The canterbury tales, p.122
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.122

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  2562 Nabugodonosor: This is not Nebuchadnezzar, the historical king of Babylon who captured Jerusalem and who is the subject of Mk 2143–82; the author of Judith has given his name to an unhistorical Assyrian king who is said to have reigned in Nineveh (impossibly, since it was destroyed by the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar’s father). See Judith 1:5, and cf. Jerome Bible Commentary, I, 625. For Holofernes’s proclamation, see Judith 6:2–4.

  2565 Bethulia: ‘No city by this name is known. It is, quite plainly, a fictitious city’(Jerome Biblical Commentary, I, 625).

  2566 A Latin gloss in El and Hg quotes Judith 4:6: ‘Et fecerunt filii Israel secundum quod constituerat eis sacerdos domini Eliachym’ (‘And the children of Israel did as the priest of the Lord Eliachim had directed them’). Eliachim commanded the Israelites to make defences on the mountain-tops against the Assyrians, after Nebuchadnezzar had ordered Holofernes to destroy the worship of all gods other than himself.

  2575–2630 Anthiochus: For the story of Antiochus IV, king of Syria from 175 to 163 BC, Chaucer is following 2 Maccabees, ch. 9. (The two books of Maccabees are part of the Latin Vulgate Bible, but not the Authorized Version.)

  2586–7 These lines paraphrase 2 Maccabees 9:8.

  2591 Nichanore… Thimothee: Nicanor and Timotheus were leaders of the Syrian army, against which the Jews, inspired by Judas Maccabeus, won a great victory (2 Maccabees 8, 9:1–3).

  2603–4 This comment is borrowed from 2 Maccabees 9:6.

  2616 Cf. 2 Maccabees 9:9.

  2631–70 Alisaundre: As Chaucer himself says, the story of Alexander was extremely well known in the Middle Ages. Son of Philip II, king of Macedon, Alexander succeeded his father in 336 BC, at the age of twenty. He was renowned for his military conquests, which included the defeat of Darius, king of Persia. The earliest accounts of his death attribute it to a fever, following a drinkingparty, but the story that he was poisoned is almost as old, and became the accepted one in the Middle Ages (see Alexander the Great in the Middle Ages. Ten Studies on the Last Days of Alexander in Literary and Historical Writing, ed. W. J. Aerts, J. M. M. Hermans and E. Visser (Nijmegen, 1978), esp. pp. 2–9). The major biographical source was the Life of Alexander by Quintus Curtius (1st c. ad), on which was based the Latin epic Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon (1184 × 1187), which enjoyed great popularity (see G. Cary, The Medieval Alexander (Cambridge, 1956), pp. 16–17, and cf. n. to WB 498–9). The rather general information that Chaucer gives here makes it impossible to single out any particular source (see Cary, p. 252, and SA, p. 641), but it may be noted that virtually all the details given here (except for the manner of Alexander’s death and his penchant for wine and women) are to be found in the brief account at the opening of 1 Maccabees (1:1–8); see n. to Mk 2655.

  2644 For Alexander’s (medieval) reputation for drinking and womanizing, see Cary, The Medieval Alexander, pp. 99–100.

  2648 Darius: Darius III, the last king of Persia (c. 380–330 BC), not to be confused with the unhistorical Darius mentioned at Mk 2237. His vast army was defeated by Alexander in 333 BC.

  2655 Alexander’s reign is said to have lasted twelve years in 1 Maccabees 1:8, following a brief account of his conquests and death (the cause of which is not specified). He died in June 323 BC, after a reign of twelve years and eight months.

