(This article was published in Medieval English Studies Vol 7 (1999) pages 63 - 92)
It seems virtually impossible to find anything very new to say about the Canterbury Tales; still, the Canterbury Tales seem to keep having new things to say to us. Or at least, certain ways of reading continue to interrogate us. This paper is rooted in a recent online discussion about the values represented in the portraits of the Pilgrims in the General Prologue; they challenge readers by the way in which the narratorial tone is seemingly positive, even about people whose human and moral qualities are far from clear. The Narrator, it was felt, does not distinguish clearly enough, even by indirect comments or ironic tone, between Good Guys and Bad Guys. In particular, he employs a word like 'worthy' to qualify characters of dubious worth.
The Tales themselves often defy simple readings in the same way as the portraits; bad things happen to quite Good Guys, while not-so-surely-good Guys do not always get their deserts. In a large number of Tales the final message, the "moral," is far from clear; multiple readings and moral applications often seem to be in direct conflict with one another as the narrator winds up his story. The framework invites us to join the Pilgrims in discerning a prize to the Best Tale. Yet who can say what constitutes a 'Good' tale? Can the rather shocking but oh-so- entertainingly human Miller's Tale be considered 'better' than the elegant but sexless and rather pretentious Knight's Tale? What is the connection between the tellers and the tales? Is the Knight's social rank a guarantee of the quality of his tale?
At every turn, the Canterbury Tales invites its readers to reflect on what constitutes value for them, not only in their choice of a really good tale but in their discernment of a truly Good Guy, while the way the Pilgrimage ends, not in a supper but in the Parson's daunting Tale-that-is- no-Tale and Chaucer's Retraction-that-fails-to-retract, keeps reminding us that there is (or at least Christian Doctrine declares that there is) a Good Guy par excellence, the Good-Guy-in-the-Sky whose reading of human life is infallibly correct and leads to radical value judgements of eternal validity.
We enact processes of valuation every time we teach the Canterbury Tales, by the choices we make of which Tales to include in our syllabus. Indeed, we enact the same process every time we teach anything, insofar as we have to decide whether to give preference to solaas in order to keep our students (and ourselves) relatively happy, or to sentence in order to fulfill our professional obligations. The serious moral and religious tales, Melibee, the Second Nun's tale, the Parson's tale in particular, are more often than not excluded from our syllabuses, for quite obvious reasons. Yet it would be important to reflect sometimes on the significance of their presence in the Canterbury Tales, not only for putative Chaucer but for us today.
It is worth remembering that in the 15th century, those religious tales were almost the only ones to get anthologized separately (Ellis 9-10), they had a success in their own right. Chaucer's invitation to "turne over the leef and chese another tale" (I, 3177) is yet another sign that he expects his readers to make evaluations and to distinguish between the different tales. He was warning readers about the fabliaux, at least on the surface. He would perhaps have been amazed by how ready we are to apply the instruction to The Second Nun's and the Parson's Tales.
