Summary and Analysis of The Friar's Tale
Prologue to the Friar's Tale:
The Friar commends the Wife of Bath for her tale, and then says that he will tell a tale about a summoner. He does not wish to offend the Summoner who travels with them, but insists that summoners are known for lewd behavior. The Summoner does not take offense, but does indicate that he will repay the Friar in turn. The job of the Summoner to which the Friar objects is to issue summons from the church against sinners who, under penalty of excommunication, pay indulgences for their sins to the church, a sum which the summoner often pockets.
The Friar's Tale will continue the pattern of reciprocity that had earlier been established before the interruption of the Wife of Bath's Tale. The Friar will tell his tale about a summoner, while the summoner will in turn repay the friar with a tale about a man of his profession. However, compared to the earlier pattern of tales repaying one another for insults, the interaction between the Friar and the Summoner is more muted and less personal. The Friar insists that he does not wish to insult the Summoner personally, while the Summoner's reaction to the Friar is rational and relatively muted.
The Friar's Tale:
The Friar's Tale tells of an archdeacon who boldly executed the Church's laws against fornication, witchcraft and lechery. Lechers received the greatest punishment, forced to pay significant tithes to the church. The archdeacon had a summoner who was quite adept at discovering lechers, even though he himself was immoral.
The Summoner interrupts the Friar's Tale with an objection, but the Host allowed the Friar to continue his tale. The Friar tells that the summoner of his tale would only summon those who had enough money to pay the church, and would take part of the charge. He would enlist the help of prostitutes who would reveal their customers to the summoner in exchange for their own safety (and offer of sexual services). One day, the summoner was traveling to issue a summons to a yeoman, who had been hunting. The summoner claimed to be a bailiff, knowing that his actual profession was so detested. The yeoman claimed to be a bailiff, and offers hospitality to the summoner. The two travel together, and the summoner asks where the yeoman lives, intending to later rob him. The summoner asks the yeoman how he makes money at his job, and the bailiff admits that he lives by extortion. The summoner admits the he does the same, and they reveal to each other their villainy, until the yeoman finally declares that he is a fiend whose dwelling is in hell. The summoner asks the yeoman (the devil) why he has a human shape, and he claims that he assumes one whenever on earth. The summoner asks him why he labors as such, and the devil says that sometimes he and others are God's instruments. The devil claims that the summoner will meet him again someday and have more evidence of hell than had Dante or Virgil. The summoner suggests that the two continue on their way and go about their business, each taking their share. On their travels they found a carter whose wagon loaded with hay was stuck in the mud. The carter cursed the devil for his troubles, and the summoner suggests to the devil that he take all of the carter's belongings as retribution. The horses pull the wagon from the mud when he prays to God. The summoner suggests that they visit a stingy old crone, but the devil suddenly leaves him and tells the summoner that they may meet again. The summoner gives her a notice to appear before the archdeacon on the penalty of excommunication, but she claims that she is sick and cannot make it there. She asks if she can pay the summoner to represent her to the archdeacon, but he demands twelve pence, a sum that she thinks is too great, for she claims she is guiltless of sin. She curses the summoner, saying that she would give his body to the devil. The devil hears this and tells the summoner that he shall be in hell tonight. Upon these words, the summoner and the devil disappeared into hell, the realm where summoners truly belong.
The Friar's Tale, like the Reeve's Tale, seems to exist for a single purpose: the humiliation and degradation of members of a certain profession. The Tale begins by exposing the means by which summoners blackmail and extort persons, but does not attack the church system that allows this to happen, but rather the men who represent this system and exploit these workings of the church. Yet the Friar's Tale surpasses the Reeve's Tale in its vitriol for its main character. While Symkyn, the immoral miller of the Reeve's tale, is hardly an exemplary character and exists only for ridicule, he at least is given a proper name that separates him from his profession. The main character of the Friar's Tale is an impersonal representation of all summoners and the fate they deserve.
The comic twist to the Friar's Tale is that, when he meets the devil, the summoner is neither shocked nor overcome with fear. Rather, the summoner regards the devil as a curious colleague. In fact, the narrator seems to hold a higher opinion of the devil than of the summoner. When the devil leaves the summoner, the devil tells him that they shall hold company together until he forsakes him. This may be a chance for redemption that the devil offers the summoner when he visits the old crone, but he does not take it.
The end of the tale is pious and overblown. In the end, the Friar returns to his diatribe against summoners, leaving the specific tale that he has told for a more broad attack on their profession.
Summary and Analysis of The Summoner's Tale
Prologue to the Summoner's Tale:
The Summoner was enraged by the tale that the Friar told. He claims in response to the Friar that friars and fiends are one and the same. He tells that a friar once was brought to hell by an angel and remarked that he saw no friars there. However, Satan lifted his tail and thousands of friars came out from his ass and swarmed around hell.
The Summoner becomes insane with anger upon hearing the Friar's Tale, which, although it was told with great vitriol against summoners, had a measured manner and refrained from personal attacks. Where the Friar was intensely contemptuous yet civil, the Summoner becomes a brutish and ill-tempered barbarian. Rather than combating the image that Friar's Tale had given of his profession, the Summoner confirms the worst about the low qualities of his kind.
The Summoner's Tale:
A friar went to preach and beg in a marshy region of Yorkshire called Holderness. In his sermons he begged for donations for the church and afterward he begged for charity from the local residents. He went to the house of Thomas, a local resident who normally indulged him, and found him ill. The friar speaks of the sermon he gave and essentially orders a meal from Thomas's wife. She tells the friar that her child died not more than two weeks before. The friar claimed that he had a revelation that her child had died and entered heaven. He claims that his fellow friars had a similar vision, for they are more privy to God's messages than laymen, who live richly on earth, as compared to richly spiritually. He speaks about how, among the clergy, only friars remain impoverished and thus close to God, and tells Thomas that his illness persists because he has given so little to the church. When Thomas remarks that his wife is angry, the friar launches into a tirade about the ill effects of ire in men of high degree. He tells the tale of an angry king who sentenced a knight to death because he returned without his partner and automatically assumed that he had murdered him. When a third knight lead the condemned knight to his death, they found the knight that he had supposedly murdered. When the third knight returned to the king to have the sentenced reversed, the king sentenced all three to death: the first because he had originally declared it so, the second because he was the cause of the first's death, and the third because he did not obey the king. Another ireful king, Cambyses, was a drunk. When one of his knights claimed that drunkenness caused people to lose their coordination, Cambyses drew his bow and arrow and shot the knight's son to prove that he still had control of his reflexes. The friar then tells of Cyrus, the Persian king who had the river Gyndes destroyed because one of his horses' drowned in it. The friar then asks Thomas for money that should be divided among all of the monks. Thomas, annoyed by the friar's hypocrisy, told the friar that he had a gift for him that he was sitting on. When the friar reached for the 'gift,' Thomas let out a great fart. The servants of the house chased the friar out. The enraged friar found the lord of the manor and told him of the embarrassment he suffered, claiming that Thomas promised to divide his riches equally, but only gave the friar a fart. The squire of the lord of the manor said that all will be corrected: the lord of the manor will make sure that the fart will be divided among all deserving friars.
The Summoner's Tale is the third tale thus far in the Canterbury Tales to focus its narrative thrust on a single purpose of humiliation. This tale is a response to the Friar's Tale and its description of fiendish summoners, but this tale employs a far different tone to achieve its effect. The Summoner's Tale also uses a less schematic structure; the tale stands alone as a narrative, as compared to the Friar's Tale, which is significant only in the context that it attacks summoners.
The friar that is the center of this tale is a caricature like the summoner of the Friar's Tale, but this tale grants its character a collection of human foibles and mannerisms, however negative, that create a more rounded character. The friar is a relentless beggar and a leech, yet contrary to his lowly position he is arrogant and demanding. Despite his boasts that friars are the closest men to heaven because of their poverty, he demands a meal from Thomas and his wife and gives her detailed instructions about what he wants. He prefers demanding service to asking for charity. Subtle details illustrate the friar's lack of respect for others; when he arrives at Thomas' house, the friar immediately makes that house his own, pushing the family cat out of the way to get the most comfortable seat.
While the Friar's Tale gives little indication why summoners would be tolerated even with their mandate from the church, the Summoner's Tale places friars in a more realistic context. The friar of this tale is overtly well-mannered and educated, and even can feign concern for others. Where this friar oversteps his bounds is in his relentless obviousness to others' suffering. He chides Thomas and his wife for not attempting church recently, even when the reason is the recent death of their small child. He berates them with lofty tales inapplicable to their situation. The tales of men of ire are exaggerated instances of men driven to homicidal madness having nothing to do with the legitimate distress that Thomas and his wife feel.
The climax of the story in which the friar receives the 'gift' of a fart keeps the story in a strictly comedic vein, removing any pretenses of a high-minded critique on friars. The fart continues with the fixation on bodily functions prevalent in the Summoner's Tale and Prologue. The early anecdote about friars contained in Satan's ass is complemented by Thomas' gastrointestinal difficulties and the final fart given to the friar.
