The canterbury tales, p.93
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.93

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  652 ‘Pulle a finch’ means literally ‘to pluck a finch’; MED (s.v. finch) glosses the phrase ‘to do something with cunning, to pull a clever trick’, but gives no other example besides this one. The context suggests a sexual innuendo, but the evidence adduced by G. L. Kittredge in support of this interpretation is slight (MP, 7 (1910), 475–7).

  655 curs: That is, excommunication, the punishment that would be imposed by the ecclesiastical court over which the archdeacon presided (see n. to Fri 1302).

  662 significavit: The first word of the writ authorizing imprisonment of someone who had been excommunicated by the ecclesiastical court and had not made reparation (usually by paying a fine) within forty days.

  669 PARDONER: The doctrine of pardons developed by the medieval papacy depended on the idea of a ‘treasury of merit’ consisting of the virtuous deeds of Christ and the saints, which could be drawn on by ordinary Christians who gave alms as a sign of repentance. The system inevitably dwindled into a simple cash transaction, in which pardons remitting part or the whole of the purgatorial punishment due after death were bought from pardoners, who carried them through Europe drumming up custom. For a detailed study of the activities of pardoners in medieval England, see A. L. Kellogg and L. A. Haselmayer, in Kellogg, Chaucer, Langland, pp. 212–44.

  670 Rouncival: The Hospital of our Lady of Roncesvalles was a house of Augustinian canons situated at one end of the pass of Roncevaux through the Pyrenees (made famous by the death of Roland), which lay on the major pilgrimage-route to Compostela (see n. to GP 463–6). It had a dependent house, St Mary Ronce-vall, at Charing Cross in London, which specialized in the selling of pardons, and was accused of improper practice in 1379 (Bowden, pp. 284–6).

  685 vernicle: According to legend, St Veronica wiped the sweat from Christ’s face as he was carrying his cross to Calvary, and the image of his face was imprinted on the cloth, which was identified with one preserved at Rome. The ‘vernicle’ is a pilgrim badge bearing an image of Christ’s face as it appears on the cloth; it is a sign that the Pardoner has made the pilgrimage to Rome (Sumption, Pilgrimage, pp. 222, 249–56).

  686 lay*] om. El Hg. Manly and Rickert (III, 425) and Riverside (Textual Notes, p. 1122) attempt to defend the omission, reading the line as ‘headless’, with stress on the second syllable of ‘walet’. But a headless line necessarily begins with a strong stress, and ‘His’ hardly announces itself as such.

  691 Critics have differed on whether this line merely means that the Pardoner was effeminate, or whether it means he was a eunuch (‘gelding’) or a homosexual (‘mare’); in the latter case the comment that the Summoner bears him a ‘stif burdoun’ (673) may be taken as a punning indication (‘burdoun’ meaning ‘staff’ as well as ‘accompaniment’) that the two men have a sexual relationship. The Pardoner’s reference to his projected marriage (WB 166) and his claim to have a girl in every town (Pard 453) indicate that publicly at least he is heterosexual, but Chaucer’s comment here certainly calls his masculinity into question in one way or another. See M. E. McAlpine, PMLA, 95 (1980), 8–22, and for a discussion of different views, R. S. Sturges, Chaucer’s Pardoner and Gender Theory: Bodies of Discourse (Basingstoke, 2000), ch. 2.

  692 fro Berwik into Ware: Probably Berwick-upon-Tweed, situated on the border of England and Scotland, and Ware (Herts), to the north of London. The phrase is thus roughly equivalent to ‘the whole length of England’. See Magoun, pp. 31–2, and Whiting B260.

  694–700 On the use of relics by pardoners, see Kellogg and Haselmayer, in Kellogg, Chaucer, Langland, p. 215 and n. 51; they conclude, however, that the fraudulent use of relics was quite successfully prevented by the Church. S. Wenzel (SAC, 11 (1989), 37–41) compares a passage in the early fourteenth-century preachers’ handbook, Fasciculus Morum, which describes a pardoner passing off animal bones as holy relics; he also provides other evidence of medieval pardoners carrying relics (whether with honest or dishonest intent). For literary satire of false relics, see Mann, Estates Satire, pp. 150–52. The arch-deceiver in this vein is Boccaccio’s Fra Cipolla (Decameron VI.10), who claims to have a feather of the Angel Gabriel (in fact from a parrot), and when two jokers substitute some coals for it, promptly asserts that they come from the fire that roasted St Lawrence.

