a forest of comedic and somber rhetoric.  And then he laughs at us.  Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised …….

The Canterbury Tales ~ The Summoner’s Prologue and Tale

After the Friar finished his story, the Summoner calls in question its veracity, by aligning the Friar with fiends, claiming that they keep good company.  He relates a rather deprecating story about an angel taking a friar through Hell and, upon seeing not one Friar and asking if all Friars were saved, the angel has Satan lift up his tail and, exposing his anus, out flies from there twenty thousand Friars.  Having sufficiently insulted the Friar’s occupation, the Summoner tells his tale.

The Summoner
source Wikimedia Commons
The Summoner’s Tale

There was a Friar in the area of Holdernesse, who travelled around receiving gifts from the people in return for his promised prayers, which he never remembered to give.  Upon visiting a church member, Thomas, the Friar fondles his wife and listens to her complaints about her husband’s illness and his bad temper.  He assures her that her dead child went to heaven because he saw it in a vision, and then proceeds to sermonize about how fasting brings moral purity and gluttony, corruption.  His sermons continue to Thomas, as he tries to convince him to give more money to the church to relieve his sufferings, and goes on, ad nauseum, about the glorious virtues of friars.  He berates Thomas for his anger and employs the extensive use of classic examples to support his points.

The Friar and Thomas (1787)
John Mortimer

Finally, Thomas, disgusted beyond measure by the pomp and officiousness contemptibility of the Friar and his “false dissimulation”, tells him that he has a gift and that he will give it to him only upon the condition that he promises to share it with the other friars.  The Friar readily agrees and Thomas instructs:

“‘Now then, put in they hand down by my back,’
Said this man, ‘and grope well behind.
Benearth my buttock where shalt thou find
A thing that I have hidden in private.'”

Middle English:

“‘Now thanne, put in thyn hand doun by my bak,’
Deyde this man, ‘and grope wel bihynde.
Bynethe my buttok there a shaltow fynde
A thyng that I have hyd in pryvetee’.”

The Friar reaches between the cleft of Thomas’ buttocks, but the gift is not what he expected:

“Amid his hand he let the friar a fart;
There is no horse, pulling cart,
That could have let a fart of such a sound.”

Middle English:

“Amydde his hand he leet the frere a fart;
Ther nys no capul, drawynge in a cart, 
That myghte have lete a fart of swich a soun.”

An Augustinian Friar Praying
Gerard David
source Wikiart

Enraged, the Friar takes himself off and comes upon a Lord with his Lady; he freely shares his ire prompted by this insulting action. Both are shocked, but the Lord is more perplexed by the scientific problem:  Can a fart be shared?  His servant comes to the rescue, suggesting using a cartwheel with twelve spokes and, if one puts each of the friars at the end of the spokes and then get the churl (Thomas) to fart in the “nave”, the resulting stink can be shared by all.  All, except the Friar, are impressed with the servant’s brilliant answer.

The pilgrims are almost at town and the Summoner announces that his tale is done.

Both the Summon and the Friar are portrayed as hypocrites, saying one thing, while their actions portray another.  Instead of being concerned with the souls of people, they are only interested in their own well-being and comfort.