The Red Book of Shalfleet reproduces the order of tales found in the early fifteenth century Ellesmere Manuscript.
Born into an affluent family of the merchant class sometime around 1342, Geoffrey Chaucer was the son of a London wine-importer. His father used his association with the English royal family and the court of King Edward III to procure for his young son a position at court as a page, and by his late twenties, Geoffrey was representing his king on diplomatic and trade missions abroad. This probably suited him better than the one experience he gained at fighting, in 1359 whilst in his late-teens, which had resulted in his capture by the French and subsequent ransoming, during one of the English expeditions in the Hundred Years War.
A long and successful career in royal service saw Geoffrey travel twice to Italy on the king’s business, during his thirties, where he gained first-hand contact with the works of the renowned contemporary Italian poets Petrarch and Boccaccio. He became responsible for collecting the wool customs at the thriving port of London and spent many hours, as he tells us in the House of Fame, pouring over his books of account. But in his spare time, he read, and read, and read. And he also found time to compose a little poetry.
One of his early poems was a consolatory narrative for John of Gaunt, an influential son of King Edward III, whose wife Blanche had tragically died in her early to mid- twenties. This poem set the tone, perhaps, for the rest of Geoffrey’s poetic output during his life. Given the breadth of his learning – and it was prodigious indeed – the Book of the Duchess is perhaps puzzling in that, despite its intention to console a bereaved husband, Geoffrey chooses to exercise his poetic imagination in a landscape populated not by characters from the Bible, which might be expected in a pious, Catholic age, but by figures from Greek and Roman mythology. Even the stained glass windows in his dream vision depict not Biblical scenes but scenes from pagan myth. He tells Ovid’s tale of Alcyone, who was turned into a bird. Then Geoffrey transports his listener back to the age of the Roman Emperor Augustus in order to console a bereaved knight, in a woodland full of wild animals.
Another late-medieval knight, somewhere, sometime, felt inspired to throw a sword into a Lincolnshire river whose sediments already hid many such votive offerings, dating back to the Iron Age.
In his thirties and early-forties, the poems the House of Fame and the Legend of Good Women, as well as the epic Troilus and Cressida, continued Geoffrey’s fascination with the pagan past. The House of Fame sees the poet emerge from a temple of Venus and carried up in the claws of an eagle to a place in the sky where a goddess stands with her feet on the Earth and her head in the heavens. Here the ancient Greek poet Orpheus plays his lyre, and here Geoffrey encounters the Greek goddesses Circe and Calypso, and the early heretic Simon Magus. The Legend of Good Women has Geoffrey encounter another goddess, in a flowery meadow this time, a woman who was once mortal and who was rescued from the underworld by Heracles and brought back into the upper world, as Euripides relates in his ancient Athenian play Alcestis.
During the time that he was writing these works, and afterwards, Geoffrey composed narrative poems that would later be used in the Canterbury Tales. Twenty-four of these tales remain in all, one of them only a fragment, each spoken from the mouth of a pilgrim travelling from Southwark near London to the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, By stringing together a collection of short stories in an overarching narrative, Geoffrey was emulating a work completed in 1353 by the Italian poet Boccaccio, the Decamaron, where tales are told by young members of the nobility as they hide in a secluded villa in the countryside outside plague-ridden Florence over the space of a fortnight. Chaucer presents a much more diverse collection of narrators, but perhaps significantly, his unfinished collection of tales is jarringly terminated by a long and uncharacteristically turgid sermon in prose by a parish priest, on the theme of penitence.
Incorporated into this sermon, at the very end, is a retraction by Geoffrey of many of his works, including the Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, the Legend of Good Women and ‘those of the Canterbury Tales that echo with sin.’ It is as though Chaucer himself has given this sermon, and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that such an uncharacteristic Canterbury tale – one that very few modern translators have thought deserving of the effort of retelling – may have been composed not through the poet's own choice but rather as a penance in itself. One or two hints of this will be presented in a moment. It was certainly written to complete the Canterbury Tales and bring it to a close, although the work remains unfinished.
