The canterbury tales, p.5
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.5

           Geoffrey Chaucer
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  This bleak conclusion might also seem to apply to the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, where human dignity, noble aspirations and intellectual pretensions are mocked by being grafted on to a story about a pair of chickens. But the comic atmosphere of the tale makes the inexhaustible flow of rhetoric an occasion for amusement, not pessimism. As in the Miller’s Tale and the Summoner’s Tale, the narrative denouement brings language back to its basic physical aspect, as the cock tricks the fox into forgetting that in order to utter verbal insults he must open his mouth. But this reductive moment does not signal a final disillusionment with the verbal. If the fox, like the Manciple’s Tale, draws a moral condemning anyone who ‘jangleth whan he sholde holde his pees’ (3435), we remember that his ‘jangling’ has been the saving of Chauntecleer. And rhetoric can cope with this happy ending just as easily as it can with disaster: Fortune, as so often, is invoked to explain everything; ‘Lo, how Fortune turneth sodeinly | The hope and pride eekof hir enemy!’ (3403–4). As with the pun on ‘taille’ at the end of the Shipman’s Tale, the inexhaustible fecundity of language and of poetic rhetoric becomes a matter for comic celebration. The poet can find meaning in everything and has a set of words for every occasion.

  The Links

  The themes that I have been tracing through the tales also appear in the prologues, epilogues and links that make up the pilgrimage-frame. The exercise of patience holds the company together, expressing itself as obedience (‘obeisaunce’) to the Host’s ‘governaunce’. 33 But their fragile accord is constantly threatened by outbreaks of anger, usually provoked by one pilgrim’s belief that he has been mocked or attacked in the tale of another. So the Reeve – who identifies anger as one of the ‘four sparks’ left in the embers of old age – has ‘a litel ire’ in his heart and ‘gan to grucche’ at the Miller’s Tale because he thinks the carpenter husband is a surrogate for himself (3862–3, 3913–20). He therefore seeks to take vengeance on the Miller with his own tale about a cuckolded miller. The Friar and the Summoner have a brief quarrel at the end of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue (829–49), in which the Summoner comments on the Friar’s loss of patience (849). When the Wife’s tale is over, the Friar hastens to take his revenge by telling his tale about a summoner. This throws the pilgrim-Summoner into a paroxysm of rage: standing in his stirrups, he shakes like an aspen-leaf (1665–7), and launches into his own tale about a cheating friar. The Summoner’s Tale is thus not only about anger, it is also produced by anger. From these instances it appears that anger is a creative impulse; it fuels the urge to tell tales. Tale-telling is not a neutral and dispassionate activity; it is motivated by the desire to affect the world.

  Oddly enough, the other creative stimulus identified in the links is strong drink. It is the ‘ale of Southwerk’ (3140) that impels the Miller to thrust himself forward before his turn and tell his story of the carpenter. The Pardoner insists on seeking inspiration for his tale in ‘a draghte of moiste and corny ale’ (315). Anger and drink have parallel effects: the Host tells the quarrelling Friar and Summoner that they act like ‘folk that dronken ben of ale’ (Wife of Bath’s Prologue 852). Yet as the pilgrimage progresses, anger and drink at times threaten to close off the tale-telling instead of stimulating it. At the end of the Pardoner’s Tale, the Host’s vigorous rejection of the Pardoner’s invitation to kiss his relics makes the Pardoner so ‘wrooth’ that he is speechless; ‘no word ne wolde he seye’ (957). His anger threatens to disrupt the ‘pleye’ that binds the pilgrims together. ‘“Now,” quod oure Hoost, “I wol no lenger pleye | With thee, ne with noon oother angry man”’ (958–9). A similar threat emerges in the Manciple’s Prologue, where drink and anger are combined. The Manciple jeers at the drunken Cook, who waxes ‘wrooth [wrathful] and wraw [angry]’, but is so drunk that he cannot speak (46–8). Disaster is averted by the Host, who reconciles the two; the Manciple promises that he will not ‘wrathe’ the Cook, and appeases him by giving him yet more to drink (76–93). The Host blesses Bacchus, ‘That so kanst turnen ernest into game’ (99–100).

  In the end it is not anger that ends the tale-telling, but the Parson’s rejection of ‘fables and swich wrecchednesse’ (34). Like the Nun’s Priest, he offers corn rather than chaff (35–6; cf. Nun’s Priest’s Tale 3443), but the grindingly dull prose of his treatise on penance is poles apart from the rhetorical exuberance of Chauntecleer and Pertelote. The Manciple’s concluding admonitions to hold one’s tongue seem well designed to lead into this prosaic world, which neatly slices up human behaviour on the dissecting-table of moral categorization.

