Chaucer: Historical Context with Analysis of ‘The Canterbury Tales’

17th Century Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer / National Portrait Gallery, London

By Dr. Michael Delahoyde / 10.05.2012
Professor of English
Washington State University

Historical Context


Most of us first encounter Chaucer near the beginning of senior year in high school. At the time I was issued my brick-red copy of Adventures in English Literature, Mrs. Mabel Kane promised us all that something in that book, during the course of the year, would strike us and stay with us. I hoped it would be Wordsworth, which I knew was her personal favorite. So in September of 1977 we plunged into some Anglo-Saxon stuff, which I liked well enough but considered rather alien — maybe the kind of material better suited to the jocks, among the ranks of which one was more liable to find an aficionado of helmets and weaponry. Next was medieval materials, amounting to Chaucer — the General Prologue and some Canterbury Tales. This was great! And it’s still September! What further treasures await? How much better can this keep getting?

Had I known then what I know now, I would have been wowwed by Macbeth and other works in later sections. (Had I known then what I know now, it would have been difficult not railing madly in frustration and rage and being locked up.) Wordsworth was okay, especially being read those Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey outside by Mrs. Kane. And she gave me a mimeographed copy of a Christina Rossetti poem for no reason one time, unless she apprehended my suicidal mood. But nothing was ever as cool as Chaucer that year.

If I had it all to do over again, I’d have gotten a focus and have started writing my dissertation when I was 15. But I stumbled into grad school willing to gravitate towards whatever was enjoyable. And this turned out to be any class offered by Professor Thomas J. Garbáty, a Chaucerian who had studied under Albert Baugh and who knew all the main Chaucerian T-Rexes, like E. Talbot Donaldson. An extra piece I wrote at the time (the early Reagan years), was solicited twenty years later to honor Professor Garbáty after his retirement. This collection of Middle English literary goofiness, sprinkled with Garbáty’s own quips, can be read here: #7: Medieval Humor.

The Medieval Period

Antiquitates Italicae Medii Aevi Sive Dissertationes, by Ludovico Antonio Maruatorio / Royal Collection, London

The designation “medieval” comes from a term rendered in the corrupt Latin spoken since the Classical period: “medii aevi,” meaning “middle ages.” It’s the Renaissance that decides on this term. The “middle” of what? The “middle” between the Classical period and the Renaissance.

That’s rather dismissive, considering that the period spans roughly the years 500 – 1500 A.D. — what the 19th century saw as “a thousand years without a bath.” The medieval period still suffers from a lousy reputation (literally and figuratively), stemming from a persistent need for subsequent eras to feel superior despite their slim justifications. To call something “medieval” these days is equate its sophistication with that of rural Arkansas. And how come, as cultural periods, “Classical” (usually) and “Renaissance” (always) get capitalized, but medieval does not?

Lose your misconceptions. Witch torture was a Reformation phenomenon. The self-titled “Renaissance” did not rediscover culture and art after a millennium of barbarism.

A thousand years is a bit unwieldy, so historians have tended to fine-tune and subdivide the dating:

300-1000 A.D. — The Early Middle Ages

The Roman Empire grew too big and unwieldy; Germans and other barbarians harassed from the north and the Persians from the east. Constantine legitimized Christianity in 312 and died in 325. After the decline of the Empire, certainly by the year 750, three civilizations eventually dominated the area: Byzantine (Greek-speaking), Islamic (Arabic-writing), and Western European (Latin-writing). Admittedly, this is pretty much a Dark Age.

1000-1300 A.D. — The High or Central Middle Ages

By about 1050, the invasions had run their course: the Moslems were in retreat; the Vikings and Hungarians had adopted Christianity and so became participants in western civilization.

In the tenth century, the three-field system of crop rotation became popular, horses (more efficient than oxen) and iron plows were used, all resulting in surplus food and a better standard of living (Rosenwein 93). By 1000 we’ve got metal shoes for the horses and oxen to increase their work-lives, tandem harnesses for pulling with the shoulders instead of the neck. Water mills and, in the twelfth century, windmills appear. Protein-rich peas and beans are for the first time important in the European diet, and there’s greater consumption of cheese, eggs, and fish. Soon cities were growing, commerce increasing, literacy speading. This was an age of reform and spiritual renewal. The arts flourished during this period. Gothic architecture came into vogue. It was also the period of the Crusades.

The population was 35-40 million in the eleventh century, twice that by 1300. Universities sprang up, and math, reading, and writing became crucial for the administration of governments and businesses.

1300 saw the inauguration of a mini ice age that lasted until the 16th century. There was winemaking in England until this; then it turned cold and damp, and there was more disease, plague, and suicide.

1300-1500 Later Middle Ages

1309-1378 saw the “Babylonian Captivity,” the Papal Schism. From 1337 to 1453 the “Hundred Years War” preoccupied France and England. In 1348 came an outbreak of “Black Death” in Europe, preceded by colder climate, cattle disease, crop failure, and starvation. The “Plague” was a combination of bubonic plague (from rat fleas) and pneumonic plague (respiratory contagion).

In 1453 the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks ended the Byzantine Empire and marked the end of the Middle Ages. One dates the end at 1485 if one is an Anglophile, 1513 if one considers the Reformation as more important.

What are the most important developments taking place in the medieval period (with modern vestiges)?

  • The Church: ubiquitousness, hierarchical, doctrinal.
  • Courtly love: a cultural invention of intense personal relationships.
  • The Middle Class: messing up our categories.
  • Guilds: apprenticeship and professional membership; now B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
  • Law: fusion and synthesis of some Roman but much Germanic.
  • Towns: resulting from the rise of the middle class and commerce.
  • Farming: technological innovations and crop rotation!
  • Banking: notions of credit.

Internet Medieval Sourcebook — from Fordham University.

Luminarium — Site for English Medieval and Renaissance works.

Middle English

Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry – this one depicts Duke William lifting his helmet at the Battle of Hastings to show that he still lives. / Scanned from Lucien Musset’s The Bayeux Tapestry

Until 1066, England’s own language and literature were Anglo-Saxon (Old English), although Edward the Confessor had been raised in France and had brought some of that culture. In 1066, against the Norman Invasion, and at the decisive Battle of Hastings, Harold the Saxon King and the Saxon nobles did not successfully unite against William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy (who had some vague claim to the throne). William’s army of cadets, were largely recruited with promises of land, an attractive offer because of the Law of Primogeniture whereby only the oldest son inherits family lands. The Saxons were warriors but the French were soldiers, strategists, and administrators. The Normans defeated the Saxons and redid the real estate.

Normans brought their dialect of French so England immediately is trilingual:

  • English is still spoken by townspeople: reeves and stewards, etc. It’s imple and direct: “sheep,” “pigs.”
  • Anglo-Norman is spoken at courts by the nobility. It’s dignified and pompous: “mutton,” “pork.” [“Where did it come from?” “Uh, je ne sais pas; le village! (Les pesantes stupides.)”]
  • Latin is spoken by clergy and students.

Over the years, intermarriage took place literally and linguistically. Common French soldiers married into English families. About 10% Anglo nobles are loyal and their children have tutors. So it’s a socioeconomic situation, not an ethnic linguistic phenomenon. England remained bi- (or tri-) lingual for about 200 years.

French or Anglo-Norman might have taken stronger hold perhaps but for impetuous King John. In 1204, when trouble had arisen with one of his vassals in Normandy (for the King of England is Duke of Normandy), the vassal appealled to his overlord, Philip King of France. John would not come to court in France without an issue of “safe conduct”; he didn’t appear at the inquest so Normandy was declared forfeited to France: hence his nickname, John “Lackland.” Until then, nobles had double holdings and inheritances in both France and England. Younger brothers had come with William the Conqueror, but the older ones sat well in France (e.g., William’s eldest son Robert inherited Normandy). Pre-John Plantagenets were more interested in France. Richard the Lionheart, despite Robin Hood legends which evolved from Saxon wishful thinking agaist their Norman overlords, said that the English are dogs, good for nothing but taxes.

In 1244 came the Decree of Two Masters. Louis King of France had vassal trouble and with all the nationalistic friction, declared that double allegiance is impossible. You either now stay in France and sacrifice your English property and English titles, or you go over. Henry III in England issued a similar decree. So families swapped and divided their holdings, ending the interlocking nobility. Former French-now-English nobility had to learn to cope. Thus we find a tremendous influx of French words between 1250 and 1300 as the language stabilized into Middle English: a filed down Old English with heavy French influence. The upper class now an English-speaking nobility again. Literature emerged in English (e.g., the romance Arthur and Merlin). By Chaucer’s time, the royal court is using English.

Spelling and Pronunciation

One encounters in reading manuscripts some survivals of the old Saxon runic alphabet and characters we no longer use:

  • þ = thorn = th. (Runic survival.)
  • ð = asch = th. (Disappears soon.)
  • ʒ = yogh = y or g at beginning of word, gh intermedially.
  • u and v interchange.
  • i and j interchange.

Spelling is nonstandardized (so it’s a poetic field day).
In general, pronounce all consonants.
Metathesis: r and a nearby vowel change places freely (brid/bird, Kristen/Kirsten).
Vowels are generally softer (before the “Great Vowel Shift”).
Think French.
Manuscripts offer no periods, commas, quotation marks, etc. Just slashes. So punctuation is editorial.

Medieval Aesthetics

Durant Waite Robertson Jr. was a scholar of medieval English literature and especially Geoffrey Chaucer. / Wikimedia Commons

For a thoroughgoing discussion of medieval aesthetics, read Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. Eco is known as the author of the encyclopedic medieval murder mystery, The Name of the Rose.

Older but more specifically influential in Chaucer studies is D.W. Robertson’s A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962). Here is a long excerpt on late medieval style.

We have seen in English architecture a tendency to compartmentalize, to prefer a juxtaposition of discrete forms to a lineally integrated whole in the French fashion….

English medieval art simply lacks what Roger Fry once called “the peculiar rhythmic flow and unity” of French art of the same period. But this does not mean that English art deliberately sought such a unity and failed to achieve it. Rather, it is safe to assume that the English preferred a more conservative manner in which the unity of the whole is implied rather than expressed….

This does not mean, of course, that Chaucer had no scheme in mind for arranging his stories. But this arrangement is a matter of implicit thematic development and is not the result of any outwardly established system. The unity of the collection as a whole is left implicit rather than explicit.

The same feature is evident in the allegories, where it has given rise to difficulties in critical interpretation. In The Book of the Duchess, for example, there is no outward connection between the story of Ceys and Alcion and the subsequent dream vision. Again, in The Parliament of Fowls, the connection between the dream of Scipio and the activities of the birds in Nature’s garden is implied rather than stated. In The Legend of Good Women the elaborate prologue seems to be connected with the tales only by the tenuous thread of the “penance” administered by the God of Love, and the stories themselves, aside from the fact that they are about unfortunate women, do not have any apparent unity. In The House of Fame the various parts all concern the same speaker, and they appear in narrative sequence, but otherwise they have little outward connection with one another. We may compare this situation wiht the arrangement of the pages in one of the great East Anglian psalters, where there is no explicit relationship between the marginalia and the initials. In general, Chaucer’s art lacks the formal unity which appears, in various guises, in both French and Italian art, as well as the coherence in space and time which characterizes more modern art. As a result, we have been quick to accuse him of “digressions,” sometimes alleging in support what we are pleased to regard as the principles of medieval rhetoric. The passage on free will in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the long meditation on the same subject in Troilus, Dorigen’s thoughts concerning Providence in the Franklin’s Tale–to cite only a few examples–have been condemned as irrelevancies which interrupt the narratives in which they occur. But the fact that elements such as these retain their surface discreteness may be attributed to a feature of English style. The separateness of the parts does not, however, imply the lack of an underlying unity, any more, let us say, than the separateness of “types” from their “antitypes” in medieval art implies such a lack of unity. Significant juxtapositions were an established technique of Gothic art, and English art particularly during the later Middle Ages exhibits a desire to keep the juxtaposed elements separate. (282-284)

Patristic Exegesis

The Church Fathers, a Kievan Rus’ miniature from Svyatoslav’s Miscellany, 1076 / Wikimedia Commons

The early Church fathers (hence “patristic,” from the patriarchs) developed a system of interpretive delineation as a way to make sense of scripture: the Four Levels of Scriptural Exegesis. Medieval scholar D.W. Robertson, Jr., in the latter half of the 20th century, headed a movement to understand medieval literature and arts in terms of this system. (In Chaucer studies, the approach is often called Robertsonianism.) Robertson, somewhat fanatically, insisted that all medieval literature, and art, was understood, even composed, from this perspective by artists inevitably inculcated with exegetical skills. The medieval arts were generated from and created by artists steeped in this multi-tiered way of seeing and interpreting — a sophisticated literacy which Western culture has subsequently lost.

The Literal Level

In the most basic sense, an audience will enjoy a good story (e.g., the Old Testament tale of Jonah being swallowed by a whale — or, actually, a big fish).

The Tropological Level

For a story to have any value, it is commonly expected to provide an edifying moral (e.g., as in the Jonah story, there is no escaping divine imperatives).

The Allegorical Level

Here is where the Robertsonians and modern interpretation part ways. Patristic exegesis would insist that the stories prefigure even more crucial scriptural material (e.g., Jonah in the whale’s belly allegorically anticipating Christ’s descent into hell prior to his resurrection).

The Angogical Level

Ultimately all stories illuminate heaven’s divine plan and contain a message relevant to Christian spiritual salvation. Robertson was convinced that this message inevitably involved the doctrine of caritas — Christian charity (e.g., the Jonah story finally denotes Christ’s active message of redemption through his willing descent which served as a manifestation of divine charity).

Since St. Paul himself insisted that “whatever was written … was written for our instruction” (Romans 15.4), and since medieval artists seem to have taken to heart the essence of this assertion (e.g., Chaucer, NPT VII.3441-42, Retr. 1083), proponents of patristic exegesis argue that the creative products of craftsmen and artisans schooled in such an aesthetic are designed to function on multiple subtle interpretive levels. The most intriguing art is able “to mingle details of an iconographic nature with other details which produce an effect of considerable verisimilitude” (Robertson 242). Even if you don’t buy into Robertson’s extremism, it is useful — often very productive — to be thinking loosely at least on many levels of symbolism and significance when examining medieval art. The Unicorn Tapestries are good examples, but you will see others as well.

Works Consulted

Donaldson, E. Talbot. “Patristic Exegesis in the Criticism of Medieval Literature: The Opposition.” Speaking of Chaucer. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1970. 134-153.

Robertson, D.W., Jr. A Preface to Chaucer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.

Courtly Love

Photograph of French philologist and historian of medieval French literature Bruno Paulin Gaston Paris / Wikimedia Common


We are so familiar with the love tradition that we mistake it for a natural and universal phenomenon and have no impulse to inquire into its origins. But it is difficult if not impossible to show love to be anything more than an artistic phenomenon or construct — a literary or performative innovation of the Middle Ages.

The term “Courtly Love” (“l’amour courtois”) was coined by Gaston Paris in 1883 (in the journal Romania), so the first problem is that we tend to let the Victorians define it for us. The terms that appear in the actual medieval period are “Amour Honestus” (Honest Love) and “Fin Amor” (Refined Love).

The concept was new in the Middle Ages. The medievals were the first to discover (or invent) it, the first to express this form of romantic passion. There was no literary nor social framework for it in the Christian world before the end of the 11th century; the Western tradition had no room for the expression of love in literature: there’s none in Beowulf or The Song of Roland. The religious tradition speaks of love, but that’s agape — platonic/christian love of all humankind as your brothers and sisters. In classical literature we witness what’s called love, but, as exemplified well by the case of Dido for Aeneas, the passion is often described in firy terms and always reads like eros — hot lust. (Medea and Phaedra are other cautionary examples, and “love” plunges them into crime and disgrace.) Ovid’s Ars Armitoria and Remedia Amoris (The Art of Love and The Cure for Love) are ironic and didactic treatises generated from a premise that love is a minor peccadillo. Ovid gives rules for illicit conduct.

Rather unlike “Courtly Love,” the literature of the Church is anti-feminist. And the tastemakers in feudal society marry not for love but for real estate and heirs. It’s been said that in the Middle Ages you married a fief and got a wife thrown in with the bargain. Idealized “love” goes against the utilitarian economics of marriage, and passion was forbidden by the Church, so until the courtly version came along, Love was duty and “Luv” was sinful. Thus, “Courtly Love” emerged and remained outside of marriage. (Love and marriage don’t go together like a horse and carriage.) C.S. Lewis decided that its key features were humility, courtesy, and adultery.

Historical Basis?:

Scholars who have believed that Courtly Love was a true historical development rely on the literature to read back a history. They have decided that it all began in southern France, which was sufficiently peaceful and isolated for such a movement to develop. Old Roman war dogs retired here (Avignon; Toulouse; Nimes under the domaine of Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine) and the leisure class, a wealthy and self-sufficient society, found a new fad. (After all, you can’t love if you’re poor — check your Andreas Capellanus.) Intellectuals from all over were attracted to the area’s courts. The south was freer and more tolerant, and was pluralistic (with Arabs, Jews, and Byzantines numbered among the residents). And perhaps the men outnumbered the women (check Rules 3 and 31 in Andreas).


