The CANTERBURY TALES and the Good Society

The CANTERBURY TALES and the Good Society

Copyright Date: 1986
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    The CANTERBURY TALES and the Good Society
    Book Description:

    Paul Olson argues that Chaucer's narratives emerge from his deep concern about the crises of late fourteenth-century England and his vision of the renewal of that troubled society through the ideal of parlement, the various orders of society speaking together, and through a perfective religious discipline.

    Originally published in 1987.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5831-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. PART I Chaucer, Social Theory, and Fourteenth-Century History
    • INTRODUCTION. On Looking at the Meaning of Chaucer’s Language
      (pp. 3-18)

      The first principle for understanding the language of another age or culture or writer is to look at its context. Only then can one see what the language “does,” in Wittgenstein’s sense (see Appendix).

      Chaucer’s language in theCanterbury Talesis language about society: about its estates, laws and institutions, about social obligation and its violation. This much is evident from the surface of the poet’s writing and has been confirmed by numerous Chaucerians, however much they may disagree on other matters. TheCanterbury Taleswere also written in a period of extraordinarily intense debate about what constituted a good...

    • 1 The General Prologue, the Three-Estate Theory, and the “Age and Body” of the Time
      (pp. 19-46)

      In his General Prologue portraits, especially in those details new to estate literature, Chaucer first introduces us to what Hamlet calls the form and pressure of the “age and body” of the time. TheCanterbury Taleswere immediately recognized in their own time as a three-estate poem by Lydgate who calls them tales told “of estatis in the pilgrimage” in which each person spoke according to his degree.¹ In the Renaissance, Speght recognized that Chaucer’s tales show “the state of theChurch,theCourtand theCountry[i.e., the three estates, italics mine] with such arte and cunning, that although...

  7. PART II TheCANTERBURY TALES on Temporal Lords:: Tales of the Court and Country
    • 2 The Order of the Passion and Internal Order: THE TALES OF THE KNIGHT, THE MILLER, AND THE REEVE
      (pp. 49-84)

      Chaucer writes thetalesin a variety of genres. If he also counts up thetalliesof the realm of England in terms of its legal and societal debits and credits, his technique ought to be most apparent in the tales told by characters associated with the temporal court. Weknowwhat Chaucer did for the royal court and, to some extent, who his chivalric audience was. Moreover, next to the Knight’s tale, the Monk’s tale, which refers back to the Knight’s tale and is stopped by the Knight, contains most of the clearly topical, contemporary historical references in the...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 3 The Lawyer’s Tale and the History of Christian English Law
      (pp. 85-103)

      The Man of Law chronicles the arrival of Christianity in Saxon England and the creation of civic order through a Christian king whose authority is theocratic and absolute. His view is the precise opposite of the Knight’s. After the Knight offers his chivalric or baronial view of a just government growing out of the leader’s consultation with unprotected widows, with his parliament, and with nature and history, the Lawyer presents his absolutist vision of governing based on a kingship directed and protected by God. Such government requires no consultation and may even destroy the monarch who ignores God’s miraculous direction...

    • 4 Chaucer on Temporal Power and Art: THOPAS AND MELIBEE
      (pp. 104-124)

      Chaucer’s own stories of Thopas and Melibee complete the tales giving full treatment to the temporal power and the consultative view of rulership developed by the Knight and by the magnates in the 1380s. The Monk and Prioress may intrude on the project, but ineffectively, since the Melibee provides its own complete picture of how the ruler who governs by Christianandnatural law achieves sapience, a theme of the entire B² group in theCanterbury Tales.¹ Chaucer, in real life a poet, administrator, and occasional poetic counsellor through “ballades,” illustrates the problems of the court poet in the tales...

