Context: The Canterbury pilgrims, a diverse group, having lodged by chance at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, decide to travel together to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury and to tell tales to alleviate the tedium of the journey. In the Prologue, which establishes the framework for the pilgrimage and introduces the taletellers, Chaucer describes the physical appearance and gives the background of each of the pilgrims. Among them is a prioress whom the poet, although he respects her greatly, may be satirizing very gently. The school at Stratford at Bow, for example, could hardly compare its French with that of Paris.
Ther was also a Nonne, a PRIORESSE,That of hir smylying was ful symple and coy;Hire gretteste ooth was but by Seinte Loy;And she was cleped madame Eglentyne.Ful weel she song the service dyvyne,Entuned in hir nose ful semely,And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.
Context: Little is known with certainty about the life of Geoffrey Chaucer. He was probably born in London, but when? In 1386, while a witness concerning a coat of arms, he testified that he was "forty years of age and more," which would make his birthyear nearer 1343 than the traditional date of 1340. He also said he had "born arms for twenty-seven years." Part of this service included his year in France with the English army, in 1359–1360, during the Hundred Years War. It was not a very important campaign, but in one of the skirmishes, at Réthal, near Rheims, he was captured. The amount of his ransom, £16, amounting to about $2,400 today, indicates Chaucer's importance, when common soldiers were freed for a pound or two. After a gap of six years, Chaucer's history can be picked up again, as a yeoman in the household of King Edward III. In 1368, he was an esquire; and in 1369, in the army of John of Gaunt, he took part in a raid on Picardy, along with 600 men at arms and 150 other members of the king's household. This part of his life may well have been in his mind when he included a squire among those on the Pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. The Squire, too, had been on a military expedition in Flanders, Artois, and Picardy. There are thirty in the group, twenty-eight Pilgrims, the host of the Tabard Inn at Southward, across the Thames River from London, and the author. To entertain themselves on the journey to the tomb of Thomas à Becket, each agrees to tell two stories, and two more on the return trip. Actually only twenty-two of the proposed 120 appear in Chaucer's volume, set down in iambic pentameter. The Prologue, introducing the members of the company, declares that in April when the showers wake up nature, birds sing, the crops begin growing, and people like to go on pilgrimages. By his selection of pilgrims, Chaucer gave a complete panorama of the English social classes of his day, from the clergy and knights to the humble plowman. The Knight, though the highest in rank of all the pilgrims, is modest and prudent. Chivalry was on the decline in the fourteenth century, but Chaucer makes his Knight an ideal character, untouched by satire. Though veteran of wars for king and religion all over the known world, he is dressed in sober garb and accompanied by only two retainers, a yeoman clad in green, and his son of about twenty, who had also fought in several campaigns. His duty as Squire is to attend his father and carry his lance. His dress is the height of fashion, and he has the courtly accomplishments. He can sing and play the flute. Though he loves the ladies so passionately that at night he sleeps no more than a nightingale does, he is as fresh as May, that month of beauty and flowers used by many poets in their similes. Tennyson in his Idylls of the King, commands: "Blow, Trumpet, for the world is white with May." Many poets have written of the "Merry month of May," and only an occasional cynic like Lowell declares: "May is a pious fraud of the almanac." Chaucer says about the Squire:
With hym ther was his sonne, a yong SQUIER,A lovyere and a lusty bachelerWith lokkes crulle, as they were leyd in presse.Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse.Of his stature he was of evene lengthe,And wonderly delyvere and of greet strengthe.And he hadde been somtyme in chivachyeIn Flaundres, in Artoys, and Pycardie,And born hym weel, as of so litel space,In hope to stonden in his lady grace.Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,Al full of fresshe floures, whyte and rede.Syngynge he was or floytynge, al the dayHe was as fressh as is the monthe of May.
Context: The Miller tells about an old carpenter named John who marries an eighteen-year-old girl named Alice. The story illustrates the adage that men should marry wives of the same age. The carpenter was jealous of his young wife, and he had reason. A poor young scholar named Nicholas lived with the carpenter and his wife, at Oxford. One day when the carpenter was away from home, the young scholar, who was studying astrology, declared his love for Alice, and she, after some protesting, declared her love for him. They arranged to carry on their affair whenever her husband was away. One time when the carpenter was leaving for several days, Alice and Nicholas plan their meeting. But to throw off suspicion, Nicholas stays hidden in his room for some while before the carpenter departs. The carpenter gets worried about Nicholas, and when his servant looks through a hole in the door and sees Nicholas apparently in a trance, he breaks down the door to the room and rushes in to save the scholar. Believing Nicholas in the power of an evil force, the carpenter thinks to free him by calling upon holy names.