What we find are troubadour poems. The troubadours were not really wandering minstrels but mostly rich young men, using the Provençal langue d’Oc. Circa 1071 is the birth year for the first known troubadour, William IX of Poitiers. [In the north, feudal knights preferred epic poems of chivalry like the Arthurian tales crossing the channel. But trouvères picked up the troubadour tradition, transposed into the langue d’Oil. In Germany they were called minnesingers.]

Consider Arnaut Daniel’s “Chanson do.ill mot son plan e prim” (“A Song with Simple Words and Fine”) and Bernard de Ventadour’s “Can vei la lauzeta mover” (“When I See the Lark Moving”). Guillaume de Machaut comes later, in the fourteenth century, but is a key big name in love songs: “Amours me fait desirer” (“Love Fills Me with Desire”), “Se ma dame m’a guerpy” (“If My Lady Has Left Me”), “Se je souspir” (“If I Sigh”), “Douce dame jolie” (“Fair and Gentle Lady”), etc.

The formes fixes of the poetry included:

Ballade: a a b (or, if a = ab, then ab ab c)Virelai: A b b a A b b a A

Rondeau: A B a A a b A B

In other words, they were learned combinations of rhymes, stanzas, and concepts. Some of the music survives but we’ve lost the form of the rhythms.

The Courtly Love sung of in the songs represents a new structure, not that of the Church or of feudalism, but an overturning of both. Love is now a cult — a sort of religion but outside of normal religion — and a code — outside of feudalism but similarly hierarchical. The language and the relationships are similar (and the language, sometimes borrowed from religion, ends up borrowed back by religion in certain lyrics). In feudalism the vassal is the “man” of his sovereign lord; in courtly love, the vassal is the “man” of his sovereign mistress. In religion, the sinner is penitent and asks that Mary intercede on his behalf with Christ, who is Love. In courtly love, the sinner (against the laws of love) asks the mother of the love god, Cupid’s mother Venus, to intercede on his behalf with Cupid or Eros, who is the god of love. So this new love religion seems to parody real religion.

The Procedure:

That’s the static phenomenon interpreted. But the process of courtly love, a long-standing relationship with standardized procedures, can be extracted from the literature and tales of love in the medieval period. Here’s the deal. Andreas Capellanus describes the optic physiology of the first moments. In short, he sees her. Perhaps she is walking in a garden. The vision of her, which is made up of light rays, enters into his eyeball (hence the blind cannot fall in love). Through a rather circuitous anatomical miracle, the love-ray makes its way down around his esophagus and sticks in his heart. Now he’s love-struck. She doesn’t know about him at all. She is of high status and “daungerous,” which means not that she knows Tai Kwon Do but rather that she is standoffish. He is abject.

After haunting himself with visions of her limbs (by the way, she’s long gone now), he swoons a lot and follows various of Andreas’ rules (“you can’t eat, you can’t sleep; there’s no doubt you’re in deep”). Eventually all this love has to come out somehow, and remarkably it tends to emerge in well-crafted stanzas with rhyme patterns mentioned above and a zippy little meter. Secretly, the lover writes poems to the lady called “complaints” (“planh” in Provençal) because they are largely constructed of laments about his own suffering. These may be delivered to her by an intermediary. But she remains scornful while he or his friend continues heaving poems in her window tied to rocks.

Before actually getting a poem in the teeth, she, through some quirky event, will come to know who has been sending the poems. Eventually she will smile, which means she has accepted him as her “drut” (“dread” — meaning not “oh, no, there he is again” but rather in the sense of awe: “revered one”). Next comes the performance of tests. The lover gets a token, perhaps a glove or a girdle (not the 18-hour kind — more a scarf or sash). And the woman gets carte blanche — jousting, journeys, deeds, anything she wants. “Sir Eminem has insulted me. Kill him.” He has to. “Bring home some pork chops. Those last ones were awful.” He has to go slay a wild boar. “Fetch me the molars of the Sultan of Baghdad.” He’s got to climb the widest sea and swim the highest mountain and, though he has nothing against them per se, he’s got to hack his way through the Sultan’s guards and face the old boy, saying, “Render hither thine molars, payan swine!” “Nay, that likest me not nor will I nother!” Then he has to decapitate the Sultan, wrench out the back teeth, and get back home (probably switching clothes with a palmer at some point), only to find out that now she wants some Baskin Robbins pistachio swirl. And this goes on endlessly.

Something Fishy:

Supposedly the finer points of courtly love were so complex that Eleanor’s daughter, Marie of Champagne, commissioned her chaplain, Andreas, to write a rulebook. Another religious man, Chretien de Troyes (fl. 1160-1172) was ordered to write “Lancelot,” in which the knight’s hesitation at getting into a cart is crucial. Andreas supplies a Latin prose work, De Arte Honeste Amandi (The Art of Courtly Love, as the title is usually loosely translated), which subsequently has been taken as a textbook on courtly love.

But Andreas is a churchman. Check out some of the chapters in the Table of Contents! And what’s your honest reaction to reading some of this. A textbook on illicit love? 31 rules? Why 31?

Andreas also provides legal cases! Supposedly, the history of love included Courts of Love ruled by the ladies. There’s no historical evidence that this ever took place, and it seems pretty unlikely, but Andreas’ material has been referred to so often that it has come to seem true.

Here’s one case: a woman’s husband has died. Can she accept her servant as her lover? The decision: no, she must marry within her rank. This is not to say that a widow may not marry a lover, but then he would be her husband, not her lover.Another case: a knight is serving his lady by defending her name. It’s getting embarrassing and she wants it stopped. There is much debate about this case. The decision: no, the woman is wrong; she cannot forbid him from loving her.

A final case: two little kids were playing in their medieval sandbox and noticed all the fine ladies and gentlemen engaged in the new love fad about them. They imitatively also agreed to a contract between them: that they would share a kiss each day. They years have passed and this guy keeps showing up at the door every morning for the kiss. The woman wants to be released from this juvenile contract. Does she have a case? The decision: granted, because the rules specifically state that one cannot be about the business of love until one is around the age of thirteen. Therefore all those kisses given since that age must be returned. (Huh?)

Feminist Perspective:

Does Courtly Love heighten the status of women? Yes, compared to their roles merely as “cup-bearers” and “peace-weavers” — that is, in Beowulf for example, servants and political pawn in marriage. But…

One must acknowledge that the chivalrous stance is a game the master group plays in elevating its subject to pedestal level…. As the sociologist Hugo Beigel has observed, both the courtly and the romantic versions of love are ‘grants’ which the male concedes out of his total power. Both have had the effect of obscuring the patriarchal character of Western culture and in their general tendency to attribute impossible virtues to women, have ended by confirming them in a narrow and often remarkably conscribing sphere of behavior. (Kate Millett, Sexual Politics 37; qtd. in Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics 27)

Marxist Perspective:

The “love story” has been one of the most pervasive and effective of all ideological apparatuses: one of the most effective smokescreens available in the politics of cultural production. One need only think of the historical popularity of crime stories purveyed as “love stories”: from the Trojan War — that paradigmatic “linkage” of love and genocide — to Bonnie and Clyde, from the subcultural Sid and Nancy to the hyperreal Ron and Nancy, we see the degree to which the concept of love is used as a “humanizing” factor, a way of appropriating figures whom we have no other defensible reason to want to identify with. It is also a way of containing whatever political or social threat such figures may pose within the more palatable and manipulable (because simultaneously fetishized as universal and individual) motivations of love and sexual desire…. the “love story,” a narrative that frequently disguises itself (qua narrative) or is taken as “natural” as opposed to the contrivances of other generic forms. (Charnes 136-137).


The era of courtly love vanished quickly under the impact of economic and cultural devastation brought by the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229). Northern knights headed by Simon de Montfort swept down, the country was impovershed, freedom disappeared, and an inquisition and northern French dialect were imposed. The rule of Paris put an end to the south for centuries. But the songs did survive and travel, into the north by the trouvères, east into Germany with the minnesingers, south to Italy.

Works Cited

The Art of Courtly Love. The Early Music Consort of London. London, Virgin Classics Ltd., 1996. D 216190.

Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. “Tales of Love and Marriage.” The Power of Myth. NY: Doubleday, 1988. 186-204.

Charnes, Linda. Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Dodd, William George. “The System of Courtly Love.” 1913. Rpt. in Chaucer Criticism, Vol. II. Ed. Richard J. Schoeck and Jerome Taylor. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1961. 1-15. Dodd treats the phenomenon as historical.

Donaldson, E. Talbot. “The Myth of Courtly Love.” Speaking of Chaucer. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1970. Donaldson declares Andreas a clerical joke.

Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love. 1936. NY: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Troubadour and Trouvère Songs. Music of the Middle Ages, Vol. 1. Lyrichord Early Music Series. NY: Lyrichord Discs Inc., 1994. LEMS 8001.

Analysis of The Canterbury Tales

The General Prologue

A woodcut from William Caxton’s second edition of The Canterbury Tales printed in 1483 / Wikimedia Commons

“Whan that Aprill” places us immediately in the reverdie tradition — literally the “re-greening,” a mode in medieval lyric poetry celebrating the revival of spring and all that that entails. If you had a responsible “old school” 12th-grade high school English teacher, you had to memorize the first 18 lines of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. I’m still carrying my 18 around inside my head.


This reverdie passage presents a unified and ideal organic hierarchy — a great chain of awakenings from the rain to the roots of the plants to the flowers, the sun to the fields and the birds growing musical and insomniacal, to humans who maybe sublimate the same impulses into pilgrimages to holy shrines of martyrs. So we progress from the natural to the divine, or from the natural/divine to the anthropomorphic/sacred.

Note the asssonance associated with the western wind (5), which brings soft rains in England (“Westren wind when wilt thou blow?”).

This is damn good stuff, people; nothing comparable in English before it, not even Chaucer’s own poetry to this point. Memorize these 18 lines!


Suddenly, after that unified structured vision, we find ourselves hearing “Bifel,” “I,” “by aventure” — and we’re in the realm of chance, offhandedness, subjectivity (so as it semed me”), personal specificity, randomness, the casual. That we get twenty-nine in the company seems an arbitrary number.

A distinction is now required between Chaucer-poet and Chaucer-pilgrim. It’s the pilgrim giving us the prologue. Point-of-view is through this puppet’s eyes. So the often ironic poet is using a narrator, a persona, through which to speak — a pretty stupid faux-Chaucer.

See Thomas J. Garbáty’s “The Degradation of Chaucer’s ‘Geoffrey'” [PMLA 89 (January 1974): 97-104] for a seminal discussion of the dynamics among the “levels of perception.” At the first level is Chaucer-poet. The reader holds a tenuous and tense position on the second level, being pulled towards Chaucer-poet’s level of understanding but never entirely sure, yet certainly more aware than Chaucer-pilgrim. [The reader is known in law school as “the reasonable man.” “The reasonable man is a foolish fellow. The reasonable man doesn’t shoot a trespasser on his property.”]

The Knight:

The Knight is traditionally seen as one of the few idealized characters among the portraits, representing the chivalric ideal and seeming to be a peacemaker when he can. “And though that he were worthy, he was wys” — a line that assumes the normal mutual exclusivity of worth and wisdom. The Knight hasn’t changed gear from battle (“Al bismotered with his habergeon”), indicating that he has immediately committed himself to holy pilgrimage. But Terry Jones, the most thorough medievalist from among the Monty Python troupe, argues in his 1970s book that the Knight is actually a mercenary (e.g., “Somtyme with the lord of Palatye / Agayn another hethen in Turkye”).

The Squire:

The Knight’s duties are to his lord and to God; the Squire’s to his lady, and his “lady” is not Mary. (So with the Knight he forms the tripartite composite of chivalry.) This is the Knight’s son, who is a knight-in-training. His “lokkes” are “crulle” because of the metathesis of the “r.” Learning to carve is part of his training, at the page stage. Eventually he’ll carve before his lord.

The Yeoman:

“A Yeman hadde he” — and the Knight is the pronoun antecedent. So was the Squire a later addition? A yeoman serves the knightly class as a kind of forest policeman. This guy can use what he carries. His image of St. Christopher is appropriate here since Christopher protects travellers. “He’s a walking tree, a tank — a good fellow to have around.” But we get only his appearance; Chaucer-pilgrim knows very little about this fellow.

The first three portraits show three ranks in the secular classes. Next we’ll have the religious “nobility,” but things go slightly haywire….

The Prioress:

The portrait starts on an off-line and puts us off-balance. “Prioresse” does not rhyme with “gentilesse” or “holiness,” and indeed the whole portrait is askew. This is Madame Eglentyne (or Sweetbriar), a peculiar nickname for someone in a nunnery. [J.M. Manly in New Light identified a Madame Argentine in St. Leonard’s, but the identification is weak.] The exclamation, “by Seinte Loy!” (120) is a dainty oath and a courtly saint. Everything about the description is “ful,” such as the fairness of her spoken French (but what about Latin?). As we scan along issues of physiognomy, courtly behavior, language, dining etiquette, and more, we may be waiting to hear about her religious feelings, her charity and piety. What we get to substitute is her devotion to mice (144f). (But wait. Who has the traps set in the nunnery in the first place? She’s the Prioress!)

Nunneries were often finishing schools for extra daughters of the rich. But the last line here is also ambiguous — her Amor vincit omnia “brooch” — as is her character. Chaucer-pilgrim is enthusiastic and positive, maybe even a little smitten. What about Chaucer-poet? The irony is here, but is there condemnation? The irony against the religious figures will increase, but Chaucer never seems to judge (possibly because, being in the royal court and on royal business so often, one had to be diplomatic despite one clearly seeing what’s wrong with the world).

Another Nonne … and preestes thre:

The couplet is problematic. Is such an entourage likely? In the end, Chaucer seems to have changed his plan anyway. The Second Nun tells a tale, and “the” Nun’s Priest. There are no indications of further priests.

The Monk:

If the Prioress is too much a woman, the Monk is too much a man. His portrait is the same length as hers. Reference comes here to Chaucer-pilgrim speaking to the other pilgrims. The Monk’s words and colloquialisms are even given here: “He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen” (177); “likned til a fissh that is waterlees” (180). The pilgrim is not discriminating; he gullibly, naïvely accepts what he hears from the other pilgrims.

Monks and nuns were cloistered orders supposed to be dedicated to the contemplative life. They tended to settle in rural retreats, and libraries would accumulate at the monasteries. Benedictines (Black Monks) started in 597 c.e., Cistercians (White Monks) in 1128. Augustinian, Premonstratensian, and Gilbertine orders arose later. When enough corruption had infected the system, the mendicant orders of friars were created to counter this. Friars were to be devoted to preaching missions, which involved travelling. Dominicans (Black Friars), a preaching order, got their start in 1221; Franciscans (Grey Friars), a begging order, in 1224; Carmelites (White Friars), a penitential order, in 1240; and Austin or Augustinian Friars in 1248. None of them were supposed to be given to enthusiastically to “venerie” (166) suppoedly hunting, but whatever it really means!

The Friar:

This Friar, Hubert, is a “lymytour” — he begs in a restricted “limited” area. He gets a lot of those “Ful”s that we heard in the Prioress’ portrait. “Unto his ordre he was a noble post” (214). The implication is that he knocks up women and pays to get them married off. He’s popular because, probably unlike the local legitimate priest, he gives easy penance: “Oh, so you killed your mother; well, we all do that occasionally….” But of course this forestalls any real sincere reflection on one’s sins.

The Merchant:

Now we get the townspeople. In the late Middle Ages, the rise of the middle class, or merchant class, threw society into a tizzy. What standards apply to this new batch? What makes a good knight or good friar is obvious. But what makes a good merchant? Money?

This Merchant sits “hye on horse” (271), which ought to be imposing, or maybe he’s trying too hard to seem so. His Flemish hat would increase the effect. This guy is in debt, as we find out in a slight breach of the pilgrim’s dullard pose. In the build-up, he’s a worthy man (283); but then, “sooth to seyn, I noot how men hym calle” (284). The bottom line is a deflation: we don’t know this guy’s name.

The Clerk:

As an Oxford scholar in the 14th century, this fellow would have learned the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and then the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy (astrology), music). He appears goofy, and he drives a heap (287); but finally he is admirable. Every Chaucer teacher who ever needs a motto chooses the key line here: “And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche” (308).

The Man of Law:

Not just a dime-a-dozen lawyer, this guy is one of about twenty sergeants analogous to our Supreme Court Justices. Because of the appearance of the term “pynche” (326), it has been suggested that maybe Chaucer means Thomas Pynchbeck, the sergeant who signed against Chaucer for an arrest in a debt case in 1388. Subtle digs appear (311, 313, and 319: “fee simple” = simply fee?). The use of the term “might” is also nice: His purchasyng myghte nat been infect” (320) — could not be? or just perhaps wasn’t?

