Chaucer, Canterbury Tales--"The Tale of Melibee"

Genre: [Chaucer-the-pilgrim] "a moral tale vertuous" (VII.940), [formal attributes] personification allegory and legal "floralegium," [Hartung, 1957 & Howard, 1987] a training text for a young ruler ("miroir de prince" or "Furstenspiegel"), [Scattergood, 1981] part (w/"Thopas") of a satire on chivalry and attack on the French War c. 1380.

Form: prose, the only other "tale in prose" other than the Parson's Tale (a sermon).

Composition and MS position: Hartung (1957) argued "Melibee" originally had been composed to stand alone, and was revised to fit into the CT scheme. Tatlock (1907) suggested it was first designed as MoL's tale ("I speke in prose" I.96). Included in all complete MSS of CT, when found elsewhere, Mel. is either alone or with Parson's Tale.

Characters: Melibee (a landowner, or a symbol for honey-sweet learning), Prudence (M's wife, L. prudentia or judgment), Sophie (M's daughter, Gk. "wisdom"), three neighbors (or "the World, the Flesh, and the Devil"), advisors (surgeons, physicians, envious and flattering neighbors, lawyer, "yonge folk" and "olde wise men").

Source: close translation of Renaud de Louens' Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence [after 1336] which is itself a translation of Albertanus of Brescia's Liber consolationis et consilii) [1246].

Plot: Melibee's house is invaded by three neighboring foes who beat his wife and wound daughter Sophie in five places, "in hir feet, in hire handes, in hir erys, in hir nose, and in hir mouth" (972).

        Melibee takes counsel from "the grete congregacioun of folk" where surgeons, physicians, lawyers, and the old urge caution, but neighbors (envious or flattering) and "yonge folk" urge war. Melibee and Prudence argue whether he should listen to any of these discordant counsels, and P wins. She tells him to choose counselors carefully, and to evaluate their advice based on their motives. She then critiques all the counsel he has received, and judges against open war or feud, both for practical reasons (M's outnumbered) and moral or ethical reasons.

        Prudence interprets the attack on Sophie as the damage done to her because of man's vulnerability to the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Her remedy: negotiate peace and leave all to God's grace and forgiveness.


1) Is it Chaucer's "revenge on the Host" for interrupting "Sir Thopas"? Stylistic parody would seem the only justification for such an enormous "joke" and its style has been called parodic (Mather, 1899; Lumiansky, 1955; Whitock, 1968; Gaylord, 1967; Paolomo, 1974). Others praise its seriousness, especially Robertson (Preface to Chaucer, '67) and Lawler, 1980, who see its style (Bornstein, 1978) and its message of forbearance as central to the CT structure--linking it to "Knight's Tale" and "Parson's Tale."

2) Is it specifically intended for Richard II? As instruction for a young prince, it contains a compendium of political and moral wisdom designed for use in solving problems. Since Tatlock's comparison with its source, scholars have noted the interesting omission of one proverb from the original: "Woe to the land that has a child as king." (See Patterson, 1988.) Richard was 11 when crowned (1377) and might be expected to take offense at advice which included this lament.

3) Is it specifically about the French War ("Hundred Years' War" etc.)? Only Scattergood, among recent critics, first makes the case. Hotson (1927) said it fit John of Gaunt's intention to claim the throne of Castile by his wife's right, and Stillwell (1944) argued it was generalized counsel of caution which any C14 prince might benefit from.

4) The five wounds dealt Sophie would suggest to any medieval reader the "five wounds of Christ" (hands, feet, and side). This seems a typical Chaucerian attempt to fuse the classical language of speculative philosophy with the teaching of the Church, a more mystical and symbolic form. As such, it closely resembles the strategies of later, Humanist thinkers like Desiderius Erasmus, who once exclaimed, in the course of a dialogue about Platonic philosophy, "At times like this one can scarcely refrain from exclaiming 'St. Socrates, pray for us!'" Consider how avant guarde Chaucer's thinking may have become as a result of his trip "to the future" in Italy, where the Humanist project already had been under way for a generation. Can we read the Canterbury Tales as a kind of "bridge" between medieval and renaissance European culture, or is it more clearly in one or the other of the two camps?

5) Is Prudence's "lesson" effective"? Patterson argues it isn't because of Melibee's shocking declaration, after hundreds of lines of Prudence's patient counsel, that his enemies should be exiled and disinherited (VII.1832-5). Yet others (L.S. Johnson, 1990) claim the teaching is a success because, by the end of the trial, Melibee has conquered his desire for revenge.