Jhesu Crist and seinte Benedight,Blesse this hous from every wikked wight.
Context: Chaucer, to bind together his collection of tales, establishes the framework of a group of pilgrims traveling from the Tabard Inn in Southwark to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury and telling tales to make the trip less tiresome. In the Prologue, the pilgrims are introduced and described in sharp detail. Among the most memorable of the travelers is a poor clerk, or student, who would choose from the world's riches a mere collection of books.
A CLERK ther was of Oxenford also,That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.As leene was his hors as is a rake,And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,But looked holwe, and therto sobrely.Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy;For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,Ne was so worldly for to have office.For hym was levere have at his beddes heedTwenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,Of Aristotle and his philosophie,Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
Context: In the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes each of the pilgrims who have met and decided to travel together to Canterbury, to the shrine of Thomas à Becket. One of the pilgrims is a worldly monk who would rather hunt than do anything else. He has "many a deyntee horse . . . in stable" and "Grehoundes he hadd as swift as fowel in flight." Chaucer, in his typical way, describes this monk, using the berry analogy which has become commonplace in our speech:
His bootes souple, his hors in greet estaat,Now certeinly he was a fair prelaat;He was nat pale as a forpyned goost.A fat swan loved he best of any roost.His palfrey was as broun as is a berye.
Context: Palamon and Arcite, two noble cousins of Thebes, have been taken prisoner by Theseus and sentenced to life imprisonment without hope of ransom. One May morning Palamon is looking out of the window when he sees Emilia, younger sister of Hippolyta, wife of Theseus, king of Athens. Arcite also looks out the window, and seeing Emilia, falls in love with her. The two cousins and sworn friends try to resolve the situation of their being in love with the same girl, but neither will admit the other's superior claims to her. Arcite reminds Palamon that their arguing is futile, since both are in prison without ransom for life. Then to illustrate the futility of their loving, he tells a tale about two dogs fighting over a bone.
We stryve as dide the houndes for the boon;They foughte al day, and yet hir part was noon.Ther cam a kyte, whil that they were so wrothe,And baar awey the boon bitwixe hem bothe.And therfore, at the kynges court, my brother,Ech man for hymself, ther is noon oother.Love, if thee list, for I love and ay shal,And soothly, leeve brother, this is al.
Context: Some merchants have gone to Rome, and there have seen the Emperor's daughter named Constance, who is as good as she is beautiful, is virtuous and kind, "the mirror of all kindness." When the merchants return, they report her beauty to all. A gentleman in Surrey hears of Constance's beauty and determines to marry her. He seeks from these merchants some suggestions as to how he might accomplish his ends. He will do anything for her, for, as he says, "in this woe I can not long endure." His protestations of love are probably correct, for his stars clearly revealed his fate.
Paraventure in thilke large bookWhich that men clepe the hevene ywriten wasWith sterres, when that he his birthe took,That he for love sholde han his deeth, allas!For in the steeres, clerer than is glas,Is writen, God woot, whoso koude it rede,The deeth of every man, withouten drede.
Context: The Wife of Bath, the famous scold who wears red hose, has a red face, and is gap-toothed, has been married five times, and is looking for husband number six. Named Alice, she begins her tale with a Prologue that is long enough to be her story, about how women must have supremacy over men. She details what happened to her fourth husband. In her determination to rule her husbands, she was a cross which her fourth had to bear. "He was a reveler; / That is to say, he had a paramour," and Alice was jealous of her. Alice was young and lively herself and wanted her husband. The proverb was used by John Heywood (Proverbs, Part I, chapter xi), by Shakespeare (Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, sc. ii, l. 60), and is common in everyday talk. Chaucer's Wife of Bath quite frankly discusses the torture she imposed on her husband:
I seye, I hadde in herte greet despitThat he of any oother had delit.But he was quit, by God and by Seint Joce!I made hym of the same wode a croce;Nat of my body, in no foul manereBut certeinly, I made folk swich cheereThat in his owene grece I made hym fryeFor angre, and for verray jalousye.
Context: The Canterbury pilgrims, having met by chance at the Tabard Inn in Southwark on their way to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, decide to tell tales to make the journey less boring. In the Prologue, Chaucer, to establish the tale-telling framework and to identify the participants of his work, describes vividly his pilgrims. Among the memorable characters is a clerk, or student, noted for his dedication to acquiring and sharing knowledge.
