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The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does the miller in the Reeve's tale of The Canterbury Tales compare with the pilgrim Miller?

The miller in the Reeve's tale and the Miller traveling in the company are remarkably similar. Both play the bagpipes. Both are strong and good at wrestling: In the Prologue to the collection, the Miller is described as being able to "win the ram at any wrestling show," while wrestling is listed among Simpkin's many skills. Both carry a sword at their side. Most importantly, both are described as being dishonest: in the Prologue, the Miller is "a master-hand at stealing grain," while Simpkin is "a thief as well of corn and meal." The similarity between these two millers is important because it shows that the Reeve intends his character to resemble the Miller in order to directly and obviously insult the Miller.

In the Reeve's tale of The Canterbury Tales, what is the miller's opinion of young scholars?

The miller says, "The greatest scholar is not the wisest man." He says this to make fun of the two young students who have come to ensure he doesn't steal their grain. They have told him that they are just curious about the process of milling grain, and they think they are being tricky. However, the miller is wise to their scheme and has a plan to outsmart them. By tricking them out of the grain, despite all their efforts, he plans to prove that men who are good at scholarly pursuits may not be wise in the ways of the world.

What might be Chaucer's purpose in having the Cook miss the point of the Reeve's tale in The Canterbury Tales?

The Cook is very entertained by the Reeve's tale—he laughs "like a man whose back is being tickled" and exclaims at the amazing way the miller was "pickled." Yet he seems to completely miss the point of the story, which, according to the Reeve, is "tricksters will get a tricking." The Cook takes several other lessons away from the story. First he seems to think the students took revenge on the miller because he said his house was small. Perhaps the Cook thinks the miller was in the wrong because he made them feel unwelcome. Next the Cook notes that the story teaches caution in bringing strangers into one's home, which seems to contradict the first lesson. He doesn't mention the tricks of the miller, his drunkenness, or his dishonest business practices, which are clearly the man's main flaws. Because the Host goes on to say that the Cook has himself had bad business practices, selling reheated food in a shop filled with flies, Chaucer probably intended to show a character who can't recognize in others the faults that he has himself.

In the Cook's tale of The Canterbury Tales, how does the Cook's statement "Revels and honesty among the poor/Are pretty soon at strife" apply to the story's plot?

In the Cook's tale, the "revels" include partying, gambling, and secret affairs with women. Most of these activities cost money, and if a person is poor he or she may run out of money pretty quickly. Once the money is gone, the person may turn to stealing to continue, and this is exactly what happens in the story. Peter, the main character, is a "reveller" who works at a shop, and he soon finds that his spending habits—which are described as "generous"—outpace his income. His master begins to find the till (or cash box) empty sometimes and soon decides to fire his irresponsible and dishonest employee.

In The Canterbury Tales, how does Harry Bailey convince the Man of Law to tell a story, and what does his strategy reveal about both characters?

After the Cook's tale concludes (or is cut off), Harry Bailey decides the Man of Law would be a good choice to go next. He appeals to the fact that the pilgrims "contracted" to each tell stories and he now should follow through on the agreement. The legal language Harry Bailey uses reflects the personality and occupation of the Man of Law: contracted, exacted, case for judgment, consent, and acquit. In agreeing (somewhat reluctantly) to go next, the Man of Law responds with legal language of his own: "Promise is debt" and "Laws are for all." This exchange shows that Harry Bailey is a man who understands what makes people tick. He appeals to each pilgrim in a language he or she will understand, the adaptable quality of a good host. He also knows how to put pressure on a man for whom appearances matter by appealing to the Man of Law's sense of honor.

In the Man of Law's tale of The Canterbury Tales, how does the detail that Constance is given a rudderless boat support a theme in the story?

