Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Monk's Tale"

Genre: the Monk calls it "tragedie" (VII.1991), but don't confuse it with Aristotle's definition in the Poetics.  Medieval "tragedie" tends to report the inevitable rise and fall of famous men and women, often referring to the metaphor of Fortune's Wheel, on which human destiny was thought to be bound.  (Click here to read Siân Echard's splendidly illustrated web essay on the "Wheel of Fortune" motif in Arthurian literature.)  For instance, Chaucer calls his Troilus and Criseyde "litel myn tragedye," which is structured in five books tracing Troilus' rise in happiness from Books 1 through 3, and his descent into loss and death in Books 4 and 5 (VII.1786).    The Monk's narrative also is a form of medieval "history," or collection of "histories," but not history as practiced in Goucher's history department.   Since the Bible already offers medieval readers the most important facts about the past and the future, secular "histories" were thought to be of value only as a record of kings and conquerors from which we may learn moral lessons.  Since we can learn as much morality from persons who are not what we moderns would call historical (e.g., Lucifer, Adam, Hercules), the medieval "historian" often is not picky about recording only things that can be demonstrated actually to have happened.

Form: not our old friend, rime royal (ababbcc as in "Truth" or "Gentilesse"), but an offshoot of it known to Chaucer scholars as the "Monk's Tale stanza": eight four-stress lines rhyming ababbcbc.  Extending the rime royal stanza by a line allows the poet to pack more information into the stanza, an especially valuable change when one is recording dialogue, among other things.  Chaucer uses it once more in the "ABC of the Virgin" (RC 637-40).  Comparison of that poem's meditative illustration of the Virgin Mary's virtues etc. with the Monk's strategy might yield some interesting conclusions about both, and about the stanza structure's relationship to the medieval aesthetic of "diptych" or "triptych" construction

Source: Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium (see the subtitle, "Heer bigynneth the Monkes Tale De Casibus Virorum Illustrium") and Chaucer's favorite non-Italian source, the Roman de la rose.

Characters: a huge cast, including Lucifer, Adam, Sampson, Hercules, Nabugodonosor (Nebuchadnezzar  from Daniel 1-5), Balthasar (Belshazzar from Daniel 1-5), Cenobia (Zenobia from Boccaccio), King Pedro of Castile, King Pedro of Cyprus, Bernabo Visconti, Ugolino of Pisa, Nero, Holofernes (the Vulgate Judith, considered apocryphal in later versions), Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Croesus, and the Knight who interrupts the Monk before another hundred or so of these dreary tales are told (whew!).

Summary: What goes up must come down, at least when you're a nobleman.

Interpretive Issues:

1)  Our "General Prologue" Monk is a manly, worldly, free-roving fellow, one who denies the entire monastic tradition of cloistered meditation and selfless service to humanity (I.165-207). Harry's attempt to solicit a tale from him further emphasizes this teller's "macho" image with a series of suggestive comments about his sexual prowess, indirectly implying that he has been raiding the nunnery like a rooster in a hen-coop (VII.1944-1964). The Monk's patient response is to offer a saint's life or "tragedies," the latter genre apparently being so much his favorite that he has "an hundred in my celle" (VII.1972). Taking his tale as evidence, he probably does have that many of these lugubrious stories of the fall of great men. Why would a man like the Monk be a collector of such stories? Why would he force the pilgrims to hear one after another, knowing that the tale-telling game's rules require some "solas" in addition to their moral "sentence"? Consider that he's almost certainly the younger son of an aristocratic family who was forced to take vows because his elder brother inherited the estate and refused to provide for him.

2) His tale's first stanza seems to warn us about the dangers of the future, especially if we're in "prosperitee" (VII.1991-8). Can you put together a series of tales that would echo this message with examples of characters plucked from their good fortune at its peak? What kind of cultural value does this express, and what has happened to it by the Elizabethan era? (Compare Jacobean-Mannerist thinking for its sudden return.)

3) The tale's structure groups the "great men (and women)" who fell into clusters of biblical, classical, and "modern" (C14!) instances. The manuscript tradition is confused because the "a" group manuscripts (Ellesmere, etc.), whose order the Riverside Chaucer has been following up to now, place all the "modern instances" at the end of the tale (the two kings, Bernabo Visconti, and Ugolino of Pisa). In the majority of CT manuscripts, they stand where the current RC editors have placed them, between Nero and Zenobia. What is the effect of encountering these historical persons, the first three of whom were well-known to the English court, amid this array of famous quasi-mythic figures like Lucifer and Hercules? Would the effect be more or less dramatic if one encountered them embedded within the group, between a historical Roman emperor and a mythic pair of classical figures? Which more appropriately might motivate the Knight's "Hoo!"--Croesus, who lost his fabulously rich empire despite a warning dream, or Ugolino of Pisa, whose horrible fate tempts him to cannibalize his own sons? (And in Dante he does take a bite or two!) Does one of these touch the Knight's personal situation or his tale too closely, or might either be read as kinds of revelation of what's on the old warrior's mind?

