Tag Archives: canterbury tales

The Parson in Parts


The Parson’s Tale, the last of the tales in the Canterbury Tales is also one of the longest, and perhaps driest. Its difficulty is found within its form – it is essentially a treatise on morality broken into various smaller sections that are laborious to keep track of. I have found many students give up reading only a few small segments into the tale, out of utter frustration. Here is a breakdown of the tale that I hope makes it easier to follow along.

Part I

The Parson defines penitence – perfect penitence comes in three parts.

1. Contrition

Contrition is loathing of sin, with the goal of amendment, leading to eventual repentance.

There are two forms of contrition:

~~Contrition out of love for God

~~Contrition out of fear of being punished

Both of these forms require self acknowledgement. You cannot feel sadness for having sinned until you admit it. Nor can you fix the problem until you come to terms with it.

Enumeration Process Begins:

“The causes that oghte moeve a man to Contricion been six.”

~1. Remembering your sins – but not so in a boastful manner – always with sorrow

~2. Understanding that repentance frees the soul and thus wishing to be free

~3. Yes, repentance solely out of fear for punishment is not ideal, but how can we ignore that we will eventually be judged? So he describes the darkness of Hell.

There are three things that stand out most in Hell for which you will be punished: Glory, Pleasure, Riches

For Glory/Honor, in Hell there will be shame and confusion

For Pleasure (which comes from the five sense), there will be pain

For Riches there will be poverty in four parts: actual riches will be removed, lack of food, lack of clothes, solitude

~4. Remembering the good that could have been if you had not sinned – once you sin, if you do not repent all the goodness you had before will be lost

~5. Remembering that Christ died for your sins will drive you towards contrition because you do not wish his death to have been for nothing.

~6. The last thing that should move man towards Contrition is hope, specifically for three things:

~~to repent and actually be forgiven

~~the grace to live well and sin free once forgiveness is granted

~~to be admitted into Heaven

Next the Parson notes two types of sins for which Contrition is needed, even though they are not actual deeds

~1. Intention – sinful thought is as bad as actual sinning

~2. Speech – evil speech, even if never acted upon, is as bad as actual sinning

The last section in the part on Contrition reminds us that Contrition, in order to be effective, must lead to Confession, otherwise it is for nothing – similarly Confession without Contrition is just as useless.

2. Confession

Confession comes from true Contrition, both of which, due to our inherited original sin, are absolutely necessary for everyone.

For example, when temptation presents itself, even if we only consider it briefly before turning it down, it is still a sin. Further, if we resist temptation, but then are delighted by our willpower, this is pride, and also a sin.

There are two types of sins: venial and deadly

Venial – when you don’t love God enough, because you love something else more

Deadly – when you love something else enough to go against God

The rest of this section will be an outline of the seven deadly sins.

~1. Pride

Pride is the root of all sins. He describes all the ways in which pride manifests itself, including how we flaunt our worldly possessions (where he goes on a tirade against inappropriate and highly ornate clothing for ourselves and even our horses to the decadence of fine homes)

~~Remedy against Pride

~Humility in heart, mouth, and deeds

~~~in heart:

*understand that you are nothing outside of what God believes you are

*have no hatred towards others

*be considered as nothing by others, and care not

*experience humility and care not for the humiliation

~~~in mouth:

*do not speak too much

*do not brag

*use speech to praise good virtue

*speak only goodness, and never lie

~~~through deeds:

*remember to put others before you

*do not strive for worldly success

*when given advice, such as by priests or preachers, take it

*do not try to lead, but do what you are told by those morally superior

~2. Envy

Envy is malice and has two forms:

~~Hardness of Heart: meaning you do not care that you are committing a sin

~~Questioning Truth: believing there is more than one truth (as pertaining to the truth of God)

One of the differentiating traits of Envy is that it takes no delight in itself. When you practice gluttony/sloth/etc. you at least enjoy yourself while sinning. While practicing Envy you are in constant anguish as you covet what others have.

What is worse than coveting what others have, is wishing them harm for having it. He enumerates the ways in which this could be done:


~~partaking in backhanded compliments

~~changing what someone good has said into gossip

~~if someone has done something good, refusing to acknowledge it

~~hearing a good man being praised for his goodness, and instead of participating in the praise stating that someone else is even better

~~participating in gossip

~Complaining against what God has given you, and consequently comparing yourself with another

The result of envy is bitterness of heart – you are causing yourself grief

~~Remedy for Envy

Love of God and then love of others – you will be less inclined to envy someone you love

~3. Anger

Anger stems from the other sins. The worst part of experiencing anger is wanting to cause harm to someone else. This is not to be confused with good anger (righteousness) in which you are angry against wickedness. However, you should not be angry towards a person for being wicked, but towards wickedness itself.

~Wicked anger (as opposed to righteousness) comes in two forms:

*Brief anger – something upsets you and you react

*Premeditated anger which is far worse

~The three off-shoots of anger:

*hate that is anger which has festered

*breaking ties through fighting


Anger can also lead to manslaughter – in this section there is an outline of the different types of manslaughter that can essentially be divided between physical manslaughter, and spiritual manslaughter.

The next section is dedicated to contraception, abortion and infanticide – all are considered the same

We often make excuses for our anger, followed by a list of excuses men make

Anger leads to swearing. There are only three ways in which swearing is appropriate:

~in truth: taking an oath to self

~in truth: taking a lawful oath

~in righteousness: swearing to God

The last type of swearing is concerned with conjuring spirits. It must not be done unless it is done for an exorcism.

Anger leads to lying, followed by an outline of lies: to self, to others, through flattery

~~Remedy for Anger

Humility and patience

Humility must be practiced just as it was for the remedy to Pride

Patience has four ways of being practiced:

*for mean words spoken to you

*for harm towards your possessions

*for harm/violence to your body

*if given too much work (have patience, do not complain)

~4. Sloth

The worst about sloth is that it makes you slow, and therefore negligent when doing the work of Christ

Sloth is the enemy of the innocent man who needs to do Christ’s labor, enemy of the sinful man who needs to do labor for atonement, and enemy to the man who has grace and needs to do penitent labor

Sloth comes from despair/loss of hope – you believe you have sinned so much you cannot repent, and thus become lazy in performing good works.

Idleness is even worse than laziness.

~~Remedy for Sloth

Strength – which comes from the love of God

~5. Avarice

Greed comes from love of worldly things, and thus less love for God

Difference between greed and avarice:

*Greed – you want more

*Avarice – you want to keep what you already have

Both of these concepts are tied to excess, and also to idolatry (love of things)

The next section is dedicated to spiritual property and the buying/selling of relics

~~Remedy for Avarice

Mercy and pity, which roughly translate to charity (but do not perform charity as a means of gaining glory)

~6. Gluttony

Gluttony is to eat and drink to excess

The five types of gluttony:

~common drunkenness

~drunkenness to forget – as opposed to drunkenness because you like drinking


~overeating for its own sake – as opposed to overeating because the food is too good to stop

~drinking beyond the point of mere drunkenness

The five ways of practicing  gluttony:

~to eat before meal time

~eating delicacies that do not serve for nutrition

~eating/drinking beyond moderation


~eating too fast

~~Remedy for Gluttony


~7. Lust /Lechery

Lust is an extension of gluttony – it is to want excess of physical pleasure

Different types of Lust/Lechery:

~Lechery is adultery – not only sinful in deed, but in desire for deed as well

~Any sexual relations between a man and woman who are not married (to each other)

~taking a virgin’s virginity (who is not your wife)

~a woman cheating on her husband is the vilest form – she is property and through lechery is also committing theft, giving the husband’s property to another man (should pregnancy occur, that is also theft)

~priests who break their vows of chastity

~all pleasure derived from physical activity



Lechery, on the scale of sins, is somewhere between theft and manslaughter

~~Remedy for Lust/Lechery


Then follows a section on being a good wife and then widow

This concludes the Seven Deadly Sins, and Part I of the Parson’s Tale

Part II

The first part was Contrition, or acknowledgement of sin. The second part is verbal Confession (continued from Part I).

2. Confession (continued)