The Franklin:

The Franklin is simply a landowner, in company with the sergeant. Is that supposed to suggest something? We seem to head towards a picture of gluttony, but then we find out this guy is generous and neighborly. He serves the community as knight of the shire (356).

The Guildsmen:

Travelling together are a Haberdasher, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Dyer, and a Tapestry-maker. They are not distinguished as individuals, but then, neither are many group-think company men one meets in life. The implication is that they’re henpecked too (374ff).

See Thomas J. Garbáty’s article, “Chaucer’s Guildsmen and their Fraternity” [Journal of English and Germanic Philology (JEGP) 59 (October 1960): 691-709]. This is not a trade guild, like food services, but a social guild. Records of guilds in Aldersgate in London near St. Botolph’s church shows that they had meetings the Sunday after Easter. In 1387 Easter was April 7th. The guild would have met on the 14th and then hit the road on the Wednesday, April 17th, 1387.

The Cook:

The Cook is with the Guildsmen. His “mormal” (386) is a gangrenous itchy running sore; “blankmanger” (387) is a kind of mousse. And that’s “Too bad.” (But the association is disgusting.)

The Shipman:

He looks like a pirate and, significantly, “He knew alle the havenes … And every cryke” (407ff).

The Physician:

He’s “grounded in astronomye” (414) and is fond of gold.

The Wife of Bath:

Try as the narrator may, he cannot get a fix on the Wife of Bath. Why is the conjunction “But” in the second line: “But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe” (446)? He inserts the cliché anti-feminist joke about her wearing big hats (453-455), but it comes off as desperate and arbitrary. “Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve, / Withouten oother compaignye in youthe” (460-461). She travels a lot. (Is she a professional pilgrim? cruising for her next husband?) She’s “Gat-tothed” (468), which may indicate something (lusty?) or may just be another desperate attempt to pinpoint something about her. She continues to resist categorization. The narrator returns to describing her clothes, and so tries a multitude of approaches but ends up with just a jumble of details.

The Parson:

The Parson is given an unequivocally ideal portrait. He serves as a role model to his flock, for “if gold ruste, what shal iren do?” (500). He is a deviation from the norm, as Chaucer indicates what 14th-century parsons are typically like. This fellow stays put. “He was a shepherde and nought a mercenarie” (514). There’s no rift here between the man and his occupation.

The Plowman:

The Plowman, to emphasize brotherhood with the Parson, is also an ideal, and also stays put. Because of the labor shortage after a severe round of the Black Plague, workers like this guy could go mobile and accept better offers, but that signalled more chaos to the medieval mind. After this portrait comes a steady degeneration of scummy pilgrims.

The Miller:

The cinematographic close-up puts the Miller right in your face. And “nosethirles” — another instance of metathesis of the “r.” The Miller’s red hair might signal treachery. His ability to cheat customers is standard; his real distinction is his talent for knocking doors off their hinges with his head (550-551). He plays bagpipes and rides out front on the pilgrimage.

The Manciple:

This is an obscure profession involving the purchase of provisions for a law school. It’s an odd choice unless Chaucer had been acquainted with the study of law. This weasel can outwit lawyers.

The Reeve:

The Reeve serves as the foreman of a manor. This guy strikes us as sour and humorless. He also feathers his own nest at the expense of his young naïve lord. He rides last on the pilgrimage, the furthest away from his enemy the Miller. It also affords him a position of watchfulness.

The Summoner:

Now the real dregs. The Summoner delivers citations for individuals to appear in the ecclesiastical court. Garbáty determined that this guy’s symptoms are not those of leprosy but rather of syphilis [“The Summoner’s Occupational Disease.” Medical History 7.4 (October 1963): 348-359]. In any case, the outward appearance matches the inward (im)moral character, and surely he stinks of garlic and onions (634).

The Pardoner:

The Pardoner is empowered to transmit indulgences. He has formed a sinister brotherhood with the Summoner. His yellow stringy hair, glaring eyes, and small voice (688) make him disconcerting; and the narrator says, “I trowe he were a gelding or a mare” (691).

He’s a eunuch? homosexual? feminoid?

He’s parasitic, spoiling the potential for the Parson to lead his flock by introducing quick-fix cure-all false relics, for which his role is that of sleazy informercial pitch-man.

The Host:

Chaucer requests absolution from blame (725ff), and then gives us a portrait of the Host in action. Harry Bailey is the self-appointed authority, literary critic, emcee of the pilgrimage. He flatters the crowd (763ff), gets them to vote for they know not what (783), and turns the pilgrimage into a competition: each pilgrim will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back, “Tales of best sentence and moost solaas” (798). The Host stands to make a bundle: everyone else will pay for the winner’s dinner, but of course at his establishment. And going against his judgment will cost you big also (805f, 833f).

On the morning of the start of the pilgrimage, they draw straws to determine who will tell the first tale. “Were it by aventure, or sort, or cas, / The sothe is this: the cut fil to the Knyght” (844-845). Peachy, but the competition subverts the true meaning of pilgrimage, disallowing the reflective process that’s supposed to be the essence of the journey.

The Plan of The Canterbury Tales

For the source of the frame, some might look to 1001 Nights, such material from the ancient orient being brought back from the Crusades, but nah. Really, Boccaccio’s Decameron may seem more likely, but there’s no evidence Chaucer and Boccaccio ever met in Italy and the first reference in English to the Decameron doesn’t come until 1404 — so it’s not well known in Chaucer’s day. The Canterbury Tales has more in common with the Novellae of Giovanni Sercambi. The frame is a February trip during a Lucca plague in which the group, including clergy, leave town until the disease subsides. A leader is elected and they pass down the west coast of Italy, across the south, and on up. They tell tales on the road, in inns, in gardens. References are made by the leader to places they pass, to shrewish wives, to jealousy. But the author tells all the stories, not the people on the road, so there’s no interaction as in Chaucer. Although the time is correct, there’s only one manuscript of this work, so it probably wasn’t popular; there’s no reference to suggest it was known in England. Did Chaucer know the collection though?

The number of pilgrims is a problem. The narrator says there are nine and twenty. There are actually 30, not counting Chaucer and the Host. The big problem is the mention of the three priests (A 163-164); should there really be only one priest? Is this a scribal corruption? The Canon’s Yeoman joins later, but the Canon himself also joins, then leaves. Carleton Brown’s theory was that the Squire was not originally in the General Prologue; the “he” in the Yeoman’s description refers to the Knight. The phrase “wel nine and twenty” may be vague anyway. Donaldson would have the three priests as the Prioress’ entourage since she’s a woman of style. Robert Platt tries to solve this by leaving out the line. (So editors can make lines and priests disappear! It’s absurd.)

Each pilgrim was to have told four stories, which would have yielded ultimately 120 stories — the “long hundred” and a round number. The medieval mind was different and could securely conceive of starting the building of a cathedral that would not be completed for generations. Donald Howard tries to say that The Canterbury Tales are complete from the Knight to the Parson; it’s just that the middle remains unfinished. Charles Owen thinks Chaucer did intend for the pilgrims to reach Canterbury and travel back with both journeys including dates and geographical specification.

Dating the (fictional) pilgrimage has absorbed other critics. W.W. Skeat fits it with the other works, figuring the earliest possible year would have been 1385. The April 18th reference in The Man of Law’s Introduction seems to indicate the second day of the trip. 1389 is eliminated because it would be a Sunday, Easter Sunday, and no travel would have taken place. 1390 is eliminated because April 17th, the first day of the pilgrimage, was a Sunday. 1391 is too late in reference to the other works. In 1386, April 20th was Good Friday and it’s unlikely the pilgrims, especially the Monk and the Prioress, would be travelling during Holy Week. In 1388, April 18th was a Saturday, making it impossible to reach Canterbury in time. But in 1387, April 18th fell on a Thursday. Easter was early that year (April 7th), and the group could have started out on Wednesday and reached Canterbury by Saturday — five days being reasonable. This date works well with the other writings too and coincides with the loss of two jobs in Chaucer’s official life.

The time references are confusing. After “Whan that Aprill” (A 1-8), The Reeve’s Prologue refers to it being halfway prime (between 6:00 and 9:00, so 7:30 am), after the Knight’s and Miller’s tales have been told?! Is the Man of Law telling his tale still the first day? The Squire’s Tale takes place at prime — but that’s unproductive. Near the end (I 1-12) it’s late afternoon, around 4:00 pm.

Place names are important for an ordering of the tales and the organic evolution. Setting out from London at five miles (A 826) would be St. Thomas Watering, Greenwich (A 3907), Dartford (no mention is made but Group A would not be finished yet). At 30 miles, Rochester (B2 3116); at 40 miles, Sidingbourne (D 845-847, D 2294). Ospring at 46 miles out gets no mention. Boghton under Blee is close to the Canon’s interruption (G 556). Bob up and Down (H 2) may mean Harbledown. And then Canterbury at 55 miles. The tales should follow geographical references, but they don’t.

Those ancient Chaucerians who thought the journey took four days with three stops (e.g., Furnivall, Skeat, Baugh) tended not to speak to those Chaucerians who thought it took three days with two stops (e.g., Tatlock).

Regarding the groupings of the tales (listed in editions by letter and/or by Roman numeral) there is a controversial link between Group B1 (the Man of Law) and Group B2 (the Shipman, Prioress, Chaucer, Monk, Nun’s Priest). Despite the C / B2 ordering in all manuscripts, and despite having to use the worst manuscript to drum up the Shipman’s link as an excuse, many Chaucerians feel that Henry Bradshaw (a librarian at Cambridge) was right in that Chaucer was working towards the “Bradshaw shift” — bringing together B1 / B2 / C.

The Knight’s Tale

The Knight’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


For the story of Theseus, see Boccaccio’s Teseida and Statius’ Thebiad (and in an indirect way, Euripides’ The Suppliant Women; for the philosophical base, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480? – 524? c.e.) was a Roman philosopher and statesman, a consol, member of the Roman Senate, under Theodric the Great. But he was exiled and while in prison questioned his situation before being executed. He decided on a course of contemptus mundi — contempt of the world. One wants to avoid desiring “false felicities” since matters of this world are controlled by the goddess Fortuna and her wheel. Perfect felicity is one’s true home (in God, although Boethius tries to do all this without religion). The prison theme resonates in Chaucer’s story, as does a bit of the questioning, as when Arcite knows something’s wrong and gets no answers. The pilgrims themselves are wandering in search of something — a symbol of their true home and destination?


In The Legend of Good Women (F: 420) appears a reference of “Palamon and Arcite of Thebes,” so there seems to have been a version of the tale two (?) years before the General Prologue, perhaps revised to fit the Canterbury Tales context. The Boethian philosophical concern is similar to that in the Troilus, presumably from the mid-1380s.


This is a “chivalric romance of philosophical complexion.” It’s got the intrusion of the gods and the funeral pyre from the epic, but fin’amor too. The “romance” isn’t a romance because it includes romance; it’s a romance because it’s written in romance. That is, the genre got its start among the Roman legions stationed for long whiles where they grew to speak “romanice” — a vulgar debased form of the language versus classical Latin. “Romanice” = roman-like. Hence, anything written in romanice = romance. This is a new genre in the Middle Ages (with magic, enchantment, females). For more, see my separate page on Medieval Romance.
The Knight’s Tale is a bastardization of a “Rome the Great” romance.

Tale and Teller:

The perennial Chaucerian studies question is: how does the tale fit the teller. Beneath the surface, what concerns are expressed; what worries each pilgrim narrator? It’s an early form of psychology and we’re invited to engage in psychoanalytic criticism.

A chivalric tale is not necessarily identical with a courtly tale, and the General Prologue assigns the courtly side to the Squire. This instead is a much darker tale, with very slow progression and movement. Arcite deteriorates one or two years (1381), works in service of the household one or two years (1426), serves as squire of the chamber for three years (1446), and one year passes before the tournament (1850). Concurrently, Palamon spends seven years in prison (1452).

The Knight seems concerned with meaning and order. There are noticeable attempts to make sense, to make methodical what, despite these ideals, seems to be ruled by chance and passions. Theseus as the Knight’s spokesperson has a sequence of codes for coping with life and speaks from authority and wisdom. But underneath all this is a fear of anarchy and bestiality in the story, volcanic passions and disorder underneath the stately veneer of the controlled narrative style. The phrase “to and for” signals a pointlessness, or else a pent-up energy. Perhaps the Knight is a “soldier of fortune” in the philosophical sense. The medieval world inherits the long-standing notion in western culture that the ages register a degeneration (golden, silver, bronze, iron, clay) as we’re grow increasingly distant from the First Mover’s initial move that set it all in motion.

At the end of the 14th century one finds cynicism towards chivalry and courtly love. Perhaps the Knight is hesitant to speak in front of the pilgrims and his self-consciousness explains his false starts and editorial qualifications. Despite private enthusiasm for a story such as this one, public responsibility makes him feel caught in the gaze. Why is the tale so damned long? Because he keeps talking. Is he afraid to stop and let the other pilgrims speak afterwards? Is he hanging onto this ordered vision with force and authority to retard the inevitable process of deterioration which is always a present threat?

The Knight as narrator is uptight. He can’t give in, but must constantly catch himself and control matters. He must always objectify and maintain a detached distance, so he’s always out of touch. Clinical Arcite (2688, 2745-2760); dismissal of afterlife (2810); Egeus’ platitudes passing for wisdom (2843); funeral games (2961).

Bizarre sports strategy for love suit:

  • pre-game prognostications (2513ff)
  • rules include penalty booth (2551)
  • count men on field — no cheating (2595)
  • fancy sports talk (alliteration) (2605ff)
  • the occasional time-out (2621)
  • marginalization of women (Emelye finally has no say literally)
  • self-congratulation (no one died) (2700ff) — blindness to pointless destruction
  • male bonding (2733)
  • pointlessness registered in dispersal (2740).


The theme of amicitia — idealized male friendship — being tested became popular in the early Elizabethan period, unless the 17th Earl of Oxford was entirely responsible for the play Palamon and Arcite, presented before the Queen at the University of Oxford ceremonies in 1566 when Edward de Vere graduated. A play on the same subject was playing some years later, long before the quarto edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen emerged in 1634 — probably a revised and updated “old piece of Shakespeare juvenilia or perhaps a surviving torso of an update that de Vere attempted late in life” (Farina 55). This theme of amicitia appears in Damon and Pithias (another suspected adolescent de Vere effort from the 1560s), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and perhaps with the Hamlet/Horatio friendship.

The Miller’s Tale

Opening of The Miller’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


The ideal order breaks down into realistic randomness and the interplay of characters when the Miller intrudes on the Host’s intended introduction of the Monk as the next teller of a tale. But the Host also instigates competition immediately, and one wonders what was it about the Knight’s Tale that seems so necessary “to quite” (3119), and, if it concerns any degree of elitism — note the emphasis on the reception of “the gentils” (3113) — how the Miller is likely to take the Host’s insistence that “Som bettre man” (3130) tell the next tale. Is it truly liquor that has the Miller “al pale” (3120) and barely able to sit on his horse (3121).

Note the assumptions and antagonisms. The Reeve has moral objections in advance, already seems to hate the Miller, and may have a certain degree of occupational sensitivity. But everyone, including us, makes assumptions about the nature of the Miller and the coming tale.

Note the poses and disclaimers. The Miller admits he’s drunk; but, slyly, whom does he implicate in that fault involving “the ale of Southwerk” (3140)? Then our narrator apologizes too (3167-3186) — all this before the tale has even begun! Naturally no one takes the narrator’s advice to “Turne over the leef and chese another tale” (3177).


A student once wrote accidentally but aptly: “The whole tale is a love triangle between three men and one woman.”

The genre of tale is known as the fabliau. Fabliaux often do involve triangles between a wife, her lover, and a cuckolded husband, and they usually do amount to a sexual joke. The basic plot is familiar and the fabliau always compact — nearly every line sets up the joke. Between 200 and 300 of these survive in French; in English, only a handful, and half are Chaucer’s (the Miller’s, the Reeve’s, the Friar’s, the Shipman’s). But the fabliau is a courtly form with an aristocratic perspective that finds itself amused by rubes; it is not really common people’s entertainment (just as The Beverly Hillbillies was not designed to target the Appallachian demographic). Part of the joke sometimes is that the low-class buffoons are cast into roles in which they attempt to imitate the manners of the court.

John the carpenter is old, we are told, and has married the now 18-year-old Alisoun: “Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage” (3224). We can buy into this cliché wholeheartedly so that the cuckolding remains delightful, but a possible problem is that we never get any evidence confirming this prejudgment. John travels to Oseneye, apparently often (3274, 3400), with no metaphoric “caging” of his wife; and even when Absolon signs love songs outside their window at night, John’s reaction is weary rather than homicidal (3366ff). John is concerned for “hende” Nicholas when the clerk locks himself up as part of the cuckolding plan, and his first reaction is one of concern for his wife when Nicholas tells him a second Noah’s flood is coming (3522ff). So how funny is this joke really going to be?

