The canterbury tales, p.112
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.112

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  1 Titus Livius: See Headnote.

  14 The story of the sculptor Pygmalion is told in Ovid, Metamorphoses X.243–97, to which a marginal gloss in El and Hg refers. Pygmalion carved the statue of a woman of such beauty that he fell in love with it; Venus answered his wishes by bringing it to life.

  16 The craftsman Apelles was famous for the marvellous tomb he made for the emperor Darius; a marginal gloss in El and Hg refers to the description of this tomb in the Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon (cf. WB 498–9 and n.). The marginal gloss also cites Cicero for information on ‘Zanzis’, better known as Zeuxis, a Greek painter; the reference is probably to De inventione II.i.1–3, where Cicero tells a story about Zeuxis painting a picture of Helen, as an example of perfect female beauty, by assembling the five most beautiful women he could find and combining their best features, ‘because in no single case has Nature made anything perfect and finished in every part’. Cicero also mentions Zeuxis in conjunction with Apelles in De oratore III.vii.26. Almost certainly, however, Chaucer’s immediate source was RR 16135–80 (tr. Horgan, p. 250), where Pygmalion, Apelles and Zeuxis are listed as examples of great sculptors and painters who would nevertheless be unequal to the task of depicting the beauty of the goddess Nature; only God could do it. Here it is Nature herself who outdoes the human craftsmen in making a beautiful woman.

  20 vicaire-general: The idea that Nature is God’s deputy comes from Alan of Lille, De Planctu Naturae, pr. 3.128–39, pr. 4.224–8, pr. 8.187–8 (ed. Häring, pp. 829, 840, 871; tr. Sheridan, pp. 124, 146, 206). It is reproduced by Jean de Meun in RR (16751–4, 19475–96, tr. Horgan, pp. 259, 301). Cf. PF 379–81. On the development of this conception from classical literature onwards, see G. D. Economou, The Goddess Natura in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, MA, 1972).

  23 Under the moone: In the cosmological scheme which the Middle Ages inherited from Aristotle, the sublunary world is composed of the four elements (air, earth, fire, water), whose constant counteracting force causes physical bodies to decay and be regenerated (‘wane and waxe’). Above the moon is the realm of pure aether, which is not subject to natural corruption. See Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio I.xi.6 and xxi.33–4 (tr. Stahl, pp. 131, 180–81), and Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things VIII.5.

  37 Phebus: See n. to Mch 2220.

  41–69 This description of Virginia’s virtues has some close parallels in the treatise of St Ambrose On Virgins (De virginibus); see SA, pp. 407–8.

  49 Pallas is a name for Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

  58–60 Bacchus is the god of wine, Venus the goddess of love. The idea that wine-drinking inflames sexual desire was commonplace; see n. to WB 464–8 for some examples.

  79 For this notion that elderly women are expert in ‘the olde daunce’ of love, see n. to GP 476.

  83–5 The idea that a former poacher makes the best gamekeeper is still proverbial; see Whiting T76; Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs3, p. 592, s.v. Old poacher.

  101–2 This is a gentler version of the proverb ‘Under a weak shepherd, the wolf shits wool’; see Whiting S241–2, Walther 30541–2, Singer, I, 48, and cf. PPl C IX.264–6.

  107–9 Cf. 2 Corinthians 3:2–3.

  114–17 ‘The Doctour’ is St Augustine, as a Latin gloss in El and Hg makes clear. Augustine defines envy as hatred of someone else’s good fortune (Enarrationes in Psalmos CIV.17 (CCSL 40, p. 1545, line 18); Sermo CCCLIII.1 (PL 39, col. 1561); De Genesi ad litteram XI.14 (PL 34, col. 436)). The extension of this definition to include rejoicing at another’s misfortune was traditional; see C. A. Owen, Jr, MLN, 71 (1956), 84–7, at p. 86, and cf. Pars 484 and n.

  119 Chaucer is the only writer to mention Virginia’s mother at this point, and it is notable that she plays no role in the further events of the story.

  135 Foremost among these ‘freendes’, in Livy’s account (and in Boccaccio’s), is Virginia’s betrothed, Icilius, who makes valiant attempts to defend her against the false legal claim instigated by Apius. (Icilius is mentioned by Gower but plays no part in the events of the tale.) Chaucer omits him altogether (as does the Romance of the Rose), and thus makes Virginia’s commitment to her virginity more absolute.

