"If I dared to wish for genius, I would ask for the grace to write The Canterbury Tales."
The other day, I picked up an old, used copy of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, in a modern English translation. The original Tales were written in the 1300s in "Middle English" which is really hard to read. As an English major, I read some excerpts from the Canterbury Tales, and struggled so much with the language, that it never really caught my interest. However, reading this modern prose translation, I am totally "getting it." Someone once said to me that Chaucer was the first hip hop artist, and that actually kind of makes sense.
The Canterbury Tales are a wild and bawdy collection of stories, told from many points of view, almost like a hip hop battle. They are stories of love, adventure, betrayal, sex, humor, and basically all the themes of human life. The story begins in a tavern, where a bunch of people from all walks of life have gathered together, before setting out on their "pilgrimage" to Canterbury, a holy place in England at the time.
Taken all together, the stories give an amazing cross section of English society of Chaucer's day. Chaucer writes about all these characters, both the noble ones and the scoundrels with humor, compassion, and a kind of brotherly love. I can see why the Tales were so revolutionary for their time. Not only were they written in the "common" language (English), which was considered vulgar compared to Latin and Greek, but they portray English life in a realistic and human way.
In short, the Canterbury Tales are awesome. Here's my brief summation of the Tales…
The Knight's Tale
The pilgrims draw straws to see who will tell the fist tale, and the first lot falls to the Knight. The Knight's tale is set in ancient Greece, but it has elements of both Greek mythology and English chivalry. It tells the story of two cousins who were captured and imprisoned by King Theseus of Athens. The cousins, Arcite and Palamon, are sentenced to live out their days in a tower cell.
One day, Palamon looks out the window of his tower, sees a maid named Emily, and falls immediately in love with her. When Arcite sees Emily, he too falls in love with her, and the two cousins quickly begin to hate each other.
Through the intervention of his friend Pirithoos, Arcite is released from his tower cell, and banished from Athens. He goes nearly mad with grief, and vows to return to Athens to be near his beloved, Emily, who doesn't even know he exists. He returns in disguise and manages to get a job in Emily's household, where he can admire her, but never reveal his true love.
Palamon escapes from the cell later, by drugging the jailor. However, while hiding in the woods during his escape, he comes upon Arcite, and the two begin to fight viciously. King Theseus arrives to break up the fight, and proposes a solution to this lover's quarrel. Both men are required to go to their home towns and return with 100 knights each, where Theseus will hold a massive tournament to determine who gets to marry Emily. The two parties agree, and after acquiring their knights, the tournament is on.
It's a royal rumble of knight-fights. Ultimately, after brutal battle, Arcite is mortally wounded, and Palamon gets to marry Emily. The story is abut the knightly values of chivalry, but it is also about the pain and beauty of love: "the interrupted sleep, the deep sighs, the bitter tears, the wailing, and the burning lust which the servants of love endure on earth."
The Miller's Tale
After the Knight's Tale comes The Miller's Tale, which is VERY different in both tone and content. One of the beautiful things about The Canterbury Tales is that it juxtaposes the sacred and the profane, the noble and the low-brow. The Miller's tale is a bawdy tale told by an extremely drunk man. In prefacing his tale, the Miller says to the the crowd of pilgrims: "Now listen one and all! First, I want to declare that I am drunk; I know it from the noise I'm making. And, therefore, if I speak improperly, blame it on the ale of Southwark, I beg you. I shall tell a legend of a carpenter and his wife, and of how a cleric made a fool of the carpenter."
The Miller's tale takes place in Oxford, England, where an old carpenter named John lives with his young (and super hot) wife Alison. A young cleric (which I think is like a church bureaucrat) rents a room at the carpenter and his wife's house. The cleric, named Nicholas, becomes infatuated with Alison. One day, he makes a bawdy pass at her by slipping his hand between her legs. She is taken aback at first, but soon agrees to have an affair with him, in due time.
They hatch a silly and elaborate plan to have a night of clandestine extra-marital sex. Nicholas tells John that he has determined from the stars that God is going to send a second flood on the earth, like the great flood from the Bible. He tells the carpenter to make three boats for himself, Nicholas, and Alison, so they may live to repopulate the earth. Bafflingly, John believes this and sets to work making little boats, and filling them with food and water. He gets so tired from his work that he falls asleep, and then Nicholas and Alison slip down to the bedroom and have a night of awesome sex.
