Lesson 24



1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote






              Earthy Chaucer


1. Read Damrosch  "Geoffrey Chaucer" (B1087-1089); "The Miller's Prologue" and "The Miller's Tale" (B1109-1125); "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale" (B1125- 1153).

2. Read through the page below, and then reflect on the lesson for an hour in your World Literature Journal.

3. If you are enrolled in this course, go to the Angel web site, take the quiz for this lesson, and submit your World Literature Journal to Dr. G.

Geoffrey Chaucer (cir 1343-1400) was the first great writer of English letters whose works still survive today. He was a court entertainer whose literary fame continued after his death, with the production of luxurious copies like the famous Ellesmere manuscript and Chaucerian imitations by John Lydgate and other also-rans. Shakespeare and others were still studying the great figure several hundred years later, when Middle English had been forgotten and modern English had emerged. Indeed, by the seventeenth century, when the first histories of English literature were being written, Chaucer had became known as "the father of English literature," an icon for royalty, democracy, protestant reform, even (in his satiric and humorous vein) the Enlightenment. The culture fathered by Chaucer was not a general culture of British or English people, however. It was a specialized culture of story-tellers.

The astounding variety of The Canterbury Tales includes almost every known medieval literary genre from sermon and allegory to romance and lay to beast fable and comic fabliau, among others. Moreover, Chaucer engineered these forms so that they inter-relate and echo one another as tales told in a story-telling competition among a diverse party of narrators. For instance, the Miller parodies the Knight's romance of courtly love, but so does the pilgrim Chaucer's own tale of Sir Thopas, in a naive vein (note 7 below).

The Canterbury Tales should be seen in the context of the foundation myths discussed earlier in this course: Sin-liqe-unninni's myth of Uruk, Ezra's myth of the Jerusalem temple, Plato's myth of the Academy, Plutarch's myth of Alexandria, Virgil's myth of Rome, Muhammad's myth of Mecca and the rest. As opposed to these institutional works, Chaucer's narrative frame story of the pilgrimage to the martyr's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral presents an image of English society not as a unified culture dominated by the Canterbury shrine but as a secular culture of entertainers in which there are diverse tales and authors, and none is predominant. What Chaucer's pilgrims share in common is not so much the pilgrimage as a desire to win host Harry Bailey's story-telling competition by presenting “tales of most sentence and best solas.” (That is tales that are most quotable and that create the most pleasure.) The competition is numerous, varied and formidable. 









Left: portrait of the Canterbury pilgrim Chaucer, from the Ellesmere manuscript.


The Miller's Tale

The General Prologue’s portrait of the Miller as a teller of “harlotries” (dirty stories) is confirmed by his tale, which mocks aristocratic and clerical pretentions.

Chaucer's commoners are often presented as apes of courtly fashions, characters who imitate the airs of their "betters." Example: at line 179 Nicholas has just grabbed Alison by the crotch and she, for the moment, is having none of it: “Do way youre handes, for your curteisye!” This is a comic high point in the tale’s extended parody of the verbal conventions of courtly love. How do we read it? Is it simply a funny inversion of romance (courtesy=courtly manners), or is it part of the Miller’s broader attack on the values of the aristocratic class who were the cultural consumers of courtly love? Chaucer's personal opinions are well disguised, as he chooses to present himself as a teller of other people's stories and as the most simple-minded of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury.

The Miller’s tale is a fabliau, with its typical plot of sexual competition and cuckoldry (and what genteel critics used to call “the nether kiss”), and its punning on terms like “queinte,” “hende,” and “privee.” He thus uses a genre of  the bourgeois—and answers the class and worldview of the knight. If however the genre is seen as an aristocratic property, the audience can react with condescension toward the churls therein depicted. The narrator’s ambivalence about even repeating the tale (turn the page if you don't want to hear this) reflects some of this potential instability of reception before a broad all-inclusive audience.

