The canterbury tales, p.116
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.116

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  Although a feast in honour of Hugh was celebrated in the diocese of Lincoln, he was never officially canonized. Chaucer’s wife Philippa was admitted to the fraternity of Lincoln cathedral on 19 February 1386 (Life-Records, pp. 91–3), and it may have been through this connection that Chaucer learned of the story. King Richard II and Queen Anne were likewise enrolled in the cathedral confraternity on 26 March 1387, and S. Ferris has argued that the Prioress’s Tale was written to be recited on this occasion (ChauR, 15 (1981), 295–321).


  700–704 Apparently the Host means that Chaucer has an ample waist-line. His description of Chaucer’s appearance can be compared with near-contemporary portraits of the poet. Beginning with the miniature in El (which depicts each pilgrim-teller at the beginning of his or her tale), there is a tradition of Chaucer portraiture ‘remarkable both for the early date at which it became established and for the exceptional attention that is paid to lifelikeness of representation’ (Pearsall, Life, p. 285; see pp. 285–305 for a full discussion of Chaucer portraits and reproductions of the most important of them). The precise visual effect indicated by ‘elvissh’ is not clear.


  The first of the two tales that Chaucer tells is a parody of ME popular romances. He imitates their narrative motifs, metre, rhyme and characteristic vocabulary. Examples of the kind of romance that he had in mind are given in lines 897–900 (see n., with details of editions). Three of those named are found together in the Auchinleck MS, a large literary miscellany which was put together in the second quarter of the fourteenth century; Loomis suggests that Chaucer might have known this very manuscript; see L. H. Loomis, pp. 111–28 in Essays and Studies in Honor of Carleton Brown, ed. P. W. L[ong] (New York, 1940). Loomis demonstrates numerous detailed parallels between the phraseology of the tail-rhyme version of Guy of Warwick, uniquely preserved in the Auchinleck MS, and Chaucer’s parody (ibid.). Many other parallels, culled from a wide range of romances, were presented by Loomis in SA, pp. 486–559; see also SA2II. They illustrate not only the conventional phraseology of the romances, but also the conventional nature of their narrative components. The arming of the hero, the combat with a giant, the encounter with an elf-queen, are examples of the traditional elements that Chaucer incorporates into Thopas, while stretching the episodic structure of the typical romance to the point of total incoherence.

  Chaucer imitates the vocabulary of popular romance by introducing words and expressions not found elsewhere in his works: listeth (see 712, 833, and n. to Th 712–13), spray (770), downe (796), murye men (839), dappel gray (884), love-drury (895), auntrous (909), worly (917 and n.). On the high proportion of ‘nonce words’ in Thopas, see W. Scheps, NM, 80 (1979), 69–77. A small group of words in Thopas are shared with the Miller’s Tale, where they seem to represent low-life attempts at romance phraseology: gent (715, Mil 3234), rode (727, Mil 3317), love-longinge (772, Mil 3349); cf. E. T. Donaldson, Speaking of Chaucer (London, 1970), pp. 16–29. Lemman (788), which Chaucer uses frequently in the Miller’s Tale (3278, 3280, 3700, 3705, 3719, 3726) and the Reeve’s Tale (4240, 4247), and calls a ‘knavissh’ word in the Manciple’s Tale (204–5), may give the same effect. Chaucer also allows himself licences with rhyme which depart from his normal practice, such as identical rhyme (contree at 718 and 722, goon at 800 and 805), and the suppression of final -e on words which normally carry it, so that they can rhyme with words that lack it (entent at 712, plas instead of place at 781, gras instead of grace at 831, chivalry at 902, well at 915). Occasionally the reverse occurs: childe at 806 has an -e that it would not normally carry. Finally, Chaucer pads out his verse with the aid of the kind of line-fillers characteristic of romance, whose only function is to provide a rhyme: e.g., verrayment (713), in the place (720), in good certein (728), it is no nay (766), In towne (793), By dale and eek by downe (796), In londe (887).

