Chaucer: The Monk’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE MONK’S TALE
When Melibee has finally (!) ended, the Host offers his default position: he wishes his wife Goodelief had heard it. She seems to need more patience and prudence, he thinks, since when he’s beating his servants she eggs him on to maximum violence. Notice how morality is always good for (shoving down the throats of) other people. The Host continues describing the pressure his wife puts on him to be contentious with others, even murderous — “lik a wilde leoun, fool-hardy” (1916).
The Host turns to the Monk, mentions Rochester (1926) — which is about thirty miles outside London — and asks the Monk what he should call him, including “my lord daun John”? (1929). This could certainly be taken as a goad, since it was the name of the sleazy monk in The Shipman’s Tale. The Host says the Monk is “nay lyk a penant [penitent] or a goost” (1934), but more like a “celerer” (1936) — that is, an officer with access to food. The Host asserts that the man does not match the vocation (1943ff), and ventures further over the line by praising the virility of “religious” men like the Monk. Chaucer the narrator reports that the Monk took all this patiently (1965). The Monk promises the “lyf of Seint Edward” (1970) after a few tragedies, “Of whiche I have an hundred in my celle” (1972). He defines the medieval version of the genre:
Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee,
And is yfallen out of heigh degree
Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.
The Monk mentions hexameters and other forms in which tragedies come, and asks not to be blamed harshly for narrating these in no particular order.
This “tale” is comprised of a series of tragedies, or the falls of princes (like Boccaccio’s Falls of Illustrious Men and Women). There is no Aristotelian intricacy to the notion of tragedy, no tragic flaws, just the operation of the Wheel of Fortune. The Monk asks us to “Be war by thise ensamples trewe and olde” (1998), but of course there’s absolutely nothing for us to do about the principle.
This may have been compiled during Chaucer’s “Italian Period” or the 1370s, plus the “modern instances”: Bernabo, the two Pedros, Ugolino. We hear about Lucifer, Adam, Sampson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Zenobia, Nero, Holofernes, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Croesus, and others.
The monstrous hammering of the wretched ends of human aspiration is pretty morbid vs. our expectations from this guy. Perhaps he intends to restore his injured dignity from the Host’s annoying taunting and coarse hostility (and from the Shipman’s depiction of a philandering monk?). Perhaps Chaucer is parodying the monastic ideal with this misunderstanding of doctrine as related to God finally, since this seeming impossibility for salvation is not a Christian view.
The “tale” does still reflect the teller with its emphasis on the worldly: powerful men and kings. It may reveal his own moral chaos and powerlessness.