Meanwhile, another church bureaucrat named Absolom, who is also infatuated with Alison, goes to her bedroom window, begging for a kiss. Alison, being the sneaky girl she is, sticks her ass out the window, which Absolom promptly kisses, because it's too dark to see that it's her ass. Absolom realizes this it her ass, and goes to his friend the blacksmith and borrows his hot poker. He returns to the window and asks for another kiss. This time, Nicholas sticks his ass out the window, and it gets scorched by the poker. Meanwhile, the poor carpenter wakes up, falls from the roof where he was sleeping, gets knocked out, and breaks his arm. When he comes to, he keeps babbling about the Great Flood, and everyone thinks he's crazy.
The Miller ends his ridiculous tale like this: "In this way, the carpenter was made a cuckold in spite of all his care and jealousy; and Absolom kissed Alison's nether eye, and Nicholas had his buttocks scorched. This tale is done, and God save all this company."
Mic drop. Drunken laughter.
The Reeve's Tale
Most of the pilgrims laugh, and enjoy the Miller's tale, but one guy does not…The Reeve. The Reeve takes offense to the tale, so he steps up, grabs the mic, and hip hop battles his response, medieval style:
"This drunken miller has told us here how a carpenter was deceived; perhaps he told his tale in mockery, for I am a carpenter. By your leave, I shall at once repay him; I will speak in his own vulgar terms. I hope to God he breaks his neck."
Here begins the Reeve’s tale: In Cambridge, there lived a miller who was in the habit of defrauding his customers. He was so dishonest that he was known as Scornful Simkin. This miller had a wife whom he said was of noble birth, but was really the illegitimate daughter of a church cleric (who were not allowed to marry or have sex). Scornful Simkin and his wife had a fair daughter who was 20 years old, and they had a baby.
One day, while the miller was milling some grain for Cambridge college, two students decided to have some fun with him. Their plan was to pretend to observe how he did his milling, and then to steal from him. The miller outwitted them by untying their horses, and he stole their grain. There is a lot of stealing and double-crossing in this tale.
Later, these two students lodged a night at the Miller’s house, determined to get back at him for stealing their grain. After a hearty meal and much ale, everyone went to bed. In the middle of the night, one of the students, Allan, slipped into the miller’s daughter’s bed and had sex with her. The other student, John, tricked the miller’s wife into his bed, and had sex with her.
The miller woke up and saw that these two students had repaid his hospitality by having sex with his wife and daughter, a fight ensued, which the miller lost. The reeve ends his tale with this “moral”: “In this way, the proud miller was well beaten; he lost the money for grinding the wheat and he paid for every bit of supper for Allan and John, who beat him thoroughly and who slept with his wife and daughter. See what happens to a miller who is false! Therefore the proverb is true which says: ‘He who does evil must not expect good.’ A cheat himself will be outwitted. And God, who sits on high in majesty, save all this company, great and small! Now I have repaid the Miller with my tale.”
The Cook’s Tale
The Cook at the inn loves the Reeve’s tale so much that he asks the host for permission to tell his own tale, even though he is of a very low social rank. “If you are willing to hear a tale from a poor man like me, “ the cook says, “I shall tell you as best I possibly can about a funny little affair which happened in our city.” The host agrees, and the cook tells his tale…
There once lived a cook’s apprentice, who belonged to the guild of food merchants. This apprentice had a bad reputation for drinking, gambling, partying, and having sex with lots of “wenches.” He was known as Perkin the Reveler.
Perkin got in so much trouble all the time that his master fired him.
Here ends the Cook’s tale. Actually, the Cook’s tale is incomplete. Chaucer never finished it. The Canterbury Tales remained, at the time of Chaucer’s death, a work in progress.
The Man of Law’s Tale
Next, the Man of Law tells his tale, which is as follows...Long ago, some merchants from Syria visited Rome, and became smitten with the daughter of the Emperor of Rome. Her name was Constance. Upon returning to Syria, the merchants told the Sultan about Constance and her beauty. The Sultan determined that he must marry Constance.
However, there was a problem. The Sultan and his people were Muslims. Constance and her people were Christians. The Sultan was so obsessed with Constance that he decided to convert to Christianity, along with all his court, so that he could marry Constance.
So Constance sailed to Syria and married the Sultan. She had mixed feelings about the whole thing.
Meanwhile, the Sultan’s mother, a devoted Muslim, was pissed that her son had abandoned his faith for this foreign woman. The Sultan’s mom planned to exact terrible revenge. She prepared a great feast for the Sultan and his new wife, and their court. During the feast, the Sultan’s mom and some of her friends brutally murdered the Sultan and all his court, leaving Constance alive.
