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Is The Canterbury Tales an Ethics Lesson?

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Is The Canterbury Tales an Ethics Lesson?

by Daniel Schwartz

Once upon a time, there was a troublesome young boy named Jack. While at a toy store one day, Jack tried to steal some action figures. Unfortunately for him, these action figures did not like to be stolen. They used their superpowers against the young crook, and he never stole anything again.

This simple tale would probably not be conducive to centuries of scholarly commentary. What happens if we change it just slightly? Put quotation marks around it, for instance, and suppose it comes from the mouth of a serial bank robber. Suppose this bank robber is addressing his tale to a priest during confession.

Now sit back and watch the scholars debate the meaning of the tale without end.

So, too, have they debated The Canterbury Tales. “Is it an ethics lesson?” they ask, each of them interpreting this question in a different way: “Are individual Canterbury Tales ethics lessons?” asks the fan of literary subtleties. “Does it matter?” doubts another scholar. “Surely ethics lessons of individual tales would be drastically altered when considered in the context of the whole work. I wonder whether the story even has anything to do with ethics when considered in this way.” Now a Parmenidean super-scholar jumps into the discussion. “Trivialities,” he responds in a dull monotone. “Individual tales matter not. For there is only one ethics lesson when one considers The Canterbury Tales as one work—and it is a lesson that is above and beyond that of any individual tale.”

These fictional scholars, conveniently enough, have unwittingly suggested a way to approach the question asked in this essay’s title. We can start by looking at moralizing in individual tales and then proceed to discover what happens to that moralizing when it is taken in context. Only then will we be in a position to choose whether to side with those who focus on individual tales or with those who favor a holistic approach—or to find a third option.

Throughout this essay, we will need to distinguish clearly between a few kinds of stories: those told by characters within tales, such as Chanticleer’s tale of the man who fails to heed his fellow’s dream of murder; those told by the pilgrims, such as the Nun’s Priest’s tale of Chanticleer; and the whole story told by Chaucer himself, The Canterbury Tales. These distinctions reflect this essay’s contextual approach, according to which a story has layers of meaning that correspond to the various levels of narrative.

Part 1: Ethics in Individual Tales

Let us start in the simplest way possible, by looking at a simple tale on a simple level. In particular, let us devote some length to studying The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, since, of all the tales, it is the one most easily read as an ethical lesson and depends relatively little on the character of the Nun’s Priest or on the surrounding tales.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a beast-fable in the tradition of Aesop. The Nun’s Priest, at the end, tells us to listen to St. Paul and take the morality from the tale. For all that is written is written for our instruction:

Taketh the moralite, goode men.

For Seint Paul seith that al that writen is,

To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;

Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille. (674-677)

What is this morality? At first, the tale seems to have many morals, three stated by the Cock and one by the Fox. The Cock tells us (1) not to be tricked more than once, (2) not to trust flatterers, and (3) not to close one’s eyes or become careless when one should be aware:

And first I shrewe myself, bothe blood and bones,

If thou bigyle me ofter than ones.

Thou shalt namoore thurgh thy flaterye

Do me to synge and wynke with myn ye

For he that wynketh, whan he sholde see,

Al wilfully, God lat him nevere thee! (661-666)

The Fox immediately responds with a “nay,” as if ready to disagree and assert a different moral. Then the Fox tells us not to talk when we should be keeping our mouths shut.

"Nay," quod the fox, "but God yeve hym meschaunce,

That is so undiscreet of governaunce

That jangleth whan he sholde holde his pees." (667-669)

Yet this apparent multiplicity is easily unified. Both the Cock and the Fox wrongly trusted in flattery; both the Cock and the Fox were careless when they should have been aware. The Nun’s Priest, the narrator at the level of the tale, points this out after the two characters give their own formulations of the moral:

Lo, swich it is for to be recchelees

And necligent, and truste on flaterye. (670-671)

This observation by the narrator reinforces everything the Cock and the Fox say—except for one thing. How does the Cock’s first ethical lesson that one ought not to be tricked more than once integrate with the Nun’s Priest’s ethical lesson? I would suggest that the former is not a moral itself, but rather points to a moral. In other words, it corresponds to the Nun’s Priest’s command to “taketh the moralite” or to learn your lesson. The Cock is saying, in effect, “I’ve learned my lesson. That lesson is this.”