Chaucer reecites at the court of Richard IIThe miller also manages to parody the plot of the Knight’s Tale. There, in a similar love triangle, two captive knights compete (finally in a tournament) for the attention of a young noblewoman whom initially they have not even met, and wait years for her favor. The Knight’s lady, Emelye, is almost entirely passive; her one expressed wish (spoken only in prayer) is to have neither man, and that wish is denied. The Miller’s squabbling suitors parallel this romantic competition nicely, yet they couldn’t be more different from the Knight’s idealized lovers. Nicholas spouts a bit of courtly vocabulary (“For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille,” line 170) then grabs what he wants. Absalon’s aping of courtship is more elaborate, but deflated by his self-love and effeminacy. The tale’s close is mayhem, as in the concluding battles of romance, but trivialized: John’s arm broken, Nicholas’s ass burnt, Absolon humiliated. 

The church also comes in for the miller's scorn, and not only in the figure of the cleric seducer Absalon. The situation of a young wife married to an old carpenter echoes the Nativity story, and Nicholas standing in for God the Father as he warns old John that Noah’s flood is about to be repeated. With John aboard his tub awaiting a second flood, Nicholas and Alison make love "Til that the belle of Laudes gan to ringe, And freres in the chauncel gonne singe" (lines 547–48). Gullibility, hypocrisy and conceit are prominent in the culture that results from Biblical story-telling and play-acting (see e.g., line 276, concerning Absolon's performances as Herod). 

Is this tale criticizing the church? the Bible? Christianity? or is it just a funny story? Chaucer's own opinion seems very well hidden. He uses the drunken miller to speak with license, when a direct criticism of the nobles or the church would have earned him a whipping or worse. As all-around court entertainer, he at times played the fool.

Left: portrait of the Canterbury pilgrim Miller, from the Ellesmere manuscript. The knight tells the opening tale, a lengthy romance of courtly love.























 Left: in a medieval illumination Chaucer recites from his works at the court of Richard II.  We can imagine him reading in the pretended voice of the miller, and the amusement that this little act would have caused among the aristocrats. Compare this image to that of the Anglo-Saxon scop reciting Beowulf or to Charles Dickens on a reading tour of Victorian cities.

























The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
Within The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath is unique. Only two other women are travelling to Canterbury, and they are in holy orders: the Prioress and “Another Nonne.” So the Wife of Bath alone speaks for women in the secular world, in marriage, and in the emerging mercantile class.

The General Prologue portrait of the wife (lines 447-478) is one of Chaucer’s great character sketches briefly conveying personality through a few tidbits of personal appearance, biography, manners, skills, and habits of thought. Her chivalric hat (as big as a shield, the narrator says) and sharp spurs are domineering. The picture of her as Mother Earth is suggested in her prologue, where she boasts of her acquisition of her many husbands' treasures and their payments to her of their sexual "debts." Her repeated widowhood is the chief sign of her wisdom and experience; and her red face and hose suggest the Hebrew Bible's "Whore of Babylon" (i.e. priestess of Ishtar, the love goddess: recall Shamhat in Gilgamesh). She is bold, direct and vain, loving the sound of her own voice, boring others with her autobiography while traveling on pilgrimages.

The Prologue
The Wife is a talker. Her prologue is long and dense (too long for the Friar), spanning many episodes of her past but also including a tremendous number and variety of quotations about women and marriage. Here Chaucer demonstrates that he is well read, much like Dante. Either he maintained a great number of manuscripts, or he had a photographic memory or, most likely, he kept a commonplace book full of "sentences" (brief quotations) on a variety of subjects so that he could pull up relevant sources as he wrote. The Wife of Bath's Prologue may seem to us to be an inappropriate place in which to display all of these sources--it makes the Wife seem particularly bookish--but her battle with Jankyn over his misogynist book of wicked wives points up the cultural themes on Biblical encouragement of marriage versus clerical (but non-Biblical) attacks on sexuality.

