Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Tale of Melibee from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Last week in The Canterbury Tales we ended with the Host interrupting Geoffrey's Tale of Sir Thopas and telling him rather unkindly, "Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!" Chaucer replies that he will tell another tale in prose, and it is The Tale of Melibee, a translation of Livre de Melibée et de Dame Prudence by Renaud de Louens (1337), which is itself a translation of Liber consolationis et consillii by Albertano da Brescia (1246).

The story begins with the attack of Melibeus' wife Prudence and daughter Sophie, who, whilst he was out walking, he had left locked in at home: his three enemies, having seen him go out and:
... betten his wyf, and wounded his doghter with fyve mortal woundes in fyve sondry places - this is to seyn, in hir feet, in hire handes, in hir erys, in hir nose, and in hire mouth - and leften hire for deed, and wenten awey.
Melibeus is distraught and Prudence tries to soothe him. She remembers the advice of Ovid in Remedies of Love and lets him cry for a while, but then reminds Melibeus of advice from Seneca:
Senek seith: `The wise man shal nat take to greet disconfort for the deeth of his children, but, certes, he sholde suffren it in pacience as wel as he abideth the deeth of his owene propre persone.'
They debate this theory: Melibeus says that Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus ("Jhesu Crist, oure Lord, hymself wepte for the deeth of Lazarus hys freend"), and Prudence agrees that tears are not forbidden, quoting another part of the Bible - St. Paul, but she then advises, "But though attempree wepyng be ygraunted, outrageous wepyng certes is deffended": temperate weeping is granted, outrageous weeping is forbidden. She quotes Seneca again, saying it is good to cry in moderation but, should one's friend die, one should endeavour to get a new friend rather than weep over the old friend whose death is absolute and cannot be undone:
`Whan that thy frend is deed,' quod he, `lat nat thyne eyen to moyste been of teeris, ne to muche drye; although the teeris come to thyne eyen, lat hem nat falle; and whan thou hast forgoon thy freend, do diligence to gete another freend; and this is moore wysdom than for to wepe for thy freend which that thou hast lorn, for therinne is no boote.' 
More quotes are exchanged from Jesus, Solomon, and the Book of Job, and eventually Melibeus decides to call up a congregation to discuss the matter of the crime. He is of course still angry,
And by the manere of his speche it semed that in herte he baar a crueel ire, redy to doon vengeaunce upon his foes, and sodeynly desired that the werre sholde bigynne...
But nevertheless he seeks counsel on how to proceed. There is a long debate on whether or not Melibeus should seek vengeance, but as the larger portion seem to favour war that is what Melibeus decides:
Whan Melibeus hadde herd that the gretteste partie of his conseil weren accorded that he sholde maken werre, anoon he consented to hir conseillyng and fully affermed hire sentence.
However when he tells his wife Prudence she disagrees, citing more scripture and Seneca (and others) to back her arguments. The two discuss vengeance and it's relationship with wickedness, villainy for the sake of villainy, and the idea of war being useful to stop further wars or other evils. This debate takes up nearly the entire Tale of Melibee - (the tale begins on line 967 of Fragment VII, and the debate runs from line 1051 - 1870: 819 lines in total). Ultimately Melibeus agrees with Prudence and he thanks God for giving him such a good wife - 
Whanne Melibee hadde herd the grete skiles and resouns of dame Prudence, and hire wise informaciouns and techynges, his herte gan enclyne to the wil of his wif, considerynge hir trewe entente, and conformed hym anon and assented fully to werken after hir conseil, and thonked God, of whom procedeth al vertu and alle goodnesse, that hym sente a wyf of so greet discrecioun.
When he finally confronts the criminals he forgives them just as God would:
Wherfore I receyve yow to my grace and foryeve yow outrely alle the offenses, injuries, and wronges that ye have doon agayn me and myne, to this effect and to this ende, that God of his endelees mercy wole at the tyme of oure diynge foryeven us oure giltes that we han trespassed to hym in this wrecched world. For doutelees, if we be sory and repentant of the synnes and giltes which we han trespassed in the sighte of oure Lord God, he is so free and so merciable that he wole foryeven us oure giltes and bryngen us to the blisse that nevere hath ende." Amen.
And there ends the Tale of Melibee. It is easily and by far the most boring tale of The Canterbury Tales so far, but why? There are some theories. The first is that this was a translation, as I've said, of a French work - Livre de Melibée et de Dame Prudence by Renaud de Louens (it's not the fact that it's French that makes it boring, I hasten to add!) and thus is somewhat clumsy and tedious, which it may not be in its original language. This theory is, I do believe most wholeheartedly, incorrect. The Romaunt of the Rose (1361-67) and Boece (1378-81) are Chaucer's other translations (The Romaunt of the Rose is a translation of Le Roman de la Rose and Boece Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy) and both are excellent works I think (I do favour Boece). Chaucer is more than capable of translating prose and poetry. The second theory, which I do agree with, is that Chaucer deliberately made the tale dull as revenge for the Host calling his first tale, The Tale of Sir Thopas, "crap". For this, however boring it was, somehow it remains funny and for that I don't hate The Tale of Melibee at all. In fact, I do feel some affection for it, though I'm most unlikely to ever read it again! For now I'm looking forward to next week: finishing Fragment VII with The Monk's Prologue and Tale and The Nun's Priest's Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue.


  1. I found this tale so interesting ..... not only did it differ dramatically from the others, it is a wonderful example of logical thought and informed argument. I guess it's not surprising that I liked it, as I loved Cicero's Defence Speeches. ;-)

    On a completely different topic, I am so surprised that so few artists have chosen the characters of The Canterbury Tales as subjects. It's a mine of interesting subjects but, no, few have chosen to use it. It's odd ..... Just sayin' ........ :-)

    1. Yes, I was surprised at that too. It is odd. But fortunately we have Warwick Goble's beautiful illustrations, though not much else... :)

      I like your appreciation of Melibee - yes, it was all a good logical argument. I didn't hate it, but it was a trial. :)


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