When confessing a sin, everything about it must be confessed (who, what, why, when, where, how)

There are four conditions for confession:

~It must be done with shame – do not remember your sins fondly

~It must be done with humility

~You must weep for your sins

~Your confession should not be done in secret

Confession must be done as soon as the sin occurs

Confess to the same person each time so that he may know all of your sins

Do not lie during confession – makes it all pointless

Part III

Once Contrition and Confession occur, you must do your penance for sins committed.

3. Penance

Four ways of performing Penance:

~The most effective way of performing penance is through charity, not just of goods, but of time (volunteer)



~Physical strife (hair shirt, mutilation, etc.)

The four things which disturb Penance:

~Dread – being afraid of the suffering caused by penance

~Feeling shame for having to do Penance

~Hope for future (vs. immediate) repentance

~Despair from feeling that no matter how much penance you do, it will not be enough (therefore you give up and do none)

In conclusion to the Parson’s Tale he ends with the statement that true penitence, when followed through the three stages on a regular basis is the road to salvation.


Part IX


At the end of the last section of this project I proposed certain changes to tale ordering in which I split up Fragment VII into two parts, dividing the six tales into separate groupings to better accommodate their internal contexts and physical clues within various manuscripts. I will briefly skip Fragment VIII, and look at Fragment IX containing the Manciple’s Prologue and Tale instead.

The first clue to deciphering the Manciple’s order within the Tales is actually found in the Parson’s Prologue of Fragment X. In Hengwrt, at the beginning of the Parson’s Prologue where it is announced that “By that the Mauciple hadde his tale al ended,” the word “Mauciple” was written over an erasure. Further, the ink used for the Manciple’s Tale was from a different batch altogether, as it yellowed differently from the ink in Fragment X. In other words, it was added much later.  The main argument against claiming the Manciple’s Tale is out of place, however, has to do with the ink type of the actual word “Manciple” as it appears in the Parson’s Prologue; while it was written over erasure, the ink did not yellow in the same way as the tale, leading many to believe that it was not an inserted afterthought but rather originally planned. This is very possible, but my opinion is that any original planning was on the part of the scribe, as the movement of the Manciple’s Tale will be traced. First, the Parson’s Prologue and Tale are incredibly long making it not unlikely, or unreasonable, that he would have to go back and mix more ink for another tale. Then it must be noted that the Manciple’s piece is written in the same ink as the Nun Priest’s Tale.

Before any more connections can be made, it is important to focus on the erased word. Why is there an erased word with “Mauciple” written over? There was another tale that needed to go before the Parson’s Prologue, but the Hengwrt scribe did not have it. He edited out the other teller’s name and put in “Mauciple,” realizing that the Manciple from earlier would now be more fitting. To better understand this argument, the Hengrwrt needs to be taken into consideration. The Manciple’s Prologue and Tale were written already, halfway through the manuscript. However, just as the scribe found several other editorial mistakes he corrected when later compiling the Ellesmere, here, too, he makes a note for moving the Manciple’s Tale down, and consequently the previous tales along with it (Fragment VII and Fragment VIII that have not yet been discussed). The reasoning for this is rather simple: references to location. This is not to give too much credence to the Bradshaw Shift, but it does appear that throughout Fragments VIII and IX the pilgrims are drawing much more closer to Canterbury than they had yet been, meaning these two fragments needed to be near the end rather than the middle. In the Manciple’s Prologue the pilgrims come to “a litel town / which y clepid is Bobbe upanddown / under the Blee” while in the Canon Yeoman’s Prologue they are at “Boghtou under Blee.” I am intentionally ignoring any arguments made in favor of certain tales being reserved for a return trip since so little evidence exists that most of those arguments are deepest rooted within the writers’ ambitions. However, what I would like to propose is switching Fragments VIII and IX. While the scribe was correct in moving these fragments down the ordering sequence and keeping them together, he reversed their order.

It appears that after the scribe realized he was at the end and that the Manciple’s Tale should have been inserted closer to the Parson’s Tale and subsequent Retraction, he moved the Manciple’s Tale and Fragment VII down because they had originally been written in one continuous strip (recall the inks used to complete the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Manciple’s Prologue were the same). Yet what becomes immediately noticeable when looking from the Hengwrt to the Ellesmere is the addition of several tales. At some point in between creating these two manuscripts more tales became available, and the scribe used his knowledge of the tales already in his possession to find the best place for the new ones. Some were quite obvious while others were only superficially so. One such late tale is the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale that is not included in earlier manuscripts, and no mention of the Canon or Yeoman is made in the General Prologue, meaning that the characters were an afterthought, or appropriated from a different project Chaucer may have been working on, deciding they would be better suited in the Tales (not the first time he had done this).