  Chaucer in the Tales

  To emphasize the continuity of themes between the tales and the links is not to deprive the pilgrim-tellers of their robust humanity; on the contrary, it is to stress that the tale-telling is a very human activity, enmeshed in the moment-by-moment oscillations from patience to anger, from pathos to ribald game, from seriousness to flippancy, that the pilgrims experience. Essential to this sense of literature as enmeshed in the texture of life is Chaucer’s inclusion of himself in the pilgrim-company, a brilliantly original stroke which transforms the meaning of the Canterbury Tales. For whereas other authors might express opinions about the human figures in their works, Chaucer organizes the central moment of his work as the point where his pilgrims express their opinions of him. His spectacularly bad tale of Sir Thopas is interrupted by the Host, who can bear no more of this ‘drasty speche’ (923). The joke is taken a stage further by Chaucer’s protestation that this is the only verse tale he knows (708–9, 928), so that he is obliged to switch to the prose tale of Melibee. The irony by which the poet who created the pilgrims and all their richly various tales is represented as able only to tell a rather unexciting tale in prose is, as G. K. Chesterton long ago pointed out, comedy on the grand scale, a joke so large that it threatens to escape notice. 34 But its effects go farther than the joke. The Thopas–Melibee sequence represents Chaucer’s own manifestation of patience. Surrendering his claims to authority and to creative superiority, the author puts himself on the same level as the other pilgrims, as simultaneously real and insubstantial as they are. The tales they tell not only have tellers, they have an audience, and it is for the audience to say what significance they will allow the tales to have in their lives. So Chaucer hands the Canterbury Tales over to its audience, to make of it what they will. 35 It is his master stroke, as endearing as it is witty, and profound in its implications for our notion of the relation between the literary creator and his creation.



  The case is reported in The Acts of the High Commission Court within the Diocese of Durham, Surtees Society 30 (Durham, 1858), pp. 115–19; the passage quoted is on p. 116, and is also reproduced in Derek Brewer, ed., Chaucer: The Critical Heritage, 2 vols. (London and New York, 1978), I, 152.


  I follow current editorial convention in distinguishing ten fragments (see Contents), but it should be noted that the separation of Fragments IV and V depends on creating a break between the Merchant’s Epilogue and Squire’s Prologue which has no support in the manuscripts where this stretch of text appears; see note on Mch 2419–40/Sq 1–8.


  However, the older view that the frontispiece to Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 61 shows Chaucer reading aloud to the court of Richard II is now no longer accepted; see Derek Pearsall, ‘The Troilus Frontispiece and Chaucer’s Audience’, Yearbook of English Studies, 7 (1977), 68–74.


  The quotation is from the F version of the Prologue (generally thought to be earlier than the G version), lines 420–21, 426.


  The addressee of this short poem is probably Sir Peter Bukton; for his connections with Chaucer, see Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (London, Boston, MA, and Sydney, 1985), p. 184, and cf. the note to Sum 1710 in this volume.


  William Caxton set up his printing press in Westminster in 1476; scholars are agreed that the Canterbury Tale
s was among the first items that he published. A second edition appeared c. 1483. (Since neither edition bears a date, it is not possible to be precise.)


  For a study of the reception of Chaucer’s writings in fifteenth-century England, see Seth Lerer, Chaucer and His Readers (Princeton, NJ, 1993). A comprehensive collection of references to Chaucer and his works up to the twentieth century can be found in C. F. E. Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 1925; repr. 1961); a more selective collection, which goes up to 1933, is Brewer, Geoffrey Chaucer: The Critical Heritage. J. A. Burrow, Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Anthology (Harmondsworth, 1969) extends from the fourteenth century to 1968, and contains much useful material.


  See Brewer, Critical Heritage, I, 116 (Spenser), and Ann Thompson, Shakespeare’s Chaucer: A Study in Literary Origins (Liverpool, 1978).


  Brewer, Critical Heritage, I, 166, 173.


  Ibid., I, 248.


  Ibid., I, 252.


  See Robert Worth Frank, Jr, Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women (Cambridge, MA, 1972), esp. pp. 8–10.


  Further information on the sources and analogues (or lack of them) for each tale is given in the Headnote to each tale, with bibliographical references. For general surveys, see Sources and Analogues of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ed. W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster (Chicago, 1941; repr. New York, 1958), and Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales, ed. Robert M. Correale and Mary Hamel, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 2002–5).


  See note to GP 792–4.


  Charles S. Singleton, ‘On Meaning in the Decameron’, Italica, 21 (1944), 117–27 (pp. 118, 119).


  From the first, the tale-telling is represented as a ‘game’ or ‘pley’ that excludes ‘ernest’ and diffuses the aggressive potential of ‘sooth [truth]’ (see GP 853, Mil 3117, 3186, Co 4354–7, WB 192), but the maintenance of this game becomes increasingly precarious as the pilgrimage goes on (see especially Mcp 81, 100, and p. xliii above).


  For the Host’s reactions, see Cl 1212a–d, Mch 2419–40, Mk 1891–1923. For discussion, see Alan T. Gaylord, ‘Sentence and Solaas in Fragment VII of the Canterbury Tales: Harry Bailly as Horseback Editor’, PMLA, 82 (1967), 226–35.