Also bizarre perhaps, the first time John is away and Nicholas is grabbing Alisoun “by the queynte” (3276) and has “thakked hire aboute the lendes weel” (3304), they do no more than plan to make a plan. They even have time to kill afterwards, and Nicholas strums on his “sawtrie” (3305-3306). The next time John is gone on a business trip, they spend the entire time making the plan.

An odd moment occurs when John decides to break into Nicholas’ room to find out what has happened to him.

“Get me a staf, that I may underspore,
Whil that thou, Robyn, hevest up the dore.
He shal out of his studiyng, as I gesse.”
And to the chambre dore he gan hym dresse.
His knave was a strong carl for the nones,
And by the haspe he haaf it of atones;
Into the floor the dore fil anon.

But didn’t we hear that the Miller’s name is Robyn (3129) and that one of his talents is for knocking doors off their hinges (550-551)? Is this some kind of autobiographical cameo? What seems to be the case is that Chaucer is experimenting here with an impulse that will quickly become more sophisticated and natural: the inhabiting of a character in the tale by the pilgrim narrator him- or herself.

So, with John in a tub in the rafters of the barn, “Doun of the laddre stalketh Nicholay, / And Alisoun ful softe adoun she spedde; / Withouten wordes mo they goon to bedde” (3648-3650). Along comes Absolon, “And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole” (3731). The kiss is weird to him “For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd” (3737). “‘Tehee!’ quod she, and clapte the wyndow to” (3740). Absolon shifts drastically to extreme disillusionment and bitterness, humorlessly devoted now to “quyting.” He gets a hot poker, returns, and Nicholas takes a turn at the window, adding a fart (3806). The poker is applied. When John hears the cries, “Help! Water! Water!” (3815), he cuts the rope “And doun gooth al” (3821) — a quoting if not quyting of the Knight in his tale.

If this slapstick were accompanied by nothing other than some cartoon noise, it would be hilarious. So why does Chaucer add the fact that “with the fal he brosten hadde his arm” (3829) — a singularly unfunny detail that did not need to intrude upon the joke? Nicholas and Alisoun tell the townspeople that he’s insane (3832f), and no one will listen to him subsequently. They have prejudged him and merely laugh at his expense (3840).

How does the tale really fit the teller?

The Reeve’s Tale

Opening of The Reeve’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


What is there to “quite” really? The Reeve seems to overreact to The Miller’s Tale based on the Miller having made his dupe character a carpenter and old. The Reeve seems to ramble a bit about being old and yet still having sexual desire, despite his supposed moral high horse. He offers an ad hominem attack unlike the Miller.


The Reeve’s Tale is another fabliau with students playing the joke on the buffoon character. (A similar story of the cradle mix-up can be found in Boccaccio’s Decameron.) But in most other respects, the pilgrimage is degenerating. The Miller’s Tale was ebulliant comedy; this is crabbed bitterness. In The Miller’s Tale, civility masked earthier motives; here civility masks meanness and guile. There’s no elaborate game here, just a seizing of vile opportunities.

Instead of wit, we get a mockery of dialects. It’s the first use of dialect in English literature: the northern Norfolk accent noticeable in the vowels of the two students.

Overall, the degeneration has taken us from the idealized distant Emelye in The Knight’s Tale to the sexpot Alisoun in The Miller’s Tale to the priggish, uppity, and stupid miller’s wife in The Reeve’s Tale and the fat, stupid, overprotected daughter. Neither woman getting “swyved” in The Reeve’s Tale is desirable.


Is there any reason to suspect that Chaucer is characterizing “O moral Gower” (TC V.1856) in the Reeve, who is supposedly moral, and an overseer, and so therefore maybe a moral overseer? John Gower (1325? – 1408) was the other significant court poet of Richard II, probably a little less than twenty years older than Chaucer. There’s no evidence of trouble between the two, but given their respective outlooks and Richard’s increasing moral prudishness in the 1390s, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Gower was a backstabber and partly responsible for Chaucer’s rough time in the last years. Possible reference to Gower also seems to be involved in The Man of Law’s Introduction.

The Cook’s Tale

Opening of The Cook’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


A Roger Ware actually existed. Is Chaucer getting even for some slight or event lost to history?

Tale Fragment:

Why is the tale aborted? The degeneration noted previously was set to continue: from the noble Emelye to the sexpot Alisoun to the Reeve’s stupid women and now to a wife who “swyved” for a living. So now we’re among the London low-life, in the gutter. Now not clerks but riotous servants are involved.

Probably the variety of the Canterbury pilgrimage was being ruined by this sequence of fabliaux and Chaucer decided to change course. See The Manciple’s Prologue for his revised look at the Cook.

The Man of Law’s Tale

Opening of The Man of Law’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


The first specific reference to the month and day — April 18th (5-6) — helps us find the year of presumed composition. “The ferthe part” (3) of the day being gone would mean we’re at 10:00, 45 degrees, so the day runs from 8:00 to 4:00. It seems like a late start but the pilgrims are on holiday. It’s probably the second day of the pilgrimage, with Fragment A unfinished. Perhaps it would have settled overnight. The Host’s urgency suggests the second day; he spends a long time wailing about wasting time.

The Host calls on the Man of Law and tries to use legalese to remind all of his, the Host’s, own authority. Oddly, the Man of Law says,

I kan right now no thrify tale seyn
That Chaucer, thogh he kan but lewedly
On metres and on rymyng craftily,
Hath seyd hem in swich Englissh as he kan
Of olde tyme, as knoweth many a man….

Subsequently, he lists some of Chaucer’s works, so we get another “autobibliography.” Medieval authors do not sign their works; that would be a sign of Pride, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. We usually rely on mention in other works by other writers, indirect reference, for identifications. But Chaucer has the Man of Law mention “Ceys and Alcione” (57) and “the Seintes Legende of Cupide” (61) — does this expert in citing texts and cases get the title wrong? — omitting a couple and including several we don’t have (again, an ironic poke at this supposed expert at citing?). The Man of Law mentions Medea’s “litel children hangynge by the hals” (73) and says that Chaucer at least has not written

Of thilke wikke ensample of Canacee,
That loved hir owene brother synfully —
Of swiche cursed stories I sey fy! —
Or ellis of Tyro Appollonius,
How that the cursed kyng Antiochus
Birafte his doghter of hir maydenhede,
That is so horrible a tale for to rede,
Whan he hir threw upon the pavement.

Does the Man of Law secretly delight in the gruesome, behind his disapproving sanctimony? Is this is “quiting” of Pynchbeck? Or, since Gower does have the story of Canacee and that of Tyro in Confessio Amantis (though not the rape and the pavement detail), is this a “quiting” somehow against “O moral Gower”? All of this smacks of an in-joke, but one to which we seem to lack the key.

The Man of Law dismisses Chaucer: “I speke in prose, and lat him rymes make” (96).

[For the other two autobibliographies, see the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women and the Retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales.


We get a rime royal tale instead of the prose promised, so perhaps the legalistic Melibee was originally intended as the Man of Law’s tale. The LGW Prologue tells us that Chaucer translated The Wretched Engerndrynge of Mankind = Innocent III’s De miseria condicionis humane, so was a prose translation of this originally the tale? The poverty stanzas in the Man of Law’s Prologue here don’t fit the tale.


This, like the Physician’s Tale, is a classical legend, like those found in the Gesta Romanorum allegorized by monks (as with Ovide moralisée). The classical legend usually begins “In the days of the emperor…” and offers a Greek or Roman theme with a moral. Chaucer often uses rime royal in moral tales. Gower uses this tale, probably first, in Confessio Amantis.

There’s not much one can do with this tale of Custance in considering the connections between the tale and the teller. The organization is nice. Maybe the oratorical devices come in handy when pleading a case. There’s some anti-feminism.


The Host begins to engage the Parson but is interrupted by a pilgrim whose identity, given the scribal variations in the manuscripts, is uncertain. The Shipman? The Squire? The Summoner? The fact that so many variants appear suggests that Chaucer left the space blank as he considered the overall sequence or reconsidered the ordering.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale

Opening of The Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles

Chaucer loves this character. She gets an awe-inspiring portrait, is a realistic character despite her knack for confirming the worst stereotyping of women, and is mentioned in the Merchant’s Tale, Clerk’s Tale, and even in the completely separate “Envoy to Bukton.”


“Experience, though noon auctoritee / Were in this world, is right ynogh for me / To speke of wo that is in mariage” (1-3) — certainly a combative start!

The Prologue is a dramatic monologue in which the character is shown in her own speech: yearning and uncertain. She attempts to preach, but is self-destructive to a degree. What’s going on in her mind? Some of this is almost stream-of-consciousness!

The Wife of Bath starts the “Marriage Group” as G.L. Kittredge called it (even though other marriages appear in the Canterbury Tales fragments), involving the Clerk, the Merchant, the Franklin. More immediate is a “Wife of Bath group” in which the Clerk is quiet and waits his time.

The Wife attacks medieval dogma and uses aggression as her defense. The primacy of authority over experience is turned upside-down. Experience yields tolerance, allows exceptions, sees other views.

On marriage the Bible offers no real strong scriptural statement; primarily the Church relied on interpretations — more “glosings” than prohibitions. At first, then, the Wife addresses the matter of numbers of marriages. She has paid careful attention to one New Testament story in which Jesus tells a Samaritan woman that she has had five husbands and that the man she is now with is not her husband (15-19). The Wife misinterprets: she thinks the current man is the fifth husband and that Jesus is invalidating the marriage because it’s more than four, which naturally seems arbitrary. She then cites the case of Solomon (35ff) who clearly had many wives. So in her first view of marriage here, it’s the more the merrier; but is this what she wants?

She speaks about virginity, noting that the Bible, even if it indicates that virginity is perfection (105), does not and cannot command such perfection of everyone. She speaks about genitals, noting that “experience” (124) tells us that they’re not just for urination. And she speaks of the complex politics of sex in marriage, often using economic language: e.g., “dette” and “paiement” (130-131, 154f). The notion of the husband being in control is turned upside-down. The primacy of the spirit over the body is turned upside-down.


The Pardoner interrupts with jovial insistences that he was going to get married but now he’s rethinking that decision. He seems to bow to the Wife’s “authority” in this matter. Why does he interrupt? The Wife banters back with him, and he encourages her to continue teaching “us yonge men” (187).

I’d say he’s trying too hard to insist he’s mainstream. We know from the General Prologue that there’s something curious about this guy sexually, and I think we seriously doubt that he’s engaged to be married. The insistence on the inclusive “us yonge men” serves as a strained attempt to place himself among the group. The whole interruption smacks of unhealthy overcompensation.

The Wife then serves up a sermon on marriage essentially to the group of her first three well-to-do husbands when she was very young and attractive and therefore had control. Another facet of the anti-feminist tradition comes again from her own mouth. She takes her audience into her confidence and admits, even brags, that she used sex as a weapon of humiliation, her chiding alternating with her sweetness to manipulate her husbands and to keep them jealous and on edge. She has pride in her old self and we hear of her accomplishments with a touch of nostalgic sadness and some guilt. She even demonstrates how she drove them bonkers pointing out double standards and contradictions in their value systems in her long “Thou seyst” speech (234-450).

She turns her discussion to her fourth husband who had a paramour when she was at the mid-point in her life. He didn’t care about her so much so she should talk of her own woe now. She mentions wine several times at this point in her recollections (459ff).

Her fifth husband (503ff) was a clerk of 20 when she was 40 so the situation in many respects is reversed. He’s the one who’s hard-to-get and good in bed. She has the wealth now. He’s a worthy opponent. A key incident in their relationship involved his reading and chuckling over stories in a collection of “the greatest hits of anti-feminism” — the antithesis of what the Legend of Good Women was supposed to be. Concerning this kind of text, the Wife perceptively asks, “Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?” (692) — proverbially a lion’s question when viewing a picture of a man killing a lion — in other words, consider the source. Old clerks write “legends” so naturally women are villified. The Wife got fed up and tore some pages out of her fifth husband’s book, he hit her, she played it up melodramatically, he was very sorry, and, once she thereby gained “governance” in the relationship (814), they lived happily ever after. (Except he’s dead now.)


The Friar’s interrupts next, good-naturedly calling her rambling so far “a long preamble of a tale” (831). This immediately enrages the Summoner out of all proportion, who tells the Friar to shut up and sit down. The Friar promises to tell a couple tales about summoners, and the Summoner vows to tell tales about friars, before the Host shuts them both up and invites the Wife to tell her tale.


The Wife of Bath should tell a fabliau, but she tells a romance, a Breton lai. It’s a Celtic courtly genre with magic. (The Franklin’s Tale is the other.) You can tell a Breton lai because 1) the narrator says “This is a Breton lai” or provides such self-identification, 2) the narrator says he heard it was told in Brittany (in the northwest province in France), or 3) the setting is mentioned as being in Brittany.

The setting is “the old days” — a nostalgic time of magic when elves and fairies flitted about, whereas now we have only friars poking around (879f). Irrational violence against women is a premise of the story when one of King Artthur’s knights rapes a young woman. The Queen and the court ladies plead for jurisdiction over his fate and decide that he’s got 366 days to find out the answer to the age-old question that stumped Freud: what do women want? (So the rapist’s punishment is to be turned loose to interview women?)

He turns up countless contradictory answers and the Wife cannot refrain from adding her own answer (932ff). She provides a digression involving another stereotype of women. Gender roles are inverted somewhat in that the barber in the Midas story becomes a wife. But the bottom line is that women cannot keep secrets.

The knight meets an old ugly woman who seems able to give him the right answer if he’ll marry her. Does the Wife of Bath inhabit the character of this old woman? The result is the odd situation of this former rapist knight standing before the court ladies and confidently telling them what it is they want. Sovereignty is the ostensible answer here (1038).

After the marriage, the “Curtain Harangue” (1165-1218) or curtain-lecture involves the hag speaking of gentilesse (of deed, not blood), poverty (= honesty), and age (the knight will not find himself cuckolded). One would not expect all this from a young wife, but with experience comes wisdom!

Psychological depth is added to this tale in the form of the fantasy wish-fulfillment. But the old woman’s magic is blind. She argues positions and deportment-book virtues that Alisoun has rejected, especially the politics of possession. To see identification is to sentimentalize?

The hag gives the knight a difficult decision to make, and when he leaves the decision to her, he is rewarded with the best of both worlds. As charming as the story’s ending may be, the Wife nevertheless ends with a curse on those men who will not be ruled by their wives (1261ff).

The pilgrims respond unfavorably, or nervously. The Pardoner and the Friar already spoke forth and will engage in their “quyting” now; but later the Merchant and Clerk will respond to the Wife.


Carruthers, Mary. “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions.” PMLA 94 (1979): 209-222.

Crane, Susan. “Alison’s Incapacity and Poetic Instability in the Wife of Bath’s Tale.” PMLA 102 (1987): 20-28.

Hall, Vernon, Jr. “Sherlock Holmes and the Wife of Bath.” Baker Street Journal 3 (1948): 84-93. This fanciful article casts Holmes as an armchair detective proving with close textual reading that the Wife of Bath murdered her fourth husband.

The Friar’s Tale

Opening of The Friar’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


This Fragment D group of tales is intricately organized and organic, with reactions contained within the drama of the tales.

During their interruption of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the Friar seemed good-natured but unctuous while the Summoner acted like a rage-aholic. Now that she is finished with her tale, the Friar is patronizing: “Ye han heer touched … / In scole-matere greet difficultee” (1271-1272); and he condescendingly advises her to leave preaching to the clerical authorities (1276f). He’s simultaneously and indirectly addressing the Summoner with this too — obliquely pointing out that the Summoner is not real clergy. The Friar is proud of his “scole-matere,” high-brow in sensibilities, reacting to issues of authority and experience in the Wife’s tale rather than the issue of marriage, of course. Friars, it should be remembered, can manipulate authority: they can “glose” the text as they like. (See Robertson’s A Preface to Chaucer 317-331.)

The Friar announces that he will tell a tale to show that summoners are no good, but he is attacking the generic summoner, or the office of summoner. The Host faux politely appeals to the Friar’s overblown notion of himself as “curteys” (1287) and recommends no debate, but the Summoner tells him to bring it on. He’ll “shal hym quiten every grot” (1292).

The Host seems to offer protection, shutting the Summoner up and saying sweetly to the Friar, “Tel forth youre tale, leeve maister deere” (1300).


The Friar attacks the office of summoner instead of the man, and he hides behind his own office, saying that the summoner “han of us no jurisdiccioun” (1330). Before long the Summoner interrupts in a rage, but the Host stifles him and instigates the Friar further: “Ne spareth nat, myn owene maister deere” (1337). And he doesn’t.

The summoner of this tale works for an “erchedeken” and has “bawdes” as informants. He’s on the take, and he’s a parasite. This summoner meets up with a yeoman near the forest whose green clothing ought to be a folktale clue to this fellow’s supernatural origins, as is his coming from “fer in the north contree” (1413). The summoner acknowledges that he’s a “bailly” instead of having to confess to the “filthe and shame” of the title of summoner, and the yeoman claims to be a bailiff also — one who collects revenues and administers justice for a lord of an estate. The yeoman declares them “brothers.” They chat about their practices before the yeoman admits he is “a feend; my dwellyng is in helle” (1448).

