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 The (Interrupted) Squire’s Tale

Next, the Host calls forth the Squire and asks him, if it be his will, to tell a tale about love. In the “General Prologue,” we learn that the Squire is the son of the Knight. He is “a lovyere and a lusty bacheler” (80) with curly locks of hair. Chaucer suspects he is not older than twenty. He is strong and agile, and dressed like a Spring morning, singing and fluting all through the day. He has been on cavalry expeditions with his father, in order to please his lady. He appears to be a very musical -a passionate lover. He is cut from the same table as his father.

The “Squire’s Tale” appears to be unfinished. It is a twist on an Arthurian legend, taking place in the Mongol Empire. Appropriately, the setting is foreign. It takes place in Asia – in “Sarray” or present-day Tsarev in southeastern Russia, a city founded by Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. The story is about the warring king named “Cambyuskan” (or Genghis Khan). He is described by the Squire as a young and powerful, yet noble king. He has two sons with his wife, Elpheta. Their names are: Algarsyf and Cambalo, as well as a daughter named Canacee.

Cambyuskan holds a Spring Feast on March 15, when suddenly a strange knight unexpectedly arrives. He comes in the name of the King of Araby and India, bearing magical gifts: a mirror which reveals the thoughts of the king’s friends and enemies, a brass horse with the power to teleport, a ring which shows the language of birds to the king’s daughter, as well as the nature of all plants and roots, and a sword which deals mortal blows (but the injuries can also only be healed by the very same sword). The ring is given to the king’s daughter, Canacee, and the remaining gifts are taken to the tower, save for the horse which cannot be physically moved.

The second part of the tale involves Canacee’s adventures with the ring as she hears the songs of the birds. She comes upon an injured, wailing falcon who is in sorrow because a tercelet left him for a kite and he is wounded. Canacee takes the falcon home and heals it. Next, the Squire, in his wandering tale, plans to share tales of Cambyuskan’s other children, but he is interrupted by the Franklin who praises the Squire over his own son, and despite outrage from the Host, the Franklin proceeds to tell his own story. The Squire’s tale is left incomplete, leaving the Squire incapable of fulfilling his promise to the group. In addition, the Squire never fulfills the Host’s request to tell a tale about love. In a certain light, the Squire’s story is far too ambitious, containing too much complexity.

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.

Intentionality in The Friar’s Tale

In his prologue, the Friar is called a “beggar” with a “scowling face at the Summoner.” In the “General Prologue” the Friar is characterized as a “wantowne” and “merye” man who dwells within an assigned region. He has a white neck like a ‘lily flower,’ and he knows great dalliance and fair speech. He is also a profit-minded beggar (like the begging friars described in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale”), and in traveling the countryside this Friar knows the taverns and innkeepers, as well as the lechers and harlots. He has a slight lisp, dons expensive clothes, and his name is Huberd.

He responds to the Wife of Bath by praising her tale for raising certain “academic” issues, but that these tales on the road to Canterbury should be of ‘pleasant matters’ (or “game”). Ironically, he proceeds to tell an amusing, albeit unpleasant story attacking summoners. In some ways it mirrors Aristophanes’s The Frogs (which portrays Dionysus in disguise). The Friar claims that authoritative texts are best left to the churches and the universities -he condescendingly explains this to the Wife of Bath whom he views as anything but an authority. He endeavors to tell an amusing tale about a summoner, even though he claims that no good may actually be said of a summoner. Therefore his tale will contain nothing good. The Host asks the Friar not to start an argument, but the Summoner interjects and allows for the Friar’s Tale to proceed (the Summoner plans to respond to the Friar later).

The “Friar’s Tale” takes place in his own country (we are unclear where this might be). It is about an archdeacon who deals punishments for transgressions against the law, with a particular focus on lechery. He brings many people to justice, forcing many to pay for their crimes, and he has a summoner -“a slyer boye nas noon in Engelond” (1322). Here, the Friar claims summoners have no jurisdiction over our lives, which causes a brief spat with the Summoner. At any rate, the tale continues: the summoner in the tale is a thief, a briber, and he steals from many people under false pretenses to enrich himself.

One day, the summoner visits an old widow seeking a bribe when he meets a yeoman along the way and they become friends. They swear lifelong friendship and pleasantries with one another, and we soon discover that this yeoman is the devil in disguise. The summoner swears himself to the devil. The two men ride along together, discussing the finer points of their respective trades. They come upon a cart-man whose horses are stuck, he shouts out ‘devil may take them!’ The greedy summoner asks the devil why he does not claim the cart-man’s horses, but the devil says it was not the man’s ‘entente’ or intention. So they depart with the summoner promising to fare better (i.e. gain more profit for himself). The devil comes to light as more of a respectful gentleman than the summoner.

