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Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales contain his trademark challenges to and reimaginings of the popular literary genres of his time. With each tale, Chaucer takes a common genre and follows its general conventions in order to tell a perfectly genre-appropriate tale — until he makes an alteration that stands out against the otherwise well-constructed style. But is Chaucer doing more than merely toying with his readers’ expectations? Beyond providing a joke or shock value to his tales, Chaucer may be commenting on the genre in which he is only partially partaking. Perhaps he is commenting on the topic of writing in general, or perhaps on life as he and his readers knew it. It is fair to say that Chaucer never wrote a story for frivolous purposes — rather, behind every challenge made to genre tradition was the intent to draw the reader’s attention to a particular issue or irony.
One framework through which Chaucer’s literary intent can be approached is the issue of epistemology — that is, the study of knowledge, or how “one knows what one knows.” Chaucer’s method of genre alteration serves to deconstruct traditional genres by drawing attention to their typical features. In doing so, Chaucer questions the authority of popular texts, and by extension, class, romance, and religion. For example, despite what the popular stories of the time had to say, Chaucer realized that knights were not always chivalrous (or perhaps more accurately, that chivalry itself was incorrectly portrayed), and his stories reflected that awareness. Fundamentally, Chaucer is asking how the writers and readers of such texts can take anything for granted in a constantly changing world.
One story in which Chaucer makes implicit use of his critical method is “The Prioress’s Tale.” Told from the perspective of a rather odd and fashionable nun, “The Prioress’s Tale” is related in the style of a “miracle story,” a genre very popular in England and the church at the time. In her prologue, the Prioress announces that she intends to tell a story in the praise of Christ and His mother, the Blessed Virgin. Then she proceeds to relate the story of a young martyr. In Asia, an innocent boy is murdered while singing a song that he had learned about the Blessed Virgin. A group of Jews who took great offense at the boy’s song cut his throat. Once his mother discovers her son’s body, however, his song continues. Thus, through great faith, a miracle occurs. The Prioress, so moved by her own story, tells it like any other miracle story would be told: with great humility, declaring herself perhaps not learned enough to tell such a weighty tale, and in keeping with the general style of a straightforward, “factual” miracle narrative, as though this tale had actually occurred. She even becomes overwhelmed with emotion by the story’s end.
Several subtle issues arise within the Prioress’s descriptions in the prologue, however, that distinguish her tale from a typical miracle story. As with every tale included in Chaucer’s masterwork, the most important elements to recall are the storyteller, the relationship of the tale and the manner of speech to the storyteller’s intent, alter-ego Chaucer’s intent, and Chaucer’s actual authorial intent. As alter-ego Chaucer tends to be etched as a rather thick fellow — that is, as rather na?ve and plain-speaking — we can assume that Chaucer the author is using the bluntness of his alter ego in describing his characters and their manner of storytelling to make indirect observations that Chaucer the author could not describe plainly (lest attention and criticism be cast toward him). Through his alter ego’s account of the Prioress, we begin to understand her lack of knowledge, her simplicity, the ironic position that she holds, and the deeper meaning that these traits add to her miracle tale.
First, the Prioress is an unusually stylish nun, as reflected in her outfit, her jewelry, and the bracelet described in the general prologue. She is very sentimental about her lap dogs and concerned over pitiful mice caught in traps. Her arguably over-the-top sensitivity to such creatures is at odds with her societal role, as she is indeed a nun and therefore should be more concerned with poverty, disease, and other greater problems rather than the inconsequential issues with which she is preoccupied. Also, as mentioned before, she is not a terribly knowledgeable woman:
<blockquote>It is clear, moreover, that the Prioress reads in images what “clerkys redyn in boke” (Dives & Pauper 82), a skill whereby Chaucer places Madame Eglantyne squarely with the lewd who have no Latin. Chaucer the clerk (like the erudite Nun’s Priest) is critical of the Prioress’s learning, and her attraction to the visual in the tale she tells enlarges our sense of her miracle of the Virgin as a “popular” narrative form. (Heffernan 3)</blockquote>
If Chaucer is indeed critical of the Prioress, writing not without a sense of mockery but with a critique of the uneducated in mind, then the Prioress’s narration may be cast in an alternate light. In pointing out her oddity, her stylishness, her lack of wisdom, Chaucer casts a question mark over the authority of her miracle story, and thus, to a lesser extent, all miracle stories. By drawing the reader’s attention to the story’s unreliable source, he makes one ponder the tale’s claim to reality, as well as any such tale’s claim to access of truth. Could not other stories arise from similarly disreputable origins? Does the mere fact of a “holy” subject necessarily mean that a story is true? Certainly Chaucer does not go so far as to challenge the Church or Christianity itself, but as a writer with apparent disdain for some of the Church’s operations at the time (the selling of indulgences, for example, as well as the general lifestyle of many clergy members), he does subtly veer in that direction with a few telling choices.