The fiend explains much about taking various earthly shapes and about the nature of his work. The stupid summoner here never understands the implications about his sworn brotherhood with the demon, and for a while becomes a straight-man for the fiend, through which the Friar shows off his theological knowledge. But the dramatic irony is that the Friar identifies himself with the fiend, who becomes his spokesperson. It’s a rhetorical mistake. Devils have more honor, apparently, speakng straightforwardly and learnedly. The fiend even tries to pretend to be an instrument of salvation, which, on the Friar’s part, is a sanctimonious self-deception. The irony created by the Friar works against him, and the Summoner will successfully deconstruct his tale. It’s a trap — the Friar knows too much about demonology and his own theological subtleties are what the Summoner will hang him with.

The fiend finally concludes his blab, telling the summoner that he’ll eventually learn all this material concerning demons and hell “by thyn owene experience” (1517). The two come upon a carter stuck in the mud, cursing his horses, cart, and hay. The summoner is exuberant, but the fiend notes that “It is nat his entente” (1556). Indeed, when unstuck he blesses all. We’re supposed to consider not just the words but the intent (1569). (Similarly though, the summoner will damn himself, but was the intent there?)

The summoner announces he’ll oppress an old poor woman for twelve pence. She pleads with him, but he declares, “Nay thanne … the foule feend me fecche / If I th’excuse” (1610-1611) and he wants her new pan as payment for an old trumped-up sin. She too curses the summoner, along with her pan(1622-1623), but it’s heartfelt this time. The demon claims what is now his: the pan and the soul of the summoner.

The Friar should have stopped here, but he delays the Summoner’s response with declarations that he could have told a lot worse tale about summoners — he was actually merciful in the telling. The Friar implies that he’s on the side of the innocent (1656ff) and adds a prayer that’s not sincere about summoners repenting in time (1663-1664). Irony and wrath have no place in prayer and indeed are impediments; so again, consider the implications of words vs. intent. With this fake prayer, the Friar indirectly advises the Summoner not to attack, but since the final prayer is really a curse, the sanctimony inevitably will bring on the worst.

The Summoner’s Tale

Opening of The Summoner’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


Summoners are usually low-class characters whose job it is to bring people before the ecclesiastical court for sins such as illicit intercourse. This one on the pilgrimage is shaking with rage when the Friar finishes his tale (1665ff). The Summoner has not missed the Friar’s rhetorical blunder and is able to attack “This Frere” in particular (1672) in ad hominem fashion. Since the Friar boasted of his knowledge of hell, the Summoner takes the opportunity to explain why he is so knowledgeable. He reverses the traditional story of the recently dead friar in heaven who, when he worried that he saw no friars there, was shown that they reside under the mantle of Mary. Well, in hell, they reside elsewhere.

The image of the souls of damned friars coming out of Satan’s “ers,” swarming about like bees, and zipping back again is an image of the Friar’s narrative ploy: he hides, emerges for snipe attacks and runs around, and then hides again. The Summoner realizes his task is to expose the Friar, to smoke him out. The implicit acknowledgement is that hell isn’t someplace else, but right here exposed and defrauded for a current and immediate torment.

“God save yow alle, save this cursed Frere! / My prologe wol I ende in this manere” (1707-1708).

The Summoner’s “prayer” is not sanctimonious nor insincere. He had promised to “quite” the Friar, and he has already here. He also promised to tell more than one tale against him, so now what?


In the late Middle Ages, the moneymaking organs of the Church are all in competition. The Summoner seems to have done more thinking about this than most.

As the Summoner begins by listing the violations of his tale’s friar, especially to the vow of poverty, the Canterbury Friar interrupts: “Nay, ther thou lixt, thou Somonour!” (1761) — unintentionally indicating that all the other violations are accurate. He also make clear that he assumes that this is not just a friar, but that it is he. So he does have a servant and he does beg but he doesn’t erase the names? Not perceiving anything worth interrupting previously, Hubert hangs himself again! And now the Host has abandoned the Friar and shuts him up, allowing the Summoner to “Tel forth thy tale, and spare it nat at al” (1763).

The friar makes himself right at home at the house of the ailing Thomas and holds forth with false humbleness (1789) and yet pride in his “Glosynge” (1793). He is quite kissy with Thomas’ wife and they discuss Thomas’ ire. (The Summoner may be examining his own vice here.) The wife mentions the death of their infant within the last two weeks. The friar, without missing a beat, claims to have seen this “by revelacioun” (1854) and have had the order praying and singing for the soul of the departed child. The friar’s snobbery and preoccupation with food emerges, and his penchant for bad punning (1915-1917).

In preaching to the now skeptical (doubting) Thomas, the friar asks the fatal question regarding money: “What is a ferthyng worth parted in twelve?” (1967). He continues preaching against Thomas’ anger though: “Withinne thyn hous ne be thou no leon; / To thy subgitz do noon oppression, / Ne make thyne aqueyntances nat to flee” (1989-1991). These excesses against the sin of ire will come back to bite the friar in the butt. The stories, though, as the Summoner may be subconsciously processing them, indicate that ire never gets at the problem and usually involves innocent victims. Shrewdness and skill are wasted in ire, and drink does no good; misery compounds. It’s a long rumination on ire, so the Summoner seems to be exploring his own anger in a self-reflection. The Summoner has already “quite” Hubert; now he may be processing his own problem.

Of course, Thomas is now livid with rage against this sanctimonious friar and offers his contribution to the friar’s order on the condition that it be evenly divided among the brethren. When the insult is delivered, the friar is enraged.

The Canterbury Friar is self-glorifying and hypocritical, in love with the sound of his own words. The link in theme between the tales is the contrast between words and intent. For the friar here in The Summoner’s Tale, the intent should be more important than the word; thus friars interpret or “glose.” The letter of the law kills (1794), and the bottom line, as it were, is given: “I seye a cherl hath doon a cherles dede” (2206). But this friar makes too much of words and ignores the low intent. He worries about the wrong thing. The woman says it was a stupid deed: forget it. But the friar is worried about the oath and the letter of the law: dividing the fart with “ars-metrike” (2222). As a Master of Arts in Divinity, he’s enraged. The real joke against the friar goes beyond the insult — it’s a matter of how he takes it. The friar here forgets to “glose” at the important moment.

A servant, the lord’s squire, solves the puzzle with a cartwheel and the friars’ noses appropriately applied to the spokes. His style of explanation mocks the lofty style and condescending speech of the Friar too. So there’s a sophisticated and intellectual joke beyond the low-brow one here. So the judgment is harsh, and no rebuttal is allowed afterwards: the squire “hath ywonne a newe gowne– / My tale is doon; we been almoost at towne” (2293-2294)

The Clerk’s Tale

Opening of The Clerk’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


In the General Prologue, the Clerk seemed quiet, controlled, humble, and instructive. So, says Lumiansky, the Clerk does not immediately follow the Wife of Bath, but bides his time. Group E is a separate fragment, not linked with D until the very end with the mistitled “Envoy.”

The Host says to the Clerk, “Ye ryde as coy and stille as doth a mayde” (2) and for a tale expects the worst: “But precheth nat, as freres doon in Lente” (12). He requests that the Clerk avoid rhetorical high style and speak plainly so as not to put the pilgrims to sleep. The Clerk answers “benignely” (21) and promises “obeisance” (a key theme now) to the Host.

The Clerk first cites his “now deed” (29) Paduan authority, Petrarch, praises his poetic style, and laments his death. At some length the Clerk notes the irrelevance of the Petrarchan prologue, so he is going to skip that part.


The genre here is the moral apologue = novella plus a moral. (The Manciple’s Tale and Melibee are the other examples.) It’s similar to an exemplum except there’s no larger framework.

This one is in rime royal.

The story was probably a folktale originally: the mating of a mortal woman with an immortal lover whose actions are controlled by incomprehensible forces. Boccaccio rationalized this for the Middle Ages: it’s the last of the Decameron’s 100 tales. Petrarch was impressed and translated it into Latin (and when two of his friends read it, one wept and the other said he would have too but insisted it was an invention). Then Chaucer gives the story this treatment. So the tale appealed to the three greatest writers of the 14th century!

          Part One

A marquis in western Italy, Walter, is “Biloved and drad” (69) like a good machivellian prince. His main fault is that he does not consider the future (78-80). A spokesperson for the people requests that Walter “Boweth youre nekke under that blisful yok / Of soveraynetee, nought of servyse, / Which that men clepe spousaille or wedlok” (113-115). He tries a carpe diem approach with the emphasis on the death hereafter (116ff). Walter agrees to this but insists, perhaps peevishly, that he pick his own wife and that there be no grouching about it afterwards (169f).

          Part Two

The poorest man in the village has a daughter named Griselda, virtuous and industrious, whom Walter checks out when he is hunting. The day of the supposed wedding approaches and the people are nervous. Griselda plans to attend the event. Walter arrives at her house and perfunctorily asks to see her father, from whom he asks that hand of Griselda in marriage. His announcement of all this to her is overshadowed by his demand that she agree to her abject submission in their marriage. She does and is treated like Cinderella in preparation for the wedding. Subsequently, she is well loved by the populace and a good diplomat. Walter gets public credit for detecting virtue beneath poverty. She gives birth to a girl, which is a bit of a disappointment, but maybe a son will follow.

          Part Three

For unknown reasons that the Clerk seems baffled by too, Walter decides he must test Griselda. He blames the people for a general disgruntlement concerning her poor origins and says that their infant daughter is involved. He sends his sergeant to take away the child and, supposedly, kill it. But Griselda bears up patiently. She just asks that it be buried where animals and birds cannot pick at the corpse. The sergeant reports to Walter who has a pang of pity but sticks to his plan; the sergeant must place the infant in the care of his sister in Bologna. Griselda shows no signs of change in her attitude.

          Part Four

Within four years Griselda gives birth to a boy. Walter irrationally goes into his suspicious fit again and tells Griselda that the people are growing dangerous with their outrage that the lineage of her father is tainting their political future. Griselda vows obedience in all things again, and the infant is secretly placed with Walter’s sister. The Clerk is assertive in his narration but perhaps struggling with material difficult to swallow. Walter meanwhile is being suspected of murder among the people. When the daughter would be twelve years old, Walter fakes a papal dispensation to get rid of Griselda and marry another woman. He sends to his brother-in-law to have him send the children and to claim that the girl will be marrying the marquis — him!

          Part Five

Walter gives Griselda the boot and she takes it, asking only that she be sent out of the castle in at least a smock. Griselda’s father knew this day would come and curses the day he was born. The Clerk adds a note that “Though clerkes preise wommen but a lite” (935), here was a woman to rival Job in patience. Of course, the Clerk knows only of old authorities and tales of ancient times, not any experience.

          Part Six

Walter sends for Griselda since there are not enough servants to clean up the castle for the arrival of his new bride. The people see the arrival of the children and privately commend Walter for his new choice. The Clerk interrupts his narration for an apostrophe of outrage against the fickle people. Walter makes Griselda compliment his choice for new wife before declaring the test over with. He now trusts her patience and good nature. She, swooning and weeping, is amazed to have her children “restored” to her. The people are moved, and a feast is held. They lived happily ever after until they died and the kids married well.

The Clerk adds that this story in not told as a model for wives to follow Griselda in humility (1142f) but that everyone ought to be “constant in adversitee” (1146). So the moral does not fit the “exemplum” well. The Clerk laments the state of things nowadays comparatively. Out of supposed consideration of the Wife of Bath, whom he mentions openly, he offers a “song,” erroneously labeled “Lenvoy de Chaucer.”


The Clerk seems to break out of control and become almost viciously ironical. This song reasserts what the tale held in subordination in favor of old ideals: the worst of female stereotypes, which the Clerk sarcastically advises wives to uphold and demonstrate. The Host wishes his wife had heard the tale.

Final Commentary:

As a moral tale, it’s simply patience in adversity. It’s supposedly a realistic novella, but it’s troubling on this level. It doesn’t work like The Book of Job. The allegorical is in conflict with, or incompatible with, the realistic. Fairy tale elements remain (the location near the forest which is always the gateway to the other world, the fountain, the sudden riches, etc.). There may be scriptural allegory involved since there are echoes of the story of Mary with annunciation, nativity, etc. But if Griselda is Mary, does that make Walter God? That seems untenable. Walter is an abnormal psychological case study.

See The Four Levels of Scriptural Exegesis. Is the tropological level here a prescription for female conduct (vs. 1142ff)?

Something is wrong. Either Chaucer fails in his attempt to reform or restructure the peculiar story and is not in control finally, or he’s up to something else which has not been successfully discovered. Has the tale been designed to touch off male guilt over the position of dominance? Over tenderness as a response to submission? To enrage women concerning the system of submission? The master/slave dynamics are worth some study. (Eventually the slave is always not worth being master over. Ralph Kramden’s “I’m the king; you’re nothin'” rant.)

I believe this tale influenced Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and the Host’s final words inspired the lost ending of The Taming of the Shrew with Christopher Sly (still part of the ending in The Taming of A Shrew).

The Merchant’s Tale

Opening of The Merchant’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


Part of the so-called Marriage Group, this narration clearly has the Wife of Bath in mind and possibly others like the Clerk. Fragment E pairs this tale with the Clerk’s and the two pilgrims are together in the order of the General Prologue with contrasts in clothing, horses, and concerns.

In the Prologue the Merchant speaks from experience instead of authority (vs. the Clerk). But he tells little about himself (similar to the secrecy of the General Prologue portrait).


The genre is fabliau: there are no heroes, but there is also no healthy animality as in the Miller’s Tale. The tale is frightening — from a soured individual, or the dark side of Chaucer.

Technicalities (1251, 1322, 1390) suggest that the tale was originally assigned to one of the religious men. (Baugh said the Friar; Garbaty said the Monk.) Or does it fit somehow in the objectifying, or is it self-condemnatory?

The themes include that of blindness. The “love is blind” aphorism is a premise here and the tale is Oedipus-like in its use of sight and seeing vs. blindness reversals. The moral? Be happy and blind (or stupid).

Perhaps the intention here is to show mercantilism. He created a mercantile world. January bought a beast and reacts as if she is nothing more than a beast.

Several controlling archetypal symbols are at work: the garden of terrestrial paradise (which warns a medieval audience immediately), serpent references, the fruit tree. For associations with pears, see Middle English Lyric #78 — it’s associated with cuckoldry and impregnation with a bastard child. So Robertson would align this tale with the fall of man (and perhaps parodic allusions to the story of Mary and Joseph).

The tale “quites” the Clerk’s idealism with cynicism. The Clerk had an ideal view of the past and an ironic view of present realities; the Merchant has contempt for ideals and a bitter view of realities. For the Clerk, the world may be in decline, but for the Merchant all is leveled to a nihilistic worldview. He’s even ready to sacrifice the fiction of his own dignity.

The Merchant perhaps reveals his own blindness, the limitations of his own understanding. The tale collapses. The point ostensibly is to show the evil of marriage, so January is intended as the victim, but the Merchant is so lacerating that January for considering marriage to begin with is necessarily a fool from the start. May is naturally unhappy. So it’s lousy for everyone, including us.

The Squire’s Tale

Opening of The Squire’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


Requesting a tale of love from this guy seems appropriate. His response to the Host is certainly courteous and concise — even the begging pardon in advance “if I speke amys” (7).


This one has no known sources, just maybe some elements and motifs. Therefore it’s been tempting for Chaucerians to say that Chaucer tried his own hand at inventing a story and failed, and then assigned his abortion to the Squire. That shows how much faith they have in their own man.

          Part One

The genre is romance (aristocratic love) or maybe oriental romance (with magic, marvels, plot upon plot in a Mandevillian world).The Squire sets this tale in “Tartarye” (9), or somewhere in the Mongol empire — potentially exotic, but problematically remote. He seems pretty glib about deaths in war (11), unlike the ponderous qualifications in the tale of his father the Knight. In describing the king, Cambyuskan, the Squire is totally unreserved; the king excels in every virtue. This is all just given, not developed as with Theseus in The Knight’s Tale. This lord has two sons with weird names and a daughter, Canacee. (We’ve heard that name before, but where … ?) On mentioning her beauty, the Squire offers an ornate and overdone rhetorical flourish, drawing attention to himself while exaggerating his insufficiencies as a narrator (34-41). Piles of astrological nonsense follow as the Squire continues setting the tale. Then he emphasizes the pomp and the odd exotic Mongolian foods at a banquet (59-71), followed by some occupatio culled from his dad.

We’re deluded into thinking the actual plot has begun when a knight bursts into the banquet with some cool stuff and lots of polite greetings to the nobles. Eventually, “He with a manly voys seide his message” (99) and we wait about a dozen lines of Squire filler to find out what it is. In essence, the knight has brought four magical gifts: a steed of brass that can take you anywhere quickly by the manipulation of a pin (an instant gratification machine); a fortune-telling mirror that especially can show lovers’ treacheries (so fanciful romance matters are more important that the potential political advantages); a ring that translates birdsong; and a sword that smites and heals (appropriate for a world without consequence). The “lewed” people are fascinated with the horse but don’t know how to work the pin; thus the Squire sets up elitist dynamics, excluding the “lewed” from this supposedly special knowledge, for dozens of lines of wonder and gasping, after which he shows off his book learning and more astrology, and the tale goes nowhere.

