Vanity Fea

The Canterbury Tales

From The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble.

The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's most celebrated work probably designed about 1387 and extending to 17,000 lines in prose and verse of various metres (though the predominant form is the rhyming couplet). The General Prologue describes the meeting of 29 pilgrims in the Tabard Inn in Southwark (in fact they add up to 31; it has been suggested that the prioress's 'preestes three' in line 164 may be an error since only one 'Nun's Priest' is mentioned in the body of the work). Detailed pen-pictures are given of 21 of them, vividly described but perhaps corresponding to traditional lists of the orders of society, clerical and lay (see J. Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire, 1973). The host (see BAILLY) proposes that the pilgrims should shorten the road by telling four stories each, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back; he will accompany them and award a free supper on their return to the teller of the best story. The work is incomplete; only 23 pilgrims tell stories, and there are only 24 stories told altogether (Chaucer tells two). In the scheme the stories are linked by narrative exchanges between the pilgrims and by prologues and epilogues to the tales; but this aspect of the work is also very incomplete. It is uncertain even, in what order the stories are meant to come; the evidence of the manuscripts and of geographical references is conflicting, as is the scholarly interpretation of that evidence. The order that follows is that of the Ellesmere manuscipt, followed in the best complete edition of Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, (ed. L. D. Benson et al., 1988).

(1) 'The Knight's Tale', a shortened version of the Teseida of Boccaccio, the story of the love of Palamon and Arcite (told again in Shakespeare's The Two Noble Kinsmen), prisoners of Theseus king of Athens, for Emelyie, sister of Hippolyta queen of the Amazons, whom Theseus has married.  The rivals compete for her in a tournament. Palamon is defeated, but Arcite, the favourite of Mars, at the moment of his triumph is thrown and injured by his horse through the intervention of Venus and Saturn, and dies. Palamon and Emelye, after prolonged mourning for Arcite, are united. Riverside follows the Ellesmere division of the tale into four parts, but it is not so divided in all the manuscripts. An interesting interpretation of the tale as ironic is given by Terry Jones in Chaucer's Knight (1978).chaucer knights tale 2

(2) 'The Miller's Tale', a ribald story of the deception, first of a husband (a carpenter) through the prediction of a second flood, and secondly of a lover who expects to kiss the lady's lips but kisses instead her 'nether eye'. He avenges himself on her lover for this humiliation with a red-hot ploughshare. The Tale has been said to be a parody of a courtly-love story.

(3) 'The Reeve's Tale' is a fabliau about two clerks who are robbed by a miller of some of the meal which they take to his mill to be ground, and who take their vengeance by sleeping with the miller's wife and daughter. There are two manuscript versions of a French analogue in Bryan and Dempster, Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1941), 126-47, 'Le Meunier et les II clers'. In Chaucer's context, it is an obvious rejoinder to the miller's tale of the duping of a carpenter, the reeve's profession.

(4) 'The Cook's Tale' of Perkyn Revelour only extends to 58 lines before it breaks off. It is another ribald fabliau which ends with the introduction of a prostitute, and it has been suggested that Chaucer may have decided that the occurrence of three indecent tales together was unbalanced. The tale of Gamelyn, not by Chaucer, is introduced for the cook in some manuscripts. The cook himself, Roger (by nickname traditionally Hodge) of Ware (l. 4336), has been identified with an attested cook of that name. See Riverside, p. 814.

(5) 'The Man of Law's Tale' is the story of Constance, daughter of a Christian emperor of Rome, who marries the sultan of Syria on condition that he become a Christian and who is cast adrift on a boat because of the machinations of the sultan's jealous mother. It is a frequently told medieval story, paralleled by the romance Emaré and by Gower's Constance story in Confessio Amantis, ii. 587ff.; there is argument about the priority of Chaucer's and Gower's versions. It is certain, at least, that Chaucer's is based on a passage in the early 14th-cent. Anglo-Norman Chronicle by Trivet. Both Trivet's and Gower's versions are in Bryan and Dempster.

(6) 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' is preceded by an 856-line prologue in which she condemns celibacy by describing her life with her five late husbands, in the course of which Chaucer draws widely on the medieval anti-feminist tradition, especially on Jean de Meun's La Vielle (the Duenna) in the Roman de la Rose. After this vigorous, learned, and colourful narrative, the folowing tale, though appropriate, seems rather flat. It is the story of 'the loathly lady' (paralleled by Gower's 'Tale of Florent' in Confessio Amantis, i. 1396 ff., and by the romance Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell, edited in D. B. Sands, Middle English Verse Romances, 323-47) in which a knight is asked to answer the question, 'what do women most desire?' The correct answer, 'sovereignty', is told him by a hideous old witch on condition that he marry her; when he does she is restored to youth and beauty. Since Kittredge (Chaucer and His Poetry, 1915, 185 ff.) it has generally been thought that this Prologue-Tale sets in motion a discussion of marriage, 'The Marriage Group', which is taken up (after interruptions) by the clerk, the merchant, and the franklin (see 9, 10, 12 below).