I want to begin by briefly summarizing the very complex exchange of views that took place on the Chaucer (email) Discussion List in late September and early October 1999. It was one of the most sustained debates of its kind I have seen, and raised some interesting issues. It began when a Spanish scholar, Alberto Uttranadhie, wrote on September 27 :
Recently I have been reading Paul Strohm's essay "The social and literary scene in England" (from The Cambridge Chaucer Companion) where he makes us see that the best - or what are supposed to be the best in Chaucer's time - men tell the what Strohm calls "traditional and edifying genres" due to "their acceptance of the responsabilities of their social roles". (...). But these best men - the Knight and the Parson, who are the tradition themselves - are the beginning and the end of the journey, and they are representing a circle where the rest of the society is in the middle of them.His main question was whether this was deliberate or chance. Mark Allen replied:
It seems fairly clear that Chaucer did frame his narrative with two tales that express an aristocratic ideal and a religious one, although I am not sure that the ideals are without qualification. (...) Paul Ruggiers long ago discussed the Canterbury fiction as a great "middle" distributed between the two "pillars" of the Knight and Parson, and Ralph Baldwin discusses an allegorical movement in the Canterbury Tales from the secular Knight to the sacred Parson. See Paul Ruggiers, _The Art of the Canterbury Tales_ (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965).George V. Simmons agreed with that:
That the placement of Knight's and Parson's tales might represent the progress from earthly to spiritual wisdom and dignity, from pride and the defense of honor to humility and forgiveness, from philosophy to theology, and from the order of nature (and reason) to the order of grace (and faith -- and so from fate to providence and from justice to mercy) is, I believe, more than merely possible.Here Richard Sutter introduced another way of seeing the structure, asking if "Chaucer could be using what in Biblical criticism is referred to as a chiastic (chi=X) structure, emphasizing the middle element of the set?" Ann W. Astell referred to her own recently published work:
I do delineate a structure of formal chiasmus in the Ellesmere order of the Tales, a structure that likens the pilgrimage to a philosophic and planetary soul-journey. In that scheme, Fragment VI is central, and Fragment IX pairs with Fragment I. There's a convenient chart on p. 90. If anyone's interested, see my Chaucer and the Universe of Learning (Cornell UP, 1996). An earlier attempt to discover formal chiasmus in the Tales is that of Judson Allen, who (together with Theresa Moritz) likens Chaucer's arrangement to chiastic Ovidian "panelling" in the Metamorphoses. See Allen and Moritz's Introduction to A Distinction of Stories: The Medieval Unity of Chaucer"s Fair Chain of Narratives for Canterbury.Stephan Khinoy objected to the bi-polar pattern so far suggested: "The General Prologue has three idealized characters -- the Knight, the Plowman, and the Parson --corresponding to the three orders as sketched by (among others) John of Salisbury, those who fight, those who pray, and those who work. The brevity of the Plowman's description shouldn't detract from his excellence," and this mention of 'excellence' was to have considerable importance in what followed, because Norman D. Hinton reacted provocatively: "I certainly agree that the Knight, Ploughman,and Parson are Good Guys, and I'd add the Clerk. But what is Harry Bailey ? I'd say neutral, in a rather complex way. And what of the Narrator?"
Mark Allen responded: "The Narrator is neutral and complex too. He has at least a foot in the camp of solaas (Thopas) and one in sentence (Melibee), and he's not sure whether either camp is wholly Good or wholly Bad." Mark Adderley was not satisfied with this:
It seems to me that the Narrator is a "good" character in an unqualified way; where he is questionable is in the matter of brains. Goodness and intelligence aren't the same thing. His goodness you can see in his bonhomie; he really does see the best in all people. When he declares of the Monk, "And I seyde his opinion was good" (I.183), there's no doubt he's being honest, but that he's wrong, which tells you two things: 1) The Narrator is not, like almost all the other "bad" guys, a hypocrite; 2) He's rather stupid. I think that seeing the best in the Monk is a positive trait. It goes along with the "Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged" ideal.This sign of potentially evangelical virtue in the Narrator was not pursued. Instead Laura F. Hodges raised another question: "The Knight as an "idealized" character has been the subject of dispute in a number of articles. Is anyone seeing him as "perfect" in every way anymore?" Norman D. Hinton responded: "The Knight doesn't have to be perfect: all he has to be is a human being trying to do the right things. Those old notions of idealized characters aren't needed." At this point a less interesting discussion arose about the meaning attached to the 'shabby' clothes Knight and Parson were felt to be wearing. Then Glenn A. Steinberg reacted:
I'm a little surprised to see people trying to categorize some of Chaucer's characters as "good guys" as opposed to "bad guys" (since such categorizations seem to me to ignore the complexity of each of Chaucer's characters -- representations, as they each are, of fallen but redeemed humanity).