  2671–2726 For a discussion of the difficulties involved in identifying a single source for this account of Julius Caesar, see SA, pp. 652–4. In lines 2719–21, Chaucer himself seems to point to Lucan (ad 39–65), author of the Pharsalia (De bello civili), a Latin epic concerning the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey; to Suetonius (ad c. 70–150), whose Lives of the Caesars begins with Julius; and to Valerius Maximus, whose Memorable Doings and Sayings includes numerous anecdotes and details concerning him. However, it is doubtful whether Chaucer knew Suetonius first-hand (see n. to Mk 2465), and his reference to Lucan in connection with a triumph of Caesar which Lucan quite explicitly does not describe (see n. to ML 400–401) suggests that he did not know Lucan either. As noted in connection with ML 400–401, J. L. Lowes suggested that Chaucer was drawing on the French translation of Lucan by Jehan le Tuim. Chaucer’s coupling of Lucan and Suetonius here makes it even more likely that he was using the French conflation of these two authors (and also Sallust) known as Li Fet des Romains; for discussion and further bibliography, see G. M. Spiegel, Romancing the Past (Berkeley, CA, 1993), pp. 118–82). This work strings together the Pharsalia, Suetonius’s Lives, and Sallust’s Catiline Conspiracy, with liberal use of commentaries and other sources, to make a full-scale biography of Julius Caesar. The authors of the Latin sources are frequently named throughout. Written around 1213–14, this work is preserved in 59 MSS, and exercised wide influence on vernacular literature. For the details that Chaucer might have taken from this work, see nn. to Mk 2680, 2690–92, 2695–6, 2709–15.

  2672 So far from being of humble birth, Julius Caesar was a member of the gens Julia, a patrician family that traced its origins back to Julus, son of Aeneas, the founder of Rome. However, Suetonius’s Life lacks its introductory paragraphs in all surviving manuscripts, so it furnishes no information on Caesar’s birth. (Li Fet des Romains, however, does include an account of his noble lineage; see I.8, p. 15, and III.15, p. 616.) The myth that he was the son of a baker seems to have been a peculiarly English tradition; it is found in Lydgate, Hoccleve and the historian Ranulph Higden. For documentation, and a hypothesis as to the source of the legend, see M. S. Waller, Indiana Social Studies Quarterly, 31 (1978), 46–55.

  2677 Caesar was in fact never made emperor of Rome; this was an honour enjoyed by his adopted son Augustus and his successors.

  2679–86 Gnaius Pompeius (Pompey the Great) was a successful Roman general and statesman. His finest military achievement was his defeat of Mithridates, king of Pontus, who was Rome’s great enemy in the east. Through this campaign, Pompey ‘established an eastern frontier for Rome that lasted – with few changes – for 500 years’ (Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, s.v. Pompey). Pompey and Caesar were initially allies; together with Marcus Crassus, they formed the so-called ‘first triumvirate’, which effectively ruled Rome. Eventually, however, Pompey tried to exclude Caesar from power, and civil war broke out between them. In a battle on the plain of Pharsalus in Thessaly, in 48 BC, Pompey was decisively defeated. Cf. ML 199 and n.

  2680 Pompey was not Caesar’s father-in-law, but his son-in-law, since he married his daughter Julia. The mistake seems to have arisen from Suetonius’s statement that Caesar married Pompeia, daughter of Quintus Pompeius Rufus (Lives of the Caesars; see also Li Fet des Romains I.5 [2]); medieval writers apparently confused this Pompeius with Gnaius Pompeius, the triumvir (see preceding n.). See Ranulph Higden, Polychronicon III.41, ed. J. R. Lumby, vol. IV (London, 1872), pp. 188, 192, and the ME translation by John Trevisa, ibid., pp. 189, 193. The error may have been reinforced by Suetonius’s statement that Caesar later asked for the hand of Pompey’s daughter (I.xxvii.1; Li Fet des Romains II.23 [8]).

  2690–92 After his defeat at the battle of Pharsalus, Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered at the instigation of the Egyptian king Ptolemy. One of the assassins, Septimius, had formerly been a Roman soldier (Lucan, Pharsalia VIII.595–610). Chaucer’s comment on this act of disloyalty is close to that in Li Fet des Romains III.13 [20], lines 8–9: ‘Cil qui devoit estre huem Pompee, osoit metre espee ou chief son seignor’ (‘He who ought to be Pompey’s man dared to set his sword to his master’s head’). Pompey’s head was cut off and sent to Ptolemy (Lucan, Pharsalia VIII.679–91; Li Fet des Romains III.13 [22]). Later, when Caesar arrived in Egypt, one of Ptolemy’s servants took him the head, hoping (in vain) to win favour by doing so (Lucan, Pharsalia IX.1010–1108; Li Fet des Romains III.15 [5–9]).

  2695–6 At the end of the civil war, Caesar celebrated his earlier victories with five triumphs, four of them held in a single month (Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars I.37; Li Fet des Romains IV.1 [1]). See further ML 400
–401 and n.

