The Monk, when pressed by the host for a tale, states that he will tell
of him that stood in great prosperity,
And is fallen out of high degree.
In other words, he will relate stories of how once great people fell into ruin and despair. To the Monk, human success rests not in our own efforts. Further, our failures are not the result of our flaws. What happens to us is all up to fortune or luck, which in medieval times was often depicted as an ever turning wheel. Sometimes we are the top of the wheel, experiencing prosperity. Other times we are the bottom of the wheel, crushed by ill fortune. What happens to us, says the Monk, is out of our hands.
To illustrate his point, the Monk tells seventeen different tales of bad luck. These include stories of biblical figures such as Adam and Lucifer, as well as figures from classical literature such as Hercules, Nero, and Julius Caesar. The Monk also covers four medieval examples of men who met with ill fortune.
The stories become repetitive because the themes are so similar. The Monk says he wants his listeners to learn from these tales, but all we learn is that people have no control over their own destinies. Nothing we do matters in the end: it is all up to fate. This is a depressing theme and, as many scholars have pointed out, odd coming from a monk, because it is out of line with Christian theology. Christianity teaches that all people can find love, hope, and redemption.