Summary and Analysis of The Clerk's Tale
Prologue to the Clerk's Tale:
The Host remarks that the Clerk of Oxford sits quietly, and tells him to be more cheerful. The Host asks the Clerk to tell a merry tale of adventure and not a moralistic sermon. The Clerk agrees to tell a story that he learned from a clerk at Padua, Francis Petrarch. He then praises the renowned Petrarch for his sweet rhetoric and poetry. The Clerk does warn that Petrarch, before his tale, wrote a poem in a high style exalting the Italian landscape.
In the Prologue to the Clerk's Tale, Chaucer indulges yet again in a mild critique of his contemporaries. Here he analyzes Petrarch's stories and finds fault with his overindulgent descriptions of the Italian landscape, yet nevertheless he finds Petrarch's story good enough to adapt for his own Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer did adapt most of these tales from outside sources, modifying them as he saw fit and often making significant changes in tone and plot points. Nevertheless, many of the stories in the Canterbury Tales did not originate with Chaucer himself.
The Clerk's Tale:
The tale begins with the description of Saluzzo, a region at the base of Mount Viso in Italy. There was once a marquis of this region named Walter. He was wise, noble and honorable, but had one major flaw. He refused to marry, choosing careless pursuits instead. His refusal was so steadfast that the people of his realm confronted him about this, pleading with him to take a wife. They offer to choose for him the most noble woman in the realm for him to marry. He agrees to marry, but makes this one condition: he will marry whomever he chooses, regardless of birth, and his wife shall be treated with the respect accorded the emperor's daughter no matter her origin.
Near the palace lived among the humble folk a man named Janicula, who had a daughter Griselde, who was exceedingly virtuous, courageous and charitable. While hunting the marquis found Griselde and immediately decided that this exemplary woman was the one he should marry. On the day of the wedding Walter had not revealed to the public the woman he would marry, and the populace assumed that he would not marry at all. But he came to Griselde's home and asked Janicula for his permission to marry his daughter. The marquis' servants took Griselde and dressed her in preparation for the wedding; she appeared as if she had been born as nobility, not from her actual humble origin. Her virtue and excellence became renowned throughout Saluzzo, for she was essentially a perfect wife. Soon she gave birth to a baby girl, although she would have preferred a son who could be his father's heir.
Soon after his daughter was born, the marquis decided to test his wife. He told her that although she was dear to him, to the rest of the nobility she was not. They objected to the new daughter, and wished that she be taken away from Griselde and put to death. The marquis instead sent the child away with one of his sergeants to be raised Walter's sister, the Countess of Panago, in Bologna. Walter did pity his wife, who remained steadfast and dedicated to him, silently accepting her fate and that of her child whom she believed dead.
Walter and Griselde soon had another child, this time a boy, and Walter repeated the same test. She accepted it, and told him that she realizes that she was of low birth and would consent to die if it pleased him. However, she does acknowledge that she has had no benefits of motherhood, only the pain of childbirth and a continued pain of losing her children. Yet when this was done Walter thought of more tests to prove his wife's faithfulness. The people came to loathe Walter, thinking that he had murdered his children. Walter devised his next test: he contrived a counterfeit papal bull that ordered Walter to divorce Griselde and take another wife. Upon hearing this, Griselde remained steadfast.
Walter ordered that Griselde return to her father's house. She was stoic upon hearing this, and protested her love for Walter, but will not repent for loving him. She only asks that she not be sent naked from the palace, but will be given a simple smock to wear to spare her from suffering the indignity of returning home completely unclothed. Walter denied her even this, but she did not complain, despite the embarrassment.
The Countess of Panago arrived at Saluzzo with Griselde's two children. Walter sent a message to Griselde that he would be married soon and wished for Griselde to plan the ceremony. When the people saw the supposed new wife, they at last ended their complaints, thinking that the new wife was as fair as Griselde but had the virtue of youth. When Walter introduced Griselde to his new wife, he pleaded with him not to treat the new wife as unkindly as he did her, but had no malice in her words. Walter kissed Griselde and claimed that she had always been his wife. He reveals to her the actual fate of her two children the supposed new wife was actually Griselde's daughter. Walter returned Griselde to the castle where he from then on treated her kindly. The Clerk claims that Petrarch's moral to this story is that all women should strive to be as steadfast as Griselde, but not necessarily have to suffer the same torture.
The Clerk's Tale serves primarily to applaud the virtues of patience and noble suffering in women, as represented by Griselde. She suffers unimaginable tortures at the hands of her husband, losing her two children and finally her husband merely to prove that she is capable of bearing any burden placed upon her. However, although the story is a celebration of Griselde's fortitude, the Clerk accurately judges that it would be impossible for any woman to legitimately withstand the suffering that Griselde faced with such resignation. Furthermore, her extreme behavior is not even commendable, for she allows her husband to murder her two children without struggle. The Clerk indicates that women should strive toward the example that Griselde sets, but not necessarily follow her example in such an extreme form.
Chaucer does humanize Griselde at several points in the story. Although she is a passive character, she is self-aware and realizes that she suffers nearly inhuman torture. When she gives birth for the second time, Griselde laments that she has never experienced the joys of motherhood, and she pleads with Walter to allow her to leave his estate with some dignity. She does not beg for mercy from Walter, but merely asks to be spared some of the indignation that he has inflicted upon her. Without this realization that her situation has been so wretched, Griselde would seem not steadfast, but rather dull and dim-witted. Griselde even breaks from her normal passive state at one point in the story, in which she asks Walter to be kinder to his new wife than he was to her. Although the Clerk takes pains to show that this advice contained no hatred toward Walter, this action is nevertheless more bold than Griselde's normal patterns of behavior. The only point in the story in which her actions do not seem plausible is at the conclusion of the tale in which all is restored. She registers no sense of anger at Walter, whose behavior was far beyond abusive. She only appears grateful that her children have been returned to her.
The great affection that the narrator has for Griselde makes Walter a problematic character. At the beginning of the tale Walter is the ostensible 'hero,' and the narrator frames his choice as honorable. He marries Griselde for love rather than status. This is no small gesture; Walter expects that the people of his realm will demand that he marry a wealthy and respectable woman. Even here, however, the portrayal of Walter is less than positive. At the beginning of the story he has no wish to marry, choosing the easy life of a bachelor over adult responsibilities. His choice of Griselde, the action in the story which speaks most highly of Walter, does not even do much to redeem him. The portrayal of Griselde is so overwhelmingly positive that Walter's affection for her only proves that he is sentient.
Once Walter does begin to test his wife, any sympathy for Walter vanishes immediately. His first test taking away Griselde's first child is a mean-spirited prank with the ostensible purpose of proving Griselde's worth. The means by which he demonstrates Griselde's fortitude is callous and inappropriate to the purpose. The following tests that Walter inflicts on his wife appear to serve a different purpose. Walter's motivation seems to shift from demonstrating his wife's capacities to breaking down his wife. This may be due to envy for Griselde, a woman universally beloved by his people, who at the outset of the story consider Walter irresponsible and immature. By the time Walter sends Griselde naked from his home he has become wholeheartedly sadistic.
The reconciliation that concludes the Clerk's Tale is therefore unsatisfying, for it restores to Walter what he does not deserve. The reconstruction of the family that occurs when Griselde and her children return to Walter's estate is at best tenuous, bringing together a wife and a husband who tortured her, and children and the parents who did not raise them.
Summary and Analysis of The Merchant's Tale
Prologue to the Merchant's Tale:
The merchant claims that he knows nothing of long-suffering wives. Rather, if his wife were to marry the devil, she would overmatch even him. The Merchant claims that there is a great difference between Griselde's exceptional obedience and his wife's more common cruelty. The Merchant has been married two months and has loathed every minute of it. The Host asks the Merchant to tell a tale of his horrid wife.
The prologues that link the various Canterbury Tales shift effortlessly from ponderous drama to light comedy. The lamentable tale of Griselde gives way to the Host's complaint about his shrewish wife. This prologue further illustrates how each of the characters informs the tale he tells. The travelers largely tell tales that conform to their personal experiences or attitudes, such as the Merchant, whose awful marriage is the occasion for his tale about a difficult wife. In most cases the influence of the narrator on his tale is apparent, but the authorial touch lightly felt. The Merchant's Tale, for example, gains little from the prologue's information that the Merchant is disenchanted with his own marriage. Only a few of these tales exist largely as extensions of the characters who tell them; the Wife of Bath's Tale is the most prominent of these stories.
The Merchant's Tale:
The Merchant tells a tale of a prosperous knight from Lombardy who had not yet taken a wife. But when this knight, January, had turned sixty, whether out of devotion or dotage, he decided to finally be married. He searched for prospects, now convinced that the married life was a paradise on earth. Yet his brother, Placebo, cited the advice of the scholar Theophrastus, who advised men never to wed, for servants show more diligence and do not claim nearly as much. To this the knight retorted with Biblical stories that state a man without a wife is bent on ruin. These stories cites the creation of Eve for Adam as proof that a wife is man's support, as well as examples of humble and devoted wives. January, wished to have a young wife of no older than thirty, for a young wife would be more pliable, but Placebo warned him that it takes great courage for such an aged man to take a young wife. He warned him of the misery that can come from taking a wife, for she could be shrewish or a drunkard, facts that a husband will not learn until well into the marriage. Despite the common opinion that Placebo has a wonderful wife, he knows what faults she has. They argue about the merits of marriage, with Placebo predicting that January will not please his wife for more than three years, but Placebo eventually assents to January's plan. January finally decided to take a young and pretty wife, foolishly believing that nobody would find fault with his choice. He spoke to Placebo and his friends about his choice, praising his intended wife. January, however, worries that a man who finds perfect happiness on earth as he would with his wife would never find a similar happiness in heaven, for one must choose between one perfect happiness and another. Justinus countered by stating that it is more likely that married men will get to heaven than single men. He muses that marriage might be January's purgatory.