  2697 The two major conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, are here conflated into a single person. Though not common, the error is found in other medieval sources (see H. T. Silverstein, MLN, 47 (1932), 148–50), and probably arose simply from the scribal omission of an ‘et’ joining the two names in a Latin source.

  2703 Capitolie: According to Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars I.80; cf. Li Fet des Romains IV.3 [1]), the meeting of the Senate at which Caesar was killed was held in the Hall of Pompey, not the Capitol.

  2709–15 The ultimate source of this account of Caesar’s death is Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars I.82):

  When he [Julius Caesar] saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its fold to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke…

  The passage is translated in Li Fet des Romains IV.3 [4]. Valerius Maximus relates the anecdote about Caesar’s care to keep his body covered, as an example of modesty (verecundia), but he does not include the detail that Caesar groaned only once, so he cannot have been Chaucer’s only source (Memorable Doings and Sayings IV.v.6).

  2727–66 Cresus… of Lyde: Chaucer’s source for the story of Croesus, king of Lydia from 560 to 546 BC, is the Romance of the Rose (6459–6592, tr. Horgan, pp. 99–101), where it is related immediately after the story of Nero as another example of the fickleness of Fortune (see n. to Mk 2463–2550).

  2728 Cirus: Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian empire, conquered Sardis, the Lydian capital, in 547 BC, and took Croesus prisoner. He is not mentioned in RR, but he appears in the context of the story about the miraculous shower of rain in Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (Boece II pr.2.58–63).


  2767 Seven manuscripts attribute this interruption to the Host rather than to the Knight. Four of them have the short form of the Prologue and three the long form (see next n. and Manly and Rickert II, 410–11, IV, 513). G. Dempster suggested that the shorter version, with the Host as interrupter, was original, and was revised by Chaucer to avoid repetition of the Host’s role as interrupter of Mel (PMLA, 68 (1953), 1142–59, at pp. 1147, 1151–2); this view was accepted by Manly and Rickert (II, 412), and, more recently, by D. K. Fry (JEGP, 71 (1972), 355–68, at pp. 361–3), but R. Hanna (Riverside Textual Notes, p. 1132) rejects the connection between the short form and the ‘erroneous’ reading ‘Hoste’.

  2771–90 These lines are found in El and thirty-two other witnesses, but are lacking in fourteen witnesses, including Hg (Manly and Rickert IV, 513). In the Hg version, line 2791 reads ‘Youre tales doon us no desport ne game’. It is difficult to see any reason that would have caused this passage to drop out, which makes it at least likely that it represents a revision of the Prologue by Chaucer. (See n. to Mk 2375–2462.) For a summary of the scholarly discussions of the problem, see D. Pearsall, ed., A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (Norman, OK, 1984), pp. 85–7.

  2780 The present-day cathedral of St Paul’s was built by Sir Christopher Wren; its medieval predecessor, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, was ‘one of the most magnificent Gothic buildings in Christendom’ (The City of London, ed. Lobel, p. 49).

  The great bell of St Paul’s was used to summon assemblies of citizens.

  2782–3 Cf. Mk 2766 and 2761, and see n. to Mk 2375–2462.

  2801–2 The Host is quoting Ecclesiasticus 32:6. Cf. Mel 1047.

