Tag Archives: tale order

A New Order


So this is the first draft of a proposal. It is not yet edited, but I should have it done and submitted in the next week. Any feedback is welcome.

Any scholar working with the Canterbury Tales will immediately be faced with the question of tale ordering as proposed by the different extant manuscripts –  a topic which has only gained more prominence since the appearance of the Manly-Rickert 1940 volumes that greatly facilitated textual comparisons. Theories on tale orderings abound, and while true authorial intent remains unknown, and perhaps unknowable, some theories appear to be better than others. This paper will argue that while each existing witness manuscript provides a piece of the puzzle, there is yet another order that appears nowhere within the manuscripts and has not been adequately addressed, but when regarded in terms of paleographic and contextual evidence deserves closer examination and consideration. Specifically, this paper proposes a rearrangement of what are currently considered Fragments VI and VII. The argument is twofold, first providing an explanation of how the Shipman’s Tale has made its way towards the end of the tale ordering, while simultaneously justifying its connection to the other five tales within its fragment (despite its exclusion from numerous manuscripts).  Once the Shipman’s Tale is established, it will be shown that fragment it belongs to can be neatly divided into two when following a logical narrative path, while moving the second trio in this segment closer to the Franklin’s Tale in Fragment V since I believe the latter of this threesome was inserted within the Fragment II for lack of a better place to put it, and based on cursory evidence made to fit, despite clues that connect it to Fragment V.

In conclusion, the newly proposed tale ordering is as follows:

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


Part IV

In Part III of my analysis I began making the suggestion that Fragment IV and V of the Canterbury Tales among different manuscripts should be consolidated to reflect the relationship between the Clerk’s and Merchant’s tales, along with the relationships that unfold once the Merchant’s Tale finishes. While I made the argument between the relationship of the Merchant’s and Clerk’s tale in light of content and structural similarities, I will further explore how the Merchant’s Tale speaks in the same way to the Squire’s and Franklin’s tales, outlining the necessity of building an uninterrupted narrative comprised of the Clerk, Merchant, Squire and Franklin.

The first, and also easiest way of doing so would be to first look at the distinction in tale ordering between the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts with a discussion of what consists of scribal invention, and relying on common sense to decipher the original composite.

The Merchant’s and Squire’s endlinks follow each tale in both manuscripts, but they are used to introduce different tales. The importance of this will become evident as the analysis continues.

A table would best depict the differences, but for the purposes of this blog, I think I can present it in list form as well.

Ellesmere ordering: Merchant’s Prologue, Merchant’s Tale, Merchant’s endlink to the Squire, Squire’s Tale, Squire’s endlink to the Franklin, Franklin’s Tale.

Hengwrt ordering: Squrie’s Tale (with no introduction), Squire’s enlink to the Merchant, Merchant’s Tale, Merchant’s endlink to the Franklin, Franklin’s Tale.

As can be seen, Hengwrt has a different organization, and seems to be missing a component, the Squire’s introduction (which would only make sense if it followed another tale within the group). As was seen in earlier parts of this analysis, since Hengwrt was a sort of prototype manuscript, it is feasible that certain pieces came in later. Not to mention, as was discussed last time, it appears most probable that the scribe copied the pieces as they were received, only editing for content after the fact. If both of these ideas are taken into consideration we can trace how one manuscript morphed into the other. However, what is interesting to note is that in this section, unlike any other, the scribe attempted to make the pieces fit as he was writing them by fabricating links. However, in a larger context, as I will explain, the added links make little sense, and metrically speaking are poorly written in an obvious attempt to create relationships that simply were not there.

Ellesmere is one of the few manuscripts that contains the Merchant’s endlink, however, when other manuscripts include it, it never moves away from the Merchant. Due to the Host’s reference to the deceitful wife of the Merchant’s Tale (May), as well as his naming of the Merchant in the Merchant’s endlink, it shows its position to be right. Further, most critics will agree that the stanza is Chaucerian, and not a scribal invention, so the fact that it is omitted from numerous manuscripts is not because it was believed to be inaccurate, but probably because it did not yet exist, or was not attached to all of the extant copies of the Merchant’s Tale. Further, its omission from the different manuscripts is the probable motive for separating the Merchant and the Squire; without the endlink from the Merchant’s Tale, there is little binding the two. Yet once the connection is found, the case can be made as to why they belong in one group.

Several editions, including the Riverside Chaucer sever the Merchant’s endlink from the tale, with a notation of the beginning of a new fragment right before the Squire’s Tale. This is a modern editorial invention and has no historical precedent. All manuscripts that contain the Merchant’s endlink combine the Merchant’s Tale and Squire’s Tale into one group, using the flow of the stories as reasoning for keeping them together; The Ellesmere manuscript simply announces the Squire’s Tale as soon as the Merchant’s endlink finishes, with no announcement of a new fragment.

