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  • Writer's pictureTony Herbert

The Canterbury Tales

An aide-memoire



This is to help me remember some, although not all, of the Canterbury Tales, having read some of them at school and also later, but then having completely forgotten them. Others may relate to this.


In going back to them, I find to my surprise that I have various versions on my shelves.


The most enjoyable is a “retelling” by Peter Ackroyd, but it does tempt one, in many places, to ask whether Chaucer really did say the things Ackroyd (re)tells: for example, the cruder bits in the tales of the Miller and the Reeve. The answer is normally yes, although not using the four-letter words Ackroyd sprinkles around. But it is good to be able to look at more literal translations.


The other versions include the verse translation by Professor Nevill Coghill published originally in 1951 and now a Penguin Classic. There is also a more recent translation, also in verse, by David Wright published in 1986 and now an Oxford World Classic.


It is also worth looking at the original, which is easy enough via Google, Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) having been out of copyright for a few hundred years. It’s a struggle to read without a modern version to hand, although it’s remarkable how much of it is reasonably



I have selected some of those that I think are the better known.


I was surprised at how crude many of the stories are. It reminded me of the classic film Kind Hearts and Coronets in which Alec Guinness plays all the members of the D’Ascoyne family, including the clergyman, who points to a stained glass window depicting some of the Tales and says that it “has all the exuberance of Chaucer without, happily, any of the concomitant crudity”. Be warned - there is quite a lot of “concomitant crudity” in the ones that follow, particularly the more famous ones.


My intention is only to summarise the stories, so as to help the memory, and maybe to encourage others to read them or, should I say more politely, to re-read them.


The Knight’s Tale


This is one of the longest of the Tales, told by the pilgrim described famously by Chaucer as

a verray, parfit gentil knyght”. It’s a romantic story about two knights, Palamon and Arcite, competing for the affections of a beautiful girl, Emelye. Shakespeare and John Fletcher used the plot for The Two Noble Kinsmen.


The knights are from Thebes and have been captured by the victorious Duke of Athens, Theseus. They are imprisoned in his castle where they both spot and fall in love with Emelye.


The knights escape in different directions but eventually meet up and begin to fight a duel over Emelye. This is broken up by Theseus who decrees that they must fight a proper tournament. Arcite, supported by the god of war Mars, wins. But as a result of an intervention by Palamon’s supporter, the goddess Venus, Arcite is subsequently killed by his horse falling on him. Theseus decides that Emelye should therefore marry Palamon. She has been praying to her divine supporter, Diana, and luckily is happy with this.


The Miller’s Tale


An unromantic, funny but crude story about the rivalry of two men over the wife of another, which ends badly for all three. Nicholas is the lodger of John, a carpenter, and fancies John’s wife, Alisoun; as does Absolon, the parish clerk.


Nicholas works out, with Alisoun, a ludicrous (though successful) plot to get her into bed with him. He convinces John that there will be a devastating flood and that, to escape it, John,

Nicholas and Alisoun should each get into a separate tub hanging from the ceiling. The two lovers get down during the night and have sex while John is still asleep in his tub.


At this point Absolon turns up asking for a kiss. Alisoun sticks her bottom out of the window, which Absolon kisses. Enraged, he gets a red-hot coulter to hit her with. But when he returns, Nicholas sticks his bottom out of the window, only to get branded with the coulter. He screams, waking up John, who cuts the rope holding up his tub, which falls down, thus breaking his arm.


The miller concludes by saying how everyone laughed that the carpenter’s wife was screwed (swyved), Absolon had kissed her “bottom eye” (nether ye) and Nicholas is scalded in the rump (scalded in the towte).



The Reeve’s Tale


Two students of a predecessor of Trinity College Cambridge called John and Aleyn decide to take revenge on the miller who operates in Trumpington and cheats his customers, including the Cambridge college. They take some wheat to the miller for grinding and find themselves (for reasons we don’t need to go into) spending the night at his house.


The miller has a wife, a 20-year-old daughter and a baby son. The revenge gets complicated, so you have to pay careful attention to the detail! The miller and his wife sleep in one bed; the two students in another; the daughter in a third; and the baby in a cot at the end of his parents’ bed. All are in one room. Husband and wife are drunk and fall asleep as soon as they get to bed. The students plot revenge by planning to have sex with both the mother and the daughter.


First, Aleyn creeps into the daughter’s bed and does the deed. Then the wife goes for a pee and John switches the cot from her bed to his. She comes back, mistakes the beds and gets into his. He has sex with her.


He then gets into the miller’s bed thinking it’s his and tells the miller, who he thinks is John, how he has had sex with his daughter. The miller gets up in a rage, which wakes his wife. She takes a club and beats her husband, thinking it’s one of the students.


The students beat up the miller, before leaving with the loaf of bread that the miller has illicitly baked from the flour stolen from the college’s flour. Revenge is duly achieved!



The Wife of Bath’s Tale - and Prologue


The Prologue is much longer than the Tale. In it, the Wife of Bath speaks out forcefully about her life and views on marriage, sex and the role of women generally. She has had five husbands and would be happy to have a sixth. She envies King Solomon who had hundreds of wives and wishes it was the same for women! Virginity may be all very well, but why did God equip women with genitalia if not for use? The general thrust of what she says is that women should be in charge of their lives, and indeed, to some extent, in charge of their menfolk too. All quite surprising for someone living in the 14th century in the reigns of Edward III and Richard II.


