The Canterbury Tales review

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Another book review from my old Angelfire site, probably written sometime in 2004. Yes, I am quite well aware that people in Medieval England had quite different religious views than the average modern person. That doesn’t mean I can’t be deeply offended by blatant anti-Semitism and Islamophobia instead of just shrugging and saying “That was just how things were then.” It’s just like with the repugnant Birth of a Nation; of course many Americans held less than enlightened views on race relations in those days. That didn’t mean most of them expressed it through applauding the Klan and depicting African-Americans as lazy porch monkeys who rape white women and eat fried chicken and go barefoot in the Senate. You have a really thick skin if you can just accept all cringe-worthy depictions of women, African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, Native Americans, etc., in old books and movies without flinching. It’s not at all about being “too PC,” it’s about being honestly shocked and offended.

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Like The Decameron, this Medieval masterpiece too was intended to have a hundred stories, only unlike Boccaccio’s work, Chaucer only completed a bit over twenty stories, to have been told by thirty-one pilgrims going to the shrine of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, England, one story on the way there and another on the way back, told by each pilgrim, including himself and the innkeeper.

The innkeeper suggested they tell stories to pass the time, and whomever told the best story would get a dinner when they returned to his inn. Sadly, things don’t get that far, and we don’t get to find out who won the dinner. Think of the modern-day possibilities, of someone writing the second half of this book, with the stories told on the way back and finally letting us in on who told the best story!

Off they go. After drawing straws to see who’ll start them off, the Knight begins with a lovely story about cousins in ancient Greece, who fall in love with the same woman while they’re in gaol, then fight over her once they’ve gotten out of gaol (one by pardon, the other by breaking out) until tragedy results, but in the end ultimately happiness. The people who tell the rest of the tales are from all walks of life—Pardoner (we read his tale along with the Prologue in my tenth grade English class), priests, friar, monk, cook, miller, reeve, lawyer, prioress, squire, you name it.

Many of the tales are very raunchy, as raunchy as some of the stuff in The Decameron, in particular the stories told by the miller and the reeve. They even have the c word in them, and other Anglo-Saxon profanities. The Reeve’s Tale is rather similar to one in The Decameron, about two young men who spend the night at the house of a couple with an older unmarried daughter and a baby boy in a cradle. During the night, one of the men, Alan, gets up and sleeps with the daughter, and the second man, John, has to get up to urinate, but finds the cradle in his way.

He pushes it over, and when the wife gets up and feels the cradle gone from its usual spot, she gets into the guests’ bed, thinking she almost made a horrible, foolish mistake. John proceeds to sleep with her. Then Alan gets up and gets into his host’s bed, thinking it’s his bed because the cradle isn’t there, and brags to him about how he slept with his daughter.

The host, Simon (Simkin), is furious, and the wife wakes up and screams for her husband, saying there’s someone on top of her. In the ensuing commotion, poor old Simkin (who deserved it anyway, the way he tried to steal flour from them earlier) gets banged over the head and the men flee from the house, getting back their stolen flour, which has since been baked into beautiful cakes.

In Boccaccio’s story, the wife realises what’s happened and lies to her husband that he too shouts out strange and impossible things when he’s dreaming, and the guest whom she accidentally slept with agrees, telling his friend to stop sleeptalking and to come back to bed, adding he told him he’d get into trouble one of these days over this problem. He begins shouting out nonsense to make the host believe he really was dreaming, and he laughs hysterically. Everyone is reconciled and happy.

The Prioress’s Tale is pure anti-Semitic tripe and libel, the stuff that was commonplace in the Middle Ages. Some young boy who loves to sing Catholic songs he wasn’t scheduled to learn yet is walking through the ghetto singing when Satan convinces the downtrodden people forced into this hellhole (described by the Prioress as deserved, since we’re so “satanic” and undeserving to live among other people in a free environment) to murder him, since he’s goading them with this song.

One Jewish man hides in the bushes, murders him (the old blood libels), throws him into a privy, and shortly thereafter he’s found with his throat slit, yet still singing that stupid song. Of course this gives the excuse for a murder-spree and pogrom, and the boy is revered as a saint and hero. Mention is also given to Hugh of Lincoln, another young boy of the era whose disappearance and murder was blamed on the area Jews.

