Canterbury Tales By ChaucerBy far Chaucer’s most popular work, although he might have preferred to havebeen remembered by Troilus and Criseyde, the Canterbury Tales was unfinished athis death. No less than fifty-six surviving manuscripts contain, or oncecontained, the full text. More than twenty others contain some parts or anindividual tale. The work begins with a General Prologue in which the narratorarrives at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, and meets other pilgrims there, whom hedescribes.
In the second part of the General Prologue the inn-keeper proposesthat each of the pilgrims tell stories along the road to Canterbury, two each onthe way there, two more on the return journey, and that the best story earn thewinner a free supper. Since there are some thirty pilgrims, this would havegiven a collection of well over a hundred tales, but in fact there are onlytwenty-four tales, and some of these are incomplete. Between tales, and at timeseven during a tale, the pilgrimage framework is introduced with some kind ofexchange, often acrimonious, between pilgrims. In a number of cases, there is alonger Prologue before a tale begins, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and thePardoner’s Prologue being the most remarkable examples of this. At Chaucer’sdeath, the various sections of the Canterbury Tales that he was preparing hadnot been brought together in a linked whole. His friends seem to have tried asbest they could to prepare a coherent edition of what was there, adding somemore linkages when they thought it necessary.
The resulting manuscriptstherefore offer slight differences in the order of tales, and in some of theframework links. The tales are usually found in linked groups known as’Fragments’. The customary grouping and ordering of the tales is as follows (thecommonly accepted abbreviation for each Tale is noted in parentheses): FragmentI (A) Â Â Â General Prologue (GP), Knight (KnT),Miller (MilT), Reeve (RvT), Cook (CkT). Fragment II (B1) Â Â Â Manof Law (MLT) Fragment III (D) Â Â Â Wife ofBath (WBT), Friar (FrT), Summoner (SumT). Fragment IV (E) Â Â Â Clerk(ClT), Merchant (MerT). Fragment V (F) Â Â Â Squire(SqT), Franklin (FranT).
Fragment VI (C) Â Â Â Physician(PhyT), Pardoner (PardT). Fragment VII (B2) Â Â Â Shipman(ShipT), Prioress (PrT), Chaucer: Sir Thopas (Thop), Melibee (Mel), Monk (MkT),Nun’s Priest (NPT). Fragment VIII (G) Â Â Â SecondNun SNT), Canon’s Yeoman (CYT). Fragment IX (H) Â Â Â Manciple(MancT).
Fragment X (I) Â Â Â Parson (ParsT). There is great variety in different manuscripts but I and II, VI and VII, IX andX are almost always found in that order while the tales in IV and V are oftenspread around separately. Modern editions are usually based on one of twomanuscripts, both written by the same scribe: the Hengwrt Manuscript and theEllesmere Manuscript. The former, in the National Library of Wales, is theoldest of all, probably copied directly from Chaucer’s own disordered papers,but it lacks the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and the final pages have been lost.
Thelatter, now preserved in California, is more complete, and beautifully producedwith illustrations of the different pilgrims beside their Tales, but it showsthe work of an editor who has removed some of the roughness from Chaucer’slines. Chaucer offers in the Tales a great variety of literary forms, narrativesof different kinds as well as other texts. The pilgrimage framework enricheseach tale by setting it in relationship with others, but it would be a mistaketo identify the narratorial voice of each tale too strongly with the individualpilgrim who is supposed to be telling it. After the General Prologue, the Talesfollow. The following is a brief outline of the different tales in the orderfound in the Riverside Chaucer, the standard edition. Fragment I The work beginswith a General Prologue in which the narrator (Chaucer?) arrives at the TabardInn in Southwark to set out on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket atCanterbury, and meets other pilgrims there, whom he describes.
In the secondpart of the General Prologue the inn-keeper proposes that each of the pilgrimstell stories along the road to Canterbury, two each on the way there, two moreon the return journey, and that the best story earn the winner a free supper. The Knight’s Tale: a romance, a condensed version of Boccaccio’s Teseida, set inancient Athens. It tells of the love of two cousins, Palamon and Arcite, for thebeautiful Emelye; the climax is a mock-battle, a tournament, the winner of whichwill win her; the gods Mars and Venus have both promised success to one of them. Arcite (servant of Mars) wins, but he dies of wounds after his horse has beenfrightened by a fury, and in the end Palamon (servant of Venus) marries Emelye. The tale explores the themes of determinism and freedom in ways reminiscent ofthe use of Boethius for the same purpose in Troilus and Criseyde.