First among these choices is the setting of the story in Asia — certainly an unusual setting for a miracle story, but one that served a few different purposes. The first was a simple nod to the storyteller’s aforementioned stylishness: in Chaucer’s time, Asia was a place of great interest to the rest of the world. It therefore seems timely, and fittingly silly, that the nun chose to set her story there. A more important consequence of the choice of setting concerns the function of Judaism in the story. At the time Chaucer was writing, the Jewish people had long since been cast out of England. Few English citizens had ever even come into contact with a Jew, but that did not stop them from scapegoating the Jews for anything that happened to go awry, particularly within the church. True to form, had the Prioress not gone to the trouble of setting her miracle in Asia, a place where Jews were more likely to be found than in England, then she could not have portrayed Judaism as the source of evil in her tale. The Prioress’s choice casts doubt over the story from the very start. Is Chaucer addressing the Church’s tendency to cast blame on obscure and distant reasons for all that goes wrong within the institution? By allowing the Prioress to choose Asia as her backdrop, is Chaucer saying that the nun was overzealous in her decision to cast the Jews as villains without giving thought to the reasons behind her choice? Is the church — is England — are people in general overzealous when it comes to such decisions? Do we all cast our own villains? All of these questions arise as a result of the setting of the Prioress’s tale.
Another decision of note that the Prioress makes in crafting her story is that she is unusually descriptive of the violence that precedes the miracle. Such gratuitous violence seems rather excessive, and it is striking that a pious nun should choose to relate a murder in such graphic detail. Why would the Prioress do such a thing? Is it because she delights in the story of a martyr, believing that a more gruesome murder makes the subsequent miracle seem even greater? The idea would not be farfetched, but it is nonetheless uncommon in miracle stories. In writing from an uneducated woman’s perspective, is Chaucer mocking the Prioress’s concept of abuse? Is her fear and disdain for the world (and for the Jews) so great that she chooses to describe the worst violence she can think of in order to exalt the innocent boy-martyr? As with the choice of Jewish people as villains, the Prioress’s choices regarding the depiction of violence in the tale only bring to the surface the supposed storyteller’s lack of perspective and authority — she clearly does not know what she is talking about. The Prioress’s slightly excessive “retelling” of the horrific violence therefore simultaneously represents her attempt to gain credibility with her audience and Chaucer’s attempt to remark on her total lack thereof.
Yet another element of note in the Prioress’s tale is the extent to which the young martyr has much in common with the Prioress. A simple boy, the martyr does not understand the words he sings aside from the fact that they are about the Blessed Virgin, which therefore makes them worth knowing and singing constantly. His singing is ended only after an abbot from a nearby monastery takes a grain from the child’s tongue — much like, it should be noted, the taking of the Eucharist from a priest (Heffernan 8) — except that in the prioress’s story a priest receives the “greyn” (VII 671) from a boy:
<blockquote>noght oonly thy laude precious
Parfourned is by men of dignitee,
But by the mouth of children thy bountee
Parfourned is. (VII 455–58)</blockquote>
Could this be wishful thinking on the Prioress’s part? Is she consciously or subconsciously identifying with the martyr? Is the murdered child symbolic of the Prioress herself as one who believes but does not understand? If that is the case, then the Prioress is indeed exaggerating her own questionable piousness, once again casting her in an unflattering light.
More important, however, is Chaucer’s intent: is the faithful child intended to be somehow symbolic of society at that time — perhaps symbolic of Chaucer’s readers? The boy martyr is incredibly faithful but lacking in knowledge. Is that how Chaucer saw society at large? As a traveling man, a government official, and a writer, Chaucer experienced much more of the world than many of his peers. It is therefore possible that he objected to the treatment of the trusting everyman. Perhaps he did not consider faith or religion to be detrimental, but merely wished for a broader perspective, one uniting trust and wisdom. Also, in casting the Prioress as an insufficient storyteller, a member of the all-important church who has been well taught in manners but is perhaps not well read, he allows one overly simple character to heap exaggerated praise on another overly simple character. Chaucer uses this device of one problematic character making a problematic assessment of another in order to make his readers question all character descriptions. If the Prioress is no authority at all, then should we consider this martyred child to be a saint and all Jews to be evil? No. We should in fact doubt all that she says, for she is a storyteller, and nothing more.
Another of The Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer challenges the authority of texts is “The Friar’s Tale.” Just as “The Prioress’s Tale” questioned the suitability of the Church to tell a straightforward story, so too does “The Friar’s Tale” raise the same question with regard to public authority and government officials. Although the Friar’s tale is in many ways simpler than the Prioress’s, it still makes the same sort of challenges to genre conventions. For example, in what should be a typically “moral” tale — that is, the story of a ne’er-do-well who receives his comeuppance — this story is unusual in two ways.
