The canterbury tales, p.2
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.2

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  1390 3 September: Robbed by highwaymen of his horse and of £20 6s 8d of the king’s money at the ‘Fowle Ok’, Hatcham, in Deptford, probably on his way to pay workmen’s wages at the royal manor of Eltham. (Also recorded as the victim on 6 September of further robberies of £10 in Westminster and of £9 and 43d at Hatcham.)

  1391 Writes Treatise on the Astrolabe; continues work on The Canterbury Tales.

  17 June: resigns as Clerk of the King’s Works.

  1392 The Equatorie of the Planetis, possibly by Chaucer.

  1394 28 February: granted royal annuity of £20 for life. Death of Anne of Bohemia (Queen Consort of Richard II).

  1394–5 Revises Prologue to The Legend of Good Women (and removes a reference to Queen Anne).

  1395/6 Receives a gown of scarlet with fur trimming from Henry, Earl of Derby (the future Henry IV).

  1396? Envoy to Bukton (mentioning the Wife of Bath).

  1397 1 December: royal grant of a tun (a large cask) of wine per year.

  1398 Moves back to London from Kent? (Responsibility for collecting from Chaucer a debt incurred in 1389 is transferred from the Sheriff of Kent to the Sheriff of London.)

  1399 24 December: takes 53-year lease on a house in precincts of Westminster Abbey.

  1400 The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse with an envoy to Henry IV, who became king upon the deposition of Richard II on 30 September 1399; Henry IV renews payment of Chaucer’s annuities.

  25 October: Chaucer’s death, according to a now illegible inscription on his tomb, recorded in 1606 (Life-Records, p. 548); buried in Westminster Abbey at the entrance to St Benedict’s Chapel; moved in 1556 to a new tomb set against the east wall of the south transept, in what has subsequently become ‘Poets’ Corner’.


  In 1635, one Brian Walker, a resident of Bishop Auckland in County Durham, was found guilty of numerous instances of blasphemy by the High Commission Court (an ecclesiastical court). One of the witnesses to these blasphemies, William Hutchinson, reported that he ‘did hear Walker confer and speak of “the book called Chaucer”, which book he very much commended, and said he did believe the same as well as he did the Bible, or words to the same effect.’ 1 Nothing further is known of Walker, but to judge from the occupations of the associates and relatives who witnessed his words he was a tradesman of some sort – not, that is, a member of an obviously literate or book-owning class. For that very reason, a spontaneous and genuine admiration for ‘the book called Chaucer’ seems to make itself felt in his words. No particular work of Chaucer’s is named in Walker’s remark, but it is reasonable to assume that it is the Canterbury Tales that most merit comparison with the Bible, in terms of the breadth and variety of experience that they represent. Like the Bible, this is a work that presents the reader with an autonomous narrative universe, richly and diversely peopled, in which truth is inseparable from the storial experience in which it is embedded. Divided from Chaucer by almost as many centuries as divide him from us, Walker is an unexpected witness to the affection and unforced respect that Chaucer has inspired in his readers over the years and the central place that his writings occupy in the English imagination.

  The success of the Canterbury Tales in establishing itself as a national monument and one of the great classics of English literature is all the more remarkable when one considers that at Chaucer’s death in 1400 it was (like several of his other works) left unfinished. It might at that point have seemed no more than a series of brilliant fragments, 2 its final shape and meaning forever inaccessible. If the work was known at all to Chaucer’s contemporaries, it was most probably in the form of individual tales, passed around among his friends or perhaps read aloud to entertain a court audience. 3 In the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, Chaucer refers to himself as having written ‘the love of Palamon and Arcite | Of Thebes’ and ‘the lyf … of Seynt Cecile’, narratives which were later to be included in the Canterbury collection as the Knight’s Tale and the Second Nun’s Tale respectively. 4 In his Envoy to Bukton, Chaucer refers to the Wife of Bath in a way that suggests she was a familiar figure (to Bukton and others). 5 Yet soon after Chaucer’s death, the Canterbury Tales began to circulate as a complete collection. The two manuscripts on which the present edition is based – known as Ellesmere and Hengwrt (see the Note on the Text) – were written in the first years of the fifteenth century, and are probably very early attempts to gather together the fragments of the Tales and present the work as a whole for the first time. Many other manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales followed in the course of the century, their rapid multiplication testifying to Chaucer’s high reputation and popularity. The first attempt at a ‘collected Chaucer’ (containing Troilus and Criseyde, the Legend of Good Women, the Parliament of Fowls and some shorter poems as well as the Canterbury Tales), Cambridge, University Library, MS Gg.4.27, was made early in the 1420s. When, towards the end of the century, printing in England began, the Canterbury Tales was among the first works to issue from the presses. 6