Norman D. Hinton responded: "I think Good Guys and Bad Guys is precisely what Canterbury Tales is about: the Good and Bad of England, all on the road to the New Jerusalem. (That this is now a reading of some age does not bother me at all.)" Julian Wasserman responded at once:
I'd expand your notion of what the Canterbury Tales are all about to say that they are (but not exclusively) about the problem of judging good and bad, especially the latter. Anyone can point out flaws. The problem is how do we react to human failure. (...) That to my mind makes the Parson's portrait an interpretative fulcrum in the General Prologue. His is a model of judgment. He has a set of principles that allow him to see and point out human flaws. At the same time, he seems to be able to avoid triumphalism and to have patience with sinners....Glenn A. Steinberg reacted in another way:
My point was that the good and the bad are not separable by person -- that is, each pilgrim on the pilgrimage has some good and some bad. We can't line the pilgrims up on left and right with the sheep on this side and the goats on that. Surely only God can do that. No single person on the pilgrimage is all good, nor is any single person all bad. (...)On October 1, Natalie Grinnell opened the debate even wider, in response to a message which expressed the basic theme of the debate in a new heading: "Good guys and bad" :
In some respects, the Knight, worthy character that he is, is worse off than the Friar and Summoner. The Knight doesn't have a clue that his perceptions are limited by his social class and his life experience. He thinks that all the world lives and thinks as he does. At least the Friar and the Summoner are aware that they are flawed human beings -- even if they haven't yet reached the point of wanting to become better. So, are the Friar and the Summoner bad, while the Knight is good?
The remarkable thing about Chaucer is that, as Julian Wasserman has pointed out, his pilgrims are not flat characters, easily slotted into overly broad catagories like "good" and "bad"--and I think Chaucer emphasizes this aspect of his characters. I find the Pardoner thoroughly dispicable, but I believe that he does tell a "moral tale." If God can turn his actions to good, that implies that the "good" characters may have "bad" or at least misguided impulses. [Like the Prioress, for example]Glenn A. Steinberg responded: "It seems to me that the point of Chaucer's frequent reiteration of the Pauline image of the wheat and the chaff is precisely to show that he doesn't intend to make judgments. He leaves that to us and to God. So, if he doesn't make judgments when he is the creator of these characters, should we be so forward as to make those judgments ourselves, or should we follow his tolerant and charitable example in not making judgments?"
A discussion then arose about the way the Knight tells a Romance and the Miller a fabliau, with the Miller being rightly resentful of the Knight's elitist attitude toward other social classes. After this, the debate split. One branch debated the relative value of the Knight's campaigns. Another discussed the relationship of Knight and Miller, soon turning it into a debate about the assumed intellectual capacities of high and low classes. Others looked harder at the Clerk and his Tale. Glenn A. Steinberg summed up much of this:
The interaction between Knight and Miller seems to me to suggest that the Canterbury Tales are not about lining up the good guys on one side and the bad on the other but about taking the wheat that everyone, high and low, has to offer and leaving the inevitable chaff that everyone, high and low, mixes in with the wheat. What better solution could anyone offer to the social ills of Chaucer's day -- a time of peasant revolts, a deposed king, imminent civil war, and church intrigues?Over the following days, out of the Knight-Miller contrast, there emerged a debate about just how 'worthy' the Knight was, with all that crusading, and whether the multiple narratorial uses of the word should be taken at face value. Brian Middleton generalized the question:
we shouldn't forget that Chaucer in the General Prologue also uses "worthy" of the Friar (twice), the Merchant, the Franklin, and the Wife. It's a very slippery, all-purpose term of praise in his lexicon, which makes it tricky to interpret the intention of a particular use.Brian Middleton replied: "I think we agree that "worthy" had a less specifically ethical connotation for Chaucer than it does for us. If it is the Knight's prowess, rather anything in his moral character, that makes him "worthy," then the use of this word is not going to help us much in deciding whether or not he is meant to be seen as an idealized figure."