Jankyn the clerk has a book full of clerkly commentary against women; perhaps it is his literacy that is the problem in the marriage. It is the wrong kind of literacy from the wife's point of view. Alison describes her own body as a text, a document authenticated with “sainte Venus seel” on it (line 610), or a book that Jankyn can “glose” (line 515). The battle of the sexes is a battle of the books, the wife representing the book of nature.

The Tale
Well adapted for the wife's character, her tale counters mainstream Arthurian tradition with its aristocratic male preoccupations. Instead of a Guinevere who wrongs her marriage and brings war and death, the queen of the Wife’s Tale is a merciful but just judge who organizes society. The Wife’s Arthurian knight (“chivalrous” only in the technical sense of “mounted”) is a common rapist who does not know anything about what women want. It is his quest to find out that they don't want to be raped. And he can't figure it out for himself; he has to be told by a wise woman.

From the fairy queen to Arthur's queen to the crone who is the knight's savior, women are are charge in the Wife's Tale. The wronged girl and the crone are commoners, and they must be respected. In the Wife's world, aristocracy is irrelevant. True “gentillesse” comes from gentle deeds.

In Dame Alison's tale, the knight’s submission to the crone, and her miraculous transformation into a young lady both beautiful and faithful, mark the wife’s entry into a fantasy as complete as in Marie de France's "Lanval." It is a tale that has attracted other writers. Shakespeare's remembrance of the Wife of Bath is evident in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer's Night's Dream.

Mother Earth


It might be argued that western feminism, women’s rights movements and the like are carry-overs of the ancient European tradition of female power that just will not go away, no matter how strongly or how long it is attacked.  In any case, medieval literature is filled with Guineveres, Morgan le Fays, Lady of the Lakes and other controlling witches, queens and mothers who appear to be descendants of the Mother Earth goddesses of stone age Europe. This literature extends to its strongest premodern expression in the Elizabethan period, with its “courtly love” centered on the queen and her numerous male worshippers.

Medieval European romances typically present a Christian patriarchy overlaid over the top of an underlying pre-Christian matriarchal base, as in the case of Chretien, but Chaucer inverts the expected arrangement. To the Wife he assigns the Christian sources: gospel stories of the wedding at Cana (and the reproof of the Samaritan widow), Paul’s reluctant acceptance of marriage, the Genesis command to multiply, Jesus’ multiplication of loaves, and the old testament polygamists. To the Wife’s abusive husband Jankyn, Chaucer assigns anti-feminist non-Biblical sources against marriage. The marital strife of Alison and Jankyn thereby becomes a literary contest in which the male has the inferior authority. Like Mother Earth, Alison destroys her husband’s texts and moves on.

Like an earth goddess too, the Wife argues from design that we are given sex organs, so they are to be used, but she also has elements of the black widow, embracing marriage as the means by which she exerts her power over men. Like the lady of the lake, she takes men’s treasures and like the land she buries their bodies, only to turn to a new mate she has lined up each time before the funeral. Her husbands naturally are jealous and seek to keep what they regard as their property from her, and she makes all of them pay their “debt.” They have nothing that is not hers. 

The Wife’s Tale is set many hundreds of years back in the time of the elf queen who danced to make the earth fertile. In those happier days before the friars, if a knight committed rape, he was given over to the queen’s judgment and forced to recognize the will of women to control their lives. The knight who would acknowledge this power would be transformed by love.


Left: The Wife of Bath with whip and spurs from the Ellesmere manuscript. She has aged better than other pilgrims in the manuscript.
































 Left: Chaucer's Friar from the Ellesmere manuscript. Friars are the only incubi (i.e., fornicating devils) left in England now, says Alison.









Although courtly, Chaucer wrote for the remarkable Richard II, who ran the first meritocracy on record in English kingship. His promotion of commoners to positions traditionally held by aristocrats (such as his promotion of Chaucer, a commoner, to ambassador) would be his undoing, as he was deposed by a baronial faction in 1399, but that is another story.











