Part VIII

ChaucerPortraitEllesmereMs

 

Last time, in looking at the progression of the Shipman’s Tale it became apparent that at one point it was meant to accompany the Man of Law’s Tale (indicated by the lost Shipman’s Prologue that still has remnants in certain manuscripts), but instead was shifted to the bottom. Not all of the manuscripts follow the same ordering as to when the Man of Law should tell his tale, and even less on who should follow him, however, I argued that the Man of Law needs to precede the Wife. Yet in this part I want to explore what actually happened to the Shipman’s Tale. It makes sense his prologue was abandoned because it was no longer useful as a linking device, and in the few places it did exist, it only served to cause confusion. The Tale, nevertheless, was not abandoned, implying that either Chaucer had already written it prior to creating it’s prologue and conceptualizing tale ordering, or he continue writing it with the idea of finding a place for it later. Regardless of why it was finished, it was placed within Fragment VII, one that I believed was reserved for those tales that were either struck from other fragments, or just did not fit anywhere else. Nonetheless there is another point, one that I did not initially see until I really got into the Shipman’s Tale, but very much exists. While I like to refer to Fragment VII as the “refuse” pile of leftover tales where connections to where the tales should have been can be made, there are distinct relations between them within the fragment despite their seeming disparities. In the end I hope to demonstrate a cohesive ordering.

I am going to first discuss each tale’s connections to the Tales as a whole before isolating them as a grouping (using the Ellesmere ordering).

The Shipman’s Tale has a story. Aside from the prologue to the tale, which was discussed last time, it is unclear of where it was intended to go after it was moved away from the Man of Law. However, some clues within the tale are telling of the original intent. These lines can be found at the beginning of the tale:

But wo is hym that payen moot for al
 The sely housbonde algate he moste paye
 He moot us clothe  and  he moot us arraye
Al for his owene worshipe richely
In which array we daunce iolily.
And if þt he noght may  per auenture
 Or ellis  list no swich dispence endure
But thynketh  it is wasted and ylost
Thanne moot another payen for oure cost
Or lene us gold and that is perilous (Ellesmere,  Hengwrt, Cambridge University MS, and Ad3).

 

Several other manuscripts omit the tale completely, but what immediately draws attention to these lines is found within the manuscripts that have only partial versions of the Shipman’s Tale, namely Corpus Chisti, and Harley4. In Corpus Christi the tale is abruptly stopped after line 14 (in which array we daunce iolily), and in Harely4 it is interrupted after line 10 (But wo is hym that payen moot for al). They are resumed at a later time – most probably to be edited and not leave unfinished tales – since it is difficult to believe that the scribes did not have the entirety or majority of the tale at their disposal since it is unlikely that only 10-15 lines were written on a single sheet to be transcribed. They stopped because they saw something the other scribes did not catch (or chose to ignore) – the second person pronouns used throughout this short section. The “us” used to describe wives was clearly meant to be said by a female character, however, only one female character would be at liberty to discuss being a wife, the Wife of Bath. Even though we do not have all of the tales, the General Prologue catalogs every character, depicting no other woman who would take on this task (a fact that has been well documented). The Wife’s Prologue and Tale were already completed, and so the tale was given to another character. Yet the decision as to which character it would be given was rather poorly made. Why would a Shipman be telling tales about wives, merchants, and monks? According to his description in the GP, his demeanor would come closer to that of the Miller and Reeve rather than harboring middle class concerns.

 

Since the Shipman’s Tale was originally left out of several manuscripts it was probably not widely circulated. However, of the ones that do include it in its entirety, especially the Ellesmere and Hengwrt, the scribe most likely noticed the disparity in language but chose not to discontinue it, rather putting it aside and moving it further down in the manuscript for another reason, the content. It may not be an appropriate tale for a Shipman, and it may well have been intended for a female story teller (which is at this point generally well accepted), but the content plays well with two other characters in the Tales, the Merchant and Monk.