When Constance is set adrift by the sultaness, she is put on a rudderless boat. Because a rudder is used to steer a boat, this means that Constance has no way to steer; she has no control at all over which direction she will travel. The sultaness is abandoning Constance to Fate or Fortune. Yet, despite her lack of control, she arrives safely on land. This alone is miraculous, not to mention that she survives several years on the limited provisions stocked on the boat. Constance's complete lack of control makes the necessity of Providence's intervention absolute. Constance does little to ensure her survival; she appeals to God—the "Lord of Fortune"—and does not even ask him to save her life but to help her amend her life. This helps support the theme that God's Providence is stronger than both Fortune and the physical forces of the world.

What religious conflict from Chaucer's time is echoed in the varied reactions to the Man of Law's tale of The Canterbury Tales?

Harry Bailey seems inspired by the Man of Law's tale. He calls it a "good value" and a "thrifty tale." It puts him in the mood for another, similarly pious tale, and he calls on the Parson to go next. When the Parson objects to the Host's language, the Host accuses him of being one of the followers of John Wycliffe. These followers, called Lollards, were pious but were also considered dangerous heretics by the church because they didn't believe Christians needed priests to serve as intermediaries between themselves and God. He then comments that the Parson will certainly deliver a real sermon. The Shipman, or skipper, vehemently objects; he doesn't want the company to be poisoned by the Parson's heresy. "'We all believe in God round here,' said he,/'and he'll go starting up some heresy.'" The Shipman's response reflects a conflict stirring within society in Chaucer's day—between the established church and upstarts such as Wycliffe who questioned it. The tale the Shipman tells instead is safely nonreligious and far from pious.

How does the Shipman's tale of The Canterbury Tales compare to other tales of unfaithful wives?

This tale is similar in some ways to other tales of unfaithful wives, such as the stories of the Miller, the Reeve, and the Merchant. Like these tales, the cuckolded husband has some flaw, such as anger, foolishness, dishonesty, or jealousy. The merchant's wife in this tale says her husband is stingy and neglectful. An agreement is made between the wife and another man to meet secretly behind her husband's back. The adulterous couple carry out their plan. However, there are several important differences. For one thing the relative ages of the people involved are not important. In the tales of the Miller and Merchant, there is a significant age difference between the husband and wife; in the Reeve's story, it is the miller's daughter who is young. Another difference is a rather practical and businesslike attitude toward the infidelity. As befitting a tale that follows the Man of Law's, the whole sequence of events is narrated in a nonjudgmental tone: The wife agrees to the bargain, the transaction (money for sex) is carried out, and everyone seems to get what they wanted out of it. Even the merchant, who never even finds out what happened between his wife and Sir John, gets a nice time in bed.

In the Shipman's tale of The Canterbury Tales, why doesn't the merchant's wife ask her husband for money?

There are two possibilities for the wife's decision to ask Sir John for the money rather than ask her husband. Her motive may be simply that her husband is known to be frugal. She tells Sir John that he is neglectful, and readers can assume her complaint is at least partially about his reluctance to spend money on gifts for her. Even when he is leaving town, he tells her she already has all the clothes she needs and to be "thrifty" with the money he's left for the running of the household. She may know it is futile to ask for more money for fancy clothes. Another possibility is that she is making a pass at Sir John, an offer not just for money but for her own pleasure. They are very intimate when they meet, kissing and sharing words of affection, before she even brings up the topic of money.

Some scholars think that the Shipman's tale of The Canterbury Tales was originally written for the Wife of Bath. What evidence suggests this may be true?

The beginning lines of the Shipman's tale seem as if they are spoken by a woman, which the Shipman definitely is not. For example, the narrator uses the pronouns us, our, and we: "He has to clothe us," "array our bodies," "we dance," "lend us money." Furthermore, the focus on the roles of husbands and wives in marriage and the mention of "silly husbands" seems to suit both the personality and life experience of the Wife of Bath. The clear-eyed manner in which the wife in the Shipman's tale trades sex for money and maintains the upper hand over her husband conforms with the Wife of Bath's character, who is skilled in business and enthusiastically uses sex to get what she wants.

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