General Prologue: The Knight through the Man of Law
Fragment 1, lines 43–330
The narrator begins his character portraits with the Knight. In the narrator’s eyes, the Knight is the noblest of the pilgrims, embodying military prowess, loyalty, honor, generosity, and good manners. The Knight conducts himself in a polite and mild fashion, never saying an unkind word about anyone. The Knight’s son, who is about twenty years old, acts as his father’s squire, or apprentice. Though the Squire has fought in battles with great strength and agility, like his father, he is also devoted to love. A strong, beautiful, curly-haired young man dressed in clothes embroidered with dainty flowers, the Squire fights in the hope of winning favor with his “lady.” His talents are those of the courtly lover—singing, playing the flute, drawing, writing, and riding—and he loves so passionately that he gets little sleep at night. He is a dutiful son, and fulfills his responsibilities toward his father, such as carving his meat. Accompanying the Knight and Squire is the Knight’s Yeoman, or freeborn servant. The Yeoman wears green from head to toe and carries an enormous bow and beautifully feathered arrows, as well as a sword and small shield. His gear and attire suggest that he is a forester.
Next, the narrator describes the Prioress, named Madame Eglentyne. Although the Prioress is not part of the royal court, she does her best to imitate its manners. She takes great care to eat her food daintily, to reach for food on the table delicately, and to wipe her lip clean of grease before drinking from her cup. She speaks French, but with a provincial English accent. She is compassionate toward animals, weeping when she sees a mouse caught in a trap, and feeding her dogs roasted meat and milk. The narrator says that her features are pretty, even her enormous forehead. On her arm she wears a set of prayer beads, from which hangs a gold brooch that features the Latin words for “Love Conquers All.” Another nun and three priests accompany her.
The Monk is the next pilgrim the narrator describes. Extremely handsome, he loves hunting and keeps many horses. He is an outrider at his monastery (he looks after the monastery’s business with the external world), and his horse’s bridle can be heard jingling in the wind as clear and loud as a church bell. The Monk is aware that the rule of his monastic order discourages monks from engaging in activities like hunting, but he dismisses such strictures as worthless. The narrator says that he agrees with the Monk: why should the Monk drive himself crazy with study or manual labor? The fat, bald, and well-dressed Monk resembles a prosperous lord.
The next member of the company is the Friar—a member of a religious order who lives entirely by begging. This friar is jovial, pleasure-loving, well-spoken, and socially agreeable. He hears confessions, and assigns very easy penance to people who donate money. For this reason, he is very popular with wealthy landowners throughout the country. He justifies his leniency by arguing that donating money to friars is a sign of true repentance, even if the penitent is incapable of shedding tears. He also makes himself popular with innkeepers and barmaids, who can give him food and drink. He pays no attention to beggars and lepers because they can’t help him or his fraternal order. Despite his vow of poverty, the donations he extracts allow him to dress richly and live quite merrily.
Tastefully attired in nice boots and an imported fur hat, the Merchant speaks constantly of his profits. The merchant is good at borrowing money, but clever enough to keep anyone from knowing that he is in debt. The narrator does not know his name. After the Merchant comes the Clerk, a thin and threadbare student of philosophy at Oxford, who devours books instead of food. The Man of Law, an influential lawyer, follows next. He is a wise character, capable of preparing flawless legal documents. The Man of Law is a very busy man, but he takes care to appear even busier than he actually is.
The Canterbury Tales is more than an estates satire because the characters are fully individualized creations rather than simple good or bad examples of some ideal type. Many of them seem aware that they inhabit a socially defined role and seem to have made a conscious effort to redefine their prescribed role on their own terms. For instance, the Squire is training to occupy the same social role as his father, the Knight, but unlike his father he defines this role in terms of the ideals of courtly love rather than crusading. The Prioress is a nun, but she aspires to the manners and behavior of a lady of the court, and, like the Squire, incorporates the motifs of courtly love into her Christian vocation. Characters such as the Monk and the Friar, who more obviously corrupt or pervert their social roles, are able to offer a justification and a rationale for their behavior, demonstrating that they have carefully considered how to go about occupying their professions.
Within each portrait, the narrator praises the character being described in superlative terms, promoting him or her as an outstanding example of his or her type. At the same time, the narrator points out things about many of the characters that the reader would be likely to view as flawed or corrupt, to varying degrees. The narrator’s naïve stance introduces many different ironies into the General Prologue. Though it is not always clear exactly how ironic the narrator is being, the reader can perceive a difference between what each character should be and what he or she is.
The narrator is also a character, and an incredibly complex one at that. Examination of the narrator’s presentation of the pilgrims reveals some of his prejudices. The Monk’s portrait, in which the narrator inserts his own judgment of the Monk into the actual portrait, is the clearest example of this. But most of the time, the narrator’s opinions are more subtly present. What he does and doesn’t discuss, the order in which he presents or recalls details, and the extent to which he records objective characteristics of the pilgrims are all crucial to our own ironic understanding of the narrator.
The Knight, the Squire, and the Yeoman
The Knight has fought in crusades the world over, and comes as close as any of the characters to embodying the ideals of his vocation. But even in his case, the narrator suggests a slight separation between the individual and the role: the Knight doesn’t simply exemplify chivalry, truth, honor, freedom, and courtesy; he “loves” them. His virtues are due to his self-conscious pursuit of clearly conceived ideals. Moreover, the Knight’s comportment is significant. Not only is he a worthy warrior, he is prudent in the image of himself that he projects. His appearance is calculated to express humility rather than vainglory.
Whereas the narrator describes the Knight in terms of abstract ideals and battles, he describes the Knight’s son, the Squire, mostly in terms of his aesthetic attractiveness. The Squire prepares to occupy the same role as his father, but he envisions that role differently, supplementing his father’s devotion to military prowess and the Christian cause with the ideals of courtly love (see discussion of courtly love under “Themes, Motifs, and Symbols”). He displays all of the accomplishments and behaviors prescribed for the courtly lover: he grooms and dresses himself carefully, he plays and sings, he tries to win favor with his “lady,” and he doesn’t sleep at night because of his overwhelming love. It is important to recognize, however, that the Squire isn’t simply in love because he is young and handsome; he has picked up all of his behaviors and poses from his culture.
The description of the Knight’s servant, the Yeoman, is limited to an account of his physical appearance, leaving us with little upon which to base an inference about him as an individual. He is, however, quite well attired for someone of his station, possibly suggesting a self-conscious attempt to look the part of a forester.
The Prioress, the Monk, and the Friar
With the descriptions of the Prioress, the Monk, and the Friar, the level of irony with which each character is presented gradually increases. Like the Squire, the Prioress seems to have redefined her own role, imitating the behavior of a woman of the royal court and supplementing her religious garb with a courtly love motto: Love Conquers All. This does not necessarily imply that she is corrupt: Chaucer’s satire of her is subtle rather than scathing. More than a personal culpability, the Prioress’s devotion to courtly love demonstrates the universal appeal and influence of the courtly love tradition in Chaucer’s time. Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer seems to question the popularity of courtly love in his own culture, and to highlight the contradictions between courtly love and Christianity.
The narrator focuses on the Prioress’s table manners in minute detail, openly admiring her courtly manners. He seems mesmerized by her mouth, as he mentions her smiling, her singing, her French speaking, her eating, and her drinking. As if to apologize for dwelling so long on what he seems to see as her erotic manner, he moves to a consideration of her “conscience,” but his decision to illustrate her great compassion by focusing on the way she treats her pets and reacts to a mouse is probably tongue-in-cheek. The Prioress emerges as a very realistically portrayed human being, but she seems somewhat lacking as a religious figure.
The narrator’s admiring description of the Monk is more conspicuously satirical than that of the Prioress. The narrator zeroes in on the Monk with a vivid image: his bridle jingles as loud and clear as a chapel bell. This image is pointedly ironic, since the chapel is where the Monk should be but isn’t. To a greater degree than the Squire or the Prioress, the Monk has departed from his prescribed role as defined by the founders of his order. He lives like a lord rather than a cleric. Hunting is an extremely expensive form of leisure, the pursuit of the upper classes. The narrator takes pains to point out that the Monk is aware of the rules of his order but scorns them.
Like the Monk, the Friar does not perform his function as it was originally conceived. Saint Francis, the prototype for begging friars, ministered specifically to beggars and lepers, the very people the Friar disdains. Moreover, the Friar doesn’t just neglect his spiritual duties; he actually abuses them for his own profit. The description of his activities implies that he gives easy penance in order to get extra money, so that he can live well. Like the Monk, the Friar is ready with arguments justifying his reinterpretation of his role: beggars and lepers cannot help the Church, and giving money is a sure sign of penitence. The narrator strongly hints that the Friar is lecherous as well as greedy. The statement that he made many marriages at his own cost suggests that he found husbands for young women he had made pregnant. His white neck is a conventional sign of lecherousness.