For these reasons, the tale’s message is a simple one: “Learn this lesson: don’t be careless when someone flatters you.” But is this actually what one learns from reading the tale? After all, the question that we are now addressing is not whether the tale contains a statement of a moral, but whether the tale as a whole is an ethical lesson. We need to check, therefore, whether the tale illustrates the stated moral.

How can we do that? Let us turn to Aristotle for help. “The soul never thinks without an image,” he tells us (On the Soul, 431a15). If we can find an account by Aristotle of how images are used in thinking, perhaps we can apply that account to Chaucer’s images. Indeed, we find such an account in his On Memory and Recollection. After reasserting his point that there is no thinking without images, Aristotle clarifies:

For the same condition goes along with thinking which goes with drawing a diagram, since there, while making no use of the triangle’s being of a definite size, still we draw it definite in size; and in the same way, one who is thinking, even if one is thinking of something that is not a quantity, sets a quantity before one’s eyes, though one does not think of it as a quantity, but if the nature of it is among things that have a quantity, but an indefinite one, one sets out a definite quantity, but thinks it just as quantity. (450a1-7)

Although one is thinking about something universal, one imagines it in terms of particulars. In thinking about tables, the size or shape of the table is unimportant; but imagining a table requires one to set a specific size and shape before one’s eyes. In thinking about war, the particular weapons are unimportant; but one sets particular weapons before one’s eyes. In thinking about carelessness due to flattery, the particular flatterer, the particular careless act, the particular outcome, and even the particular species of animal involved are unimportant; but one sets particulars before one’s eyes. That is precisely what we have in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. It presents images of ethical situations that help us to think about ethical situations generally. As Aristotle says, there is no thinking—about ethics or anything else—without images.

Now we know what to look for: are all of the particulars in the tale particulars of the stated moral? In some cases, this is obviously so. The Fox and the Cock aren’t just animals—they are stand-ins for any thinking beings. And closing one’s eyes and opening one’s mouth are only two particular careless acts one might engage in due to flattery. And being snatched by a fox and losing one’s prey are only two particular consequences of such carelessness.

To make this clearer, let us outline our own story that illustrates the same moral as the above. Our protagonist is a cashier in a convenience store who also likes to dance. A customer enters and flatters her dancing ability, asking her to show it off. The cashier steps away from the register and begins to spin. Meanwhile, the customer runs out the door with a stolen bag of potato chips. “Oh, no!” screams the cashier. “The world is truly coming to an end.” Here we have, not a cock and fox, but a cashier and customer; not carelessness manifested by closing one’s eyes or opening one’s mouth, but by dancing; not being snatched by a Fox or losing one’s prey as the negative consequence, but losing one’s goods and possibly one’s job, if the boss finds out what happened. We have different images—different particulars—but the same moral.

Some particulars in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, however, might be harder to understand in relation to the moral. What, for instance, should we make of Chanticleer’s dream and the discussion of dreams that follows? One might think it to be a mere digression. Recall that Chanticleer dreams that a hound-like beast, its color between yellow and red, appears in the yard, ready to seize his body and carry him away. Pertelote scolds him for groaning over this dream:

Certes this dreem, which ye han met to-nyght,

Cometh of the greete superfluytee

Of youre rede colera, pardee,

Which causeth folk to dreden in hir dremes

Of arwes, and of fyr with rede lemes,

Of rede beestes, that they wol hem byte... (160-165)

Chanticleer disagrees that the cause is biological. Dreams, he thinks, have a prophetic power; and in support of this point, he tells two stories about what happened to those who failed to heed dreams, followed by some shorter examples of prophetic dreams from literature and history.

Yet after this lengthy discourse, he copulates twenty times with Pertelote. Quickly, the once-frightened animal becomes a smug prince in his hall. He is so smug that, when the Fox finally shows up, he fails to heed the dream that he once feared so terribly. The Fox only needs to prey on his pride by flattering his voice. Chanticleer closes his eyes, stretches his neck—and the Fox snatches him. Suppose the tale lacked the sequence about the dream—what would we lose? Chanticleer would no longer have advance warning of danger. The dream emphasizes Chanticleer’s carelessness by making it clear that he should have known better. It is, therefore, just part of showing one particular careless act.

One might object that the content or objects of the tale (what is told)—its plot and characters—aren’t everything. One must also consider its form (how it is told), especially the tone of the narrator. Were the story told sarcastically, for instance, our above points would be undercut.