Glen A. Steinberg wrote a huge summing-up reply, including:
The Knight has not given us the ideal representation of the world, because his tale is too heavy -- too serious, too noble, too tasteful. As humans, we can only take so much of that. So, the Miller's objections to the Knight's high seriousness reflect the limitations of that high seriousness. The Knight's values and tastes are almost inhuman. They are too "worthy." We can't take them but in small doses. They need to be balanced by the irreverence and rudeness of the Miller -- just as the aristocracy needed to be complemented by the lower classes in an organic body politic. This is the lesson that I would suggest Chaucer was trying to teach his Knight and his courtly audience.Laura F. Hodges then pointed to a reference in her own work: "In 'Costume Rhetoric in the Knight's Portrait: Chaucer's Every-Knight and His Bismotered Gypon,' _ChauR_ 29.3 (1995): 274-302, I define "worthy" as noteworthy, p. 280." Brian Middleton liked that:
I really liked Laura's gloss of "worthy" as equivalent to "noteworthy" (as opposed, for instance, to "praiseworthy," which I think is how most of us interpret the word at first encounter). It seems to me that the narrator resorts to "worthy" in the General Prologue to describe someone he finds impressive in some way--whether a good way or a bad way, is left up to the reader to determine.Laura Hodges came back on this:
It would be easier if Chaucer only had one definition for a given word--but it wouldn't be as much fun. It could be that "noteworthy" won't serve to define Chaucer's use of "worthy" every place it occurs.Finally, Alan Gaylord mentioned the discussion of 'worthy' in the Variorum edition of the General Prologue, where a useful distinction is made between "worth-external" and "worth- internal." Unfortunately, at this point the exchanges came to an end, lost in a debate about the "Nine Worthies."
So much for the Chaucer List debate. It is strange that all the participants in the debate seem to assume that 'worthy' is always a positive word. They appear not to see that Chaucer's use of 'worthy' invites the question, 'Worthy of what?' The answer may be 'Worthy of praise' or 'Worthy of note' but could equally be 'Worthy of blame' if not 'Worthy of condemnation'. The word immediately raises the question of 'just deserts', of reward but also of punishment. At the same time, no one picked up the way the Variorum edition's discussion of 'worthy' goes directly to the word 'worth' or pointed out that the indeterminate definition of 'worthy' derives at least in part from the different worth / value that different people attribute to the same thing.
If Chaucer plays with the word 'worthy' as he does in the General Prologue, it is surely at least in part because he wants his readers to start thinking about the standards which determine their evaluations of persons and actions, as well as of stories. On that evaluation depends every decision about what people deserve. Ultimate 'Judgement' may be a matter for God, leading as it does to Heaven or Hell, but questions of value are involved in all human choices and responses to everything that happens.
It is hardly necessary to point out that the 'story-telling contest' proposed by Harry Bailey is based on the idea that some stories are 'better' (more worthy of praise, more deserving of reward) than others, and that the Pilgrims (like readers of the text) presumably have very varied criteria for deciding what constitutes a 'good' story. He himself fails to distinguish between 'sentence' and 'solaas'. Yet without such a distinction, how can one decide who deserves the prize?
Now Chaucer's Pilgrims never get to discuss the exact definition or the relative worth of 'sentence' and 'solaas.' We never get near the moment when they should make their final evaluation and award the prize. By using the word 'worthy' as he does in the General Prologue, Chaucer seems to be inviting his readers to reflect on their own idea of the value of the ways different people live, while the Host's contest focusses mainly on the act of story-telling and thus on the relative value of different kinds of narrative. These two dimensions are not the same, of course, and we need to reflect on how we are to articulate them, and how Chaucer may have wished us to articulate them.
The pilgrims, not matter how fictional they may be, represent Chaucer's contemporaries and have the quality of real people in that they are not totally defined; the portraits are deliberately impressionistic, confusing in a sense, uncertain. By contrast the figures represented in the various tales are of a simpler kind, often recognizable 'types,' although always with a generous dose of humanity. The pilgrims are meant, after all, to be representative in some sense of Chaucer's original readers, in that they are not only the tellers but also the first hearers, with pilgrim Geoffrey, of the tales. The figures in the tales are more evidently fictional, literary constructs, engaged to act out a version of a story.
The generic variety of the tales is such that it seems certain Chaucer wanted us to reflect on the relative functions, limitations and merits of different kinds of narrative or written discourse. The story-telling contest itself makes us alert to a potential hierarchy, as we pass from thoughts about "good fellows" in the General Prologue portraits to questions of what makes a "good tale." Art leads on to Morality, to the question as to what might constitute a 'good person' and since the Gospel says that "Only God is Good", we arrive at Holiness.
In the summary of the online debate, we saw that there is critical support for the view that the Pilgrimage of the Canterbury Tales is less from Southwark to Canterbury (and back again) than from the Knight's Tale to the Parson's Tale, the opening to the closing pages of a book. It may be possible to go a little farther and recognize a closing group of tales, just as there is a quite clear opening group in the 1st Fragment.