  It is the verse-form, however, which is the greatest contributor to the comic effect of Thopas. It is written in a version of the stanza-form known as tail-rhyme. The most usual form of stanza has ‘twelve lines divided into four groups of three, each group containing, as a rule, a couplet with four accents [stresses] to the line, and a concluding line, a “tail”, with three accents’ (A. McI. Trounce, MÆ, 1 (1932), 87–108, at p. 87; for a full survey of ME tail-rhyme romances, see also the subsequent articles by the same author in MÆ, 1 (1932), 168–82, MÆ, 2 (1933), 34–57, 189–98, and MÆ, 3 (1934), 30–50). The stanza-form adopted in Thopas has only six lines, rhyming aabaab or aabccb. A similar stanza-form (in which, however, the third and sixth lines have only two stresses) is used in lines 1–474 of Bevis of Hampton in the Auchinleck MS. Other tail-rhyme romances in Auchinleck include The King of Tars, Amis and Amiloun, Roland and Vernagu, and Horn Child; see pp. xix–xxiv in the Introduction by D. Pearsall and I. C. Cunningham to the facsimile edition, The Auchinleck Manuscript, National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS.19.2.1 (London, 1977).

  The stanza-form in Thopas is sometimes longer and the rhyme-scheme more complicated (e.g., 797–826, 881–90); in such cases a ‘bob’ of two syllables is introduced to rhyme with one of the three-stress lines. A number of MSS (including El and Hg) draw attention to the verse-form by bracketing the four-stress lines so as to indicate the links created by rhyme, and writing the three-stress lines in a separate column to the right of them, bracketed in the same way. The bob, if there is one, is placed in yet another column to the right of the second one (see J. Tschann, ChauR, 20 (1985), 1–13). Chaucer brilliantly orchestrates the apparently meaningless variations in line-length, and the prominence given to the rhymes by the brevity of the lines, to create the comic bathos of Thopas. Commenting on the ‘extraordinary variety’ of the rhyme-schemes in the five stanzas containing a bob, E. G. Stanley says that ‘No writer of Middle English stanzaic verse shows such versatile technical mastery as Chaucer does in the Prologue and Tale of Sir Thopas – to demonstrate his incompetence’ (NM, 73 (1972), 417–26, at p. 426).

  712–13 The appeal for the audience’s attention, and the introduction of the hero with the promise ‘I wol [yow] telle’, are characteristic of the minstrel poetry that Chaucer is parodying (see SA, pp. 496–503 for numerous examples). J. A. Burrow points out that Chaucer’s usual word for ‘listen’ is ‘hark/hearken’, and he does not use ‘list’ anywhere else in his work; he suggests that the word (and its alliterative pairing with lordes/lordinges’) is part of Chaucer’s imitation of romance diction (Essays on Medieval Literature (Oxford, 1984), pp. 60–78, at pp. 66–9).

  717 Sire Thopas: Chaucer does not use the title ‘Sir’ of any other knight in his works, but it occurs twelve times in Th; it is used eight times of Thopas himself, once of the giant (Th 808), and three times of other knights (Th 899–900, 916). Burrow suggests that the collocation ‘sir + knight’s name’ ‘is to be numbered among those non-U expressions which Chaucer confines to burlesque contexts’ (Essays on Medieval Literature, p. 70).

  719–20 Flaundres … Popering: Poperinge is a town in Flanders, noted for its cloth. The name is doubtless chosen for its comic sound, but there may also be an allusion to ‘the poor reputation that the Flemish had for chivalric and military prowess’ (V. J. Scattergood, in Court and Poet, ed. G. S. Burgess (Liverpool, 1981), pp. 287–96, at p. 293). The burlesque French parody that J. A. Burrow compares with Th (Yearbook of English Studies, 14 (1984), 44–55) likewise makes fun of Flemish chivalry.

  724–35 The terms in which Sir Thopas is described have often been seen as more appropriate for women and children than for a male hero (SA, p. 504, and see n. to 725–7 in Riverside). But the beauty of the young hero Horn is praised in very similar terms: ‘He was bright so the glas, | He was whit so the flur, | Rose red was his colour’ (14–16; see SA, p. 505). The AN Romance of Horn is even more insistent on the hero’s dazzling beauty: ‘His hair is long and blonde, like no one else’s; his eyes are large, bright, soft and smiling, for looking at women; his nose and mouth wel
l-shaped, for bestowing sweet kisses; his face is open and his expression laughing, his hands white and his arms long, for embracing women; his body shapely and slim, quite flawless; straight legs, fine feet, in well-chosen hose’ (ed. M. K. Pope, vol. I (Oxford, 1955), lines 1255–61; tr. J. Weiss in The Birth of Romance: An Anthology (London, 1992), pp. 29–30). Though such descriptions are seriously meant, Chaucer may well be implying effeminacy in Sir Thopas by offering his good looks as evidence of his being ‘a doghty swain’.