Once the Second Nun’s  and Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologues and tales came to light, due to the geographical reference in the latter’s tale, the entire fragment was linked with the Manciple’s fragment. Just like those who discredit Bradshaw for forming entire chains of tales according to a few sparse geographical references that could have easily been edited out later, here the connection does not rely solely on these place names, nor does my argument for reversing the fragments, but rather treats them as markers for further analysis. When the scribe decided that Fragment VIII should precede Fragment IX, it was not only done because he had already written “Mauciple” in the following fragment in the prototype manuscript, and did not want to renege on his original editing. On the surface it appeared that the Second Nun should follow the Nun’s Priest, especially since both tales are concerned with various natures of morality, as is the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale. Yet this is a most superficial reading, and further, it leaves the Manciple’s Tale oddly out because it is then followed by the Parson’s Tale that preaches many of the same values found in tales from Fragment VIII. Therefore, while I do not dispute that they should be closely kept together in light of the geographical mention, a better reason to keep them together is found within the text, but for different reasons than the scribe may have had.

Just as we saw in (what I refer to as the Second Trio) Fragment VII, the imagery of the pearl from the Prioresse’s Tale being carried forward in the Tale of Sir Thopas (topaz), here, in placing Fragment IX before Fragment VIII, the bird imagery of Chauntecleer is echoed by the white crow in the Manciple’s Tale. Moreover, the two tales seem to play off each other as the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is beautifully told (often considered one of Chaucer’s best works), while the Manciple’s bird story takes a piece of Ovid’s Metamorphosis and inundates it with over the top allusions and unnecessary narration. Both have a moral at the end, but while the Nun’s Priest’s Tale warns the audience against hubris, the Manciple’s has more worldly concerns, namely knowing when to keep one’s mouth shut (albeit an important lesson that would benefit many). In a more stylized fashion, the Second Nun’s Tale would then follow these two, conflating the several themes from the Nun’s Priest’s and Manciple’s Tales.

Chastity is celebrated throughout the tale of St. Cecilia as told by the Second Nun, and a virtue that directly contrasts the wife in the Manciple’s Tale who was equally as worshiped by her husband but was nevertheless unfaithful to him. While both women die for their vices and/or virtues, their deaths are intricately tied to singing – the wife in the Manciple’s Tale is murdered by her husband after the white crow sings of her infidelity, and Cecilia sings for three days until death. Both forms of singing are equatable to truth telling as the crow uncovers the truth behind the wife’s affair, and Cecilia sings of the truth of Christianity, converting as many as she can in her final hours (highly reminiscent of the Prioresse’s Tale). Yet while singing serves to tie these tales, and also the Nun’s Priest’s Tale together, the motives behind the singing vary. If one recalls Chauntecleer, he sang out of hubris to hear his own golden voice and proudly display it for others. The white crow seems to have no motives, repeating what it saw simply because it can. While on the opposite side of the spectrum, Cecilia sings altruistically for the benefit of others.

A final link that ties the Second Nun’s Tale to the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, solidifying the unity of this fragment (and further strengthened by the fact that less than a handful of manuscripts ever separate the two), relies on an interpretation of Cecilia in which she represents Heaven and simultaneously acts as the converter of souls. To make this argument as straightforward as possible, she converts base pagan souls into golden Christian ones, which leads into the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale describing the debasement he experienced within the field of alchemy, a craft dedicated to converting base metals like lead, into silver and gold. The alchemist in the tale is the epitome of avarice and pride, which is a far better tale to directly precede the Parson who will be concerned with enumerating the seven deadly sins along with the act of penance, as opposed to the Manciple’s Tale that is arguably just a retelling of the Merchant’s Tale if it were turned into a tragedy. In short, it is far more likely that the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale would have sparked the Parson’s somber mood and consequent tale right before the end.

Thus while the obvious, immediate disparities within physical manuscripts and narratives provide important information, they are best used as guides for further analysis. After having conducted just that, here is the resulting sequence of tales (including those discussed last time):

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

Fragment IX – Manciple

Fragment VIII – Second Nun-Canon’s Yeoman

Once again, the ordering in previous fragments has not been effected, but the flow of tales has been improved. Next time I want to explore the The Tale of Gamelyn, a curious little tale that weaves its way in and out of manuscripts, and consequently challenging its own authenticity and place within the tale sequence.




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.