Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’

Chauntecleer continues to spout examples of prophetic dreams: The Dream of Scipio, dreams of Daniel, Joseph, Andromacha (seeing her husband’s death in the duel with Achilles) and Cresus, the king of Lydia (saw himself sitting on the tree from which he was going to be hanged). He ends with saying that he is going to believe his dream and not to take any medicines because he’s heard they may be poisonous. (Any wife who’s tried to get her husband to see a doctor may sympathize with Pertelote at this point.) “But let us not talk about this unpleasant business anymore”, he says, “when I look at your beauty, I forget about it. Mulier est hominis confusio, which means in Latin, “Woman is man’s joy and all his bliss”. Now, the real meaning of this is quite the opposite, and I guess you don’t need to know Latin to figure that out. What is Chaucer trying to say here? Is Chauntecleer erudition shaky? Or is he making fun of his uneducated wife, a little bit like Jenkyn with the Wife of Bath, just in a more subtle way? It reminds me of this terrible scene in Mantel’s Woolf Hall, when Thomas More and his educated daughters make fun of their wife and mother by talking smack about her in Latin in front of her, which of course she, being an ignorant woman, can’t understand.

Anyway! Chauntecleer puts all his troubles out of his mind, roams his yard in style, scratching the ground and copulating with this wife. Time goes on, as he had the dreadful dream in March, which is the month when God created the world (I didn’t know that!). Now, as the teller informs us through much circumlocution and astrological allusions, it is May. Chauntecleer enjoys the beautiful sunny day but all joy in this mortal world, alas, ends with woe and the fox is round the corner.

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Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ ctd.

Chauntecleer continues his story. The man who had a dream went in search of his friend, but the inn-keeper told him his friend had left early in the morning. He went to the west gate, as indicated in the dream and found his friend in the dung cart. The cart driver and the inn-keeper are seized and they admit under torture to being the murderers, and they are duly executed. The moral of the story: “murder will out”, and who knew the expression was as old as Chaucer? I didn’t. Another example he gives is of two travellers who wait in a port town for the good wind. Finally the wind turns to favourable and they decide to set out early tomorrow. Again, one of them has a dream in which he is warned by an unknown man that he should not travel tomorrow because he will surely drown. He tells his friend about it, but he dismisses it, not wanting to waste anymore time. And of course, once he is out on the sea, the bottom of the ship breaks and they all drown, in view of other ships which were nearby. One more example is the story of St Kenelm, a semi-legendary child king of Mercia, who once had a dream interpreted by his nurse as a forewarning about his imminent death. Unfortunately, being but a child, Kenelm did not heed it properly and was assassinated by his sister.

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ ctd.

Chaunticleer and Pertelote continue to argue like two show pupils in a medieval school. Pertelote advises him on various herbal remedies that should help to relieve him of excessive bile (or choler) and quotes Dionysius Cato, whose book of maxims was a popular Latin teaching text, to support her claim that dreams are just illusions. Chaunticleer thanks her for medical advice, but says some dreams can be true and in order to prove it quotes an unspecified ancient author’s story about two friends travelling together. When they came to a town, they found all doubles fully booked so they had to part for the night. One of the friends had to sleep in an oxen-stall, while the other had the good luck of finding a single room. At night he had a dream about his friend telling him that he (the friend, not the dreamer) is going to be murdered and asking him for help. He dismisses the dream, although it is repeated once again. On the third viewing, the friend comes to him covered with wounds, telling him all the circumstances of the murder (it was a robbery for money) and telling him in which dung cart in the morning he can find his body.

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ ctd.

The poor widow described above had a very beautiful rooster named Chantecleer and seven hens. The rooster crowed more regularly than any clock and also could sing and speak, because we are in the fairy-tale times. (Might be a tad uncomfortable when making dinner.) Among his seven wives his favourite is Pertelote, described like a very pretty and judicious lady. One day when sleeping on his perch Chantecleer starts to moan. The frightened Pertelote wakes him up and asks him what the problem was. Chantecleer tells her that he had a nightmare in which he was attacked and about to be killed by a beast. He does not name it, but from his pretty detailed description we can guess it was a fox. Pertelote, however, pooh-poohs his fears, saying that he should be ashamed of himself and that she can’t love such a coward. Besides, bad dreams come from overeating or from the imbalance of humours (according to the medieval theory) and they mean nothing.

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’

The three priests accompanying the nuns got merged into one – or at least only one of them gets to tell his story after a long and depressing tale of the Monk, which the editors of the NAEL mercifully chose to skip. It’s apparently a series of stories in one of the favourite medieval genres “Lo, How the Mighty Have Fallen”, or historical examples of riches-to-rags (or even worse) cases. The Knight tells him politely that he kind of runs on, and the Host less politely says his stories are not “worth a butterfly” and asks him to try another subject, but the Monk takes offence and stops altogether. Then the Nun’s Priest begins the story about a poor widow who lived in a small cottage with her two daughters, trying to survive on subsistence farming – they have three pigs, two cows and one sheep. To be continued!

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ – the epilogue

The Pardoner ends his story by exhorting his fellows to buy his pardons and adore his relics, because you never know – they may fall down from their horses and break their necks any minute. This seems more than a bit incongruous, since he has just frankly admitted to being a fraud and extortioner. I don’t have time to drop what I’m doing and delver into the body of Leviathan that Chaucer criticism is, but AFAIK, the most concise explanation is: folks, it is Middle Ages. Different times. The idea of describing fictitious characters with anything amounting to psychological realism won’t emerge until … I’m not sure, the Elizabethan drama at the earliest. Anyway, he is very rudely rebuffed by the Host, who tells him he’d rather kiss his shit-stained breeches than his spurious relics, but he would be really glad to cut off his testicles for relics and enshrine them in a box made of pig’s manure (and as you may remember, the Prologue suggested the Pardoner is a eunuch). The Pardoner is struck silent and the Knight, ever polite, asks the two to kiss and make up, which they do.

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ ctd.

The wicked men make a plan: when the man with the provisions returns, one of them is going to pretend he is about to wrestle playfully with him, while the other is going to stab him with his dagger. But the young man also gets greedy on his way to town, when he has time to ponder and dream about the gold florins. He goes to an apothecary and tells him he needs some poison for rats and a polecat that has been ravaging his henhouse. The apothecary gives him some industrial-strength poison, assuring that a portion of it the size of a wheat grain will kill anybody [and I wonder how often he heard the story about rats and whether it was difficult for him to keep a straight face]. His customer then buys three bottles, in two of which he pours poisoned wine, but he keeps the third one clean for his personal use, as he thinks he is going to become quite thirsty, dragging all that gold home at night. After that, everything is easy to foresee: he is killed by his accomplices, who in turn are poisoned by the wine they drink. [I wonder what would happen if by chance one of the men drank the wine from the clean bottle. It would stop being then a moral tale, wouldn’t it? But then, they are said to be heavy drinkers, so I guess neither of them would have stopped at one bottle per head]. The Pardoner ends this story once again condemning avarice and appealing to his (hypothetical) church audience to buy pardons from his to redeem themselves. If they don’t have ready cash, he is quite happy to accept jewellery, silver spoons or even wool.