The fragmentary nature of the Canterbury Tales makes any such attempt difficult but the manuscript evidence (apart from Hengwrt) probably allows us to group the Second Nun's Tale with the Canon's Yeoman's, and also the Manciple's Tale with the Parson's (Helen Cooper 384: "the manuscripts consistently connect them, and the geography of the pilgrimage supports the connection."). The Ellesmere and "some of the more authoritative manuscripts" (Cooper 357) place the first two directly before the second, as the closing tales. It would be possible to see a pattern in that, and Cooper goes on to point out that "the reference to Boughton-under-Blee (VIII, 556) suggests that the later placing (of VIII) in the sequence is correct--Boughton is only five miles from Canterbury..." If that is correct, we would have grounds for seeing the last 4 tales in the Ellesmere sequence as a unit deliberately placed at the conclusion of the work.
The Second Nun's Tale is the only work of true Hagiography in the Canterbury Tales. Several tales have heroic, suffering women as central characters: Custance, Griselda, and perhaps Virginia, but Cecilia is the only canonized saint and Chaucer can hardly be blamed if the 20th century is not very impressed by her historical credentials.
If we think of the other heroic women, we can see some differences. Custance is certainly a very lucky girl: her boats need no rudder or compass to bring her safely to port, but her adventures lead back to her husband, not to God in heaven. Griselda is a very unlucky girl, to be chosen by such a lout, but she compounds the problem, like many battered spouses, by believing that it's all her own fault anyway and that the best is to say nothing. During the Chaucer List debate, on October 1 John Dwyer wrote provocatively:
Grisilda is seen as a "saint;" however, in Catholic coda she would be condemned, not canonized. Spouses are responsible for the salvation of their partners' souls as well as for their children's physical and spiritual welfare. Grisilda's failure to assert courageous virtue in situations demanding it: perverting the object of worship from divine to human (giving the "fiat" Mary gave to God to the very human [demonic?] Walter), failing to protect her children from a murderer, failing to exercise her right to decline sexual relations that might produce a second child who might be murdered, failing to fulfill her obligations as Queen to be her subjects' model for virtue, failure in her role as spouse whose soul's salvation was in her hands, all these failures suggest that her allegorical function is contrapuntal to that of Constance. The claimed "virtues" of Grisilda, patience, humility, forbearance, and long-suffering, are counterfeit.
Virginia is apparently glad to die a virgin, but it is not made clear why; her death is murder by a (pagan) father pathologically obsessed with preserving his daughter's virginity, it is not christian martyrdom. Once she is dead, she is forgotten. Her tale ends, not with a tribute to her preserved virginity, but with loud warnings that 'crime does not pay' because the dishonest judge was killed by the mob.
In contrast the Second Nun's tale is a tale about a perfect person, universally celebrated throughout the centuries because she happily died after being the cause of the deaths of three other people, all of whom died equally willingly and happily as witnesses to their faith in a God who likes, it seems, to see his favourite servants massacred. As St Teresa of Avila once said to God: "If that's how you treat your friends, it's not surprising that you have so few of them." The ways of God must seem strange but the Nun sees no need to try to justify them to anyone, since Cecilia is a famous saint and suffering is what saints are supposed to be best at doing.
A saint, even one of dubious historicity, is a very particular kind of person. Of all the figures represented in the Canterbury Tales, it is Cecilia alone who properly and officially qualifies for the epithet 'holy' employed in the title of this paper. The cult of saints is big business in today's world of late classical and medieval studies, which is odd in so God-less an age. The vast majority of ancient saints were like Cecilia, Christians who died an awful, often lingering death at times of persecution. If they died quickly and painlessly, the accounts of their death written later always tended to rewrite what happened to bring in gruesome torments and endless agony, all borne gladly and without complaint. The worse the pain, the the more powerful the saint.
Peter Brown, who has written the classic study of early Hagiography, Cult of the Saints (1982), was stressing in a lecture he gave at the Leeds International Medieval Congress this summer that we should be careful of the way we read such tales. Following the very rational Augustine, we sometimes think that saints were held up to veneration as 'model christians', people who succeeded in living as we all ought to, as examples in effect. That leads to sermons about how we should 'imitate the saints,' ignoring the fact that saints, like Jesus, are strictly inimitable.
