The Canterbury Tales |
Background and Summaries
Purpose: "The Prologue" sets the scene—the Tabard Inn on Borough High Street in Southwark (pronounced SUTH erk), across the Thames River from central London—and introduces thirty pilgrims, including the narrator. It also introduces the host who will accompany them on their trip to
Canterbury the following day. "The Prologue" reveals Chaucer's understanding of humanity, with all its foibles and eccentricities, and his ability to write with concision, humor, and gentle satire. "The Prologue" is an important structural device that establishes the unity of a group of diverse middle-class citizens who will be telling separate stories on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket. Absent from the group introduced at the Tabard Inn is the canon's yeoman, who catches up with the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury.
Setting: The action begins on a day in April in the late 1300s—probably 1383—at the
Tabard Inn in the borough of Southwark, across the Thames River from central London. It continues the next morning.
Theme 1:Camaraderie: Although the pilgrims come from different backgrounds and exhibit different temperaments and preferences,
they are all one in their enthusiastic acceptance of one another as comrades.
Theme 2: Adventure: The gathering of the pilgrims, many of them armed with swords and daggers to protect themselves on their journey, suggests adventure. True, their destination, Canterbury, was only
fifty-six miles away. But in Chaucer's world, traveling such a distance took far more time time than it does today to travel by air from New York to Hong Kong.
Theme 3: Atonement: Many pilgrims hope to gain expiation or other spiritual benefits from visiting Becket's tomb.
To be sure, some pilgrims are merely going along for the ride. But other pilgirms seek the benefits of a religious experience.
.......When April rains coax flowers from the soil, pilgrims begin traveling to holy places in distant lands and, in England, to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in the great cathedral at Canterbury. The pilgrims themselves are flowers that bud and open on the
journey to Canterbury.
.......At the Tabard Inn in Southwark, across the Thames from central London, the narrator sits at a table and observes twenty-nine pilgrims as they arrive for the trip to Canterbury. Before the sun sets,
the narrator speaks with all the travelers, who agree to get up early the next day to begin the trip.
.......The narrator identifies the pilgrims as follows:
.......A knight who has traveled throughout Christian and heathen countries, performing great deeds. With his sword, he has seen service in Alexandria, Lithuania, Russia, Spain, and elsewhere, taking part in fifteen battles and performing bravely
and nobly. He is truly a man to look up to.
.......A squire who accompanies his father, the knight. Though only in his early twenties, the squire has already seen cavalry service in Flanders, Artois, and Picardy. With his deeds
he hopes to win the heart of a fair lady. He sings, plays the flute, dances, and composes verses and songs. Not a little of his time he spends on the art of love. He is well-mannered and humble and carves meat for his father at the dinner table.
.......A yeoman who is the squire's servant. He has a bow and sheaf of arrows, as well as a dagger on his hip. Next to him, to one side, are a sword and shield. He is skilled at woodcraft.
.......A prioress, Madam Eglantine, who sings beautifully in church, can speak French well, and exhibits exquisite table manners. And how charitable this nun is. She cries when she sees a mouse caught in a trap. She wears a pleated wimple (head covering), a fine cloak, and a rosary on her wrist.
.......A second nun and a priest, who accompany the prioress.
.......A monk, who is bald and husky and loves to hunt and ride
horses with bridles that jingle. He has the makings of an abbot. He keeps not often to his cell, for he thinks the rules of his religious order are too strict. Nor does he favor long hours of study or long hours of manual labor. To aid him in his hunting of the hare, he keeps swift greyhounds.
.......A friar, Hubert, who is a merry chap talented at idle chatter and arranging marriages for beautiful ladies. Well known is he throughout his county, for he is pleasant to all when he hears confessions. He gives small penances that bring him gifts. He can sing and fiddle, and
in taverns where he is a frequent guest. He also mingles with the merchants and the rich, from whom he accrues a profit.
.......Also among the pilgrims are a bearded merchant, proud and boastful, who buys and sells French
currency; an Oxford student, thin and threadbare, who studies logic; a sergeant of the law in a motley coat who buys land with fees he collects; and a franklin (freeborn landholder), red in complexion with a white beard, who loves wine and meat and all the delights that tempt people. He once served as a sheriff and a county auditor.
.......Others include a haberdasher, dyer, carpenter, tapestry maker, and weaver. All bear the markings of success in the attire of their guild and in their fine belts and pouches. They have a cook to prepare their
chickens and serve their Cyprus wine.
.......There is a skipper with a dagger dangling from a strap. Because he has no conscience, he drank the wine of a sleeping merchant while sailing from Bordeaux on The
Maudelayne. But he is the best of navigators, plotting his course by the moon and the stars.
.......The pilgrims also include the following:
.......A physician who loves gold.
.......A wife from near the town of Bath who has visited Jerusalem three times and gone to the
marriage altar five times. An excellent clothier is she. She is a bit deaf and wears fine kerchiefs on her head and fine hose of scarlet red.
.......A parson who is learned and holy and would rather give than take. He is
never proud or self-righteous.
.......A plowman, the parson's brother, who loves God and loves his neighbor.
.......Rounding out the company of pilgrims are a miller, a reeve (officer of a manor), a summoner, (who serves legal papers accusing a person of a crime), a pardoner, (a priest who gives indulgences remitting sin in exchange for money for the church) a manciple (a
purchaser of provisions for an institution), and the narrator.