This is still a very roughly laid out idea in need of refinement as I am sure some things that make sense in my head are not coming across on paper (or blog). However, if you follow the order of edits between the manuscripts, it should become slightly more clear even if not yet convincing. I am not going to clean this area up yet, but rather proceed with the argument, and in the next section discuss the merit of the Squire-then Franklin ordering as opposed to Squire-then Merchant, relying on context to guide the analysis.

Part II

In the first part of this research project I went over the major strands of inquiry concerned with ordering the Canterbury Tales, describing some of the problems encountered with different theories and methodologies.

I also briefly discussed the argument in favor of the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts. I will begin here stating that despite the many arguments against the Ellesmere ordering, and numerous disputes about its authenticity, its range of uses in anthologies/compilations/general texts speaks to its superiority as a text, if not to its authenticity of intention.

Going back to the idea of tale ordering, recall that the tales do not necessarily move around independently, but rather in groups, or fragments. This simplifies and complicates the process. If the tales move around in fragments, and there are reasons for tales to come in certain orders (i.e. Clerk after Wife), this effects the fragments altogether, moving them as units. Thus only a few relationships can determine how multiple tales move. The complicated part, however, is determining which tales comprise each fragment – something that can be done in two different ways which don’t always or necessarily work well together.

The first way is that of Manly and Rickert, analyzing every extant manuscript and finding the points of general consensus. If a majority of manuscripts depict a certain arrangement into a particular fragment, it makes it appear as though those tales belong together in a grouping. However, just because something is in the majority, does not make it right. The second option is to look at each tale individually and construct (or reconstruct) the fragments according to context. I think a combination of these two methods leads to some interesting results.

As previously mentioned, and sensible enough to where no explanation is needed, all of the manuscripts agree that the General Prologue is the beginning and the Retraction is at the end. N. F Blake asserts that this decision is indicative of a single trip, meaning the scribe(s) involved did not anticipate a return trip from Canterbury, and were certain that the Retraction marked an absolute end. I hate to have to disagree with Blake, especially considering his amazing scholarship in the area, but I have to disagree with one point. While, the Retraction does mark an absolute end, that does not absolutely exclude the idea of a return trip. Even though I am not necessarily a proponent of a return trip due to the small amount of tales we have to work with that hardly even conclude one trip, the Retraction does not (to me) imply that there was not a pre-ending, meaning that at one point along the way there could have been a sort of “conclusion” at Canterbury, followed by more tales, and ending in the Retraction as the finale, presumably back in London. Where this penultimate conclusion would have gone is hard to say, and whether any of the existing tales followed it is even harder.

Similarly, all manuscripts that have the Wife’s Prologue (not all 84 manuscripts include all of the tales) will contain a fragment that starts with it, and includes the Summoner’s and Friar’s tales respectively. These three are part of the larger marriage grouping of seven tales. In the Ellesmere, this is referred to as Fragment III, however, in other manuscripts, as shall be demonstrated, it moves around within the seven.

Note: Simply because the Ellesmere was considered the most authoritative manuscript for a number of years, even when particular manuscripts move the tales around, the numbering remains the same, and the fragments are placed “out of order.” The Ellesmere was considered the primary order and all others were variations. Thus when “Fragment III” is found in a different spot, it is still called “Fragment III.”

Manly and Rickert maintained that the tales were copied one at a time, but since they came out with their theory it has been stipulated that the fragments were copied in completed units, as unbroken series of tales and links that were left in that order by Chaucer, sufficiently clearly identified as complete units to never have been circulated in any other form. However, if you take into account the process of the scribe in between the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts, it becomes unquestionably clear that the order of Ellesmere, while preferable, is not the way in which the tales were acquired or originally linked. Why not and how so?

In order to understand the scribe’s physical process of constructing the Tales, parts of Chaucer’s intentions must be taken into account. While we cannot know for certain what he wanted to do, it is evident that he was trying to arrange the sequence of tales as link-tale-link-tale, with the prologues or end pieces of each teller serving as the links. Unfortunately, many of the tales had no links. If we are to accept the Hengwrt as the prototype manuscript (which I do), within this manuscript we can see that the precedent for the link-tale relationship had been set, and when links were unavailable, in expectation of their existence the scribe left spaces blank before each tale.

This is the order of a section of the tales in Hengwrt manuscript:

Wife of Bath Prologue and Tale
Intro to Man of Law, his tale, and endlink
2nd Nun
Clerk’s Prologue, Clerk’s Tale, Envoy to the Clerk’s Tale
Pardon’er’s Prologue, Pardoner
Chaucer the Pilgrim, Prologue to Sir Thopas
Nun’s Priest
Macniple’s Prologue, Manciple’s Tale
Parson’s Prologue, Parson’s Tale

This is the order in which the Tales were written, meaning, when looking at the inks used, along with penmanship and quire marks, it reflects the order in which the tales were physically transcribed.