It ought to be obvious that Cecilia is in no sense an 'example' because no one could possibly imitate her. Few would even want to. The 'legend' makes it clear that God had already sent her a martyr's crown before her martyrdom, to which she was predestined in particularly clear terms. Peter Brown pointed out that to most Christians of the late Roman age, the martyr-saints were closer to the divinities previously worshipped in popular religion, than to ordinary human beings. They were essentially 'superhuman' and the way they died proved it.
Where the ordinary mortal is attached to the fleshly body, to sex, pleasures, human society, the saints calmly rose above all that in a welter of blood, tortures, prolonged agony of an intensity that no ordinary human could ever endure. They were celebrated for their ability to die happy to be leaving this world. Cecila sitting cool in her blazing bath, her head almost but not quite sliced off and talking calmly to those around her about practical steps for the future, while her blood poured out onto the sheets of the relic-hunters for three whole days, is closer to the ultimate philosopher, the immortal sage. She is absolutely 'not of this world'.
At the same time, the tale is not really a 'tale' at all. It has no dramatic suspense, no specific narratorial tone, no ambiguous readings. The style is extremely austere and faithfully reproduces the Latin text of which it is a translation. Likewise, the teller of the tale, the (Second) Nun, has no distinct personality, just as she has no General Prologue portrait, and no claim to authorship. Where her Prioress wallowed in exclamations, asides, invocations, sentimentality and anti-Semitism, the Nun allows the undiluted Truth of the Church to speak through her without erecting any distracting barriers of personal opinion and without intervening in her own voice. It is quite obvious that she believes that the competition is for the best tale, not for the best teller, and considers that the best tale will be a tale about the best person. Perfect humility dominates at every point.
Unfortunately, from a 'solaas' point of view it seems to most critics today to be a disaster, despite the popularity of videos and films full of gore, cruelty, sadism, torture, and sex. Her tale seems low in entertainment value. It certainly has little suspense. Yet Cecilia is the only person in the Canterbury Tales who is not Fortune's fool; she exemplifies the Boethian (and Christian) notion of Providence which alone makes sense of the loss of human happiness, of undeserved suffering, and sudden death. Everywhere else, Chaucer's Boethian material remains at the level of Fortune, the chance mutability of life, the 'whirligig of Time'. Cecilia knows before anything happens all that is going to happen, she sees it as a blessing, and not as 'outrageous fortune' or punishment for sin.
Cecilia is also the only person in the Canterbury Tales who has no problems in her marriage. She and her husband live in perfect harmony, once he has been baptized and seen the angel and the miraculous crowns of flowers. They also have no sexual problems since they each consent fully to live together in virginity. The Wife of Bath has already declared that she has not been called to live like that. She is not alone.
Helen Cooper (363 - 5) surveys the many ways in which the tale relates to and echoes themes and motifs found in other tales and concludes: "Such a range of reference suggests that the Second Nun's Tale is thematically central to the Tales." (365) She is particularly struck by the relationship between it and the Pardoner's Tale's anatomy of sin. It is indeed one sign of Chaucer's 'greatness' that there is such an endless and fruitful thematic and moral interplay between the different tales. Like in Shakespeare, the most interesting correspondances appear as we bring together a variety of tales: light and serious, high and low.
Just as there is a clear dynamic between the first three tales of the Canterbury Tales, Knight's, Miller's, Reeves, so too at the end. The Second Nun's tale is followed, in Ellesmere at least, by the almost equally unusual story of the Canon's Yeoman. He really tells two tales, one about his master and another about a particularly vicious canon he insists (much too firmly for us to believe him) is not his master. This strikes me as the most modern part of the Canterbury Tales, it might have been written as a script for one of the exposes in tonight's television news; we hear about the same kind of trickery every day. There is the cunning rogue with a smooth tongue and a seemingly fool-proof method for making endless money; the TV usually shows him sitting hunched before a policeman after his arrest. The Canon simply rides quickly out of sight, hoping to slip out of the country perhaps, while his former servant spills the beans. But there are also all the fools (one born every minute) that he has hoodwinked because their greed has blinded them to every notion of truth.