  This initial success proved to be long lasting. Chaucer was both an inspiration and a model to the generations of writers who followed him: Lydgate, Hoccleve, Hawes, Henryson, Dunbar, Skelton. 7 Spenser called him the ‘pure well-head of Poesie’; Shakespeare drew on the Knight’s Tale as well as Troilus and Criseyde. 8 Dryden praised the ‘most wonderful comprehensive Nature’ that characterized the CanterburyTales; Pope called him ‘the first tale teller in the true enlivened natural way’, 9 and both poets tried their hand at new versions of the tales. Dryden rewrote the tales of the Knight, Wife of Bath and Nun’s Priest, while Pope recast the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Merchant’s Tale (as well as the House of Fame). To Wordsworth, who translated the Prioress’s Tale, he was the ‘great Precursor, genuine morning Star’. 10 In describing his engraving of the Canterbury pilgrims, Blake called Chaucer ‘the great poetical observer of men, who in every age is born to record and eternize its acts’. 11 In modern times, his reputation lives on not only in schools and universities, but in popular culture, through adaptations of the Tales on the stage, in film and on television. Monumentalized by the veneration both of his immediate successors and of later writers, and encircled by scholarly commentary and academic criticism, he has nevertheless retained the power to speak directly to his audience, commanding admiration for the scope of his vision, the acuteness of his observation and the undiminished force of his pathos and his comedy.

  Tales and Tellers

  The Canterbury Tales was the last in a series of experiments that Chaucer made with narratives of different kinds: from the simple narratives that hold together his early dream-visions, to the greatly extended single narrative of Troilus and Criseyde, with its complexities of tone and brilliant naturalistic rendering of human speech and psychology, and finally a move in the opposite direction with the Legend of Good Women, an experiment with a series of brief narratives, united by a single theme. 12 The Canterbury Tales marks a radically new departure: a collection of tales that vary in length, subject-matter, genre affiliation, verse-form and mood. Some of the tales have obvious sources, some do not, but almost without exception they are reshaped by Chaucer’s telling in such a way that their meaning and literary effect are utterly transformed. 13 And in addition, the tales are given an extra dimension of meaning by the narrative frame that Chaucer devised: a pilgrimage to Canterbury, with a company of pilgrims as narrators and himself as one of their number.

  The Canterbury pilgrims and the tales they tell are so familiar a part of English culture that it is easy to forget how stunningly original a work this was. The rich variety of the tales themselves, their sophistication of language and tone, can be matched only in Boccaccio’s Decameron, which Chaucer may have been attempting to emulate and surpass. 14 But the pilgrimage-frame of the Canterbury Tales is quite different from the frame narrative of the Decameron. Boccaccio’s narrators are not on a journey; they have retreated from plague-stricken Florence in order to pass ten days of recreation in a
beautiful villa in the countryside. Their stories represent a holiday from serious concerns; young, well-born and well-bred, they understand the role of literature as a pleasurable exercise for the mind and the emotions, a subject for witty discussion and polite emulation. Charles Singleton has called the art of the Decameron an ‘art of escape’, ‘an art which simply in order to be, to exist, required the moment free of all other cares, the willingness to stop going anywhere (either toward God or toward philosophical truth).’ 15 Chaucer’s pilgrims, in contrast, are perpetually in motion, both physically and mentally. Yet their motion does not represent a reinstatement of the transcendental goal abandoned by Boccaccio. The gradual approach to Canterbury is fitfully apparent in occasional references to place-names, but the pilgrims never reach their goal (and in any case, in the original plan, the ultimate goal was a secular one: a festive dinner at the Tabard Inn). Travelling becomes more important than arrival. The pilgrims also represent a much greater diversity than Boccaccio’s young people in terms of social class; drawn from a wide spectrum of English society, they are formed into a temporary ‘compaignie’ only by their common journey and the tale-telling game to which they have agreed, accepting the Host as their temporary ‘governour’. Literature as social contract, one might say. But this fragile accord is constantly threatened by jealousies, quarrels and class enmities. The pilgrims interrupt each other, insult each other and tell tales specifically designed to show each other in a bad light. Though their tale-telling is represented as a ‘game’, it is always hovering on the brink of becoming ‘earnest’, and dissolving into chaos. 16