The Miller’sPrologue and Tale: a fabliau (coarse comic tale), about the cuckolding of Johnthe Carpenter by an Oxford student, Nicholas, boarding with him and his wifeAlison; Absolon, a young man from the local church, also tries to woo her, butis tricked into kissing her behind instead of her lips. Nicholas has deceivedJohn into believing that Noah’s Flood is about to come again, so John is asleepin a tub hanging high in the roof, ready to float to safety. Meanwhile Alisonand Nicholas are in bed together. The climax of the tale is one of the finestcomic moments in literature, when Absolon burns Nicholas’s behind with a hotiron, Nicholas calls for water, John hears, thinks the flood has come, cuts therope holding his tub, and crashes to the floor, breaking an arm.
Only Alisonescapes unscathed. The narrator offers no morality. The Reeve’s Prologue andTale: a fabliau about the cuckolding of a miller told by the Reeve (who is acarpenter, and very angry with the Miller for his tale); two Cambridge studentspunish a dishonest miller by having sex with his wife and daughter while asleepall in one room. Again, the end involves violence, as the miller discovers whathas happened but is struck on the head by his wife because his bald pate is allshe can see in the dark. The Cook’s Prologue and Tale: only a short fragmentexists. Fragment II The Man of Law’s Introduction, Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue:a religious romance about the Roman emperor’s christian daughter Constance, whogoes to Syria, floats to England, and finally returns to Rome after manyadventures.
Fragment III The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale: in her Prologue,the Wife of Bath tells the story of her five marriages, while contesting theanti-feminist attitudes found in books that she quotes; indirectly, she becomesthe proof of the truth of those books. Her Tale is a Breton Lay about a knightwho rapes a girl, is obliged as punishment to find out what women most desire,learns from an old hag that the answer is “mastery over theirhusbands” and then has to marry her. She is a “loathly lady” butsuddenly becomes beautiful when he gives her mastery over him after receiving along lesson on the nature of true nobility. The tale is related to the ideas theWife of Bath expresses in the Prologue, it is also a kind of”wish-fulfillment” for a woman no longer quite young. (see below, forGower’s version of the same story) The Friar’s Prologue and Tale: a comic taleabout a summoner (church lawyer) who goes to hell after an old woman curses himfrom her heart.
The Summoner’s Prologue and Tale: a coarse joke told in revengeabout a friar who has to find a method of sharing a fart he has been givenequally among all his fellow-friars. Fragment IV The Clerk’s Prologue and Tale:a pathetic tale of popular origin, adapted by Chaucer from a French version ofPetrarch’s Latin translation of a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron. The unlikelyand terrible story of the uncomplaining Griselda who is made to suffer appallingpain and humiliation by her husband Walter. Griselda is of very humble origin;Walter chooses her like God choosing Israel.
Suddenly he turns against her,takes away her children, sends her back home, and years later demands that shehelp welcome the new bride he has decided to marry. Without resisting, sheobeys, and at last finds her rights and children restored to her by Walter whosays he was just testing her! The narrator cannot decide if she is a model wifefor anti-feminists or an image of humanity in the hands of an arbitrary destiny. The Merchant’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue: a bitter fabliau-style tale of anold husband, Januarius, with a young wife, May; at the end, the blind old man isshown embracing a pear-tree, in the branches of which May is having sex with ayoung man. The gods suddenly restore his sight and he sees them, but Mayconvinces him that it is thanks to her exertions that he can see, that it is aform of prayer. Fragment V The Squire’s Introduction and Tale: a fantasyromance.
King Cambuscan of Tartary receives on his birthday gifts from the kingof Arabia: a brass horse that can fly, for his daughter Canace a mirror thatshows coming dangers and King Solomon’s ring by which she can understand birds,and also a magic sword. After Canace has heard a falcon tell the sad story ofher love, the mysterious story breaks off, unfinished. The Franklin’s Prologueand Tale: a Breton lay. The lady Dorigen is wooed by a squire, and she says shewill accept him when all the rocks in the sea are gone.
By the help of amagician he achieves this, and Dorigen’s husband, told of her promise, says thatshe must keep her word. Touched by such sincerity, the squire releases her fromher promise. Fragment VI The Physician’s Tale: a Roman moral tale from Livy,about Virginia, who is killed by her father to save her from the dishonouringintentions of a corrupt judge. The Pardoner’s Introduction, Prologue, and Tale:in the Prologue, the Pardoner reveals his own nature as a covetous deceiver; hisTale is a sermon, showing his skill, but he concludes by inviting the pilgrimsto give him money and they get angry. In the Tale, a great showpiece of moralrhetoric quite unfitted for such a rogue, he tells an exemplum against greedabout three wild young men who set out to kill Death; a mysterious old man theymeet tells them they will find him under a tree, but they find there goldinstead.