The Merchant, the Clerk, and the Man of Law
The Merchant, the Clerk, and the Man of Law represent three professional types. Though the narrator valiantly keeps up the pretense of praising everybody, the Merchant evidently taxes his ability to do so. The Merchant is in debt, apparently a regular occurrence, and his supposed cleverness at hiding his indebtedness is undermined by the fact that even the naïve narrator knows about it. Though the narrator would like to praise him, the Merchant hasn’t even told the company his name.
Sandwiched between two characters who are clearly devoted to money, the threadbare Clerk appears strikingly oblivious to worldly concerns. However, the ultimate purpose of his study is unclear. The Man of Law contrasts sharply with the Clerk in that he has used his studies for monetary gain.
General Prologue: The Franklin through the Pardoner
Fragment 1, lines 331–714
The white-bearded Franklin is a wealthy gentleman farmer, possessed of lands but not of noble birth. His chief attribute is his preoccupation with food, which is so plenteous in his house that his house seemed to snow meat and drink (344–345). The narrator next describes the five Guildsmen, all artisans. They are dressed in the livery, or uniform, of their guild. The narrator compliments their shiny dress and mentions that each was fit to be a city official. With them is their skillful Cook, whom Chaucer would praise fully were it not for the ulcer on his shin. The hardy Shipman wears a dagger on a cord around his neck. When he is on his ship, he steals wine from the merchant he is transporting while he sleeps.
The taffeta-clad Physician bases his practice of medicine and surgery on a thorough knowledge of astronomy and the four humors. He has a good setup with his apothecaries, because they make each other money. He is well acquainted with ancient and modern medical authorities, but reads little Scripture. He is somewhat frugal, and the narrator jokes that the doctor’s favorite medicine is gold.
Next, the narrator describes the slightly deaf Wife of Bath. This keen seamstress is always first to the offering at Mass, and if someone goes ahead of her she gets upset. She wears head coverings to Mass that the narrator guesses must weigh ten pounds. She has had five husbands and has taken three pilgrimages to Jerusalem. She has also been to Rome, Cologne, and other exotic pilgrimage sites. Her teeth have gaps between them, and she sits comfortably astride her horse. The Wife is jolly and talkative, and she gives good love advice because she has had lots of experience.
A gentle and poor village Parson is described next. Pure of conscience and true to the teachings of Christ, the Parson enjoys preaching and instructing his parishioners, but he hates excommunicating those who cannot pay their tithes. He walks with his staff to visit all his parishioners, no matter how far away. He believes that a priest must be pure, because he serves as an example for his congregation, his flock. The Parson is dedicated to his parish and does not seek a better appointment. He is even kind to sinners, preferring to teach them by example rather than scorn. The parson is accompanied by his brother, a Plowman, who works hard, loves God and his neighbor, labors “for Christ’s sake” (537), and pays his tithes on time.
The red-haired Miller loves crude, bawdy jokes and drinking. He is immensely stout and strong, able to lift doors off their hinges or knock them down by running at them with his head. He has a wart on his nose with bright red hairs sticking out of it like bristles, black nostrils, and a mouth like a furnace. He wears a sword and buckler, and loves to joke around and tell dirty stories. He steals from his customers, and plays the bagpipes.
The Manciple stocks an Inn of Court (school of law) with provisions. Uneducated though he is, this manciple is smarter than most of the lawyers he serves. The spindly, angry Reeve has hair so short that he reminds the narrator of a priest. He manages his lord’s estate so well that he is able to hoard his own money and property in a miserly fashion. The Reeve is also a good carpenter, and he always rides behind everybody else.
The Summoner arraigns those accused of violating Church law. When drunk, he ostentatiously spouts the few Latin phrases he knows. His face is bright red from an unspecified disease. He uses his power corruptly for his own gain. He is extremely lecherous, and uses his position to dominate the young women in his jurisdiction. In exchange for a quart of wine, he would let another man sleep with his girlfriend for a year and then pardon the man completely.
The Pardoner, who had just been in the court of Rome, rides with the Summoner. He sings with his companion, and has long, flowing, yellow hair. The narrator mentions that the Pardoner thinks he rides very fashionably, with nothing covering his head. He has brought back many souvenirs from his trip to Rome. The narrator compares the Pardoner’s high voice to that of a goat, and mentions that he thinks the Pardoner might have been a homosexual. The narrator mocks the Pardoner for his disrespectful manipulation of the poor for his own material gain. In charge of selling papal indulgences, he is despised by the Church and most churchgoers for counterfeiting pardons and pocketing the money. The Pardoner is a good preacher, storyteller, and singer, the narrator admits, although he argues it is only because he cheats people of their money in that way.
Again, the narrator describes many of the characters as though he had actually witnessed them doing things he has only heard them talk about. Other portraits, such as that of the Miller, are clearly shaped by class stereotypes.
The Franklin, the Guildsmen, and the Cook
The Franklin and the five Guildsmen share with the Merchant and the Man of Law a devotion to material wealth, and the narrator praises them in terms of their possessions. The description of the Franklin’s table is a lavish poetic tribute to hospitality and luxury. The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, and Tapestry-Weaver are not individualized, and they don’t tell their own tales. The narrator’s approval of their pride in material displays of wealth is clearly satirical. The Cook, with his disgusting physical defect, is himself a display of the Guildsmen’s material worth and prosperity.
The Shipman and the Physician
The descriptions of the Shipman and the Physician are both barbed with keenly satiric turns of phrase implying dishonesty and avarice. The Shipman’s theft of wine is slipped in among descriptions of his professional skills, and his brutality in battle is briefly noted in the midst of his other nautical achievements. The narrator gives an impressive catalog of the Physician’s learning, but then interjects the startling comment that he neglects the Bible, implying that his care for the body comes at the expense of the soul. Moreover, the narrator’s remarks about the Doctor’s love of gold suggest that he is out to make money rather than to help others.
The Wife of Bath
According to whether they infer Chaucer’s implied attitude toward this fearless and outspoken woman as admiring or satirical, readers have interpreted the Wife of Bath as an expression either of Chaucer’s proto-feminism or of his misogyny. Certainly, she embodies many of the traits that woman-hating writers of Chaucer’s time attacked: she is vain, domineering, and lustful. But, at the same time, Chaucer portrays the Wife of Bath in such realistic and humane detail that it is hard to see her simply as a satire of an awful woman. Minor facets of her description, such as the gap between her teeth and her deafness, are expanded upon in the long prologue to her tale.
The Parson and the Plowman
Coming after a catalog of very worldly characters, these two brothers stand out as rare examples of Christian ideals. The Plowman follows the Gospel, loving God and his neighbor, working for Christ’s sake, and faithfully paying tithes to the Church. Their “worth” is thus of a completely different kind from that assigned to the valorous Knight or to the skilled and wealthy characters. The Parson has a more complicated role than the Plowman, and a more sophisticated awareness of his importance.
The Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve
The Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve are all stewards, in the sense that other people entrust them with their property. All three of them abuse that trust. Stewardship plays an important symbolic role in The Canterbury Tales,just as it does in the Gospels. In his parables, Jesus used stewardship as a metaphor for Christian life, since God calls the individual to account for his or her actions on the Day of Judgment, just as a steward must show whether he has made a profitable use of his master’s property.
The Miller seems more demonic than Christian, with his violent and brutal habits, his mouth like a furnace, the angry red hairs sprouting from his wart, and his black nostrils. His “golden thumb” alludes to his practice of cheating his customers. The narrator ironically upholds the Manciple as a model of a good steward. The Manciple’s employers are all lawyers, trained to help others to live within their means, but the Manciple is even shrewder than they are. The Reeve is depicted as a very skilled thief—one who can fool his own auditors, and who knows all the tricks of managers, servants, herdsmen, and millers because he is dishonest himself. Worst of all, he enjoys his master’s thanks for lending his master the things he has stolen from him.
The Summoner and the Pardoner
The Summoner and Pardoner, who travel together, are the most corrupt and
debased of all the pilgrims. They are not members of holy orders but rather lay officers of the Church. Neither believes in what he does for the Church; instead, they both pervert their functions for their own gain and the corruption of others. The Summoner is a lecher and a drunk, always looking for a bribe. His diseased face suggests a diseased soul. The Pardoner is a more complicated figure. He sings beautifully in church and has a talent for beguiling his somewhat horrified audience. Longhaired and beardless, the Pardoner’s sexuality is ambiguous. The narrator remarks that he thought the Pardoner to be a gelding or a mare, possibly suggesting that he is either a eunuch or a homosexual. His homosexuality is further suggested by his harmonizing with the Summoner’s “stif burdoun,” which means the bass line of a melody but also hints at the male genitalia (673). The Pardoner will further disrupt the agreed-upon structure of the journey (friendly tale-telling) by launching into his indulgence-selling routine, turning his tale into a sermon he frequently uses to con people into feeding his greed. The narrator’s disdain of the Pardoner may in part owe to his jealousy of the Pardoner’s skill at mesmerizing an audience for financial gain—after all, this is a poet’s goal as well. General Prologue: Conclusion
Fragment 1, lines 715–858
After introducing all of the pilgrims, the narrator apologizes for any possible offense the reader may take from his tales, explaining that he feels that he must be faithful in reproducing the characters’ words, even if they are rude or disgusting. He cites Christ and Plato as support for his argument that it is best to speak plainly and tell the truth rather than to lie. He then returns to his story of the first night he spent with the group of pilgrims.
