illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Monk’s Tale Summary

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Last Updated November 10, 2022.

The Monk’s Prologue

The Host wishes that his wife could hear the tale of Melibeus and Prudence, for she certainly lacks Prudence’s patience. She is always encouraging the Host toward violent revenge upon their neighbors and upon anyone who offends her. He is tired of acting like a fool on her orders, and one day he fears he might kill someone.

The Host next invites the Monk to tell his tale and compliments him on his handsome appearance and fine bearing. He jokes about how religious men are so appealing to laymen’s wives. The Monk is willing to tell his tale, and he suggests several possibilities but decides to speak about great men who have fallen low.

The Monk’s Tale

The Monk’s tale is a compilation of stories about people whom Fortune has brought from a high place into deep adversity. He begins with Lucifer, even though he is an angel, for he has fallen the greatest distance of all. Then the Monk speaks of Adam. He tells the story of Sampson, the great man who was never defeated until he told a woman his secret. Hercules, too, was brought down by a woman even after his many victories and mighty deeds.

The Monk then turns his attention to Nebuchadnezzar and his downfall from powerful king to a crazy man. Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar, also felt the turn of Fortune, for he misused the sacred vessels of God’s temple.

The queen Zenobia was as brave and vigorous as any man, and she seemed ready to rule the whole world, but the Romans captured her when Fortune turned against her. Other rulers also lost their positions and their lives, including Pedro, King of Castille; Pierre de Lusignan, King of Cyprus; Bernabo, Viscount of Lombardy; and Ugolino, Earl of Pisa. The last of these starved to death in confinement with his three small children.

Even the Roman emperor Nero was not immune to the turns of Fortune. All his horrible acts ended only in his suicide. Holofernes, the Monk relates, was slain by Judith, and Antiochus’s body decayed even as he still lived. Alexander the Great died of poison, the Monk asserts, although he had conquered much of the world. Julius Caesar was betrayed and murdered, and the rich Croesus could not fight Fortune even with all his wealth. He was hanged. Indeed, Fortune can turn in an instant, bringing the highest person down to the lowest place.

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