.......After welcoming the pilgrims to the Tabard Inn, their host, Harry Bailly—merry, robust man who is the proprietor of the
Tabard—serves them good food and strong wine. He then proposes a way for them to amuse themselves on their journey: Each pilgrim will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way back. The best storyteller will receive a supper at the Tabard paid for by all. The host says he is willing to ride along to make the pilgrims merry and act as their guide
at his own expense. Everyone happily agrees to Bailly's proposal and accepts him as their guide.
.......In the morning, the host rouses everyone. When they draw lots to see who tells the first tale, the knight wins the honor. In a
moment, they are on their way.
Type of Story: "The Knight's Tale" is a chivalric romance. It centers on the the love two young men have for the same woman. Although set in ancient Athens, it follows the practices and ideals of medieval chivalry. There is little character development.
Source: Chaucer based "The Knight's Tale" on The Teseida of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). Written in 1340-41, the twelve-canto epic centers on two young men, Arcita and Palemone, who vie for the love of a young woman.
action takes place in ancient Athens and its environs over several years. However, the spirit, traditions, and ideals of medieval chivalry prevail during the story.
Theme 1: Estrangement and Reconciliation: After two cousins fall in love at first
sight with same woman, they become desperate rivals. After they lead knights in a duel for her hand, they become friends again after the winner suffers a mortal injury in a fall from his horse and recommends his cousin for the hand of the woman.
2: Wise and Just Leadership in Overcoming Conflict: Theseus, the ruler of Athens, acts wisely and decisively when he goes to war against the ruler of Thebes, Creon, who refuses burial to three warriors killed fighting against him. Denial of burial, even to an enemy, is a violation of one of the most sacred rights of Greek citizens. Theseus defeats Creon and the burials take place.
Theseus again acts wisely in resolving the conflict between the two cousins vying for the hand of the same woman.
Summary of the Tale
.......Theseus, ruler of Athens, conquers Scythia, defeating the Amazons and marrying their queen, Hippolyta. Afterward, he returns to Athens with his new wife and her younger sister, Emily. Along the way, they meet three women who tell Theseus a sad tale. Their husbands died in a war against
Thebes, but the ruler of that city—Creon—has refused to permit their burial.
.......The noble Theseus then declares war on Creon, defeats him, and orders the burial of the
three husbands. Afterward, he captures two of the enemy, cousins Arcite and Palamon, and casts them in jail in Athens for life.
.......One May morning, Arcite and Palamon look out their jail window and see a beautiful young woman,
Emily, picking flowers. Both men fall immediately in love with her, and each lays claim to her even though neither can walk farther than the four walls imprisoning him. They become enemies.
.......By and by, a friend of Arcite speaks
up for him, and the young man gains his freedom. But there is a condition: He must leave Athens and never return.
.......Several years pass. Arcite returns to Athens in disguise, calling himself Philostrate, and gets a job as a page in
service to Emily. He distinguishes himself, and Theseus makes him a squire.
.......Meanwhile, Palamon escapes prison and hatches a plot to win Emily in combat against Athens. While hiding in the woods, he encounters Arcite. They
agree to fight to death on the following day. The winner gets to woo Emily.
.......The next day, Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emily go hunting and come upon Arcite and Palamon dueling. Because Arcite has violated his vow never to
return to Athens and because Palamon is an escapee, Theseus condemns them to death. When the women bewail the sentence, Theseus gives the young men a reprieve. He tells them that they may do as they please for one year, then face each other in a tournament in which each man will marshal one hundred knights to support him. Aware of their love for Emily, he decrees that the winner may marry the
.......Theseus erects an arena for the competition, with an altar honoring Venus on one side and an altar honoring Mars on the other. He declares that the competitors may not use lethal weapons, for he wants all
participants to survive.
.......When the tournament day arrives, the fighting is fierce, but Theseus proclaims Arcite the winner. But, alas, Arcite is thrown from his horse and suffers a mortal injury. Before dying, he beseeches Emily
to take Palamon as her husband if she decides to marry.
.......All Athens grieves for Arcite after he dies. Theseus orders the construction of a fitting sepulcher for the hero and presides at Arcite’s funeral rites before a great
.......After several years pass, the leaders of the government decide to form alliances with other nations and to oversee the affairs of Thebes with a watchful eye. Theseus then summons Palamon and Emily. The time for grieving is
at an end, he says. He tells them that upon the advice of his parliament he wishes Emily and Palamon to marry. And so they are wed in a ceremony attended by nobles and government leaders. As time passes, Palamon and Emily love each other dearly, and never does jealousy or a cross word come between them.
Purpose: "The Miller's Prologue" provides a continuation of the outer story, updating the reader on the activities of the travelers while enabling the narrator to further develop his characterization of them. The prologue also provides a transition from "The Knight's Tale" to the next tale.
Summary: All the travelers agree that the knight’s tale is a fine one long to be remembered. When the host calls on the monk to begin his story, the miller, drunk with ale and wobbly on his horse, refuses to wait his turn, saying he has a tale to match the knight’s. After the
host bids him wait his turn and the reeve bids him remain silent, the miller insists upon telling his tale immediately. If he makes mistakes in telling his tale, he says, blame not him but Southwark ale. And so the churl of a miller tells his story.