Like this awful nun would’ve ever had any contact with Jews anyway, seeing as how they were all driven out of England in 1290. It’s scary that the blood libels survived into the twentieth century, with people who actually believed this anti-Semitic bullshit was true instead of manufactured lies used as excuses to have pogroms at Eastertime, or just to be mean and hateful.

The Sergeant-at-Law (i.e., lawyer)’s Tale is also very Christocentric. Young pretty Princess Constance is sighted by a group of Syrian Muslims, who fight among themselves over who shall have her. The guy who’s chosen says her father will never let her marry a Muslim (the insulting, dated, and offensive word “heathen” is used throughout), so he, the sultan, and all their friends and subjects convert to Christianity. Yeah, right.

The sultan’s mother is understandably furious over this abandonment of their ancestral religion, and has everyone at the wedding banquet except Constance murdered. Constance gets on a ship going towards the British Isles, and is taken in by a nice governer and his wife Hermengyld, and, wouldn’t you know it, Hermengyld is so taken with her devoted servant she too abandons Islam, and so does an old Briton they come across some time later!

A jealous knight murders Hermengyld and places the bloody knife beside Constance in their bed, and everyone feels she’s wrongly accused. At the trial, she prays for a miracle to happen to prove she isn’t guilty, and the knight is struck down by an otherworldly blow. And, surprise, surprise, the king and many of his subjects are so wowed by this that they too become Christians! What Medieval fantasy, people abandoning their own religions in favour of one that won’t leave them alone until they become members. Would these people have been very happy at a story where a young prince and all his subjects converted to Islam or Judaism en masse to win a beautiful princess, abandoning Christianity, the religion they’d lovingly been raised with?

Constance has some more misfortunes after that (but with a happy ending), and thankfully there aren’t anymore magickal wishful thinking fantasy conversions that only the Medieval mind could’ve imagined were realistic and true.

The Oxford Scholar’s Tale is also very similar to another Decameron story, the final story in that book. A Marquis is pressured to take a wife, and finally he gives in and decides to marry a poor girl named Griselda (the name is the same in both stories). He loves her very much, and his subjects are soon won over to the wonderful woman he’s married. But Walter wants to test her.

First he sends away their beloved daughter, saying the people are unhappy because they had a girl, and then a number of years later sends away their son, claiming the people are unhappy over the prospect of one day being ruled by a poor woman’s son. He says both have been killed. Finally he sends her away too, in nothing more than her shift, to her family, who always thought he’d do that one day.

To see if she’s borne these ordeals patiently, Walter soon brings her back, claiming he’s going to marry another woman, a 12-year-old girl. (He already presented her with a fake Papal bull of divorce when he drove her away.) And, wonder of wonders, it turns out that the girl is none other than their daughter. He also brings back their son, and holds her as his most dear wife, since she’s patiently borne these indignities.

Of course, to the modern mind, both of these stories are hard to believe, that any woman (or man, for that matter) in her right mind would agree to reconcile with a man who treated her so terribly and then years later just said he only ever did any of it to see how virtuous and patient she truly was.

The Wife of Bath rocks. She’s an intelligent liberated woman, married five times so far, loves sex, says that if women were writing the history, philosophy, and theology books, men would be the ones castigated and called evil, isn’t afraid to take lovers and to slap her husbands around when they get out of line, and has a very raunchy tongue. Like Alison in the Miller’s Tale, she demands, finds, and takes her own pleasure if her husband isn’t willing or able to properly give it to her, and always has a witty and clever way to get out of being accused of adultery or misbehaving.

The Merchant’s Tale ends in a similar way to another of Boccaccio’s stories. In Chaucer’s tale, an old knight named January finally decides he’d better get married, and picks a very young woman named May. January’s got a squire named Damian, who’s passionately in love with May. Eventually they work out a plan to get together, after January goes blind.

While out in the garden one day, Damian hides in a pear tree, where May is to climb up and meet him. Pluto and his wife Proserpina are watching, and Pluto is so mad that January is about to be cuckolded that he says he’ll give him his sight back to catch them in the act. Proserpina shoots back, saying she’ll give May the perfect response to deflect January’s suspicions.

So they’re up in the tree having sex when January looks up mortified, unable to believe his eyes. May tells him she’s trying to help him get his sight back and it’s not what he thinks, and that naturally he won’t be able to judge things correctly after having just gotten his sight back. He buys it, blissfully unaware he’s just been lied to.