January thus married his intended, May, in a joyous ceremony. On their wedding night January, consumed with lust, ravaged his wife. He essentially forced himself on May, believing himself justified because they were now married. However, Damian, January's squire, was infatuated with May. He wrote a love letter to May that he pinned in a silk purse next to his heart. One day Damian was not attending January, and to cover for him the other squires told January that Damian was sick. May and January went to visit Damian, and during this visit Damian slipped May the purse with his love letter. She read it and then tore it up to destroy the evidence. May took pity on Damian and gave him a letter in return. Damian felt better the next day, and groomed himself to look presentable for May. January's house had a garden so magnificent that even he who wrote Romance of the Rose could not describe its beauty, nor could Priapus accurately describe its art. January loved this garden so much that only he was allowed to touch the key to it. In the summer he would go there with May and have sex. January became increasingly possessive of his wife, which caused Damian great grief. May made a double of the key to the garden in warm wax which she gave to Damian. January came to the garden looking for May, wishing to have sex, when Damian covertly entered. Damian hid in a tree. It so happened that at this time Pluto, the king of fairies, and Queen Proserpina were walking in this garden, discussing the injustices that women do to men, yet while one man in a thousand is good, no woman is worthy. He gives as an example Damian, May and January. Damian remained in the pear tree, waiting for January to be finished with his wife. May claimed that she was hungry and wanted a pear. Since January was blind and could not climb the tree, he hoisted her so that she could climb to where Damian was hiding. While she was in the tree, she and Damian had sex. At this point Pluto came upon the three and witnessed this injustice. He restored January's sight. Trying to deny what had happened, she tells him that he must still be blind, for if he truly had sight he would never had seen her having sex with Damian. Foolishly January believed this.
The structure of the Merchant's Tale is somewhat lopsided. While the Merchant prepares the reader for a story of a villainous wife, he instead begins the tale with an extended dissertation about the benefits and drawbacks of marriage. The debate between January and Placebo is a relatively dry collection of classical and biblical anecdotes, but it serves to frame the comic sex farce to come as a more serious look at marriage. The beginning passages of the tale also serve as a warning against marriage. When the aged January decides to take a wife he is already sixty and rapidly approaching senility. His wish to marry stems from a realization of his own mortality rather than any love for a wife in fact, he decides to marry before he has found a fiancee. The Merchant even indicates that January's life to this point has been fulfilling, leaving dotage as the only reason for him to take a wife. His arguments for marriage therefore appear empty in comparison of those by Placebo. While both Placebo and January can cite literary references to back up their claims for their respective positions, only Placebo has the weight of experience to support his claims against marriage. Furthermore, January holds irrational expectations for his wife. He expects to marry a young and beautiful woman who will care for him, not expecting any ill effects from this arrangement he even foolishly believes that he will be so happy that he may ruin his chances for heaven.
The Merchant therefore dooms the marriage of January and May from the outset. Even in their calendar names they are mismatched: the elderly January is in the winter of his existence, while the young May represents the birth and fertility that comes during the spring. The marriage moves the story into a different realm. The literary tone of the story gives way to the conventions of fabliau.
Each of the three central characters in the tale fit most of the established conventions for fabliaux, although there are significant adaptations in tone and plot points. January is an aged buffoon oblivious to the sexual cravings of his young wife. May is a youthful wife, lusty and crafty in her deception. Damian is equally cunning and fits the fabliau profile of an interloper in a marriage who does not fit into a fixed social class. The plot hinges on the interloper (Damian) contriving to have a sexual tryst with the wife (May) only to have the cuckolded husband learn of the affair and be humiliated. The major aspect of the story that departs from the traditional fabliau mold is the station in which these characters fit. However absurd the character behaves, January is not a lower-class barbarian equal to John the carpenter in the Miller's Tale.
The authorial condemnation of May also departs from the other fabliaux of the Canterbury Tales. Like Alison of the Miller's Tale, she is crafty, but May is also wicked. She escapes without punishment from her husband, but unlike the Miller's Tale this is not a satisfactory conclusion. While the Miller's Tale prized cunning and crafty behavior, the Merchant's Tale adheres to more traditional values. Therefore, May's escape from punishment is a dissonant element of the story, for she behaves contrary to the established values that the Merchant has set for his tale.
Although January is a more sympathetic character than May, he is by no means commendable. Although the narrator does not treat him with the same moralistic condemnation as he heaps upon May, January is still a vulgar object for the audience's mockery. His sexual exploits are grotesque and animalistic. The description of his first conquest of May is replete with violent sexual imagery. January's repeated insistence that their intercourse includes a rationalization that a man and wife are one person, and no man would harm himself with a knife, an unpleasant phallic image. January uses May only as a sexual object; he hammers away upon her, bringing her only pain and boredom.
The Merchant's Tale also stretches the conventions of fabliau through the climax of the tale in which Pluto and Proserpina intrude upon the sexual intrigues among January, May and John. Proserpina and Pluto discuss the virtues of men and women in marriage, coming to the conclusion that few men are commendable, but absolutely no women are worthy. Their intervention in the situation gives divine sanction to the condemnation of women, purposely giving January his sight so that he can condemn his wife (although in a mordant twist, January can literally not believe his eyes).
Summary and Analysis of The Squire's Tale
Epilogue to the Merchant's Tale and Prologue to the Squire's Tale:
The Host laments the Merchant's tale, praying that he would never find such a terrible wife. The Host admits that he also has a wife that he laments marrying. He advises the Squire to tell a tale next. The Squire's Tale is not complete, ending after only six hundred lines.
The Squire's Tale:
The Squire tells the tale of Cambyuskan, the king of Sarai in Tartary. With his wife Elpheta he had two sons, Algarsyf and Cambalo, and a daughter Canacee. In the twentieth year of his reign on the Ides of March his subjects celebrated his nativity. During a great feast with the king and his knights, a knight with a gold ring and a sword entered the hall. He was sent from the king of Arabia and India, and offers him a steed of brass that can, within twenty-four hours, transport a person safely anywhere on the globe. He also presence to Canacee a mirror that foresees impending mischance and can determine the character of friends and foes, a ring that enables the wearer to understand the language of any bird, and the healing properties of all herbs. He also offers a sword whose edge will bite through any armor but whose flat will cure the wounds inflicted by the edge. The knight was led to a chamber and the ring given to Canacee, but the brass steed would not move until the knight taught people how to move it. The horse was a source of wonder for the people, compared alternately to the Pegasus and the Trojan horse. All one needed to do to move the brass horse was to twirl a peg in its ear, according to the knight.
After the revelry of the night before, the next morning everybody but Canacee remained asleep until late. She had dreamed of the mirror and the ring and thus had her first satisfying rest in a very long time. As she went out walking that morning with her maids, she came across bleeding peregrine falcon that cried in anguish. It had maimed itself. Canacee picked up the falcon and spoke to it, a power she had gained from the ring the knight had given her. The falcon told her a tale of a handsome tercelet as treasonous and false as he was beautiful. Yet the tercelet fell in love with a kite as well as with the falcon, but could not choose between the two. Canacee healed the bird with herbs. The tale then returns to King Cambyuskan, but the tale abruptly ends.
Since the Squire's Tale exists only in a fragmented form, it is difficult to determine certain aspects of the tale. The tale may be a fragment because Chaucer never finished the tale or because the later section of the tale was lost in the manuscripts from which the Canterbury Tales were taken. What remains of the Squire's Tale gives only minor indication of the structure and themes of the tale. The tale is an adventure with elements of fantasy similar to the Knight's Tale not surprising, for the Squire is the son of the Knight but with a less bombastic tone and elements of magic instead of the divine intervention that drives the later sections of the Knight's Tale. Part of the difficulty in deciphering where the tale may continue lies in its loose structure. There are a hodgepodge of plotlines that the story could follow, including the mysterious knight, the mechanical horse, and the injured falcon.
Summary and Analysis of The Franklin's Tale
Prologue to the Franklin's Tale:
The Franklin praises the Squire for his eloquence, considering his youth. He tells the Squire that he has no peer among the company and that he wishes that his own son were as commendable as the Squire. The Host suggests that the Franklin tell the next tale. The Franklin begins by apologizing in advance for his rough speech and lack of education.