Type of Story: "The Miller's Tale" is a fabliau about an elderly carpenter who guards closely his pretty young wife. However, she and her paramour, a student, execute a scheme that tricks the old man and provides an opportunity for the young people to be together.
Source: Not established. Chaucer may have based "The Miller's Tale" on a similar story in Dutch that was retold in another language.
Setting: The action takes place in Oxford, England, in the 1300s.
Key Figure of Speech: Irony. After taking pains to avoid being made a cuckold, the old carpenter ends up a cuckold anyway.
Theme 1: Romantic Roguery: When a young man and the teenage wife of an elderly carpenter seek an adulterous relationship, they work an outrageous mischief that diverts the husband's attention and makes him appear demented.
Theme 2: Gullibility: The old carpenter, John, readily believes the student's story that a great flood will come, and he accepts the student's ridiculous solution: to place tubs on the roof and enter them so that the three of them will float away when the waters
Theme 3: Revenge: Absalom gets revenge for the prank played on him by wielding a red-hot poker against Nicholas when he sticks his buttocks out the window.
Comprehensive Analysis of The Miller's Tale: Universal Teacher, UK
Summary of the Tale
.......In Oxford lives a rich old carpenter, John, with a pretty young wife, Alison. Lodging with them in a rented room is a poor young Oxford student, Nicholas the Handy, who studies astrology. The carpenter’s wife, only eighteen, is wild and capricious. Not wishing to be made a cuckold, he closely
guards her against the eyes of others.
.......One day, after the carpenter goes off to Osney, Nicholas importunes her to submit to him. Out of fear of the old man, she begs him to wait for a more opportune time and to keep secret what
passes between them. Then Nicholas kisses her while his hands roam.
.......While she attends church one day, the eyes of the parish clerk, Absalom, fall upon her. Absalom has golden hair and wears a lacy blue tunic and red hose. From
top to bottom, he is the picture of the latest fashions. Her beauty dazzles him, and in the evening he goes to the carpenter’s house and serenades her. Thereafter, he tries to impress her in many other ways, sending her gifts of wine, mead, ale, cakes, and money. However, she ignores him, and all of his wooing is for naught. It is Nicholas who interests her.
.......Meanwhile, Nicholas and Alison prepare a scheme to rid themselves of John. First, Nicholas keeps to his room for several days, not coming out a single time and not answering knocks on his door. On a Sunday, John sends a servant, Robin, up to knock
on the door with a stone. He pounds and pounds but there is no response. When he looks through the keyhole, he sees Nicholas locked in an upward gaze. The carpenter concludes that he is sick or mad. With a staff, he pries at the door while Robin heaves against it. It falls, revealing Nicholas still locked in his gaze.
.......When Nicholas finally awakens from his stupor, he tells John that his meditation has revealed to him the coming of a great flood. So that he and John and his wife can survive it, John must get three kneading tubs, affix them to the roof with a cord,
and place provisions in them. The tubs must be some distance apart so that no communication can take place. He must also get an axe to cut the cord when the high water comes.
.......On the predicted night of the flood, the
carpenter enters his tub and shortly falls asleep. Nicholas and Alison then go inside the house to be alone with each other. By and by, Absalom arrives to serenade Alison. He will not leave, he says, until they kiss. Alison opens the window and turns around, facing inside. Because it is so dark, Absalom proceeds to give her a kiss on her behind. After he realizes what has happened, he becomes
angry, fetches a red hot coulter (plow blade) from a blacksmith, Master Gervase, and returns to the window and requests another kiss. This time, Nicholas decides to get in on the fun and pokes his behind out the window. Absalom then lets him have it right between the buttocks.
.......Nicholas cries out in great pain. “Help! Water! Water!”
.......Awakening, the old carpenter thinks the flood has arrived. He cuts the cord, the tub crashes down, and the
fall knocks him unconscious. People gather after Alison and Nicholas shout for help. When John comes to, he explains what happened. But Alison and Nicholas deny everything, saying John is insane. They tell the onlookers that John had a fear of “Noel’s flood, bought three kneading tubs, attached them to the roof, and asked Alison and Nicholas each to sit in a tub and wait with him for the
calamity. The people laughed and thereafter regarded him a madman.
.......Thus, Alison and Nicholas got what they wanted, each other, in spite of all the carpenter’s efforts to safeguard his wife’s virtue.
Purpose: "The Reeve's Prologue" presents the pilgrims' reaction to "The Miller's Tale" and comments on the the reeve's temperament and his tendency to digress.
Everyone laughs at the miller’s tale except Oswald the Reeve, an old man with white hair. He is angry that the miller ridiculed a practitioner of his trade, carpentry. After expressing his displeasure at the tale, he talks about the infirmities that he and other elderly persons must face. But the host objects to his digression, calling it preachy, and tells him to get on at once with his tale.
Oswald then says he will tell a story that will make the miller look foolish.
Type of Work:"The Reeve's Tale" is a fabliau in which two students gain revenge against a miller who steals grain.
Source: Not established.
Setting: The action takes place presumably in the 1300s at a mill in the countryside not far from the city of Cambridge, home of Cambridge University. Two of the characters in the story are Cambridge students who take grain to the mill to be ground into meal. The university
received its first charter in 1207.