The Yeoman spits out the specialized vocabulary of alchemy he has learned, hating every syllable. In his eyes, all value is fiction and all words lies; people will believe anything because they want to believe it, a fool and his money are soon parted, and avarice is the root of all evil. The tale constitutes a fierce critique of the 'quick buck' values society pursues and of the corruption language undergoes at the hands of greed. What is striking is the way the Canon's Yeoman leaves the world of literature. As Cooper points out, there are no literary parallels; the whole section, the Yeoman's Prologue both before and after the Canon disappears, and the tale of the tricks, is entirely spoken as a report of 'real life' happening in the world of the Pilgrims, where you can find so many shady customers with offices "In the suburbes of a toun,... Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde, Whereas thise robbours and thise theves by kynde Holden hir pryvee fereful residence" (VIII 657 - 660). The sin of avarice that was exemplified in the Pardoner's tale is here brought alive in an even more immediate way.
The Manciple's Etiological myth about why the crow is black goes far beyond a pastiche of Ovid to challenge not only the Canterbury Tales but the entire enterprise known as literature (to say nothing of criticism). It continues the extreme skepticism about truth that marks the Canon's Yeoman's contribution, reduces the God of Poetry to a jealous, trigger-happy thug with no divine qualities at all, certainly no holiness or notion of Providence, who believes what any little bird tells him so long as it's bad news about a woman, and who then deprives the truth-telling bird of speech as a punishment. As Cooper says: "Everything about the god of poetry is a lie (...) Language is untruthful, or even if it is true it is dangerous: the Manciple's mother gives the logical conclusion, that one should avoid speech altogether (...)" (394). The 'sentences' attributed to the Manciple's 'dame' denouncing words takes up 50 lines, an awful lot of words, and contain the most skeptical approach to tale-telling possible. Indeed, the lines "My sone, be war and be noon auctor newe / Of tidynges, wher they ben false or trewe" (IX 359-60) seems to be the ultimate surrender. Even truth must be kept silent, if you want to enjoy a quiet life: not exactly what Cecilia exemplifies.
It is perhaps not by chance that the end of the Manciple's tale sends us back to the General Prologue portrait of the Parson, 'first he wrought and afterward he taught' (I 497). We are now better equipped to see that in life truly 'Deeds speak much louder than words' when it comes to distinguishing Good Guys and Bad. At the same time, the Second Nun's tale makes it perfectly plain that saints of the Cecilia kind and ordinary people have nothing in common. All we can do is wonder at her holiness, listen to her words and venerate her blood. The tale of Cecilia's living and dying serve as a message suggesting that the ultimate meaning of human existence can only be found beyond everything human, in complete abandonment and selflessness.
Looking back from this perspective, it becomes clearer just how many of the tales are about wanting something, about greed (also known as 'desire'). So many people find themselves victims of one kind or other, either their own or some one else's; deeds and words combine in subtle knots to snare the unwary, readers as well as characters. Old John lies there with his broken arm, hendy Nicolas cannot sit down, three rich old men follow one another gladly into their graves, happy to escape from the Wife's untrue words: 'Thou saiest. . .' Three young idiots lie dead with their pile of loot. One hungry fox slinks away from the widow's yard. No wonder Arcite would have looked down from heaven and laughed, if Chaucer had not stolen that from him to give it to Troilus. At the same time, each narrator is hungry for approval (not to mention a supper) and a lot of the tales show the unfortunate results of that, with distortions caused by eagerness to please taking precedence over simple truth. Even the quarrels between the different pilgrims, and their attempts to 'quite' one another's tales, show 'truth' being sacrificed to 'self'.
Only the Parson has the vision (and perhaps the holiness) to refuse the story-telling options completely in order to offer the only remaining solution so far as he is concerned: reflection, conversion of life, repentance and the hope of mercy. Words of perfect Christian orthodoxy. In response to which Chaucer tries sifting the wheat from the chaff in his own literary production, but can only produce the Retraction in which he ends up offering a kind of negative advertisement. He seems to be doing a Galileo: "They're true and good stories none the less, despite what you want me to say."