The Franklin's Tale:
The Franklin's Tale begins with the courtship of the Breton knight Arviragus and Dorigen, who come to be married happily. Their marriage is one of equality, in which neither of the two is master or servant. However, soon after they marry Arviragus is sent away to Britain to work for two years. Dorigen wept for his absence, despite the letters that he sent home to her. Her friends would often take her on walks where they would pass the cliffs overlooking the ocean and watch ships enter the port, hoping that one of them would bring home her husband. However, she was distressed by the rocks that were near the shore. She feared that whatever ship brought her husband home would crash on these rocks and sink. These friends would also have garden parties in which they would invite singers and squires to dance. One of these squires, Aurelius, had been in love with her ever since she arrived in Brittany. Eventually he declared his love for her. She agrees that she would be his lover if he would find a way to clear the rocks that endangered incoming ships. Aurelius lamented this condition, thinking that such a task would be impossible. His brother suggested that Aurelius meet a student of law at Orleans who was versed in the sciences of illusion. Aurelius made a journey to Orleans to meet this student; he found in the student's house the most fantastic luxuries. The student asked for one thousand pounds to remove all of the rocks from the shore off of Brittany. The student consulted his tables and contrived to make the rocks disappear for a week. When Dorigen learned of this, she was overcome with grief, realizing that she must forfeit either her body or her fair name. She thinks about the numerous instances in which a faithful wife or a maiden destroyed herself rather than submitting herself to another. She cites the maidens of Lacedaemon who chose to be slain rather than defiled, and Hasdrubal's wife, who committed suicide during the siege of Carthage, and Lucrece, who did the same when Tarquin took her by force. Arviragus returned home and Dorigen told him the truth of what had happened. He tells her that he will bear the shame of her actions, and that adhering to her promise is the most important thing. He therefore sends her to submit to Aurelius. When Aurelius learns how well Arviragus accepted his wife's promise, Aurelius decides to let Dorigen's promise go unfulfilled. He claims that a squire can be as honorable as a knight. Aurelius then went to pay the law student, even though his affair remained unconsummated. The law student forgave Aurelius' debt, proving himself honorable. The tale thus ends with this question: who was the most generous? Arviragus, Aurelius, or the student.
The Franklin's Tale presents one of the few examples of a functional marital relationship. There is no overt strain in the marriage between Dorigen and Arviragus. The only difficulties that their marriage faces are external to the couple, and the problem that drives the plot of this story even derives from the overwhelming love and concern that Dorigen feels for her husband. The relative idealization of the marriage conforms to the sense of goodwill that the Franklin shows for each of his characters. Arviragus and Dorigen are both exemplary characters. Her greatest fault is a penchant for dramatics, as when she becomes incapacitated when Arviragus leaves, weeping and wailing over his absence. Arviragus is noble and generous, treating his wife with the respect of an equal. Even Aurelius is a benign presence. He is not a forceful intruder into the marriage; he is honest about his love for Dorigen, but does not pressure her, as other interlopers do during the course of the various Canterbury Tales.
The main story of the Franklin's Tale is a common folktale often known as "The Damsel's Rash Promise." The tale traditionally tells of a wife who agrees to be unfaithful if the prospective suitor performs an impossible deed which, through some trickery, he does in fact perform. Chaucer makes a significant change to the standard structure of this tale: the promise that Dorigen makes to Aurelius is meant to ensure her husband's safety. She promises to harm her marriage by submitting to an affair if Aurelius helps keep her marriage safe. Dorigen's promise is therefore less flighty. It is rather a promise that Dorigen makes to sacrifice her honor in exchange for her husband's safety. That she never suspects that Aurelius would be able to actually rid the shore of these rocks becomes less significant in this case.
The relative moral parity of each of the characters sets up the conclusion in which each acts according to his most noble intentions. Arviragus allows himself the humiliation of being cuckolded so that his wife may fulfill her promise. Aurelius forgives Dorigen's promise, allowing her to remain faithful to her husband. And the student absolves Aurelius of his debt for removing the rocks. This last noble act is the most surprising, for it breaks a simple contract that has no external moral implications. For each of the other noble acts, there is the sense that to behave otherwise would be immoral, yet the role of the student was a simple business transaction.
There can be no definitive answer to the question that the conclusion of the story poses, yet a legitimate case can be made for each. The case for the law student was previously stated; a counter-argument to the claim that he was the most noble is that his sacrifice was purely monetary. He gave up nothing of substance when he absolved Aurelius of his debt, while Aurelius and Arviragus gave up something that legitimately mattered. One could argue that Arviragus behaved most nobly because he risked his reputation and gave up what was rightfully his, yet for Arviragus there may not have been another reasonable option
Summary and Analysis of The Physician's Tale
The Physician's Tale:
As Titus Livius tells us, there was once a knight called Virginius who had many friends, much wealth, and a loving wife and daughter. The daughter possessed a beauty so great that even Pygmalion could not create her equal. She was also humble in speech and avoided events in which her virtue could be compromised. There was a judge, Appius who governed the town who saw the knight's daughter, and lusted after her. He believed that he could take the daughter by force. He plotted against the daughter with a churl named Claudius. In Appius' court Claudius accuses Virginius of stealing his servant (the daughter), and Appius immediately decides that Virginius must hand over his daughter to Claudius. Virginius tells his daughter, Virginia, that she must now suffer one of two pains, shame or death. Virginius would rather have her dead, however. He chopped off her head and brought it to Appius, who immediately sentenced Virginius to death. However, when the people realized what had happened, they themselves took Appius off to jail, where he committed suicide. Claudius was to be hanged, but Virginius intervened and spared his life. He was merely banished. The moral of this story: forsake your sin ere you will forsake.
The Physician's Tale is not among the most notable of the Canterbury Tales, significant primarily for the way in which it continues to develop themes more fully realized in other tales. The tale centers around the noble suffering of Virginia, who chooses to be murdered rather than to submit her chastity to a fraudulent man. The Physician's Tale thus resembles the Man of Law's Tale and the Clerk's Tale. But unlike Constance or Griselde, Virginia is not the central character of her story. She exists only for the purpose of a single sacrifice, unlike the constant barrage of torment that the other two women suffer. The stature of Virginia's sacrifice is therefore diminished.
Furthermore, the mechanics of this sacrifice are distasteful. The story focuses primarily on the schemes of Appius and Claudius, who are no more than one-dimensional villains. The sacrifice that Virginia makes is perilously close to murder the choice that her father offers her between shame and death is nearly a threat, and the means by which her death is achieved is unfortunately brutal.
The conclusion of the story is further dramatically unsatisfying, for although it serves the appropriate punishment to the villains, the conclusion shifts the story from Virginia's sacrifice to the villain's mistake. The Tale becomes an exceedingly simple warning for moral behavior those who contrive to rape the daughter of a powerful man will be punished instead of a meditation on sacrifice.
Summary and Analysis of The Pardoner's Tale
Prologue to the Pardoner's Tale:
The Host thinks that the cause of Virginia's death in the previous tale was her beauty. To counter the sadness of the tale, the Host suggests that the Pardoner tell a lighter tale. The Pardoner delays, for he wants to finish his meal, but says that he shall tell a moral tale. He says that he will tell a tale with this moral: the love of money is the root of all evil. He claims that during his sermons he shows useless trifles that he passes off as saints' relics. He proudly tells about how he defrauds people who believed they have sinned. He states explicitly that his goal is not to save people from sin, but to gain money from them. The Pardoner says that he will not imitate the apostles in their poverty, but will have food, comfort, and a wench in every town.
Among the various pilgrims featured in the Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner is one of the most fully realized characters. The only character to whom Chaucer gives greater detail is the Wife of Bath. The Pardoner is a fraudulent huckster who shows no qualms about passing off false items as the relics of saints, but he also demonstrates a great sense of self-loathing. The Pardoner shifts from moments of direct honesty to shameless deceit, openly admitting the tricks of his trade to the travelers but nevertheless attempting to use these various methods on these travelers who are aware of his schemes. The Pardoner is in many senses a warped character, unable to hold to any consistent code of moral behavior. Even in his physicality he is deformed. The General Prologue, suggesting that the Pardoner resembles a 'gelding or a mare,' hints that the Pardoner may be a congenital eunuch or, taken less literally, that he is a homosexual. In his deformity the Pardoner becomes a shell of a person. Although he is one of the most developed characters, he is the character perhaps most defined by his profession. The Pardoner has substituted a system of values with a rote performance, which conforms to his profession, which substitutes a meaningless monetary transaction for penance for sin. The Pardoner therefore suggests a traditional Vice character who behaves strictly out of the most impure motives, but where he departs from vice characters, who shamelessly commit misdeeds for their own pleasure, is that he lacks the necessary amoral quality. The Pardoner is not a moral man, but he nevertheless has a moral system to which he most certainly does not adhere.
The Pardoner's Tale:
There once lived in Flanders a group of three rioters who did nothing but engage in irresponsible and sinful behavior. They were blasphemous drunkards who, while in a tavern one night, witnessed men carrying a corpse to its grave. A boy told the rioters that the dead man was one of their friends, slain by an unseen thief called Death. They remark that Death has slain thousands, and vow to slay Death themselves. The three drunken men go off to find Death, but only come across an ancient man shrouded in robes. He claims that Death will not take him, and says that they can find Death underneath a nearby oak tree. When they found the tree they only found bushels of gold. They decide to take the treasure and divide it evenly, but realize that if they immediate went into town with it they would be presumed robbers. They therefore draw lots; the one with the shortest straw shall go into town and fetch food and drink for them. They shall stay in the forest with the gold until they can leave in the middle of the night. The youngest drew the shortest lot and was sent into town. The two that remain decide to murder the third once he returns, for they would then be able to divide the gold by two instead of three. However, while the third rioter was in town, he bought poison from an apothecary which he poured into the wine bottle. When he returned, the two rioters stabbed the third, murdering him. They then drank the poisoned wine and died themselves.
