1992-03-22: The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales (1400)

by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)
translated by Neville Coghill (1899-1980)

The prologue introduces these members of the company; the titles of the tales sometimes refer to them differently, as given in parentheses; some are called by name, as given in brackets.  I’m not sure about the Nun’s Priest.  Chaucer provided no tale for those with an asterisk.

  • Knight
  • Squire, son of Knight
  • *Yeoman, servant to Knight
  • Nun (Prioress)
  • Nun, chaplain to Prioress (Second Nun)
  • Priest (3?) (Nun’s Priest) [John?]
  • Monk, an Abbot
  • Friar, a Limiter
  • Merchant
  • Oxford Cleric (Clerk)
  • Serjeant at the Law (Man of Law)
  • Franklin
  • *Haberdasher
  • *Dyer
  • *Carpenter
  • *Weaver
  • *Carpet-maker
  • Cook, with the guild fraternity [Roger Hodge of Ware]
  • Shipman (Skipper)
  • Doctor
  • Woman from Bath (Wife of Bath)
  • Parson
  • *Plowman, brother of Parson
  • Reeve [Oswald]
  • Miller [Robin]
  • Manciple
  • Pardoner
  • Summoner
  • Narrator
  • *Host of The Tabard Inn [Harry Bailey]

Near the end, the company is joined by a

  • *Canon (who departs) and his
  • Yeoman

Relations between the members of the company can be described as neutral (0), weak (1), moderate (2) or strong (3), and negative (-) or positive (+).  Some of these exist at the beginning of the journey, because of prior acquaintance or by occupations and stereotype.  Others develop as a result of their interactions along the way.

All have a weakly positive (+1) relation to the host, based on a promise freely made.

The web of relations among the company might be displayed graphically; for example, we might imagine a bird’s-eye view of the group riding on the road, and who is near to whom.  Let the distance between two pilgrims relate to the strength of the relation.  Each positive relation should attract the pair; negative should repel.  There should be a minimum distance for the strongest attraction.  Repulsion should separate a pair, but weaken with distance.

The initial strength of relations, taking all except those with the Host to be symmetric, seems to be:

Knight: Squire +3, Yeoman +3

Prioress: Second Nun +3, Nun’s priest +3, Monk +2,    Limiter +2, Parson +2

Second Nun: Nun’s priest +3, Monk +2, Limiter +2, Parson +2

Nun’s Priest: Monk +2, Limiter +2, Parson +2

Monk: Limiter +2, Parson +2

Friar: Parson +2

Haberdasher: Dyer +3, Carpenter +3, Weaver +3,        Carpet-maker +3, Cook +2

Dyer: Carpenter +3, Weaver +3, Carpet-maker +3, Cook +2

Carpenter: Weaver +3, Carpet-maker +3, Cook +2

Weaver: Carpet-maker +3, Cook +2

Carpet-maker: Cook +2

Parson: Plowman +3

Pardoner: Summoner +3

Host: All (except Canon’s Yeoman?) +2

All: Host +1

Canon’s Yeoman: ?

The relations change, or are elaborated, during the journey, as revealed by the comments by the pilgrims and host between tales, both on the content of the tales themselves and on the other pilgrims.

The Tales

The Knight tells a tale of the folly of the ancient knights, Palamon and Arcite of Thebes, both in love with Emily, who does not even know of their existence, and when she learns of it, wants neither.  He depicts the temples of Venus, Mars and Diana, dwelling on the misery they have brought to humankind; and the striving of each god to favor one of the three.  In the end the old grandfather of the gods, Saturn, contrives a “compromise”.  Arcite wins Emily’s hand, but dies; Palamon is awarded her in return for alliance.  Emily’s wishes are disregarded.  The pilgrims approve the story.

By all appearance, the company’s relation to the Knight is increased from 1 to 1.5.

The Host calls upon the Monk, but the Miller, drunk, will have his turn.  This is an unabashed tale of lechery, in reaction to the Knight’s tale of abstract and chivalrous love.  An old carpenter is cuckolded by his young wife and a student boarder.  The Reeve, an old carpenter himself, takes umbrage at the inferred insult, even at the first line of the story; he and the Miller argue.  Their relations to one another decline to -1.

The Reeve’s tale is of a thieving miller, who tries to cheat a pair of students, and suffers their revenge.  This tale further damages relations between the Miller and Reeve, to  -1.5.

The Cook and Host exchange some words in a deprecating but jesting tone, which might lower their relation by .2; his tale is cut short, after an opening promising another bawdy romp.