The Sultan’s mom put Constance alone on a big boat, and set her adrift in the Mediterranean Sea. Constance was, needless to say, pretty traumatized and grief-stricken about all this. Her religious faith gave her some measure of hope, however.
Alone in her boat, Constance drifted for years around the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straight of Gibraltar, into the Atlantic ocean, where she finally arrived on the shores of Northumberland in England, where she eventually fell in love with and married the king of that region, whose name was Aella. However, just like the mother of Sultan, Aella's mother conspired against Constance and had her banished back onto the sea in her boat.
After more lonely drifting, she ended up back in Rome, and was taken back into the royal court. Years later, King Aella visited Rome and was reunited with his long-lost wife, and they moved back to England together. Unfortunately, Aella died a year later, and Constance returned to Rome, where she lived out her days in the house of her father, the emperor.
Constance had a rough go in life. The life of Constance, so filled with sorrow and suffering, is summed up by this quote: "I tell you, happiness is short lived in this world; it cannot endure time, and it changes night and day like the tide. Who has ever lived in great delight for one day and was not then troubled by conscience, wrath, longing, family troubles, envy, pride, lust, or insult?"
The Shipman's Tale
A common theme in these tales is trickery and adultery, often committed by "respectable" people, like clergy. The shipman's tale is no different.
In France, in the town of St. Denis, there lived a wealthy merchant and his wife. One of the merchant's "best friends" was a monk named Don John, whom the merchant called cousin, and let him stay at his house and feast and sometimes borrow money.
Once, while the merchant was preparing for a business trip, his wife visited the monk and complained that her husband was stingy with money. If the monk would lend her 100 francs, she would sleep with him.
The monk thought this sounded like a good idea. He borrowed 300 francs from the merchant, and gave 100 to the wife. While the merchant was away, the monk slept with his wife, and then left town, never to return. Thus ends the shipman's tale.
When the shipman finished telling his tale, the host gave this "moral":
The Prioress's Tale
Next, a prioress tells her tale, which is horribly anti-semitic. Her tale is all the more heinous because she begins it with a lengthy prayer.
In a large city in Asia, populated mostly by Christians, there was a Jewish ghetto. Jews, at this time, were mainly allowed to work as money-lenders, which led to horribly stereotypes of Jews as miserly, and also "enemies of Christ."
In this town there lived a young choirboy, who loved to sing sacred songs as he walked around town. Once, while the child was walking though the Jewish ghetto, he was singing his song. Some Jews took offense, because it was a Christian song. The Jews hired a murderer to kill the child, which he did by cutting his throat and throwing his body in a dung-heap.
The child's caretaker (a widow) searched for him, desperately searching all over town, and calling out to the Virgin Mary for help. Miraculously, even though he was dead, the boy began to sing from the dung-heap, and the widow found him.
The whole town was in an uproar over this atrocity committed by the "cursed Jews." The magistrate of the city arrested a bunch of Jews, and had them all tortured and horribly killed.
The child became a martyr, and another reason for Christians to hate and persecute Jews.
I can't tell if the Prioress's tale is meant to be anti-semitic, or if Chaucer is simply pointing out the anti-semitism of the time.
In a surprisingly post-modern move, the author, Chaucer, tells the next tale. Interestingly, Chaucer portrays himself as shy, and a bad storyteller.
Here begins Chaucer's tale: Once there was a noble knight named Thopas, who was the flower of chivalry. One day, while riding his steed though the woods, Thopas was enticed by the smells of the herbs and sounds of birds singing, and fell into a crazy love-longing fit. He remembered a dream in which he fell in love with an elf-queen. Inspired by this dream, he rode to the "wild Fairyland."
Guarding the entrance to the Fairyland was a huge giant named Sir Oliphant, who threw rocks at Thopas. The brave knight vowed to return and slay the giant.
Thopas returned home and organized a big feast to send him off to battle the giant. He rode back toward Fairyland…
…and then the Host interrupts Chaucer's tale.
"For God's sake, no more of this," says the Host, "for you make me so tired by your plain stupidity that, as I hope will bless my soul, my ears ache from your filthy chatter…your filthy rhyming is not worth a turd!"
Embarrassed, Chaucer tells a different tale. It is the tale of a rich man named Melibeus, whose wife is attacked by enemies. Melibeus asks for his friends counsel on how to deal with the enemies. Finally, with the intervention of his wife, Melibeus makes peace with his enemies, and forgives them.