The tone of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is mock-heroic—the language is inappropriately grandiose. The story, after all, is just about some animals in a poor widow’s yard. Yet even this simple widow is described in the grandest of terms. “Ful sooty was hire bour and eek hir halle,” we are told (66). Bour and halle have a courtly connotation inappropriate to a small cottage.

Indeed, much of the tale is told in the manner of a sermon. Some of the sermonizing, we must be careful to note, is done by Chanticleer and is not necessarily indicative of the Nun’s Priest’s intentions. However, since Chanticleer’s sermonizing is consistent with the tone of the Nun’s Priest himself, readers are likely to see it as also contributing to the general air of mock-heroism. Some examples of this are:

Lo Catoun, which that was so wys a man,

Seyde he nat thus, `Ne do no fors of dremes'? (174-175)

O blissful God, that art so just and trewe (284)

And forthermoore, I pray yow, looketh wel

In the Olde Testament, of Daniel (362-363)

Reed eek of Joseph (364)

Looke of Egipte the king, Daun Pharao (367)

Lo Cresus (372)

Lo heere Andromacha (375)

Chanticleer does not have the monopoly on such sermonizing. The Nun’s Priest, commenting on flattery, says:

Allas, ye lordes, many a fals flatour

Is in youre courtes, and many a losengeour,

That plesen yow wel moore, by my faith,

Than he that soothfastnesse unto yow seith.

Redeth Ecclesiaste of flaterye;

Beth war, ye lordes, of hir trecherye. (559-564)

The reference to the fellow pilgrims as “ye lordes” is out of place. And here the narrator even refers us to the Bible, as he does again later in the reference to St. Paul that we have already quoted.

The purpose of such sermonizing and of the whole mock-heroic tone is to make it clear to the reader that the tale is important and illustrates moral truths. The mock-heroism results from the fact that the tale illustrates its moral with mere animals on a poor widow’s yard—but those are only particulars of something more universal. The mock-heroism reminds us that the lowly particulars can easily be replaced in thought with something far grander—such as a dancing cashier and her lost bag of potato chips. Therefore, an examination of the tone of narration only reinforces what we expected after examining the plot and characters of the tale. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is indeed an ethical lesson. By setting particulars before our eyes, it helps us to think about a universal moral truth.

Many tales, however, seem far less related to morality. Next, we will briefly consider The Miller’s Tale. It is somewhat natural to consider this tale in the context of the Miller’s confrontation with the Reeve. We must, however, avoid that temptation for now, since we are considering the possibility that tales can be considered on multiple levels.

There is no stated moral to this tale, but that does not mean that none is illustrated. To find the moral, if there is one, we would have to go through the particulars of the tale and extrapolate the universal elements. For brevity and ease of presentation, I will present this in reverse, breaking the universal down into particulars.

The ethical lesson of this tale is: don’t be foolish.

The tale shows particular ways of being foolish. John the carpenter is deceived into lying in a hanging tub all night to save himself and his wife from a flood. This foolishness is emphasized further by the cause by which he cuts the rope holding the tub: Absalom, in revenge for Alison’s deceiving him into kissing her buttocks, smites Nicholas in the buttocks with a hot iron. Nicholas cries for help: "Water! Water! Help, for Goddes herte” (707)! John awakes, and, thinking the cry refers to the coming flood, raises his axe and cuts his cord lose. Not only is John foolish to hang outside all night, but he cuts his cord for the most foolish of reasons. Nicholas does not even mean to deceive John to the degree that he is in fact deceived.

The tale shows particular consequences of foolishness. As his wife is cheating on him, John falls to the ground and injures himself, resulting in the whole town’s thinking him crazy. One might add to this the consequences of Absalom’s and Nicholas’s foolishness. Absalom is fooled into kissing Nicholas’s buttocks, and Nicholas is fooled into being smitten with a hot iron.

Though the tale has no stated moral, we now see that it does in fact illustrate one. Yet something is missing from this account and from any account that considers a tale apart from its context in the work as a whole.

Part 2: Tales in Context

The context of a tale includes everything in the book outside of the tale, including other tales. Part of this context may be called the frame, which includes: (1) The General Prologue’s characterization of each pilgrim, and (2) the prologues and epilogues of each pilgrim. These latter tell us more about the interactions between the pilgrims as they journey to Canterbury as well as more about their characters (often including their evaluations of the tales).