The Pardoner interrupts the end of his tale with a diatribe against the sin of avarice, then launches into a sermon in which he attempts to sell relics to the other travelers. The Host argues with him, telling him that the only relic he would want from the Pardoner is his testicles enclosed in a hog's turd. The knight mediates the conflict.
The Pardoner's Tale is a direct extension of the personality of the narrator, an overtly moralistic tale that serves primarily to elicit a specific response. It is a particularly shameless tale, a condemnation of avarice that stems from the avarice of its narrator; by condemning the sin, the Pardoner hopes to motivate the travelers to pay the Pardoner to absolve their sins. The character of the Pardoner is omnipresent throughout the tale, which is told in an intimidating oratorical style that intends to create a sense of horror at the consequences for sinful action. Throughout the tale the narrator drifts in and out from the story, as the Pardoner occasionally leaves the plot of the tale to launch into sermons against sin. Finally, at the conclusion of the tale, he reveals the rationale for this authorial intervention, preaching against avarice for the sole intention of selling phony relics to the travelers. The tale is thus less of a fully formed narrative than a performance given by the Pardoner in which he never submerges his presence in the story.
The importance of the narrator is reflected in the relative unimportance of the characters in the story. The three rioters are anonymous hoodlums to whom the narrator gives no distinctive characteristics. The one distinction that the Pardoner makes among the three is that the rioter who is sent for food and drink is younger than the other two. Their characteristics are uniformly negative, but relatively broad they are avaricious, but also drunkards and murderers, which gives the Pardoner opportunity to condemn a vast array of sins.
The old man that points the rioters in the direction of death is the single developed character in the story, a grotesque figure who waits to die out of extreme weariness for life. When he tells the rioters that he wishes to die, he claims that he walks on the ground, his 'mother's gate,' and asks to return to the earth (in the form of a decayed corpse). This conforms to the idea of rebirth, as the old man asks to return to the earth (his mother's womb) presumably to be born once again. However, for the old man this is only his second choice. He would prefer to exchange bodies with a young man, but can find no man willing to trade. He suffers the misery of a man who does sees no hope for redemption. He does not consider the possibility of heaven and Christian redemption, but rather adheres to ideas of earthly reincarnation. Quite significantly, this is the only expression of any spirituality contained in the Pardoner's Tale. The Pardoner has little concern with actual religious matters and makes no real reference to Christianity. His concern is money, and the Christian religion is only the means to achieve this end.
The Tale itself is a relatively simplistic moral fable that hinges on the distinctions between literal and figurative language. The initial personification of death that the young child uses as a metaphor and euphemism leads to the actual physical manifestation of Death as a tangible object: the piles of gold that the three rioters find. The plot of the tale derives from the rioters' literal interpretation of euphemism since death has taken their friend, they must find death. This personification of death finally becomes metaphor once again when the piles of gold represent the death that they find.
Summary and Analysis of The Shipman's Tale
Introduction to the Shipman's Tale:
The Host asks the priest to tell a tale, but the Shipman interrupts, insisting that he will tell the next tale. He says that he will not tell a tale of physics or law or philosophy, but rather a more modest story.
The Shipman's Tale:
A merchant at St. Denis foolishly took a desirable woman for a wife who drained his income by demanding clothes and other fine array to make her appear even more beautiful. Since his wife demanded so many costs, the merchant was forced to take in guests; one of these was a monk. John, a young monk no older than thirty, claimed to be the cousin of this merchant, and when he did stay with them he was quite generous with tips to the servants. Before he was going to make a journey to Bruges, the merchant invited John to visit him and his wife. On the day that the merchant was ready to leave St. Denis, he awoke early and went to his counting-house to balance his books. John was also awake early and went into the garden to pray. The wife went into the garden, worried that something was bothering the monk. He in turn worries about her; he thinks that she did not sleep well, for the merchant kept her up all night in sport. She admits that she has no lust for her husband. John realizes that she is keeping something from him and promises to keep whatever she could tell secret. He admits that he is not a cousin to the merchant. She complains that her husband is stingy and tells that wives want six things: their husbands to be hardy, wise, rich, giving, obedient and good in bed. She tells him that she must pay a debt of one hundred francs to her husband. He agrees to get that sum for her, and the two end the transaction by kissing. The merchant leaves on his journey, advising both his wife and John to be diligent with money while he is gone. Before he leaves, John asks the merchant for one hundred francs so that he can buy cattle. When he gives the wife the one hundred francs, she repays John by engaging in an affair with him. Later, when Dan John and the merchant meet, he tells the merchant that he repaid his debt to him when he gave the wife one hundred francs. The merchant therefore scolds his wife when he gets home, telling her that she must be careful when others give her money to repay debts, for he needs to take accurate measure of who owes her what. The wife realizes the monk's trick, but remains silent. She instead tells the merchant that she is his wife and will repay her debt to him in bed.
The overriding concern of the Shipman's Tale is money and its relationship with sex. The story uses terms relating to business and monetary transactions in reference to all of the sexual dealings of this story, and money is found to be virtually interchangeable with sex. The wife agrees to have an affair with Dan John as a business transaction, and she claims at the end that she will repay her debt to her husband in bed. The story never stoops to condemn the wife for her actions by finding them the equivalent of prostitution, but merely constructs the parallels between sex and business as a natural and normative fact. Chaucer illustrates the parallels through a series of double entendres, such as the wife's order to her husband to 'score [her debt] upon my tail,' as well as the rhyme of 'francs' and 'flanks' that illustrates the transaction between the monk and the wife.
The Shipman's Tale seems to have the proper qualifications for a fabliau, but the story is instead a light comic anecdote. There is no moment in which the infidelity is revealed, and no character suffers for his behavior. The actions of the tale have a perfect symmetry. The money that changes hands finally returns to the proper source, without the husband knowing the particular circumstances of this interaction.
The merchant of this tale is a notable figure in the Canterbury Tales, for he is industrious and concerned with money without resorting to avarice. He is the single entrepreneur of the tales; if he is stingy, as his wife complains, he still does not refuse money when he believes that it will serve a constructive purpose. His admonitions to his wife to be careful with money are not meant as parody; they are simple, instructive maxims. The problems between the merchant and his wife do not stem from any inherent moral defects in either character, but instead from incompatibility. The wife also deviates from the norms of the unfaithful spouse established throughout the other Canterbury Tales. She is not a devious manipulator; her turn to infidelity comes out of what she perceives to be necessity. Her situation generates genuine pathos, for she is trapped in a loveless marriage. Furthermore, she suffers a private humiliation. Her husband does not know that she was unfaithful, but she nevertheless realizes that she has been deceived.
The extraordinary sympathy that the Shipman gives to the merchant and his wife softens the satiric remoteness that marks many of the comedic Canterbury Tales. The Shipman's Tale therefore removes the pleasure that most of the tales offer in mocking the characters' fate and replaces it with a more abstract and palatable pleasure in the themes of the tale and the symmetry of the action.
Summary and Analysis of The Prioress' Tale
The Prioress' Tale:
The Prioress tells a tale set in an Asian town dominated by the Jewry in which usury and other things hateful to Christ occurred. The Christian minority in the town opened a school for their children in this city. Among these children was a widow's son, an angelic seven year old who was, even at his young age, deeply devoted to his faith. At school he learned a song in Latin, the Alma redemptoris, and asked the meaning of it. According to an older student, this song was meant to praise the Virgin Mary. As he was walking home from school one day singing this song, he provoked the anger of the Jews of the city, whose hearts were possessed by Satan. They hired a murderer who slit the boys' throat and threw the body into a cesspool. The widow searched for her missing child, begging the Jews to tell her where her child might be found, but they refuse to help. When she found him, although his throat was slit, he began to sing the Alma redemptoris. The other Christians of the city rushed to the child and carried him to the abbey. The local provost cursed the Jews who knew of this murder and ordered their death by hanging. Before the child was buried, he began to speak. The Virgin Mary had placed a pearl on his tongue that allowed him to speak, despite his fatal wound, but when the pearl was removed he would finally pass on to heaven. The story ends with a lament for the young child and a curse on the Jews who perpetrated this crime.
The Prioress' Tale is overtly a religious tale centered around Christian principles and a devotion to the Virgin Mary, but within the warm affection that the Prioress shows for her Christian faith is a disquieting anti-Semitism that will be immediately obvious to the modern reader. The tale is an overwrought melodrama, replete with scenes of such banal sentimentalism and simplistic moral instruction. The tale is an unabashed celebration of motherhood. The guiding figure of the tale is the Virgin Mary, who serves as the exemplar for Christian values and the intervening spirit who sustains the murdered child before he passes on to heaven. Her mortal parallel is the mother of the murdered boy, who dearly loves her son and struggles to find the boy when he is lost. The depiction of the mother is the most realistic and harrowing section of the story, for the Prioress finds in the mother a legitimate fear and concern that transcends the more sentimental and reprehensible portions of the tale.