  727 scarlet in grain: See nn. to GP 456 and Sq 511.

  733 On Bruges as a weaving and commercial centre, see n. to Sh 55. L. H. Loomis points out that cloth from Bruges is less exotic than the stuffs from India or Tars which are more usual in romance (SA, p. 504, n. 4).

  736–41 Skill in hunting and hawking was established as an essential part of the hero’s accomplishments by the Tristram romances; for parallels in ME romance, see SA, pp. 508–10. According to N. Orme (ChauR, 16 (1981), 38–59, at p. 44), there is nothing incongruous in a knight practising wrestling and archery; along with hunting and hawking, these formed part of a gentleman’s training in leisure pursuits. Perhaps, however, Thopas’s entry into ‘plebeian wrestling competitions’ is an object of ridicule (p. 57, n. 10). Cf. GP 548 and n.

  742–7 Women similarly sigh in vain for Guy of Warwick (SA, pp. 516–17). The AN Romance of Horn continually emphasizes the devastating effect that Horn’s charms have on women (ed. Pope, lines 446–7, 476–9; tr. Weiss, The Birth of Romance, p. 11). However, Horn refuses to ‘do shame of his body’ (lines 385–6), which presumably means that like Thopas he is ‘no lechour’.

  747 That bereth the rede hepe: This piece of redundant information is typical of many lines in ME romance which exist only to supply a rhyme.

  760 ff. Catalogue lists – of flowers, birds, spices, food and drink, musical instruments – are frequently used in medieval romance and lyric, to provide an impression of luxuriant profusion; for examples, see SA, pp. 550–55.

  772–3 Cf. Guy of Warwick, lines 4519–20 (SA, p. 518): ‘So michel he herd tho foules sing, | That him thought he was in gret longyng.’ The singing of birds (including the ‘throstyll cokke’ and ‘wodewale’) is the prelude for Thomas of Erceldoune’s romance with his fairy mistress (see n. to Th 788).

  783 forage: This usually means ‘dry food, hay’ (cf. Rv 3868). It would be typical of Sir Thopas’s absurd behaviour to feed a horse on hay in the midst of a grassy meadow.

  788 In Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal and in Thomas of Erceldoune (which may, however, post-date Th), the hero has a romance with a fairy mistress (see SA, pp. 521–6), but in the first instance it is the fairy mistress who makes the first advances, and in the second Thomas at least sees the lady before falling in love with her. Thopas’s decision to fall in love with an elf-queen seems ridiculous in that it occurs in the total absence of any such personage in the narrative at this point.

  789 goore: Strictly speaking, ‘a triangular strip of cloth, hence by synecdoche a skirt or apron’ (Donaldson, Speaking of Chaucer, p. 23). Phrases such as ‘geynest under gore’, ‘glad under gore’ form part of the descriptions of beautiful ladies in the Harley lyrics (ibid.); in transferring it to a male hero, Chaucer seems to mock the emptiness of the phrase.

  793 In towne: This is the first example of a bob-line in Th (see Headnote). Stanley’s comparative survey of bob-lines in ME literature shows that they are more common in lyric and drama than in romance (NM, 73 (1972), 422–5).

  794–5 Compare the fairy lady’s promise to Sir Launfal (lines 316–18; see SA, p. 522): ‘Yf thou wylt truly to me take | And alle wemen for me forsake, | Ryche I wyll make thee.’

  805 This line is missing in El and Hg, but its authenticity is guaranteed by the stanza-form.

  808 Sire Olifaunt: ‘Sir Elephant’. Combats with giants are frequent in ME romances (see SA, pp. 530–41). Guy of Warwick fights with a giant named Sir Amoraunt (SA, p. 534); as Burrow comments (see n. in Riverside), both names conveniently rhyme with ‘geaunt’ and ‘Termagaunt’ (see next n).

  810 Child: A title used in romances or ballads for young knights or aspirants to knighthood. Chaucer uses it only in Th (cf. lines 817, 830, 898).

  Termagaunt: The name of a fictional Saracen deity, conventionally invoked by pagans in ME literature. (The other ‘gods’ invoked by Saracens are Apollo and Mahomet, making up a parodic pagan Trinity.) Chaucer’s serious depiction of Muslims in MLT does not include these conventional oaths, and presumably he found them absurd.

  812 Slaying an opponent’s horse was regarded in romances as an unknightly act, which is committed by the giant opponents of Guy of Warwick and Libeaus Desconus (SA, pp. 536, 538).