One might think that context destroys the ethical lessons of individual tales. The purpose of the book is not to present ethical lessons, according to this line of thought, but rather to present characters, with the primary means of characterization consisting in having the characters tell tales. Indeed, sometimes individual characters present ethical lessons, but Chaucer never does this in his own voice. Chaucer only says that the Wife of Bath tells this ethical lesson, while the Franklin tells that ethical lesson. Indeed, it is hard to reconcile those two tales in any other way, since the former champions female dominion while the latter rejects the need to have masters in marriage. Both men and women, we learn from the Franklin, desire liberty (60).

But we find more than just characterization in the frame; we find a plot. The Reeve’s Tale is a direct response to The Miller’s Tale. The Reeve, who is also a carpenter, thinks the Miller has insulted him by depicting a foolish carpenter. In return, the Reeve depicts the punishment of a thieving Miller. He repels the perceived attack by the Miller with an attack of his own: “For leveful is with force force of-showve” (58).

The Reeve paints a portrait of a bullying and thieving miller named Symkyn, who lives near Cambridge with his wife, daughter, and infant son. A college notices that Symkyn is stealing their meal and grain, so it gives leave to two scholars, John and Aleyn, to investigate the matter. When they go to the mill, ready to keep watch over their grain, the miller cuts their horse loose so that they must chase after it, preventing them from keeping watch as the miller steals from them. Because it is late, John and Aleyn need to stay overnight at the mill. There is little space, so they sleep in the same room as the miller’s whole family: John and Aleyn in one bed, the miller and his wife in another bed (at the foot of which sits their infant son’s cradle), and the daughter in a third bed. Aleyn decides to sleep with the daughter,

For, John, ther is a lawe that says thus:

That gif a man in a point be agreved,

That in another he sal be releved. (326-328)

John decides to take a risk, too. He moves the cradle to his own bed so that, when the miller’s wife returns to the room after relieving herself, she thinks that John’s bed is hers. These two scholars then proceed to have a merry time with the miller’s daughter and wife until nearly dawn. Then Aleyn, after the daughter tells him where to find the stolen grain, gets up to return to his own bed. Because the cradle is by the wrong bed, however, Aleyn gets into bed with the miller. A fight ensues, and the miller is beaten.

The narrating Reeve tells us the moral:

And therfore this proverbe is seyd ful sooth,

"Hym thar nat wene wel that yvele dooth."

A gylour shal hymself bigyled be. (465-467)

The Miller’s Tale becomes more than just a tale about foolishness. It is part of a wider plot in which an attacker is repaid with justice. And, very importantly, he is repaid by having to suffer through the Reeve’s tale, which is about a miller who is repaid with justice. Not for nothing is the Reeve’s concluding line, “Thus have I quyt [repaid] the Millere in my tale” (470). The ethical lesson of the overarching plot and that of the plot of The Reeve’s Tale is the same: force is met with force, or attackers will suffer justice. There is no problem in considering these tales on multiple levels. The Miller tells us not to be foolish in his tale, the Reeve tells us that force is met with force in his tale, and the overarching plot reinforces that force is met with force.

In order to show that this is indeed the overarching ethical lesson, we will need once again to use the method of checking whether all particulars are particulars of the lesson. Most obviously, two of the particulars are the tales themselves: one that is perceived as an attack and one that is intended as a repayment for the attack. We have a tale about a carpenter that is filled with all sorts of distinguishing particulars; this tale is only one particular way one might indicate an attack. And we have a tale about a miller also filled with many distinguishing particulars; this tale is only one particular way one might respond to an attack. For instance, the Reeve might have told a subtler tale—suppose one in which a miller comes to regret his actions due only to a natural guilt—but it would have been a repayment for an attack nonetheless. Or perhaps the Reeve might have pulled out his “rusty blade” and charged against the Miller’s sword and buckler. Though this would be physical, and though the Reeve would probably lose his head in the fight, it still falls under the category of repayments for attacks. This all serves to confirm that the frame illustrates ethical lessons.

In his Poetics, Aristotle says, “If someone were to set down in a drama a succession of dramatic speeches which reveal [mainly] character and are well expressed in diction and thought, he would not perform what was stated to be the function of tragedy” (1450a28). For plot, not character, is the end of tragedy. “[P]erformers act not in order to imitate character; they take on character for the sake of imitating actions” (1450a21). The amoral interpretation of The Canterbury Tales attempts to treat it as the non-drama Aristotle describes, as a succession of speeches that reveals character. Yet, as is clear from our discussion of The Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales, their speeches are not mainly concerned with revealing character. The speeches themselves are actions that these characters perform; the speeches are part of the plot—but in a tricky way.

