Posted by: mmkelly | December 11, 2009

Chaucer, the Left-Overs

I thought that this week, since I am reading a collection of essentially unrelated and sometimes unfinished stories from all over the Canterbury Tales, it would make sense to spend a paragraph exploring each tale rather than treating the work as a whole and analyzing the greater themes. Because we read almost all of the more famous or relatable tales in class last year, the remaining tales are quite variable in their quality: several feature some interesting experimentation with the narrative voice, some revolve around now dead literary genres, and some are simply unexpected. Overall, they were mostly enjoyable, with only a few thousand lines of rather boring prose (that would be you, Melibee’s Tale).

The Cook’s tale was one of the more enjoyable fragments. The prologue places the Cook in the midst of the Canterbury Tales ongoing obsession with “quiting.” Writing directly after the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale—who both told tales that disparaged the others profession—the Cook’s prologue features a heated, though somewhat jovial, argument between the Cook and the host, Henry Bailey. Bailey begins it by attacking the Cook’s culinary abilities, claiming that whoever ate at his restaurant would likely get sick because of all the flies in his kitchen. The Cook responds by promising Bailey that “thou shalt be quit” (4362) in his story, which will feature an Innkeeper who is tricked. However, we never get to this part of the tale because, apparently, it was never finished. Instead, we get the story of a young apprentice who runs amok, gambling and dancing at every opportunity, and is eventually booted out by his master. Two aspects of the tale stand out: first, its generally bawdiness, epitomized by the last line of the fragment which describes how the apprentice “swyved for hir sustenance” (4422) and, second, for its rather conformist vision of society. The cook, it seems, does not trust anything that complicates his rather stark understanding of good and bad. Certainly, the apprentice is known to be bad simply because of his outlook on life—“for thefte and iot, they ben convertible”—even before the narrator reveals the apprentice’s habit of stealing from his master. From the prologue and the beginning of the tale, one can only imagine that Chaucer intended to write one of his more entertaining, if off-color, stories, and it is unfortunate that it was never finished.

The Melibee’s tale has been portrayed by some as the poet’s revenge for the interruption of the Tale of Sir Thopas. Certainly, the tale seems to be somewhat vindictive towards the general reader. However, the writing itself is not devoid of thematic development: it continues, in its slow and ponderous style, the Canterbury Tale’s ongoing argument about the role and value of “auctoritee.” Melibeus, come home to find his wife injured and his daughter killed by enemies, consults every possible source to determine the proper reaction to this violence. In many ways he he resembles a Middle English Hamlet, except far less decisive. Over and over, he and his wife cite classical and Christian sources as a way of justifying certain actions—but the end result of all this accumulated literary wisdom (all of this accumulated “auctoritee”), is a mass of muddled and contradictory aphorisms. “Ovide” (977), “Senek” (980), and “Apostle Paul unto the Romans” (988) are all cited—but the effect they have is unclear. The story as a whole, then, in its cumbersome and tedious way, seems to question the value of book knowledge, claiming that real wisdom is the kind that can be applied and that any sort of witticism that fails this utilitarian test is simply a waste of time. There is also a sense that talk and action are in conflict—the greater the talk the less the action—and all too often the former takes precedence.

The prologue to the Manciple’s tale is portrayed as the beginning of the second Cook’s Tale. Bailey, continuing his vitriolic attack on the Cook attempts to make the hopeless drunk, currently embroiled in a complete inebriated stupor, tell a tale. This prologue features some of the more effective physical slap-stick comedy in the entire Canterbury Tales as it describes the difficulties of lifting the overweight Cook on to his horse after he falls asleep and falls off. The Manciple eventually decides to tell a tale instead of the Cook, taking pity on the poor drunk, and tells a rather profound tale about the power of rumors and words. It is a very standard tale—classical characters, artificial set-up, ultimate tragedy, and overtly stated moral—but also quite effective. The ultimate message of the story—that words, once unleashed, can never be taken back—is particularly profound, especially in a book like Canterbury Tales which is so concerned with the complicated way in which words are used in different contexts by different people:

“But he that hath misseyd, I dar wel sayn,
He may by no wey clepe his word again.
Thing that is seyd is seyd, and forth it gooth,
Though him repente, or be him leef or looth.
He is in thrall to whom that he hath sayd
A tale of which he is now yvel apayd.” (353-58)