Theme: The central theme is revenge—or theft begets theft. After the miller steals grain from Cambridge University, two students from
the university gain revenge by stealing the virtue of the miller's daughter and wife.
Summary of the Tale
.......Next to a brook at Trumpington, not far from Cambridge, is a mill run by Simkin, a proud man and a bully with a bald head, a round face, and a snub nose. He can play the pipes, fish, and wrestle. Simkin carries several weapons, including a sword, a knife at his waist, a dagger in a pouch, and
a Sheffield knife inside his hose. He steals corn and ground feed.
.......His wife is the illegitimate daughter of a parson who paid a large dowry to find her a husband after she was brought up in a nunnery. She is a proud woman and
saucy in her speech.
.......When she and the miller go to church on holy days, everyone treats her with respect, calling her “Madam.” To do otherwise or, God forbid, to flirt with her would incur the wrath of Simkin. Simkin and
his wife have daughter of twenty with broad buttocks and a snub nose and a six-month-old baby.
.......Simkin makes a large profit from the fees he charges for grinding grain, especially from the wheat and malt he grinds for the
Cambridge College Solar Hall. One day, while the college manciple (buyer of provisions) is sick in bed, the miller helps himself to huge amounts of the college’s grain—a hundred times more than he usually steals. Two young students from the town of Stretcher, John and Alan, decide to take action against the miller and receive permission from the college warden to take
corn to the mill on his horse the next time the school needs meal.
.......After the young men arrive, they cheerfully greet the miller and inquire about the well-being of his wife and daughter. When the miller asks them what they will
do while he grinds their corn, they tell him they will observe the process as a learning exercise. But the sly miller sees through their ploy. At an opportune moment, he sneaks outside to a tree in the back of the mill, where the horse is tied, and frees it. It runs off toward a fen. He then grinds and sacks the corn. When John goes out to fetch the horse and discovers it missing, the miller’s
wife tells him they did not secure it properly to the tree and it ran off toward the fen. When he and Alan search for it, the miller steals half a bushel of their grain and tells his wife to make it into a cake. He brags that he, a miller, can outwit young men of learning.
.......Late in the evening, the young men return with the horse. Because of the lateness of the hour, they ask to lodge with the miller overnight. He arranges for them to sleep in the family bedroom. After the miller and his wife fall asleep, Alan takes revenge on the miller by joining his daughter in bed. John then moves the baby in its cradle from the foot
of the miller’s bed to the foot of his and Johns bed. After the miller’s wife leaves the room and returns a moment later, the location of the baby's cradle disorients her, and she gets in bed with John.
.......While Alan is in bed with
the miller’s daughter, he learns from her where the miller stashed the stolen grain. As night begins to give way to dawn, Alan goes back to his and Johns bed. But he too becomes disoriented by the location of the cradle and gets in bed with the miller. Because he thinks the miller is John, he tells him all about their shenanigans. An exchange of blows ensues. The miller’s wife and John then wake
up. She takes up a club and wields it against John but strikes the miller instead. John and Alan run off with their ground corn meal.
Purpose: "The Cook's Prologue" presents the pilgrims' reaction to "The Reeve's Tale," presents an appropriate biblical admonition, and comments on the quality of the food the cook prepares.
Summary: "The Reeve’s tale" pleased the cook from London, Roger, who quotes Solomon: “Into your house not every man invite.” Roger says never before has he ever heard of a miller being so completely hoodwinked. The host then advises the cook to tell a story that goes down better than his warmed-over pastries or the geese he prepares.
Type of Work: Because this tale is unfinished, it is difficult to categorize it. However, it resembles both an allegory and an exemplum—an allegory because the main character appears to symbolize thieving spendthrifts, an exemplum because the main character sets a bad example that people should not
Source: Not established.
Setting: The action takes place in the Cheap side district of
Theme: Crime doesn't pay. After an apprentice pilfers money from his master to pay for his wastrel ways, the master regards him as the rotten apple in the barrel and fires him.
Summary of the Tale
.......An apprentice to the victuals trade in London's Cheap side prefers to make merry rather than keep to the shop where he works. He loves to dance—indeed, he is so good at it that people call him Perking Reveler—and he enjoys the company
of young ladies. He frequents taverns and on the streets he rolls the dice. When he lacks money to pay for his wayward ways, he goes to the shop and takes it from his employer’s money box.
.......One day, when Perkin nears the
end of his apprenticeship, he seeks a contract with his master. But the master, now mindful of the apprentice's devious ways, decides to apply the wisdom of a proverb he recalls: "Better is rotten apple out of hoard, / Than that it should rot all the remenant." So he fires Perkin and tells him to go "with sorrow and mischance." Perkin then lodges with a fellow of his kind, who also gambles with
dice and has a wife who keeps a shop for the sake of appearances but sells herself instead.
(Chaucer did not finish this tale.)
|8. The Man of Law's Prologue
Purpose: The prologue informs the reader of the time of day, introduces the lawyer, and comments on the stories Chaucer tells.