Who koude telle yow the forme of daunces
So unkouthe, and swiche fresshe contenaunces,
Swich subtil lookyng and dissymulynges
For drede of jalouse mennes aperceyvynges?
No man but Lancelot, and he is deed.

The Squire continues describing the “wondryng” (305) and the pin manipulations.

          Part Two

The apparent problem is that the set-up involves four magical gifts received, but the tale runs away from the Squire and he can’t control the stories’ too many elements. So the magical objects remain in storage. “The telling is graced by a kind of youthful enthusiasm and enterprise, but ungraced by narrative discipline”; “Certainly it reads at times as if its author had swallowed a rhetorical handbook whole but had not fully digested it” (Donaldson 1086).

The Squire describes human anatomy as a chemical factory — mechanical, like the horse. He gives a bit of dream theory, but mentions that Canacee is dreaming not about the knight, but about the toys. How much does this guy really know about love? More astronomical precision and mechanical optics take the place of any poetic sensibility about sunrise. He reports that Canacee could, because of the magic ring, understand the morning chatter of birds, but he doesn’t tell us what she heard! Does this dolt have any sense of his audience? Wouldn’t it have been interesting to find out what birds sing about?

Any love story potential is for the birds, literally: a self-mutilating female falcon tells its woeful tale to Canacee, during which the Squire plagiarizes what no doubt was a successful line from his father: “pitee renneth soone in gentil herte” (479).

The tale is, though, nicely suited to the teller beyond the superficial level. The Squire has a naive enthusiasm for the trappings of such stories and all the pageantry. It’s a medieval MTV tale: style above substance, elitism, instant gratification, posing, the fanciful above worth, a world without consequence, amorality, lines emptied of meaning, and it all goes nowhere.

The tale ends with a summary of future topics which sounds as if it would require thousands more lines at this rate, and then a “two-line rhetorical warm-up at the beginning of Part III” (Donaldson 1087). And we’re left with an incompletion. Or are we?

The Franklin’s Tale

Opening of The Franklin’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


The Franklin politely, and mercifully serving the good of the community, interrupts the Squire. He stops the tale just when it sounds as if the Squire will yammer on forever never getting the story off the ground, and pretends that he thinks it’s over, forestalling objections by heaping praises upon the young man. Thus, displaying the good sense and diplomacy revealed also in his tale, the Franklin extricates the Squire himself and the rest of the pilgrims, and us, from the threat of the unwieldy Squire’s tale. Bless him.

The Prologue to his own tale reveals the genre: a Breton lai, the courtly genre of northern France. Chaucer has transformed here a Boccaccio story.


If there is an answer to the Marriage Group, it is probably the Franklin’s tale.


The Franklin is sincere (803ff) although the same material in The Merchant’s Tale was sarcastic. There’s a resolution to the marriage debate in terms of mutual respect and tolerance. Both ideals — Trouthe (or covenant — the Old Testament notion) and Freedom (or generosity — New Testament) — operate in accord.

So the Franklin answers the Wife of Bath on the issue of sovereignty, incorporates the Clerk’s counsel of patience and humility, takes issue with the Merchant’s denial of happiness in marriage, and responds to the Squire’s flighty view of love.

Or is it just another viewpoint? The ramifications of the topic are explored, but maybe not concluded.

Does the tale fit the teller? We glean that the Franklin is generous and civic-minded in the General Prologue. But what if he only thinks he understands gentilesse? Is he guilty of naive optimism. Everyone becomes extremely noble in the tale — is that realistic?

He identifies with Aurelius as enterprising and ambitious. He focuses on the size of Aurelius’ debt, so the bourgeois value of money may be a preoccupation. The final installment plan with the astrologer may support this too. The final resolution is a system of bargains and deal-makings. Is that what the Franklin thinks is “gentle”?

He may also be too literal-minded when it comes to realities and appearances, as with the illusion that the rocks are gone. Can the rocks (or rockiness of marriage) disappear so easily. Are his words and intent properly balanced?

The Physician’s Tale

Opening of The Physician’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


Fragment VI is a floater with no discernible connection to other tales even thematically. Why this one is linked with the Pardoner’s is another mystery. Perhaps the sententious moralizing, while the General Prologue reveals the Physician’s avarice, means this guy is a hypocrite like the Pardoner. Or maybe it’s just that both their ideals are badly askew. We cut right into his tale with no introduction or prologue.


It’s Sweeney Todd without the barber shop.

This is another classical legend (like The Man of Law’s Tale), and an embarrassment. Some speculate that the sober tone indicates early composition on Chaucer’s part and slapdash partial incorporation here. It’s moral, but in couplets, not rhyme royal. Was LGW an influence or intention? Note “allas, that I was bore!” (215).

The original story in Livy’s context serves to show the decline of Rome, but the tale is depoliticized by the Physician with the knight and governor equal in status, the fiance dropped, and the population disappearing. Here, a knight named Virginius has a virtuous daughter that the narrator raves about for a page. Then a chiding harangue to “ye maistresses … / That lordes doghtres han in governaunce” (72-73) makes no sense on the pilgrimage, nor really to “Ye fadres and ye moodres eek also” (93). A false and lecherous judge, Apius, conspires with a churl, Claudius, to take away the daughter by insisting in court that she is a runaway servant and not Virginius’ daughter. The judge adopts her as a ward, and Virginius must break the bad news at home: she must die, and he’ll chop her head off. She requests a bit of time in which to complain (239), citing the case of Jephtha. She swoons, gets back up, and asks that he decapitate her softly. The slaying takes place remarkably antiseptically. The townspeople always suspected that judge was crooked. They throw him in prison, where he kills himself; and they almost hang the churl but Virginius prays for mercy on his behalf. They instead hang others involved in the plot (whom we didn’t know about). The Physician ends with a too pat non-sequitur warning: “Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake” (286).

The problems with the tale include the false values and the improbable circumstances. The moralism is misguided, and praising virtue in a morally revolting tale is simply nuts. The real center of the tale is the murder and sadistic sensationalism is behind that. (It has a false “moralitee” like The Prioress’ Tale.) So is this tale a terse parody of the LGW aesthetic imperatives? Maybe it’s an impersonation of a lack of artistry, but it’s pretty chilling.

E. Talbot Donaldson offers a convincing perspective on the tale in his edition of Chaucer’s Poetry:

The Physician’s Tale, like the Man of Law’s Tale, is a pious story assigned to a person of no real piety whose respect for propriety rather than sincere moral earnestness seems to lead him to speak as he does. Since Chaucer portrays such materialistic pilgrims telling such tales, it seems likely that members of Chaucer’s audience no different from the tellers enjoyed hearing them told–or at least preferred them to merely entertaining stories: people self-importantly dedicated to business (and to busy-ness) may feel that while entertainment is pure waste, moral doctrine, no matter how little they apply it to themselves, may be written off as a kind of deduction from the tax on their time that they consider all non-profitable activity to be. The Physician’s Tale has little coherent interest: Nature’s monologue is agreeable, the portrait of Virginia amiable if priggish, the advice to governesses and parents good, the gory story far more absurd than in Livy’s Latin version, and the concluding warning about the power of conscience a total non-sequitur. But there is nothing in the fabric to prove that the intent is not wholly serious: even the fact that Virginia, after comparing herself with Jephtha’s daughter, rejoices that she will die a virgin, while Jephtha’s daughter bewails her virginity before being put to death by her father, may be a pure accident, though a wry one. In any case, it seems a fact that stories of damsels in dreadful distress appeal to people who generally consider literature a poor substitute for the reality of everyday life. (Donaldson 1090-1091)


Delany, Sheila. “Politics and the Paralysis of Poetic Imagination in The Physician’s Tale.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer (1981): 47-60.

Kempton, Daniel. “The Physician’s Tale: The Doctor of Physic’s Diplomatic ‘Cure.'” Chaucer Review 19.1 (1984): 24-38. This author was my college Chaucer teacher.

The Pardoner’s Tale

Opening of The Pardoner’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles

The archetype behind the Pardoner is Faus Semblant (False-Seeming) from the Jean de Meun section of Roman de la Rose: “a professional hypocrite who pretends to a holiness that he possesses not at all. By way of making an apology for his way of life, False-Seeming explains, with the utmost candor and the greatest pride in his own cleverness, the various guises his hypocrisy assumes. This situation, in which a hypocrite attempts to justify himself by revealing the full truth, provides Chaucer with the essential framework for the Pardoner’s prologue” (Donaldson 1091). Chaucer’s Pardoner sermonizes in a confessional self-destruction. The Pardoner is also a grotesquery, marginalized to the periphery in manuscript decoration. He’s dreadful, vital, and fascinating. For us, he’s his own worst enemy and has psychological problems.


The Host has much to say about the lousy Physician’s Tale, ostensibly agreeing with the Physician’s reductivism by ranting against the false judge and the churl and lamenting the death of “thiis sely mayde” (292). He praises the Physician and the instruments of his profession, showing off but bungling in his grasp of medical vocabulary.

The Host turns to the Pardoner, calling him “beel amy” (318) so we know he is socially typed as effeminate. Notice the Pardoner echoing “By Seint Ronyon” (310, 320), either mocking the Host or trying to show that he can be as manly. The Pardoner complies with the request for a tale but suggests they stop at an alehouse for it. The “gentils” fear his tale, expecting “ribaudye” (323-324); he is alienated already. He agrees to tell a moral tale, “but I moot thynke / Upon som honest thyng while that I drynke” (327-328).


The Pardoner will offer a sermon as a performance, part of a process-analysis under the rubric “present company excepted” in which he takes the pilgrims into his confidence. He claims that although his theme is always “Radix malorum est Cupiditas” (334, 426), he nevertheless, ironically, is obsessed with appropriating money (like the Wife’s obsession with authority and the book), and doesn’t care about the remission of sins (403-404). He explains how he uses his “gaude[s]” (389) to manipulate “lewed peple” (392). Without his usual audience the soliloquy is self-destructive, and maybe self-hypnotic. (Thomas Garbaty used to read 435-455 with an effective growing insanity, suggesting that the Pardoner loses emotional and intellectual self-control, snapping out of his own nightmarish world only at the last lines of the Prologue.) He says that although he is “a ful vicious man, / A moral tale yet I yow telle kan” (459-460). So in any case the telling is set up as a hollow ritual.

Aware of his isolation, the Pardoner’s attempts to rejoin society are misguided, partly due to his insensitivity. He attempts to join here by proving his superiority. He has to be intellectual to survive, but this may have turned into egomania. He scorns his usual low-class audience and thinks this more educated group will share his opinion. So it’s a demonstration of his typical con — how he manages to survive and manipulate audiences, but it involves his moving back and forth between apparent audiences.


The tale is an exemplum on avarice. (Exempla are stories that illustrate a theme in preaching, usually found in collections.) The setting is dramatic this time, taking place in a tavern to set the innate hypocrisy here (470). Although avarice is the focus, the Pardoner includes drunkenness, gluttony, swearing, gambling, and maybe other sins; his choices probably depend on which sins “can be made to sound most exciting” (Donaldson 1093). The Pardoner has a detailed knowledge of low life. He does not euphemize sin: it’s truly nasty here. He seems to have control over the sequencing of the other sins he incorporates too. But is he talking about gluttony? Or something else?

O wombe! O bely! O stynkyng cod,
Fulfilled of dong and of corrupcioun!
At either ende of thee foul is the soun.
How greet labour and cost is thee to fynde!
Thise cookes, how they stampe, and streyne, and grynde,
And turnen substaunce into accident
To fulfille al thy likerous talent!
Out of the harde bones knokke they
The mary, for they caste noght awey
That may go thurgh the golet softe and swoote.
Of spicerie of leef, and bark, and roote
Shal been his sauce ymaked by delit,
To make hym yet a newer appetit.


After the diatribes on gluttony and gambling and false swearing, the tale proper begins with three “riotoures” (661) drinking in a tavern. It’s a macabre and sterile tale and there are no women involved. The rioters see a corpse being carried by and inquire about it, finding out that “Deeth” is responsible. The literal-minded revellers naïvely decide to slay Deeth (the personifying process preventing them from seeing other kinds of death). On their mission, they encounter a creepy ancient man — a restelees kaityf (728) — knocking on the ground with his staff asking his mother to let him in (729f). He sends them to an oak tree, where they find bushels of coins. They decide that one of them should go get supplies from the town, and the lot falls to the youngest. While he’s gone, the two others plot to murder him for his share of the loot. But in town the youngest buys poison for two of the three bottles he brings back. The two do kill him and celebrate with the drinks. They die, and the exemplum ends with brutal abruptness in a split second (888). It’s great pacing for effective shock and uneasiness.

The teller inhabits whom in the tale? The revellers are composite. Naïve idealistic arrogance is seen through the filter of bitterness. The old man? Old age? Death? Good or evil?

There may be Old Testament and New Testament allusions. Do we have a perverse Trinity in the three revellers? Other scriptural echoes abound. And we hear this tale in the first place at a bar with “both drynke and … a cake” (322).

Consider also Shakespeare’s Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet.


There’s no formal separation from the tale here, since the Pardoner goes right into further self-parody? or more of the con? Is he still addressing his usual church audience? The abrupt shift is disorienting (915). Kittredge says the Pardoner is not totally lost, and he stresses a look at the pronouns (916-918).

It’s not the church audience entirely (919ff), but it is a repetition of the church speech though. What has happened? He tries to ingratiate himself but alienates himself instead? Does he become disoriented in his own rhetoric? Does he undergo a kind of self-hypnosis and is shocked out of it? Are his intentions misunderstood when he tries to incorporate “some moral thyng” and “japes”?

The fake relics function as an extension of the Pardoner himself. Is he selling relics as a misguided way to include himself? Is he drunk? Was this all a game and he misjudged that the audience was laughing with him all along? Does he despise this audience too?

Whom is the joke against? Against the Host to ingratiate himself to the others?

Whatever his reasons — avarice, good-fellowship, humor — he concludes his sermon with an offer to sell his pardon to the pilgrims even after all he has told about his own fraudulence. Ironically he picks the worst possible victim, that rough, manly man who might be supposed to have a natural antipathy for the unmasculine Pardoner. (Donaldson 1093)

The Host misreacts. It’s a disaster and a bad call on the Pardoner’s part when the Host is pulled in against his will. The Host offers an angry knee-jerk reaction, not at all joking now, metaphorically cutting off the Pardoner’s tongue. The Pardoner never reacts and is effectively shut up; we won’t hear from him again. The pilgrims laugh (961) — nervously? They’re reacting to what? The Knight smoothes out the social surface and the homosexual tensions are diffused with a kiss of friendship.

The Shipman’s Tale

Opening of The Shipman’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles

This is another fabliau, originally intended for the Wife of Bath almost certainly (see 11-19). It’s about “the possibility of exploiting physical charms for financial gain” (Donaldson 1094) and involves an uneasy “reduction of all human values to commercial ones” (Donaldson 1095), emphasized by the rhyme franks / flanks, and the wordplay on tally / taille.

Aside from the joke it makes–which is, of course, more than sufficient on one level of reading–the story demonstrates that the vision of life as a purely mercantile arrangement sterilizes those who hold it so that all human values disappear, including that of human awareness. Within the tale neither the cheating nor the cheated perceive any significance in their actions beyond the immediate financial loss or gain that is incurred…. With characteristic Chaucerian irony, this point is reinforced by the insensitivity of the narrator, who sees nothing in the story beyond a clever trick and a smart evasion. (Donaldson 1095-1096)

Juxtaposed with the Prioress’ Tale means that we get “solace” in the Shipman’s conscious immorality and “sentence” with the Prioress’ unconscious immorality — her banal evil. The “solace” of Thopas is interrupted, but not the “sentence” of Melibee; but the “sentence” of the Monk’s Tale is then interrupted.

The Prioress’ Tale

Opening of The Prioress’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


At the end of The Shipman’s Tale, the Host’s style changes abruptly and he becomes affectedly polite to the Prioress. Her Prologue comes in the form of a prayer, especially to the Virgin Mary, and also establishes her rhetorical tics and the pose. Clearly rhetorical apostrophes are, as it were, a habit with the Prioress, and the modesty pose involves consideration of herself as a child. She values holy praise performed “by the mouth of children” (457) and likes to think of herself as a child weak in understanding (481f) — even as an infant (484f). This skewed system of values is similar to that we saw in the General Prologue portrait, but now we realize she would have been the ideal customer for the Precious Moments industry.


The genre represented here is the miracle of the Virgin story — always a whopper designed solely to show the beneficence of Mary. One is trapped in a predicament; there’s no way out; Mary intervenes as a female deus ex machina. “God occasionally violates the rules of nature as we know them in order to work His own ends” (Donaldson 1096).