The Monk's Tale
Next the Monk tells his tale, and takes as his theme "tragedy, the hardships of those who held high place but fell so far that there was no way of bringing them out of their adversity." He promises to tell hundreds of tales, but the Knight makes him cut it down to 17. He recounts the tales of Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Zenobia, King Pedro of Spain, King Peter of Cyprus, Barnabo of Lombardy, Count Ugolino of Pisa, Nero, Holofernes, Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Croesus. For the sake of brevity, here is one of the Monk's tales. The sad story of Count Ugolino of Pisa...
Count Ugolino was falsely accused of a crime, and sentenced to live in a tower prison, along with his three children, the youngest of whom was five. His youngest died of starvation. Out of grief, Ugolino began to gnaw on his arms. His other two children, thinking he was gnawing his arm from hunger, offered themselves to be eaten by their father. He refused, and they all eventually died of starvation and despair.
The Nun's Priest's Tale
Next the nun's priest tells a tale about some chickens and a fox. Once upon a time, when animals could talk and think critically, there lived a cock named Chanticleer, in the barnyard of an old widow. This cock was proud and noble. He could sing better than any other cock. He had seven hens in his harem, the most important and beautiful of which was named Demoiselle Partlet.
One night, Chanticleer had a nightmare that a fox came and killed him. He awoke and told Partlet, and she called him a coward. She said dreams are merely the result of overeating, and that he should take a laxative. Chanticleer had a different view of dreams. He believed that they foretold the future. He proceeded to tell Partlet a bunch of stories involving people who had dreams, which did in fact come to pass--people like Daniel and Joseph from the Bible.
One day, a fox visited Chanticleer in the barnyard. At first, the cock was terrified, but the wily fox said he had not come to eat the rooster, only to hear his beautiful singing. The cock began to sing, and immediately the fox bit his throat, and dragged him toward the forest.
All the hens shrieked in lamentation. The barnyard was in chaos. Somehow, Chanticleer managed to escape and climb up a tree (don't ask how). The fox tried again to trick him down, but the cock would not come down. And thus ends the Nun's Priest's tale.
The moral is: Don't be careless and don't trust the flattery of foxes. There are probably religious undertones and jabs at the church in this tale, as well. The nun's priest even compares its lesson to the lessons of St. Paul, which is pretty absurd, and funny.
The Wife of Bath's Tale
One of the most famous, and widely read, of the Canterbury Tales is the Wife of Bath's tale, because it is so radical. It is sometimes seen as an early feminist text, because it is very critical of the male patriarchy which dominated medieval England. In a lengthy prologue, the Wife of Bath tells her own story. She has been married five times and is totally okay with that. She feels no shame or remorse, and she defends her multiple marriages by citing various male Bible characters who had multiple wives, like Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon.
The wife of Bath is unashamed of her sex life. If we weren't' meant to enjoy sex, she asks, "Why do we have organs of reproduction, and why were we created as we are?" She is a dominant personality, and likes to dominate her partners. She overtly criticizes male chauvinism, and points out all the misogynist texts, including the Bible, which have been used to vilify and degrade women. She turns the male dominated world of religion on its head, stating, "By God, if women had written stories, as the clerics have done in their studies, they would have written more about the wickedness of men that all the sons of Adam could make good."
In short, the Wife of Bath is a total badass. Here is the story she tells:
In the days of King Arthur, back when there was still magic in the world like elves and fairy queens, before the Friars drove them all from the land, there lived a knight. One day this "noble" knight of King Arthur's court saw a lovely maiden, and raped her.
King Arthur was about to put the knight to death, but the Queen had a better idea. She made a deal with the knight. If he could tell her "what it is that women desire most" she would let him live. The queen told the knight that he had one year to travel the world, searching for the answer to this question.
So the knight went on a quest to find out "what women want." He searched far and wide, interviewed lots of women, but got no clear answer. Finally, after a year of no success, as he was returning to King Arthur's court to die, he came upon some beautiful women dancing in the woods. But when he approached them, all he saw was a poor old woman. In desperation, he asked the woman what it is that women desire most. The old women agreed to tell him the answer, if he would do whatever she said afterward.
The knight agreed, and the two headed back to the King's court. Standing before the King and Queen, the old woman whispered the answer into the knight's ear, and he said, "My lady liege, in general, women wish to have complete control over both their husbands and love affairs, and to be masters of their men."