The Lady of the Lake from Aubrey Beardsley's Victorian illustrations of Thomas Malory's Mort D'Arthur
















Lesson Summary: As the father of English literature, Chaucer established a specialized secular cult of story-tellers who compete with one another for audience and the acclaim of peers.  

Suggested journal topics
and optional readings

1. Miller's Tale: How is the Miller's tale a takeoff or spoof on aristocratic romance?  Is Chaucer satirizing common people or aristocrats?

How does the story echo the Bible? How does its use of the Genesis story compare or contrast to the use of Biblical story in Beowulf? In Dante? Is the story sacrilegious or offensive to believers? Do you think that Chaucer or his audience have any fear of a flood or major catastrophe?

2. Romance: compare and contrast two or more of the romances and anti-romances we have read: Genji, The Knight of the Cart, Dante's Paolo and Franchesca (Inf 5:70), and the tales of the Miller and the Wife of Bath.

3. The wife : As you might expect, the Wife’s Prologue and Tale have been the object of study by feminist scholars. For two major statements, see Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Politics, (1989), chapter 4, and Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, (1992), chapter 2. Assessments vary. Is Alison to be approached as a positive model of economic independence and self-determination? Or is she a kind of unhappy warning of the unavoidable costs of rebellion against social stereotypes? Responses seem to depend on the critic’s estimate of Chaucer himself, and the degree of independence from the more conservative values of the era that is attributed to him.

4. Images of mother earth: compare and contrast images of mother earth or earth goddesses. What are these images saying about the world as a whole?

5. Other web resources.  

Chaucer Metapage at UNC. Jane Zatta's Chaucer from UNC

Geoffrey Chaucer Website:

Chaucer Metapage Audio Files (hear Middle English) http://academics.vmi.edu/english/audio/Audio_Index.html

Canterbury Tales in Middle English and Modern English

Geoffrey Chaucer Website at Harvard:

Geoffrey Chaucer texts and materials are available at Luminarium. Texts and materials on the "Miller's Tale" at Luminarium

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales from Oxford University

Works of Geoffrey Chaucer from the Online Classical & Medieval Library

6. Death of Chaucer: the poet did not long survive his famous patron Richard II, who was deposed in 1399 and never seen again.  There is speculation that both may have been murdered. For interesting reading material introducing Chaucer and his turbulent time, see Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer: A Medieval Mystery (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2003).

7. Parody and satire of romance: In later literature, romance became an easy mark for ridicule. The standard formula was simple. Place a romance hero or heroine in a realistic setting to exploit the delusion in acting out the romantic fantasy. Examples include Beaumont and Fletcher's dramatic farce The Knight of the Burning Pestle (a grocer tries to become a knight) and Miguel de Cervantes' comic Don Quixote [lesson 28]. Another tactic is simply to parody romance by stringing together all of its worst cliches into a send-up, as in Geoffrey Chaucer's "Tale of Sir Thopas" from The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's tale (in modern translation) is as follows:

The Merry Words of the Host to Chaucer 

When told was all this miracle, every man 
So sober fell 'twas wonderful to see, 
Until our host in jesting wise began, 
And for the first time did he glance at me, 
Saying, "What man are you?"- 'twas thus quoth he- 
"You look as if you tried to find a hare, 
For always on the ground I see you stare.
Come near me then, and look up merrily. 
Now make way, sirs, and let this man have place; 
He in the waist is shaped as well as I; 
This were a puppet in an arm's embrace 
For any woman, small and fair of face. 
Why, he seems absent, by his countenance, 
And gossips with no one for dalliance. 
Since other folk have spoken, it's your turn; 
Tell us a mirthful tale, and that anon." 

"Mine host," said I, "don't be, I beg, too stern, 
For of good tales, indeed, sir, have I none, 
Save a long rhyme I learned in years agone." 