(7) 'The Friar's Tale' tells how a summoner meets the devil dressed as a yeoman and they agree to share out what they are given. They come upon a carter who curses his horse, commending it to the devil; the summoner asks the devil why he does not take the horse thus committed to him and the devil replies that it is because the commendation does not come from the heart. Later they visit an old woman from whom the summoner attempts to extort twelve pence, whereupon she commends him to the devil. The devil carries him off to hell because her curse was from the heart. The story is widely attested in popular tradition, and its motif is referred to as ex corde, 'from the heart'. Chaucer's exact source is not known, but it is clear that the firar tells it to enrage the summoner on the pilgrimage, who interrupts the narrative and rejoins with a scurrilous and discreditable story about a friar.

(8) The Summoner's Tale' tells of a greedy friar who undertakes to divide a deathbed legacy amongst his community; he receives a fart and has to devise an ingenious stratagem to divide it with perfect justice.

(9) 'The Clerk's Tale', which the poet tells us he took from Petrarch, was translated into Latin by the latter from the Italian version of Boccaccio in The Decameron (Day 10, Tale 10). Boccaccio was the first writer (in 1353) to take the story from popular currency, and there are several versions of the story in Italian, Latin, and French before Chaucer's (indeed it is clear that Chaucer's version is rather more dependent on a French prose version than on Petrarch's Latin). The story tells of patient Griselda and her trials by her husband, the Marquis Walter. Chaucer's version has more hints of criticism in the relentless husband than any of his predecessors (except Boccaccio, whose narrator frowns on Gualtieri's 'strange desire' to try his wife's obedience). Apologists for 'The Marriage Group' (see 6 above) regard the tale as a response to the wife of Bath, partly because the Clerk concludes with an expression of good will towards her (IV. 1170 ff.).

(10) 'The Merchant's Tale', in which the merchant, prompted by the tale of Griselda's extreme obedience, tells his 'Tale' of January and May, the old husband with his young wife, and the problems with obedient fidelity involved in this relationship. After a lengthy review of the pros and cons of taking a young wife, January ignores the good advice of Justinus in favour of the time serving opinion of Placebo and marries May. When he goes blind she makes love to her suitor Damyan in a pear-tree round which January wraps his arms. Pluto mischievously restores January's sight at this point, but Proserpine inspires May to explain that the restoration of his sight was brought about by her activities in the pear-tree and that this had been their purpose. Critics have argued about the relative proportions of mordancy and humour in the tale; see E. Talbot Donaldson in Speaking of Chaucer (1970), 30-45. There are parallels to the various sections of the story in French, Latin, Italian, and German (see D. S. Brewer (ed.), Medieval Comic Tales, 1973, German no. 3 and Latin, (o)).

(11) 'The Squire's Tale', of Cambuscan, king of Tartary, to whom on his birthday an envoy from the king of Arabia brings magic gifts, including a ring for the king's daughter Canacee, which enables her to understand the language of birds. A female falcon tells Canacee the story of her own desertion by a tercelet. The tale is incomplete but it seems likely that Chaucer meant to finish it, judging from the fact that there is no suggestion that it is unfinished in the laudatory words of the franklin that follow it (V. 673 ff.). The precise origin of the tale is unknown, but a number of parallels are suggested by H. S. V. Jones in Bryan and Dempster, pp. 357-76.

(12) 'The Franklin's Tale', of Dorigen, wife of Arveragus, who to escape the attentions of her suitor, the squire Aurelius, makes her consent depend upon an impossible condition, that all the rocks on the coast of Brittany be removed. When this condition is realized by the aid of a magician, the suitor, from a generous remorse, releases her from her promise. Chaucer states that the tale is taken from a 'breton lay', but if this is true, the original is lost. There are a number of parallels in medieval literature, of which the closest is Boccaccio's Il filocolo, Question  4. See N. R. Hayely, Chaucer's Boccaccio (1980).

(13) 'The Physician's Tale' tells of Virginia who, at her own request, is killed by her father to escape the designs of the corrupt judge Appius. The original source is Livy's History, and this is what Chaucer cites, though his version seems to rely principally on the Roman de la rose, ll. 5589-658, by Jean de Meun.

(14) 'The Pardoner's Tale' follows a prologue in which he declares his own covetousness, and takes covetousness as its theme, relating it to other sins: drunkenness, gluttony, gambling, and swearing. Three rioters set out to find Death who has killed their companion; a mysterious old man tells them they will find him under a particular tree, but when they get there they find instead a heap of gold. By aiming to cheat each other in possessing the gold they kill each other. The character of the pardoner in the prologue here is related to Faus Semblant (False Seeming) in Jean de Meun's part of the Roman de la Rose, ll. 11065-972 (a section corresponding to the Middle English Romaunt of the Rose, Fragment C, lines 67061 ff.: Robinson, pp. 621 ff.). There are many analogues for the tale, in Latin, Italian, and German, but Chaucerr's exact source, if he had one, is not known.

(15) 'The Shipman's Tale.' There is a similar story in The Decameron (Day 8, Tale 1). The wife of a niggardly merchant asks the loan of a hundred francs from a priest to buy finery. The priest borrows the sum from the merchant and hands it to the wife, and the wife grants him her favours. On the merchant's return from a journey the priest tells him that he has repaid the sum to the wife, who cannot deny receiving it.