  8. PART III Thecanterbury tales on the Spiritual Power
    • 5 Stratford’s Nunnery, Sapience, and Monasticism’s Critical Role
      (pp. 127-159)

      The tales of the Prioress and the Nun’s Priest, which with the Monk’s tale surround Chaucer’s “own” tales, center on the monastic, as opposed to the royal, search for the sapience necessary to administer temporal courts. Together with the other Stratford tale told by the Second Nun, they define what contemplatives can do for the temporal ruler. The Melibee gives a normative account of the significance of the ruler’s personal perfection and capacity for forgiveness and ignores structured public relations between Church and temporal court. The monastic tales study what contemplatives may offer temporal courts—whether they primarily model the...

    • 6 Monasticism’s Royal Claim: UTHRED, WYCLIF, AND THE REALMS BEYOND TRAGEDY
      (pp. 160-182)

      Monastics in Chaucer’s time often did not remain cloistered. Yet few appeared before temporal court officials to announce a divine message as St. Cecilia does. Rather, like Chaucer’s Monk, they often filled more public roles such as managing monastic or court properties or participating in the councils of the royal government. Chaucer’s Monk manages temporal properties and tells princely tragedies that indirectly answer Wyclifs charges against the “sect of the monks” who abandon the contemplative life to act as temporal administrators. But his implicit claims for himself and his life also reflect unfavorably on Uthred of Boldon’s opposite claims for...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
      (pp. 183-213)

      No claim to power, not even the monks’, surpassed that for the keys that locked and unlocked the gates of eternity. In earlier times princes had been brought to their knees by the prospect of a curse, or crusading armies to the field by the promise of a blessing. But Italy in 1378 saw the papacy brought low by the Schism and lower still by Urban VI’s cruelty to his own cardinals. Decline at the hierarchy’s apex also affected the authority of the bishops and their courts, and discipline at all levels declined in the conflicts between thecuriaand...

    • 8 Summoner Wrath on Friar Perfection: THE APOSTOLATE OF FRIAR JOHN AND LAY BROTHER THOMAS
      (pp. 214-234)

      Against the summoner-Judas, Chaucer pits his Friar and the apostolic friar of his Summoner’s Tale, guilty of many of the faults that Wyclif assigned to his sect of friars, but again culpable for different reasons. Like the Prioress and Chant Clear, like the Monk and the Summoner, he is an Epicurean materialist, more obviously materialistic than Epicurean.

      No figure expressed the “divine gifts” more fully in the eyes of medieval churchmen than did St. Francis, who embodied the medieval conception of charismatic spiritual power. He and his twelve friars set about to transform Europe through poverty, healing miracle, and a...

    • 9 The Sect of the Wife of Bath and the Quest for Perfection: THE WIFE, THE MERCHANT, AND THE FRANKLIN AND THEIR NEW MATERIALISM
      (pp. 235-275)

      The Wife of Bath appears first as an extraordinarily vigorous representative of the married estate and the commercial West Country. She has a life and followers of her own which she will not allow to be put down by more “perfected” orders.¹ She also exists “in another country,” that of comical satire. Comic or Menippean satiric writing in the Christian tradition often invents alternative worlds that are governed by vices having their own philosophic statements, rituals, and mock solemn religious-rule systems. Hence the origin of the monasteries of Cockaigne and Bel Eyse, Breughel’s Cockaigne with its three-state gluttony, sausage fences,...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
      (pp. 276-300)

      When Chaucer indicates that the Parson in the General Prologue first follows “Cristes loore” (A, 527) and then teaches it, he gives him Christ’s qualities in John I where the Word becomes flesh and embodies what He also reveals in speech. The Parson is not Christ, but Chaucer’s description in the General Prologue requires one to regard him as a figure of great authority and to see his tale as Chaucer’s normative statement on penance and the clerical life and, ultimately, on social organization. Chaucer gives to the tale a setting, a description of law and social structure, and an...

  9. APPENDIX. A Note on the Relationship of Meaning and Historical Forms of Life
    (pp. 301-302)
  10. Index
    (pp. 303-323)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 324-324)