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Flashcards in Chaucer Deck (11):

Canetbury Tales (Key Ones)

The Knight, The Miller, The Nun’s Priest, and The Wife of Bath, the Merchant


Discuss The Knight's Tale

The Knights tale is about two knights, Arcite and Palamon, who are imprisoned by Theseus, duke of Athens. In prison they see and fall in love with the sister of Hippolyta, Emily (Emelye). They variously get out of prison and end up in a tournament over Emily arranged by Theseus. Arcite wins, but dies before he can claim Emily as his prize and so Palamon marries her. It introduces many typical aspects of knighthood such as courtly love and ethical dilemmas, etc. The story is in the form of poetry.

The Knight and his tale both embody the ideas of chivalry. The following tale, by the Miller, is a direct antithesis to the Knight’s with none of the nobility or heritage of classical mythology, but is instead rollicking, bawdy, comedic and designed to annoy the Knight.


The Miller's Tale (Explain)

The Miller’s tale is about a carpenter/landlord and his wife. The Reeve, another of the travelers, happens to be a carpenter, and urges the Miller not to joke about his profession; the Miller replies that he does not mean to insult carpenters in general, or portray them as cuckolds, and tells his tale anyway. Thus, The Reeve’s Tale follows, which ‘quites’ the Miller with a tale in which some students make a fool out of a dishonest and greedy miller.)

The story is of a student (Nicholas) who persuades his jealous old landlord’s much younger wife (Alisoun/Alison) to spend the night with him, making that possible through an elaborate scheme in which he convinces the landlord that he has found, through his astrology, that a flood of Biblical proportions is imminent. The solution, says Nicholas, is for each of them to wait silently overnight for it in separate tubs suspended from the rafters, and to cut their tubs from the roof when the water has risen. He adds that if the landlord tells anyone else, he’ll become insane. This comic prank allows Nicholas and Alison the opportunity to sneak down after the landlord falls asleep and be together.

While Nicholas and Alison lie together, another hopeful suitor, the foppish Absolon, appears and asks Alison for a kiss. She quietly tells Nicholas to watch and get a good laugh. She sticks her “hole” out the window, and he kisses it “full savorly,” pausing only when he feels bristly hair and considers that no woman has a beard. He realizes the prank and, hearing them laughing at him, becomes enraged. He disappears to borrow a red hot colter (a plow part) from the early-rising blacksmith. Returning, he asks for another kiss. This time Nicholas, who had risen from bed to “piss” (urinate), sticks his “ers” (arse) out the window. When Absolon say “speak sweet bird, I know not where thou art”, Nicholas almost blinds him with an enormous fart, shocking Absolon, who then brands Nicholas in the rear, searing off the skin. Nicholas cries for water, awakening the landlord, who hears someone screaming “water, water” and thinks that the Second Flood is come at last. He panics and cuts himself down, falling clean through the floor and breaking his arm; the rest of the town awakens to find him lying in the tub in the cellar. He tries to explain what he’s doing in the tub, and sure enough in accordance with Nicholas’ prophesy, he is considered a madman (and a cuckold, too) by the whole town.


The Wife of Bath

Her tale begins with an allusion to the absence of fairies in modern day, and their prevalence in King Arthur’s time, then begins her tale, though she interrupts and is interrupted several times, creating several digressions. A knight in King Arthur’s Court rapes a woman. By law, his punishment is death, but the queen intercedes on his behalf, and the king turns the knight over to her for judgement. The queen punishes the knight by sending him out on a quest to find out what women want, giving him a year and a day to discover it and having his word that he will return. If he fails to satisfy the queen with his answer, he forfeits his life. He searches but every woman he finds says something different, from riches to flattery.

On his way back to the queen after failing to find the truth, he sees four and twenty ladies dancing. They disappear suddenly, leaving behind an old hag and he asks for her help. She says she’ll tell him what to tell to the queen and save him if he promises to grant her request at a time she chooses. He agrees and they go back to the court and he is pardoned after he tells them that what women want most is “to have the sovereignty as well upon their husband as their love, and to have mastery their man above”. The old woman cries out to him before the court that she saved him and that her reward will be that he takes her as his wife and loves her. He protests, but to no avail, and the marriage takes place the next day.