The first unusual contribution that Chaucer makes to this otherwise dark and vengeful tale of wish-fulfillment is the lengthy discussion of public office and the role that one must play within the position he has been given. Bryant comments that such a long dialogue seems somewhat out of place, especially in what should be a short story about a bad man who is punished for his ill will on earth (2). The story does not move quickly towards the summoner’s comeuppance at all; rather, it begins with a full description of the protagonist’s role in the archdeacon’s court. The tale then proceeds to relate a conversation between the summoner and the daemon (a bailiff) that reveals the pressures of the offices they hold. Some scholars hold that the tale’s examination into the work of government and church officials, “an addition original to Chaucer’s treatment,” likely “owes much to the poet’s own experience of the pressures of officialdom and his sensitivity to the way that officials were accused or excused in political discussion” (Bryant 2). Indeed, embedded in the words of the summoner and the daemon bailiff are the true concerns of a bureaucratic working man, at least from Chaucer’s perspective:
<blockquote>I spare nat to taken, God it woot,
But if it be to hevy or to hoot.
What I may gete in conseil prively,
No maner conscience of that have I.
Nere myn extorcioun, I myghte nat lyven,
Ne of swiche japes wol I nat be shryven.
Stomak ne conscience ne knowe I noon. (III 1435–41)</blockquote>
This rather sad excerpt does not criticize the summoner’s morals or the corrupt system in which he functions; rather, it shows the characters “explicitly point to the difficulty of their official positions to explain their actions” (Bryant 8). The tale asks us to consider the lack of agency of the summoner and the demonic bailiff as well as their positions as intermediaries in systems of financial collection and legal administration. Chaucer is not asking for his readers to pity the corrupt summoner or his daemon companion, but he does ask that we wonder about the system that created them — a theme most unusual for a story with a moral lesson.
The second unusual quality Chaucer contributes to this moral tale is the narrator, the Friar himself, and his viewpoint. Earlier in The Canterbury Tales, the Friar expressed his desire to raise the ire of his long-time enemy, the Summoner. His quiet but demeaning story is the result of this hatred. He speaks of a summoner who makes his way to hell with his newfound daemon friend, a character who engages with said daemon without any fear. When the summoner first encounters the daemon, he lies about his own profession (the first sign of the Friar’s disgust for the summoner), and when the daemon reveals to him that he commits underhanded deeds in order to get by, the summoner admits that he does as well. Once the daemon is found out to be from hell, the Friar does not flee. He does not even bat an eye. In fact, he is fascinated by the daemon’s way of life and insists that the hell-creature tell of how his job works. In doing so, the summoner himself is revealed to be somewhat demonic himself, perhaps one of the only people in the world who would not have run upon learning that his traveling companion was an evil spirit. In this way, Chaucer brings to his readers’ attention once again the uneven perspective through which we may view this undoubtedly corrupt official. Just as we should take the Prioress’s story with a grain of salt since she is more preoccupied with style and pet projects than piousness, so too can we not accept the Friar’s story at face value: the man clearly has an ax to grind. In the Friar’s story, the summoner is essentially a daemon simply because the Friar says so.
At every turn, Geoffrey Chaucer challenges his reader and keeps his audience in a constant state of surprise. Each of his Canterbury Tales contains twists on the straightforward genres they would otherwise represent. By embedding criticism for the genres in which he writes, Chaucer challenges the clout of such typical tales and asks his readers to do the same. How do we know that a miracle tale has any access to reality? Because it invokes the Blessed Virgin and is told by a nun? Surely there must be more to it than that. How do we know that a moral tale have any true lesson to teach? Because it features a bad man who meets a bad end? There must be more to it than that. What if, for example, the man who meets a grisly end was just doing his job? And what if that end was constructed by a storyteller who despises his own protagonist? In raising such questions, Chaucer reminds us that we cannot take a story at face value, certainly not without considering the source. That notion can be prudently applied to many aspects of life.
At the outset of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer takes great care to introduce the characters on his journey who will be telling tales. He describes them in humorous detail, and as he does so he reveals his objective: not only to tell stories, but also to reveal the true nature of the storytellers. As he demonstrates in tale after tale, Chaucer has a devotion to more than the written word: he has a propensity for storytelling. He wants to ascertain how we know what we know, and what, if anything, is trustworthy in the world of literature. Above all, Chaucer remains one of the few writers to truly understand that storytelling is a tool and not a plaything, and that there is always more than one story to consider within each tale.
Bryant, Brantley L. “‘By Extorcions I Lyve’: Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale and Corrupt Officials.” The Chaucer Review 42.2 (2007): 180-195. E-Journals. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.
Chaucer , Geoffrey, et al. The Riverside Chaucer. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986.
Heffernan, Carol Falvo. “Praying Before the Image of Mary: Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, VII 502-12.” The Chaucer Review 39.1 (2004): 103-116. E-Journals. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.
“Ideology, Antisemitism, and Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review 36.1 (2001): 48-72. E-Journals. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.
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