After serving the pilgrims a banquet and settling the bill with them, the Host of the tavern speaks to the group. He welcomes and compliments the company, telling them they are the merriest group of pilgrims to pass through his inn all year. He adds that he would like to contribute to their happiness, free of charge. He says that he is sure they will be telling stories as they travel, since it would be boring to travel in silence. Therefore, he proposes to invent some entertainment for them if they will unanimously agree to do as he says. He orders the group to vote, and the narrator comments that the group didn’t think it would be worthwhile to argue or deliberate over the Host’s proposition and agreed immediately.
The Host congratulates the group on its good decision. He lays out his plan: each of the pilgrims will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way back. Whomever the Host decides has told the most meaningful and comforting stories will receive a meal paid for by the rest of the pilgrims upon their return. The Host also declares that he will ride with the pilgrims and serve as their guide at his own cost. If anyone disputes his judgment, he says, that person must pay for the expenses of the pilgrimage.
The company agrees and makes the Host its governor, judge, and record keeper. They settle on a price for the supper prize and return to drinking wine. The next morning, the Host wakes everyone up and gathers the pilgrims together. After they have set off, he reminds the group of the agreement they made. He also reminds them that whoever disagrees with him must pay for everything spent along the way. He tells the group members to draw straws to decide who tells the first tale. The Knight wins and prepares to begin his tale.
The Host shows himself to be a shrewd businessman. Once he has taken the pilgrims’ money for their dinners, he takes their minds away from what they have just spent by flattering them, complimenting them for their mirth. Equally quickly, he changes the focus of the pilgrimage. In the opening lines of the General Prologue, the narrator says that people go on pilgrimages to thank the martyr, who has helped them when they were in need (17–18). But Bailey (as the Host is later called) tells the group, “Ye goon to Caunterbury—God yow speede, / The blissful martir quite yow youre meede!” (769–770). He sees the pilgrimage as an economic transaction: the pilgrims travel to the martyr, and in return the martyr rewards them. The word “quite” means “repay,” and it will become a major motif throughout the tales, as each character is put in a sort of debt by the previous character’s tale, and must repay him or her with a new tale. Instead of traveling to reach a destination (the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket), the traveling becomes a contest, and the pilgrimage becomes about the journey itself rather than the destination. Bailey also stands to profit from the contest: the winner of the contest wins a free meal at his tavern, to be paid for by the rest of the contestants, all of whom will presumably eat with the winner and thus buy more meals from Bailey.
After creating the storytelling contest, Bailey quickly appoints himself its judge. Once the pilgrims have voted to participate in the contest, Bailey inserts himself as their ruler, and anyone who disagrees with him faces a strict financial penalty. Some have interpreted Bailey’s speedy takeover of the pilgrimage as an allegory for the beginnings of absolute monarchy. The narrator refers to the Host as the group’s “governour,” “juge,” and “reportour [record-keeper]”—all very legalistic terms (813–814).
The Knight’s Tale, Parts 1–2
From the beginning through Theseus’s decision to hold the tournament Fragment 1, lines 859–1880
Summary: Part 1
Long ago in Ancient Greece, a great conqueror and duke named Theseus ruled the city of Athens. One day, four women kneel in front of Theseus’s horse and weep, halting his passage into the city. The eldest woman informs him that they are grieving the loss of their husbands, who were killed at the siege of the city of Thebes. Creon, the lord of Thebes, has dishonored them by refusing to bury or cremate their bodies. Enraged at the ladies’ plight, Theseus marches on Thebes, which he easily conquers. After returning the bones of their husbands to the four women for the funeral rites, Theseus discovers two wounded enemy soldiers lying on the battlefield, nearing death. Rather than kill them, he mercifully heals the Theban soldiers’ injuries, but condemns them to a life of imprisonment in an Athenian tower.
The prisoners, named Palamon and Arcite, are cousins and sworn brothers. Both live in the prison tower for several years. One spring morning, Palamon awakes early, looks out the window, and sees fair-haired Emelye, Theseus’s sister-in-law. She is making flower garlands, “To doon honour to May” (1047). He falls in love and moans with heartache. His cry awakens Arcite, who comes to investigate the matter. As Arcite peers out the window, he too falls in love with the beautiful flower-clad maiden. They argue over her, but eventually realize the futility of such a struggle when neither can ever leave the prison.
One day, a duke named Perotheus, friend both to Theseus and Arcite, petitions for Arcite’s freedom. Theseus agrees, on the condition that Arcite be banished permanently from Athens on pain of death. Arcite returns to Thebes, miserable and jealous of Palamon, who can still see Emelye every day from the tower. But Palamon, too, grows more sorrowful than ever; he believes that Arcite will lay siege to Athens and take Emelye by force. The knight poses the question to the listeners, rhetorically: who is worse off, Arcite or Palamon?
Summary: Part 2
Some time later, winged Mercury, messenger to the gods, appears to Arcite in a dream and urges him to return to Athens. By this time, Arcite has grown gaunt and frail from lovesickness. He realizes that he could enter the city disguised and not be recognized. He does so and takes on a job as a page in Emelye’s chamber under the pseudonym Philostrate. This puts him close to Emelye but not close enough. Wandering in the woods one spring day, he fashions garlands of leaves and laments the conflict in his heart—his desire to return to Thebes and his need to be near his beloved. As it -happens, Palamon has escaped from seven years of imprisonment that very day and hears Arcite’s song and monologue while -sneaking through the woods. They confront each other, each claiming the right to Emelye. Arcite challenges his old friend to a duel the next day. They meet in a field and bludgeon each other ruthlessly.
Theseus, out on a hunt, finds these two warriors brutally hacking away at each other. Palamon reveals their identities and love for Emelye. He implores the duke to justly decide their fate, suggesting that they both deserve to die. Theseus is about to respond by killing them, but the women of his court—especially his queen and Emelye—intervene, pleading for Palamon and Arcite’s lives. The duke consents and decides instead to hold a tournament fifty weeks from that day. The two men will be pitted against one another, each with a hundred of the finest men he can gather. The winner will be awarded Emelye’s hand.
The Knight’s Tale is a romance that encapsulates the themes, motifs, and ideals of courtly love: love is like an illness that can change the lover’s physical appearance, the lover risks death to win favor with his lady, and he is inspired to utter eloquent poetic complaints. The lovers go without sleep because they are tormented by their love, and for many years they pine away hopelessly for an unattainable woman. The tale is set in mythological Greece, but Chaucer’s primary source for it is Boccaccio’s Teseida, an Italian poem written about thirty years before The Canterbury Tales. As was typical of medieval and Renaissance romances, ancient Greece is imagined as quite similar to feudal Europe, with knights and dukes instead of heroes, and various other medieval features.
Some critics have suggested that the Knight’s Tale is an allegory, in which each character represents an abstract idea or theme. For example, Arcite and Palamon might represent the active and the contemplative life, respectively. But it is difficult to convincingly interpret the tale based on a distinction between the two lovers, or to find a moral based on their different actions. Palamon and Arcite are quite similar, and neither one seems to have the stronger claim on Emelye.
The main theme of the tale is the instability of human life—joy and suffering are never far apart from one another, and nobody is safe from disaster. Moreover, when one person’s fortunes are up, another person’s are down. This theme is expressed by the pattern of the narrative, in which descriptions of good fortune are quickly followed by disasters, and characters are subject to dramatic reversals of fortune. When the supplicating widows interrupt Theseus’s victory procession home to Athens, he senses that their grief is somehow connected to his joy and asks them if they grieve out of envy. But one of the widows formulates the connection differently, pointing out that they are on opposite sides of Fortune’s “false wheel” (925).
Soon, the widows’ husbands’ remains are returned to them, and Theseus once again emerges victorious. But as soon as the widows are raised up by Fortune’s wheel, Palamon and Arcite are discovered cast down, close to death, and Theseus imprisons them for life. But, no sooner are Palamon’s and Arcite’s fortunes dashed down than Emelye appears in the garden outside their prison as a symbol of spring and renewed life. When Arcite wins his freedom, each of the friends thinks that his condition is worse than the other’s.
Good fortune and bad fortune seem connected to one another in a pattern, suggesting that some kind of cosmic or moral order underlies the apparently random mishaps and disasters of the narrative. There are other such repeated elements in the story. The widows who supplicate for their husbands’ remains at the story’s opening are mirrored by Emelye and Theseus’s queen, who supplicate Theseus to spare Palamon and Arcite’s lives. Palamon’s appeal to Theseus to rightly judge their quarrel echoes the knight’s appeal to the listeners to decide who is more miserable. Additionally, when Arcite wanders in the woods, singing and fashioning garlands, he echoes Palamon’s first vision of Emelye through the tower window, when he saw her making garlands. Both acts take place in the month of May.