They arrive at the widow’s home and the summoner fabricates judicial claims against her, demanding a bribe, however she swears at him, damning him to hell. The devil notes that her “entente” is true, so he takes the summoner down to hell, thus concluding the brief tale. Ironically, the devil is the hero of the story, bringing the summoner to justice. I suppose even the devil can be good, if only he has the right intentions.

Politically, the “Friar’s Tale” presents one man, an anonymous archdeacon who silently fills the place of Theseus from the “Knight’s Tale.” He is the boss of the summoner in the tale, and a capable judicial officer. The archdeacon represents the church, which is superior to the summoner, thus the friar elevates himself over the summoner. The idea of profit runs deep in “The Friar’s Tale” as is trust, which is an underlying theme worthy of consideration throughout The Canterbury Tales (such as in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale”). There is no mention of marriage in “The Friar’s Tale,” however the unique partnership between the summoner and the devil forms a friendly compact, such that a bond of trust ensues. The bond of ‘brotherhood’ that occurs in “The Friar’s Tale” beckons us to question whether or not we have found the true and just partnership among the varying tales from Chaucer’s pilgrims thus far.

The word “entente,” or “intent,” occurs frequently throughout the tale, highlighting the importance of a man’s intentions when committing good or evil acts. Whereas the Wife of Bath is something of a hedonist, taking whatever she desires, the Friar brings to light the need to consider her true intentions. Her desire is for power and personal gain, not unlike the summoner in the “Friar’s Tale,” and no just partnership can come about from dishonest intentions. Perhaps the Friar is a beggar, but is his intent for personal gain? His tale would suggest not, for even the devil is more selfless than a summoner in “The Friar’s 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.

The Story of Jerome’s Vulgate

Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, or “Jerome,” is likely the most significant Biblical translator in history. He was born in northeast Italy in 345, and by the time he was 29, Jerome had become a devout and ascetic Christian. He claims to have had a dream chastising him for being a follower of Cicero, not of Christ. Following this dream, he left his home to live alone in the Syrian desert, reading and translating the Hebrew scriptures. When he returned to civilization, Jerome was the greatest translator of his epoch. In 382, he became administrative secretary to Pope Damasus. (Pictured left is an 8th century version of the Vulgate, the Gospel According to John). In Jerome’s day, Greek was widely spoken and read in texts. All the Biblical texts could be read in Greek. There were varying translations available of Coptic and Syriac and others, many of which were varying in content. Aware of this problem, Jerome wrote to the Pope requesting the opportunity to produce an authoritative text. A similar problem arose many hundreds of years later during the creation of the King James Bible -the need for authority.

The Pope responded in 382 by commissioning Jerome to compose the masterful “Vulgate,” The editio vulgata or “common version.” First, he translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin, and then began translating the Psalms, Job, and several other texts from the Old Testament into Latin from the Greek Septuagint. However, he soon became aware of the Septuagint’s failings, so he endeavored to translate the Old Testament directly from the original Hebrew manuscripts. He completed this massive undertaking in about 405, and his translations of the Psalms from the Septuagint (the so-called “Gallic Psalter”) was widely praised and continued to be used for years alongside his original Latin translations. The Vulgate was Jerome’s great accomplishment.

For the next one thousand years, Jerome’s authoritative Latin compendium was edited, revised, and superseded numerous times throughout Europe. It was not until the Catholic Council of Trent in 1546 that the Vulgate was decreed the authoritative text for the Church. In 1965, at the second Vatican Council, a commission was established to revise the Vulgate. The Psalters were widely read and distributed among Christian households, and they were turned into contemporary hymns and songs.

Jerome died around 420, and he was later made a Saint by the Catholic Church. His Feast Day is September 30.

Here is a wonderful example of a Latin ‘Gallican Psalter’ by Jerome. Although he later discarded his translations from the Greek Septuagint as being inaccurate, they are nevertheless powerful. This is Psalm 23 (verses 1-4), in both Jerome’s Gallic Psalter Latin translation, alongside the beautiful King James translation. This is one of my favorite Psalms:

Jerome’s Gallic Psalter of Psalm 23
“[1] canticum David Dominus pascit me nihil mihi deerit. [2] in pascuis herbarum adclinavit me super aquas refectionis enutrivit me. [3] animam meam refecit duxit me per semitas iustitiae propter nomen suum [4] sed et si ambulavero in valle mortis non timebo malum quoniam tu mecum es virga tua et baculus tuus ipsa consolabuntur me.”

King James Translation of Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.