(16) 'The Prioress's Tale' tells of the murder of a child by Jews because he sings a Marian hymn while passing through their quarter and of the discovery of his body because of its continued singing of the hymn after death. There are a great many parallels for the story. Some critics, perhaps anachronistically, see the bland anti-Semitism of the story as a comment on the uncritical nature of the prioress.

(17) 'Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas' is a witty and elegant parody of the contemporary romance, both in its subject and in the insubstantiality of its tail-rhyme form. Its butts are no doubt general, but it can perhaps be taken to have special reference to the heroes it catalogues (VII. 898-900): Horn Child, the legend of Ypotys, Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwick, the unidentified Pleyndamour, and Libeaus Desconus. It is closest, it has been argued, to the last of these.

(18) When the Host interrupts the tale of Sir Thopas, Chaucer moves to the opposite extreme with a heavy prose homily, 'The Tale of Melibeus'. This story of the impetuous Melibeus and his wise wife Prudence dates from Italy in the 1240s, when the story was written in Latin prose for his third son by Albertano of Brescia. Chaucer's immediate source was the 1336 version in French prose by Renaud de Louens.Chaucer Knights Tale

(19) 'The Monk's Tale' is composed of a number of 'tragedies' of persons fallen from high estate, taken from different authors and arranged on the model of Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium. The tale is in eight-line stanzas.

(20) 'The Nun's Priest's Tale' is related to the French cycle of Renart (see Reynard), telling of a fox that beguiled a cock by praising his father's singing and was in turn beguiled by him into losing him by pausing to boast at his victory. The mock-heroic story is full of rhetoric and exempla, and it is one of the most admired of the Tales, regarded as the most typically 'Chaucerian' in tone and content.  The fable is very familiar, but the parallels to Chaucer's treatment of it are not very close. The famous ending of the tale invites the reader to 'take the morality' of the Tale in spite of its apparent lightness of substance, on the grounds that St Paul says everything has some moral; this invitation has been taken with surprising solemnity by many critics.

(21) 'The Second Nun's Tale', in rhyme-royal, is perhaps translated from the life of St Cecilia in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. It describes the miracles and martyrdom of the noble Roman maiden Cecilia and her husband Valerian.

(22) 'The Canon's Yeoman's Tale' is told by a character who joins the pilgrims at this late stage (VIII. 554 ff.) with his master, the dubious canon whose alchemical skills the yeoman praises. The first 200 lines of the tale tell of the Alchemist's arcane practice and its futility, before proceeding to the tale proper which tales of how an alchemical canon (who is not his master, he protests, perhaps suggesting that it is) tricks a priest out of £40 by pretending to teach him the art of making precious metals. The dishonesty of the alchemists was much discussed and condemned in the 14th cent.; there is a close analogue to Chaucer's story in one of the Novelle of Sercambi (included in Bryan and Dempster, pp. 694-5). The most significant literary parallel, of course, is Jonson's The Alchemist.

(23) 'The Manciple's Tale' is the fable of the tell-tale crow, told by many authors from Ovid in Metamorphoses (2. 531-62) onwards. Phebus (Phoebus) has a crow which is white and can speak. It reveals to Phebus the infidelity of his wife (nameless in Chaucer, but Coronis in Ovid and most of the writers who follow him) and Phebus kills her in a rage. Then, in remorse, he plucks out the crow's white feathers, deprives it of speech and throws it 'unto the devel', which is why crows are now black. A very similar version of the story is told in Gower's Confessio Amantis (iii. 768-835), and there are other examples by Guillaume de Machaut and in the Ovide moralisé (c. 1324). As well as these, J. A. Work in Bryan and Dempster edits as analogues a story from The Seven Sages of Rome which does not name Phebus and which exchanges the fates of wife and bird, as well as some sententious parallels from Boethius and Jean de Meun.

(24) 'The Parson's Tale' which concludes the work (and was, no doubt, meant to, even if the main body of the Tales is incomplete) is a long prose treatise, ostensibly on Penitence but dealing at most length with the Seven Deadly Sins. The two principal sources are Raymund de Pennaforte's Summa (dating from the 1220s) for the sections on Penitence, and Guilielmus Peraldu's Summa Vitiorum (probably from the 1250s) for the Seven Deadly Sins.

Most manuscripts have 'The Parson's Tale' leading straight into Chaucer's closing 'Retracciouns' in which he takes leave of his book. He asks forgiveness of God for his 'translacions and enditynges of worldly vanities', including 'The Tales of Caunterbury, thilke that sownen into [i.e. tend towards] synne'. But this rhetorical conclusion need not be read as a revocation of his work by the poet; following St Augustine's Retractationes, many medieval works end by distancing the writer from the non-spiritual elements in his work: the Author's Epilogue in The Decameron and Chaucer's Troilus are other familiar examples. See N. F. Blake, The Canterbury Tales, Edited from the Hengwrt Manuscript (1980); H. Cooper, The Canterbury Tales (1989). Also an edition by V. A. Kolve and G. Olsen (1989).

The Canterbury Tales (Project Gutenberg)


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