So what conclusioun can we draw? As I said at the beginning, the Canterbury Tales still have things to say to us and I would end by looking away from the Canterbury Tales to a remarkable book published recently: Jonathan Glover's Humanity. He argues that the 20th century has been less punctuated than characterised by atrocities because of rampant technology and the disappearance of an external moral force to guide people. Glover considers the major human disasters of the period, from the regimes of Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot. The two world wars, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, Rwanda and Yugoslavia receive painstaking autopsies, culminating in an appraisal of Nazi Germany, which, though it slaughtered fewer people than Stalin's Soviet Union, and proportionately fewer than PolPot's Khmer Rouge, was unique in its ruthless use of the instrument of government to enforce its evil.
"Where were the philosophers?" runs the refrain of his battle-cry.
Watching inactive and inadequate, like most of the rest of us, is
the depressingly recurrent reply. The darkness is not
unremitting; it is consciously entitled Humanity, and Glover is an optimist, albeit with grave concerns, who strives to highlight individual acts of kindness that transcend circumstance to offer hope for the future." (online comment, Amazon.com)
"Marrying abstract theories of moral philosophy with the way human psychology actually works when it creates torture, massacres or death camps, and acting on the conclusions, is a simple yet oddly unfamiliar idea. The religious idea that a universal moral law exists, and evil is a deviation from that law, is now assumed by few in western Europe. But the religious idea has still to be replaced with a coherent secular one." (The Guardian, October 13 1999)
Near the end of the book, Glover quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being . . . it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't.
The twentieth century is deeply wounded by a loss of belief in value. Ever since Nietzsche reduced everything to a struggle for power, wars have been fought with increasingly cruelty, brutal training methods have been designed to remove from troops every trace of compassion, and social relationships have been dehumanized in many parts of the world to ensure the lasting dominance of a ruling clique or party. Yet the Good endures, and hope, light in the midst of dark situations where courageous individuals refuse to surrender to the dictates of the more-than-Bad Guys. Apparently powerless witnesses to Truth have in many places overturned the seemingly immovable determinisms of history and made new beginnings of life possible for many.
In the light of this, a final thought about Chaucer comes. He shows us Good Guys, Bad Guys, Mixed-up Guys, and one Holy Martyr; but he does not really give us any vivid image of intense Evil. The world of the Canterbury Tales knows almost no wars; only once is the horror of war at all perceptible, in Thebes, where Theseus does as the Black Prince did at Poitiers in 1356 and kills everyone. Chaucer's approach to human life is essentially comic and innocent; ironically, only Cecilia's tormenting prefect comes close to the modern image of evil, because he is an administrator simply doing his job efficiently, indifferent to the individual, utterly deaf to the truth, and to the demands of justice. Holiness has no place in that prefect's book and it makes all the difference.
The Riverside Chaucer. Third Edition. General Editor: Larry D. Benson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1987.
Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989.
Ellis, Roger. Patterns of Religious Narrative in the Canterbury Tales. London / Sydney: Croom Helm. 1986.
Glover, Jonathan. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. London: Jonathan Cape. 1999.
September 1999 and October 1999 Archives of the Chaucer Discussion List,
available from http://listserv.linguistlist.org/archives/chaucer.html and
Discussion continues on Chaucer's use of the word 'worthy' in
the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. Similarly, there is little
consensus on the relative value to be attached to 'sentence' and 'solaas'
in determining what consitutes a 'good tale'. The Canterbury Tales challenge
the reader to reflect on value both in literature and in human morality.
The four closing tales in the order transmitted in the Ellesmere Manuscript
seem designed to stress the impossibility of living or expressing perfection.
The Second Nun's Tale about the martyrdom of St. Cecilia is followed by
the Canon's Yeoman's Tale about greed. The Manciple's Tale denouncing the
use of words leads into the Parson's Tale which tells no story but demands
conversion and repentance. The Christian holiness found in St Cecilia is
a radical challenge to all worldly values; she alone transcends the vagaries
of Fortune and exemplifies divine Providence. The Canterbury Tales serve
as a mirror to some of the ultimate questions about the confrontation between
good and evil in human life, in ways not unrelated to the questions posed
by contemporary world history.