6) If it's an allegory, how can Melibee "take revenge on" the three foes who must be "the World, the Flesh, and the Devil," or three other equally nebulous concepts? That is, isn't this like Pardoner's Tale?

7) Might this tale be an attempt to give CT some overbalance in "Sentence" in order to account for its extraordinary liberties in the way of "Solas"?

8) Re: Words vs. entente or Words vs. sentence--Chaucer the Pilgrim argues, in the Prologue (943-8) that the textual discontinuities in the Gospels, "Al be ther in hir tellyng difference" (948), "hir sentence is al sooth" (946). This has a venerable history in Christian doctrine, especially in Paul's dictum, "the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life." But it also directly contradicts the evasion by which Chaucer-the-Pilgrim claimed he had to repeat a churl's speech word-for-word "Or ellis he moot telle his tale untrewe, / Or feyne thyng, or fynde wordes newe" (I.735-6). Impish narrators can do what they please, but here's a character who contradicts himself. Why? Could this argue for the tale's independence from the CT structure? Or does it suggest that Chaucer-the-Pilgrim's statement was meant ironically, perhaps an irony the audience would gladly share in order to make room for the more licentious tales?

Some recent important articles:

Yeager, Stephen.  "Chaucer's Prudent Poetics: Allegory, the Tale of Melibee, and the Frame Narrative to the Canterbury Tales." Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism, 2014; 48 (3): 307-321.  Web.  MLA Bibliography and Project Muse. 

From SY's abstract: "[Prudence's] interpretive methodology poses many problems to the reader [because she] confuses her twin roles as human wife and allegorical virtue; both the content and manner of her speech can sometimes contradict her own advice, and it is far from clear at the end of the story that her husband has actually learned anything. The implication of this incoherence is that interpretive methodologies themselves are the problem. . . .  Melibee’s strict, moralizing adherence to the precise words used by Prudence . . .  leads him towards violence and revenge, while Prudence’s looser and somewhat contradictory interpretations of proverbial wisdom nonetheless culminate in a clear, consistent notion of charitable mercy."

Cannon, Christopher. "Proverbs and the Wisdom of Literature: The Proverbs of Alfred and Chaucer's Tale of Melibee."  Textual Practice, 2010 June; 24 (3): 407-434.  Web.

 Cannon notes that proverbial wisdom was honored by medieval commentators, until roughly the era of Erasmus's great proverb commentary, Adagia (published serially 1500-1530), as the ancient wisdom of the common folk, readily understandable and widely available to suit life's challenges.  Renaissance authors came to despise proverbial wisdom as crude and simplistic.  Cannon offers a social practice description of how Prudence's proverbs worked: "Proverbs must sometimes have guided action in the Middle Ages, just as they sometimes do today, but I want to suggest that the medieval proverb was primarily valued, and particularly in the literary sphere, just as the fox and the cock in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale valued it, not because it had something to teach, but because it was so generally and iteratively available, an instruction that could not prevent a crisis, not least because it was the crisis that caused it to be used, but an instruction that could therefore also ameliorate a disaster’s aftermath, the ‘medicine’ that could make whoever cited it feel better" (412).

Johnson, Lynn Staley. "Inverse Counsel: Contexts for the 'Melibee'." Studies in Philology. LXXXVII:2 (Spring 1990): 137- 55).  Web. MLA Bibliography.

                   J reshapes the "miroir de prince" to offer "truly inverse counsel, cutting at the roots of both the literary and the political expectations of the age" (155) by naming the daughter Sophie, emphasizing the figural, allegorical nature of the tale.

Patterson, Lee. "'What Man Artow': Authorial Self-Definition in The Tale of Sir Thopas and the Tale of Melibee." Studies in the Age of Chaucer. 11 (1989): 117-75.  Print. MLA Bibliography.

                    Part of P's larger investigation of C's poetics of self-concealment, in which P notes C's emphasis on the child's vision.

Kempton, Daniel. "Chaucer's Tale of Melibee: 'A Litel Thyng in Prose'." Genre XXI (Fall1988): 263-78.  Web. MLA Bibliography.

                     Chaucer's motive for the "Melibee" may have been to fulfill the poet's traditional role as advisor to princes, but Pru's advice is contradictory and the tale is an evasion meant to disguise its own meaning. (For a similar argument re: the "incomplete" "Squire's Tale," see. Sanders in Work of Dissimilitude, 1991.)

Back to the English 211 Syllabus View.

Back to the English 330 Syllabus View.