In Boccaccio’s tale, Lidia, the wife of Nicostrato, is in love with Nicostrato’s favourite servant Pirro. Pirro gives her three tasks to do to see if her love is true, all of which she does. Finally, when Lidia is sick and lying under a pear tree, she orders Pirro up into the tree to get her some pears, and once up there he claims to see Nicostrato banging Lidia rotten.

Nicostrato goes up to see what’s going on, and Pirro and Lidia start to have sex. He’s furious, accusing his wife and most trusted servant of betraying him, and both deny this wholeheartedly; Lidia points out that if she really wanted to be unfaithful, she’d never be so foolish as to do it right in front of him. In consequence the tree is chopped down, so it won’t cast doubt on the honour of any other woman.

Most of the tales told reflect the social origins of the storytellers; some are even told in response to a tale that made their profession look bad. The miller tells his raunchy tale about an old carpenter who’s cuckolded by his much-younger wife, and the reeve, who’s also a carpenter, is so mad he in turns tells the story about the sleazy miller Simkin. Later on, the friar tells a story about a corrupt summoner, and this prompts the summoner to tell a tale about a sleazy friar who gets a rather vulgar comeuppance.

The Franklin’s Tale too is similar to a story in The Decameron; in Chaucer’s version, the lovely young wife Dorigen, while pining for her husband off on a voyage, is confronted with the squire Aurelius, who’s passionately in love with her. She tells him she’ll be his if he can clear the coast of Brittany of all its rocks, so one can sail along unimpeded. She thinks it’s an impossible task, so she doesn’t think anything will ever come of it.

In Boccaccio’s version, Dianora too is bothered by a suitor, and she tells him she’ll be his if he can make her a garden that’s just as beautiful in January as in May. Both men do these impossible tasks by the aide of magicians, and when they confess to their respective husbands, they’re told they must honour their word and sleep with them. Both suitors are so moved by this generosity that they release the women from this promise, and both magicians are in turn so moved they release the men from paying for their services.

As has been mentioned, these stories do take more than just a bit from Boccaccio instead of being all stories independently thought up. The Decameron rocks, but did you have to take so much from it? It also would’ve been nice, in my version, to have had the Middle English and the translation on opposing pages. There are some jarring differences, but Middle English isn’t that hard to read, esp. in comparison to Old English. I’ve read the Our Father and a bit of Beowolf in Old English (in a history and English class, respectively), and we could barely read any of it, so different are Modern and Old English.

There’s also a lot of Christocentrism, not to mention the anti-Semitic Prioress’s Tale (as well as an anti-Semitic jab made at the beginning of the Pardoner’s Tale); Christianity is obviously important in many of Boccaccio’s tales too, but it’s expressed through holy (but more often than not sleazy and corrupt) clergy, monks, friars, and nuns, not through constantly talking about Jesus, his blood, and trying to convert people who aren’t interested.

The few Jews in Boccaccio’s tales (Abraham, who converts to Christianity, and Melchisedek, who protects his money from a trap laid by Saladin) are treated more respectfully, as well as the Muslims in his stories. Saladin may be trying to steal Melchisedek’s money in the first story he appears in, but in the second story, told during the tenth and final day, he’s one of the two heroes, and is treated very respectfully, like a virtuous ruler, friend, and human being instead of some “heathen” who needs to be converted or killed asap.

My version also only gave a synopsis of the second of the two tales Chaucer himself tells, the Tale of Melibeus, and the final story, the Parson’s Tale, claiming that they’re very long, told in prose instead of poetry, and wouldn’t be of interest to the general reader. Maybe so, but can’t you at least provide them so the general reader can make up his or her own mind on the matter?

And let’s keep in mind here that this is only about half (at most) of what Chaucer envisioned; the book remains unfinished, so we’re denied all the rest of the tales that were supposed to be told, as well as the most important part, the ending and finding out who told the best tale!

But all in all, these are great stories (except the one told by the nasty Prioress) that have stood the test of time for a reason. And it was the first major work of literature written in the English language, the same way Dante chose to write in Italian instead of Latin to express his universal thoughts and ideas, to bring them to the common people instead of just the educated few.