The queen and all the women of the court agreed that this was the correct answer, and the knight was allowed to live. However, the old woman said that her desire was to marry the knight. He was horrified because he was noble and handsome, and she was old and ugly and poor. But, a deal's a deal, and they got married. On their wedding night, the knight was very standoffish. He didn't want to have sex with this old woman, and she could tell. The old woman, being magical, gave him a choice. She could either remain old and ugly and yet be kind and faithful to him, or she could become young and beautiful, and be unfaithful. After serious thought, the knight agreed that it was better for her to remain as she was.
He kissed her, and like all good fairy tales, she decided to let him have both. She transformed into a young and beautiful woman, and she would remain faithful to him. Hopefully, throughout his ordeal, the knight learned to be less of an asshole/rapist.
Here is the "moral" the the Wife of Bath gives to her tale: "May Jesus Christ send us husbands meek, young, and lusty abed, and the luck to outlast them."
The Friar's Tale
Next the Friar tells his tale. It's interesting the order in which Chaucer places the tales. The Wife of Bath was pretty critical of male religious figures, and it is a friar who immediately follows her. It makes for a nice juxtaposition.
Anyway, the Friar tells his tale, which is about a wicked summoner (basically a court clerk who serves people with summons). Right when he begins his tale, the summoner interrupts the Friar, and he is pissed, but he agrees to let the Friar tell his tale. He will get his revenge in his tale (which will be about a wicked Friar).
Once upon a time, there was a wicked summoner, who was constantly extorting money from people. One day, as he was traveling to a poor woman's house to extort money from her, he met a fellow traveler, and they traded tales about extortion.
It turned out that the summoner's travel buddy was actually a demon. When they reached the old woman's house, as the summoner was trying to steal from her, the demon dragged the summoner to hell, "to that place where summoners have their heritage."
Here is the Friar's "moral": "May God, who made mankind in His own image, guide and save us one and all, and cause these summoners to become good men!"
The Summoner's Tale
To get back at the Friar, the Summoner tells a tale of a friar who is unscrupulous and hypocritical.
Once, in Yorkshire, there lived a friar who made his living by extorting money from people. He would tell them that, by giving him money, he would pray for their souls and bodies. Just as the summoner in the friar's tale preyed upon people's fear of legal problems, the friar in the summoner's tale preys upon people's religious fears.
The make matters worse, the friar did all this in the name of Christ. He convinced people that he had a special connection to God that they did not. "Our prayers," he says, "are more acceptable to the Lord God than are yours."
One day, the friar visited a sick old man named Thomas, to extort some money. Although Thomas had given a great deal of money to the church, the friar told him, "Your disease comes from our having received too little…give me some of your gold to build our house (the local church)."
The make matters worse, the friar gave a lengthy sermon to Thomas, explaining that he was sick because he was so sinful, and that his sin was wrath (anger/vengeance).
Thomas, fed up with this friar's religious bullshit, got back at him in a pretty amazing way. He told the friar that he had a treasure under his butt, and asked the friar to reach there for his "secret treasure." The friar greedily put his hand under his butt…and Thomas ripped a huge fart in the friar's hand!
The friar went away confused, angry, and empty-handed.
The Cleric's Tale
Next the cleric tells a tale about a a ruler in Italy named Walter. He was well loved by his subjects, but they wanted him to marry. To please his subjects, Walter took a wife from an impoverished village nearby, whose name was Griselda. Though she was of low birth, she was virtuous and kind, and the people came to love her.
Walter, however, had other plans for her, and cruelly "tested" her fidelity to him. When Griselda gave birth to a daughter, the marquis commanded a soldier to take the baby from the mother, and told her that it would be killed. With an almost supernatural patience, Griselda agreed to this, not wanting to displease her husband. The soldier, on Walter's orders, took the baby to live at Walter's sister's house in Bologna.
When Griselda bore a son, Walter also commanded that the son be taken from her. Again, she accepted this patiently, sort of like Job.
One day, Walter announced that he had a decree from the pope allowing him to dismiss his wife, Griselda, and get a younger wife. Again, Griselda accepted this, and went to back to live in poverty, as Walter arranged for the arrival of his new wife, which was really his daughter, from Bologna. Not content to dismiss Griselda, he commanded her to prepare his bedroom and rooms for the arrival of the wife who was replacing her. Patiently, she consented.
Walter's two children arrived from Bologna, and there was a great banquet. It was here that Walter announced that he was keeping Griselda as his wife, that the two new arrivals from Bologna were actually her children whom she thought were dead. Now, if I was Griselda, I would have been like "Fuck you, Walter! You are a cruel asshole." But Griselda fainted with joy and everyone lived happily ever after.
