The Secret of The Canterbury Tales
The tellers get to mock their own tales.
A confirmed sadist could find many things to enjoy in the pages of The Canterbury Tales. As Chaucer's pilgrims take turns telling stories to while away the hours on their long walk to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket, they shy away from no variety of physical violation or psychological torture. In "The Miller's Tale," a man is rectally impaled with a red-hot poker. In "The Clerk's Tale," a husband tests his wife's obedience by pretending to murder their two children. In "The Reeve's Tale," a pair of students rapes a man's wife and daughter in order to humiliate him.
Why is it, then, that the actual experience of reading The Canterbury Tales is not at all painful? Why has it struck six centuries of readers as, in fact, the humane masterpiece of English literature—the book that seems to embrace more of the world, and affirm more of human nature, than any other? The answer lies in the disjunction between the men and women who populate Chaucer's poem and the stories that they tell. In their tales, the pilgrims reflect the assumptions of a medieval world that manages to appear, at the same time, inhumane in its love of comic brutality and sanctimonious in the way it elevates piety, humility, and (especially female) chastity into the highest virtues. Who would want to live as austerely as Chaucer's Pardoner demands from the pulpit?
O gluttony, the height of wickedness!
O primal cause of mankind's utter fall!
O first and original sin that damned us all
Till Christ redeemed us with his own dear blood! ...
O stomach! O belly! O stinking bag of jelly,
Filled with dung, and reeking with corruption!
Yet by the time the reader reaches these lines from "The Pardoner's Tale"—as rendered, here, by Burton Raffel, in his new translation of Chaucer from Middle to Modern English—she has already learned not to trust a word this character says. For in real life, the Pardoner—or, as Raffel derisively calls him, the "Pardon-Peddler"—is himself a first-class glutton, not to mention a lecher and a con artist. "I want good money, good clothes and cheese and wheat/… I like to water my throat with wine,/ And have a frisky wench in every town," the Pardoner brags in the prologue that precedes his tale. He is so brazen that the reader has to laugh, especially when he reveals the trick that always gets people to pay for the privilege of genuflecting before his faked relics. He announces to the congregation that "Anyone in sitting in church, cozy and warm,/ Guilty of several sins so awful he/ Dares not, for shame, confess and pray for mercy," is strictly forbidden to make an offering. After that, of course, no one wants to be seen holding back.
"In real life," I wrote, the Pardoner is not what he seems in his tale—yet of course there is no "in real life" when it comes to the pilgrims, who are all Chaucer's inventions. Indeed, the pilgrims are far more Chaucer's inventions than the stories they tell, which are usually recycled from other medieval tale collections. Yet it is precisely by building this second level, this metafiction, into his fiction that Chaucer renders it so powerfully realistic. Because we see the pilgrims telling stories, they gain the trust we place in storytellers, who, by definition, are more real than their tales.
And it is in the gap between the tellers and the tales that Chaucer's humanity is able to flourish. The Clerk might offer up Griselda, the wife who is unswervingly loyal despite her husband's cruelty, as a model of Christian patience: "A woman having been incredibly patient/ To a mortal man, how very much more we ought/ To take in good part whatever God has sent us,/ For rightfully he tests what he has wrought. …" Yet at the end of that tale, Chaucer adds a song or "envoy," gleefully acknowledging that "Griselda is dead, and so too is her patience," so that husbands should not try to find her like: "They'd only be wasting their time, and deserve their penance."
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.