After spending many years at Aldgate, in the City of London and then at a house in Greenwich on the south bank of the River Thames, in the county of Kent, Geoffrey moved into a small house in the garden of the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey where he died in 1400. Perhaps the Canterbury Tales had lain unfinished for some time, before he died.
In the light of his previous work, it is interesting to look at the tales themselves to see if there is anything that the Church may have taken exception to, anything that might have caused the Church to advise Geoffrey that a suitable act of penance may be in order, and what better way to fulfil such a penance than to translate into English a long Christian work, available at the time only in French and Latin, on the very theme of penitence and penance. What more suitable container could there be for a recanting heretic – ‘God forbid that we should describe you in such blunt terms Geoffrey, but think what an opportunity it will afford you, to include a retraction of all those works of yours that stray into pagan sinfulness and to round the story off, so you won’t need to write any more and won’t have to go to prison.’
If the majority of the Canterbury Tales are found to display a pious, religious orthodoxy, of course, this will be a ridiculous hypothesis. So what are the Canterbury Tales about? What do they contain?
Ironies and subtleties
Just as love is in the eye of the beholder, of course, so irony is in the ear of the listener. It may be a matter of opinion, for example, if, when told the story of a man who is pulled off the street in order to toast the bride at a wedding, whose proper guests have all declined to attend, and then gets a severe reprimand for being dressed in his work clothes, a listener guesses that the narrator has either garbled his source or is making a subtle point. When the narrator turns out to be none other than the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the poem in question Cleanness, the question of a garbled source becomes less likely. One’s suspicions are aroused.
Second Nun's Tale
In the same way, when Chaucer adds to the Canterbury Tales a life of Saint Cecilia that he wrote many years earlier and puts it into the mouth of the Second Nun, one can assume that he had a lot of time to think of a suitable prologue and that what he wrote in that prologue must therefore be relevant. So why choose to preface a work about a Christian saint who persuades her new husband to allow her to retain her virginity and sends him off to be received into the faith by a bishop who spends his days in hiding, with a complaint against idleness? The Second Nun makes a big thing in her prologue about criticising laziness, for no apparent reason connected to the story, and ‘ydelnesse [that is] rotten slogardye, of which ther never comth no good encrees,’ when going on to extol a life of chastity and an early Christian Pope spending his days lurking hidden in a graveyard, earning his keys to heaven the ascetic way. Is this a personal view of Geoffrey's, finding its way into his introduction? One that is mirrored in the prologue to the Monk's tale, when Harry Baily bitterly laments the fact that the monk is not allowed to 'parfourne al thy lust in engendrure'?
Canon's Yeoman's Tale
Irony? Then what about this one. The tale that follows the Second Nun’s tale is given by the young assistant of a canon who practices alchemy. This canon is dressed in shabby clothes – as the host observes – but aspires to the Philosopher’s Stone. After the canon has ridden off in shame, we are treated by the Canon’s Yeoman to a tirade against people who are prepared to sacrifice all that they possess in this world in order to pursue the dream of future riches.
Is this to include an ascetic's preparation for heaven?
