The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In The Canterbury Tales, the Prioress wears a brooch on which the words amor vincit omnia ("love conquers all") are printed. How does this relate to her tale?

The Prioress's story reflects the Christian theme of these words. It tells of a young boy whose devotion to and love for Mary is complete. This young boy is killed, but Mary, because of his great devotion, allows him to continue singing a hymn to her even after he is dead. This shows that love—in this case of a religious or spiritual nature—can conquer all of the powerful forces that threaten the innocent and weak of the world. God's love can even conquer a violent death.

In The Canterbury Tales, how does the Prioress's prayer connect with her story?

Before the Prioress begins her story, she prays. First she addresses God, saying that "the mouths of children" will tell of God's ways. Thus, it makes sense that the main character of her tale is a seven-year-old boy. Then she addresses the Virgin Mary—the "whitest lily-flower/That bare Thee, all without the touch of man"—and so it is no coincidence that it is Mary to whom the young boy is devoted. She is the subject of the hymn he sings, who visits him in his dying hour, and who grants him the miraculous power to continue to sing her hymn after he has been killed.

In The Canterbury Tales, how does Chaucer take details from his surroundings and from Harry Bailey's description of him to use in the Tale of Sir Topaz?

Chaucer the pilgrim seems to use details from his surroundings and from what others are doing and saying to craft his tale in Chaucer's tale of Sir Topaz. For example, the pilgrims are traveling to Canterbury in the spring, and it happens to be spring in his story. Like the Knight's tale, which he heard earlier, Chaucer's story is a romance, though not as elegantly told. The trappings of spring that motivate the pilgrims' journey to Canterbury also inspire Sir Topaz's sudden sexual longing. Harry Bailey describes Chaucer as "elvish" just before he calls upon Chaucer to tell a story. Then in the story Sir Topaz is struck with a sudden love-longing for a woman—and not just any woman, but an Elf-Queen. Chaucer's tale is convoluted in plot but metrically simple; it seems derivative and improvised—an ironic touch, given Chaucer's actual, masterful authorship of all the other tales.

In Chaucer's tale of Sir Topaz in The Canterbury Tales, what is odd about the stories Sir Topaz asks his minstrels to tell as he arms himself?

Sir Topaz, as he arms himself for battle with the giant, calls for his minstrels and storytellers to tell "Romances such as may befall/To Prince and Pope and Cardinal." Romance befalling a prince seems like a proper story, but romances "befalling" popes and cardinals, who are supposed to be chaste, would be an entirely different kind of story. Yet the stories collected in The Canterbury Tales are full of both proper romances about knights and kings and also of bawdy tales involving the clergy and their sexual escapades, such as Sir John of the Shipman's tale. Sir Topaz calls for exactly the diversity of stories that Chaucer included in his own work.

In The Canterbury Tales, what is comical about how Chaucer introduces the story of Melibee?

After Harry Bailey rejects and insults Chaucer's terrible poetry, Chaucer says he will tell a "little thing in prose." Here Chaucer the author is making fun of Chaucer the pilgrim, the only pilgrim who can't manage a decent tale in rhyme and must resort to prose. (Later the Parson also uses prose, but he is giving a sermon not telling a tale.) Chaucer uses the word little twice more to describe what he promises will be a "merry story." Of course, Chaucer's tale of Melibee is anything but little and merry. It is incredibly long—so long it is often simply summarized in modern editions. It is also serious and tedious rather than merry. It begins with a moral dilemma and proceeds to a long argument on the matter. The story Chaucer promises bears little resemblance to the one he actually does tell, which seems to be a form of vengeance against Harry Bailey for his rude interruption.

In the Monk's tale of The Canterbury Tales, how are the stories of Samson and Hercules similar?

Samson was a mighty man, who could kill lions with his bare hands. He was known to do many amazing deeds, and his strength was unparalleled. Yet he had a treacherous wife who convinced him to tell her the secret of his great strength and she betrayed him, ultimately causing his death. Likewise, Hercules was man of supernatural strength who had also killed a lion and was known for his many feats. His might was also unequaled. He had a treacherous wife who betrayed him to his death by giving him a poison shirt, which ate away at his flesh.

In the Nun's Priest's tale of The Canterbury Tales, what does Pertelote say wives want from their husbands? How does this compare to what other women in the Tales say?

Pertelote says wives want tough and courageous husbands, as well as ones who are not stingy, boastful, or foolish. They want husbands who are discreet and can keep secrets. The merchant's wife in the Shipman's tale says women want similar things—"candid,/Sturdy and prudent, rich and open-handed"—though she adds that they like their husbands to also be "obedient to their wives and fresh in bed." This idea is echoed in the Wife of Bath's tale, in which the knight learns that women want to have mastery over their husbands in marriage: "A woman wants the self-same sovereignty/Over her husband as over her lover."

In the Nun's Priest's tale of The Canterbury Tales, Chanticleer says, "Mulier est hominus confusio," which means "Woman is man's ruin." What does his explanation suggest about him?

Chanticleer incorrectly tells Pertolete that the quotation means, "Woman is a man's delight and all his bliss." He may be misinterpreting the Latin quotation deliberately. After a long argument, he begins to compliment her and tell her how much he loves her. In using the Latin quote, he may simply want to smooth things over after their argument. If so, the tactic works, for the story says he "trod her twenty times ere prime of day." On the other hand, during their argument Chanticleer recounts a tiresome list of stories illustrating the importance of dreams, making many historical and classical allusions. His use of a Latin quotation seems in keeping with his pompously pedantic style. By having him misinterpret it, the Nun's Priest may be mocking Chanticleer's pomposity and supposed learnedness.

In the Nun's Priest's tale of The Canterbury Tales, how is Chanticleer described similarly to Adam?

In the Bible Adam and his wife, Eve, live in the Garden of Eden, and in this tale Chanticleer and Pertelote live in a farmyard. Both settings are protected, and the lives within them are peaceful until the appearance of an intruder—in the Bible, a serpent; in this tale, a fox. Both Adam and Chanticleer have wives whom they love and who give their husbands advice. Both Eve and Pertelote are blamed for giving counsel that brings disaster: Eve counseled Adam that the fruit of the forbidden tree was good for eating, and he was removed from Eden as a result; Pertelote gave Chanticleer the advice that he should "walk about his yard on the precise/Morning after the dream," which leads to his encounter with the fox.

How does the Host's description of the Nun's Priest change after the latter's tale in The Canterbury Tales?

Before the Nun's Priest tells his story, the Host notes that the man's horse is ugly and thin but calls him a "charming" and "kindly" priest. After the tale he still describes the Nun's Priest using a similar term: gentle. However, he clearly enjoys the tale a great deal because he also enthusiastically compliments the Nun's Priest's brawny neck and chest, his colorful complexion, and eyes like a sparrow-hawk's. He says that if the priest were "secular," he would need many "hens," implying that the priest would have a good deal of sexual success were he not in a celibate profession.

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