Merchant’s Tale
Franklin’s Tale
Nun’s Tale
Clerk’s Tale
Physician’s Tale and Pardoner’s Tale
Shipman’s Tale, Prioress’s Tale, Thopas, Melibee, Monk’s Tale, Nun’s Priest’s Tale
Merchant’s Tale
Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner

Let’s look at the discrepancy between the Wife and the Clerk. There is a distinct mention of the Wife in the Clerk’s Tale (Envoy). The Clerk’s Tale was physically written first. The first implication here is that the scribe was copying mechanically, and the Hengwrt is not a premeditated manuscript. During the writing of the Clerk’s Tale the scribe does not understand the reference since the Wife’s Prologue has not yet come up. He continues copying until the end, where the Wife finally comes in as part of the last section. By that point it is far too late to reinsert her at an earlier point, so he finishes copying, and the manuscript’s quires are readjusted to move the entire fragment she is in to precede the Clerk. Yet this is a messy job.

Since the same principle scribe who completed the Hengwrt was responsible for the Ellesmere, he learned his lesson, and made the correct readjustments as he completed it, in the process changing the way fragments were arranged. Again, it is not individual tales that move, but entire groups. The Wife had to be before the Clerk. How far before is not determined, so the scribe places the fragment immediately before the Clerk’s Tale when constructing the Ellesmere. Hence the grouping the Wife is in is generally Fragment III, while the Clerk is the first in the sequence for Fragment IV. The second time around, there is no ink variation – after having copied the Hengwrt the scribe was sure enough of himself to write the Ellesmere in one edited stretch.

Note: manuscripts often took many years to complete because it was a painstaking, manual process. However multiple scribes worked on each manuscript in different capacities, so when I state the Ellesmere was written in one stretch, I am not implying it was one long uninterrupted stretch. Also, when I refer to a single hand, I am not referring to any artwork, lettering, or borders, which would not have been completed by the same scribe, copying the actual work. These things were added on later, which is often evident in places where room was left in the writing for intended pictures. And pictures will be important in this argument (only briefly) in a little bit, but my main concern is for the actual writing. Also, this statement does not take into account medieval devotional texts that were primarily picture based with only a few words in the margins, where it was obvious that the pictures were created first. The same scribal practices were not meant to be used across all genres of manuscripts.

Nevertheless, regardless of the order in which the tales were originally written in the Hengwrt (judged by the inks used), the fact that the tales maintain some sort of semblance of order means that even in the Hengwrt there was some original planning, as the final order of the tales places them in accordance to links and references, to a certain extent.

Yet in the Ellesmere there are more links than in the Hengwrts. Where did these come from, and why were some added while others not? No one argues that the Tales (with only a few notable exceptions) are Chaucerian, implying that links were found, meaning the scribe was correct in leaving blank spaces for these. They must have been found in between the creation of the manuscripts leading the scribe to completely abandon the Hengwrts and rework his plan for the Ellesmere before undertaking the project. Most likely, the spacing he left in Hengwrts was insufficient for some of the links he found (an assumption I make by looking at the space that was used in the Ellesmere and comparing it to the space originally left in the Hengwrt, which looks insufficient), and considering there is no break in the Ellesmere, he had everything he though he would ever have before he began writing it. Evidence of his complete abandonment of the Hengwrts lies in the artwork. The first page has the large capital lettering for which space was left, but none of the other fanfare attributed to medieval manuscripts is found on subsequent pages. The project was ended and it became a learning experience and rough draft for the Ellesmere.

Once the scribe realized that certain tales reference others that were not in the “correct” order (and I use quotes because I am hesitant to attribute that much authority to the Ellesmere at this point), groupings were rearranged. This is how Fragment III came to its current position, as it got moved up significantly. Yet even when rearranging the tales the scribe did not tare the Wife away from her grouping, moving the Friar and Summoner along with her, and placing the Clerk as closely following as possible.

In light of the Clerk’s Tale and Envoy, the Merchant, too, had to move to allow for all the weeping and wailing on account of Griselde. Once the Merchant moved, the links had to be adjusted to account for a repositioning of the Squire following the Merchant, followed by the Franklyn, as opposed to the Hengwrt where the Squire, Merchant, Franklin trio were higher up in the ordering. Thus Hengwrt’s “Quod the Merchant” as the Squire’s Tale is interrupted becomes Ellesmere’s “Quod the Frankeleyn.” This is clear scribal intervention to form coherence where the originals were ambiguous.

Unfortunately not all of the groupings are as stable as Fragment III (which is why I chose to begin with it). So, as the tales move in groups, or fragments, and any changes pertaining to one effects all, it is one of the best indications that the individual tales speak to each other, and can continue the discussion only when ordered properly.

This is all I have for now (at the end it will be evident why this must come piecemeal, which I suppose is appropriate considering the topic), and there will be more in the next couple of days.