 

The Merchant’s Tale is rather indicative of his inability to grasp reality. On the surface he tells a tale denouncing marriage, considering his own where he is married to a rather shrewish woman. However, once the story is dissected it becomes evident that the Merchant’s grasp of how others work is really at fault. Briefly, his tale is about January and his lovely wife May. While it appears January found an amazing wife, both young and beautiful, he is paranoid about her probability of infidelity, and rightfully so as she is unfaithful every chance she gets. To curtail her behavior he places her on a leash so he may never lose sight of her. Ironically, this is when he actually loses his sight, and relies more and more on the leash to gauge the whereabouts of his wife. Since he is blind he must rely on her to tell him what she is doing, even while on the leash, and to make matters more ridiculous, she finds a means of engaging in an affair even with these conditions. At one point, during her walk in the garden with her husband, her and her lover climb into a tree in order to be together. Of course this is completely unbelievable, and to further add to this, at this very moment, as May and her lover are in the middle of things, Apollo restores January’s sight. He looks up, and finds his wife in a most compromising position (nevermind that she is in a tree). Without missing a beat, May thanks the Gods for January’s sight, as she claims she had heard that if she were to engage in extramarital sex, in a tree, his sight would be restored. Thus, according to her she was doing it for January’s sake. January then thanks the Gods and thanks May for being such a good wife as to sacrifice herself for his benefit. Again, as with everything else in the Tales it is important to note what is not being said. Is January that naive? No. Just as May improvised on the spot, he played along. The alternative would be to acknowledge her infidelity, be shamed by it, and in the process shame her, which would mean he would have to renounce her as a wife, and he would have nothing left. Arguably he could use his power, influence and money to obtain another young and pretty wife just as he had obtained May. And chances are she will be just as unfaithful, so basically, why bother? He has what he has, she makes him happy (to whatever extent that may be), and the status quo is maintained. While the Merchant may believe he is telling a tale about a terrible wife and the woes of marriage, he is telling a tale with a moral more akin to a cross between the Wife’s Prologue and the Manciple’s Tale.

 

The Shipman’s Tale is a direct parallel, using the character of a naive merchant, blind to his wife’s indiscretions, and when faced with parts of them, immediately forgives her in order to restore the peace and maintain his honor; what is done cannot be undone, and the choice of how to cope with it is his own. While the merchant here does not discover his wife’s infidelity per se, he is privy to her dishonesty which she cannot maintain when blatantly called out for it. Just like May, she does not miss the opportunity not to conceal her actions, but make the best of them, and the merchant follows her lead.

 

The second commentary is made against the Monk who, from his description in the GP, is the kind of clergy member that is better associated with the upper class. To better understand why this was so common at the time it would be helpful to know how the three class system first developed in England; it was devised by the church (not in England), where the clergy still operated in ways remnant of  the Caesarian Clergy that was for the most part ruling Rome. High ranking church officials typically came from noble families, and continued to behave that way within their roles in the church. The lower ranking church officials while emulating nobility, were specifically imitating nobility found within their own upper ranks. When the three class system first began being used it was implied that the clergy, and not the nobility, were the first/highest estate. As the clergy became diluted with nobility and spirituality was on the decline, the estates became inverted to reflect the ways in which society really worked – instead of the nobility striving for piety and salvation (although they all wanted salvation), the clergy was working towards appearing more noble. Here the Monk who skips church to go hunting is not condemned for his actions because he is not alone in acting against what may be perceived appropriate to his station.

In the Shipman’s Tale the monk is not just clergy but combines the two classes, as he is Sir John the monk, a character flagrantly torn between the two houses of his existence which can be seen by his charitable disport towards those lower than him as well as his ease of functioning in the secular world of the merchant. While the pilgrim Monk was simply catering to his upper class pretensions, mimicking those who spend their days hunting and slumbering away, with his greatest stated vice being his love of food, in the Shipman’s Tale the monk/noble is not only practically participating in prostitution, but knowingly committing adultery as well. And if there is any doubt that that comparison should be made by the reader, when we get to the Monk’s Prologue, as the Host interrogates the Monk about his personal life, he inquires in what house he is ordained, beginning with “wher shal I calle yow my lorde dan Iohn / or dan Thomas, or elles dan Albons?” It is a simple and innocent enough question, only coincidentally, and fleetingly recalling Sir John the monk of the Shipman’s Tale. Yet the allusion is there. These two contextual points account for most of the distinct positions the Shipman’s Tale has had throughout different manuscripts (not even taking into account Bradshaw’s Shift and Furnivall’s amendment to it). If read as a comparison with the Merchant, its position before the Squire, and thus considerably closer, if not directly following the Merchant’s Tale makes sense (until other evidence is introduced as to why it could not go there, intruding upon another more solid ordering).