The tone is that of “blood and roses” (Donaldson 1097) by an affected soap opera matriarch. “The Prioress’ Tale is a strange mixture of delicacy and horror, so that it is capable of producing two entirely different impacts. From one side it is all delicacy and piety” (Donaldson 1096). This sentimentalism clashes with a chilling anti-semitism and viciousness. The Prioress’ sensitivity for the mother and the little martyr resembles her attitude towards mice and dogs in the General Prologue. But “Emotionalism that excludes the intellect–as it does in the Prioress’ Tale–can be a dangerous thing, for the psychological transition from exquisite sensibility to bloodshed is an easy one” (Donaldson 1097).

As for the anti-semitism, the Prioress is a product of her age (the ignorant side), and most Chaucerians seem to lament uncomfortably that Chaucer is also a product of his age on this count (e.g., Benson 16) and simply admit that anti-semitism was a way of life in the Middle Ages. Jews were officially banned from England in 1290. But the Church positioned itself against persecution and many saw the economic motives of persecution and expulsion. Chaucer as a clerk of customs seems insightful economically and always seems humane and tolerant. So what’s really going on here?

It’s the Prioress herself who refers to the Jewish ghetto as “free and open at either end” (494), similar to a disgusting comment made in The Reeve’s Tale (4164). After drippy adoration of the “litel clergeon” (503) with his “litel book lernyng” (516), and after the “hissing stanza” concerning Satan’s influence on the Jews (558-564), the Prioress is able to shift psychotically from sappy piety to vicious vulgarity (571ff). A similar phenomenon involves the somewhat skewed meting out of punishment (628ff), and especially at the abrupt disjoint between the melodramatic wailing (674-678) and the sudden coldness — both emotionally and imagistically (679ff). It brings up questions about the Prioress’ own emotional extremes and the connections between the pious “singing” in the tale with the Prioress’ own narration.

Consider the pilgrims’ reaction, ambiguously mentioned afterwards by the narrator.

The Tale of Sir Thopas

Opening of The Tale of Sir Thopas in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles

Chaucer spontaneously shifts gears and offers this pure fun, probably the first parody of literature. He gives himself the worst story (but also the funniest), ostensibly the best the pilgrim Chaucer can manage, so once again, like the servant of the servants of love, the Chaucer persona is an outsider, a bungler. And it really is garbage; the Host stops it because it is bad, not because it is dull.


The tale of the Prioress was a downer and the pilgrims were silent (or stymied) and cannot react. The Host wants to liven things up and get the show on the road. It is noticeable that the link is in the stanzaic format of the preceding.


The genre is parody (or burlesque) of the bourgeois romance. It emerges from a degeneration process demonstrated in the evolution of characters such as King Arthur, who begins as an active warrior but degenerates into a doddering cuckold. (Gawain takes over; then he too degenerates into burlesque). The degeneration of the hero (Charlemagne, Robin Hood), from established to cliché to parody, can take place over hundreds of years.

The tale parodies:

  • love. Thopas lives in fantasyland. He loves elves, as a cop-out from any real relationship. And he never even has met the fairy queen. (The tale fits the teller here in that Chaucer always portrays himself as an outsider to love.)
  • knighthood. “Thopas” is the stone of chastity. His dress and code are outlandish, his exploits non-existent or cheesy.
  • style. “Matter of England” romances often use a tail-rhyme stanzaic structure. The one-stress line is called the “bob” of the “bob-and-wheel” stanza. This is not bad if used correctly, because the tail rhyme lines can bear weight for the stanzaic climax or to summarize (like an abbreviated form of the final couplet in a sonnet). But when it’s bad it’s really really bad. Pop minstrels use literary colloquialisms that quickly become cliché. Chaucer adds bad rhymes and poor effects. He essentially is biting the hand that fed him.

There is no need for this tale to end: the effect is accomplished. The last words before the interruption contain their own subtle joke. (What would be coming next? What should have been?)


This tale exemplifies the genre of moral apologue in prose and is Chaucer’s translation of a popular work. It involves moralizing and long catalogues of proverbs, basically a quotation collection tied to a skimpy narrative. Melibee and Prudence list authorities on various issues such as war and peace, themes of the Marriage Group, religious concerns, good advisers, etc. The material was probably taken seriously by the generic medieval audience, but is the work overly rhetorical and, as Thopas was a parody of a popular bastard genre, is this deadpan humor too? Thopas parodied courtly excesses and this parodies didactic excesses?

It’s like 17,000 words of the wit and wisdom of Polonius.

Melibeus desires to avenge himself on his enemies who beat his wife and killed his daughter Sophie (Wisdom), but he is argued into a peaceful demeanor by his wife Prudence.

This ends the ruling class metastructure which started with The Knight’s Tale, immediately mocked by the Miller and subject to more and more naïve, low-class, bourgeois eyes and perspective, unto the parody of Thopas. Richard II, Gaunt, Gloucester, Bolingbroke all could have profited from this work which takes us from the old feudal values to an emerging new national consciousness.

Chaucer seems to accept responsibility and sanction the “moralitee” here. Only in the Retraction does Chaucer reappear without irony (presumably). But Melibee is interlaced among the Canterbury Tales, so it’s not the last word.

The Host, of course, has missed the point: he wishes his wife had heard this story of the patient wife.


Brinton, Laurel J. “Chaucer’s ‘Tale of Melibee’: A Reassessment.” English Studies in Canada 10.3 (September 1984): 251-264.

The Monk’s Tale

Opening of The Monk’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


When Melibee has finally (!) ended, the Host offers his default position: he wishes his wife Goodelief had heard it. She seems to need more patience and prudence, he thinks, since when he’s beating his servants she eggs him on to maximum violence. Notice how morality is always good for (shoving down the throats of) other people. The Host continues describing the pressure his wife puts on him to be contentious with others, even murderous — “lik a wilde leoun, fool-hardy” (1916).

The Host turns to the Monk, mentions Rochester (1926) — which is about thirty miles outside London — and asks the Monk what he should call him, including “my lord daun John”? (1929). This could certainly be taken as a goad, since it was the name of the sleazy monk in The Shipman’s Tale. The Host says the Monk is “nay lyk a penant [penitent] or a goost” (1934), but more like a “celerer” (1936) — that is, an officer with access to food. The Host asserts that the man does not match the vocation (1943ff), and ventures further over the line by praising the virility of “religious” men like the Monk. Chaucer the narrator reports that the Monk took all this patiently (1965). The Monk promises the “lyf of Seint Edward” (1970) after a few tragedies, “Of whiche I have an hundred in my celle” (1972). He defines the medieval version of the genre:

Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee,
And is yfallen out of heigh degree
Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.

The Monk mentions hexameters and other forms in which tragedies come, and asks not to be blamed harshly for narrating these in no particular order.


This “tale” is comprised of a series of tragedies, or the falls of princes (like Boccaccio’s Falls of Illustrious Men and Women). There is no Aristotelian intricacy to the notion of tragedy, no tragic flaws, just the operation of the Wheel of Fortune. The Monk asks us to “Be war by thise ensamples trewe and olde” (1998), but of course there’s absolutely nothing for us to do about the principle.

This may have been compiled during Chaucer’s “Italian Period” or the 1370s, plus the “modern instances”: Bernabo, the two Pedros, Ugolino. We hear about Lucifer, Adam, Sampson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Zenobia, Nero, Holofernes, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Croesus, and others.

The monstrous hammering of the wretched ends of human aspiration is pretty morbid vs. our expectations from this guy. Perhaps he intends to restore his injured dignity from the Host’s annoying taunting and coarse hostility (and from the Shipman’s depiction of a philandering monk?). Perhaps Chaucer is parodying the monastic ideal with this misunderstanding of doctrine as related to God finally, since this seeming impossibility for salvation is not a Christian view.

The “tale” does still reflect the teller with its emphasis on the worldly: powerful men and kings. It may reveal his own moral chaos and powerlessness.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Opening of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


The Monk has been interminably listing miserable ends to famous biblical and historical figures. This time it is the Knight who mercifully interrupts instead of the Host. It would start growing tiresome for the Host to keep doing so, and the Knight’s rank allows him this liberty with the Monk. But the Knight might also be made more uncomfortable about this notion of “tragedy” than most of the other pilgrims.

The Host does avail himself of the opportunity to second the Knight’s decision, acknowledging that there is “no remedie” (2784), so hearing about these endless cases is just “a peyne” (2786). The Host grows increasingly emboldened again, insisting next that the Monk’s narration is annoying everyone; “is nat worth a boterflye” (2790); and is putting him to sleep, which renders the morality useless. He asks for a more roisterous story, perhaps one about hunting. The Monk, sulkily perhaps, says he has “no lust to pleye” (2806) any more; let someone else tell a tale.

The Host targets the Nun’s Priest, “Sir John” (2810).

Be blithe, though thou ryde upon a jade.
What thogh thyn hors be bothe foul and lene?
If he wol serve thee, rekke nat a bene.

We know nothing about this fellow, so the Host seems to be antagonizing him in the only way possible: pointing out the crappy heap he’s driving. The last line of the Prologue is Chaucer calling him “This sweete preest, this goodly man sir John” (2820).


The get a comedy after the sequence of tragedies, and this time the genre is beast fable (like Aesop, La Fontaine, Uncle Remus). These are popular on the continent (Renart the fox, Isingrim the wolf). Cartoons took over this genre in our culture. The tale might also be considered a mock heroic in its parody of rhetorical elaboration and fads of the intellectual life.

The pilgrim we know next to nothing about. Donaldson says his having a personality, even of a satirist, would provide grounds for rebutting, so Chaucer is careful to give us nothing and no portrait. But his personality inhabits the tale. What do we know? (That he is probably subsumed by the domineering Prioress? That whatever his worth or talents, he rides a crummy horse. He’s brilliant but lets Chaunticleer show off the knowledge.)

The tale starts off pretty grim, with a poor widow and “eek hir doghtren two. / Thre large sowes” (2829-2830) they owned and not much more. This simple, down-to-earth life may be functioning to counter the Prioress’ pretentions. In any case, we hear about the bleak “whit and blak” (2843) existence until, like Dorothy emerging into a technicolor Oz, we zero in on the barnyard and the tale transforms into a glorious colorful wonderland. Chauntecleer “hadde in his governaunce / Seven hennes for to doon al his plesaunce, / Whiche were his sustres and his paramours” (2865-2867). Where is the teller in this tale and how do you know?

Focus turns to “damoysele Pertelote” (2870), the “faireste hewed on hir throte” (2869). Rather a courtly title for a chicken; but then who else inappropriately adopts such a title? And the focus on the throat? Note soon how we hear a lot from Pertelote tastelessly regarding purging with laxatives.

“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is full of what seem to be backward references to the preceding tales, so that it is sometimes taken as a parody-summary of all that has gone before” (Donaldson 1107). What echoes can you find that show the Nun’s Priest masterfully outdoing the other pilgrims and their tales?

There is a verve here for the topics of love, dreams, experience/authority, predestination/free will, pharmacopoeia, exempla, etc. The Nun’s Priest is a creator loving and amused with his creation. He’s got an ironical skeptical clearheadedness. But he’s so good at rhetoric and narration that the tale might best be seen as a warning to himself about too much pride in “crowing.”

Indeed, the “moralitee” seems to amount to keeping your eyes open and your mouth shut. The Nun’s Priest has seen that people don’t think much nor very carefully about what they say. He’s interested in the ways people fail to think. (And the joke continues working with dozens of scholars seeking meaning and coming up with three or four heraldic political allegories.) May 3rd and Friday (3190, 3341) have been explained tentatively and absurdly as signifying everything from the date of the Expulsion to the Flood to the Betrayal to the Crucifixion to the fatal wound of Richard I.

The high-flown rhetoric goes one way, the morality another. Despite the simple plot underneath all the other “matere,” the ending holds several morals, depending on whether you’re a fox, or a chicken, or a pilgrim, or a narrator.


The Host too heartily compliments the Nun’s Priest’s manliness and potential virility in an Epilogue that was cancelled probably when Chaucer decided to apply these ideas from the Host to the Monk instead.

The Second Nun’s Tale

Opening of The Second Nun’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles

A reference to the Life of St. Cecile in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women suggests that this tale may have been written during Chaucer’s Italian period and not completely revised for inclusion in the Canterbury Tales (62, 78, 139). It’s a close translation and we have no portrait for the pilgrim narrator again. Perhaps, though, she is intentionally faceless since that is what she is all about — a neutral frame of mind when reading and a self-effacing reporter of old authorities.


It seems drawn from a bit for the Prioress’ Prologue. The Second Nun’s Prologue comes in rime royal stanzas. It concerns “Ydelnesse” (2) and its supposed cure: “bisynesse” (24). The Second Nun portrays herself as a busywork workaholic, self-effacingly translating the story as her devotional “werk” (64, 65, 77, 84, 105, 112, 116, etc.). Since the etymologies are all false and entirely contrived (85ff), it seems that this nun pushes the idea of work for work’s sake, without consideration of its use or purpose. She also seems quite into the idea of martyrdom.


The genre here is the saint’s legend, a harrowing, often masochistic, tale with a sort of happy ending (often mass conversions). The reasoning behind this genre is that the Devil should not get all the good stories. Yet, “Complexity naturally disappears when everything is represented as either hell-doomed or heaven-directed, and the reader is left to admire only the technical proficiency with which the tale is told” (Donaldson 1108-1109). These are often bare-bones stories or translations and all skill goes into the versification of the story. There is no scrutiny of motivations. Indeed, conversion is almost a flow-chart process (212f).

The only possible irony (142) characterizes the innocence of the Second Nun: “as ofte is the manere.”

Does the tale reflect back on the Marriage Group? It’s another wife, after all. Does it provide a closure to the love and marriage themes?

There is a division at the halfway point in the tale, reflecting difference sources (or a longer source that already combined two others). As assigned to the anonymous nun, is there nevertheless a psychology or psychological plan operating here? The halfway mark denotes a shift from passive submissiveness to a more active engagement. Hostility towards authority is where all the glamour is located. Interestingly, Cecilia does not imitate Christ in any excessively submissive trial, suffering, and martyrdom process. What does this say about our “mere translator” Second Nun?

The G-group construction is interesting though. Chaucer has intentionally joined this tale, often involved with demands for sensory proof and certainly involved with martyrdom, with The Canon Yeoman’s Tale….

The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale

Opening of The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


We move from Cecilia’s holiness to the infernal, but also from empirical evidence to hope, authority to experience, library to lab knowledge. So the stories of the G Group (or Fragment VIII) seem unrelated, but there is a unity even in imagery here (fire, smells) and of theme (busyness, converting, “multiplying”!). Obviously there’s a break in the pattern, an intrusion into the pilgrimage (with an increase in the dramatic side), but there’s also an inclusiveness finally — chaos is also part of the order.

“As Chaucer approached the end of his literary activity his interests apparently became increasingly dramatic, a tendency that is itself dramatized by this disruption of the symmetry of the original plan” (Donaldson 1109). The drama is also intense because of the urgency of the Canon’s Yeoman’s moment of life-crisis. And we’re only five miles from Canterbury — at “Boghton under Blee” (556).

The narrator’s observations are somewhat “scientific” as he introduces a character who overtakes the pilgrims with such speed that the horse sweat “wonder was to see” (560). He even makes careful deductions (570f). The physical itself has become interesting, engaging, and dynamic:

But it was joye for to seen hym swete!
His forheed dropped as a stillatorie
Were ful of plantayne and of paritorie.

This Canon courteously ingratiates himself, as does his Yeoman who claims to have seen the pilgrimage ride forth and to have reported this “daliaunce” (592) to the Canon — although it’s called a “warnyng” (593; cf. 590). The Host asks the Yeoman if the Canon could tell a tale or two, and the Yeoman sings the Canon’s praises. Is the Canon’s Yeoman intentionally “laying the foundation for some fraud to be practiced upon the pilgrims” (Donaldon 1109)? Are the two of them on the lam? The sweating and overtaking explanation doesn’t make any sense. Or has there been a falling out and the Yeoman is being ironic? He claims, regarding the road to Canterbury, that the Canon “koude al clene turnen up-so-doun, / And pave it al of silver and of gold” (625-626). The Host is, or feigns to be, astonished. Since this Canon is so extraordinary, why is he so slovenly, or “sluttish” (636)?

Perhaps the Host catches the Yeoman off guard for a moment, but he parries the question. The Host asks where they live, and the Yeoman admits it’s a slum and thieves’ den. On the third try, the Host hits home: “lat me talke to the. / Why artow so discoloured of thy face?” (663-664). Here the Yeoman explains that he blows the fire in the attempts to “multiplie” or transmute base metals to silver or gold (669), and he expresses dispair of ever succeeding in the endeavor, blaming “science” for being “so fer us biforn, / We mowen nat, although we hadden it sworn, / It overtake, it slit awey so faste” (680-682). The Canon’s Yeoman’s facial discoloration “is the only genuine transmutation that years of alchemical experimentation have been able to effect” (Donaldson 1110).

