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NA330412 - CHAUCER, G.: Canterbury Tales, Vol. 3 (Modern English Verse Translation) (Unabridged)
The Host - Philip Madoc
The Canterbury Tales, written near the end of Chaucer’s life and hence towards the close of the fourteenth century, is perhaps the greatest English literary work of the Middle Ages: yet it speaks to us today with almost undimmed clarity and relevance.
Chaucer imagines a group of twentynine pilgrims who meet in the Tabard Inn in Southwark, intent on making the traditional journey to the martyr’s shrine of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. Harry Bailly, landlord of the Tabard, proposes that the company should entertain themselves on the road with a storytelling competition. The teller of the best tale will be rewarded with a supper at the others’ expense when the travellers return to London. Chaucer never completed this elaborate scheme – each pilgrim was supposed to tell four tales, but in fact we only have twenty-four altogether – yet, with the pieces of linking narrative and the prologues to each tale, the work as a whole constitutes a marvellously varied evocation of the medieval world which also goes beyond its period to penetrate (humorously, gravely, tolerantly) human nature itself.
Chaucer, as a member of this company of pilgrims, presents himself with mock innocence as the admiring observer of his fellows, depicted in the General Prologue. Many of these are clearly rogues – the coarse, cheating Miller, the repulsive yet compelling Pardoner – yet in each of them Chaucer finds something human, often a sheer vitality or love of life which is irresistible: the Monk may prefer hunting to prayer, but he is after all a manly man, to be an abbot able. Perhaps only the unassuming, devoted Parson and his humbly labouring brother the Ploughman rise entirely above Chaucer’s teasing irony; certainly the Parson’s fellow clergy and religious officers belong to a Church riddled with gross corruption. Everyone, it seems, is on the make, in a world still recovering from the ravages of the Black Death.
The seventh tale (in Chaucer’s original order) is told by the Friar, a member of a mendicant order who uses his privileged position to exploit the young people of his district. Many of the tales in Chaucer’s collection are told in order to score points off other pilgrims: the Friar uses his to make fun of the Summoner. In the story, a summoner makes a pact with the devil to share any ill-gotten gains they may make, but does not reckon on the perverse sincerity of the devil who will only take that which is ‘ex corde’ – from the heart – and is thus able to bear the summoner to hell and damnation when an old woman, with genuine feeling, wishes the duplicitous summoner to ‘go to the devil’.
Not surprisingly, the Summoner’s Tale takes the form of a riposte. Summoners were officers of the Church responsible for summoning miscreants under canon law to the Church courts: Chaucer’s Summoner is an especially repulsive specimen, both morally and physically. Friars were equally known for their greed and corruption, so, in his tale, the Summoner has his Friar faced with the apparently impossible task of sharing out a legacy. This legacy consists of a fart ‘donated’ by a bedridden householder exasperated by the friar’s repeated requests for money. The tale suggests a symbolism whereby the friar’s hypocritical preaching is aptly represented by the fart.
The Lawyer’s Tale is altogether more high-minded, befitting the dignity of its teller: Constance, a Christian princess, marries a sultan on condition that he converts to Christianity but then, victim of the sultan’s mother’s plotting, is cast away on the seas. The story is an allegory of Christian fortitude: years later, the wicked mother-in-law long since executed, the mother and son who have been miraculously preserved in their wanderings are reunited in Rome with the grieving sultan. A similar tale is also found in the ‘Confessio Amantis’ of Gower, Chaucer’s great contemporary, but both writers borrowed from an earlier text (or texts).
The Seaman (Chaucer calls him a ‘shipman’ in the original) relates a story of cynical amorality well suited to his own ruthless character: we hear in the Prologue of his thieving and violence. A rich, workaholic merchant neglects his pretty wife who seeks solace in the arms of a family friend, a well-off monk given free rein by his abbot to travel outside his religious house. The husband pays his wife a meagre allowance, both sexually and financially; she therefore borrows from the monk to pay for finery and grants him sexual favours in return; she is not aware that the monk has himself borrowed the money from the merchant. If the story has a moral, it can only be that he who thinks solely of money lays himself open to exploitation in other ways.
We know from the General Prologue that the Prioress is a lady who cultivates an air of selfless sensitivity but who nevertheless seems unduly interested in her own appearance and the impression she makes on others, men especially. Her tale is a simple exercise in religious pathos: a little boy from an Asian city is murdered by members of the Jewish community as he sings a hymn. His body is found because, miraculously, he continues to sing even in death. Modern listeners may well be repelled by the unthinking anti-semitism, but we have to remember how endemic such attitudes were in the Middle Ages: the story itself makes explicit reference to Hugh of Lincoln, allegedly murdered by Jews in 1255.
The Manciple is a kind of domestic bursar or caterer, extremely shrewd in his business dealings yet almost entirely uneducated. His story is based on the wellknown tale of the tell-tale crow: versions of it appear in Ovid, in the work of Guillaume de Machaut, and in Gower’s ‘Confessio Amantis’. Phoebus owns a talking crow which tells him of his wife’s sexual treachery; enraged, Phoebus kills his wife; later, he turns upon the crow and plucks its feathers, declaring that he and his issue ‘shall be black’, the devil’s colour. Again, the moral is a cynical one: never tell any man that his wife has been unfaithful.
The Physician’s Tale takes us back to a world of principle and virtue – remote, as it happens, from the Physician himself who, it is clear from the Prologue, is a charlatan. The story, derived from Livy but owing much to a later version in Jean de Meun’s ‘Romance of the Rose’, is stark and shocking: a beautiful girl of impeccable virtue is cast into the power of a corrupt judge, Appius, but chooses to die at her father’s hand rather than be shamed. The Host’s reaction perhaps expresses the reader’s: the gifts of beauty and virtue may often, in this wicked world, be our undoing.
Son of a vintner, Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London in 1340 or thereabouts. He enjoyed a successful and varied career as courtier and diplomat, travelling extensively in France and Italy, where he may have met Boccaccio and Petrarch. In 1374 he was made Controller of Customs in the Port of London; in 1386 he represented Kent as Knight of the Shire, and may have lived there until his death in 1400. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer derives almost all his tales from known sources, classical, French or Italian, but he is brilliantly successful in giving them a tone and feeling which are very English (concrete, ironic) and very much his own. He wrote prolifically and in a number of styles: other works include the great ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, ‘The Book of the Duchess’ and ‘A Treatise on the Astrolabe’. He also translated ‘The Romance of the Rose’. His range of subject matter, width of reading and sophistication are remarkable; his most notable qualities are perhaps his deeply sympathetic view of human aspiration and weakness, and (when required) his capacity for close, ironic observation.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue
Tugend und Untugend
Music programmed by Sarah Butcher
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