Unintentional? Then let's look at another tale. Chaucer is often keen to show off his astrological knowledge – he wrote a long treatise on the astrolabe for his young son Lewis – and usually writes quite knowledgeably about it. And as a collecter of customs duties at the Port of London, he would have been well-versed in the importance of a standardised system of weights and measures, which had been in use in England since the beginning of the fourteenth century. So when, at the very beginning of the prologue to the Parson's Tale, he describes for us the length of his shadow in feet which are determined by his own height, and then proclaims that the moon's exultation is in Libra, which is wrong, could he be trying to communicate something? If he was writing the Parson's Tale under duress, might it be possible that he wished to subtly alert his readers and listeners to this fact, as if to say, disregard what follows, it is all rubbish as well? It would explain a curious passage at the beginning of a discussion of the deadly sin of pride, when the Parson lists the things which stem from pride, such as conceit, impatience and a lack of respect. After a list of sixteen or so of these items, Geoffrey gives a brief gloss of each. When he comes to the end of the list, however, he adds one of his own, as though in exasperation: ‘Chattering is when men speak too much and go on and on without stopping, like a mill…’
Near the end of this Parish Priest’s Tale, having written reams and reams on penitence and contrition, confession and the seven deadly sins, the sermon goes on to discuss penance. Here Geoffrey Chaucer makes what sounds like a personal plea to his friends: ‘Remember that a man has a general need for these following things: for food, for clothing, a place to shelter, for good advice, to visits when he is in prison… And if you cannot visit in person the man who is in need, send other people with your communications and your gifts.’
Of course, none of this is at all conclusive. Geoffrey may not have been threatened with prison when he wrote the Parson’s Tale and he may have translated these passages straight out of the text he was copying from. Here is something of a scientific prediction then: that these comments about jabbering on and on and visiting a man in prison are genuine asides by Geoffrey. Email me if you are able to perform this experiment.
Immediately prior to the Parson’s tale, Geoffrey tells a story about the perils of revealing too much. Why does he do this? Are there secrets that have to be guarded? Will careless talk cost lives?
A talkative crow divulges to the god Apollo news of his wife’s infidelity. Apollo kills his wife, then turns his savage rage upon the crow. In a long winding-up, the Manciple gives his listeners his mother’s advice: ‘Many a man has been destroyed for want of a little discretion, as clergymen will tell you. But in general, with a little caution, no man is killed. A tongue should be restrained at all times, except when you are doing your best to speak of God, in honour and in prayer. The primary virtue, son, if you will learn it, is to restrain and have full control over your tongue… Kepe wel thy tonge, and thenk up-on the crowe.’
Animals with human consciousness
The Manciple’s tale is not the only Canterbury Tale to feature a talking bird. Nor were the Canterbury Tales Geoffrey’s first occasion to introduce such a thing into a storyline. The Parliament of Fowls is one of Geoffrey’s earlier poems included in the retraction of his own works at the end of the Parson’s long sermon on penitence. This human-like discussion amongst a gathering of birds on Saint Valentine’s Day, presided over by the goddess Nature, is mirrored in the Canterbury Tales by a story in which Chanticleer the cockerel discusses the significance of dreams to one of his wives in the henhouse, citing Cato and Seneca and many other learned authorities, for: ‘…at this time, I understand, animals and birds could speak and sing.’
Nun's Priest's Tale
Having cited many learned opinions upon the significance of dreams, Chanticleer the cockerel lets his wife talk him into believing that his nightmare about a fox is nothing but a result of indigestion and constipation. So he struts about in the yard, encounters a fox hiding in the long grass, gets talked into stretching out his neck to give out a loud crow, is seized, carried away and manages to use a fox’s own cunning to talk his captor into a momentary indiscretion that allows him to escape.
A talking bird features in the Squire’s Tale as well. In this tale of medieval wonders from the east, a magic ring allows Canice, the king's daughter, to understand the language of the birds and to speak with them in their own tongue. Unlike the pagan hero Sigurd, however, who understands the chattering of the birds after eating the heart of Fafnir the dragon, in the Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs – and the eponymous medieval Sir Isumbras, who encounters a talking bird in a woodland – she is not given a warning by the birds but has her heart strings pulled when she encounters a female hawk lamenting for its lost lover.
If the Franklin had allowed him to, the Squire would have gone on to give a long epic in the style of a medieval romance, but he is cut short. His father, however, has already told a long story, well-acclaimed by the Canterbury pilgrims, that might be classed as a romance.