  719 Records from around 1550 show the Bell Inn as situated on the opposite side of Southwark High Street from the Tabard, and a little further south. See Carlin, Medieval Southwark, number 44 on the map at p. 34.

  741–2 The source for this idea is Plato’s Timaeus (29B), which was widely known in the Middle Ages in the Latin version of Calcid-ius. Chaucer’s wording suggests, however, that his more immediate source was Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which in his own translation reads as follows: ‘sith thow hast lernyd by the sentence of Plato that nedes the wordis moot be cosynes to the thinges of whiche thei speken’ (Boece III pr.12.205–7). Chaucer cites the same maxim at Mcp 207–10.

  744 It is often assumed that Chaucer begins ‘correctly’ at the top of the social order, and that his apology for abandoning the order of social ranking refers to the latter part of the Prologue. However, a medieval sense of proper social order, as represented not only by literary works cataloguing the different social ‘estates’, but also by such sources as the scale for the graduated poll tax of 1379, would have allotted first place to the clerical figures (Monk, Friar, Parson), and second place to the laity (Knight, Squire, etc.), with the women occupying the last place in each series (Prioress and Second Nun at the end of the first, and the Wife of Bath at the end of the second). See Mann, Estates Satire, pp. 5–6, p. 215, n. 18.

  747 oure HOOST: On the likely identity of the Host, see n. to Co 4358.

  752 marchal in an halle: That is, he had enough social expertise to be capable of acting as a master of ceremonies in ‘high society’.

  754 Chepe: Cheapside was the main trading area of London. See n. to Co 4377.

  772 Langland draws a vivid picture of pilgrims flocking to Santiago and Rome ‘with many wise tales’ (PPl Prol.48). Doubtless there were many opportunities for anecdotes and stories en route, but the idea of telling a tale audible to a mounted company of thirty belongs to fiction rather than reality, as anyone who has tried to conduct conversations on horseback will appreciate.

  792–4 If each pilgrim told four tales, and we assume that Chaucer intended the total number of pilgrims to be thirty (see n. to GP 24), this would make a total of 120 tales in all. It has been suggested that Chaucer aimed to outdo the hundred tales of Boccaccio’s Decameron. However, the Parson’s Prologue implies that each pilgrim is to make a single contribution only: the Parson is said to be the only pilgrim who has not told ‘his tale’ (Pars 25). At what stage Chaucer changed his mind, and whether the change took the form of contraction of a grandiose project, or expansion of an originally more modest plan (in which case the General Prologue would have been composed after most of the tales), is not clear.

  819–20 Wine was drunk as a bed-time drink (cf. TC III.674), but it was also drunk to seal the making of a bargain (Gawain 1112; see also Hornsby, pp. 82–3), and this may be what Chaucer has in mind here.

  826 the watering of Seint Thomas: A brook where horses could be watered, about two miles out of London on the Kent Road (Carlin, Medieval Southwark, p. 25).

  844 aventure … sort … cas: Compare the role of ‘aventure’ in bringing the pilgrims together (GP 25). For an examination of the Boethian notions of the relationship between chance and destiny which permeate Chaucer’s work, see Mann, ‘Chance and Destiny’.


  The principal source for the Knight’s Tale is the Teseida of Boccaccio, an epic poem in twelve Books (Opere, ed. Branca, vol. II; tr. McCoy). Text and translation of those portions of the Teseida that are reproduced in the Knight’s Tale, with summary of intervening passages, are to be found in SA2 II, which also contains detailed tables of correspondence between the two works. Translated passages of the Teseida with linking s
ummaries are also included in Havely, Chaucer’s Boccaccio, pp. 103–52. Chaucer not only drastically condensed the Teseida but also altered it in significant ways. He removed many of the cause-and-effect connections in Boccaccio’s plot so as to give ‘aventure’ or chance a much greater role in the story (see Mann, ‘Chance and Destiny’, pp. 106–9); he turned Boccaccio’s decorative references to astrology and to the pagan gods into a coherent cosmo-logical framework for the action; he added passages of Boethian questioning and reflection which probe the meaning of the story’s events; and he made subtle but telling adjustments to the roles played by Palamon, Arcite, Emily and Theseus. For a detailed analysis of the relation between the two works, see P. Boitani, Chaucer and Boccaccio (Oxford, 1977).

