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The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | Chaucer's Tale of Melibee | Summary

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Summary

Melibee was a rich and mighty young man. One day, while Melibee is away from home, three burglars break into his home and assault his daughter Sophia. This event sparks a debate among the characters in the tale: Should Melibee avenge his daughter's injuries with violence? Dame Prudence, Melibee's wife, suggests Melibee ask others for advice on the matter, which he does. Plenty of people offer opinions, quoting liberally from various ancient authorities. Dame Prudence answers their arguments and finally convinces Melibee to make peace with his enemies. Melibee wants to fine the men, but Dame Prudence says no. Instead he chastises and forgives them, pointing out what a good person he is for doing so.

Analysis

The Tale of Melibee is a translation of an earlier work by a judge named Albertanus, who wrote it in 1246. The use of an imagined debate to argue for some moral point was common in the Middle Ages. So, too, was the use of a short story or situation that presents the basic question to be answered in the debate. In this case the question is one of revenge versus forgiveness, action versus restraint. Dame Prudence, true to her name, argues for restraint and peaceful solutions to conflict rather than war and violence.

As a translation it is only fair to ask why it was included in The Canterbury Tales. Is it satirical, like Sir Topaz? Is Chaucer trying to poke fun at a form of writing common at the time? Or are there themes in Melibee that resonate with the other tales? Scholars are divided on this issue, though some point out that Dame Prudence is a strong-willed woman who eventually gets her way, much like the Wife of Bath. She also represents the medieval concept of female power. Although she may not be able to wield her power in the wider world, she can use it effectively to restrain the rash actions of her husband.

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