  2809 Nonnes Preest: See n. to GP 164.


  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is often referred to as a beast fable, but it is not found in the classic Aesopic collections, and its stylistic affiliations are rather with beast epic, a genre first fully developed in the twelfthcentury Latin poem Ysengrimus, whose central figures are the wily fox Reinardus and the victim of his tricks, the wolf Ysengrimus. The Ysengrimus includes the story of how the fox, having tricked the cock, was himself outwitted by him (see the edition with facing translation by J. Mann (Leiden, 1986), IV.811–V.316). This story is not found in the oldest surviving collection of Aesopic fables, which was composed by the Latin writer Phaedrus in the first century AD; it was probably developed from the Phaedran fable of the fox and the crow (which likewise has the fox flatter the bird, and includes the ‘mouth-opening trick’). Different versions (not always with the same animals, and not always including both halves of the trick) appear in independent poems and in fable-collections from the eighth century onwards. (The accounts of this literary tradition given by E. P. Dargan, MP, 4 (1906), 38–65, and by K. O. Petersen, On the Sources of the Nonne Prestes Tale (Boston, 1898; repr. New York, 1966), are based on outdated scholarship.) R. A. Pratt (Speculum, 47 (1972), 422–44, 646–68) argued that Chaucer’s immediate source for the fable section of his tale was the late twelfth/early thirteenth-century French collection of Marie de France (Fables, no. 60), but the verbal parallels Pratt cites are not utterly convincing (pp. 442–3), and Pratt himself acknowledges that ‘the over-all design of Chaucer’s narrative’ (p. 444) derives from Branch II of the Roman de Renart (for the French text and an English translation, see SA2 I, 456–75; also tr. in Kolve and Olson, pp. 429–33), which borrowed the cock-and-fox story from the Ysengrimus. Pierre de St Cloud, the author of Branch II, added to the story the account of Chauntecleer’s premonitory dream of the fox’s attack, the argument between Chauntecleer and his wife Pinte over the significance of dreams, and a vivid description of the farm on which Chauntecleer and his hens live – all of which differentiate the narrative of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale from the fable version.

  It is style rather than content, however, that constitutes the crucial link between Chaucer’s tale and the beast epic tradition. Whereas beast fable is characteristically succinct to the point of baldness (in the words of La Fontaine, ‘brevity is the soul of fable’), and aims to provide a simple, exemplary action that can be summarized by an instructive moral, beast epic gives the moralizing to the animals themselves, and allows them to develop it to the point where the narrative is buried under the weight of extravagant rhetoric. Beast epic aims at comedy rather than moral wisdom. Although Chaucer did not know the Ysengrimus, he certainly knew the Anglo-Latin beast epic entitled the Mirror for Fools (Speculum Stultorum), to which his fox refers (see n. to NP 3312–16), and in which these characteristics are amply demonstrated (see J. Mann, ChauR, 9 (1975), 262–82). Pratt’s description of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale as ‘overwhelmed with digressions’ (p. 425) also applies to the Mirror for Fools. The comic blurring of the human and the animal which is found in the tale (as in the references to the cock’s beard or shirt, or the beauty of Pertelote’s red eyes) is also characteristic of epic rather than fable (cf. Pratt, pp. 658–60). As generally in the Roman de Renart, the animals are presented not just as humans but as aristocrats, beside whose splendour the life of their peasant owners pales into insignificance (Pratt, p. 658). Chauntecleer’s warning dream forms part of the mock-heroic scenario, since it is modelled on the dreams which conventionally foretold impending disaster to the heroes of the French chansons de geste (see Pratt, pp. 662–3, and H. Braet, Le moyen âge, 3–4 (1971), 405–16). But in Chaucer’s tale, the roles of the cock and the hen in the argument over dreams are reversed: in the Renart, it is the cock who makes light of his dream and the hen who insists that it foretells disaster. Chaucer may have made the change independently for his own purposes, or he may, as Pratt claimed (see the article cited above, pp. 429–33), have been influenced in this by the early fourteenthcentury satirical poem Renart le Contrefait (ed. Raynaud and Lemaître; excerpts and translation in SA2 I, 474–87). The effect of the change is to sever any meaningful connection between the intellectual superstructure of the debate on dreams and the subsequent action of the tale (since Chauntecleer igno
res the import of his own argument); the same could be said of the narrator’s elaborate attempts to interpret the cock’s seizure by the fox in the light of theories of destiny and free will, the evil effects of women’s counsel, or the tragic events of classical history – all of which are Chaucer’s own additions. As in the Latin beast epic, the comedy plays around the ease with which human beings (especially poets) can summon up approriate rhetoric for every occasion, without ever managing to integrate it meaningfully with action. When events change, it is simply time to switch clichés to match.

  2832 The living area of the widow’s ‘narwe’ cottage is rather grandly designated a hall; the bedroom (‘bour’), which she presumably shared with her two daughters, may have been no more than an open upper room, reached by a ladder (see Pearsall, Variorum: Nun’s Priest’s Tale, p. 142). The whole cottage will have been sooty because it was heated by an open fire on a central hearth, without a chimney. The widow’s hens (and quite possibly her other animals also) are brought into the cottage at night to keep them safe (see NP 2884).

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