The cleric ends with a song dedicated to the Wife of Bath, which seems to contradict his story: "You wives…stand up for your own rights; don't allow men to do injustices to you." Maybe the cleric's tale is meant as a cautionary tale against wives blindly submitting to their husbands. Either way, Griselda suffered terribly at the hands of a cruel and merciless husband. The cleric likens this situation to humanity's relationship with God. Griselda may not be an example for wives to follow, but she is maybe an example for Christians to follow, in enduring adversity with the patience of Job.
The Merchant's Tale
The merchant begins his tale by complaining about his wife, saying that she is nothing like Griselda. His tale is about an unfaithful wife, but the real "villain" of the tale is the husband, and patriarchy in general.
Once there was a wealthy old knight named January who decided, at age 60, that he wanted a wife--a hot young wife. So he chose a young woman named May. Because it was a man's world, May had no real choice in the matter. The two got married in great ceremony, and had lots of sex, which the old man enjoyed, but May did not.
Meanwhile, there was a young squire named Damian who had fallen in love with May. The two exchanged secret love notes, and hatched a plan to hook up. Their plan became difficult when the old man went blind and, out of paranoid jealousy, forbade his wife from going anywhere without him holding her arm.
Damian and May decided to use the old man's blindness to execute their plan. One day, while January and May were walking in their garden, Damian snuck into a pear tree. May asked to climb the tree, which January agreed to. The two young lovers immediately started having sex in the tree. As a joke, the mythical god Pluto cured January's blindness at that moment. His joy at regaining his sight was short lived, because the first thing he saw was his wife having sex with another man in a tree. He flew into a jealous rage.
At this point, Pluto's wife Proserpina took pity on May, and gave her an "out." May somehow convinced the old man that he was just seeing things and all was well. They all lived (sort of) happily ever after (except for Damian and May). Actually, the old man was really the only one who lived "happily ever after."
The merchant ends his tale with this dubious "moral": See what tricks and subtleties there are in women!
An equally valid "moral" could be: See what assholes men can be!
Next the Squire tells his tale, which is as follows. Once, in the land of Tartary, there lived a noble king named Cambiuskan. He had two sons, and a daughter named Canace.
One day, as the king was throwing himself a big birthday feast, there appeared a strange knight, bearing four gifts for the king:
1.) A brass mechanical/magic horse that could fly.
2.) A mirror that could see the truth of things.
3.) A ring that would allow its wearer to communicate with animals, and know the properties of every plant.
4.) A sword that could slice anything, and heal.
The king accepted these gifts. He gave the ring to his daughter Canace. The party continued late into the night. Canace, so entranced by the ring, woke early the next morning, and went for a walk in the woods with her maidens.
They came upon a wounded falcon, making cries of lament. Canace, who could now communicate with birds, asked the falcon to tell her story, which was a sad one, about how the poor falcon was betrayed by her husband, who abandoned her for a kite.
The compassionate Canace listened, offered words of encouragement, and bandaged the falcon's wounds, using her newfound knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants.
The Squire's tale, which really had me interested, ends abruptly here. Chaucer never finished it.
Before telling his tale, the franklin apologizes for his lack of education and the plainness of his tale: "Friends, since I am an ignorant person, I beg you, right here at the start, to forgive my crude speech. I never learned rhetoric, to tell you the truth; whatever I say must be blunt and plain." This apology, in a way, applies to the whole Canterbury Tales, because they were written in the "vulgar" language of the people, in English, instead of the "academic" or "literary" languages of Latin or Greek. Just as Chaucer turns the plainness of ordinary speech into great art, so the franklin, despite his insecurity, tells one of the most beautiful of the Tales, which is as follows:
Once, in the land of Brittany, there lived a noble knight named Arveragus, who loved a beautiful lady named Dorigen. Arveragus was not like your typical, medieval, male chauvinist knight. He did not want Dorigen to feel compelled to love or obey him. He believed "Love will not be held by mastery" and "Love is a thing as free as any spirit." Dorigen felt the same way, and therefore they had an awesome relationship, and got married.
Arveragus, being a knight, sought out adventures and "honor and glory in arms." Once, he traveled to England for two years to fight in tournaments and do "knightly" stuff. Dorigen was devastated by his absence. She fell into a deep depression, which her friends helped her through. When she was feeling so sad and lonely, she would sit by the cliffs of her castle and look down at the big black rocks. Those rocks, for her, represented the age-old problem of pain.