  162 A consistory was more usually the name for an ecclesiastical court, administering canon law (see n. to Fri 1283–4), but the term was also applied to secular tribunals (see MED, s.v. con-sistorie).

  166 A bill was a legal document petitioning for the remedy of an injustice (Hornsby, pp. 155–7).

  183 thral: In Livy’s story, Claudius claims that Virginia is his slave, born in his house (Ab urbe condita III.44). Except for his opening reference to Livy, Chaucer leaves the time and place of his story vague (as does the Romance of the Rose), while introducing details which have the effect of assimilating it to his own culture – e.g., calling Virginius a knight (Phys 2, and passim), and having Virginia refer to a biblical story (Phys 240), and to a single (and apparently Judeo-Christian) God (Phys 248–50). In this context, Claudius would be claiming that she is a serf, bound to service as a member of his household.

  211 The line recalls Simeon’s prophecy of Mary’s grief at the Cruci-fixion (as it was interpreted): ‘a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also’ (Luke 2:35). Seen in the context of the religious typology that permeates this tale (see n. to Phys 240, and Mann, Feminizing Chaucer, p. 112), Virginius’s grief unites Mary’s suffering with the pity of the divine Father sacrificing his Son. Cf. ML 845–7 and n.

  225 Cf. RR 5605–7: ‘in love rather than in hate he instantly cut off the head of his beautiful daughter Virginia’ (tr. Horgan, p. 86).

  226 In Livy’s account, Virginius kills his daughter by taking her to the shops near the shrine of Cloacina, seizing a butcher’s knife and stabbing her to the heart (Ab urbe condita III.48); Gower and Boccaccio follow Livy in this. In the Romance of the Rose, as in Chaucer, Virginius cuts off her head. Beheading was a characteristic manner of dispatching virgin martyrs (cf. SNT), and this mode of death thus accords with Virginia’s saint-like quality. In none of the other versions is Virginia given any say in her own death; only in Chaucer does her father tell her what he proposes to do, and receive her acquiescence in it. In Livy and Gower, Virginia’s chastity seems to be important to her male relatives for the sake of their own honour, rather than in relation to her own personal integrity (see the speech of Icilius in Livy, III.45, and of Virginius in Gower, CA VII.5247–52). Chaucer is the only writer to give us Virginia’s point of view.

  240 Jepte: A Latin gloss in El and Hg refers to the biblical source of the story of Jephthah, Judges 11. As leader of the Israelite army, which was fighting against the Ammonites, Jephthah vowed that if God gave him victory, he would sacrifice to him whatever first came out of his house to meet him on his return (11:30–31). This turned out to be his daughter. Like Virginia, she acquiesced in her own death, but asked for two months’ grace to go to the mountains with her companions and lament her virginity before he fulfilled his vow. (11:36–40). For medieval poetic developments of the lament of Jephthah’s daughter, see the essay by P. Dronke and M. Alexiou, reprinted in P. Dronke, Intellectuals and Poets in Medieval Europe (Rome, 1992), pp. 345–88.

  Although medieval writers often condemned Jephthah’s rashness in making his vow and stubbornness in carrying it out (see Dante, Paradiso V.65–72, and R. L. Hoffman, ChauR, 2 (1967), 20–31, at pp. 25–6), St Paul lists him among the Old Testament figures notable for their faith (Hebrews 11:32), and (perhaps as a result) the story was also often interpreted as a prefiguration of Christ’s sacrifice of his own flesh to save mankind (see Hoffman, p. 29). In this respect the story resembles Abraham’s (unfulfilled) sacrifice of his son Isaac (also cited by St Paul in Hebrews 11), to which the Jephthah story is compared in Peter Abelard’s poetic Planctus (‘lament’) for Jephthah’s daughter (Dronke and Alexiou, p. 381).

  250 Cf. Christ’s prayer to God before his crucifixion: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless
, not my will, but thine, be done’ (Luke 22:42; cf. Matthew 26:39, 42).

  275–6 There has been no previous mention of others involved in Apius’s deception, and their appearance here comes as something of a surprise, nor is it immediately clear why they should receive worse punishment than Claudius. The corresponding passage of the Romance of the Rose (5627–8, tr. Horgan, p. 87) makes clear that they were the witnesses called to support Claudius’s claim, whose role is implied in Phys 169.