The Knight’s Tale, Parts 3–4
Theseus’s construction of the stadium through the end of the tale Fragment 1, lines 1881–3108
Summary: Part 3
Theseus prepares for the tournament by constructing an enormous stadium. By its gate, he erects three temples to the gods—one for Venus, the goddess of love; one for Mars, the god of war; and one for Diana, the goddess of chastity. The Knight provides a lengthy description of each temple. The tournament nears, spectators assemble, and both Palamon and Arcite arrive with impressive armies. The Sunday before the tournament, Palamon visits the temple of Venus and supplicates her in the night. He tells her of his desire for Emelye and requests that she bring him victory in the name of love. The statue of Venus makes an enigmatic “sign” (the reader isn’t told what the sign is), which Palamon interprets as a positive answer, and he departs confident. That dawn, Emelye also rises and goes to the temple of Diana. Desirous to remain a virgin—“a mayden al my lyf” (2305)—she begs Diana to prevent the impending marriage. But an image of Diana appears and informs her that she must marry one of the Thebans. Obedient, Emelye retires to her chamber.
Arcite walks to the temple of Mars and begs the god of war for victory in the battle. He, too, receives a positive sign: the doors of the temple clang, and he hears the statue of Mars whisper, “Victorie!” (2433). Like Palamon, Arcite departs the temple in high hopes for the coming day. The scene then shifts to the gods themselves. Saturn, Venus’s father, assures her cryptically that despite Mars’s aid to Arcite, Palamon will have his lady in the end.
Summary: Part 4
The Firste Moevere of the cause above,
Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love,
Greet was th’effect, and heigh was his entente.
(See Important Quotations Explained)
After much feasting, the spectators assemble in the stadium. The magnificent armies enter, appearing evenly matched. After Theseus has sternly delivered the rules, the bloody battle of flashing swords and maces begins. Though Palamon fights valiantly, Arcite sees his chance and brings Palamon “to the stake”—he claims him with a sword at his throat. Emelye rejoices as Theseus proclaims Arcite victorious. Venus, on the other hand, weeps with shame that her knight lost, until Saturn calms her and signals that all is not over. At Saturn’s request, the earth shakes beneath Arcite as he rides toward Theseus. The knight’s horse throws him, crushing his chest. Gravely wounded, the company transports Arcite to bed, where physicians attempt in vain to heal him. Arcite expresses his love to Emelye, and then tells her that if she decides to marry another, she should remember Palamon, who possesses the qualities of a worthy knight—“trouthe, honour, knyghthede, / Wysdom, humblesse” (2789–2790).
All of Athens mourns Arcite’s death. Emelye, Theseus, and Palamon are inconsolable. Theseus’s father, Egeus, takes Theseus aside and tells him that every man must live and die—life is a journey through woe that must, at some point, come to an end. After some years pass, the mourners heal, with the exception of Emelye and Palamon, who continue to go about sorrowfully, dressed in black. During one parliament at Athens, Theseus berates the two for grieving too much. He reminds them that God ordains that all must die, and refusal to accept death is therefore folly. He requests that they cease mourning, and that his wife’s sister take Palamon for her husband and lord. They obey, and as they realize the wisdom of Theseus’s advice over many years, Emelye and Palamon enjoy a long, loving, and happy marriage.
Because Egeus has lived long enough to witness Fortune’s rising and falling pattern, he is the only human character in the Knight’s Tale who understands that Fortune’s wheel is the plot’s driving force. Egeus is therefore the only man capable of comforting Theseus amid the general lament over Arcite’s accidental death. In his final speech to Palamon and Emelye, Theseus shows that he has learned his lesson from Egeus. Echoing the old man’s words, the duke argues that excessive mourning over disaster is inappropriate. His speech conveys a message of humility, instead of an attempt to explain the meaning of Arcite’s death. A benevolent order may exist in the universe, Theseus asserts, but human beings should not seek to pry into it, or set themselves against it by prolonging mourning too long.
The gods, whose role is to develop instability in the lives of the characters, are the instruments of Fortune. The Knight’s extensive descriptions of the symbolic decorations of the temples of Venus, Mars, and Diana help shed light on the gods’ roles. The walls in Venus’s temple depict the traditional sufferings of the courtly lover—sleeplessness, sighing, and burning desire. But they also portray the sinfulness that love can cause—lust, jealousy, idleness, and adultery—a more Christian, moralistic message. Moreover, these walls also present love’s invincibility and irresistibility, in scenes taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The relationship among these three ideas of love is left unresolved.
Mars’s temple is also remarkable. Instead of representing the glories of war or battle with which the Knight is well acquainted, the walls display hypocrites, traitors, and murderers, together with disasters that have nothing to do with war, such as the cook who is scalded despite his use of a long ladle. Diana’s portrayal is the most ambivalent of the three. Traditionally, she is the goddess of chastity and protector of virgins, but everything depicted on her temple’s walls suggests that she causes change. Many of the images are of friends or enemies that she transformed, as told in Ovid’sMetamorphoses. Diana herself is symbolically represented by a moon that is waxing but that will soon begin to wane. The imagery in her temple, and her refusal to grant Emelye her prayer that she remain a virgin, indicate that there is no refuge, even in chastity, from the transformations human beings must undergo in life.
The decoration of each of the three temples, then, shows the wills of the gods as opposite to human desires. Venus and Mars are both represented as forces that cause catastrophe and suffering, rather than glory and happiness, in human life. Whereas Venus represents emotional and spiritual sources of suffering, Mars represents all of the violent and brutal physical perils that await humans, whether through accident or malice. And Diana is represented as a force who will not allow things to stay the same.
Saturn is not depicted, but his decision about how to reconcile the conflict between Mars and Venus reveals his understanding of his role, as does his description of himself, which strongly echoes the description of Mars’s temple. Saturn associates himself with drowning, strangling, imprisonment, secret poisoning, and other forms of vengeance. The major difference between Mars and Saturn is that Saturn claims that his journey through the zodiac is much longer than that of the others, and that his actions are part of an overall plan that emerges over a long period of time. Saturn’s disasters represent a kind of correction, or balancing of the scales, ensuring that everything is overturned and transformed by the passage of time.
Yet, there is some suggestion in the Knight’s Tale that humans can affect their own destinies. Several major shifts in the plot come about when one character intercedes on another’s behalf. The weeping women in the opening intercede on behalf of their dead husbands, and Theseus conquers Thebes. Perotheus intercedes on Arcite’s behalf, and Arcite is let out of prison. The court women interrupt to plead that Theseus spare the two soldiers’ lives.
Some critics have suggested that in this pattern of intercession Chaucer presents us with an ideal form of government: no man can govern entirely on his own. Truly good government is accomplished with the help of an outside party that stops the ruler from behaving tyrannically. Twice, women prevent Theseus from acting entirely on his own, a good friend is able to intervene to rescue Arcite, and Arcite himself influences Theseus’s desire to see Emelye and Palamon married. Some critics further interpret this need for counsel along gender lines. It is no accident, they suggest, that women stop Theseus from ignoring the burial rites of their husbands, and from killing Palamon and Arcite. These critics believe that this female intercession means that every good male governor needs and depends upon wifely counsel to keep him from becoming ruthless.
The Miller’s Prologue and Tale
Fragment 1, lines 3109–3854
The pilgrims applaud the Knight’s Tale, and the pleased Host asks the Monk to match it. Before the Monk can utter a word, however, the Miller interrupts. Drunk and belligerent, he promises that he has a “noble” tale that will repay the Knight’s (3126). The Host tries to persuade the Miller to let some “bettre” man tell the next tale (3130). When the Miller threatens to leave, however, the Host acquiesces. After the Miller reminds everyone that he is drunk and therefore shouldn’t be held accountable for anything he says, he introduces his tale as a legend and a life of a carpenter and of his wife, and of how a clerk made a fool of the carpenter, which everyone understands to mean that the clerk slept with the carpenter’s wife (3141–3143). The Reeve shouts out his immediate objection to such ridicule, but the Miller insists on proceeding with his tale. He points out that he is married himself, but doesn’t worry whether some other man is sleeping with his wife, because it is none of his business. The narrator apologizes to us in advance for the tale’s bawdiness, and warns that those who are easily offended should skip to another tale.
The Miller begins his story: there was once an Oxford student named Nicholas, who studied astrology and was well acquainted with the art of love. Nicholas boarded with a wealthy but ignorant old carpenter named John, who was jealous and highly possessive of his sexy eighteen-year-old wife, Alisoun. One day, the carpenter leaves, and Nicholas and Alisoun begin flirting. Nicholas grabs Alisoun, and she threatens to cry for help. He then begins to cry, and after a few sweet words, she agrees to sleep with him when it is safe to do so. She is worried that John will find out, but Nicholas is confident he can outwit the carpenter.