Here is what she prayed: "Lord, why didst Thou, so wise and perfect and stable a God, make something as unreasonable as these terrible, fiendish, black rocks, which seem rather a foul confusion than Thy fair creation? For neither man, nor bird, nor beast, east, west, south, or north, is helped by these rocks; to my mind, they do not do good but harm. Dost Thou not see, Lord, how mankind is destroyed by them? Man is so fair a part of Thy work that Thou madest him in Thy image, and yet such rocks have destroyed a hundred thousand people, though I can't recall them all. At first it seemed that Thou hadst great charity towards mankind: how is it then that Thou allowest destruction of men through such things, things which do no good, but always injury? I know very well that the clerics will say whatever they wish, with arguments that all is for the best, though I can't understand the logic. But I pray the same God who made the wind blow to protect my husband: that is my conclusion. I leave all debate to the clerics. But would God all these black rocks were sunk into hell, for his sake! These rocks kill my heart with fright."
One day, Dorigen's friends took her to a party in a garden, to cheer her up. It was there that she ran into a squire named Aurelius, who had loved her from afar for a long time. Aurelius confessds love to Dorigen. She replied that she was faithful to her husband. And then, jokingly, she said she will sleep with him if he could make all the black rocks by her castle disappear.
Aurelius was devastated by Dorigen's refusal, and he kind of lost his mind. He consulted a magician, who said he could make all the black rocks disappear. Aurelius agreed to pay him the exorbitant sum of 1000 pounds for this magic. And so, the magician worked his magic, and made the rocks disappear. Aurelius visited Dorigen and showed her the rocks, and she was mortified. She was only joking about the rocks. But she was caught between a "rock and a hard place" because she was an honorable woman who kept her word.
Grief-stricken, Dorigen told her beloved husband about the bind she was in. Though he was devastated, Arveragus said that she may keep her word, and he would not leave her. Dorigen arranged to meet with Aurelius, to sleep with him. By accident, she bumped into him at the market, and he could see that she was so sad. She told Aurelius that her husband knew about their arrangement, and would not leave her.
So overcome by pity and compassion, Aurelius released Dorigen from her obligation, and she returned to her husband, and they lived happily ever after.
Aurelius still owed the magician a thousand pounds, which was more than he had. He gave the magician 500, and said that he would live as a beggar his whole life to pay off the rest. Moved by pity, the magician released Aurelius from his obligation, and allowed him to live a normal life in peace.
Thus ends the franklin's tale--a tale of true love, magic, and generous grace between human beings. I really like the franklin's tale.
Next the physician tells his tale, which is super sad. Once there was a knight named Virginius and he had a daughter named Virginia, who was unsurpassed in both beauty and chastity.
There was a corrupt old judge named Appius, who lusted after Virginia, and conspired to make her his own. He and his friend Claudius hatched a plan to get Virginia. Claudius brought charges against the knight Virginius, claiming that he had stolen his servant Virginia from his house at a young age, and wanted her back. Appius ruled in favor of Claudius, and judged that the knight must give up his daughter.
Virginius went home and sadly told his daughter what happened, and that it would be better for her to die than be dishonored by the corrupt old judge. So Virginius cut off his daughter's head and brought it to the judge. By this time, word of the judge's malice had reached the townsfolk, who testified against him, and threw him in prison, where he killed himself.
Thus ends the physician's bleak tale.
The Pardoner's Tale
Before telling his tale, the pardoner gives a long prologue, explaining how he extorts money from people by telling them that the "pardons" he sells will grant them forgiveness from sins and entry into heaven. He is very up front about the fact that he is using religion for personal profit. "All my preaching," he says, "is about avarice and similar sins, in order to make the people generous in contributing their pennies, especially to me. For my purpose is nothing but profit, and not at all the correction of sin." Through the pardoner, Chaucer is again making fun of the hypocrisy of religious "leaders" of his day. The pardoner is quite open about his own hypocrisy: "In this way I am able to preach against the same vice which I practice: avarice (greed)." Before telling his tale, the pardoner gives a "fire and brimstone" style sermon against vices like drunkenness, while he himself is getting perpetually drunker. Then he tells his tale…
Once there were three "riotous" youths who loved to drink in taverns and make merry. One day, while they were drinking, they heard a funeral bell tolling, and they went outside to see who had died. They found that an old man had died at the hands of a thief named Death. The three vowed to work together to kill Death.