The Man of Law mentions Chaucer’s works in sufficient detail to enhance their relation to, say, 1.5.  His tale is of sorrow and faith, and unjust injury suffered without bitterness.  Its high tone balances the lower tone of the previous three.

The Host calls again upon the Monk, but warns the company of preaching on the way.  The Shipman will have none of that, and takes his turn.  His tale concerns a Monk who dallies with his best friend’s wife, and how she pays twice for her spending money.

The host warns all to beware of monks, reducing their relation by .5, and then asks the Prioress to tell her tale.  This is a miracle tale, extolling the virtue of Mary, and again balances the low tone of the Skipper’s tale.

The Host, after everyone ponders the Prioress’ tale, asks Chaucer to bring out a jolly tale.  He completes the first fit of The Tale of Sir Topaz, and starts the second, when the Host interrupts his “frowsty story!  The devil take such rhymes!  They’re purgatory!  That must be what’s called doggerel-rhyme,” said he.  Chaucer is given a second chance, with the Tale of Melibee and Prudence, which is only summarized in this translation.  It seems safe to assume that the Narrator’s efforts are not likely to win the prize, though Prudence’s patience with Melibee well pleases the Host, whose relation to Chaucer must increase to 1.5.

The Host turns once again to the Monk, who finally gets his chance.  The Host extolls the Monk’s manliness and regrets the world’s loss that he is sworn celibate.  The irony of this worldly monk’s doubted celibacy seems to affect the kind of tale he chooses.  The Monk recounts a series of tragedies, whose theme is the fall of heroes by women, pride, envy, greed, wickedness.  The Monk claims to have a hundred tragedies, but the Knight stops him after seventeen, saying, “a little grief will do for most of us.”

The Host agrees the Monk is boring them all, and turns to a priest riding with the Nun.  He echoes the theme of tragedy following pride or wickedness, but in a light fable of Chanticleer and a fox.  The Host praises the tale, and turns to the Physician.

The Physician’s tale involves a beautiful maid, who suffers death because of the lust her beauty arouses.  Though the villain pays, and the girl’s father triumphs, the Host points out, “Alas, her beauty cost her all too dear.”  The idea recurs that a woman can appear too good for her own, or anyone else’s, good.

The Host calls on the Pardoner to tell a merry tale, but the gentlefolk of the party protest against a dirty story, requesting something with a moral.  His prologue very openly explains how he preaches for greed, making his good living at the expense of the poor people’s guilt for their sins, and how his is greater than theirs.  Then he tells one of the stories he uses in his preaching.  After the preaching he invites the pilgrims to buy a pardon or relic, but the Host insults him.  Their relation must go down by .5, but the Knight has them kiss and make up.

The Wife of Bath’s prologue describes her experience of marriage to five men, three good (meaning rich) and two bad.  She says her experience “goes to show that marriage is a misery and a woe.”  The Friar and Pardoner exchange words before she starts her tale, and threaten each other with derogatory tales; their relations decline to -1.

She tells a tale from King Arthur’s day, of a knight who forced himself on a maiden and was condemned.  But the Queen intervened and offered the knight reprieve if he could answer within a year and a day the question, “What is the thing that women most desire?”  Of all the tales so far, this is the best, and yet without the preceding tales to set it off, I think a great deal would be lost.

The Friar offers his praise and then a tale about a summoner, and his bargain with Satan.  After the tale, the Summoner accuses the Friar as a liar, and describes the special place in Hell for friars, then starts his tale.  The effect on their relation should be about -2.

The Clerk then tells a tale of a Marquis who weds a commoner, and tests her devotion cruelly.  The tale is compared to God’s test of our patience in adversity.  The tale contrasts a meek and obedient wife with the Wife of Bath, who must dominate her husbands.  Chaucer follows the tale with an ironic warning that wifes should not emulate Griselda, but stand up to their husbands and bring them to task for their sins, real or imagined.

The Merchant then complains of the sorry state of his marriage (of two months) to a shrew, and the Host encourages him to tell a tale of the matter.  He obliges with a tale of infidelity by May toward January, and how women came to have a ready tongue, when accused by their men.  The Host approves the tale, and is reminded of his own wife’s faults, but catches himself before he says too much, for fear that it will get back to her.  He is clearly sympathetic to the Merchant, and their relation strengthens by .5.

The Squire then begins a long tale, containing a fable of male infidelity.  When the fable is ended, and as he goes on, he is cut short by the Franklin and Host with scant praise, and the Franklin begins his tale.