The Knight’s Tale is set in the time when Theseus ruled ancient Athens. It involves a lavish description of the temples built by Theseus to adorn a great amphitheatre constructed for the sole purpose of putting on a tournament at which the cousins Palamon and Arcite can fight for the hand in marriage of the beautiful Emily. Palamon visits the temple of Venus and receives assurances from this goddess that he will win the hand of Emily in marriage. Arcite visits the temple of Mars and receives similar assurances from this war god that he will win the tournament and the hand of Emily in marriage. Dilemma in heaven. How to proceed?
I will leave the reader to find out how this problem is solved. Suffice to say, Arcite wins the tournament and Palamon marries Emily.
Geoffrey's tale of Sir Thopas
Chaucer himself tries to tell a romance later in the Canterbury Tales, albeit a much cruder one than the knight’s, and is understandably cut short by the host for his pains. ‘Such dreadful rhyming is not worth a turd!’ complains Harry Bailey.
Geoffrey’s tale of Sir Thopas is generally regarded as a parody. It concerns a young man who, like the Irish mythological Noisiu, whom Derdriu (Deirdre) falls in love with, displays exaggerated facial colouring and who, like the eponymous hero of the Breton lai Guigemar, cannot fall in love. One day, he gallops through a forest looking for an elf-queen – I have it on good authority that galloping wildly through a forest is not a wise thing to do – and soon encounters a giant. This giant bears the same name as a dead soldier who once defended Stirling castle in the time of King Edward II, Sir Oliphant. He warns Sir Thopas to leave this area of the forest since the queen of elves lives thereabouts. They agree to fight one another once Sir Thopas has fetched his armour. Oh for God’s sake…
Melibeus and Dame Prudence
Having been stopped in his tracks, Geoffrey tells another story instead, prefaced, perhaps, by another subtly as he explains that tales told in different ways can still be about the same thing. Does he mean his own two stories or the different versions of the tale he is about to tell? Like the tale from the Knight (which is based upon Boccaccio’s Teseida delle nozze di Emilia), this tale about Melibeus and his wife Prudence is not Geoffrey’s own, but a translation of the Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence, itself a retelling of a thirteenth century Latin work concerning a man who does great good by following the advice of a woman. Not, however, an elf-queen this time.
A woman is often the heroine in the twelfth century Breton lais of Marie de France. The knight Guigemar, who cannot bring himself to fall in love, only finds the ability to love after having been badly injured and taken by a mysterious boat, like King Arthur, to a distant land overseas where he is healed of his wound by a lady.
Wife of Bath's Tale
The Wife of Bath tells a tale that is set in the time of King Arthur. It is a tale that, like the quest of Sir Perceval, involves a knight seeking the answer to a question. In this case, the knight’s life depends upon him receiving the correct answer, which he does from an old hag who seems to materialise from a group of twenty-four women who are dancing in a circle, in a forest. The hag insists that, in return for saving his life, he must marry her.
On their wedding night, a scene is played out that recalls one from the ancient Irish tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warrior champion Diarmuid. In return for the knight’s kindness, this hideous old hag turns into a beautiful young lady.
Man of Law's Tale
A mysterious boat makes an appearance in the Man of Law’s Tale. In a story very similar to the Middle English Breton lai Emaré, a young heroine named Constance narrowly escapes death in the eastern Mediterranean by being set adrift in a small boat. After having spent an improbable length of time alone at sea, without fresh water, she finds a new life in Northumberland. But then the same thing happens again. Death threatens, and she is set adrift once more on the open sea. She reaches her home city of Rome this time, where her relatives seem not to know who she is, and she makes no attempt to reveal her identity to them.
The sea features also in the Franklin’s tale, which comes from Brittany, we are told. A young man is smitten with love and broods for a while, until one evening, at a party, he declares his love to the lady who has stolen his heart. In reply, she tells him that she will consider his suit only if he is able to clear all the jagged rocks away from the coast of Brittany. She is married, but her husband is overseas and the rocks are preying on her mind, lest his ship should founder on its return. But how can a young man remove them all? She is in no danger on that score!