I think that the tale is especially neat if we see the Crow, who can “counterfete the speche of every man” (134) as a parallel for Chaucer himself. After all, the Canterbury Tales are Chaucer’s attempt to mimic the accents, rhetoric, and ideas of different people from different classes, professions, and regions of England. Yet, while certainly this ability to mimic and replicate is valuable, it also dangerous—this incredible fluency with words is a curse as much as it is a gift. The tale also makes some interesting statements about marriage and love, generally espousing a pragmatic attitude towards both. In response to Apollo’s jealousy over his wife, the Manciple makes the point that you marry the woman you marry. If Apollo’s wife has unfaithful desires, he simply has to deal with the fact—“A good wyf that is clene of wek and thought / sholde nat been kept in noon await, certain; / and trewely the labour is in vayn / to kepe a shrewe, for it wol nat be” (148-51). One cannot transform a spouse into something they are not. The tale also takes a similar view on sex, noting that it is an unfortunate, but nonetheless true, fact of lust that “flesh is so newfangel, with meschaunce” (193). Finally, the Manciple’s Tale continues the discussion of “Auctoritee.” He constantly makes allusions yet simultaneously claims an uneducated humility—“but for I am a man noght textual, / I wot noght telle of testes never a del / I wol go to my tale, as I bigan” (235-7). Thus, he attempts to gain legitimacy by making literary allusions, while maintaining a sort of “common touch” by professing his own provincial simplicity.

In contrast to the Manciple’s rhetorical humility, the Man of Law speaks with lawyerly confidence and superiority. The Tale, as a whole, is very focused on depicting the speech of lawyers—which, though a clever idea, renders a fairly dry narration. He tells the story of a Christian woman, who is kidnapped, stolen, abused, etc. by pagans, with the ultimate end that she converts everyone to Christianity. In contrast to the normal martyr story, this Tale has a happy ending. I think it would make for an interesting comparison to look at martyr stories versus the stories of temporal endurance that end in happiness? After all, the point of the martyr stories is that a happy ending in the temporal world is unnecessary—the happy ending is the entry into heaven.

The Physician’s Tale represents the martyr story that differs from the Man of Law’s Tale only in that it ends in death rather than joyful reconciliation. Like the Man of Law’s Tale, it features a version of Christianity that is almost epidemic; contagious, it infects whoever encounters the main character. This tale also features a critique of medieval justice—when Apius makes his ruling, even though it is obviously corrupt and ill-considered, his judgment holds and cannot be appealed or challenged. One strange aspect of the story was that the public only expressed its disapproval of the ruling once Virginia had been beheaded—I suppose this demonstrates how humans sometimes require a real tragedy before they take a necessary action, they have to be inspired by real pain and not just theoretical injustice.

Especially in the past two tales, there seems to be a shared depiction of women as passive objects. In the whole of Chaucer, there is a tendency to portray women as either entirely virtuous and pure or entirely corrupt and sinful. With some exceptions—the Wife of Bath, of course, being the most significant—Chaucer does not see women as having control over their lives. Perhaps this can simply be assigned to the rules of genre, which demand that characters act in certain preordained way. Yet, I think that Boccaccio, writing with similar genres, manages to make female characters seem more like real people, and, even if genre is the excuse, I do not think that entirely justifies utterly gendered treatment of the sexes—with men able to achieve a full spectrum of humanity and women only able to occupy the extremes of human nature.

Finally, there is the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale. More than any other part of the Canterbury Tales, this section relies entirely on the narrative voice. The servant of the Canon presents his master in a positive light, making vast claims about his skills of alchemy, and then suddenly turns to criticism as soon as his master departs. The depiction of medieval science, which certainly piqued the curiosity of the party, seems quite mysterious, and I think this story as a whole might prove a useful analogue to my developing paper on the Summoner’s Tale. “Science,” which I presented my paper as being entirely logical and rational (an inaccurate modern connotation), had a far more complex social role in the Middle Ages, feared and disdained as much as it was revered.

Overall, the remains of the Canterbury Tales are an astoundingly odd collection of stories and testify to Chaucer’s incredible ability to depict numerous points of view. Whereas Boccaccio tells tales from multiple genres, Chaucer tells stories from multiple genres from multiple points of view, adeptly taking on the opinions and mannerisms of his constructed characters. The “leftovers” of Chaucer especially demonstrate this chameleon aspect of his writing because they are so diverse and, in many ways, unapproachable. Because they come from all over the place—from the bawdy to the intensely spiritual—they are that much more radical and experimental, enhancing the curiosity of some while diminishing the approachability of others.



  1. Nice pieces on literature. Quite accessible for a history teacher who learned to love literature late and became a Catholic later.

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