Yet surrounding the kernels of legitimate pain and suffering in the Prioress' Tale are sections that are nothing more than shallow sentimentalism and vicious bigotry. The child is angelic, at seven years old more devoted to Christian teachings than any of the clergymen throughout the Canterbury Tales. The final moments of the tale in which the Virgin Mary sustains him after his throat is slit are a shameless exploitation meant to engineer false tears. The Prioress extends warmth and sympathy only to the mother and her child, while heaping unabashed vitriol upon the Jews of the city, who are portrayed as nothing less than allies of Satan. The details of the murder are gruesome: the child is murdered for singing the praises of the Virgin Mary and dumped in a pool of excrement. The logical conclusion of this tale is the Prioress' curse on the Jews for their actions.
Despite the anti-Semitic propaganda that the Prioress offers during her tale, this does not represent Chaucer's view. The Prioress is a grotesque comic character and the tale conforms to the portrait that Chaucer offers in the General Prologue. Chaucer describes the Prioress as a foolishly sentimental woman who would weep over the death of a small mouse. She can extend her sympathy to small children and other easy targets, but cannot find room for true mercy or compassion. Although it would be a mistake to consider the tale as an overt attack on anti-Semitism, for it would project modern liberal sensibilities into Chaucer's work, the tale certainly condemns the Prioress for her cheap emotional responsiveness.
Summary and Analysis of Tale of Sir Thopas
Prologue to the Tale of Sir Thopas:
When the Prioress' Tale was done, the Host told the narrator (Chaucer) to tell a tale. The Host describes the narrator as having a small waist and a weakly appearance. He tells the narrator to tell a mirthful tale, and the narrator says that he has only one tale, a rhyme that he learned many years before.
The description of the narrator is another example of a witty self-parody in Chaucer's work. Chaucer has the Host describe the narrator (Chaucer himself) as slight and meek, certainly not a flattering physical description. The section of the Canterbury Tales devoted to the narrator only rise slightly above this satiric level and serve as a diversion from the bulk of the Canterbury Tales, a self-referential projection of the author into his own work.
The Tale of Sir Thopas:
The Tale is a poem in rhyming couplets about Sir Thopas, an honorable knight who would often go out for horseback rides. He decided to take an elf queen as a wife, but he came across a great three-headed giant called Sir Olyphant who attempted to prevent his entrance into the fairy kingdom. Sir Thopas escaped the giant and gathered men to combat him. He armed himself with great weapons and rode again to face the night. The tale is interrupted here.
The Tale of Sir Thopas is a comically terrible tale meant strictly as a parody of Middle English romances. In its sing-song rhyme scheme it resembles oral literature told in song and in its content it effectively mirrors the mechanics of adventures tales told in Chaucer's England. The tale includes all of the elements of a romance: a dashing knight, mystical creatures and fearsome monsters. However, Chaucer takes these elements and makes them exaggerated and nonsensical. It is an act of mercy for the reader when the Host finally interrupts the narrator and forces him to conclude.
Summary and Analysis of Tale of Melibee
Prologue to the Tale of Melibee:
The Host interrupted the Tale of Sir Thopas, pleading with the narrator to desist. He told him that the rhymes were doggerel, and asks him to tell a tale in prose. The narrator agrees and asks for the group's attention once more.
The connecting passages between the tales that Chaucer himself tells are more dramatically fulfilling than the stories themselves, which are little more than comic anecdotes. These passages best illustrate the narrative behind the tales themselves. The tales exist as they relate to one another in a complex set of interactions between the various pilgrims; they are not simply a set of free-standing short stories given a rough context. The tales themselves are products of this interaction; the Tale of Melibee that Chaucer will give is a response to the Host's unfavorable reaction to the Tale of Sir Thopas.
The Tale of Melibee:
A young man called Melibee, mighty and rich, had a wife named Prudence and a daughter Sophie. One day while he was in the fields he left his wife and daughter in his house. Three of his old foes broke into the house, raped his wife and left his daughter for dead by wounding her in five places her feet, hands, eyes, nose and mouth. When Melibee returned he began to weep. Prudence consoled him, then asked him to desist and to be as patient as Job. She tells him to call on the counsel of his true friends. His physicians vowed to cure Sophie. They advice him to set guards at his house, but not to attempt vengeance. The younger men, however, advised him to declare war. Prudence agreed with the elders, who did not want to attack the perpetrators in haste. However, Melibee cites Solomon, who advised that no wife or child should ever have mastery over a husband. Melibee and Prudence continue to debate on the subject, discussing every bit of minutiae in the subject debated. Finally she advises that he delay his attack on his enemies, telling them that if they will accept peace they shall be forgiven. They came to the court of Melibee and he gives them an option: they can put the punishment in the hands of Melibee or Prudence. The wisest of his enemies admits that they are unworthy to come into his court, and submit to his judgment. He tells them to return to the court for their judgment later. Melibee told Prudence that he wished to disinherit his enemies of all of their land and exile them. She tells him that the sentence is cruel and covetous. Melibee was touched by her argument. When his enemies returned to his court, he grants them mercy.
The Tale of Melibee is an exceedingly dull tale told in a dry prose format that serves as an obvious reaction the Host's distaste for the florid poetry of the Tale of Sir Thopas. It is this quality to the tale that is most interesting, for the tale itself is devoid of any narrative thrust or real character development. The Tale of Melibee is an earnest and noble telling of one woman's capacity for forgiveness, but the tale is bogged down in ponderous discussions concerning how Melibee should deal with his enemies. Even in the question of how Melibee will deal with his enemies there is no drama, for the tale transforms the decision into an academic debate rather than a narrative point. That the tale is unsatisfying and not particularly noteworthy is certainly Chaucer's intention, for the tale fits in with the narrative push of the entire structure of the tales. Chaucer thus sacrifices the literary qualities of this particular tale to serve the larger structure of the Canterbury Tales.
The few points in the Tale of Melibee that are notable concern their relation to the other Canterbury Tales. Prudence is another example of the patient and long-suffering wife who demonstrates her virtue through stoicism. Her name is an obvious signifier of one of her prominent qualities. Her role in the story is not as an active agent. She is a passive influence on the other characters. Although the tale celebrates Prudence, the title is apt: it is the tale of Melibee, for he is the character who is able to act and to change.
Summary and Analysis of The Monk's Tale
Prologue to the Monk's Tale:
When the tale of Melibee ended, the Host said that he'd give up a barrel of ale to have his wife hear the tale of Prudence and her patience, for she is an ill-tempered woman. The Host asks the narrator his name, and attempts to guess his profession perhaps a sexton or other such officer, or a wily governor. The Monk will tell the next tale, a series of tragedies.
Chaucer uses the prologue to the Monk's Tale as one more opportunity for satiric, self-referential comedy. Within the story he is a necessarily opaque character. Significantly, the Host assumes that Chaucer is, at best, a mid-ranking government official and not an artist capable of constructing a landmark piece of literature such as the Canterbury Tales.
The Monk's Tale:
The Monk's Tale is not a strict narrative tale as are most of the other Canterbury Tales. Instead, it chronicles various historical characters who experience a fall from grace. The first of these is Lucifer, the fair angel who fell from heaven to hell. Next is Adam, the one man who was not born of original sin, but lost Paradise for all humanity. Samson fell from grace when he admitted his secret to his wife, who betrayed it to his enemies and then took another lover. Samson slew one thousand men with an ass's jawbone, then prayed for God to quench his thirst. From the jawbone's tooth sprung a well. He would have conquered the world if he had not told Delilah that his strength came from his refusal to cut his hair. Without this strength his enemies cut out Samson's eyes and imprisoned him. In the temple where Samson was kept he knocked down two of the pillars, killing himself and everyone else in the temple. The next tale is of Hercules, whose strength was unparalleled. He was finally defeated when Deianera sent Hercules a poisoned shirt made by Nessus. The Monk then tells the tale of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon who had twice defeated Israel. The proud king constructed a large gold statue to which all must pray, or else be cast into a pit of flames. Yet when Daniel disobeyed the king, Nebuchadnezzar lost all dignity, acting like a great beast until God relieved him of his insanity. The next, Balthasar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, also worshipped false idols, but fortune cast him down. He had a feast for a thousand lords in which they drank wine out of sacred vessels, but during his feast he saw an armless hand writing on a wall. Daniel warned Balthasar of his father's fate. Daniel warned him that his kingdom would be divided by Medes and the Persians. The next story tells of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, who was beautiful and victorious in war. However, she refused the duties of women and refused to marry, until she was forced to wed Odenathus. She permitted him to have sex with her only so that she could get pregnant, but no more. Yet the proud woman, once Odenathus was dead, was defeated by the Romans and paraded through Rome bound in chains. King Pedro of Spain, subject of the next story, was cast from his kingdom by his brother. When attempting to regain his throne, Pedro was murdered by this brother. Peter, King of Cyprus, is the next subject; he brought ruin on his kingdom and was thus murdered. The next story is of Bernabo Visconti, wrongly imprisoned his nephew. The cause of Visconti's death is not clear, however. Count Ugolini, the next subject, was imprisoned in a tower in Pisa with his three young children after Ruggieri, the bishop of Pisa, had led a rebellion against him. His youngest son died of starvation, and out of his misery Ugolini gnawed on his own arms. The two children that remained thought that Ugolini was chewing himself out of hunger, and offered themselves as meals for him. They all eventually starved. The next story is of Nero, who did nothing but satisfy his own lusts and even cut open his own mother to see the womb from which he came. He had Seneca murdered for stating that an emperor should be virtuous. When it appeared that Nero would be assassinated for his cruelty, he killed himself. Holofernes, the next one examined, ordered his subjects to renounce every law and worship Nebuchadnezzar. For this sin Judith cut off Holofernes' head as he was sleeping. The Monk next tells of Antiochus Epiphanes, who was punished by God for attacks on the Jews. God made Antiochus infested with loathsome maggots. The Monk then admits that most have heard of Alexander the Great, poisoned by his very own offspring. He follows with the tale of Julius Caesar, who had Pompey murdered but was himself assassinated by Brutus. The final story is of Croesus, King of Lydia, the proud and wealthy king who was hanged.