  286 Proverbial; see Whiting S335, and cf. Pars 93.


  295 The gifts of Nature are one’s bodily and mental properties; the gifts of Fortune are external goods, such as wealth, honours, comforts, and so on. See Patch, Goddess Fortuna, pp. 65–6, 75–6, and cf. Pars 450 and n.

  296 At this point, Riverside and some other modern editions print the following couplet as lines 297–8: ‘Hire beautee was hire deth, I dar wel sayn. | Allas, so pitously as she was slayn!’ These lines are not in El or Hg; they appear in a number of manuscripts along with a series of other variant readings in the link which appear to represent scribal rewriting (though the motive for it is unclear). See Manly and Rickert IV, 490–92 (where, however, it is assumed that the variant version is an early draft by Chaucer); Riverside, p. 1130; Hanna, Pursuing History, p. 151.

  305 The inspection of a patient’s urine played a central role in diagnosis in medieval medicine, and doctors were often depicted holding glass urinals (see Grant, Source Book, pp. 748–52; Rawcliffe, Medicine, pp. 46–52, and accompanying illustrations).

  306 galiones: The ME word galien is a form of Galen, the name of the great medical authority (see n. to GP 429–34); it was used to refer to various medical preparations (see MED s.v. Galien). Apparently by analogy with ‘ipocras’, a drink of wine and spices whose name recalls another great medical authority, Hippocrates, it here appears to denote a medical drink. See Elliott, p. 308.

  310 Seint Ronian: The Host probably means St Ronan. There were several saints of this name; see Farmer, Dictionary of Saints, s.v.

  313 cardinacle: A nonce-word. The Host seems to have confused ‘cardiacle’, meaning ‘palpitations’, with ‘cardinal’.

  314 By corpus bones: Another of the Host’s confused oaths, half Latin (corpus Domini, ‘the Lord’s body’) and half English (‘Christ’s bones’, ‘God’s bones’). He uses it again at Mk 1906.

  320 The Pardoner picks up the saint’s name by which the Host has just sworn, and mangles it still further (see Pard 310 and n.).


  Like the Wife of Bath and the Canon’s Yeoman, the Pardoner prefaces his tale with a long account of his life. As a paradoxically honest confession of trickery and deception, the Pardoner’s Prologue resembles the self-description of False Seeming (Faus Semblant) in the Romance of the Rose (10973–11950, tr. Horgan, pp. 169–84; see also SA2 I, 270–77, and Kolve and Olson, pp. 410–15), but the content of his confession seems to have been largely Chaucer’s own invention (see, however, n. to Pard 377–8).

  Rubric Radix malorum …: 1 Timothy 6:10. Cf. Mel 1130, 1840 and Pars 739.

  329 preche: Strictly speaking, pardoners were permitted only to expound the nature of their pardons, and not to preach, but such restrictions were frequently ignored. See A. Kellogg and L. A. Haselmayer, in Kellogg, Chaucer, Langland, pp. 212–44.

  336–7 Papal documents were known as bulls because of the leaden seal (Latin bulla) which authenticated them. The Pardoner also displays a document from the bishop (‘Oure lige lord’), authorizing him to collect money in return for the absolution offered by his pardons. (Cf. PPl Prol.68–73.) It is a ‘patente’ – that is, a document left open (Latin patens) for all to read, with the seal hanging from the bottom, as opposed to private documents (‘letters close’) which were folded up and sealed shut so that they could be read only by the person to whom they were addressed (see OED s.v. Patent).

  347–51 On the Pardoner’s false relics, see n. to GP 694–700.

  350–51 In his note on this line, Skeat suggested that the ‘holy Jew’ was Jacob, who used stripped tree-branches to make his sheep increase in number (Genesis 30); however, if the Pardoner was referring to Jacob there seems to be no reason why he should not have said so. Relics of Old Testament figures were revered along with Christian ones (L. J. Henkin, MLN, 55 (1940), 254–9, at p. 258), but this does not, of course, apply to their sheep. The connection seems to be with the use of a sheep’s shoulder-bone in magic; see Pars 603 and n.