A CLERK ther was of Oxenford also,That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.As leene was his hors as is a rake,And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,But looked holwe, and therto sobrely.. . .Noght a word spak he moore than was neede,And that was seyed in forme and reverence,And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence;Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.
Context: The Shipman is one of the pilgrims who meet at the Tabard Inn and decide to travel together to Canterbury. He is a good sailor and knows his tides, streams, his safe harbors. But he is a smuggler. Shakespeare used this reference to a good fellow in King Henry V (Act V, sc. ii, l. 259): "If he be not fellow with the best king, thou shalt find him the best king of good fellows." Our present-day song "For he's a jolly good fellow," ordinarily is at least half serious, but Chaucer is more than half ironical when he describes his ship-man:
A dagger hangynge on a laas hadde heAboute his nekke, under his arm adoun.The hootê somer hadde maad his hewe al broun;And certeinly he was a good felawe.
Context: In Lombardy there lived an old knight named January who had lived happily as a bachelor until he reached the age of sixty. Then because of "holiness or of dotage" he wanted to get married. To accomplish his end, he prays for a married life because "no other life," said he, "is worth a bean," and wedlock "is a paradise." He asks his friends to find him a young wife. She must be not more than twenty years old, for "better than old beef is the tender veal." Two of his friends have an argument about the advisability of the old man's marrying. One, named Placebo, says that January knows best. The other, however, named Justinus, urges the old man to proceed with caution:
I warne yow wel, it is no childes pleyTo take a wyf withouten avysement.Men moste enquere, this is myn assent,Wher she be wys, or sobre, or dronkelewe,Or proud, or elles ootherweys a shrewe. . . .
Context: The old Italian knight named January has determined to get married to a young girl, not over twenty. Against the advice of some of his friends, but with that of others, he worries about whom he should marry. "Many fair shap and many a fair visage/ Ther passeth thurgh his herte nyght by nyght." Finally he chooses one. And having chosen her, he naturally thinks she is the best in the world.
For love is blynd alday, and may nat see.And whan that he was in his bed ybroght,He purtreyed in his herte and in his thoghtHir fresshe beautee and hir age tendre,Hir myddel smal, hire armes longe and selendre,Hir wise governaunce, hir gentillesse,Hir wommanly berynge, and hire sadnesse.
Context: This is the ancient folk tale, drawnient folk tale, drawn from a number of medieval sources, of Patient Griselde, or Grisildis as Chaucer recounts it. At the end of the story concerning the trials the noble husband set for his peasant wife, Chaucer has his clerk say, "No wedded man so hardy be t'assaille/ His wyves pacience, in hope to fynde/ Grisildis, for in certain he shall faille!" In the episode from which the quotation is taken, this "flour of wyfly pacience" is most sorely tried when her lord and master announces that he will send her home to the humble cottage without even the dress on her back, and finally threatens to replace her with a new wife. She meekly accepts his commands and replies to him:
But sooth is seyde, algate I find it trewe–For in effect it preved is on me–Love is noght old as whan that it is newe.But, certes, lord, for noon adversitee,To dyen in the cas it shal not be. . .
Context: The Prioress tells of a city in Asia which had a Jewish section, through which a Christian lad, aged seven, passed daily. The lad was a widow's son, and was accompanied by an older boy. The story stretches its tone of tenderness somewhat close to the satiric, but probably Chaucer was not intending to be satiric. The Jews in the section of the street resent the piety of the lad and his constant praising of the Virgin. They are therefore susceptible when "the serpent Satan" plants in their minds hatred of this boy and suggests that the lad should be done away with. The belief that murder cannot be concealed is widespread. Chaucer uses it elsewhere ("The Nun's Priest's Tale," lines 4242 and 4247), and Shakespeare uses it (Hamlet, Act II, scene ii, line (622). In "The Prioress's Tale," Chaucer tells how the Jews disemboweled the lad and threw him into a privy; then he concludes:
Mordre wol out, certyn, it wol nat faille,And namely ther th'onour of God shal sprede;The blood out crieth on youre cursed dede.
Context: A knight in King Arthur's court is required to find the answer to the question of what women love most or be executed. He is told the answer–woman desires above all else sovereignty over her husband–by an old, foul hag, on the condition that he marry her. He agrees, but on their wedding night he finds her so repulsive that he cannot touch her. "Thou art so loothly and so oold also." She then delivers him a lecture on goodness and beauty, saying that she could make herself beautiful if she wished, but beauty would not necessarily make her good also. When she is given sovereignty over her choice, she becomes both beautiful and good. The proverb "Handsome is that handsome does" was used by Oliver Goldsmith (The Vicar of Wakefield, chapter 1), and is common elsewhere. In Chaucer, the loathly hag reads the knight a lecture on manners.