One goes to buy wine, and is killed by his two friends on his return;they drink the wine, that he has poisoned, and also die. Fragment VII TheShipman’s Tale: a fabliau in which a merchant’s wife offers to sleep with a monkif he gives her money; he borrows the money from the merchant, sleeps with thewife, and later tells the merchant (who asks for his money on returning from ajourney) that he has repaid it to his wife! She says that she has spent it all,and offers to repay her husband through time together in bed. The tale seemswritten to be told by a woman, perhaps it was originally given to the Wife ofBath? The Prioress’s Prologue and Tale: a religious tale, in complete contrastto the Shipman’s. A little boy is killed by wicked Jews because he sings a hymnto Mary as he walks through their street.
His dead body continues to sing thehymn, so the murder is found out. The Prologue and Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas:a romance of the English kind, it mentions heroes such as Horn, Bevis, Guy. Itis written in what seems to be a parody of English popular romance, in rattlingtail-rhyme stanzas (an four-stress couplet followed by a three-stress line,twice, the third and sixth line rhyming). The hero is called Sir Thopas, he iseager to love an elf-queen but as he arrives in fairy-land he meets a giant,whom he avoids.
Soon after this, Harry Bailey, the inn-keeper, stops the tale:”Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee!” And Chaucer the pilgrimexplains that he can do no better in rhyme! Instead “Chaucer” offersto tell a “little thing” in prose, the Tale of Melibee translated fromFrench and covering twenty pages! It is more a treatise than a tale. It containsa vague story, but mostly consists of moral debate full of moral advice in pithysententiae about the best way of dealing with problems and how to take advice. The Monk’s Prologue and Tale: a series of seventeen “tragedies” ofvarying length, in the Fall of Princes tradition. The stories come from varioussources, including the Bible and Boccaccio, and tell of “the deeds ofFortune” in the unhappy ends of famous people, including somenear-contemporaries.
At last the Knight stops the series, which claims toillustrate the power of Fortune, but becomes a list of pathetic case-histories. The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue: a beast-fable told in a varietyof styles, mock-heroic and pedantic mainly. In place of the brevity of theordinary fable (cf Aesop) there are constant digressions and interminablespeeches. The main characters are Chauntecleer and his lady Pertelote, a cockand a hen in a farmyard; Chauntecleer dreams of a fox (he has never seen one)and this leads to a debate on the meaning of dreams.
A fox then appears,flatters Chauntecleer, then grabs him but the cock suggests he insult the peoplechasing him and escapes when the fox opens his mouth to speak. The moral of thetale for the reader is left unclear. Fragment VIII The Second Nun’s Prologue andTale: a religious legend of the miracles and martyrdom of St Cecilia and herRoman husband Valerian. She instructs people to the end, even when her head hasbeen almost completely cut off. The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale: suddenlytwo new characters come riding up to join the pilgrims, a rather dubious Canonwho knows alchemy, and his companion who boasts about his master’s science andknavery, then tells a bitter story about a canon who tricks a priest out of alot of money by pretending to teach him how to make precious metals. ThePrologue and Tale make up a vivid portrait unlike anything else found in theTales, shifting as they do between the Yeoman’s admiration for his master andhis hatred of him and his devilish arts.
Fragment IX The Manciple’s Prologue andTale: a tale found in Ovid about why the crow is black; it used to be white andcould talk, until it told Phoebus that his wife was unfaithful. He kills her,then repents and punishes the bird. The tone of this tale is puzzling, it isneither pathetic nor comic. Fragment X The Parson’s Prologue and Tale: clearlydesigned to be the last tale in the collection, this is no “tale” buta long moral treatise translated from two Latin works on Penitence and on theSeven Deadly Sins.
At the end of the Parson’s Tale, in the Retraccion, the”maker of this book” asks Christ to forgive him: “and namely mytranslations and enditings of worldly vanities, the which I revoke in myretractions: as is the book of Troilus; the book also of Fame; the book of thexxv ladies; the book of the Duchess; the book of St Valentine’s Day of theParliament of Birds; the tales of Canterbury, thilke that sowen intosin. . . “. Yet this Retraction serves to publicize Chaucer’s works and had noeffect on their later publication and distribution.
The Canterbury Tales hasalways been among the most popular works of the English literary heritage. WhenCaxton introduced printing into England, it was the first major secular workthat he printed, in 1478, with a second corrected edition following in 1484. This was in turn reprinted three times, before William Thynne publishedChaucer’s Collected Works in 1532. In the Reformation period, Chaucer’sreputation as a precursor of the Reform movement was helped by the addition of apro-Reformation Plowman’s Tale in a 1542 edition.