"Well, that is good," said he; "now shall we hear 
It seems to me, a thing to bring us cheer." 


Listen, lords, with good intent, 
I truly will a tale present 
Of mirth and of solace; 
All of a knight was fair and gent 
In battle and in tournament. 
His name was Sir Thopas. 
Born he was in a far country, 
In Flanders, all beyond the sea, 
And Poperinghe the place; 
His father was a man full free, 
And lord he was of that country, 
As chanced by God's own grace. 
Sir Thopas was a doughty swain, 
White was his brow as paindemaine,
His lips red as a rose; 
His cheeks were like poppies in grain,
And I tell you, and will maintain, 
He had a comely nose. 
His hair and beard were like saffron 
And to his girdle reached adown, 
His shoes were of cordwain; 
From Bruges were come his long hose brown, 
His rich robe was of ciclatoun- 
And cost full many a jane. 
Well could he hunt the dim wild deer 
And ride a-hawking by river, 
With grey goshawk on hand; 
Therewith he was a good archer, 
At wrestling was there none his peer 
Where any ram did stand. 
Full many a maiden, bright in bower, 
Did long for him for paramour 
When they were best asleep; 
But chaste he was, no lecher sure, 
And sweet as is the bramble-flower 
That bears a rich red hepe. 
And so befell, upon a day, 
In truth, as I can tell or may, 
Sir Thopas out would ride; 
He mounted on his stallion grey, 
And held in hand a lance, I say, 
With longsword by his side. 
He spurred throughout a fair forest 
Wherein was many a dim wild beast, 
Aye, both the buck and hare; 
And as he spurred on, north and east, 
I tell you now he had, in breast, 
A melancholy care. 
There herbs were springing, great and small, 
The licorice blue and white setwall, 
And many a gillyflower, 
And nutmeg for to put in ale, 
All whether it be fresh or stale, 
Or lay in chest in bower. 
The birds they sang, upon that day, 
The sparrow-hawk and popinjay, 
Till it was joy to hear; 
The missel thrush he made his lay, 
The tender stockdove on the spray, 
She sang full loud and clear. 
Sir Thopas fell to love-longing 
All when he heard the throstle sing, 
And spurred as madman would: 
His stallion fair, for this spurring, 
Did sweat till men his coat might wring, 
His two flanks were all blood. 
Sir Thopas grown so weary was 
With spurring on the yielding grass, 
So fierce had been his speed, 
That down he laid him in that place 
To give the stallion some solace 
And let him find his feed.

"O holy Mary, ben'cite! 
What ails my heart that love in me 
Should bind me now so sore? 
For dreamed I all last night, pardie, 
An elf-queen shall my darling be, 
And sleep beneath my gore. 
An elf-queen will I love, ywis, 
For in this world no woman is 
Worthy to be my make in town; 
All other women I forsake, 
And to an elf-queen I'll betake 
Myself, by dale and down!" 

Into his saddle he climbed anon 
And spurred then over stile and stone. 
An elf-queen for to see, 
Till he so far had ridden on 
He found a secret place and won 
The land of Faery so wild; 
For in that country was there none 
That unto him dared come, not one, 
Not either wife or child. 
Until there came a great giant, 
Whose name it was Sir Oliphant, 
A dangerous man indeed; 

He said: "O Childe, by Termagant, 
Save thou dost spur from out my haunt, 
Anon I'll slay thy steed with mace.
For here the queen of Faery, 
With harp and pipe and harmony, 
Is dwelling in this place." 

The Childe said: "As I hope to thrive, 
We'll fight the morn, as I'm alive,
When I have my armor; 
For well I hope, and par ma fay, 
That thou shalt by this lance well pay, 
And suffer strokes full sore; 
Thy maw Shall I pierce through, and if I may,
Ere it be fully prime of day, 
Thou'lt die of wounds most raw." 