However, this is an age of ‘Breton clerks’, Breton clerics who seem to possess druidical powers. The young man finds a magician, perhaps a druid, who agrees, for a large fee, to remove all the coastal rocks of Brittany for a fortnight, much as the old druids of Irish literature were able to conjure storms and other illusions. But the tale ends with morality upheld on all sides, in contrast to the debauchery of Christian times that Chaucer presents to us.
A magical trick plays a central part in the Merchant’s Tale as well, although performed on this occasion by a pagan god. The tale has many of the hallmarks of a Breton lai, although set in northern Italy. The Middle English Breton lai Sir Gowther is set in Austria and Rome, so a setting in Brittany is not a requirement. Northern Italy, in fact, is the old Celtic region of Cisalpine Gaul, and the Merchant’s tale, having rehearsed the common Breton storyline of a young woman married to a possessive and jealous old man, then characteristically reveals an Otherworld when the story takes us at last into a garden where the god of the underworld and his consort Proserpine (Percephone) like to take the air.
Without giving away the ins and outs of the story, we are treated in the final moments of the tale to the spectacle of a young lady in a pear tree having energetic sex with a young man, assuring her old blind husband below – who’s sight has just been magically restored by the god of the underworld – that procreating with a young man in a tree is the best way of returning the old man's eyesight to him. Read the tale, it’s a good one.
Odd little moments
This moment in the Merchant’s Tale in which the old husband magically regains his eyesight, only to immediately wish that he hadn’t, may be one in which you can feel that the scales have fallen from your own eyes. It may explain why the old man has been given the name January – signifying the depths of winter – and his wife the name May, as in the turning of the seasons. A way for an old man to regain his lost faculties may well be through sex and rebirth, as a passage in the Pardoner’s Tale seems to hint at as well:
Three young men emerge from a tavern looking for the scoundrel Death. They soon encounter a white-haired old man who answers their enquiry into why he has lived for so long with the repost: ‘For I am unable yet to find a man, though I might walk from here to India looking for one, neither in the countryside nor in any city, who will exchange his youth for my age; and therefore I must hold onto my years for a little while longer… I walk like a helpless wretch; and on the ground, which is my mother’s entrance, I knock with my stick from morning until evening, calling: “Dear mother, let me in!”’
The image of a young man and woman copulating in a fruit tree as an old man regains his eyesight, and another old man looking for a young man to exchange his old age with, are memorable moments in the Canterbury Tales. Another occurs in the Summoner’s Tale which presents to us an image of twelve friars kneeling before a wheel. How could one contrive to bring it about that twelve friars might be persuaded to kneel down before a wheel? Only a poet of the calibre of Geoffrey Chaucer might be trusted to bring this about, and he pulls it off with great aplomb, although at the cost of a little rudeness towards friars.
The Prioress’s Tale presents yet another odd little moment. The tale is best known for its anti-Semitism, which in the fourteenth century was not unusual in Christian Europe. But what is not so usual is for an abbot to find that the thing preventing a little boy, whose throat has been cut from ear to ear, from dying, is a seed that has been put into his mouth by the Virgin Mary. When the abbot removes this seed from the little boy’s mouth, the child expires; as though his life is somehow associated with this seed. Or is now, in fact, a seed.
Oxford Cleric's Tale
The Oxford Cleric’s Tale has similarities with the Breton lais. Like the Merchant’s Tale it is set in northern Italy and involves a woman in an unhappy marriage. Well, you would think it would be unhappy. She was a poor girl before she married, and her husband, a marquis, has felt obliged to put her through prolongued anguish by twice taking away their young children, letting her imagine that they will be killed at his command, in order to observe her reaction to his demand. He requires absolute obedience from Griselda, much like the elderly husband of the wife whom Guigemar encounters in her prison-castle facing the sea, and who heals his wound, in the Breton lai of Marie de France, before sailing in a magical boat with candles at the prow to Brittany to look for him.