The Monk's Tale deserves little comment. It is a compendium of historical and literary characters, all of whom were leaders who lost their authority in one form or another. The Monk gives biographies of sixteen figures, a number that far exceeds what is necessarily but nevertheless falls short of the one hundred that the Monk originally intends to tell before the Knight interrupts the tale. Once again Chaucer exercises a literary discretion, judging the worth of the various tales he has written and constructing them to conform to a varying standards of literary quality. The Monk's Tale, which is no more than a broad survey, conforms to a very low standard.
Summary and Analysis of The Nun's Priest's Tale
Prologue to the Nun's Priest's Tale:
The Knight interrupts the Monk's Tale, for as a man who has reached a certain estate, he does not like to hear tales of a man's fall from grace. He would rather hear of men who rise in esteem and status. The Host refuses to allow the Monk to continue, instead telling the Nun's Priest to tell his tale.
The Nun's Priest's Tale:
The Nun's Priest tells a tale of an old woman who had a small farm in which she kept animals, including a rooster named Chanticleer who was peerless in his crowing. Chanticleer had seven hens as his companions, the most honored of which was Pertelote. One night Chanticleer groaned in his sleep. He had a dream that a large yellow dog chased him. Pertelote mocked him for his cowardice, telling him that dreams are meaningless visions caused by ill humors. Citing Cato's advice, she tells him that she will get herbs from an apothecary that will cure his illness. Chanticleer, however, believes that dreams are prophetic, and tells a tale of a traveler who predicted his own death and whose companion dreamed about who murdered him and where the victim's body was taken. Another man dreamed that his comrade would be drowned, and this came true. He also cites examples of Croesus and Andromache, who each had prophecies in their dreams. However, Chanticleer does praise Pertelote, telling her "Mulier est hominis confusio" (Woman is man's confusion), which he translates as woman is man's delight and bliss. He then 'feathered' her twenty times before the morning. Following her advice, Chanticleer goes to search for the proper herbs. A fox saw Chanticleer and grabbed him. Pertelote began to squawk, which alerted the old woman, who chased the fox away. Chanticleer was thus saved.
Although the Nun's Priest's Tale is a comic fable, it is one of the richest and most adult tales in the Canterbury Tales. It conforms to the personality of its narrator; the Nun's Priest is pious, yet robust and masculine. The tale, even though it has animals as its main characters, seems more adult than a conventional and simplistic tale by the Prioress.
With the possible exception of Arviragus and Dorigen in the Franklin's Tale, there is no more stable and robust 'marriage' between two characters in the Canterbury Tales than that between Chanticleer and Pertelote. The two fowl have a fulfilling sexual relationship, as Chaucer indicates when he writes that Chanticleer 'feathers' Pertelote several times during a night, yet the sex occurs as an end to itself, a stark contrast with the sexual transactions that occur in the more dramatic tales, and occurs out of some genuine emotion in contrast to the lustful encounters in Chaucer's fabliaux. The main characters are animals to be sure, yet have behaviors that are far from animalistic.
Beyond the sexual nature of their relationship, the interplay between Chanticleer and Pertelote reveals a sharp wit and depth of emotion. The two behave as would a normal married couple. They bicker, flatter, and advise each another, never at the other's expense. Chanticleer is stubborn but does relent to Pertelote's rationality, but when he does he gets one final joke on her. He claims to tell her that "woman is man's delight and bliss" in Latin, but the phrase that he uses is actually "woman is man's confusion." Yet even this joke turns back on Chanticleer himself the story indicates that women so confuse men precisely because they are his delight and bliss.
The narrative thrust of the Nun's Priest's Tale is minimal, but the actions that it does contain gives an equal share of praise and mild criticism to both the husband and wife. Chanticleer is absurd to believe that his illness is caused by some psychic portent and rightly follows his wife's sane advice to find herbs to cure himself. However, when he does so, his prediction comes true he is chased by a fox.
The Nun's Priest's Tale does contain some religious overtones. The old woman who owns the farm and saves Chanticleer behaves as a god-like figure, while the Nun's Priest establishes several trinities: the widow and her two daughters, the three cows, the three sows, and such. Yet these parallels cannot be stretched too far. They provide an allegorical frame for the story but do little to inform the actual substance of it.
Summary and Analysis of The Second Nun's Tale
Prologue to the Second Nun's Tale:
The Host praises the Nun's Priest for his tale, but notes that, if the Nun's Priest were not in the clergy he would be a lewd man. He says that the Nun's Priest, a muscular man with a hawk's fierceness in his eye, would have trouble fending off women, if not for his profession. The Second Nun prepares to tell the next tale, warning against sin and idleness. She says that she will tell the tale of the noble maid Cecilia.
The Host's description of the Nun's Priest highlights the disparity between traditional conceptions of the clergy and their actual roles and personalities. The Nun's Priest is, as dictated by his profession, celibate, but the Host serves to remind the reader of his sexual persona.
The Second Nun's Tale:
Saint Cecilia was by birth a Roman and tutored in the ways of Christ. She dreaded the day in which she must marry and give up her virginity. However, she came to be engaged to Valerian. On the day of their wedding she wore a hairshirt, praying to God to remain unspoiled. On their wedding night she told a secret to Valerian: she had an angel lover who, if he believes that Valerian touches her vulgarly, will slay him. He asks to see this angel, and she tells him to go to the Via Appia and find Pope Urban among the poor people. Once Urban purges him of his sins, Valerian will be able to see the angel. When he reached Via Appia, Urban suddenly appeared to Valerian and read from the Bible. He baptized Valerian and sent him back home, where he found the angel with Cecilia. He has brought a crown of flowers from Paradise that will never wilt, and gives it to Cecilia. The angel claims that only the pure and chaste shall be able to see this crown. Cecilia asks for the angel to bless her brother and make him pure. This brother, Tibertius, enters and can detect the flowers. The angel gives crowns to Valerian and Tibertius, and advises Tibertius to give up false idols. They plan to visit Pope Urban, and Tibertius asks Cecilia how she can worship three gods. She says that each divinity represents part of God. But after both Valerian and Tibertius were christened, Roman sergeants brought them to Almachius the prefect, who ordered their death. During their execution, one of the sergeants, Maximus, claims that he saw the spirits of Valerian and Tibertius ascend to heaven. Upon hearing this, many of the witnesses converted to Christianity. For this Almachius had him beaten to the death, so Cecilia had him buried with Valerian and Tibertius. For this Almachius summoned Cecilia, but she refuses to appear frightened of him. She refuses to admit her guilt and condemns him for praising false idols. He ordered that she be boiled to death, but she suffered not a burn. When he ordered that she be decapitated by a sword, she is struck three times but does not die. The executioner did no more, but left her to die. The other Christians attempted to save her, but she only lingered for a few more days, during which time she ordered that all her property be distributed among the poor. Pope Urban had her buried secretly, and praised her as a saint.
The Second Nun's Tale is an entirely conventional religious biography. The Second Nun tells the story of Saint Cecilia in a dry, sanctimonious fashion that exalts her suffering and patient adherence to her faith. The tale contains few moments of character development and equally few rounded characters. Only Cecilia has some dimension, and even this is relatively simplistic.
However, the Second Nun's Tale does contain some notable ideas pertaining to Christian belief. The angelic gift of the flowers that only a Christian can see are a physical manifestation of the idea that Christians belong to a City of God, a distinct community with shared values that nevertheless exists within a secular and often hostile environment. Also, the tale does give impression of larger psychological insights into Cecilia with the description of her aversion to sex. Her intense displeasure concerning losing her virginity leads her to masochistic behavior, and she channels her sexual impulses into her spiritual beliefs, telling her husband that an angel is her 'lover.'
The rest of the story contains more traditional elements. There are moments of spontaneous conversion to Christianity, randomly performed miracles, and portrayals of Roman persecution of early Christians. Chaucer does insert one moment that diverges from the strict Christian propaganda that this story represents, allowing moments of legitimate discussion of the Trinity. This discussion admits that the tripartite division of God is problematic, and Cecilia attempts to resolve this dilemma.
Summary and Analysis of The Canon's Yeoman's Tale
Prologue to the Canon's Yeoman's Tale:
When the story of Saint Cecilia was finished and the company continued on their journey, they came across two men. One of them was clad all in black and had been traveling quickly on their horses; the narrator believes that he must be a canon (an alchemist). The Canon's Yeoman said that they wished to join the company on their journey, for they had heard of their tales. The Host asked if the Canon could tell a tale, and the Yeoman answers that the Canon knows tales of mirth and jollity, and is a man whom anybody would be honored to know. The Host guesses that his master was a clerk, but the Yeoman says that he is something greater. The Host, however, wonders why the Canon dresses so shabbily if he is so important. The Yeoman brags about what the Canon can do, such as creating the illusion of gold, until the Canon tells him to stop. For shame at his Yeoman's behavior, the Canon then departed. The Canon's Yeoman then decides to tell a tale himself.