Summary: The host, noting that it is already 10
o’clock, comments briefly on the importance of not wasting time, then calls upon the lawyer to tell his tale. The lawyer says he will cooperate but points out that the selection of his tale poses a problem because it is difficult to find one that the writer Chaucer has not already told in one book or another (although, the lawyer says, Chaucer's meter and rhymes are not always on the mark). Then
he says he will proceed anyway, noting he does not care "a bean" about serving up story that may not appeal to some. Unlike Chaucer, he says, he will tell his story in prose even though he tells it in verse.
|10. The Man of Law's Tale
Type of Work: "The Lawyer's Tale" is an exemplum stressing the importance of fidelity to Christian ideals. Character development is minimal.
Source: Chaucer based "The Man of
Law's Tale" on "The Life of Constance," a story in Nicholas Trivet's Anglo-Norman Chronicle (1328-1335).
Setting: The time is the Christian era after the development of Islam. The places are Syria, Rome, the English county of Northumberland,
and ships at sea.
Theme: Virtuous Living Ultimately Yields Rewards: The main character, Constance, undergoes many hardships and trials. But her virtuous living, which sets a good example for others, ultimately brings her happiness.
Summary of the Tale
.......Wealthy Syrian merchants who trade in spices, satins, and other commodities visit Rome and hear stories about the emperor’s daughter, Constance. Every report says she possesses unequalled beauty. Yet she is humble, not proud. Moreover, she is courteous, generous, and mature beyond her
.......After they see her, they sail back to Syria full of wonder at her many charms.
.......The sultan always entertains the merchants after they return from a trip so that they may acquaint him with the latest news of the lands they have visited. When they tell him about the extraordinary qualities of Lady Constance, he yearns to bring her to Syria and love her evermore.
.......But because his faith is Islam and hers Christianity, marriage seems out of the question. The sultan then converts to the older religion and decrees that all the nobles of his realm should do the same. In addition, he offers Rome gold for the hand
of Constance. One can go on about the reactions in Rome, but suffice it to say that in the end the emperor decides to send his daughter to the sultan. Constance bids a tearful good-bye and prays that Christ fortifies her to accept her fate. Women, she says, must accept the decrees of men.
.......Meanwhile, the sultan’s mother convenes a council to thwart her son’s plans. Telling its members she would rather die than flout the laws of the Koran, the sultaness persuades them to approve a scheme to slaughter all Christians attending a feast that she will hold after the arrival of Constance and her
.......After the sultan and his mother welcome the Romans amid great pomp and ceremony, everyone sits down to the feast. The sultaness then unleashes her murderous plot, resulting in the deaths of all the
Christians—including her own son—except Constance. (God in his goodness somehow caused her to be spared.) The sultaness and her henchmen then place Constance on a ship with food and other provisions—but no crew!—and tell her to find her way back to Rome. ears pass as the ship drifts
around the Mediterranean while Christ sustains her in the same way He sustained the five thousand with fives loaves and two fishes.
.......Finally, the ship runs aground in sand on the coast of the English county of Northumberland.
When a constable and his wife find her, she pretends that her memory failed when she was at sea and now does not even know her name. Sympathizing with her, they take her in. Like everyone else in that region, the constable and his wife, Hermengyld, are pagans. Almost all Christians had been driven out. But Constance sets such a good example serving them and saying her prayers that Hermengyld
becomes a Christian.
.......One sunny day, Constance, the constable, and Hermengyld decide to walk down by the sea when they encounter an old blind man with a hunchback. He addresses Hermengyld by name, asking her to restore his
sight. Surprised and fearful, she hesitates. Constance urges her to place her confidence in Christ and work toward manifesting His will in the matter. When the constable demands to know what is going on, Constance tells him about Christ, his message, and his laws. She continues to instruct him through the day so that, by evening, he believes in Christ and becomes a Christian.
.......Ever vigilant Satan then lays a trap for her, causing a young knight to tempt her to commit sins of the flesh. But she refused his advances. Angry, he seeks revenge. One night, he steals into the constable’s house while he is away and cuts
Hermengyld’s throat while she lies asleep in the same room as Constance. Then he leaves the bloody knife next to the young girl.
.......When the constable returns, the king of the region thereabouts, Alla, is with him. The constable
weeps when he discovers the body of his wife and, after finding Constance with the knife, wonders whether she had gone mad. The knight bears false witness against her, saying she did the deed, but all the people in that part of the country find it difficult to believe that so gentle and virtuous a creature could have committed so heinous a crime.
.......Alla, suspecting that the knight is lying, asks him swear to his story on a book of Gospels. When the knight does so, a hand strikes him down and his eyes fell from their sockets. A mysterious voice heard by all present reveals him as a liar. The
miraculous happenings result in the conversion of the king and many others. The knight is executed.
.......The king then marries Constance, arousing the ire of his mother, Donegild, who loathes Constance because of her strange
Soon Constance becomes pregnant. One day, the king goes to Scotland to hunt down enemies while Constance remains behind in the constable’s care. After Constance bears a son, christened Maritius, the constable sends a messenger to Scotland to inform
Alla. On his way, the messenger stops to tell Donegild the joyous tidings. After showing her sealed letters he must deliver to the king, he asks whether she would like to send him a message of her own. She tells him to lodge with her overnight and report to her in the morning for instructions.