They found an old man walking along a road, who told them that Death himself was sitting under a tree in the woods. They went to find the tree, but instead found a big bag of gold. The three drew straws to see who would go to town to buy provisions to carry away the gold. The youngest drew the short straw, and headed into town. While he was gone, the two others plotted to murder him when he returned, so that they might split the gold. While in town, the young one bought poison to kill the other two when he got back, so he could have all the gold. When the young man returned, the two murdered hum, and then drank his jug of poison, thinking it was wine. So they all died. Death wins.
After telling his tale, the pardoner tries to get the pilgrims to buy some pardons from him, but the Host cuts him off, and jokes "No, no! You would make me kiss your old breeches, and swear they were the relic of a saint, though they were foully stained by your bottom! But, by the cross that St. Helen found, I wish I had your testicles in my hand instead of relics or holy objects. Cut them off; I'll help you carry them. They shall be enshrined in hog's dung!"
This makes the pardoner mad, but the knight intercedes and makes peace between them.
The Second Nun's Tale
The second nun tells the tale of St. Cecelia, who was a virgin martyr of the early church. Cecelia was born to a noble Roman family, and brought up in the Christian faith. She married a man named Valerian, but told him that she would not have sex with him, because of her devotion to Christ. At first, Valerian was (understandably) not cool with this, but then he was converted and agreed. Valerian and Cecelia also managed to convert Valerian's brother Tiburtius. When they were converted, they began to see spiritual things like angels.
One day, the Roman prefect of their town, Almachius, commanded that these three be brought before him, so that they might make sacrifices to the god Jupiter. They refused because of their Christian beliefs. Valerian and Tiburtius were beheaded.
After an interesting debate between Cecelia and the prefect regarding the merits of Christianity vs. Roman paganism, the prefect ordered that Cecelia be burned alive. She was placed in a fiery box, but she did not burn. Then, a man stabbed her three times in the neck, and still she did not die. She lived for three days, preaching, before she died.
Pope Urban declared her a saint, and her house became a church.
The Canon's Yeoman's Tale
As the pilgrims are traveling, they are met by a canon (who is really an alchemist) and his yeoman (assistant). They want to join the pilgrims on their journey. The yeoman begins to talk shit on his master, and the canon rides away in shame, leaving the yeoman to tell a tale, which is about a crooked alchemist. I got the impression that the yeoman was tired of his master's lies and bullshit, and wanted to be rid of him. The yeoman tells the true story of the canon…
For seven years, the yeoman lived as the apprentice to the canon, an alchemist who sought to turn cheap metals into gold and silver. They tried and tried, with no success. Eventually, the canon realized there was no money in alchemy, so he became a swindler. He would find poor saps who believed in alchemy, and trick them into giving him money for his "secrets."
Once he tricked a priest into paying him forty pounds for the "secret." When he had his money, the canon rode off, never to be seen again. The moral of the canon's yeoman's tale is: "You folks that practice transmutation (alchemy), I advise you to give it up before you lose everything."
The Manciple's Tale
Next the Host asks a cook from London to tell his tale, but the cook is too drunk and drowsy to tell his tale, so a manciple tells one.
Once, when the god Phoebus (Apollo) lived on earth, he was the handsomest man, the best archer, and the greatest musician around. He had a wife whom he dearly loved, and he had a pet crow who lived in a cage. At this time, crows were white and they could speak and sing clearly.
One day, Phoebus's wife had an affair with a lowly man, and the crow saw and heard the whole thing. When Phoebus returned, the crow ratted her out. Without hesitation, Phoebus killed his wife with an arrow. He also cursed the crow, changing its feathers to black, and talking away its ability to sing and speak. He cursed the crow with a shrill "caw."
The moral of the manciple's story is basically, "don't be a chatterbox," and also don't cheat on your spouse if they are a god.
The Parson's Tale
As the sun is setting, and the pilgrims approach Canterbury, the host asks the parson to tell his tale. Everyone has told a tale except for the parson. At first, the parson refuses to tell a story, on religious grounds. "You shall get no fable from me," he says, "for Paul, writing to Timothy, reproves those people who leave truth and tell fables and similar trash."
Instead of a tale, the parson tells a really long and boring sermon on sin and penitence, which I will not repeat here, because it is so dull and cliche.
At the very end of the tales, the author begs the reader's forgiveness for any tales which he or she finds displeasing. He asks for Christ's forgiveness for any tales which are too "worldly", and he says that any defects in the work is due to his lack of skill as a writer. In short, Chaucer ends one of the greatest works of English literature ever written...on a note of humility.
The Squire's Tale
The Franklin's Tale
The Physician's Tale
The Manciple's Tale
The Parson's Tale