  Rubric Iamque domos …: The lines are from the Thebaid of Statius (XII.519–20), a Latin epic of the first century ad, which recounts the strife in Thebes following on Oedipus’s self-blinding and cursing of the sons born of his incestuous marriage. For Theseus’s place in the story of Thebes, see n. to Kn 932. Boccaccio drew on the Thebaid in writing his Teseida, and it was also directly known to Chaucer (see Wise, Influence of Statius). The Latin quotation stands before the Knight’s Tale in El, Hg and many other manuscripts, and its presence is highly likely to be due to Chaucer himself. A fuller version of it appears in Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite, the narrative of which likewise begins with Theseus’s triumphal return.

  866–7 The identification of ‘Femenye’, the land of the Amazons, with Scythia is ultimately based on the quotation from Statius cited above (Magoun, p. 140), and adopted by Boccaccio, Teseida I.6.

  884 Neither Boccaccio nor Statius mentions a tempest at Theseus’s return (Wise, Influence of Statius, pp. 47–9).

  892 At this point Hg has a heading, ‘Incipit narracio’ (‘The story begins’), which is not in El. The two manuscripts differ on the internal divisions of the tale: Hg marks only one break, after line 1880, whereas El marks breaks after lines 1354, 1880 and 2482. I have followed El.

  925 The changeability of Fortune was frequently represented in classical and medieval art and literature by the image of a wheel, which never stops turning; see Patch, Goddess Fortuna, ch. 5. Cf. Boece II pr.2.51–4: ‘I torne the whirlynge wheel with the turnynge sercle; I am glad to chaungen the loweste to the heyeste, and the heyeste to the loweste.’

  932 Capaneus was one of the so-called Seven Against Thebes, who attacked the city with Oedipus’s son Polynices when his brother Eteocles broke his agreement to share its rule with him. In the ensuing battle Eteocles, Polynices and all except one of his six companions were slain. The story is told at length in Statius’s Thebaid (see Headnote), which concludes with the account of the widows’ subsequent appeal to Theseus to give their husbands burial, and Theseus’s revenge on Creon.

  938–47 Creon had seized power in Thebes after the death of Eteocles and Polynices. Boccaccio explains in a gloss to his poem that Creon’s refusal of burial to those who had attacked the city was an act of revenge for their failure to bury his son, who had been killed in the fighting and had fallen outside the city walls.

  975 Following the Teseida (I.3), Chaucer gives Mars the cognomen ‘the rede’ at Kn 1747 and 1969; the colour of blood suits the god of war, and is also the colour of the planet Mars.

  980 The Minotaur was a monstrous creature, half man, half bull, to which the Athenians were compelled by Minos, king of Crete, to offer a regular tribute of young men and women, chosen by lot. The lot eventually fell on Theseus, but he slew the Minotaur, and with the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne escaped from the labyrinth in which it was kept. The story is told by Chaucer in LGW, where Theseus is presented as a heartless deceiver rather than the wise and ‘pitous’ hero of the Knight’s Tale. Boccaccio, in contrast, conceives the action of the Teseida as taking place before the Minotaur episode (VI.46).

  1016 The ‘cote-armure’ is a light surcoat worn over plate-armour, bearing a heraldic device by which the wearer could be identified (see nn. to GP 73–6 and Th 857–68). See also n. to Kn 1129–40.

  1024 raunsoun: As the account of the Hundred Years War in Frois-sart’s Chronicles makes clear, combatants in war could expect large profits from ransoming their captives; Theseus’s refusal to take ransom (which is not mentioned by Boccaccio) is thus to be taken as a sign of his unmercenary character.

  1057 The ‘dongeoun’ of a medieval castle was not an underground chamber, but the keep-tower, which was a ‘castle within a castle’, as it were, and thus a suitable place to hold prisoners. Palamon and Arcite are lodged on an upper storey of the keep (see Kn 1065).

  1087–8 Saturn is here represented not as a god, but as a planet, whose influence on human affairs is malevolent. See further n. to Kn 2454 ff.