  The dynamic interactions between the Canterbury pilgrims show us literature as part of the texture of everyday life, as moulding and being moulded by human experiences, ideas and emotions. The tales represent the imaginative and linguistic frameworks through which human beings make sense of their lives, their place in the cosmos and their relationships with each other. The interests that they serve can sometimes be narrowly sectarian, as when the Summoner and the Friar use their tales as direct attacks on each other, or when the Merchant tries to express his personal disillusionment with marriage. The responses they provoke can be equally self-oriented, as when the Host responds to stories about women by comparing them with his own wife. 17 But the tales are manifestly larger than the immediate purposes of their tellers or the immediate responses of their hearers. The paired tales of the Summoner and the Friar, for example, contain an exploration of the various relationships between language and ‘the real’ (as I shall indicate later) that forms no part of the quarrel between them; the Merchant’s Tale has as much to say about the selfish folly of men as about the deceitful wiles of women. The tales say more than their tellers can know; they illustrate the wisdom of the saying ‘never trust the teller, trust the tale’.

  An earlier generation of critics liked to see the Canterbury Tales as a collection of dramatic monologues. As George Lyman Kittredge famously put it, ‘the Pilgrims do not exist for the sake of the story, but vice versa. Structurally regarded, the stories are merely long speeches expressing, directly or indirectly, the characters of the several persons. They are more or less comparable, in this regard, to the soliloquies of Hamlet or Iago or Macbeth.’ 18 For many years, Chaucer critics responded enthusiastically to this notion by interpreting each tale as a subtle delineation of its teller’s character. Problems with this approach are, however, fairly readily apparent. 19 Sometimes a tale seems quite at odds with the character of the pilgrim that is suggested by the description in the General Prologue: the jovial Monk, with his love of hunting and good food, tells a relentlessly gloomy set of ‘tragedies’ emphasizing the fragility of human happiness. Are we to assume that his jovial exterior hides a deep despair? Sometimes, as with the Nun’s Priest or the Second Nun, there is no description at all in the General Prologue which might serve as a guide in interpreting character traits revealed in the tale, and to deduce them from the tale alone is to enter into a process of circular reasoning of the purest sort. Sometimes the tale extends the General Prologue portrait in unexpected ways: we might have expected to hear about the Merchant’s unhappy marriage when he is first introduced rather than later on when he is about to tell his tale. The signs that Chaucer switched tales from one teller to another as he worked are also evidence that he did not think the tales were indis-solubly linked to a particular psychology. 20

  In the two cases that most nearly resemble dramatic soliloquies, the Prologues of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, it is significant that the social status and/or occupation of the pilgrim looms far larger than individual psychology or experience. The Wife of Bath speaks as a woman, grappling with the antifeminist writings through which men try to contain and control womankind. 21 The Pardoner describes his professional activities, frankly revealing the tricks of his trade and giving a sample of his preaching style. Whatever the vividness with which their speech and behaviour are realized for us, they are conceived at the level of the general rather than the individual. Each represents a class, a mass of experience that is widely shared. It is significant that Chaucer does not refer to the pilgrims by their personal names (which in most cases we are never told), but by the names of their professions or occupations. They are the Knight, the Squire, the Prioress, the Friar, and so on, not Peter, Richard, Eglantine or Hubert. (The last two names are assigned to the Prioress and the Friar in the General Prologue, but – significantly – are never mentioned again.) Modern printed editions create the impression of personal names by giving capital letters to these titles, but the manuscripts do not reserve capitals for the pilgrims and are likely to capitalize prominent nouns of any type; lower-case titles such as ‘the knight’, ‘the merchant’, and so on, would give a more accurate impression of the way the pilgrims are referred to. 22 Through these occupational names, the individual merges into the general. It is the social, rather than the psychological, aspects of the Canterbury pilgrims that are the focus of interest.