Nicholas is not alone in desiring Alisoun. A merry, vain parish clerk named Absolon also fancies Alisoun. He serenades her every night, buys her gifts, and gives her money, but to no avail—Alisoun loves Nicholas. Nicholas devises a plan that will allow him and Alisoun to spend an entire night together. He has Alisoun tell John that Nicholas is ill. John sends a servant to check on his boarder, who arrives to find Nicholas immobile, staring at the ceiling. When the servant reports back to John, John is not surprised, saying that madness is what one gets for inquiring into “Goddes pryvetee,” which is what he believes Nicholas’s astronomy studies amount to. Nevertheless, he feels sorry for the student and goes to check on him.
Nicholas tells John he has had a vision from God and offers to tell John about it. He explains that he has foreseen a terrible event. The next Monday, waters twice as great as Noah’s flood will cover the land, exterminating all life. The carpenter believes him and fears for his wife, just what Nicholas had hoped would occur. Nicholas instructs John to fasten three tubs, each loaded with provisions and an ax, to the roof of the barn. On Monday night, they will sleep in the tubs, so that when the flood comes, they can release the tubs, hack through the roof, and float until the water subsides. Nicholas also warns John that it is God’s commandment that they may do nothing but pray once they are in the tubs—no one is to speak a word.
Monday night arrives, and Nicholas, John, and Alisoun ascend by ladder into the hanging tubs. As soon as the carpenter begins to snore, Nicholas and Alisoun climb down, run back to the house, and sleep together in the carpenter’s bed. In the early dawn, Absolon passes by. Hoping to stop in for a kiss, or perhaps more, from Alisoun, Absalon sidles up to the window and calls to her. She harshly replies that she loves another. Absolon persists, and Alisoun offers him one quick kiss in the dark.
Absolon leaps forward eagerly, offering a lingering kiss. But it is not her lips he finds at the window, but her “naked ers [arse]” (3734). She and Nicholas collapse with laughter, while Absolon blindly tries to wipe his mouth. Determined to avenge Alisoun’s prank, Absolon hurries back into town to the blacksmith and obtains a red-hot iron poker. He returns with it to the window and knocks again, asking for a kiss and promising Alisoun a golden ring. This time, Nicholas, having gotten up to relieve himself anyway, sticks his rear out the window and farts thunderously in Absolon’s face. Absolon brands Nicholas’s buttocks with the poker. Nicholas leaps up and cries out, “Help! Water! Water!” (3815). John, still hanging from the roof, wakes up and assumes Nicholas’s cries mean that the flood has come. He grabs the ax, cuts free the tub, and comes crashing to the ground, breaking his arm. The noise and commotion attract many of the townspeople. The carpenter tells the story of the predicted flood, but Nicholas and Alisoun pretend ignorance, telling everyone that the carpenter is mad. The townspeople laugh that all have received their dues, and the Miller merrily asks that God save the company.
Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,
For al his kepyng and his jalousye;
And Absolon hath kist hir nether ye;
And Nicholas is scalded in the towte.
(See Important Quotations Explained)
In the Miller’s Prologue, we perceive tension between social classes for the first time in The Canterbury Tales. The Host clearly wants the Monk to tell the second tale, so that the storytelling proceeds according to social rank. By butting in, the Miller upsets the Host’s plan. Like the Knight’s Tale, which fits his honorable and virtuous personality, the Miller’s Tale is stereotypical of the Miller’s bawdy character and low station. However, nothing about the drunken, immoral, and brutal Miller could possibly prepare the reader for the Miller’s elegant verse and beautiful imagery. The Miller’s description of Alisoun draws on a completely different stock of images from the Knight’s depiction of Emelye, but it is no less effective. Whereas Emelye is compared to a rose, a lily, the spring, and an angel, Alisoun’s body is delicate and slender like a weasel, her apron is as white as morning milk, and her features are compared to plums and pear trees. The Miller’s imagery is less conventional and less elevated than the Knight’s, drawn instead from the details of village or farm life.
Although the narrator is unforgiving in his depiction of the drunk, rowdy Miller, whom he presents according to the stereotypes of the Miller’s class and profession, there are a few intriguing points of similarity between the narrator and the Miller. For instance, the Miller apologizes for the tale he is about to tell, and transfers all blame to the “ale of Southwerk”—in effect, to the Host himself (3140). Thirty lines later, the narrator himself makes a similar apology, and reminds his audience to blame the Miller if it finds the tale offensive. Also, the Miller begins his story by giving little portraits of each of his characters, just as the narrator begins his story of the pilgrimage by outlining each of its members.
The Host asks the Monk to “quite,” or repay, the Knight’s Tale (3119). But when the Miller interrupts and cries out that he can “quite the Knyghtes [Knight’s] tale,” he changes the word somewhat to mean “revenge” (3127). Indeed, the Miller does take “revenge” upon the Knight to an extent. Just as he transforms the meaning of the word “quite,” the Miller takes several of the themes from the Knight’s Tale and alters them. For instance, the Knight’s Tale suggested that human suffering is part of a divine plan that mortals cannot hope to know. In a completely different tone and context, the Miller, too, cautions against prying into “God’s pryvetee,” meaning God’s secrets (3164). He first raises this idea in his Prologue, arguing that a man shouldn’t take it upon himself to assume that his wife is unfaithful. In the Miller’s Tale, John repeats the caution against prying into “God’s pryvetee.” Several times, John scolds Nicholas for trying to know “God’s pryvetee,” but when Nicholas actually offers to let John in on his secret, John jumps at the chance. John also jealously tries to control his young wife, reminding us that the Miller equated an attempt to know God’s “pryvetee” with a husband’s attempt to know about his wife’s “private parts.” The two round tubs that the foolish carpenter hangs from the roof of his barn, one on either side of a long trough, suggest an obscene visual pun on this vulgar meaning of “God’s pryvetee.”
The Miller’s Tale also responds to the Knight’s by turning the Knight’s courtly love into a burlesque farce. The Miller places his lovers’ intrigues in a lower-class context, satirizing the pretensions of long-suffering courtly lovers by portraying Nicholas and Alisoun in a frank and sexually graphic manner—Nicholas seduces Alisoun by grabbing her by the pudendum, or “queynte” (3276). Absolon, the parish clerk, represents a parody of the conventional courtly lover. He stays awake at night, patiently woos his lady by means of go-betweens, sings and plays guitar, and aspires to be Alisoun’s page or servant. For his pains, all he gets is the chance to kiss Alisoun’s anus and to be farted on by Nicholas.
In addition to parodying tales of courtly love, the Miller’s Tale also plays with the medieval genres of fabliaux and of mystery plays. Fabliaux are bawdy, comic tales that build to a ridiculous and complex climax usually hinging on some joke or trick. Nicholas is parody of the traditional clever cleric in a fabliau. As the deviser of the scheme to trick John, he seems to be attempting to write his own fabliau, although Absolon foils his plan. Yet, John is still the big loser in the end. The moral of the play is that John should not have married someone so young: “Men sholde wedden after hire estaat [their estate], / For youthe and elde [old age] is often at debaat” (3229–3230). Justice is served in the Miller’s eyes when Alisoun commits adultery, because she revenges her husband “[f]or . . . his jalousye” (3851). Despite their differences, the two clerics ally at the story’s end to dupe the carpenter, and so nobody believes John’s story about Nicholas’s trick.
The Miller’s Tale also includes references to different scenes acted out in medieval mystery plays. Mystery plays, which typically enacted stories of God, Jesus, and the saints, were the main source of biblical education for lay folk in the Middle Ages. As John’s gullibility shows, his education through mystery plays means that he has only a slight understanding of the Bible. The Miller begins his biblical puns in his Prologue, when he says that he will speak in “[Pontius] Pilates” place. His statement that he will tell “a legende and a lyf / Bothe of a carpenter and of his wyf” is a reference to the story of Joseph and Mary. “Legends and lives” were written and told of the saints, and the story in which Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant (and the many jokes that could be made about Mary being unfaithful) was a common subject of mystery plays. The stories of Noah’s flood, and of Noah’s wife, are also obviously twisted around by the Miller. These biblical puns work up to the climax of the tale. When he says that Nicholas’s fart was as great as a “thonder-dent,” the Miller aligns Nicholas—the creator of the action—with God (3807). Absolon, who cries out, “My soule bitake I unto Sathanas [Satan]” (3750), becomes a version of the devil, who damns God by sticking him with his red-hot poker. The result of Absolon’s actions is that John falls from the roof in a pun on the fall of humanity.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue
From the beginning through the Wife of Bath’s description of her first three husbands Fragment 3, lines 1–451
The Wife of Bath begins the Prologue to her tale by establishing herself as an authority on marriage, due to her extensive personal experience with the institution. Since her first marriage at the tender age of twelve, she has had five husbands. She says that many people have criticized her for her numerous marriages, most of them on the basis that Christ went only once to a wedding, at Cana in Galilee. The Wife of Bath has her own views of Scripture and God’s plan. She says that men can only guess and interpret what Jesus meant when he told a Samaritan woman that her fifth husband was not her husband. With or without this bit of Scripture, no man has ever been able to give her an exact reply when she asks to know how many husbands a woman may have in her lifetime. God bade us to wax fruitful and multiply, she says, and that is the text that she wholeheartedly endorses. After all, great Old Testament figures, like Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon, enjoyed multiple wives at once. She admits that many great Fathers of the Church have proclaimed the importance of virginity, such as the Apostle Paul. But, she reasons, even if virginity is important, someone must be procreating so that virgins can be created. Leave virginity to the perfect, she says, and let the rest of us use our gifts as best we may—and her gift, doubtless, is her sexual power. She uses this power as an “instrument” to control her husbands.