The dull religious reverie of the Second Nun's Tale gives way to the most prominent narrative development within the story of the pilgrims to Canterbury. Chaucer introduces two new characters, the Canon and his Yeoman. The Canon is an imposing figure, a mysterious and intimidating character who differs greatly from the Canterbury pilgrims, who are either jovial and boisterous or quiet and respectable. The Canon is nearly silent, yet his reticence does not stem from chivalric honor or religious principles. He is a man of menacing action afraid to be definitely identified as part of his dubious profession. This automatically marks him as different from the other travelers, who primarily exist as part of their particular job and accept it, even when that line of work as in the cases of the summoner and the pardoner is not respectable.
The Canon's Yeoman serves as the voice of his master, but that voice proves inadequate. The Canon's Yeoman reveals too much about his master and then turns on him, condemning the Canon for his fraudulent practices.
The Canon Yeoman's Tale:
The Canon's Yeoman admits that he has served the Canon for seven years and knows a great deal about his craft. He warns that anybody who becomes involved with a canon will suffer similar miseries: losing one's wealth and esteem. He tells about the wicked craft of alchemy from which they try to gain wealth. He claims that there is a canon of religion of how an alchemist can defraud a person. He then begins his tale of a priest in London who was visited by a false canon who begged for a loan. Two days later he repays the loan and offers to show the priest his methods. The priest was blinded by his avarice. The canon tells the priest to have his servant fetch three ounces of quicksilver and coal. The canon claims that he can make the quicksilver into real silver. The canon contrived to make it appear to the priest that he had made real silver in his crucible. The priest unwittingly exchanged this false silver for money, which he gave to the canon, who made the priest promise never to reveal his methods. The Canon's Yeoman ends his tale with a warning that these types of fraud will eventually be punished.
The actual profession of the Canon is that of an alchemist, a profession that relates to modern scientific pursuits but in Chaucer's time was endowed with mysterious connotations borne from fear and wonder. The Yeoman regards the Canon as a man of great powers, yet fears the implications of his craft. The Yeoman is most assured when he tells of his masters' sins and deceptions, for it is here that he can consign the Canon to the status of mere charlatan.
The description of the Canon that his Yeoman gives during his tale is equivalent to that of the devil. He deals in mystical and dark forces, with references to brimstone and fire, and serves the same purpose as the devil incarnated in several of the other tales, tempting weak men to sin by appealing to their weaknesses. In this case, the Canon manipulates the priest's avarice.
The story serves as a confession for the Canon's Yeoman, who admits the sins that he and his master have committed. By revealing his master's professional practices he asks for penance.
Summary and Analysis of The Manciple's Tale
Prologue to the Manciple's Tale:
The Host asks the Cook to tell the next tale, but the Cook is drunk and incoherent. The Manciple agrees to tell a tale in his place and criticizes the Cook for his boorish behavior. The drunken Cook, angry at the Manciple, attempts to get on his horse, but is too unsteady and falls off. He then tries to fight the Manciple, but fails. The Host warns the Manciple that he is foolish to so openly criticize the Cook, for he will eventually get his revenge.
The Manciple's Tale:
When Phoebus lived on earth, he was the lustiest of bachelors, a superior archer and the envy of all for his singing. Phoebus had a white crow that he had taught to speak and a wife whom he kept guarded out of jealousy. Yet guarding a wife so closely is unnecessary if she is faithful, there is no need to do so, but if she is unfaithful no amount of monitoring will keep her faithful. Phoebus treated his wife well, but this was merely a gilded cage for her. Once when Phoebus was gone she sent for her lover. The white crow saw what they did, but did not say a word. When Phoebus returned, the crow gave the sorry news to Phoebus. The enraged Phoebus murdered his wife with an arrow and subsequently went on a rampage, breaking his musical instruments. The crow lamented that he told Phoebus the news. Phoebus, believing that the crow lied about his wife, called the crow a false thief and plucked off his white feathers. He also cursed the crow, telling him that all crows should forever be black and never sing beautifully again. The Manciple leaves this as a warning: never tell another man that his wife has been unfaithful, for such gossip only causes the cuckolded husband to hate the messenger.
The Manciple's Tale, a slight fable concerning marital jealousy, deals primarily with the idea of the controlling spouse. Phoebus keeps his wife in a figurative gilded cage, a metaphor that Chaucer employs during the story; he treats her well but nevertheless controls her actions. Chaucer parallels the fate of the wife with the fate of his white crow. Both are objects that Phoebus controls, caged and treated well until they displease him. The means by which Phoebus murders his wife are even appropriate to the caged bird metaphor. He uses an arrow, a weapon appropriate for shooting birds.
The ending of the Manciple's Tale shifts to a different theme, for the bird is punished not for disobeying Phoebus, but rather for his honesty. The Manciple makes an overt statement of the tale's moral, claiming that the crow suffered for speaking when discretion would have been wise, but this statement ignores the main thrust of the tale, which deals with the consequences of conditional possession. The crow suffers because of its indiscretion, but this depends on the conditions of ownership; Phoebus treats the crow well insofar as it pleases him. Only when the crow displeases Phoebus does it suffer such dire consequences.
Summary and Analysis of The Parson's Tale
Prologue to the Parson's Tale:
When the Manciple's Tale was done, it was then four o'clock. The Host claimed that only one tale remained. The Parson, however, refused to tell a foolish story, for Paul advised against telling false stories. He says that he will tell a virtuous tale in prose.
The Parson's Tale:
There have been many spiritual ways that have led people to Jesus Christ and to the reign of glory. The most prominent of these ways is Penitence. St. Ambrose claims that Penitence is the acceptance of guilt for what a man has done and a pledge to do no more. Perfect Penitence requires contrition of heart, confession of mouth and satisfaction. The root of these is contrition that lives in the heart of he who is repentant. From this comes confession and satisfaction. There are six causes that should move a man to contrition. First a man shall remember his sins. Second, a man should have disdain for his sins. Third, a man should have a dread of doom and a fear of hell. Fourth, a man should remember the good he has left to do on earth. Fifth, a man should remember the suffering of Jesus Christ for our sins. Sixth, a man should hope to forfeit sin and receive the gift of grace and the glory of heaven. This contrition should be universal. The second part of Penitence is confession, the sign of contrition. Confession is the showing of all sins to a priest. All sins stem from the original sin of Adam, and there are two types, venial sins and sins of deed. The latter occur when a man loves any creature more than Jesus. Venial sins occur when a man loves Jesus Christ less than he ought.
There are seven deadly sins. Pride is the worst of them, for the other sins, Ire, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lechery, stem from Pride. Pride can be manifest in many forms, including the wearing of ostentatious clothing. The remedy for Pride is humility, when a man holds himself as not worthy of heaven, despises no other man and cares not what men think of him. Envy is the sorrow in others' fortune and delight in others' pain. The remedy for Envy is love of God first and trust in one's fellow man. After Envy there is Ire, which manifests itself in hate. The remedy against Ire is patience and the acceptance of suffering. Sloth is the anguish of a troubled heart. The remedy for this is fortitude. Avarice is the desire to have earthly things. Avarice can be distinguished from Envy, for Envy is to covet things that one does not have, while Avarice is to keep things that one has without rightful need. The remedy for Avarice is pity. Gluttony is the immeasurable appetite to eat or drink. This sin has many types, including drunkenness. Abstinence is the cure for gluttony. Lechery includes all sins related to sex, and was so despised by God that the laws against it were quite harsh. The remedy for Lechery is chastity. Even in marriage men and women should remain modest with one another. There are a number of conditions to penitence, including the intensity of the sin committed, the haste to contrition and the number of times the sin was committed. The fruit of this penitence is goodness and redemption in Christ.
The Parson's Tale is not a tale at all. It is a dissertation on sin in essay form, dealing with the three parts of redemption: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. The tale is the longest of the Canterbury Tales but is most likely the least significant. It has none of the structural narrative pleasures of the other tales, nor the aesthetic qualities that the poetic form that most of the tales offer. Its inclusion is as a summation of the Canterbury Tales, an attempt to place it in a more religious context that might mitigate the more base entertainment of the fabliaux and adventure tales.
As religious doctrine, the Parson's Tale adheres relatively faithfully to Christian principles. Nothing in the content of the Parson's Tale appears novel, for the structure of the tale is such that it becomes essentially a compendium of definitions and examples.
Summary and Analysis of Retraction:
Chaucer prays that whoever reads these tales and finds something worthy in them should thank Christ. Yet if readers find offense in the tales, Chaucer asks that they impute this not to any ill intention, but rather to Chaucer's own ignorance.
The final passage of the story is a minor qualification in which Chaucer attempts to absolve himself of any blame that may be placed on him for the more vulgar and unsuitable material contained within the various tales. He pleads ignorance, a tactic that is not quite convincing considering the intellectual labor that the Canterbury Tales represent. Otherwise, the retraction is a conventional summation that gives praise to Christ as the inspiration for the tales.