For how do we judge the importance of context in relation to the tale? How do we judge whether to consider some tale by itself or in relation to other tales? Some tales stand alone more than others. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale does not differ very much when read in context as against when it is read out of context. The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale can each stand alone, but they become something more when read in context. And, on the opposite side of the spectrum as The Nun’s Priest’s Tale stand tales like the Wife of Bath’s Tale, which we read knowing a great deal about the narrator’s character.

What we need is a way to determine which parts of The Canterbury Tales make up a unity. Aristotle tells us in his Poetics that the plot “should be an imitation of one action which is a whole, with events as parts so constructed that the transposition or removal of any part will make the whole different or perturb it” (1451a32). Another condition of unity is that the events proceed causally, following either necessarily or according to probability. “[F]or what occurs because of preceding events is far different from what occurs [merely] after preceding events” (1452a21).

According to this, The Canterbury Tales is not a unity. For instance, even if one looks at The Nun’s Priest’s Tale as following from The Monk’s Tale, since we learn from the prologue of the former that the pilgrims are fed up with the Monk’s gloom and would like to hear a merry tale, the two tales could still be transposed to the beginning of The Canterbury Tales without making the whole different. On the other hand, reversing the order of The Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales would be disastrous. An attacker cannot be repaid for a crime that we do not know he will commit.

There are blocks of both unity and independence in The Canterbury Tales. This is important, because ethical lessons can only be found in something that is one. In support of this, notice the pattern of illustration of ethical lessons: tales show that something is virtuous or vicious by illustrating its consequences. The plot matches virtuous cause with positive effect and vicious cause with negative effect. The positive effects do not just follow the virtuous causes; the negative effects do not just follow the negative causes. They follow from them. Since only a unified plot shows events causally, only a unified plot can illustrate ethical lessons.

The use of causality to illustrate ethical lessons is quite apparent in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. The Cock is snatched by the Fox, not merely after, but because he becomes careless when flattered. The Fox loses his prey as a consequence of the same reason. It is also apparent in the sequence with the Miller and the Reeve. The Miller shows that the carpenter is ruined because of his foolishness. The Reeve shows that the Miller—both the one in his story and the real one—is repaid because of his attack. Similarly, the Wife of Bath illustrates the positive consequences of man’s submission to woman. Recall that the old woman is transformed into a young beauty because the knight allows her to choose whether to be young and coveted or old and ugly—because he grants her the choice, because he grants her dominion.

Causality is Chaucer’s method of illustrating ethical lessons, for there is no other method. This is because ethics itself is concerned with causality and consequences of actions. For Aristotle tells us in his Nicomachean Ethics that humans have many ends, some of which are chosen on account of some others. The ultimate end on account of which all other ends are pursued is the good, which Aristotle calls happiness. “[H]appiness appears to be something complete and self-sufficient, and is, therefore the end of all actions” (1097b20). Without this ultimate end, there could be no lesser ends pursued on its account. All action would literally be of no good. Fiction, therefore, illustrates ethical lessons by showing how the actions taken by a character lead towards or away from the ultimate end.

Individual writers obviously disagree over what constitutes the ultimate end. Nevertheless, all of them have to present actions in the story as leading towards or away from some end, whatever it is. Suppose one thinks cow-mimicking to be the ultimate end. A story that illustrates the virtue of submitting to a wife would have to show positive consequences according to the standard of cow-mimicking. It would be a challenge, of course, to coax the reader into sympathizing with such an end.

The Canterbury Tales as a whole lacks unity, so, in answer to our title question, it does not illustrate one ethical lesson. (Let us leave aside, for now, the question of whether the whole presents an ethical lesson in some way other than illustration.) However, the whole does feature both individual tales and various combinations of tales that are unities, and these do illustrate ethical lessons. The Miller’s Tale and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale do not combine to form a unity, so they have two different ethical lessons. There is no overarching plot that adds to or reinforces either of their lessons. The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale, on the other hand, do combine to form a unity, while each is also one taken independently: they have both individual and overarching ethical lessons. The Wife of Bath’s Tale, meanwhile, combines with other parts of the story not to make something additional, but to make something different. Though the Wife of Bath presents an ethical lesson of her own, the context of her tale serves to satirize that lesson.