At this point, the Pardoner interrupts. He is planning to marry soon and worries that his wife will control his body, as the Wife of Bath describes. The Wife of Bath tells him to have patience and to listen to the whole tale to see if it reveals the truth about marriage. Of her five husbands, three have been “good” and two have been “bad.” The first three were good, she admits, mostly because they were rich, old, and submissive. She laughs to recall the torments that she put these men through and recounts a typical conversation that she had with her older husbands. She would accuse her -husband of having an affair, launching into a tirade in which she would charge him with a bewildering array of accusations. If one of her husbands got drunk, she would claim he said that every wife is out to destroy her husband. He would then feel guilty and give her what she wanted. All of this, the Wife of Bath tells the rest of the pilgrims, was a pack of lies—her husbands never held these opinions, but she made these claims to give them grief. Worse, she would tease her husbands in bed, refusing to give them full satisfaction until they promised her money. She admits proudly to using her verbal and sexual power to bring her husbands to total submission.
In her lengthy Prologue, the Wife of Bath recites her autobiography, announcing in her very first word that “experience” will be her guide. Yet, despite her claim that experience is her sole authority, the Wife of Bath apparently feels the need to establish her authority in a more scholarly way. She imitates the ways of churchmen and scholars by backing up her claims with quotations from Scripture and works of antiquity. The Wife carelessly flings around references as textual evidence to buttress her argument, most of which don’t really correspond to her points. Her reference to Ptolemy’sAlmageste, for instance, is completely erroneous—the phrase she attributes to that book appears nowhere in the work. Although her many errors display her lack of real scholarship, they also convey Chaucer’s mockery of the churchmen present, who often misused Scripture to justify their devious actions.
The text of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue is based in the medieval genre of allegorical “confession.” In a morality play, a personified vice such as Gluttony or Lust “confesses” his or her sins to the audience in a life story. The Wife is exactly what the medieval Church saw as a “wicked woman,” and she is proud of it—from the very beginning, her speech has undertones of conflict with her patriarchal society. Because the statements that the Wife of Bath attributes to her husbands were taken from a number of satires published in Chaucer’s time, which half-comically portrayed women as unfaithful, superficial, evil creatures, always out to undermine their husbands, feminist critics have often tried to portray the Wife as one of the first feminist characters in literature.
This interpretation is weakened by the fact that the Wife of Bath herself conforms to a number of these misogynist and misogamist (antimarriage) stereotypes. For example, she describes herself as sexually voracious but at the same time as someone who only has sex to get money, thereby combining two contradictory stereotypes. She also describes how she dominated her husband, playing on a fear that was common to men, as the Pardoner’s nervous interjection reveals. Despite their contradictions, all of these ideas about women were used by men to support a hierarchy in which men dominated women.
he Wife of Bath’s Prologue (continued)
From the Wife of Bath’s description of her fourth husband through the end of her prologue Fragment 3, lines 452–856
The Wife of Bath begins her description of her two “bad” husbands. Her fourth husband, whom she married when still young, was a reveler, and he had a “paramour,” or mistress (454). Remembering her wild youth, she becomes wistful as she describes the dancing and singing in which she and her fourth husband used to indulge. Her nostalgia reminds her of how old she has become, but she says that she pays her loss of beauty no mind. She will try to be merry, for, though she has lost her “flour,” she will try to sell the “bran” that remains. Realizing that she has digressed, she returns to the story of her fourth husband. She confesses that she was his purgatory on Earth, always trying to make him jealous. He died while she was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Of her fifth husband, she has much more to say. She loved him, even though he treated her horribly and beat her. He was coy and flattering in bed, and always won her back. Women, the Wife says, always desire what is forbidden them, and run away from whatever pursues or is forced upon them. This husband was also different from the other four because she married him for love, not money. He was a poor ex-student who boarded with the Wife’s friend and confidante.
When she first met this fifth husband, Jankyn, she was still married to her fourth. While walking with him one day, she told him that she would marry him if she were widowed. She lied to him and told him he had enchanted her, and that she had dreamed that he would kill her as she slept, filling her bed with blood, which signifies gold. But, she confides to her listeners, all of this was false: she never had such a dream. She loses her place in the story momentarily, then resumes with her fourth husband’s funeral. She made a big show of crying, although, she admits, she actually cried very little since she already had a new husband lined up.
As she watched Jankyn carry her husband’s casket, she fell in love with him. He was only twenty and she forty, but she was always a lusty woman and thought she could handle his youth. But, she says, she came to regret the age difference, because he would not suffer her abuse like her past husbands and gave some of his own abuse in return. He had a “book of wicked wives” she recalls, called Valerie and Theofraste. This book contained the stories of the most deceitful wives in history. It began with Eve, who brought all mankind into sin by first taking the apple in the Garden of Eden; from there, it chronicled Delilah’s betrayal of Samson, Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon, and other famous stories. Jankyn would torment the Wife of Bath (whom we learn in line 804 is named Alisoun) by reading out of this book at night.
One evening, out of frustration, the Wife tears three pages out of the book and punches Jankyn in the face. Jankyn repays her by striking her on the head, which is the reason, she explains in line 636, that she is now deaf in one ear. She cries out that she wants to kiss him before she dies, but when he comes over, she hits him again. They finally manage a truce, in which he hands over all of his meager estate to her, and she acts kindly and loving.
Her tale of her marriages finished, the Wife announces that she will tell her story, eliciting laughter from the Friar, who exclaims, “This is a long preamble of a tale!” (831). The Summoner tells him to shut up, and they exchange some angry words. The Host quiets everybody down and allows the Wife of Bath to begin her story.
In her discussion of her fourth and fifth husbands, the Wife of Bath begins to let her true feelings show through her argumentative rhetoric. Her language becomes even less controlled, and she loses her place several times (at line 585, for instance), as she begins to react to her own story, allowing her words to affect her own train of thought. Her sensitivity about her age begins to show through, and, as she reveals psychological depth, she becomes a more realistic, sympathetic, and compelling character.
When the Wife of Bath describes how she fell in love with her fifth husband, despite her pragmatism, she reveals her softer side. She recognizes that he used the same tactics against her as she used against other men, but she cannot stop herself from desiring him. Jankyn even uses one of the satires against women to aggravate her, the kind of satire that the Wife mocked earlier in her Prologue. Despite all this, we can see that Jankyn, though the most aggravating of her husbands, is the only one that she admits she truly loved. Even as she brags about her shameless manipulation of her husbands and claims that her sexual powers can conquer anyone, she retains a deep fondness for the one man she could not control.
The Wife seems to enjoy the act of arguing more than the end of deriving an answer by logic. To explain why clerks (meaning church writers) treat wives so badly, for example, she employs three different arguments. First, she blames the entire religious establishment, claiming that church writings breed hostility toward wives because they were written by men (690–696). Then, she gives an astrological explanation, asserting that the children of Mercury (scholars) and of Venus (lovers) always contradict one another. A third reason she gives is that when clerks grow old, their impotence and decreased virility makes them hostile and slanderous toward wives (705–710).
Twice in her Prologue, the Wife calls attention to her habit of lying—“and al was fals,” she states (382, 582). These statements certainly highlight our awareness of the fact that she’s giving a performance, and they also put her entire life story in question. We are left wondering to what extent we should even believe the “experience” of the Wife of Bath, and whether she is not, in fact, a mean-spirited satire on Chaucer’s part, meant to represent the fickleness of women.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale
Fragment 3, lines 857–1264
In the days of King Arthur, the Wife of Bath begins, the isle of Britain was full of fairies and elves. Now, those creatures are gone because their spots have been taken by the friars and other mendicants that seem to fill every nook and cranny of the isle. And though the friars rape women, just as the incubi did in the days of the fairies, the friars only cause women dishonor—the incubi always got them pregnant.
In Arthur’s court, however, a young, lusty knight comes across a beautiful young maiden one day. Overcome by lust and his sense of his own power, he rapes her. The court is scandalized by the crime and decrees that the knight should be put to death by decapitation. However, Arthur’s queen and other ladies of the court intercede on his behalf and ask the king to give him one chance to save his own life. Arthur, wisely obedient to wifely counsel, grants their request. The queen presents the knight with the following challenge: if, within one year, he can discover what women want most in the world and report his findings back to the court, he will keep his life. If he cannot find the answer to the queen’s question, or if his answer is wrong, he will lose his head.
