Deprivation and Excess in The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee

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” and his second tale is told in prose form. It is about a rich man named Melibeus (meaning “honey-drinker”) who lives with his wife, Prudence (meaning “judicious”), 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. This will not be a tale of mirth despite the Host’s request. Instead we are exposed to excessive weeping and exposition about its meaning.

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 boring diatribe. Why would Chaucer deliberately give himself two of the worst tales in the collection? Perhaps there is a degree of Chaucerian irony here.

Both of Chaucer’s tales are characterized by immoderation: the Tale of Sir Thopas is characterized by a certain lack or deprivation which prevents it from being a good or whole tale. 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. Whereas Topas contained several beginnings with no ending, Melibee is more akin to a lengthy lecture.

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 tales 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. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

On Chaucerian Irony in the Tale of Sir Thopas

At this point in the journey, Chaucer describes the whole mood of the group of pilgrims as “sobre” following the previous tale, the Prioress’s morbid story of martyrdom. Then, the Host starts joking and for the first time he looks down at the narrator –the fictional character of Chaucer– who is an unusually quiet and observant person. He is an intellectual: maladroit, moody, somber, soft, and one who can barely recall a tale for the group. The Host asks what kind of a man is this? Especially considering that he is always looking at the ground and roundly shaped in the waist (like the Host) and elvish in appearance. The Host makes note of Chaucer’s effeminacy, likening him to a doll who will likely tell ‘some dainty thing’ but he instructs Chaucer to please tell a tale of mirth, which Chaucer agrees to do. In fact, he says he will tell a “rym” he learned long ago (the only rhyming tale he knows). Remarkably, the rhyming pattern of the tale is unusual and does not follow the classical rules of order and iambic pentameter. It is a parody of a crude minstrel rhyme; a satire of popular English chivalric romances –the kind which are so brutally lambasted by Cervantes.

The tale is of Sir Thopas, a fair and gentle knight from Poperinge in West Flanders. He is honorable, a good hunter, and loved by fair maidens. One spring day, he finds himself pining for a lover. He longs for an elf queen he sees in a dream, since no earthly woman is worthy of him. So he rides to the country of the “Fairye” where he encounters a giant creature named Olifaunt who threatens Thopas by throwing stones, but Thopas escapes and prepares to return and fight the giant.

In the second and third parts of this brief tale, the story wanders and constantly re-introduces itself to the group for no apparent reason as Sir Thopas would likely have returned to fight the giant but Chaucer is eventually interrupted by the Host who says:

“Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee” (919)

“Myne eres aken of thy drasty speche” (923)

“Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!” (930)

Chaucer’s tale of Sir Thopas is hilarious, mainly because it is an ironic and self-deprecating portrayal of his own poetic and rhetorical skill. The tale is wandering, uninteresting, and the rhyming is odd which leads the Host to interrupt and rebuke Chaucer for his ignorance and he offers Chaucer the chance to tell another tale, one without a rhyme, such as a prose or alliterative verse tale. Thus Chaucer elects to tell a prose tale.

Notably, the Host critiques Chaucer for the unusual formal structure of his tale, not necessarily for its content. The formal structure of a work of poiesis influences the content, and in the contest among the pilgrims the best tale must also have the best form. It must not continually have an introduction. If the structure is unappetizing, then the rest of the tale will falter, as well. Therefore, like the Cook and the Squire before him, Chaucer’s first tale of Sir Thopas is ironically interrupted and abandoned, and the Host demands a new tale that contains ‘doctrine.’ He wants to be informed and also entertained.

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.

A Hollow Story of Martyrdom In The Prioress’s Tale

In the “General Prologue” the nun, or “Prioress,” is described as simple and coy. Her name is “madame Eglentyne” and her greatest oath is by “Saint Loy,” or Saint Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths, metalworkers, and coin collectors. Perhaps the Prioress cares deeply for transient physical valuables. At any rate, she speaks French very well, and can sing a sermon beautifully. Her greatest pleasure is in good manners and eating well. She is conservative, charitable, compassionate, and she works hard to imitate courtly customs. She wears a broach with a crown and the letter “A” on it, along with the inscription: Amor vincit omnia (taken from Virgil’s Tenth Eclogue, meaning “love conquers all”).

Her tale opens with a superscript:

Domine dominus noster
(Translated as “Oh Lord, Our Lord”)

And this is followed by a prologue praising the Lord and the “white lylye flour” who bore him. It is a prayer honoring her muse, Mary the mother of Jesus. The prologue is not unlike the invocation of the Muses found in classical literature, such as in Homer. The Prioress addresses the virgin Mary directly and asks for the chance to honor her in this tale.

“The Prioress’s Tale” takes place in Asia. In a certain light, the tale is about the moral character of Jewish people, and since all Jews were banished from England in 1290 the tale must take place far away in Asia. However in another light, the story is a popular folktale and legend. It is intended to mirror the fallacious tales of ‘Little Hugh of Lincoln,’ a child martyr who was popularly believed to have been killed by Jews. The mere mention of ‘Little Saint Hugh’ was likely to raise the ire of Christians the world over.

In her tale, the Prioress tells of a ghetto filled with un-Christian evil denizens, but at the far end of the ghetto lives a group of Christians who run a Christian school for children. Among this group is a widow whose seven-year-old son walks to school everyday. He is taught to honor the Mother Mary and to say a “Hail Mary” on the way to school.