  George Lyman Kittredge, Chaucer and his Poetry (Cambridge, MA, 1915), p. 155.


  For some discussions of these problems, see David Lawton, Chaucer’s Narrators (London, 1986), esp. pp. 90, 97; A. C. Spearing, ‘Narrative Voice: The Case of Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale’, New Literary History, 32 (2001), 715–46; C. David Benson, ‘The Canterbury Tales: Personal Drama or Experiments in Poetic Variety?’, in The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 126–42.


  See notes to ML 96, 1163–90, Sh 12.


  I use the term ‘antifeminist’ in the sense traditional among medievalists – that is, to refer to the traditional body of medieval literature that is ‘hostile to women’ rather than ‘hostile to feminism’ (which would of course be anachronistic at this period). I prefer ‘antifeminist’ to the term ‘misogynistic’ as a designation for the literary tradition that overtly satirizes or attacks women, since misogyny may appear in other genres and take more subtle or covert forms.


  The Hengwrt manuscript, for example, gives capital letters to some of the pilgrims listed in the General Prologue (Squyer, Prioresse, Monk, Marchant, and so on), but not to others (knyght, frere, haberdasshere, wyf, persoun, and so on). Capital letters are also given to perfectly ordinary words, such as Monthe, Pecock, Mous, Oystre. The scribe’s aim seems to be to improve the look of the page, rather than to give the pilgrims’ names a quasi-individual character. Early printed editions share this habit of alternating lower-case letters and capitals, and though a growing tendency towards regularization can be observed over the centuries, it is not until F. N. Robinson’s first edition (The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford, 1933)) that capital letters are consistently given to the pilgrims and withheld from other persons designated by their occupation (e.g., the carpenter in the Miller’s Tale).

  For a chronological list of the principal editions of the Canterbury Tales, see D. Pearsall, The Canterbury Tales (London, Boston, MA, and Sydney, 1985), pp. 325–6.


  Some of these sayings have of course not passed into modern English, and I have also slightly modernized some in this list of examples for the sake of easier recognition. The proverbial phrases used by Chaucer (some of which he seems to have brought into the written language for the first time) are recorded in the Notes.


  For examples, see GP 182 (oyster); Kn 1558, Sum 1961, SN 511, CY 633, 698 (mite); WB 572 (leek); WB 708 (old shoe); GP 177, WB 1112 (hen); Mch 1263, 1854 (bean); Fkl 1132, Sh 171, CY 1150 (fly); Mel 930 (turd); Pars 601 (straw); Mcp 255 (gnat); Mk 2790 (butterfly); WB 949 (rake-handle). For other expressions of this sort, with examples from Chaucer and other Middle English texts, see B. J. Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases From English Writings Mainly Before 1500 (London and Cambridge, MA, 1968), Index, s.vv. Not count, Not give, Not the mountance, Not reck, Not set, Not worth.


  The primary example is Palamon’s escape from prison, which in Boccaccio is motivated by his discovery that Arcite is serving Emily in disguise; he then makes for the grove outside Athens because he knows he will find Arcite there. In Chaucer, these events are the result of chance. See also Kn 1663–9 and note. For discussion, see Jill Mann, ‘Chance and Destiny in Troilus and Criseyde and the Knight’s Tale’, in The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, pp. 93–111, at pp. 106–9.


  Citations of the Consolation in this Introduction are given in parenthesis in the body of the text. The work is divided into five Books (signalled by Roman numerals) and each Book is subdivided into alternating sections of verse (metres) and prose; citation is by Book and metre (m.) or prose (pr.) For a modern English translation, see Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy, tr. P. G. Walsh (Oxford, 1999).


  For the relation of these aspects of the tale to the anti-Semitism with which it has often been charged, see Headnote to the Prioress’s Tale.


  Most fabliaux are in medieval French; they are comic verse narratives, usually concerning sexual deception and trickery, often at the expense of an old husband. The tales of the Miller, Merchant and Shipman are good examples of the typical fabliau-plot, although they are longer and more elaborate than most fabliaux.


  For fuller discussion, see Jill Mann, ‘Anger and “Glosynge” in the Canterbury Tales’, PBA, 86 (1990), 203–23.


  See note to Sum 2149.


  See note to Sum 2253–77.


  For the value of this sum, see the note to Sh 181.


  See GP 813, 851, Cl 23–4, Fkl 703–5.


  G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (London, 1932; repr. 1962), pp. 21–2.


  See Jill Mann, ‘The Authority of the Audience in Chaucer’, in Poetics: Theory and Practice in Medieval English Literature, ed. Piero Boitani and Anna Torti (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 1–12.

  Further Reading

  Useful Websites

  The Chaucer MetaPage: an umbrella site organizing access to Chaucer resources on the World Wide Web.

  The Harvard Chaucer Page: accessed via the Chaucer MetaPage (via Chaucer Pages), it has a wealth of information about Chaucer, and provides guidance on his language and the pronunciation of Middle English (with accompanying sound recordings).

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