This tale extolls the fidelity of Dorigen to her husband, her folly in making a promise to a love-lorn squire, his determination to have her love, her decision to suffer death rather than dishonor her marriage vow, her husband’s will to allow her to keep her promise rather than dishonor herself or die, and the squire’s nobility in releasing her from her promise in the face of their nobility.  The tale has no comment, and so stands by itself in contrast to the previous tales.

The Second Nun’s tale is a saint’s tale of St. Cecilia and her husband, martyrs.  It echoes the tone of the Franklin’s tale, but she is wed to Christ.

The Canon and his Yeoman suddenly overtake the party, and when the Yeoman tells a bit about their activities, the Canon rides off in a huff.  The Yeoman then tells a tale of a similar Canon, a con-man alchemist, gulling the greedy into financing the transmutation of elements.  The tale does not relate to the other tales, except as a cautionary tale of greed.

The Manciple’s tale is of infidelity of a wife, and the value of holding one’s tongue.  Even the cuckolded husband would have been better off in this tale, not to have known.

The Parson’s tale is a sermon on the seven deadly sins, and is only summarized in this translation.

The tales taken as a sequence show a distinct trend in the portrayal of relations between men and women.  From the Knight’s tale of chivalric love, the low bawdy tales and others up to the Monk’s tragedies they portray a sexually amoral society, which acknowledges the (reality of) infidelity of wives as well as husbands.  The Monk’s and Nun’s Priest’s tales are a sort of pause for reflection, not relating directly to the main theme, although Chanticleer’s Pertelote is shrewish enough to stand in for this aspect of marriage.

The Physician’s tale starts the counter-theme of the later tales, turning from the men’s view of women as objects to the more human view of a father toward his daughter.  The Pardoner’s blatant hypocrisy is followed by the Wife of Bath’s blatant honesty, promoting the first woman’s view of marriage, which vehemently promotes her dominance.  The Friar and Summoner lighten the tone with their tit-for-tat tales.  The Clerk’s tale and Chaucer’s comments confirm the need for a wife to stand up for herself to her husband, and promote a more equitable approach to marriage.  The Merchant’s tale shows the effect of imbalance in the other direction, with the husband suffering the shrew.  The Squire’s fable of a husband’s infidelity shows the wife’s suffering.  The Franklin’s tale of a noble marriage, even affecting the man who would disrupt it, appears as a high, if idealized, standard.  The Second Nun’s tale repeats the tone, but even more idealized.  The Manciple’s tale rounds out the tales connected to the main theme, noting the consequences of learning of a spouse’s infidelity, and taking it too seriously.

The main theme, taken from beginning to end, shows a graduated set of attitudes toward marriage, from the primitive/chivalrous to the more realistic/forgiving.  In its day, the views may have served to instruct.  Today, they are less relevant for being based on different assumptions (for the most part) than in Chaucer’s day.  Nonetheless, the tales are well told, and the interactions of the characters are even more interesting than the tales themselves.  It might be interesting to read an extract of just the pilgrims, leaving out the tales.

Visualization of Relationships

The whole web might be summarized with an energy-analog.  In displaying the pilgrims, positions can be assigned in a way that results in a minimum energy for the group.  The energy between two pilgrims might be expressed as

Eij = K/(dij – dmin) – Sij/dij

where Eij is the energy between members i and j, Sij is the strength of their relationship (between -3 and +3), dij is the distance between them, and dmin is a minimum distance, to prevent everyone from sitting on top of one another.

The distances can be adjusted according to a relaxation method, as follows.  Initially assign each member a position on a circle or sphere, with a radius much greater than dmin, and compute each person’s energy.  For each person in turn, move a small distance in a random direction (say 5% of the largest distance), and recompute that person’s energy.  If it is smaller, leave him at the new position; otherwise return to the prior position.  Stop when no more movement takes place.

This procedure is susceptible to converging on a local minimum, missing a lower global minimum (and also to endless looping).  It might be worthwhile to try the procedure (at least partway to convergence) a few times, choosing the average positions, or the lowest energy arrangement, then completing the convergence from that point.

An alternative method might be, moving each pilgrim a distance toward or away from the others, based on the strength of the relation between them:

(dolist (p1 pilgrims)

(dolist (p2 pilgrims)

(let ((strength (relate p1 p2)))

(unless (null strength) ; no relation

(dotimes (d number-of-dimensions)

(let ((dist (- (aref p2 d) (aref p1 d))))

(setf (aref p1 d)

(- (aref p1 d)

(* strength (- dist min-dist))))))))))

Loop over this procedure until a suitable convergence occurs.


I never actually attempted to implement the visualization described here. I still think something like it might be interesting.

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