We’re in the real, acoustically imperfect world now, for the Canon, whom we now hear is suspicious, even paranoid, draws nearer to hear what the Yeoman is saying (685f). He tells the Yeoman to shut up: “Thou sclaundrest me heere in this compaignye, / And eek discoverest that thou sholdest hyde” (695-696). As the Host did with the Friar, he offers protection to the Yeoman. The Canon realizes that the Yeoman will make revelations, so he “fledde awey for verray sorwe and shame” (702). Is there symbolic significance to leaving the pilgrimage?

The Yeoman immediately vows to tell all — “I wol nat spare” (718) — and curses the Canon (but not the science of alchemy for his own addiction). This turnabout happens why? It’s a key question. Did the Host spark something (a transformation)? Awareness?


The Yeoman “quites” the Canon on the spot. All is dramatic monologue, although technically one could call the genre “process-analysis,” like a “conie-skinning pamphlet” (or, “How to Con a Sucker”) — it’s a Renaissance genre and this is the only medieval instance.

William Shuchurch was a canon of King’s Chapel at Windsor, teaching the skills of counterfeiting gold in 1374. Chaucer in 1390 was repairing King’s Chapel as Clerk of the Works. Did Chaucer lose money? The phrase “Before I go” (970) and the direct address (992-1011) seem inappropriate, so was there another purpose originally for composition? How much does Chaucer know and/or respect this pseudoscience? Catalogues of pharmacopoeia show the Yeoman, and therefore Chaucer, to be a virtuoso. There was Chaucerian zeal for the materials of the Physician in the General Prologue and for the astrological instruments in the Franklin’s Tale. But whether Chaucer’s “knowledge of alchemy came from the laboratory or the library has not been determined” (Donaldson 1110).

          Part One

The Canon’s now ex-Yeoman reflects on his own transformation over the past seven years, nostalgically recalling his former self and what “That slidynge science” (732) has done to him. He sees interest in alchemy as an addiction and a contagion. He starts to condemn the elitist lingo of the pseudo-science, but enthusiasm seems to take hold of him as he catalogues alchemical inventory (making for clunky but impressive poetry). The inanimate “stuff” is animated at least by his imagination. The Canon’s Yeoman (or Chaucer through him) does give the “occultis occultorum” — the secret of secrets — the alchemical formula (819ff)! The problem, of course, is that no one knows how to translate it.

It’s obvious the Canon’s Yeoman is still obsessed, so the “quiting” backfires somewhat. The Yeoman’s disgust and hope are in tension (Donaldson 1111). It seems to be the investment not of his money and time but of his own idealism that annoys the Canon’s Yeoman most. He describes the typical experiment, ending in some fluke such as “The pot tobreketh, and farewel, al is go!” (907), and everyone quibbling about the cause for the disaster. If only all these factors were adjusted…. There’s still hope among the ruins, and the failure is blamed on peripheral weaknesses in the experiment, despite the Yeoman’s deeper pessimism.

          Part Two

The problem of unity arises. Is Chaucer developing a two-part pattern of confessional tales? In this case the second part specifically concerns the con-art of alchemy.

Ther is a chanoun of religioun
Amonges us, wolde infecte al a toun….

Is this another Canon? The same one? Perhaps this part of the tale was composed separately, before the Canon’s Yeoman was ever conceived. But the anger is directed at the Canon, not alchemy, again.

A London priest is introduced, and we may first ask if there is any indication that this guy deserves to be conned. Part of the con is gaining faith, or confidence, as the Yeoman describes. As a narrator, the Canon’s Yeoman has gotten a grip. He objectifies now, but there’s an increasing violence in his apostrophes, starting with “O sely preest!” (1076).

The tricks themselves degenerate. The first (1102ff) is involved and intricate, with the priest blowing on the fire just as the Yeoman had had to do for years. The priest gets addicted, and the second trick (1249ff), somewhat disappointingly, is just a variation on the first: same trick, different technique involving a stick. The third is just sleight-of-hand, and the Yeoman narrator seems outraged at the commonness of the con — that there’s no magic involved, no secret knowledge. But notice this passage:

This sotted preest, who was gladder than he?
Was nevere brid gladder agayn the day,
Ne nyghtyngale, in the sesoun of May,
Was nevere noon that luste bet to synge;
Ne lady lustier in carolynge,
Or for to speke of love and wommanhede,
Ne knyght in armes to doon an hardy dede,
To stonden in grace of his lady deere,
Than hadde this preest this soory craft to leere.

The Yeoman is making a bitter point about the priest’s foolishness, but he’s using the most attractive and enchanting similes for it, unintentionally expressing his own zeal. He’s describing science as love!

The priest is ready now to purchase the recipe. But of course alchemy is a perpetual struggle really. So the Yeoman has had his revenge by revealing the tricks of the trade and making the pilgrims cautious. But the Yeoman continues his monologue, pointing out a new problem with the old Chaucerian issue of old authorities (1428ff). He provides the alchemical formula (1435ff), but again we don’t know how to translate or interpret it. The unknown is explained with something more unknkown (1457), and the Yeoman ends his narration dismissing the possibility of achieving the philosopher’s stone. Does he intend to follow his own advice? Will he let go? He still believes that the “stone” exists, but that knowledge about it has been hidden and lost. “He is like the confirmed gambler who, while aware that he can never really win, even suspecting that the whole game is crooked in the first place, still hopes someday to make a fortune” (Donaldson 1111).

The tale has been called “unconsciously prophetic in warning against an incipient dehumanizing technology.” For the Middle Ages, all knowledge is essentially theological, so how can a dissevered science be created? How can proto-scientists exist self-sufficiently? The Canon’s Yeoman retreats to religion for a traditionally pious ending, but he has been to the brink.

The Manciple’s Tale

Opening of The Manciple’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


The previous Fragment A material involving the Cook was clearly meant to be cancelled so that this dramatic quarrel between the Manciple and the Cook could take place. We’re only two miles from Canterbury now, at “Bobbe-up-and-doun,” or Harbledown (1-3). The Host notices that the Cook is dozing off: “Hastow had fleen [fleas] al nyght, or artow dronke? / Or hastow with som quene [whore] al nyght yswonke…?” (17-18). The Cook claims not to know why he is so out of it. The Manciple interrupts and accuses the Cook of drunkenness: “Thy cursed breeth infecte wole us alle” (39). The Cook gets so mad that he is speechless and falls off his horse. The Host decides the Cook would tell a lewd tale, and badly articulated, and he’s got enough to keep him busy just trying to ride his horse. The Manciple can tell one, but, the Host notes, the Cook is likely to get even on another day if the Manciple is too vicious. The Manciple says he “wol nat wratthen hym” (80) and that what he said earlier was just in jest — so he already retracts what he said only a moment ago! The Manciple has some wine with which to patch things up with the Cook if need be, and the Cook does take a swig. The Host sees that liquor “wol turnen rancour and disese / T’acord and love, and many a wrong apese” (97-98). He praises Bacchus, who “kanst turnen ernest into game” (100).

Both the Cook and the Manciple belong to a tightly-knit group of city businessmen, so the Manciple endangers himself by provoking the Cook. The Manicple agrees with the Host that the Cook “brynge me in the snare” (77). And if the Manciple tells a vicious tale about “a” cook, what happens if the pilgrims tell the Cook what happened while he was passed out? The Cook could tattle to the masters. This Manciple, we know from the General Prologue, gets away with cheating over thirty masters since he is beneath their notice. So he’s clever enough to realize the truth about the tale he will tell next. The tale is indeed suited.


The genre is moral apologue and the story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Gower offers a version too in Confessio Amantis (III. 768-817). It’s prudential wisdom: shut up about others’ misbehavior. Getting along in the world involves expediency rather than morality. (Is that the same as the Nun’s Priest’s moral?) “The fact that the moral is not in any real sense moral also suits the Manciple’s character: the story represents purely prudential wisdom, giving instruction on how to get along in the world” (Donaldson 1111).

First, Phebus (Phoebus Apollo) is presented as a “mooste lusty bachiler” (107). In the groundwork for the tale (105-147), we hear that among his credentials as the archer god, “He slow Phitoun [Python], the serpent, as he lay / Slepynge agayn the sonne upon a day; And many another noble worthy dede” (109-110). And he has musical skills. His bird, a crow, is white and can “countrefete the speche of every man” (134). The only potential problem is that Phebus is very jealous concerning his wife.

A good wyf, that is clene of werk and thoght,
Sholde nat been kept in noon awayt, certayn;
And trewely the labour is in vayn
To kepe a shrewe, for it wole nat bee.
This holde I for a verray nycetee,
To spille labour for to kepe wyves:
Thus writen olde clerkes in hir lyves.

The structure of the tale balances narration and amplification (or padding), and after returning ostensibly to the story for a few lines (155-162), the Manciple gives a long diatribe, or exempla, on the treatment and behavior of caged birds, spoiled cats, and she-wolves. He then oddly insists he offers these examples as illustrations of a point about untrue men, not women (187-188).

The Manciple returns to the story for a few more lines (196-204), informing us that Phebus’ wife did have a low-class lover. Then another long diatribe sparked by his reconsidered use of the term “lemman” (204-205). “The word moot cosyn be to the werkyng” (210), and high social status only euphemizes base behavior. A glorious tyrant is just a thief with Ceremony. And back to the tale (237).

Phebus’ wife has her dalliance with her lover and the bird is a silent voyeur. When Phebus comes home (after a long day at work chasing Daphne?) the crow sings, “Cokkow! Cokkow!” (243). When asked to explain, the bird is quite articulate about Phebus’ “blered … ye [blind eye]” (252), “For on thy bed thy wyf I saugh hym swyve” (255). In ire, Phebus draws his bow and kills his wife, after which he breaks his musical and archery instruments. Mourning his dead wife, he then turns on the crow, calling him “Traitour” (271) and “O false theef!” (292). “I wol thee quite anon thy false tale” (293) by turning the crow’s pleasant song into a squawk and its white feathers black; henceforth the crow will be shunned by human society. Phebus plucks the bird and chucks it outside.

Lordynges, by this ensample I yow preye,
Beth war, and taketh kep what that ye seye:
Ne telleth nevere no man in youre lyf
How that another man hath dight his wyf;
He wol yow haten mortally, certeyn.

What follows is what the Manciple’s mother done told him: “My sone, thenk on the crowe” (318). The enormous “my son” harangue amounts to gnomic verse, biblical proverbs, and folk wisdom, supposedly in mockery of Gower’s Confessio Amantis, all repeating the moral: Shut up! The trickster tricked is any tale-teller, whether he tells truth or not. “Kepe wel thy tonge and thenk upon the crowe” (362). How bizarre for the penultimate “tale.”


The last tales capture earlier themes and collapse the structure. The vanity of earthly pursuits, the mutibility of human deeds, the uselessness of striving, the corruptness of human nature — all these are presented again but through a new point of view, one largely influenced perhaps by our realization that the pilgrimage is about to end. After this tale whose point, driven home repeatedly, amounts to “Shut up,” we have left only a penitential tract and a complete retraction.

The Parson’s Tale

Opening of The Parson’s Tale in the Ellesmere illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century / Huntington Library, Los Angeles


Since the Manciple began in the morning, the time scheme has been distorted accordingly; there’s a sense now of “the chill and urgency of the late afternoon” (Donaldson 1113).

By that the Maunciple hadde his tale al ended,
The sonne fro the south lyne was descended
So lowe that he nas nat, to my sighte,
Degrees nyne and twenty as in highte.
Foure of the clokke it was tho, as I gesse,
For ellevene foot, or litel moore or lesse,
My shadwe was at thilke tyme….

The Host insists, “Now lakketh us no tales mo than oon. / Fulfilled is my sentence and my decree” (16). (And don’t raise any objections or you’ll have to pay for that final dinner!) He turns to the Parson: “For trewely, me thynketh by thy cheere / Thou sholdest knytte up wel a greet mateere. / Telle us a fable anon, for cokkes bones!” (27-29). The Parson is alien to the Host. This figural priest has remained in the background despite all the dramatic instances where his intervention would have been appropriate. Now this Parson gently but austerely objects to the idea of “fables and swich wrecchednesse” (34). If anyone wants to hear of “Moralitee and vertuous mateere” (38), he will comply.

But trusteth wel, I am a Southren man;
I kan nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by lettre,
Ne, God woot, rym holde I but litel bettre;
And therfore, if yow list — I wol nat glose —
I wol yow telle a myrie tale in prose
To knytte up al this feeste and make an ende.

The Parson then mentions what for the medievals would have been the real “pilgrymage” (50). “To some of Chaucer contemporaries his avoidance throughout most of the Canterbury Tales of the expected implications of the pilgrimage must have come as a surprise. It is not until they read the Parson’s introduction that they would have found the journey taking on the metaphorical connotations that were hitherto lacking” (Donaldson 1113).

The Parson does provide us with the seemingly obligatory humility pose: “I am nat textueel” (57). The narrator says that the pilgrims’ consensus was that the trip ought indeed to end with some “vertuous sentence” (63). The last words before the tract belong to the Host:

“Telleth,” quod he, “youre meditacioun.
But hasteth yow; the sonne wole adoun;
Beth fructuous, and that in litel space,
And to do wel God sende yow his grace!
Sey what yow list, and we wol gladly heere.”
And with that word he seyde in this manere.


The genre here is the penitential manual or handbook, not strictly a sermon. It’s a compendium of doctrine, an amalgam of two or more treatises, and actually it’s mercifully short (!) for such things (but not as short as the Host indicated it needed to be, if we were in the real physical world anymore). “It is an enormously long discussion in prose of the sacrament of penance and of the seven deadly sins, apparently translated by Chaucer from the Latin of some manual directed at helping priests in the performance of their spiritual duties. Its piety does not, however, raise it into the realm of literature” (Donaldson 1112).

It’s a virtuous example of a “tale” with the prose clear and forthright. It may be the source for other passages in the Tales, so perhaps it was early in composition. “In any case, the Parson’s Tale would be good for the poet’s and the reader’s soul, and that, rather than esthetic pleasure, was the important thing” (Donaldson 1112). The tale is placed near the end; The Canterbury Tales are near the end and, maybe more importantly, Chaucer himself was near the end.

Confession wipes the slate clean, and, rather than asserting or creating, language becomes a negating act (the next logical extension of The Manciple’s Tale?). The Canterbury pilgrimage fades out, fades away into the Retraction.


“Already a kind of darkness that makes recognition difficult seems to have come over the pilgrims. Where are they? At the end of a little nameless village that is surely neither on the road to Canterbury nor on the road back, but on a road that leads to a city far from England” (Donaldson 1113).

The Retraction

As if waking from a dream or looking up from a book, Chaucer, in what has been often considered a deathbed repentence, rejects art and what we consider his best work. Consensus has it that this is Chaucer, the propria persona without irony. Perhaps there were moments when he felt he was foundering while Gower was doing the proper thing. “Many modern readers, faced by the poet’s rejection of what we like best, are made acutely uncomfortable by the retraction, and attempts have been made to vitiate its force by calling it a merely conventional act of piety” (Donaldson 1114). Sometimes the Retraction is dismissed as a mere literary convention allowing Chaucer the means of establishing the canon of his authentic works.

But . . .

Expression of the poet-narrator’s repentence was indirectly called for by the Parson. This is the concluding step in a poem on the theme of the pilgrimage of life, so Chaucer makes his death part of the world he contemplates in the work: “it is within their [the Tales‘] framework that he chose to make his farewell to the world. Apparently he felt that the fiction he had created was an essential–perhaps the essential–part of the total reality that God had created in the person of Geoffrey Chaucer” (Donaldson 1114).

Now preye I to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys or rede, that if ther be any thyng in it that liketh hem, that therof they thanken oure Lord Jhesu Crist, of whom procedeth al wit and al goodnesse. / And if ther be any thyng that displese hem, I preye hem also that they arrette it to the defaute of myn unkonnynge and nat to my wyl, that wolde ful fayn have seyd bettre if I hadde had konnynge. / For oure book seith, “Al that is writen is writen for oure doctrine,” and that is myn entente.

So moral benefit is left up to the reader’s participation, unlike with Gower.

Chaucer is first sorry for “the book of Troilus” — interesting, because religiosity aside, biographically this work seems to have caused him the most trouble. Then he revokes “the book of Fame; the book of the XXV. Ladies” — how many? Attempts have been made to ascribe this 25 to scribal error. Do we not have the final version of the Legend of Good Women? Is Chaucer still pretending he wrote more than he ever did? He revokes “the book of the Duchesse; the book of Seint Valentynes day of the Parlement of Briddes; [and] the tales of Caunterbury” — only the “tales” of Canterbury? Everything else is revoked so far as a “book”; why not The Canterbury Tales? Furthermore, he adds, only “thilke that sownen into synne” — and not, apparently, the whole batch.

Next to be revoked: the book of the Leoun.

And then the list trails off: “and many another book, if they were in my remembrance, and many a song and many a leccherous lay” — so he revokes things he doesn’t even recollect. His translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and other more moral works such as saints’ lives he thanks heaven for and then beseeches that “from hennes forth unto my lyves ende sende me grace to biwayle my giltes and to studie to the salvacioun of my soule….”