In 1561, even Lydgate’s Siegeof Thebes was added. The edition by Thomas Speght in 1598 was the first to offera glossary; his text was revised in 1602 and this version was reprinted severaltimes over the next hundred years, although Chaucer was not really to the tasteof the Augustan readers. The first scholarly edition of the Canterbury Tales waspublished by Thomas Tyrwhitt in 1775. In the last year of his life (1700) JohnDryden wrote a major appreciation of Chaucer, based mainly on his knowledge ofthe General Prologue and certain tales which he had adapted into his own age’sstyle: In the first place, as he is the father of English poetry, I hold him inthe same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil. He is a perpetual fountain of good sense; learned in all sciences; and,therefore, speaks properly on all subjects.
As he knew what to say, so he knowsalso when to leave off; a continence which is practiced by few writers, andscarcely by any of the ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace. . . Chaucer followedNature everywhere, but was never so bold to go beyond her. .
. . He must have beena man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been trulyobserved of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales thevarious manners and humors (as we now call them) of the whole English nation inhis age. Not a single character has escaped him. . .
. there is such a variety ofgame springing up before me that I am distracted in my choice, and know notwhich to follow. ‘Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here isGod’s plenty. ———————————————————————— Readingthe Canterbury Tales Each Tale is presented as a separate ‘work’ which can beread and appreciated in its own right.
There are many different classes of’Tale’ ranging from the saint’s life (SNT) and the theological treatise (ParsT)through romance (KT) to the fabliau (MilT, RvT). By creating the Pilgrimageframework, Chaucer adds an extra dimension to each Tale by attributing it to amore or less distinctly characterized pilgrim. The question of the relationshipbetween each Tale and its fictional pilgrim-teller is much debated. Usually,once a Tale has begun, it continues to the end without further reference to thepilgrimage framework. The interruption of Chaucer’s Tale about Sir Thopas and ofthe Monk’s Tale about falls of princes by weary pilgrims, and of the Pardoner’sfinal salesman’s speech by an angry Host, are powerful exceptions.
Each Tale hasits own style, which is entirely determined by the kind of work it is, and is inno sense a ‘dramatic’ style reflecting the individuality of the proclaimednarrator. The Miller may be drunk, the narratorial voice of the Miller’s Tale isnot a drunken one. On the other hand, the Miller, we are told, is a ‘churl'(line 3182) and he tells a churlish kind of story in terms of morality andrespectability at least, no matter how brilliantly. The Knight is noble and hisTale is a romance of the kind associated with royal courts.
There seems usuallyto be this kind of suitability of Tale to teller. However, it must be admittedthat a number of Tales were left by Chaucer without any introductory pilgrimagelink-passage, one sometimes being provided by editors in the 15th century, sothat the attribution of them to a particular pilgrim may not be Chaucer’s. TheShipman’s Tale includes lines in which the pilgrim-narrator refers to himself asa woman. This may indicate that originally this tale about sex and money hadbeen given to the Wife of Bath and that after she was given another tale Chaucernever had time to remove those lines.
After the General Prologue, the pilgrimscome into their own in brief link-passages which are in many cases full oftension as two or more of the rowdier pilgrims nearly come to blows. Alwayssomeone intervenes to restore order and the next Tale is introduced. Twopilgrims, the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, are given a far more significantdevelopment. Each of them has a Prologue of considerable length in which theybecome, as it were, the subject of their own self-telling. Each of thesePrologues is rooted in traditions of satire but goes far beyond them inestablishing a composite portrayal of a dynamic individual in dramaticmonologue.
The most important function of the pilgrimage framework, however, isthe question it leaves hovering over each of the Tales as it is told: Is thisTale the best Tale? The Host’s proposal of a contest invites the reader to judgeall the Tales but at the same time requires the reader to reflect on thecriteria by which the Tales are to be judged. What is the purpose oftale-telling, indeed of all discourse? Sentence or solas? Wisdom or pleasure?The value of a tale becomes more and more related to the value of life, and theParson is not simply a kill-joy when he declares: ‘Thou getest fable noon ytooldfor me’ (you get no fable told by me) and instead offers a treatise on sin andsalvation. Chaucer leads the reader to the point where the ability of anyfictional tale to tell the truth is challenged, though not necessarily asradically denied as the Parson would wish. The Parson himself is a fictionalcharacter, after all, a part of a Tale. The reader is at each moment invited toread the Tales in such a way as not to eliminate any of these dimensions.