.......Ale and wine flow and the messenger drinks heartily and falls asleep. Donegild then takes the sealed letters from the messenger and substitutes a forged a message saying that Constance had given birth to a child so hideous that no one in the castle goes near it. Moreover, the message says, people now
despise Constance as an evil creature cast upon their shore through sorcery.
.......After reading Donegild’s message, the king composes a return message to the constable, telling him to give both the child and his mother proper care
until he returns from Scotland. The messenger, remembering the ale and wine he enjoyed at Donegild’s, stops there again on his return trip. After he drinks his full, he again falls asleep and Donegild again substitutes a false message. It orders the constable to place Constance and her child on the same ship that carried her to Northumberland and then to send her to sea once
The people weep for poor Constance and her baby. But she accepts her fate and prays to Christ and his Mother for succor.
.......After the king returns, he questions the constable and the messenger and discovers his mother’s treachery. He kills her.
.......Constance, meanwhile, sails the seas as before. After
her ship passes through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, it continues on for five years, floating sometimes northward, sometimes southward, sometimes eastward. One day, a Roman ship comes upon her vessel. Aboard is an important senator who led a successful military incursion in Syria against the sultaness and her supporters for slaughtering the
.......When he finds Constance and her child, the young lady neither identifies herself nor speaks a word about her experiences. The senator takes her with him to Rome and places her and her child in his home under
the supervision of his wife, who does not realize that Contance is her niece. There, Constance and the boy live a considerable time. Constance performs good works and leads an exemplary life.
.......Guilt-ridden because he killed
his own mother, Alla leaves for Rome on a pilgrimage of repentance. Messengers sent ahead announce Alla’s coming, and the senator decides to greet him upon his arrival. All goes well. When the senator attends a feast at the lodging place of Alla, he takes along the little boy, Maritius. Alla, taken with the child, questions the senator about him. The senator then relates the tale of how he found
the boy and finishes by observing that his mother is the most virtuous woman he ever met. Because the boy bears a striking resemblance to Constance, Alla wonders whether his mother is his long lost wife. Consequently, he visits the home of the senator, and he and Constance wife reunite. Later, they visit the emperor, at which time Constance discloses her identity. Great rejoicing follows.
Eventually, the Pope crowns Mauritius emperor, and Alla and Constance live a peaceful life in England until the death of Alla. Constance then returns to Rome and reunites with her father and friends.
|11. The Wife of Bath's Prologue
Purpose: This prologue acquaints the reader with the earthy and outspoken wife (actually a widow) of Bath, a middle-aged woman who has been married five times. She is assertive, self-confident, and literate, quoting Scripture and proverbs and alluding to ancient mythology to support her views. However, she seems to
believe that experience is the best teacher.
Type of Work: "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" is an apologia, a first-person account in which a person explains and defends his or her outlook, attitude, beliefs, and behavior.
Theme 1: Marriage is a commendable state for women
Further Analysis: For see Universal Teacher
Summary of the Prologue
.......Since age twelve, Alison, a widow from near the two of Bath—gap-toothed and imprinted with the birthmark of “Saint Venus” as a lusty lady—has had five husbands and would welcome a sixth.
.......“Some Christian man shall wedde me anon,” she says, for it is better to be wedded than to burn.
.......She cites biblical passages to support her view that wedlock and the marriage bed are right and proper pursuits of a woman, although she acknowledges that virginity and spinsterhood are commendable for a certain few. To have a husband is her right, she says, and to be his master is her desire. The parson says he himself is about to marry, but he will
remain a bachelor if it means his wife will be his master. Alison bids him to wait to hear her tale before reacting, and he replies, "Tell forth your tale, and spare no man."
.......Three of her husbands were good and two were bad, she
points out. The good ones were old and rich but had to work hard at night to fulfill their manly duties. But she did not mind,
for they showered her with their wealth. Although she did nothing to earn their attentions—not even so much as preparing bacon for them—they always doted on her. But she was strict in her treatment of them, scolding them often. In response, they brought her gifts to please her and delighted in receiving a kind word from
.......Her fourth husband cheated on her, she says, at a time when she was young and full of passion and vigor. In retaliation, she flirted with others (but never sinned with them), making him angry and jealous. And she
subjected him to many other torments, turning his life into a purgatory on earth until the day he died.
.......While still married to her fourth husband, who was in London for the entire season of Lent, she met the man who would become
her fifth husband—a former Oxford scholar named Jenkin—through a friend of hers. One day when she went walking with him, she told him that he should marry her if she became a widow. She also flattered him with exaggerations and fibs, noting that she would dream of him all night. By and by, her husband died and Jenkin attended the funeral.
While he was walking behind the bier, she says, she noticed the exquisite lines of his legs and feet and decided then and there to give him her heart even though he was only “twenty winter old” and she was forty. They married.
.......Jenkin was an ill-tempered husband and struck her on one occasion. She then unleashed her tongue against him relentlessly. He then quoted ancient literature that admonished wives to obey their husbands, but she remained unruly.
.......Eventually she gained mastery over him and his possessions. From that time forward, they lived a peaceful life, never once arguing. And they were true to each other.
|11. The Wife of Bath's Tale
Type of Work: "The Wife of Bath's Tale" is an Arthurian romance, a type of work in which a knight in the age of the legendary King Arthur goes on a quest.
Setting: The action takes
place in various English locales, including the court of King Arthur at Camelot.