There is no such escape for Griselda, and neither does she look for one. She seems happy to comply with her husband’s wishes and to believe that her children are dead. Unbeknown to her, her children are not dead. But soon her husband lets it be known that he wishes to marry again. Griselda is sent back to her father’s hovel to live. Their twelve-year-old daughter is sent for.
Soon, the reader is treated to the image of Griselda, dressed in rags, organising wedding preparations, like a housekeeper, for her own husband, who is about to marry a young girl who is actually their own daughter; like actors in a Greek tragedy they have all been required to put on new masks. But this is a comedy. All turns out well in the end.
Friar, Summoner, Monk, Miller, Reeve, Shipman, Wife of Bath, Canon's Yeoman
Representatives of the Church are not treated with any great respect in the Canterbury Tales, with the possible exception of the Prioress and her nuns and priest, and the Parson. The Friar and the Summoner are at each other’s throats, the Monk tells such a boring and depressing collection of stories that the Knight stops him after a while, the Shipman tells a tale about a monk who seduces his best friend’s wife and steals money from him in order to do so, the Pardoner reveals the outright lies and deceptions that he deals in when selling Church indulgences and the money that he makes under false pretences, the Miller tells of a minor cleric and an Oxford student who are intent upon seducing a carpenter’s wife, and the Reeve, who is a carpenter, tells a story of two Cambridge students – the sort of young men who will one day reach high office in the Church – who seduce a miller’s wife and daughter in the same bedroom, at the same time. The Canon's Yeoman tells a tale about a religious canon who goes about the country preying upon clergymen's greed and earning a good living as a confidence trickster.
The Friar’s tale about a summoner is particularly offensive. He paints all summoners – those individuals employed by an archdeacon to bring to justice folk accused of offenses against the Church – as thieves, deceivers and extortionists. In his tale, a summoner befriends a devil and is taken with him back to hell after trying to deceive and threaten a poor widow into giving him all her money. In repost, the summoner tells a story of an avaricious friar who, in the end, is presented with the problem of how to divide a fart into twelve equal portions, so that his brothers can sniff it as well.
At the beginning of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, we are told that her story takes place at a time when ‘the Queen of Elves, with her jolly company, could often be seen dancing in the meadows, or so people thought: I speak of many hundreds of years ago, for there are no elves to be found anywhere now. Friars and churchmen have seen to that, spreading across the land a thickly as flecks of dust in a sunbeam, blessing everything in sight… Where once there was an elf, now there is a friar, chanting his matins; ladies in orchards have only him to fear now.’
Harry Bailey is prompted to declare, after hearing the Shipman’s Tale: ‘Offer no hospitality to monks, this is my advice!’
A fine, ancient world
Physician, Knight, Franklin
In contrast, most of the Canterbury Tales set in the pagan era paint it as a time of great moral virtue. The Franklin’s Tale, in particular, if indeed it is a story set in pagan times, not only sees the wife agree honourably, at her husband’s insistence, to giving the young man her love once the rocks of Brittany have all disappeared, but the young man in turn magnanimously refuses her offer, even though he has almost bankrupted himself in the effort to secure it, and even the druid, if druid he is, then magnanimously annuls the young man’s debt.
The Physician’s Tale is set in ancient, pagan times, and concerns a young lady whose virtue is such that she would rather that her father cut off her head than be raped by a wicked old judge. The Knight’s Tale depicts Theseus as a just and reasonable ruler, who is prepared to go out of his way to build a magnificent stadium in which a tournament can take place for the hand of his sister-in-law Emily, even though her hand in marriage is sought by two of his enemies who have spent time in his prison.
Admiration of Seneca, Cato, Cicero, Ovid, Livy and other learned pagan authors permeates the Canterbury Tales. As Geoffrey tells us in the preface to his Legend of Good Women: One should believe what one reads in old books. ‘Wel oghte us than honouren and believe these bokes, ther we han non other preve.’