However, in light of the criticism on monks and the clergy in general, its current position within Fragment VII is justified. Further, just as we saw with the Miller and Reeve and then with the Friar and Summoner, the Monk will reply to the Shipman’s Tale, not with a ribald tale about shipmen, but with a compilation of short stories on morality in an attempt to preserve the faith in clergymen such as himself. Therefore fittingly, the Monk’s Tale will also be found within this fragment, (yet not directly) after the Shipman’s Tale, and perhaps drawing stylistically on the preceding Tale of Melibee, although I will be discussing this later. Like the Monk, the Prioresse belongs to the clergy, but her behavior is also indicative of aspirations for a higher class. To defend her own piety in light of what was believed about the church, she begins her prologue with praise towards the Virgin, and tells a tale that is a tribute to Mary. For those who analyze the Tales in accordance to a narrative arc, the Prioresse’s Tale should come even lower in the ordering, closer to the end. However, this tale is nothing more than a reiteration of popular beliefs, and an obvious rote recital. It is not entertaining (which will notably be the case for most of the religiously centered tales) or well written. It’s placement within Fragment VII was most likely due to the superficial outline of the us/them separation that will later be found in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, along with the fact that two other clergy members can be found within this fragment while the the Shipman’s Tale and the Tale of Melibee ostensibly deal with morality of sorts.

Chaucer the pilgrim, although acting as narrator, is also directed by the Host to tell a tale. In keeping with his self description from the GP, he is not well versed, his “wit is short, ye may wel understonde” (GP 745 Elesmere) and just as he “moot reherce as ny as evere he can/ everich a word, if it be in his charge,” (GP 732 Ellesmere) when he is bid to tell a tale, he can only retell “a ryme [he] lerned long agoon” (709 Sir Thopas-Pro Ellesmere). In other words, he is excellent at retelling what others have said without creating anything of his own (an amused reference towards Chaucer the author and the Tales themselves that are an artistically crafted amalgamation of previous works and ideas). If this is the case, then it would make sense for this tale to follow the Prioresse. The visual cue that the pearl in the Prioresse’s Tale elicits is then taken up in a retelling of Sir Thopas (topaz). However this tale is not so much concerned with piety as it is with a commentary on chivalry, taking the Knight’s Tale even further. While the Knight portrayed Arcite and Palamon as knights in less than a favorable light, Sir Thopas is not so much reprehensible as laughable where knighthood is reduced to a ridiculous lifelong quest for imaginary monsters, full of cliches and knightly stereotypes. Once this point is sufficiently made, before the dreadful tale can continue, the Host interrupts and bids Chaucer the pilgrim to tell another tale, which sets him on Melibee. The Tale of Melibee in structure is just as long-winded as Sir Thopas, and much like the Monk’s Tale that follows, it is a collection not of tales, but quotes.  If one were to combine bits and pieces of these three tales, the result would be highly reminiscent of the Parson’s Tale in Fragment X. As Thopas advanced the precious stone imagery, Melibee draws from the morality aspect of the Prioresse’s Tale. Yet here it is reversed – the Christians took revenge against the Jews who slaughtered the little boy in the Prioresse’s Tale, while in Melibee his wife, Prudence, advises against vengeance towards those who hurt his daughter, also a child. While many critics discuss how Melibee and Thopas speak to one another, and Melibee is nothing more than a whimsy response to Thopas, it can now be seen how both respond to the Piroresse in style (Thopas) and context (Melibee).

In a sense, the Prioresse-Thopas-Melibee trio can be regarded as a grouping within a grouping. They are very much tied to each other, and regardless of where the tales preceding and following it were originally meant to be, these three were inserted in a way that made the most sense (all things considering), fitting in with what may have simply been the Shipman-Monk-Nun’s Priest section. I am going to return to this shortly. The Monk  follows in the more widely accepted order, maintaining the style Melibee began (perhaps another good reason to have inserted the tales in here),which was a series of quotes, and creates his tale as a series of short stories that all center around the fall of the proud. Many consider this to be Chaucer’s worst tale, and while I am not sure I can make that strong of an assertion, it is certainly not his best. As he defends the reputation of monks that may have been tarnished during the Shipman’s Tale, the Monk’s stories make him appear no more moral than the Prioresse’s Tale made her.

To remedy the Monk’s morality tale, the Nun’s Priest tells his arguably much better tale, in which hubris is also punished. In it, Chauntecleer, the rooster, reminds the audiences of the distinction between nobility and regular classes, a theme briefly touched upon in the Shipman’s Tale where the merchant was honored to be in acquaintance with the monk who represented the clergy and nobility. As Chauntecleer parades around the farm blinded by his flawless image of self, he embodies human qualities commonplace within bestiary tales, and in doing so not only compares animals to humans, but also vice versa. Several critics have used this comparison to prompt a link between this and the Prioresse’s Tale, focusing on the us/them division. While the connection can be made, the Prioresse’s Tale is hardly one on morality, and actually condones vengeance and supremacy of one group over another – nothing of which is being implied in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale where it appears everyone is similarly at fault, with the idea that anyone can, if not careful, fall.