The Tale is about a Knight who has been convicted and sentenced to death for raping a young girl and about how he escapes the death penalty.


We are in the days of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere. It is she who sets him a test, namely to find out “what it is that women most desire”. If he can do that within a hundred and one days, he will be set free.


The Knight has trouble finding the answer, largely because all the women he asks come up with different desires.


Just before he has to come back to the royal court, he comes across an ugly old woman, who says that she will give him the answer on one condition, that he agrees to do whatever she requires. He has to agree to this and she whispers the answer in his ear.


When at the court, he gives the answer - that “women most desire sovereignty over their husbands”. All the women in the court agree and the Knight is freed.


But he still has to honour his deal with the old woman. Her requirement is revealed: He must marry her. Horror! He is dismayed, but realises that he has to go along with it. She then gives him a choice: Would he actually prefer a beautiful young woman, who may not be faithful? Or an old and ugly woman, who necessarily would be?


He replies - tactfully - that she must choose. She, pleased that he’d got the message about

women being in control, rewards him by promising both a beautiful wife and a faithful one. He then looks at her - she has turned into a young and beautiful woman. They live together happily ever after . . .




The Clerk’s Tale


The Clerk was a scholar from Oxford and explained that his story was told by Petrarch. It is about a poor peasant girl, Griselda, whose husband tests her loyalty by a series of cruel torments, in some ways reminiscent of the troubles of Job in the Old Testament.


An Italian marquis, Walter, marries Griselda to please his subjects and to produce an heir.


She duly produces a daughter and Walter decides to test her by having the baby removed, letting her believe that the baby will be killed. Griselda bears this heroically. Actually, the baby is taken away to be looked after by his sister.


Similarly, Griselda has a son, who is also removed to be lookd after by the sister. Again, Griselda bears this without complaint, not knowing what is to happen to the young boy.


The final test is Walter appearing to divorce her, send her back to her peasant father, with Walter appearing to remarry a young girl. Again, Griselda is brave and uncomplaining.


When the phoney wedding is about to happen, it is revealed that in fact the girl is Griselda’s daughter and obviously no wedding is going to happen. Griselda is overjoyed and everyone lives happily ever after.


The Clerk explains that the moral of the story is not that women should be as submissive as Griselda, but that people should be steadfast in adversity. As in the Book of Job.



The Merchant’s Tale


This is a strange story involving an illicit love affair consummated up a pear tree.


A 60-year old man, a knight called January, decides that he must marry. He takes advice from his brothers, Placebo who is on the whole encouraging, and Justinus who is against it. But January goes ahead, selecting a young girl called May from the local village.


January has created a private walled garden for him and May to enjoy various delights. But he mysteriously goes blind.


A squire of January, called Damyan, falls in love with May. She reciprocates his feelings and helps him get access to the garden. He waits for her up a pear tree in the garden. She gets her blind husband to help her climb up the tree to get a pear - so she says. The lovers have sex - in the pear tree!


Two gods then intervene: Pluto, taking the side of January; and his wife Proserpina, who supports May. Pluto causes January to get his sight back, allowing him to see May having sex with Damyan. May, influenced by Proserpina, is able to convince January that his sight is still letting him down, that she was just “struggling” with Damyan and that this operated as a cure for his blindness. He is convinced by this and they live happily - though maybe not, as they say, ever after.



The Nun’s Priest’s Tale


This is a story involving animals that talk - Chauntecleer, a cock; and a fox.


Chauntecleer has a dream that he is about to be caught by a fox. He is a proud animal with seven wives, his favourite being Pertelote. He is worried and tells her about his dream. She is disappointed in him. She tells him to be courageous and not to be frightened by a mere dream. There is much learned discussion among the birds, with reference to biblical and classical teaching, including Cicero’s Dream of Scipio.


Despite Pertelote’s advice, it turns out that the dream comes true. A fox appears. He plays to Chauntecleer’s pride by asking him to demonstrate his powerful crow. The fox then grabs him by the neck and runs off with him.


They are pursued by all the hens. The fox’s pride then lets him down as well. He turns to taunt his pursuers and in doing so opens his mouth. Chauntecleer escapes.



The Franklin’s Tale


The story is a tale of morals and magic, set on the rocky coast of Brittany.


A knight, Arveragus, is married to Dorigen. They are much in love and agree always to agree to each other’s wishes.


After some years of happiness, Arveragus decides to go to England where he spends two years. During this time, Dorigen is miserable and also worries about the dangerous rocks off the coast and the peril Arveragus could face on his return.


Dorigen is meanwhile pursued by a squire called Aurelius, who is madly in love with her. In an unwise attempt to get rid of him, she promises to return his affection if he can cause the rocks to disappear, which obviously he won’t be able to do.


But Aurelius consults a magician, who - making use of his knowledge of astronomy as well as magic - agrees to make the rocks disappear “for a week or two” for a fee of a thousand pounds.


This the magician achieves (helped by an exceptionally high tide that he was able to predict by his astronomical skills) and Aurelius asks Dorigen to honour her bargain. Arveragus has

returned from England, unscathed by the rocks. Dorigen explains to him that she would rather commit suicide than renege on her promise. Arveragus says that she must keep it. Aurelius, hearing Arveragus’s decision, releases her from the bargain. The magician is so moved that he waives his fee.


The Franklin ends by asking the pilgrims: Who, in this moral maze, acted most generously?




Tony Herbert

21 June 2024









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1 Comment

Jun 22

Thanks, Tony. Great stories.

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