The boy grows in his faith and he preaches his testament of the Virgin Mary throughout the town but an ‘evil Jew’ grows to hate the boy until one day the ‘evil Jew’ slits the boy’s throat and casts him down into a pit. When the boy does not return home his mother frantically searches for him until she finally discovers him in the pit, but miraculously the boy’s dead body is able to sing the Alma Redemptoris. His distraught mother calls upon the local magistrate who immediately puts the culpable Jews to death:

“Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve”
“Evil shall have what evil will deserve” (632)

Thus the Prioress disagrees with the Shipman about the nature of requital for evil. She subscribes to the ‘eye for an eye’ doctrine. While her tale praises the innocence of a child who is wrongfully killed, it also masks her deep desire for bloodthirsty vengeance, as evidenced by the grotesque revenge taken upon the Jews in the tale – they are torn apart by wild horses and then strung up and hung.

There is an odd epilogue to the tale in which the boy sings at his own requiem mass because of a vision the Virgin Mary gave to him about a grain resting on his tongue. When the abbot removes the grain from the boy’s mouth, the boy gives up the ghost.

The Prioress’s Tale is an example of a wooden martyr story that merely regurgitates popular antisemitic prejudices in order to create the illusion of a perfect and innocent hero who is unjustly slaughtered by a cabal of evil men. Unlike the “Man of Law’s Tale,” the Prioress offers no dependable character like Custance. Instead her story is predictable and it takes its cues from “The Physician’s Tale.” Chaucer has presented us with a mostly unremarkable and forgettable tale about martyrdom -a deliberately pitiful defense of the clergy from an unlikable nun.

The tale does not address some of the larger themes discussed by the Knight or the Wife of Bath for example. This level of depth and literary sophistication is lost on the Prioress.

The story is about evil, though in the end we are left to ask why this Prioress holds such malice toward Jews? To what extent does she harbor a certain degree of evil and vengeance herself? She holds a certain view of evil, namely that evil can be equally repaid to evildoers -and she understands this principle to be justice (i.e. doing harm to one’s enemies, as Polemarchus suggests in Plato’s Republic).

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.

The Principle of Exchange in The Shipman’s Tale


The Shipman is a western man, perhaps hailing from Dartmouth (as Chaucer suggests in the “General Prologue”). He is a modest man, riding a cart horse, and wearing a wool cloth with a dagger around his neck. He is a “good felawe.” On his way to the pilgrimage he had stolen a good deal of wine from a merchant in Bordeaux, this his conscience is tainted. He is a bold and well-traveled mariner: “many a tempest hadde his berd been shake.” His ship is called the “Maudelayne.”

His tale is a bawdy story about a French merchant who is cuckolded by his friend, a monk named Don John. Whereas the “Pardoner’s Tale” labels greed as a cardinal sin, the Shipman sees a nuanced perspective. The merchant in the tale is obsessed with tallying his money and settling his debts, though surely this is no way for a just man to live. Justice and a happy marriage cannot simply be the mere paying and collecting of debts (recall the early definition of justice in Plato’s Republic).

The form of the “Shipman’s Tale” takes its roots from the French comedy fabliau genre. The ridiculousness indicates to us that Chaucer has concealed something important – delineating lowly things from high-born things. The tale touches on other recurrent themes in the tales: the question of a happy marriage, or the satire of the clergy. However, on a much deeper level the idea of currency, debts, commerce, and exchange is at the heart of the story. Underlying the principle of exchange in the city is a certain degree of trust, credo, or fraternity. However, wealth is an inferior past-time when considered in contrast to honoring a marriage or a friendship. Unfortunately the merchant has chosen the path of riches, and he ends up being cuckolded.

The “Shipman’s Tale” tells the story of this unnamed merchant from Saint-Denis, the region located just north of Paris known for its abbey where nearly every French king was buried between the 10th and 18th centuries. It was also a cloth-making hub -perhaps the Shipman trades in cloth. At any rate, people consider the merchant wise and he has a beautiful wife who is fond of revelry and socializing -an unfortunate expense for the good merchant. The tale is told in the first-person tense: who is the true narrator of the “Shipman’s Tale?”

“Swiche salutaciouns and contenaunces
Such salutations and courtesies
Passen as dooth a shadwe upon the wal;
Pass away as does a shadow upon the wall” (8-9).

A 19th century sketch of the basilica at Saint-Denis

The merchant also has an intimate friend, a monk named Don John. One day, the merchant decides to take leave for business in Bruges (the Netherlands was the mercantile hub of Medieval Europe) and the monk travels to his home with malmsey wine and white wine and fowl, to celebrate with the merchant before he leaves. While the merchant is busy counting his money, the monk and the merchant’s beautiful wife confess their love for one another in the garden. The merchant’s wife is persuaded when Don John invokes Saint Martin of Tours, one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages.

The merchant’s wife complains about her husband’s miserliness, because everyone knows there are six things that women desire in a man (per the wife): hardy and wise, rich and generous, obedient unto his wife and fresh in bed. She says she will sleep with Don John if he pays her one hundred francs, and he promptly agrees. Just before the merchant’s departure for Flanders/Bruges, Don John asks the merchant to lend him one hundred francs, to which Don John also agrees.

The merchant’s wife trades sex for money, money which Don John borrows from the merchant, and when the merchant returns he goes to collect his debt from Don John, but Don John says he has already given the money to the merchant’s wife. The merchant returns home but the merchant’s wife says she has already spent the money and will offer him lewd favors instead as repayment of the debt. The tale closes with a crude play on the idea of “tallying.”

At the end of the tale, the Host exclaims that the story is ‘well said’ and he wishes well for the shipman while criticizing monks, like the monk in the tale. Next, he asks the Prioress to tell a tale.

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.