Theme 1: Women desire mastery over men. This theme continues the one the wife of Bath elaborates on in her prologue. It is open to question, however, whether
Chaucer was using the wife to speak for him or simply satirizing her outspoken, "manly" ways.
Theme 2: Appearances can be deceiving. The ugly old woman becomes a beautiful young lady at the end of the tale.
Theme 3: Rehabilitation. A knight commits a heinous crime, rape. However, the queen gives him a reprieve when she sees an opportunity for him to rehabilitate and redeem himself.
Summary of the Tale
.......In the time of King Arthur long ago, a lustful knight forces himself upon a young lady, robbing her of her virtue. After the king sentences him to death as prescribed by law, the queen and other ladies prevail on Arthur to suspend the sentence. Bowing to their wishes, Arthur turns him over to the queen, allowing
her to decide the knight’s fate. Here is what she tells the knight:
I grant thee life, if thou canst tell to me .......So it is that the knight has one year to discover what women most desire. After he rides off, he questions everyone he sees but despairs when he can find no consensus on the matter.
What thing is it that women most desiren [desire]:
Beware, and keep thy neck-bone from
the iron [blade of the executioner's axe]
And if thou canst not tell it me anon,
Yet will I give thee leave for to gon
A twelvemonth and a day, to seek and lear [learn]
An answer suffisant [sufficient, satisfactory] in this mattere [matter].
Some said that women loved best richess, .......Still others tell him women most want the freedom to do as they please. One person offered this as the answer: Women like best to keep secrets. But that answer is not worth the handle of a rake, the wife of Bath tells her listeners, for everyone knows that women cannot keep secrets, as Ovid’s story about King Midas
points out. The king’s wife was to keep secret what he had beneath his long hair: the ears of an ass. She vowed she would never disclose the secret even if she could win the whole world by doing so. But how hard it was for her to bear this secret, which swelled in her heart and ached to be told.
Some said honour, and some said jolliness,
Some rich array, and some said lust
And oft time to be widow and be wed.
Some said, that we are in our heart most eased
When that we are y-flatter'd and y-praised.
.......One day in a marsh, unable to contain the secret any longer, she lowered her head to the water, telling it not to betray what she then blurted out: that her husband had the ears of an ass. After this revelation to nature, she felt relieved, and her heart was whole again. To learn the outcome of this story, the wife of Bath
says, her listeners must read it in Ovid.
.......As to the knight, he begins the trek home in deepest woe; the answer that would save his life has eluded him. On his way, he encounters twenty-four women dancing in the forest. Perhaps they can help him, he
thinks. But when he approaches them, all of them vanish save for one, a horribly ugly old woman who asks him what he wants. When he tells her, she promises to give him the answer he seeks on condition that he do one thing for her if it is in his power. He agrees to the bargain, and she whispers words in his ear.
.......After returning to the court with the old woman, the knight announces that he is ready to answer the question. Many ladies—wives, maids, widows—assemble to hear the answer, with the queen herself presiding. The knight then says women most want sovereignty over their husbands—to be their masters.
.......No one assembled contradicts what he says, and the queen cancels his death sentence. His answer was the right one. Before the court, the ugly old woman then asks the knight to complete his part of the bargain—by marrying her. He begs her to ask him to substitute another
request, but she insists that he marry her and give him her love. He protests but in the end concedes to her wish. On their wedding night, he is in great distress about what to do. Then she offers him a choice:
To have me foul and old till that I dey [die], The knight answers,
And be to you a true humble wife,
And never you displease in all my
Or elles will ye have me young and fair,
And take your aventure of the repair
That shall be to your house because of me, —
Or in some other place, it may well be?
Now choose yourselfe whether that you liketh.
I put me in your wise governance, The woman replies that she has attained mastery over the knight, for he has said that she may govern him. She then changes herself into a beautiful young woman. He takes her in his arms as joy fills his heart.
Choose for yourself which may be most pleasance
And most honour to you and me
Purpose: This prologue calls attention to the rivalry between the friar and the summoner, who tell the next two tales.
Summary: After complimenting the wife of Bath on her tale, the friar announces that he will tell a tale exposing
summoners as reprehensible. Because the company of pilgrims includes a summoner, the host asks the friar to refrain from saying anything provocative. But the summoner urges the friar to tell the tale as he wishes, for he will respond by telling an uncomplimentary tale about friars.
Type of Work: "The Friar's Tale" is an exemplum. It is also a satire ridiculing summoners.
Theme: Greed ultimately reaps a hellish reward. In attempting to extort money from a poor widow, a summoner loses his soul.
Summary of the Tale
.......In the region where he lives, the friar says, there was once an archdeacon who severely punished all crimes—sorcery, usury, simony, pandering, lying under oath, and so on. But he was especially severe in dealing with lechery. In his employ was a crafty summoner
who maintained a network of spies to track down transgressors. Here is an account, in present tense, of how the summoner went about his business.
.......Among the summoner’s spies are prostitutes who report offenders.
Sometimes, the summoner threatens an offender without serving him legal documents. To exonerate himself, the offender then swells the purse of the summoner.
.......In all his activities, the summoner pockets fully half the fees
owed to the archdeacon.