Sir Thopas drew aback full fast; 
This giant at him stones did cast 
Out of a fell staff-sling; 
But soon escaped was Childe Thopas, 
And all it was by God's own grace, 
And by his brave bearing. 
And listen yet, lords, to my tale, 
Merrier than the nightingale, 
Whispered to all and some, 
How Sir Thopas, with pride grown pale, 
Hard spurring over hill and dale, 
Came back to his own home. 
His merry men commanded he 
To make for him both game and glee, 
For needs now must he fight 
With a great giant of heads three, 
For love in the society 
Of one who shone full bright. 

"Do come," he said, "my minstrels all, 
And jesters, tell me tales in hall 
Anon in mine arming; 
Of old romances right royal, 
Of pope and king and cardinal, 
And e'en of love-liking." 

They brought him, first, the sweet, sweet wine, 
And mead within a maselyn, 
And royal spicery 
Of gingerbread that was full fine, 
Cumin and licorice, I opine, 
And sugar so dainty. 
He drew on, next his white skin clear, 
Of finest linen, clean and sheer, 
His breeches and a shirt; 
And next the shirt a stuffed acton, 
And over that a habergeon 
Gainst piercing of his heart. 
And over that a fine hauberk 
That was wrought all of Jewish work 
And reinforced with plate; 
And over that his coat-of-arms, 
As white as lily-flower that charms, 
Wherein he will debate. 
His shield was all of gold so red, 
And thereon was a wild boar's head 
A carbuncle beside.

And now he swore, by ale and bread, 
That soon "this giant shall be dead, 
Betide what may betide!" 
His jambeaux were of cuir-bouilli, 
His sword sheath was of ivory, 
His helm of latten bright, 
His saddle was of rewel bone, 
And as the sun his bridle shone, 
Or as the full moonlight. 
His spear was of fine cypress wood, 
That boded war, not brotherhood, 
The head full sharply ground; 
His steed was all a dapple grey 
Whose gait was ambling, on the way, 
Full easily and round in land. 

Behold, my lords, here is a fit! 
If you'll have any more of it, 
You have but to command. 
The Second Fit Now hold your peace, par charitee,
Both knight and lady fair and free, 
And hearken to my spell; 
Of battle and of chivalry 
And all of ladies' love-drury 
Anon I will you tell. 
Romances men recount of price, 
Of King Horn and of Hypotis, 
Of Bevis and Sir Guy, 
Of Sir Libeaux and Plain-d'Amour; 
But Sir Thopas is flower sure Of regal chivalry. 
His good horse all he then bestrode, 
And forth upon his way he rode 
Like spark out of a brand; 
Upon his crest he bore a tower 
Wherein was thrust a lily-flower; 
God grant he may withstand! 
He was a knight adventurous, 
Wherefore he'd sleep within no house, 
But lay down in his hood; 
His pillow was his helmet bright, 
And by him browsed his steed all night 
On forage fine and good. 
Himself drank water of the well, 
As did the knight Sir Percival, 
So worthy in his weeds, Till on a day... 

"No more of this, for God's high dignity!" 
Exclaimed our host, "For you, sir, do make me 
So weary with your vulgar foolishness 
That, as may God so truly my soul bless, 
My two ears ache from all your worthless speech; 
Now may such rhymes the devil have, and each! 
This sort of thing is doggerel," said he. 

"Why so?" I asked, "Why will you hinder me 
In telling tales more than another man, 
Since I have told the best rhyme that I can?" 

"By God!" cried he, "now plainly, in a word, 
Your dirty rhyming is not worth a turd; 
You do naught else but waste and fritter time. 
Sir, in one word, you shall no longer rhyme"

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright © 2009

Medieval comedy works primarily through inversion. The hero is an animal made into man (such as Beowulf the bear); so the comic anti-hero is the man made into animal, as here in "the Romance of Reynard the Fox."