Now that each tale in Fragment VII has more ore less been identified in context, I want to suggest a rearrangement that falls in line with no extant manuscript; each of the manuscripts contains a piece of the puzzle, but none are completely correct. It appears (perhaps only to me), that the six tales within this fragment can be neatly divided in threes: Shipman-Monk-Nun’s Priest and Prioresse-Thopas-Melibee. I believe the latter of this threesome was inserted within the fragment for lack of a better place to put it, and based on cursory evidence made to fit. While there are indeed similarities between all six of these, the same case can be made between all of the tales; after all Chaucer did write them. The evidence for the Shipman-Monk connection is strong enough to envision one directly following the other, and as the Monk’s Tale is a retort to the Shipman, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a response to the Monk, with all three “quyting” the one before. Regarding them in this way allows for a smoother flow of ideas, uninterrupted with another set of tales that have different concerns. Also, it appears that the majority of the connections which may be made between these two threesomes come in during the latter tales, leading to my next proposal that in dividing these six tales, the Prioresse-Thopas-Melibee group not only become their own fragment, but get moved up following Fragment V, between the Franklin and the Physician.

The first argument in this regard exists due to the Shipman’s endlink in which the Host addresses the Shipman and Prioresse, thanking the first for his story while asking the latter to tell her tale. It has already been determined that the Shipman’s Tale is unreliable at best. The Shipman’s Prologue, missing from most manuscripts, attempted to justify an obviously incorrect ordering, and the tale itself is evidenced to have been written for a different character, so to suddenly attribute authority to the Shipman’s Epilogue would seem extraordinary. Further, the Prioresse’s Prologue has a different beginning throughout the different manuscripts, meaning it was most likely a standalone tale, much like the Physician’s, unattached with links to anything else, and the only indication of its preceding Sir Thopas is the Prologue to the Sir Thopas Tale which tellingly does not vary between manuscripts.

As I discussed in a previous part of this project, the Franklin’s Tale is temporally placed as the end of the pilgrim’s day, and the Franklin asks a question for them to ponder while having dinner, or retiring to their beds. The question being: who was the most dignified/gracious of the characters in his tale? The underlying meaning of this question centers around concepts of spiritual nobility and truth/justice, the same concept the Prioresse will attempt to discuss in her tale (despite that she does not fully succeed and we do not see the implications of justice/righteousness played out until Melibee which begins to touch upon the discussion that others will solidify).

Returning to the idea of time, having the Prioresse follow the Franklin places her as the first story teller of the day, and thus her immediate recital of praise for Mary would be the equivalent of matins, as opposed to the Physician’s Tale that has no introduction, nor reason for placement (despite Skeat’s argument to the contrary), or the Pardoner’s statement that he will “eten of a cake” being taken to mean he is having breakfast even though cakes were more often eaten later in the day. Yet, once Melibee opens the conversation on vengeance, revenge, and forgiveness, the Physician’s Tale takes it up with the story of Virginius and Virginia (and while Shipley and Koch believed these two tales were closely related, I am removing the Man of Law from this equation and not moving these tales near Fragment II, an argument solely based on Furnivall’s observance that the Man of Law asserts to “speke in prose,” as does Melibee). In keeping with the theme of sin, the Pardoner tells his tale in which money is the root of all evil. While several manuscripts do place the Shipman after the Pardoner, there have been arguments against the placement, as the Shipman’s Tale is often thought of as too lighthearted. His tone may be less dire than the Physician’s or Pardoner’s, but his subject is not. If the Pardoner preaches against falling prey to the desire for money, the Shipman illustrates the concept. Simultaneously he harasses the Monk and begins another chain of reactions within the Tales.

This is my proposed tale ordering thus far:

Fragments 1-5 (as depicted in Ellesmere and most other authoritative manuscripts) ending with the Franklin’s Tale

Fragment VII(second trio) – Prioresse-Thopas-Melibee

Fragment VI- Physician-Pardoner

Fragment VII(first trio) – Shipman-Monk-Nun’s Priest

Yet my rearrangement of the fragments does not effect the remaining three or the previous five fragments very much. However, next time, as I look at the Manciple’s Tale, some orders may shift since I feel Fragment IX is best suited elsewhere, contingent upon the Manciple’s Prologue.

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