Seventeen Tragic Biographies in The Monk’s Tale

The Monk’s Tale is another experimentation in form in The Canterbury Tales –this time the formal presentation is a biography. In a certain light, the tale is a parody of Bocaccio’s Concerning the Falls of Illustrious Men, or even Plutarch’s Lives. After the conclusion of the previous tale (i.e. Chaucer’s second tale) the Host exclaims that he would rather have a barrel of ale than have his wife, Goodelief, hear this story. The Host amusingly recounts his wife’s short temper as she pridefully defends herself against any man who offends her, and she demands the same defense from her husband. This is our first glimpse into the Host’s marriage -his wife is characterized as an impatient woman. While the Host criticizes the character and form of Chaucer and his stories, the Host praises the Monk, a man who appears to be a competent administrator.

In the “General Prologue” the Monk is a “manly man” -a capable hunter, horseman, and a man of the modern times who is able to let go of things past. He is not a reader of books nor is he a worker with his hands. He is another idle ‘forward-thinking’ cleric, bald and overweight. The Host praises the Monk which should give us a certain degree of pause.

The Host turns to the Monk who is ‘wily and wise’ like a governor or a master, though the Host does not know what name to call the Monk (we later learn his name: Piers, or “Daun Piers”). The Host also praises the Monk’s good looks, while cursing the man who made him choose a monastic life. The Monk promises to tell several tales in hexameter form, like the Latin. poets, including tragedies which are the most ‘certeyn’ tales.

De Casibus Virorum Illustrium
(Regarding the Fates of Famous Men)

Building on a Plutarchian structure, the Monk decides to tell a series of brief but tragic biographies of men who meet their own downfall. Unlike Plutarch, who focuses on the lives of the ‘noble’ Greeks and Romans (in an effort to offer imitation-worthy examples of virtue), Chaucer’s Monk merely provides a list of non-chronological people to demonstrate the chaotic and terrifying view that Fortune distributes blessings regardless of good or evil actions. The overarching moral is that Fortune favors no man. The Monk give an account of Lucifer, Adam, Sampson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Balthazar, Zenobia, Pedro King of Castille, Pierre King of Cyprus, Bernarbo of Lombardy, Ugolino of Pisa (also found in Dante), Nero, Holofernes, King Antiochus, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Croesus (also found in Herodotus and the Romance of the Rose). At the close of the “Monk’s Tale” the Knight interrupts in disgust. There are no heroes (not even Hercules), only continuing downfalls. There is no chronology or order: in total there are seventeen brief tragedies, six are Biblical or apocryphal, one is a Greek hero, six are historical leaders from around the Mediterranean, and four are contemporaneous with The Canterbury Tales.

The rhyming scheme for the “Monk’s Tale” is notably complicated, and it gets even more complex when discussing themes of Fate and the divine.

Before the start of this tale, the Host cannot bear to listen to Chaucer’s empty stories, in particular his first tale which lacks poetic form, while by the end, the Knight cannot bear to hear the Monk’s hopeless biographies which lack content, such as an arc or character development. The writer of poetry must take into account both form and content when crafting a prize-worthy tale. Even biography as a literary form requires a redemptive structure of some sort, otherwise nothing is gained in the text. In order for poetics to be a legitimate teacher of virtue there are certain boundaries for it to succeed. In the “Monk’s Tale,” the protagonist is almost always victim rather than a tragic hero. Thankfully the noble Knight interrupts this pitiful series of biographies (of which the Monk claims to have hundreds).

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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