The knight sets forth in sorrow. He roams throughout the country, posing the question to every woman he meets. To the knight’s dismay, nearly every one of them answers differently. Some claim that women love money best, some honor, some jolliness, some looks, some sex, some remarriage, some flattery, and some say that women most want to be free to do as they wish. Finally, says the Wife, some say that women most want to be considered discreet and secretive, although she argues that such an answer is clearly untrue, since no woman can keep a secret. As proof, she retells Ovid’s story of Midas. Midas had two ass’s ears growing under his hair, which he concealed from everybody except his wife, whom he begged not to disclose his secret. She swore she would not, but the secret burned so much inside her that she ran down to a marsh and whispered her husband’s secret to the water. The Wife then says that if her listeners would like to hear how the tale ends, they should read Ovid.
She returns to her story of the knight. When his day of judgment draws near, the knight sorrowfully heads for home. As he rides near a forest, he sees a large group of women dancing and decides to approach them to ask his question. But as he approaches, the group vanishes, and all he can see is an ugly old woman. The woman asks if she can be of help, and the knight explains his predicament and promises to reward her if she can help him. The woman tells the knight that he must pledge himself to her in return for her help, and the knight, having no options left, gladly consents. She then guarantees that his life will be saved.
The knight and the old woman travel together to the court, where, in front of a large audience, the knight tells the queen the answer with which the old woman supplied him: what women most desire is to be in charge of their husbands and lovers. The women agree resoundingly that this is the answer, and the queen spares the knight’s life. The old hag comes forth and publicly asks the knight to marry her. The knight cries out in horror. He begs her to take his material possessions rather than his body, but she refuses to yield, and in the end he is forced to consent. The two are married in a small, private wedding and go to bed together the same night. Throughout the entire ordeal, the knight remains miserable.
While in bed, the loathsome hag asks the knight why he is so sad. He replies that he could hardly bear the shame of having such an ugly, lowborn wife. She does not take offense at the insult, but calmly asks him whether real “gentillesse,” or noble character, can be hereditary (1109). There have been sons of noble fathers, she argues, who were shameful and villainous, though they shared the same blood. Her family may be poor, but real poverty lies in covetousness, and real riches lie in having little and wanting nothing. She offers the knight a choice: either he can have her be ugly but loyal and good, or he can have her young and fair but also coquettish and unfaithful. The knight ponders in silence. Finally, he replies that he would rather trust her judgment, and he asks her to choose whatever she thinks best. Because the knight’s answer gave the woman what she most desired, the authority to choose for herself, she becomes both beautiful and good. The two have a long, happy marriage, and the woman becomes completely obedient to her husband. The Wife of Bath concludes with a plea that Jesus Christ send all women husbands who are young, meek, and fresh in bed, and the grace to outlive their husbands.
“Wommen desiren to have sovereyntee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above.”
The tale the Wife of Bath tells about the transformation of an old hag into a beautiful maid was quite well known in folk legend and poetry. One of Chaucer’s contemporaries, the poet John Gower, wrote a version of the same tale that was very popular in Chaucer’s time. But whereas the moral of the folk tale of the loathsome hag is that true beauty lies within, the Wife of Bath arrives at such a conclusion only incidentally. Her message is that, ugly or fair, women should be obeyed in all things by their husbands.
The old hag might be intended to represent the Wife of Bath herself, at least as she would like others to see her. Though the hag has aged, she is capable of displaying all of the vigor and inner beauty of her youth if the right man comes along, just as the Wife did with her fifth and favorite husband, the youthful Jankyn. Although the old hag becomes a beautiful young woman in response to the young knight’s well-timed response, it is unclear whether he truly had enough respect for the old woman that he allowed her to choose for herself, or whether he had simply learned how to supply her with the correct answer.
If we agree with the former, we may see the Wife as an idealistic character who believes that bad men can change. If we choose the latter, the Wife becomes a much more cynical character, inclined to mistrust all men. In the second interpretation, both transformations—the knight’s shallow change in behavior (but not in soul) and the hag’s transformation into the physical object of desires—are only skin deep. Perhaps she is giving him exactly what he deserves: superficiality.
The Wife begins her tale by depicting the golden age of King Arthur as one that was both more perilous and more full of opportunity for women. Every time a woman traveled alone, the Wife suggests, she was in danger of encountering an incubus, or an evil spirit who would seduce women (880). But the society is also highly matriarchal. After the knight commits a rape, the king hands him over to Arthur’s queen, who decides to send him on an educational quest. His education comes through women, and the queen’s challenge puts him in a situation where what is traditionally thought of as a shortcoming—a woman’s inability to keep a secret—is the only thing that can save him. The Wife’s digression about King Midas may also be slightly subversive. Instead of finishing the story, she directs the reader to Ovid. In Ovid’s version of the story, the only person who knows about Midas’s ass’s ears is not his wife but his barber. The wife could, therefore, be slyly trying to point out that men, too, are gossips.
The Pardoner’s Introduction, Prologue, and Tale
Fragment 6, lines 287–968
Summary: Introduction to the Pardoner’s Tale
The Host reacts to the Physician’s Tale, which has just been told. He is shocked at the death of the young Roman girl in the tale, and mourns the fact that her beauty ultimately caused the chain of events that led her father to kill her. Wanting to cheer up, the Host asks the Pardoner to tell the group a merrier, farcical tale. The Pardoner agrees, but will continue only after he has food and drink in his stomach. Other pilgrims interject that they would prefer to hear a moral story, and the Pardoner again agrees.
Summary: Prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale
My theme is alwey oon, and evere was—
Radix malorum est Cupiditas.
After getting a drink, the Pardoner begins his Prologue. He tells the company about his occupation—a combination of itinerant preaching and selling promises of salvation. His sermon topic always remains the same:Radix malorum est Cupiditas, or “greed is the root of all evil.” He gives a similar sermon to every congregation and then breaks out his bag of “relics”—which, he readily admits to the listening pilgrims, are fake. He will take a sheep’s bone and claim it has miraculous healing powers for all kinds of ailments. The parishioners always believe him and make their offerings to the relics, which the Pardoner quickly pockets.
The Pardoner admits that he preaches solely to get money, not to correct sin. He argues that many sermons are the product of evil intentions. By preaching, the Pardoner can get back at anyone who has offended him or his brethren. In his sermon, he always preaches about covetousness, the very vice that he himself is gripped by. His one and only interest is to fill his ever-deepening pockets. He would rather take the last penny from a widow and her starving family than give up his money, and the good cheeses, breads, and wines that such income brings him. Speaking of alcohol, he notes, he has now finished his drink of “corny ale” and is ready to begin his tale.
Summary: The Pardoner’s Tale
The Pardoner describes a group of young Flemish people who spend their time drinking and reveling, indulging in all forms of excess. After commenting on their lifestyle of debauchery, the Pardoner enters into a tirade against the vices that they practice. First and foremost is gluttony, which he identifies as the sin that first caused the fall of mankind in Eden. Next, he attacks drunkenness, which makes a man seem mad and witless. Next is gambling, the temptation that ruins men of power and wealth. Finally, he denounces swearing. He argues that it so offends God that he forbade swearing in the Second Commandment—placing it higher up on the list than homicide. After almost two hundred lines of sermonizing, the Pardoner finally returns to his story of the lecherous Flemish youngsters.
As three of these rioters sit drinking, they hear a funeral knell. One of the revelers’ servants tells the group that an old friend of theirs was slain that very night by a mysterious figure named Death. The rioters are outraged and, in their drunkenness, decide to find and kill Death to avenge their friend. Traveling down the road, they meet an old man who appears sorrowful. He says his sorrow stems from old age—he has been waiting for Death to come and take him for some time, and he has wandered all over the world. The youths, hearing the name of Death, demand to know where they can find him. The old man directs them into a grove, where he says he just left Death under an oak tree. The rioters rush to the tree, underneath which they find not Death but eight bushels of gold coins with no owner in sight.
At first, they are speechless, but, then, the slyest of the three reminds them that if they carry the gold into town in daylight, they will be taken for thieves. They must transport the gold under cover of night, and so someone must run into town to fetch bread and wine in the meantime. They draw lots, and the youngest of the three loses and runs off toward town. As soon as he is gone, the sly plotter turns to his friend and divulges his plan: when their friend returns from town, they will kill him and therefore receive greater shares of the wealth. The second rioter agrees, and they prepare their trap. Back in town, the youngest vagrant is having similar thoughts. He could easily be the richest man in town, he realizes, if he could have all the gold to himself. He goes to the apothecary and buys the strongest poison available, then puts the poison into two bottles of wine, leaving a third bottle pure for himself. He returns to the tree, but the other two rioters leap out and kill him.