Part 3: The Refutation of an Ethical Lesson

This last point needs support. But first let us note that this essay will not dwell on what Chaucer intended anything to mean, the Wife of Bath included. Perhaps Chaucer intended to emphasize ethical lessons in some places and compelling characters as ends in themselves in others. The scope of this essay does not permit us to examine the veracity of this notion. The point we are now making is just this: The Wife of Bath’s Tale does in fact combine with its context and with other tales to illustrate an ethical lesson contrary—as opposed to supplementary and coherent, as in the case of The Miller’s Tale when combined with its own context—to the one the Wife herself intends to express.

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale show us the effect of a specific ideology on a woman’s character. The ideology—the Wife of Bath’s doctrine of mastery over men—is the cause; her character is the effect. Since a negative effect in fiction indicates a vicious cause, we first need to show that her character is negative. Then it would follow that the prologue and tale combine to illustrate the viciousness of her ideology, i.e., to illustrate the viciousness of The Wife of Bath’s Tale’s own ethical lesson.

But is her character presented negatively in her Prologue? This is a very difficult question. While many of her actions seem negative—she wants to fry her fourth husband in his own grease, using her beauty to make her cheating husband feel jealous and angry (487)—it is not hard to feel sympathy for her, either. Perhaps the reader ought to feel revulsion and sympathy simultaneously. Whatever the case, a detailed interpretation is unnecessary for our purposes. Even if her character is presented both sympathetically and without revulsion, a consideration of the full context leads one to conclude that it is negative—in the same way one views the mistakes of a child negatively, even while sympathizing.

The arguments she gives in support of her position are answered by two subsequent tales: the Clerk’s and the Franklin’s. The Clerk, in a way, both refutes and confirms the Wife of Bath. He refutes her, because whereas the Wife of Bath claims that no clerk ever speaks well of women (689) and suggests that mastery over men is necessary if the woman is to profit from a relationship (214 and 416), the Clerk both speaks very well of women and shows a woman ultimately profiting from obedience to the man. His tale is of Griselda, born into poverty but married into the riches of the marquis. This marquis, named Walter, tests Griselda’s constancy by putting her through hell, leading her to believe that he kills her two children, and then that he has decided to divorce her and take a new wife. Griselda shows perfect patience through all of this; she does not even hesitate to return to the marquis to help arrange for his next wedding. Eventually, Walter tells Griselda the truth. The family is reunited, and everyone is happy. So much for the Wife of Bath’s claim that women must master men in order to profit. Griselda profits through obedience, not mastery.

But the Clerk is not done. Adding that women need not live up to Griselda’s patience, he sings a hymn to all women, including the Wife of Bath:

For which heere, for the Wyves love of Bathe

Whos lyf and al hire secte God mayntene

In heigh maistrie, and elles were it scathe

wol with lusty herte, fressh and grene,

Seyn yow a song to glade yow, I wene. (1170-1174)

The Clerk’s tale is about a virtuous woman, one even more virtuous than the Clerk would advise. And he follows the tale with a hymn to all women. So much for the Wife of Bath’s claim that clerks speak only ill of women.

On the other hand, when one considers the overarching plot, the Clerk seems to confirm the effectiveness of the Wife of Bath’s practices. For the Wife of Bath tells in her Prologue of her practice of railing against her husbands, even the good and guiltless ones. Her claim that no clerks ever speak well of women, said with the Clerk listening, is one of her characteristic scoldings. The Clerk takes the bait. His hymn to the Wife of Bath goes so far as to ask God to ensure that women continue to hold mastery over men, thus confirming the Wife of Bath’s ethical lesson in explicit terms. His almost apologetic praise of women and his odd confirmation of the Wife of Bath’s ethical lesson both indicate that she has succeeded in bending him to her will. Just as The Miller’s Tale is an action with The Reeve’s Tale as its effect, so too is The Wife of Bath’s Prologue an action with The Clerk’s Tale and his praise of women as its effect. This shows that the Wife of Bath is effective in bringing about what she desires; but it does not show that the effect she brings about is a positive one. Nor does it show, as a consequence, that the cause, her ethical lesson, is a virtuous one.

The Franklin comes to the Clerk’s rescue by completing the refutation of The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Whereas she had argued that women must master men for their own profit, the Franklin shows that liberty is possible for both man and woman—and profit lies with liberty. In his tale, Dorigen and Arveragus make a promise to each other that neither war nor strife will come between them (757). The Franklin explains, in a discussion of mastery that recalls the Wife of Bath:

Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye.

