Chaucer, the pilgrim, is the only member of the group who is allowed to present a second tale on the way to Canterbury. He delivers his second tale following the failure of his minstrel song, “The Tale of Sir Thopas.”
The second tale is told in prose form. It is about a rich man named Melibeus (meaning “honey-drinker”) who lives with his wife, Prudence, and daughter, Sophie (meaning “wisdom”). One day, Melibeus wanders out into his field to entertain himself while three of his enemies break into his house and abuse his wife and daughter, leaving them nearly dead. When Melibeus returns he weeps deeply for them, Melibeus and his wife Prudence, along with a group of Melibeus’s friends, engage in a lengthy philosophical discussion about the nature of sorrow: at what point is it unbecoming of a wise man to weep excessively?
The tale contains echoes of the Hebrew Biblical figure, Job, as he laments his woes to his friends. Job is explicitly cited in the tale, along with a slough of other classical writers, such as Ovid and Seneca, among many others. The Tale of Melibee is dense, intellectual, and quite frankly a bore. Why would Chaucer deliberately give himself two of the worst tales in the collection? Perhaps there is a degree of Chaucerian irony in these two tales.
Both of Chaucer’s tales are characterized by immoderation: the Tale of Sir Thopas is characterized by deprivation. It lacks classical form and edification, and it is simple, comedic, light, and un-engaging. On the other hand, the Tale of Melibee is characterized by excess -it reads like an extended philosophical treatise or a dialogue, though it is far less powerful than any Platonic dialogue. It is overwhelming in its length and breadth, and almost nothing happens in the tale.
Chaucer gives himself two of the worst tales in order to highlight the limits of the poet and his craft. There is a certain Aristotelian moderation required for the art of poetry to succeed, and this moderation is bounded by philosophical excess, as well as comedic distance. In other words a certain blend of heavy and light material is necessary for a good story: a tale which both delights and informs. Each of Chaucer’s performs one or the other but not both.
In the end of the “Tale of Melibee,” and against the counsel of his warmongering friends, Melibeus relents to his wife and he calls upon his enemies to express forgiveness for harming his household. Continuing with the marriage theme, in Chaucer’s tale the successful marriage is one in which spouses may listen and also be persuaded, or put another way, a husband and wife must both govern and be governed according to their nature (a la Plato’s Republic).
For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. Here one may read a Middle English text that is closer to what Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, actually wrote, more than in any other modern edition.