They sit down to drink their friend’s wine and celebrate, but each happens to pick up a poisoned bottle. Within minutes, they lie dead next to their friend. Thus, concludes the Pardoner, all must beware the sin of avarice, which can only bring treachery and death. He realizes that he has forgotten something: he has relics and pardons in his bag. According to his custom, he tells the pilgrims the value of his relics and asks for contributions—even though he has just told them the relics are fake. He offers the Host the first chance to come forth and kiss the relics, since the Host is clearly the most enveloped in sin (942). The Host is outraged and proposes to make a relic out of the Pardoner’s genitals, but the Knight calms everybody down. The Host and Pardoner kiss and make up, and all have a good laugh as they continue on their way.
We know from the General Prologue that the Pardoner is as corrupt as others in his profession, but his frankness about his own hypocrisy is nevertheless shocking. He bluntly accuses himself of fraud, avarice, and gluttony—the very things he preaches against. And yet, rather than expressing any sort of remorse with his confession, he takes a perverse pride in the depth of his corruption. The Pardoner’s earnestness in portraying himself as totally amoral seems almost too extreme to be accurate. His boasts about his corruption may represent his attempt to cover up his doubts or anxieties about the life of crime (in the name of religion) that he has adopted. It is possible to argue that the Pardoner sacrifices his own spiritual good to cure the sins of others. Yet he doesn’t seem to really consider his spiritual corruption a real sacrifice, since he loves the money and the comforts it brings him. Either way, he quickly covers up his statement, which shows at least a flicker of interest in the good of other people, with a renewed proclamation of his own selfishness: “But that is nat my principal entente; / I preche nothyng but for coveitise” (432–433).
The Pardoner’s Tale is an example, a type of story often used by preachers to emphasize a moral point to their audience. The Pardoner has told us in his Prologue that his main theme—“Greed is the root of all evil”—never changes. We can assume that the Pardoner is well practiced in the art of telling this specific tale, and he even inserts some of his sermon into it. The Pardoner’s point is quite obvious—his tale shows the disastrous effects of greed. The hypocrisy he has described in his Prologue becomes evident in his tale, as all the vices he lists in his diatribe at the beginning—gluttony, drunkenness, gambling, and swearing—are faults that he himself has either displayed to the other pilgrims or proudly claimed to possess. Ridiculously, when he has finished his condemnation of swearing, he begins the tale swearing his own oath: “Now, for the love of Crist, that for us dyde . . . now wol I telle forth my tale” (658–660). Such an overtly hypocritical act is perfectly consistent with the character that the Pardoner has presented to us, and an example of Chaucer’s typically wry comedy.
As if on automatic pilot, the Pardoner completes his tale just as he would when preaching in the villages, by displaying his false relics and asking for contributions. His act is intriguing, for he makes no acknowledgment of his hypocrisy. Only a few lines before, in his Prologue, he exposed to the entire company the fraudulence of his whole operation. It is inconceivable that he would now expect to get contributions from his fellow travelers—so why does he ask for them? Perhaps, like a professional actor, the Pardoner enjoys the challenge of telling his tale so convincingly that he tricks his audience into belief, even after he has explained to them his corrupt nature. Or perhaps he takes delight in showing the audience how his routine works, as an actor might enjoy showing people backstage. In any case, the Pardoner’s attempt to sell pardons to the pilgrims is a source of rancor for the Host, because, in trying to swindle the other pilgrims, the Pardoner has violated the Host’s notion of fellowship on which the storytelling pilgrimage is based
The Pardoner’s Introduction, Prologue, and Tale
Important Quotations Explained
The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
Fragment 7, lines 2768–3446
Summary: The Prologue of the Nun’s Priest
After the Monk has told his tale, the Knight pleads that no more tragedies be told. He asks that someone tell a tale that is the opposite of tragedy, one that narrates the extreme good fortune of someone previously brought low. The Host picks the Nun’s Priest, the priest traveling with the Prioress and her nun, and demands that he tell a tale that will gladden the hearts of the company members. The Nun’s Priest readily agrees, and begins his tale.
Summary: The Tale of the Nun’s Priest
A poor, elderly widow lives a simple life in a cottage with her two daughters. Her few possessions include three sows, three cows, a sheep, and some chickens. One chicken, her rooster, is named Chanticleer, which in French means “sings clearly.” True to his name, Chanticleer’s “cock-a-doodle-doo” makes him the master of all roosters. He crows the hour more accurately than any church clock. His crest is redder than fine coral, his beak is black as jet, his nails whiter than lilies, and his feathers shine like burnished gold. Understandably, such an attractive cock would have to be the Don Juan of the barnyard. Chanticleer has many hen-wives, but he loves most truly a hen named Pertelote. She is as lovely as Chanticleer is magnificent.
As Chanticleer, Pertelote, and all of Chanticleer’s ancillary hen-wives are roosting one night, Chanticleer has a terrible nightmare about an orange houndlike beast who threatens to kill him while he is in the yard. Fearless Pertelote berates him for letting a dream get the better of him. She believes the dream to be the result of some physical malady, and she promises him that she will find some purgative herbs. She urges him once more not to dread something as fleeting and illusory as a dream. In order to convince her that his dream was important, he tells the stories of men who dreamed of murder and then discovered it. His point in telling these stories is to prove to Pertelote that “Mordre will out” (3052)—murder will reveal itself—even and especially in dreams. Chanticleer cites textual examples of famous dream interpretations to further support his thesis that dreams are portentous. He then praises Pertelote’s beauty and grace, and the aroused hero and heroine make love in barnyard fashion: “He fethered Pertelote twenty tyme, / And trad hire eke as ofte, er it was pryme [he clasped Pertelote with his wings twenty times, and copulated with her as often, before it was 6 a.m.” (3177–3178).
One day in May, Chanticleer has just declared his perfect happiness when a wave of sadness passes over him. That very night, a hungry fox stalks Chanticleer and his wives, watching their every move. The next day, Chanticleer notices the fox while watching a butterfly, and the fox confronts him with dissimulating courtesy, telling the rooster not to be afraid. Chanticleer relishes the fox’s flattery of his singing. He beats his wings with pride, stands on his toes, stretches his neck, closes his eyes, and crows loudly. The fox reaches out and grabs Chanticleer by the throat, and then slinks away with him back toward the woods. No one is around to witness what has happened. Once Pertelote finds out what has happened, she burns her feathers with grief, and a great wail arises from the henhouse.
The widow and her daughters hear the screeching and spy the fox running away with the rooster. The dogs follow, and pretty soon the whole barnyard joins in the hullabaloo. Chanticleer very cleverly suggests that the fox turn and boast to his pursuers. The fox opens his mouth to do so, and Chanticleer flies out of the fox’s mouth and into a high tree. The fox tries to flatter the bird into coming down, but Chanticleer has learned his lesson. He tells the fox that flattery will work for him no more. The moral of the story, concludes the Nun’s Priest, is never to trust a flatterer.
Summary: The Epilogue to the Nun’s Priest’s Tale
The Host tells the Nun’s Priest that he would have been an excellent rooster—for if he has as much courage as he has strength, he would need hens. The Host points out the Nun’s Priest’s strong muscles, his great neck, and his large breast, and compares him to a sparrow-hawk. He merrily wishes the Nun’s Priest good luck.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a fable, a simple tale about animals that concludes with a moral lesson. Stylistically, however, the tale is much more complex than its simple plot would suggest. Into the fable framework, the Nun’s Priest brings parodies of epic poetry, medieval scholarship, and courtly romance. Most critics are divided about whether to interpret this story as a parody or as an allegory. If viewed as a parody, the story is an ironic and humorous retelling of the fable of the fox and the rooster in the guise of, alternately, a courtly romance and a Homeric epic. It is hilariously done, since into the squawkings and struttings of poultry life, Chaucer transposes scenes of a hero’s dreaming of death and courting his lady love, in a manner that imitates the overblown, descriptive style of romances. For example, the rooster’s plumage is described as shining like burnished gold. He also parodies epic poetry by utilizing apostrophes, or formal, imploring addresses: “O false mordrour, lurkynge in thy den!” (3226), and “O Chauntecleer, acursed be that morwe / That thou into the yerd flaugh fro the bemes!” (3230–3231). If we read the story as an allegory, Chanticleer’s story is a tale of how we are all easily swayed by the smooth, flattering tongue of the devil, represented by the fox. Other scholars have read the tale as the story of Adam and Eve’s (and consequently all humankind’s) fall from grace told through the veil of a fable.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is the only one of all the tales to feature a specific reference to an actual late-fourteenth-century event. This reference occurs when the widow and her daughters begin to chase the fox, and the whole barnyard screeches and bellows, joining in the fray. The narrator notes that not even the crew of Jack Straw, the reputed leader of the English peasants’ rebellion in 1381, made half as much noise as did this barnyard cacophony: “Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee / Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille / Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille, /As thilke day was maad upon the fox” (3394–3397). This first and only contemporary reference in The Canterbury Tales dates at least the completion of the tale of Chanticleer to the 1380s, a time of great civil unrest and class turmoil.