  377–88 For parallels in medieval literature to this effective means of ensuring that everyone will be keen to make an offering, see SA, pp. 411–14, and A. C. Friend, JEGP, 53 (1954), 383–8, at p. 384.

  390 The mark was not a coin but a unit of account, which had different values in different parts of Europe. In England and Scotland, it was equal to 13s 4d (). See P. Spufford, Money and its Use in Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 1988), p. 223.

  407–8 Cf. RR 5083–8: ‘An evil intention may well produce a good sermon, which, although worth nothing to the preacher, may bring salvation to others who learn a good lesson from it while he is so filled with vainglory’ (tr. Horgan, p. 78).

  429–32 Compare the passage from RR quoted in the preceding note.

  444–7 The Pardoner refuses to imitate the apostles by earning his living through manual labour instead of begging. The apostle he seems to have particularly in mind is St Paul, whose injunction to ‘work with your own hands … that you want nothing of any other man’s’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11) is cited by False Seeming in his discussion of the ethics of begging (RR 11357–8, tr. Horgan, p. 175; see Headnote to PardPr). According to Langland (PPl XV.290), St Paul put his preaching into practice by making baskets for a living, although according to the Bible (Acts 18:3) he was a tent-maker.

  A. Williams (Mediaeval Studies in Honor of Urban TignerHolmes, Jr., ed. J. Mahoney and J. E. Keller (Chapel Hill, NC, 1965), pp. 197–207, at pp. 204–5) and J. V. Fleming (Christianity and Literature, 28.4 (1979), 19–26, at p. 22) compare a passage from St Jerome (PL 29, col. 61), in which he vituperates against those who criticize him for not earning his bread by manual labour, such as basket-weaving, rather than working on the Bible; this text was cited in defence of mendicant poverty by (e.g.) St Bonaventure and Richard of Maidstone. Jerome does not, however, mention the apostles, and he is rejecting manual labour, not recommending ‘ascetic industry’, as Fleming implies. Chaucer’s lines may be intended to set the Pardoner in a parodic relation to the debate over mendicant poverty: he rejects unprofitable begging and ‘wilful poverty’, not for the sake of earning his bread by labour, but for the sake of earning a rich living from his preaching.


  The Pardoner’s Tale is presented as a sermon, in which the story functions as an exemplum illustrating the main theme of avarice. It does not conform to the strict organization characteristic of scholastic sermons, and is probably to be taken only as a general approximation to the more colourful type of preaching addressed to popular audiences, in which exempla would figure largely (see A. J. Fletcher, SAC, 11 (1989), 15–35). To reinforce the impression of a sermon style, Chaucer makes heavy use of rhetorical elaborations, for which (as elsewhere in CT: see Headnotes to MLT and WBPr) he draws on Jerome, Against Jovinian, and Innocent III, De Miseria Condicionis Humane.

  The narrative core of the tale, the story of the three young men who find a heap of gold and treacherously slay each other in an attempt to reduce the number of shares in it, was a widespread tale in the Middle Ages, in oriental as well as western versions (SA2 I, 279–81, 287–313). In a number of these versions, the young men are told about the gold by a hermit who identifies it with death (see n. to Pard 760–65). In Chaucer’s version, the hermit is replaced by a sinister Old Man, who is not fleeing but seeking death as a relief from his ills (see n. to Pard 728–38). Chaucer makes this notion of ‘seeking death’ the central motif of his story by adding the preface in which the three
‘riotoures’ swear to seek out Death and slay him. This linguistic transformation from abstract noun to personified concretion climaxes in a grim parody of biblical paradox as they declare that ‘death shall be dead’ (see n. to Pard 710). These shifts and paradoxes highlight the autonomous powers of language, and so link the central narrative with the Pardoner’s virtuoso display of rhetoric and its powers. The sombre mood of the tale is increased by its setting in the context of plague, where death is a universal presence (see n. to Pard 679).

  463 Flaundres: In Chaucer’s day, Flanders was a wealthy country with a thriving urban culture. It was easily accessible by sea from south-east England, with which it had many trading and cultural contacts. See D. Wallace, SAC, 19 (1997), 63–91. Chaucer probably chose it as the setting for PardT because of the reputation for heavy drinking enjoyed by its inhabitants, but it plays no specific role in the rest of the story.

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