4) Now that you've thought a while about the Knight's motives for interrupting, consider this: in 10 of 14 surviving manuscripts that contain the interruption, it's Oure Hoost who interrupts (RC 935). Ask the questions in #3 all over again about Harry. What are his issues, and how might the Monk's narrative have driven him to stop the very tale-telling game he organized in the first place? (Also see his interruption of Chaucer's "Sir Thopas.")

5) The last stanza of the RC order (following the "b," "c," and "d" groups) concludes Croesus' destruction by saying that "Fortune alwey wole assaille / With unwar strook the regnes that been proude; / For whan men trusteth hire, thanne wol she faille, / And covere hire brighte face with a clowde" (VII.2753-6) Compare this with the conclusion of "Knight's Tale," especially Theseus' "Prime Moevere" speech, and ask yourself which universe you believe you live in, or would rather live in.

6)  The Knight's interruption of this tale differs subtly from his interruption of the quarrel between Harry and the Pardoner.  Perhaps the Knight's motive can be calculated rather than simply explained.  Though our narrator insists the Monk was not angered by these taunts, the Monk proceeds to warn his audience that the "tragedies" he is about to tell come from a library of "an hundred" examples in his monastic cell.  If contained within a single manuscript, such a book would be quite large, and would take days to read if one had the patience.  The sixteen examples he offers before the Knight cries "Hoo!," a traditional manner for heralds or a judget to stop a melee at a tournament, fill 776 lines.  A hundred or more, at the average rate of 48 lines per tale, would be over 4800 lines long, or more than twice as long as "Knight's Tale" (2250 lines).  Though having more lines of Chaucer's verse in the world ordinarily would be desirable, I know of no critics who have wished "Monks Tale" was longer.  How does the Monk understand Fortune and the fates of the great among us?  Is he wise, moral, or at least correct?

Critical Articles:

Federico, Sylvia.    Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism, 2011; 45 (3): 299-320

Federico argues that "Iberian" or "Spanish" culture was more important to Chaucer and to England than earlier scholars believed.  Especially because John of Gaunt, whom Chaucer served, made a claim to the Castillian crown and lost his first wife to illness while campaigning in Spain, Chaucer would have known of of Pedro I, king of Castile and León (killed by his half-brother), at least as well as the Italian princes whose deaths comprise most of the "modern instances."  The violence attending nobles' lives on the continent and their close connection to Chaucer's life is relentlessly emphasized by our Monk, as Federico notes: "Pierre de Lusignan was entertained by Edward III in 1363 and had many English knights among his followers; he was killed by three of his own men in 1369. In 1385, Bernaḅ Visconti was arrested by his nephew, and subsequently poisoned in prison. Chaucer had traveled to Italy to meet with Bernaḅ in 1378" (n. 5, 300).

Lindeboom, B.W.  "Chaucer’s Monk illuminated: Zenobia as role model."  Neophilologus (2008) 92:339–350.

From BWL's abstract: "the unique presence of Zenobia among all the Monk’s male case histories [may mean] that she may have been inserted by Chaucer as being remedially relevant to the Monk’s spiritual condition and to suggest that it may have been her story on which Chaucer intended the Monk’s Tale to end before the interruptions by the Knight and the Host" (339).

Wurtele, Douglas, J.  "Chaucer's Monk: An Errant Exegete."  Literature and Theology.  1:2   (Sept. 1987) 191-209.

Wurtele's analysis of the Monk's "sentence" suggests that Chaucer may have intended us to read against the Monk (rather as the Knight does, but with more doctrinal sophistication).  In particular, Wurtele draws attention to the false assertion that Sampson killed himself (a mortal sin) and that he was in despair due to his captivity when he did so (another damning spiritual state).  The re-growth of his hair was interpreted as a sign of God's favor by medieval scholars represented in the Glossa Ordinaria, the standard interpretive guide for biblical exegesis in Chaucer's day (203-5).  This and other errors of interpretation, according to Wurtele, warrant our connecting the worldly Monk of the "General Prologue" with this teller's deficiencies.  (The journal is not widely circulated, but I have a copy of the article.)

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