The old woman and the knight converse about the knight’s happiness in their marriage bed and discuss that he is unhappy because she is ugly and low-born. She discourses upon the origins of gentility, as told by Jesus and Dante and reflects on the origins of poverty. She says he can choose between her being ugly and faithful or beautiful and unfaithful. He gives the choice to her to become whatever would bring the most honour and happiness to them both and she, pleased with her mastery of her husband, becomes fair and faithful to live with him happily until the end of their days.


The Nun's Priest's Tale

The tale of Chanticleer and the Fox is a beast fable popularized by the 14th century Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s 625 line poem comprises the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, one of his Canterbury Tales.

The tale follows the monk’s depressing accounts of despots and fallen heroes and, as well as sharing these themes, the tale also parodies them. It also has ideas in common with earlier tales with the marriage between Chanticleer and Pertelote echoing the domestic lives depicted in tales like Franklin’s and The Tale of Melibee. These different themes help to unify several tales and offers a lively story from a previously almost invisible character.

The tale concerns a world of talking animals who reflect both human insight and error. Its protagonist is Chanticleer, a proud rooster who dreams of his approaching doom in the form of a hound. Frightened, he awakens his “wife” Pertelote, who assures him he only suffers from indigestion and chides him for paying heed to a simple dream. After recounting stories of other prophets who foresaw their deaths, Chanticleer is comforted by Pertelote and proceeds to greet a new day.

Unfortunately for Chanticleer, he predicted his doom correctly. A sly fox who has tricked Chanticleer’s father and mother to their downfall now awaits Chanticleer’s inflated ego. When the fox insists upon hearing the cock crow, Chanticleer sticks out his neck just a little too far and is promptly snatched from the yard. As the fox is chased through the forest, Chanticleer (all the while dangling from the fox’s jaws) suggests that the fox should pause to tell his pursuers to give up their chase.

Now the fox’s haughtiness rears its ugly head, and as the fox complies, the rooster falls out and proceeds to fly up the nearest tree. The fox tries in vain to convince the wary Chanticleer, who now prefers the safety of the tree and fails to fall for the same trick a second time.


Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

Canterbury Tale
(General Prologue, 1–12)

These are the opening lines with which the narrator begins the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. The imagery in this opening passage is of spring’s renewal and rebirth. April’s sweet showers have penetrated the dry earth of March, hydrating the roots, which in turn coax flowers out of the ground. The constellation Taurus is in the sky; Zephyr, the warm, gentle west wind, has breathed life into the fields; and the birds chirp merrily. The verbs used to describe Nature’s actions—piercing (2), engendering (4), inspiring (5), and pricking (11)—conjure up images of conception.
The natural world’s reawakening aligns with the narrator’s similarly “inspired” poetic sensibility. The classical (Latin and Ancient Greek) authors that Chaucer emulated and wanted to surpass would always begin their epic narrative poems by invoking a muse, or female goddess, to inspire them, quite literally to talk or breathe a story into them. Most of them begin “Sing in me, O muse,” about a particular subject. Chaucer too begins with a moment of inspiration, but in this case it is the natural inspiration of the earth readying itself for spring rather than a supernatural being filling the poet’s body with her voice.
After the long sleep of winter, people begin to stir, feeling the need to “goon on pilgrimages,” or to travel to a site where one worships a saint’s relics as a means of spiritual cleansing and renewal. Since winter ice and snow made traveling long distances almost impossible (this was an age not only before automobiles but also before adequately developed horse-drawn carriages), the need to get up, stretch one’s legs, and see the world outside the window must have been great. Pilgrimages combined spring vacations with religious purification.
The landscape in this passage also clearly situates the text in England. This is not a classical landscape like the Troy of Homer’s Iliad, nor is it an entirely fictionalized space like the cool groves and rocky cliffs of imaginary Arcadia from pastoral poetry and romances. Chaucer’s landscape is also accessible to all types of people, but especially those who inhabit the countryside, since Chaucer speaks of budding flowers, growing crops, and singing birds.