  Shaking the Kaleidoscope: the Proverbial, the Individual and the General

  The tales that the pilgrims tell likewise draw on and feed back into a general social experience. One of the markers of this orientation towards general experience is the high proportion of proverbial phrases in the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s language is threaded through with the commonplace phraseology of everyday speech – with proverbial similes (as brown as a berry, busy as bees, true as steel, white as a lily, still as stone, drunk as a mouse, light as a leaf on the tree, glad as a bird is of day, to pass like a shadow on the wall, to clack like a mill) and popular sayings (better late than never, murder will out, you need a long spoon to eat with the devil, old poachers make the best gamekeepers, strike while the iron is hot, old fish and young flesh). 23 The easy inventiveness of popular speech is also evident in the frequent expressions of ‘negative worth’, as when something is said to be not worth an oyster, a mite, a leek, an old shoe, a hen, a bean, a fly, a turd, a straw, a gnat, a butterfly or a rake handle. 24 Out of this bedrock of common speech emerge proverbs that become the special focus of narrative experience, realizing it as at once general and individual. Individual experience both revalidates the generalizing truth of the proverb and makes contact with the common experience that has brought it into being. So, Theseus’s speech at the close of the Knight’s Tale bases a philosophical disquisition on the universal experience of decay – the tree dying, the stone wearing away, the river running dry – and rediscovers the meaning of the proverb ‘make virtue of necessity’ (3041–2). The events of the Franklin’s Tale pour a rich human meaning into the apparently threadbare proverb ‘Patience conquers’ (773–4). Like other kinds of social experience in the Canterbury Tales, the proverbial can shift in tone and mood: if the Man of Law’s Tale observes in deadly earnest that joy always ends in woe (‘Wo occupieth the fin [end] of oure gladnesse’: 424), in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, this observation is seen as comically banal: ‘evere the latter ende of joye is wo’ could be quoted by a rhetori
cian as ‘a soverein notabilitee’ (3205–9). If the Knight’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale provide narrative contexts that fill time-worn proverbs with new depths of feeling, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale moves in the opposite direction. Its ballooning rhetoric rehearses various clichéd interpretations of a simple barnyard incident – destiny, Fortune, women’s influence, vulnerability to flattery – to settle on two banal morals of its own: keep your eyes open and keep your mouth shut. While this trajectory is comic in effect, in the Manciple’s Tale it is with a sense of bleakness that the moral ‘keep your mouth shut’ is hammered home with a series of proverbs that act like so many nails in the coffin of verbal creativity. Yet no tale, whether it comes early or late in the Canterbury Tales, can claim a final perspective; the kaleidoscope is always ready to shift into a new pattern.

  Proverbs are part of a rich body of social wisdom that makes up the mental furniture of the tales and, by implication, their tellers. Chaucer’s own Tale of Melibee – often passed over by modern readers – plays a central role as representative of this body of collective wisdom. The arguments by which Prudence seeks to persuade her husband Melibee not to take vengeance on his enemies are a dense synthesis of quotations, drawn from the Bible (especially the Solomonic books) and secular wisdom texts, both classical and medieval. Many of these prosaic commonplaces are absorbed into the other narratives of the Canterbury Tales and there take on the colour of their surroundings. Solomon’s ‘Werk … by conseil’, for example, is used by Prudence to initiate the long process of counselling in the Tale of Melibee (1003), but is also invoked by Nicholas in the Miller’s Tale in order to deceive his landlord (3530), and by Placebo in order to flatter January in the Merchant’s Tale (1485). Solomon’s statement that he never found a good woman is part of a serious debate in Melibee (1057, 1076–80), but part of a comic marital quarrel in the Merchant’s Tale (2242–8, 2286–90). The line in which Arcite plangently expresses the isolation of the grave – ‘Allone, withouten any compaignye’ (Knight’s Tale 2779) – reappears shortly afterwards as a purely factual description of Nicholas’s life as a lodger (Miller’s Tale 3204). The echo has been interpreted as a deliberate signalling of the shift of mood from heroic seriousness to mundane practicality; yet the phrase also appears in the Tale of Melibee (1560), where Chaucer introduces it as his own embellishment of a quoted maxim to the effect that if you are poor, you will find yourself ‘allone withouten any compaignye’. And this last instance is in a way the most significant, for it shows that the phrase was for Chaucer a quasi-proverbial unit that acquired emotional resonances only from the context in which it was used: carrying an implicit moral force in Melibee, expressing a neutral fact in the Miller’s Tale and a tragic bleakness in the Knight’s Tale. Similarly, the maxim that ‘pitee ren-neth soone in gentil herte’ is applied in all seriousness to Theseus’s response to finding Palamon and Arcite fighting in the grove (Knight’s Tale 1761), to Alla’s compassion for the accused Constance (Man of Law’s Tale 660), and to Canacee’s sympathy for the grieving falcon (Squire’s Tale 479), but when it is used to comment on the lightning speed with which May succumbs to Damian’s advances in the Merchant’s Tale (1986), it is freighted with comic sarcasm. In the world of the latter tale, that is, ‘pitee’ is no more than a sham, and to believe in it as a motivator of human behaviour is to be as blind a dupe as January.

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