  815 symphonye: ‘During the Gothic period, symphonia and its vernacular offsprings was a general name for hurdy-gurdies’ (Page, Voices and Instruments, p. 150). Thomas of Erceldoune’s fairy mistress welcomes him with ‘alle manere of mynstralcye’, but a hurdy-gurdy is not among the instruments mentioned (SA, p. 526).

  828–9 The David-and-Goliath story here seems to have got itself reversed, with the giant deploying the sling that in the biblical account belongs to the giant-killer (SA, p. 531).

  833–5 These lines imitate the opening of Bevis of Hampton: ‘Lordinges, herkneth to my tale! | Is merier than the nightingale, | That y schel singe; | Of a knight ich wile yow rowne … ’ (see SA, p. 498). The appeal for the audience’s attention signals a fresh beginning in the narrative (cf. Th 712 and n. and Th 891), and numerous manuscripts of CT (including El and Hg) indicate by the use of paragraph markings or large capital letters that a section-break occurs at this point (see Burrow, Essays on Medieval Literature, pp. 60–65). On the use of the term ‘fit’ for a section-break, see Th 888 and n. Burrow points out that the three fits diminish consistently in number of stanzas, the first fit having eighteen stanzas, the second nine and the third four and a half, giving the impression that the whole poem is dwindling away to nothing.

  836 sides smale: A slender middle is appropriate to masculine as well as feminine beauty in the fourteenth century (cf. Gawain, line 144), but its sudden mention at this point is irrelevant to the matter in hand. Once again rhyme rather than reason dictates the content of the narrative.

  839 murye men: In the fourteenth century, as today, this phrase suggested tales of Robin Hood and the greenwood. See Gamelyn, line 774 (Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. W. H. French and C. B. Hale, 2 vols. (1930; repr. New York, 1964), vol. I), and the Gest of Robyn Hode (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. F. J. Child, 5 vols. (1884–98; repr. New York, 1965), vol. III, no. 117), stanzas 205, 281, 316, 340, 382.

  842 There is no other example of a many-headed giant in the ME romances. ‘Chaucer’s failure to mention the extra heads earlier may reflect either upon the narrator’s competence or upon the hero’s veracity’ (Burrow, n. in Riverside).

  848 reales: The final -s on the adjective is an imitation of French practice.

  849 Medieval romance miscellanies often included didactic or religious materials, but the idea of romances about popes and cardinals is a comic absurdity, again probably conjured up by the need to find a rhyme for ‘reales’.

  851–6 On such lists in medieval romance, see n. to Th 760 ff.

  857–68 The arming of the hero is a conventional narrative motif in medieval romance (see D. Brewer, Tradition and Innovation in Chaucer (London, 1982), pp. 142–60, 170–73, and SA, pp. 526–30). Sir Thopas wears the layers of clothing and armour usual for a fourteenth-century knight (see n. to GP 73–6): first, a linen shirt and drawers, next, an ‘aketoun’ or tunic (the equivalent of the Knight’s ‘gipoun’), then a chain-mail ‘haubergeoun’, and finally plate-armour (‘hauberk’) and an outer tunic bearing his heraldic device (‘cote-armour’). Cf. Burrow, Yearbook of English Studies, 14 (1984), 53.

  867 The comparison is proverbial; see Whiting L285.

  869–70 Libeaus Desconus has a gold shield with three boars’ heads depicted on it (lines 1567
9; SA, p. 530, where ‘The’ should read ‘Thre’); Sir Degaré’s father also carries an azure shield with three boars’ heads on it, painted with gold (Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. French and Hale, vol. I, lines 996–8).

  872 Heroic vows to slay an opponent are frequent in medieval romances (see SA, pp. 541–4, for examples), but they are usually sworn on a festive dish such as a swan, heron or peacock, rather than homely bread and ale (ibid., p. 542, n. 4).

  875 quirboily: Hardened leather or ‘cuir-bouilli’ was frequently used for pieces of armour for arms or legs; it could be moulded into almost any shape, and also painted or embossed (Zijlstra-Zweens, p. 23).

  877 latoun: Latten, a brass-like alloy, was used for armour (see Blair, pp. 41, 66, 171).

  888 The word ‘fit’, meaning a section of a poem, is of Germanic origin (OED s.v. fit, fytte sb1). In English, it is associated with popular romances and alliterative verse. This is the only instance where Chaucer applies it to his own verse, doubtless in mocking imitation of minstrel poetry.

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