The Firste Moevere of the cause above,
Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love,
Greet was th’effect, and heigh was his entente.
. . .
For with that faire cheyne of love he bond
The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond
In certeyn boundes, that they may nat flee.

Cantebury Tales
(The Knight’s Tale, 2987–2993)

This passage is from the conclusion of the Knight’s Tale, as Duke Theseus explains why Emelye must marry the knight Palamon. Theseus bases his argument on concepts drawn from the fifth-century A.D. Roman philosopher Boethius, whose ideas appealed to medieval Christians because he combined Plato’s theory of an ideal world with Christian teachings of a moral universe. Chaucer took it upon himself to translate and provide a commentary for Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Chaucer’s translation, a long prose text, is informally known as his Boece.
The “Firste Moevere” (first mover) is the Aristotelian notion of God. The story the Knight tells takes place long before Christ. Although medieval Christians could not condemn classical writers and philosophers, since much of Virgil’s poetry and Plato’s philosophy formed the basis for Christian literature, they had difficulty imagining a time before people believed in Christ. Chaucer (or the Knight) has carefully given Theseus a pagan notion of God that nevertheless resonates with Christianity. Having a supreme ancient Greek or Roman god would be idolatrous and therefore immoral (although the gods appear as lesser entities in the second half of the tale), because, according to medieval Christians, there was only one god and that god was the Trinity.
The “faire cheyne of love” is a medieval view of cosmology, or the natural order of things. It is the idea that every thing has its place in the hierarchy of the world, from the smallest flea to the hand of God. The fifty lines or so that follow this passage contain ideas that are taken almost word for word from Chaucer’s Boece. Theseus argues that Emelye’s overly long mourning threatens to disrupt the great chain of love, and that the only way to maintain the chain’s balance is for her to marry Palamon and be happy.


Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,
For al his kepyng and his jalousye;
And Absolon hath kist hir nether ye;
And Nicholas is scalded in the towte.
This tale is doon, and God save al the rowte!

Cantebury Tales
(The Miller’s Tale, 3850–3854)
This passage, the rhyming conclusion to the Miller’s Tale, neatly resolves the story by offering a reckoning of accounts. Everyone in the story has learned his or her lesson and gotten the physical punishment he or she deserves. The carpenter’s wife, Alisoun, was “swyved,” or possessed in bed by another man, in this case, Nicholas. John, the ignorant and jealous carpenter, has been made a cuckold, despite his watchful and possessive eye. Absolon, the foolish and foppish parish clerk, has kissed Alisoun’s behind, fair punishment for evading his clerical duties. Nicholas, the smart-alecky student who cheated on the carpenter with Alisoun, has been burned on his bottom with a red-hot poker as payback for farting in Absolon’s face. Still, the distribution of punishments is not entirely equal. John is dealt the worst lot—he ends up with a broken arm and the whole town believing he has gone insane. Alisoun’s “swyving” is a double punishment for John, while Alisoun herself escapes unscathed.


Prioress' Tale

Prioress is dainty, materialistic, sentimental to dogs; "Amor Vincit Omnia" brooch. Her tale is in rhyme royal, tells of boy killed by Jews for singing a Christian hymn; the murder is discovered because he continues singing despite his throat being slit. Origin of the phrase "murder will out".


The Merchant's Tale

Merchant wears a fool's motley and a beaver hat; obsessively discusses business. In the tale, January, an old knight, marries the young May. "Enjoys" her continually until he goes blind, at which point she takes a young lover Damian, hooking up in trees in January's garden as he attempts to discover them down below. When Pluto restores January's sight, May claims she committed adultery to cure his blindness.


The Pardoner's Tale

Thin, vain, smooth-skinned blond who carries pardons ("hot from Rome") and a bag of spurious relics. Explains that Radix malorum est Cupiditas (the love of money is the root of all evil), and tells a tale about three drunkards who set out to find Death. Upon finding a pile of treasure instead, they murder one another in trying to cheat each other out of the booty. When the Pardoner tries to huck his relics, the Host threatens to take his testicles instead and bury them in pig sh*t!