Whan maistrie comth, the God of Love anon

Beteth his wynges, and farewel, he is gon!

Love is a thyng as any spirit free.

Wommen, of kynde, desiren libertee,

And nat to been constreyned as a thrall [slave];

And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal. (55-61)

The tale goes on to confirm that this sort of love, this love without slaves, is possible. Dorigen, longing for her husband when he is absent, is courted by Aurelius, a squire. Rejecting the squire, Dorigen says playfully:

Yet wolde I graunte yow to been youre love,

Syn I yow se so pitously complayne.

Looke what day that endelong Britayne

Ye remoeve alle the rokkes, stoon by stoon. (281- 284)

This is a mistake by Dorigen, but an understandable one. She does not foresee that, with the help of a clerk’s magic, Aurelius will succeed in the task she thought impossible. Then, she must make a choice: honor her promise to Aurelius, and dishonor herself and her husband; or dishonor it in order to stay true to her husband. Her husband returns home, and hearing this, responds tearfully but optimistically, telling her to keep her word to Aurelius. She meets Aurelius, who upon learning of her husband’s command to honor her word, responds that he would rather suffer without her than break up such a noble marriage:

Madame, seyth to youre lord Arveragus

That sith I se his grete gentillesse

To yow, and eek I se wel youre distresse,

That him were levere han shame (and that were routhe)

Than ye to me sholde breke thus youre trouthe,

I have wel levere evere to suffre wo

Than I departe the love bitwix yow two. (817-823)

The love without slaves succeeds. Their faithfulness to one another is the cause that ultimately allows Dorigen and Arveragus to stay together. Furthermore, Aurelius—a character who had a clear opportunity to exercise mastery over Dorigen by tricking her into a relationship she did not want—made the noble choice. He decided not to pursue a master-slave relationship with Dorigen. We see, as a consequence, the triumph of noble love and the refutation of the Wife of Bath.

We have seen that ethical lessons are illustrated on various levels in The Canterbury Tales. Finding them is not as simple as focusing on an individual tale or on piecing together elements from the whole at random. One must follow the unity to reach the ethical lessons.

The Canterbury Tales as a whole, we have said, is not a unity and does not illustrate an ethical lesson. It illustrates ethical lessons insofar as one can consider parts of it that are one. Now it is time to return the question of whether the book as a whole presents a single ethical lesson in some way other than illustration.

Such a thing would not be unusual. Aristotle presents ethical lessons in his Nicomachean Ethics through philosophy. Some parents attempt to teach ethical lessons to their children by using punishments or rewards. But in what way would The Canterbury Tales do such a thing? As a whole, it gives no philosophic argument for one ethical lesson. Nor does it wash out the reader’s mouth with soap.

As a result, whether one learns from the book as a whole is dependent on the reader. It is up to him to seek out any common elements in the story and to integrate them consciously. As for me, I observe how the Cock in The Nun’s Priests Tale saves his life by learning his lesson; I observe how the miller in The Reeve’s Tale is repaid for his crimes; I observe how Dorigen’s noble marriage triumphs through its nobility.

I observe that virtue has positive consequences; I observe that vice has negative consequences. And I find but one ethical lesson: that ethics matters.


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Joe Sachs. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2002.

Aristotle. On the Soul and On Memory and Recollection. Trans. Joe Sachs. Santa Fe, NM: Green

Lion Press, 2001.

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle. Grinell, IA: The Peripatetic Press, 1990.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. Ed. A. C. Cawley. New York, NY: Everyman’s Library

(Alfred A. Knopf), 1992.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue and Tale. Ed. Maurice Hussey. Cambridge,

Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1965.

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It's still somewhat choppy for me to read something in Middle English for the first time. But it's much easier than it was when I sat down to read Chaucer just a month or two ago. Other students here and I have all found that if you just sit down and persist through the Middle English Canterbury Tales, it becomes pretty natural--but still demanding some effort and a little extra time--to read by the time you get through as little as 70 pages or so. After that, it helps to pick up copies of Tales that have glossaries in the back, too, so you can expand vocabulary for words that didn't make it into modern English.

First thing to do is to pin down the proper pronunciation, of course. I had the advantage of a lecture here at St. John's for that purpose. But most copies of The Tales include a little guide for pronunciation.

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