  1129–40 Palamon’s reproach implies that he and Arcite are ‘brothers in arms’ (as also indicated at Kn 1012 by their wearing the same heraldic device in battle). Brotherhood-in-arms was a legally enforceable bond entered into by two knights, ratified by a solemn oath or exchange of documents, which obliged them to treat each other’s interests as their own (see M. Keen, Nobles, Knights, and Men-at-Arms in the Middle Ages (London and Rio Grande, 1996), pp. 43–62).

  1164 In Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which Chaucer translated, this dictum is a comment on Orpheus’s failure to obey the instruction not to look behind him at his wife Eurydice as he led her out of hell (Boece III m.12.52–3). It was also proverbial (Whiting L579).

  1177–80 There is no exact parallel to this story in the surviving medieval fable-collections, but its narrative pattern (excessive desire leading to total loss) is characteristic of the form.

  1191–1200 The story that Theseus followed Pirithous into hell after his death is found in the Romance of the Rose (8119–24, tr. Horgan, p. 125), but there Jean de Meun seems to be garbling the more usual legend that the two heroes went to hell together with the aim of carrying off Proserpina as a wife for Pirithous.

  1252 on Fortune*] Hg and El both read ‘of Fortune’, but in the Boethian scheme of things ‘purveiaunce’ belongs to God alone, not to Fortune (Boece IV pr.6); it is likely therefore that Fortune is a separate object of complaint.

  1260 witen nat what thing*] witen nat what El; woot nat what thing that Hg. The El/Hg versions are both unmetrical; the two metrical alternatives are ‘witen nat what thing’ and ‘witen nat what that’, and the ugly threefold repetition of ‘-at’ makes the latter unlikely. The most likely explanation is that ‘thing’ dropped out in El, and ‘that’ was added in Hg.

  Arcite’s statement is later ironically verified by his own case when he prays for victory in the tournament and this leads indirectly to his death.

  1261 dronke … as a mous: Proverbial; see Whiting M731, and cf. WB 246.

  1262–74 Arcite’s speech here echoes Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which uses the comparison with the drunkard who cannot find his way home to describe the condition of human beings, ‘exiled’ on earth and unable to find the true way to the heavenly home to which they are drawn by natural instinct (Boece III pr.2.82–8). They ‘seken fast after felicitee’, but mistakenly imagine it is to be found in such incomplete and transitory earthly goods as riches, honour, power, fame and pleasure, whereas perfect happiness is to be found only in God, the supreme and eternal good. Ironically, Arcite’s identification of Emily as the sole source of his ‘wele’ would, from Boethius’s point of view, be equally mistaken.

  1302 The comparison with the box-tree also appears at LGW 866, and may be proverbial.

  1313–14 This question is central to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written when he was disgraced and imprisoned. Lamenting his undeserved misfortunes, he questions God’s ‘gov-ernaunce’ of the world, which inflicts misery on the innocent and allows the guilty to prosper (Boece I m.5). He also complains that divine foresight deprives humankind of free will (Boece V pr.3). In the course of the work, Lady Philosophy patiently shows him that these complaints are mistaken. Chaucer develops Boe-
thius’s lament one stage further, having Palamon complain that the gods treat men like beasts and yet still require them to live by moral principles.

  1329 Juno’s hostility to Thebes, which is a constant theme of Boccaccio’s Teseida, was caused by Jupiter’s adultery with the Theban women Semele and Alcmena.

  1348 Questions of this sort (‘demaundes d’amour’) were popular in medieval literature, whether as the subject of debate-poems or as a response to narrative situations; Book IV of Boccaccio’s Filocolo contains stories specifically designed to generate them. Cf. Fkl 1621–2.

  1374 hereos: The word is a confusion of Greek eros, ‘love’, with Latin heros, ‘hero’ and herus, ‘lord’. Medieval physicians defined lovesickness, or ‘amor hereos’, as a disease, whose symptoms accord with those ascribed to Arcite at Kn 1361–71. If un-corrected, it was thought to lead to mania, caused by an excess of the humour of melancholy (see n. to GP 333). See J. L. Lowes, MP, 11 (1914), 491–546, and M. F. Wack, Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The Viaticum and its Commentaries (Philadelphia, PA, 1990).

  1376 Biforen, in his celle*] Biforn his owene celle El; Biforn his celle Hg. Neither El’s nor Hg’s version offers good sense or metre; the omission of ‘in’ may have been caused by failure to grasp the medical data, and El’s addition of ‘owene’ is a characteristic example of scribal over-explicitness.

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