That he is gentil that dooth gentile dedis.And therefore, leeve housbonde, I thus conclude:Al were it that myne auncestres were rude,Yet may the hye God, and so hope I,Grante me grace to lyven vertuously.
Context: In the fabliau "The Reeve's Tale," Chaucer tells the story of the outwitting of a dishonest miller by two students from Cambridge, who have determined that all of the grain of their college sent to be ground shall be returned. When the young men declare that they will watch the grinding of the grain, the miller, certain of his ability to steal a portion of it, muses on their caution and finally quotes a proverb of the time.
This millere smyled of hir nycetee,And thoghte, "Al this nys doon but for a wyle.They wene that no man may hem bigyle,But by my thrift, yet shal I blere hir ye,For al the sleighte in hir philosophye.The moore queynte crekes that they make,The moore wol I stele whan I take.In stide of flour yet wol I yeve hem bren."The gretteste clerkes been noght the wisest men, . . ."
Context: This story illustrates the feud between the Summoner and the Friar. The Summoner tells a story about a lecherous and selfish friar, named John, who comes to a sick man's house. After kissing his wife, the friar learns that the husband is ill. He then entreats the sick man to confess and to give him alms, since the friar's cloister is poor. For example, they owe "forty pounds" for stones. But the husband refuses to give him anything. Finally, the husband seems to bow to the friar's demands, and plays an obscene joke on him. The friar is insulted and infuriated, and rushes to the husband's lord to tell of the incident. The lord says that the friar is "the salt of the earth," but "in his heart he rolled up and down" when told of the husband's trick. The lord's wife sat still and listened, or as Chaucer said:
The lady of the hous ay stille satTil she had herd al what the frere sayde:"Ey, Goddes mooder," quod she, "Blisful mayde!Is ther oght elles? telle me feithfully."
Context: The Reeve's tale is told in response to the Miller's tale, which was about a carpenter, and the Reeve once was a carpenter. The Reeve's tale is therefore about a thieving miller. One day two lads–scholars–come to the miller's to have their wheat ground. Having been warned about how the miller steals, they determine to watch his actions closely. One, named John, says that he will stand "right by the hopper" "and see how the corn goes in." Allen, the other, says that he will be beneath "an see how the meal falls down into the trough." For the moment frustrated, the miller still thinks "The greatest clerks are not the wisest men," and knows he can outwit them. To do so, he turns their horse loose and chases it toward the fens. The phrase Chaucer uses was later used by Du Bartas (Divine Weeks and Works (1578), Second Week, Fourth Day), and has been widespread since. The Reeve thus tells of the Miller's actions.
He strepeth of the brydel right anon.And when the hors was loos, he gynneth gonToward the fen, ther wilde mares renne,And forth with "wehee," thurgh thikke and thurgh thenne.
Context: In "The Knight's Tale," a medieval romance and the first of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer tells the story of the love of the knights Arcite and Palamon for the beautiful Emilia, sister-in-law to Theseus, ruler of Athens. Hopelessly in love with the maiden, the two young men are commanded by Theseus to meet in fifty weeks with one hundred followers to fight till death for the hand of their ideal. On the appointed day of the tournament, when Palamon prays to Venus, the goddess of love, and Arcite to Mars, the god of war, Emilia, a follower of Diana, the goddess of chastity, rises and makes her prayers to her own deity.
The thridde houre inequal that PalamonBigan to Venus temple for to gon,Up roos the sonne, and up roos Emelye,And to the temple of Dyane gan hye.Hir maydens, that she thider with hire ladde,Ful redily with hem the fyr they hadde,Th'encens, the clothes, and the remenant alThat to the sacrifice longen shal;The hornes fulle of meeth, as was the gyse:Ther lakked noght to doon hir sacrifise.Smokynge the temple, ful of clothes faire,This Emelye, with herte debonaire,Hir body wessh with water of a welle.
Context: A group of people, planning a pilgrimage to Canterbury to the shrine of Thomas à Becket, have met by chance at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. They decide to travel together and to pass the time telling two stories each on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. In the Prologue Chaucer describes each of the pilgrims in great and striking detail. The first to be described, because of his rank, is the knight, who fills his role to perfection. He "loved chivalrie,/ Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie." He was a good Christian and brave in battle. Chaucer in his description clearly approves of this man:
And though that he were worthy, he was wys,And of his port as meke as is a mayde.He never yet no vileynye ne saydeIn all his lyf unto no maner wight.He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.