.......One day the summoner meets a yeoman who collects fees as a bailiff. When the summoner says he also collects money for a living, they become friends. The summoner then learns that the yeoman extorts money
from his clients through deception, violence, or other means—methods that the summoner hopes to learn. The summoner then asks his friend to identify himself. The yeoman replies that he is a fiend from hell who will go to the ends of the earth to prey on people.
.......Accompanied by the yeoman, the summoner calls on a poor widow to collect fees even though he knows of no offense she has committed. However, she says she is too sick to travel from her home and stand trial. The pain in her side would kill her. When the summoner asks for twelve pence to dismiss the case, the widow says lacks such a
sum. Moreover, she says has done nothing wrong to warrant a summons. The summoner then demands her new pan, accusing her of cuckolding her husband. The woman says she was never untrue to her husband, then swears a curse: that the devil take both the pan and the summoner.
.......The yeoman, upon hearing the curse, claims title to the pan and the summoner and takes both to hell.
|14. The Summoner's Prologue
Purpose: This prologue presents the angry response of the summoner to the friar's tale.
Foreshadowing: The highlight of the prologue, the emergence of friars from Satan's anus, foreshadows the highlight of "The Summoner's
Tale," a fart left by Thomas.
Summary: The friar’s tale angers the summoner. It is no wonder that the begging priest knows of hell, he says, for friars and fiends often keep company. The summoner notes that a well-known story tells of a friar who dreams that an angel takes him on
a tour of hell. When the friar observes that he sees none of his kind in Satan’s abode, the angel tells him that in fact millions are there. To show the friar where they lodge, the angel tells Satan to lift his tail. When Satan does so, twenty thousand friars swarm out of Satan’s anus as bees swarm out of a hive. A short while later, they return to their nesting place.
Type of Work: "The Summoner's Tale" is a fabliau. It is also a satire ridiculing friars.
Setting: Yorkshire, England.
Theme 1: Greedy friars ultimately receive what they deserve: hot air. In attempting to wheedle money from a sick man, a friar receives only a fart, to be divided among him and his brethren.
Theme 2: Hypocrisy cloaks itself in holiness. The friar is a hypocrite who cloaks himself in feigned piety.
.......In the Holderness district of Yorkshire, a friar preaches at churches and asks each member of the congregation to offer a donation for a trental, a series of thirty masses said for the dead that remit sin and allow the soul of the deceased person to rise to heaven.
.......After receiving offerings, he visits homes to beg cheese and corn and other food. While there he accepts money and other food—a bushel of grain, a cake, slices of bacon or beef, or whatever else is
available—in return for a promise to pray for the donor. Accompanying him are two assistants, one who writes down the names of donors and another who carries sacks to store donated goods. Upon leaving the homes, the friar erases the names of the donors.
.......The pilgrim friar interrupts the tale, calling the summoner a liar. But the host tells the summoner to proceed with his story, telling every detail.
friar visits the home of Thomas, a sick man, the friar assures him that he has been praying for him. Thomas's wife comes in from the yard, and the friar greets her with a kiss. She tells him that she treats Thomas with care and utmost attention, covering him snugly to make him warm. But all he does is complain, and she cannot please him. When she asks the friar what he would like for dinner, he
tells her the liver of a capon, a slice of her soft bread, and a roasted pig’s head.
.......Before she goes to prepare the meal, she tells him that her child died less than a fortnight ago soon after the friar left town. The
friar then tells her that less than a half-hour after the child's death he had a vision in which he saw the child borne to heavenly bliss. His fellow friars had the same vision, he says. In response, he said a prayer of thanks. He tells Thomas and his wife that they can trust what he says, for God favors him and his brethren because they lead a humble life of self-denial and holiness and do good
works for all. He also says all the friars pray day and night for Thomas to regain his health. But Thomas says he has remained sick even though he contributed large sums to every friar who passed his way in recent years. The friar says Thomas should have placed faith only in him and his fellow friars rather than give a farthing here and a penny there to other friars—sums that are too small in the first place.
.......The friar asks Thomas for gold to help complete the construction of his order’s cloister, for which the friars are already forty pounds in debt. Thomas is angry now,
for he realizes the friar is a hypocrite. But he says he will make a contribution if the friar distributes it equally among all in his order. The friar swears he will do so. Thomas then tells him his contribution is behind him.
Grope well behind When the friar reaches around and feels for his offering, Thomas leaves a fart in the friar's hand that is so loud that not a horse could match it. Consumed with anger, the friar storms out and goes to the manor of the lord of the village, for whom the friar is confessor. After the lord attempts to calm him, the friar tells him
and his wife what happened. In response, the lady says, “A churl hath done a churlish deed, / . . . God let him never thrive.”
Beneath my buttock,
there thou shalt find
A thing, that I have hid in privity.
.......Wherever he preaches, the friar declares, he will denounce Thomas for telling him to divide among his
brethren that which cannot be divided—mere air, a fart. The lord is at a loss to tell the friar what to do next. But the lord’s squire, who has been carving meat within earshot of the conversation, suggests a solution. On a fair day when the wind is still, the friar and his fellow priests—numbering twelve in all--shall kneel before a
cartwheel, which has twelve spokes. At the center of the wheel, Thomas will fart. Thus, the fart will be divided equally among all the friars. For his diligence in solving the problem, the lord gives the squire a new cloak.